Rugged, raspy, and roaring with charisma, Halifax’s Ben Caplan is to folklore what smoke is to bourbon. Perfectly coupled. Ben’s songwriting is as bold in range as it is in ferocity. Fuelled by a quality of melodrama and powerful lyricism, it’s the romance and the manhood crashing with his voice that gives Caplan a truly innovative and experimental artistry. A sound that bridges the gap between controlled composition and unruly passion.
Striding in pace with gypsy-inspired strings amid the sultry tones of clarinet and saxophone, Caplan has marked his place in the Canadian music landscape with a growling spirit similar to that of Tom Waits. Caplan’s tours have extended throughout the Commonwealth, the rhapsodic energy in his live show an elegant cacophony gaining attention around the world. Breaking between guitar, banjo, piano, and melodica, Caplan’s stage show is almost reminiscent of a burly and bearded Freddy Mercury; a raging, strong, and exploratory songwriter, it’s the blues in his soul, and the heart in your chest pounding as one that makes Ben Caplan & The Casual Smokers an unmissable act.
The music of Ben Caplan & The Casual Smokers is diverse, ranging from poetic ballads to frenetic gypsy anthems, but even when the band delivers the roughest of bar room stomps, there is a surprising depth and musicianship to the songs. Expressive percussion, upright bass, violin, sax, clarinet, flute, and terrific use of call and response sing-along choruses all help Caplan & The Casual Smokers stand out from the masses influenced by the same sounds.
What People Have Said About Ben Caplan & The Casual Smokers:
Stephanie Domet, CBC Radio1 - Atlantic Airwaves:
"Ben understands that in this business it’s not enough to just climb on stage and sing songs. You need to be an entertainer as well. You need to entertain and engage the audience – and that he does in spades.... Keep an ear on Ben. You’ll be hearing more from him, I’m sure!"
Bryan Acker, Herohill.com
"Caplan and his talented band - The Casual Smokers - will undoubtedly garner review after review build around on his voice, but even when they deliver the roughtest of bar room stomps, there is a surprising depth and musicianship to the songs... Caplan and the Casual Smokers stand out from the masses influenced by the same sounds."
Craig Norris, Host CBC Radio 3:
"I really like your stuff. And now I want everyone out there to hear your stuff… it’s kind of rough around the edges, has a real sort of bar room, salooney, Tom Waits vibe to it; wicked playing, and great delivery. I cannot wait until the full length real record comes out."
Imagine Jimmy Hendrix strangling the life out of a violin until it shrieks the last, most beautiful, gut-wrenching notes it will ever shriek and you might have some idea of how amazing this guy is.
I don’t pretend to have known Ben Caplan for years but damn it after this video from his Green Couch Session, I wish I did. While his day job with “Ben Caplan & the Casual Smokers” is not quite as stripped down and acoustic as the below video, if you are looking for slightly bluesy, jazzy, folky tunes – you should check them out!
Waits and Cave are two comparisons that I try to use very sparingly. Few artists can truly hold up to the scrutiny that comes with that. However, on 'In the Time of Great Remembering', Ben Caplan shows himself to be a capable kindred spirit.
Amelia Curran, Singer-Songwriter:
"He's like Freddy Mercury meets Mr. Bungle"
Peter Katz, Singer-Songwriter:
"More like Freddy Mercury meets God!"
Paul Cram, Bandleader, Producer, Improviser, Musician:
I played with Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers the other night and It was great fun. I love the energy of their minor slinky music, cause it's bendable and makes you wanna wail.. It was also a nice surprise to play with a "horn section" improvising around arrangements for violin, Cello and winds on solid songwriting that could take the punishment and throw it back: Klezmer/Torch Balkan Jazz/Folk/...anyone?
Joe Bigda-Peyton, Psychology Major:
Although still able to recognize fear-evoking facial expressions, there is a clear indication that Ben Caplan has experienced some damage to his anterior and possibly even posterior amygdale.
