Where were you when the nameless stranger in a black guayabera shirt came into town and saved us from the rustlers? Where where you when he rode into the horizon, his silhouette vanishing into the horizon like a Fata Morgana?
Maybe you were drinking some pozol, maybe you were worried about that aces & eights hand you were dealt. Whatever happened, we found that lonesome stranger with the gravelly voice and the cinematic music. His name is Ben Nicholls, but prefers Dennis Hopper Choppers.
The rough and tough exterior was only one layer of his personality. We wanted to find out more after thoroughly loving his gospel (review) and wondering about that girl that walked out of town…
1) You probably get from this one: why the name for the band? Any reference to Easy Rider?
I actually came up with the name Dennis Hopper Choppers a few years before I started the band. It took a while to work out what kind of music a band with that name would play! I live in a house share at the time and there was an Easy Rider film poster on the wall, me and a friend were having a drunk conversation about what make of motorbike Dennis Hopper was riding. We didn’t know. After a while I said, ‘Look it’s just Dennis Hopper’s Chopper’. As the words came out my mouth, I thought, now they have a good ring to ‘em.
2) I like the different “voices” you have throughout Be Ready. ‘Good to me’ feels very dreamy and psychedelic while ‘Moscow Towns’ has that rockabilly feel. What are your influences?
It’s always tricky to say what your influences are, sometimes things influence you and you don’t even realise, your brain soaks everything up like a sponge and then spits it out in random ways. The two singers who always stay with me are Ray Charles and George Jones, they just have voices you can believe in and the moment they start, you know you’re gonna be OK.
From more of the music side of things, I think you always get led by stuff that excites you. Because of my Dad’s record collection I started out with a lot of 50’s stuff, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash and then blues as well, Big Bill Broonzy, Lead Belly. That influence is always there. I tried to work out recently why the Spaghetti westerns have been influential and have always remained so. They are an interesting case because they are basically a European take on American mythology.
This becomes very apparent if you watch a film like Hang ‘em High, where it is entirely American made. Compare the soundtracks and how much less weird the whole film is generally! It’s the European cultural slant that makes them interesting cause it brings a much richer view. I guess this could apply to my approach to the Be Ready album. Anyway, the last few years I’ve been listening to more and more old European music, recent stuff… Georges Brassens and lots of Barbara (French singer).
3) ‘Blue’ has that nostalgic feeling. Any history behind this little jewel?
I had a son a couple of years ago, it was written for him.
4) There’s this video of you in the studio and you’re playing a sweet mandolin (I think the song is ‘I wish you well’). What was your first instrument?
I started out as a kid playing Double Bass, doing orchestras and all that sort of stuff. I still play this a lot for other people, but I always struggled with singing and playing it. It’s such an all engulfing instrument, it never left me with much spare capacity to sing well. I started dabbling on guitar a while ago and that’s when I started singing, the two just go together so well.
5) On that same video, you mention about spending some time in Spain. What were your impressions of the