Ben Caplan: Lead Vocals, Guitar, Banjo, Keys
Neal Read: Saxophone, Flute, Keys, backup vocals
Emma Morgan-Thorp: Cello
Signe Bone: Violin
Asher Nehring: Bass
Matt Gallant: Drums, Percussion, backup vocals
August 2009 - Ben Caplan & The Casual Smokers, EP
August 2011 - Nine Kinds of Trouble, LP
October 2011 - In the Time of the Great Remembering, LP
Humble Haligonian Ben Caplan Masters and Reinvents Folk
[+ Show ]
He’s got a beard you could lose a guitar pick in, and he delivers a performance you can lose yoursel...He’s got a beard you could lose a guitar pick in, and he delivers a performance you can lose yourself in.
The music of Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers is different from what a lot of musicians are doing. With his folk roots grounded in the music of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, Caplan re-envisions the folk genre by drawing from Eastern European melodies and scales, the avant-garde and experimental jazz of John Zorn, as well as the classic blues and soul genres.
Their 2011 debut album entitled In the Time of the Great Remembering has some powerful songs, like “Conduit” which features a deep double bass rhythm, a whimsical horn section and Caplan’s powerful voice behind distorted fuzz.
The title of the album refers to the history of the human relationship with nature and the rest of the world. “We’ve forgotten a lot of things; we can speak of a time of great forgetting,” said Caplan, going on to explain how colonial Europe and the industrial era have swayed our way of thinking. “I am hopeful we can transition into a time of great remembering.”
The songwriter describes the band’s very recent selling-out of three shows in Halifax as “a wonderful blessing.” Once the tour of North America finishes, they will be heading to Australia and Europe where the band has a significantly large fan-base.
“My general philosophy is that nobody owes me shit,” said Caplan, addressing the common question of how a musician, quickly growing in success, plans to stay grounded.
Backstage before a performance, Caplan takes a few minutes to himself to warm-up his roaring voice and sip a little scotch. “Once I step onto the stage, there’s another level that I’m conscious of,” he said. He stresses the importance of engaging with the crowd and being fully present during each performance.
When it comes to the folk singer’s style of music and performance, Tom Waits and Freddy Mercury are two legends that he’s been compared to. “It’s scary and humbling to be compared to such masters,” said Caplan. Though Waits and Mercury’s styles of music differ dramatically, Caplan draws the link that both men are extremely dedicated performers. “I’m a hard-working guy […] and I plan to keep working on my craft every day.”
Caplan trudges around the world doing phone and radio interviews, has a bite to eat and performs for a new crowd each night. “It’s an exciting time to be working in this crazy entertainment industry,” he said. “I think a lot of change is under foot [in the music industry] and transition periods are the most fertile periods.”
These “fertile periods” are what allows the songwriter to dig into each performance and draw inspiration from different styles of music from around the world. Caplan is backed by the Casual Smokers, who are a group of musicians he can really trust, and this frees him do try things he couldn’t do performing alone.
The band will be going into the studio very soon to begin working on their new record. They’ve been touring nonstop and playing their new songs that will be released on the new record.
Caplan also hopes to release some collaborations with other artists within the year. The singer/guitarist describes himself as a live-based musician and finds a challenge in trying to translate this into a studio setting: “To me, the live is the most exciting part […] the studio stuff is a different beast that I’m still learning a lot about.”
Some of the inspiration for his new record comes from the open mic sessions held in Caplan’s Halifax living room which he opens to the public. He explains, “Constantly hearing songwriters from all over the place working out their material helps me gain perspective on my own.”
Reeperbahn Festival 2012, Tag 3: "Too much, too much!"
[+ Show ]
Dabei fing doch alles so gemütlich an: Um halb fünf fand man sich im Schmidt Theater ein, weil man i...Dabei fing doch alles so gemütlich an: Um halb fünf fand man sich im Schmidt Theater ein, weil man inzwischen weiß, dass man bei Ray Cokes pünktlich zu sein hat. Der dritte und letzte Abend seiner Reeperbahn Revue war mal wieder formidabel besetzt und von Anfang bis Ende unterhaltsam. Jesus, der wie berichtet, schon am Vorabend im Publikum und später an der Bar auf der Bühne unter den Irdischen wandelte, durfte erneut seines Amtes walten und verweigerte schon wieder die Wein-zu-Wasser-Nummer. Erstaunlich, dass man diesen Gag auch noch einen zweiten Abend erfolgreich durchreiten konnte. Erster musikalischer Gast war der Kanadier Ben Caplan. Eine Erscheinung, die man nicht so schnell vergisst. Was zum einen an seinem Rauschebart liegt (für dessen Pflege er sich angeblich täglich Bananenmus hineinschmiert), zum anderen an seiner dunklen Stimme und zum dritten an seinem grandiosen Songwriting. Nach einem eher harmlosen Stück namens "Beautiful" zeigte Caplan am Klavier "einen anderen Ansatz meines Songwritings". Was folgte war das barseelige, bitterböse "Stranger", das ungefähr so klingt... Ach, was soll man es hier verzweifelt beschreiben und mit kruden vergleichen wie "Nick Caves Murder Ballads auf Suff" oder so kommen.
Caplan Remembers When
[+ Show ]
At first glance, Ben Caplan seems like a sage of east coast indie rock. After all, he sports a wizar...At first glance, Ben Caplan seems like a sage of east coast indie rock. After all, he sports a wizardly beard, screeches out a uniquely soulful sort of stripped-down folk, plays for gleeful crowds at massive fests like SXSW and is drawing legions of fans to local gigs like his shows at the Company House this week, two of which are sold out.
But Caplan hasn't always cast such a persuasive spell over Halifax's music scene. "Magical" certainly wouldn't be an apt term for the time he spent eking out meagre gigs here before releasing his lauded debut album, In the Time of the Great Remembering, in 2011.
"I fondly remember my first gigs playing for whisky at the King's Wardroom," Caplan says of his initially tipsy shows after moving here from Hamilton in 2005. "I think back to taking in enough of my King's Wardroom 'wages,' that I could barely stand by the end of the night, let alone play my guitar. It's lovely to look back on those days now, though my liver is probably pleased that things have changed a little."
The low point came during what he hoped would be a breakthrough. Caplan had managed to wrangle a headlining night at Gus' Pub, and he gave it his all—printing all the posters himself, buying an ad, seeking out a band willing to open for him. "Five people showed up," Caplan says, adding the dismal attendance wasn't the worst of it. "I had lost money on promoting it. The opening band belittled me and demanded that they get paid, even though the show was a bust and they hadn't brought anyone."
Then the PA toppled off its shelf and landed squarely on top of Caplan's laptop (which he had been using to record the show), shattering its screen and keyboard to smithereens.
Despite those considerable hiccups, Caplan couldn't have been happier to play, because the alternative was unbearable. In fact, some of those bitter pre-musical days are still inspiring his best lyrics. Take this from an untitled tune he's been tinkering with on his latest tour: "It's under control just as far as they've seen/but there ain't enough shit to climb out the latrine."
"I was revisiting my experience of trying to keep it together while I was in university, and drowning in a flood of overdue assignments and coping with depression. Fun times," Caplan says, adding that the monotony of those cripplingly everyday issues have made even his most stressful gigs pale in comparison. It also helps him appreciate his best shows all the more. A prime example would be a stop in Vlieland, just off the coast of the Netherlands, for a festival called Into the Great Wide Open this past summer.
"I played on a little stage, in the middle of the forest, with a clearing that fit about 300 people. About 1,000 people showed up," he says. "The whole forest was full of bodies appearing and disappearing into and out of the trees. The crowd went nuts for the set, and the rest of the time we were on the island, the rest of the band and I were treated like royalty. It was the best.
Bringing the Blues
[+ Show ]
If Ben Caplan’s tour bus caught fire, he knows exactly what he’d grab first. “I’d get my guitar, ...If Ben Caplan’s tour bus caught fire, he knows exactly what he’d grab first.
“I’d get my guitar, then my keyboard, then my suit and then my yoga mat.” He and backup band The Casual Smokers are currently on tour with dates set for all around southern Ontario.
Caplan said the band is then heading to Quebec to finish off the tour’s first leg. They’ll soon head out east to play at the East Coast Music Awards in March.
Nominated for two awards for his Tom Waits style music, Caplan is self-described as “a blend between folk and blues, with a heavy dose of Eastern European jazz.” Caplan said he derives his musical inspiration from great songwriters.
“I think there’s songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell whose lyrics are poetically informed — they have a universal approach to songwriting,” he said.
While writing his own lyrics, Caplan references his inspirations like Cohen, Dylan and Mitchell.
“Lyrics aren’t placeholders for melodies, those are much more important, but my songwriting comes from reading a lot of poetry as well.” Caplan said once his tour is finished, he’s going right back into the studio.
Pre-production starts at the end of the current tour, and he hopes to have his next album done by the end of the summer.
As the years of touring have accumulated, so has Caplan’s touring wisdom — for example, don’t speed down a German motorway.
Caplan recalls one European tour when the band was late for a show in Amsterdam and got lost on the way.
“We drove the wrong direction first, then we hit deadlock traffic on the German autobahn,” he said. “So we gunned it full speed down the shoulder lane.”
Caplan and the band ended up missing the show, and without any luck that day, the German police also pulled them over.
Ben Caplan recalls one instance while touring when speeding down a German highway to get to a show got him and his band into trouble with the German police.
Ben Caplan recalls one instance while touring when speeding down a German highway to get to a show got him and his band into trouble with the German police. (Supplied)
“The police officers were yelling at us in German and threatened to have us deported … I’ve learned a lot about touring since then, like you always want to leave a day early.”
Ben Caplan & The Casual Smokers’ "Conduit" - Track of the Day for February 10, 2010
[+ Show ]
I get a lot of CDs and emails from artists who have honoured me by asking that I listen to their stu...I get a lot of CDs and emails from artists who have honoured me by asking that I listen to their stuff. And, I can tell you that I listen to everything. Yes, it takes a while, but I do get to them all!
In December '09 I received an email from Ben Caplan in Halifax and he wrote that he fronts a band called Ben Caplan & The Casual Smokers. He also wrote that they are currently working on a full-length album, but there are a couple of live tracks on cbcradio3.com that he thought I might like. I finally got around to listening to them this past week, and Ben was right. I like it. I like it a lot!
The song I've picked to present to you all is from the live EP; you can tell because it has a really beautiful "rough around the edges" vibe that suits the song perfectly, sounding not unlike Tom Waits at his barroom best! Wicked, inventive playing and great delivery...
I cannot wait for the release of their full-length!
- Craig Norris
Ben Caplan & The Casual Smokers
[+ Show ]
I'm an unapologetic Tom Waits fanatic. Everything about the man - from his music, to his persona, an...I'm an unapologetic Tom Waits fanatic. Everything about the man - from his music, to his persona, and even his eye for photos - just strikes a chord with me, so much that hearing anyone with a gruff voice described as Waits-y or some hybrid thereof (the ole whiskey worn or gargling glass voice) turns me off an artist before I even hear them. I usually turn to the terrific line from Matt Arbogast of The Gunshy, "this fucker sounds just like Tom Waits, Do we need another Tom Waits?”
The thing is, Waits trademark voice is only part of the equation. The music that accompanies his gruff delivery is of equal importance. That's why when you find an artist talented enough to deserve the comparison - like Halifax resident Ben Caplan - you start to look past the powerful voice and fixate on the notes that accompany it.
Caplan and his talented band - The Casual Smokers - will undoubtedly garner review after review build around on his voice, but even when they deliver the roughest of bar room stomps, there is a surprising depth and musicianship to the songs. Stand up bass, classical trained strings (violin and cello), flute, sax and terrific use of call and response sing-along choruses all help Caplan and the Casual Smokers stand out from the masses influenced by the same sounds.
They recorded a few songs in The Chapel at the University of King's College in Halifax and mixed them the next day. Considering the tight time lines, the result - three songs: Conduit, Beautiful and Stranger - capture the energy of the band and show the potential of the upcoming full length they have slated for later in the year. The five minute Stranger finds the band moving at a restrained pace, heightening the tension before Caplan's voice explodes and dares the strings and flute to balance the effort. Beautiful shows what happens when Caplan opts for a smoother, more melodic delivery and shows the band is more than a one trick pony.
I know it's hard to judge a band on a recording session that was turned out for grants in less than 48 hours, but the interesting dichotomy works and this new band is the type of discovery that keeps us blogging. For those lucky readers here in Halifax, Ben and his band of noise makers are ready to tear up the tiny Company House stage on Friday night. I'd highly recommend showing up.
BAND STRIKES ROOTSY CHORD - Ben Caplan & The Casual Smokers More Than Just a Party Band
[+ Show ]
BAND STRIKES ROOTSY CHORD Ben Caplan & The Casual Smokers More Than Just a Party Band Rebecca Spe...BAND STRIKES ROOTSY CHORD
Ben Caplan & The Casual Smokers
More Than Just a Party Band
When Ben Caplan came to the University of King’s College five years ago, he thought he was eventually going to get a PhD and become a serious academic. Today his friend and band-mate Emma Morgan-Thorp says she can’t see Ben doing anything but music.
“I bet he could get a PhD,” she says. “I know he has the brains. But I can’t imagine Ben not making music full-time.”
“When all you think about is music and all you care about is music, getting a degree in history, as interesting as it is, is hard,” says Caplan, 23. “Especially because music is a full time job, at least if you take it seriously.”
And when it comes to music, Caplan is a serious man.
He spent every day of the week last January sending out e-mails, working on press releases, and trying to book shows for his current project: Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers.
At the moment, the band is composed of six core members. There’s Morgan-Thorp on cello, Neal Read on flute and saxophone, Signe Bone on violin, Asher Nehring on bass and Matt Gallant on drums. And then there’s Caplan, who supplies the group’s vocals and plays a plethora of instruments including guitar, banjo, melodica, harmonica and organ.
Caplan has seen almost 25 musicians come in and out of the Casual Smokers over the past three years. The current sextet is a fairly new lineup.
From the charismatic and sometimes crazy bearded guitarist to the poised and sexy violinist, the band represents a wide range of musical traditions – from the purest of classical backgrounds to traditional jazz and reggae.
On the other side of the spectrum, Caplan brings his own completely unique and non-classical perspective. He is entirely self-taught, having only had a couple of guitar lessons when he was about 12 years old.
Morgan-Thorp says the collaboration of musicians from various backgrounds helps work to the band’s advantage.
“I think our diversity is completely key,” says Morgan-Thorp. “Everyone in the band brings something really different.”
Caplan says he likes to experiment with all sorts of different genres, but ultimately he is rooted in a folk, singer-songwriter style, citing influences such as Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and Wilco.
“By the time I could bring a few chords together I was getting up there to perform,” he says. “For me, what I’m most interested in is that property of sharing. So the ability of being in front of an audience and sharing that music directly is a powerful experience. I get a big kick out of it.”
Dalhousie Gazette, More Than Just a Party Band cont…
When he first came to King’s he played in the Wardroom in exchange for free drinks in order to learn how to interact with the audience.
“They say you need 10,000 hours of practice to become a virtuoso, and there’s no inborn talent,” he says. “Before you can be a great performer you’ve got to pay your dues and spend that time onstage.”
He acknowledges that being a King’s student is a great way for him to log those hours in a fairly relaxed and supportive environment.
The band also gives King’s credit as being a great way to meet people and develop the band. Caplan estimates that of the handful of musicians that have at one point been a part the Casual Smokers, about half are King’s students.
“University has been key in some fate-developing way,” says Morgan-Thorp. “I think the way I met Ben was when he heard me talking to someone about my cello in the quad.”
“He came up to me – this frightening bearded guy who was like, ‘I heard you play the cello.’ It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. But that’s King’s. That’s quad-mentality. That’s everyone knows everyone.”
On the other hand, the band’s university-education has also hampered their true passions. Four out of the six members are currently in their fourth year of university, so scheduling time to get together has been, according to Caplan, “a nightmare.”
“We all love each other and want to spend all our time together and we’re all just trying to graduate,” says Morgan-Thorp.
Ultimately, though, Caplan says he does not regret his choice to go university. He says it has been a formative experience, and he thinks he has learned a lot about himself and his passions. He has also become much more self-motivated.
“One of the things I’ve learned at university is that nobody’s going to do anything for you,” he says on his efforts to further his music career. “You’ve got to pull your own weight.”
Caplan, a native of Hamilton, Ontario, says he intends to remain in Halifax after he graduates. He says the city has been receptive to the band, and has treated them well.
“My plan is to ride this train as far as it will take me,” he says.
The Casual Smokers recently performed at the Elephant and Castle. By all measurable qualifiers, the show was a success. About 80 people showed up, there were stellar opening acts, and the venue’s management treated the band with nothing but respect.
But for some reason it didn’t all come together for them. The six band members weren’t communicating well, there was some slight tension, and it was hard to establish a connection with the audience.
“It was a shitty show,” says Caplan.
The next night they played a toss-away gig at a kegger for the Jewish Students Association.
“It was thirty people crammed into a little room, but we just played our asses off and they loved it,” says Caplan. “Everybody was drunk and merry.”
“Sometimes we’re just on,” says Morgan-Thorp.
Caplan says that one of the best shows he has every played was when the Casual Smokers were joined by special guest Paul Cram, a Juno-award winning jazz performer. Although the show took place at the King’s Wardroom, which Caplan does not consider an ideal venue, he still considered the performance to be a huge success.
“When it came down to it there was a great energy in the room,” he says. “We were all connected.”
Caplan believes the best way for a band to share its passion and its music with the audience is by effectively communicating with each other.
“The more we play together the more we grow into a unit,” says Morgan-Thorp. “The more we play together, the more we trust each other, and the personal friendships in the band deeply contribute to what happens on stage.”
The Casual Smokers’ next show is this Saturday at Gus’ Pub, where Blown Gasket Orchestra will be opening. Caplan says the performance will be complete with horns, strings and passionate melodies.
“It’s gonna be wild,” says Caplan. “Our shows are nothing if not full of energy. We don’t just walk up on stage, sing our songs then walk off. We haven’t done our job unless the audience is drunk, engaged, dancing and singing along.”
Check out Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers this Saturday at Gus’ Pub (2605 Agricola St.). Doors open at 8 p.m. Or, if you’re out of town for the break, catch them on Friday, March 5, at The Company House (2202 Gottingen St.). Doors open at 9 p.m. Cover is $8.
sets can range from 25 minutes to two hours
Rest Your Head
Leave Me Longing
The Casual Smokers
Bang to Break the Drum
Down to the River
Sorry That It's Over
and many more
Poncho's Lament - Tom Waits
Chocolate Jesus - Tom Waits
Hold On - Tom Waits
The Dozens - Amelia Curran
Jesus Etc. - Wilco
Reservations - Wilco
There are no upcoming dates at this time.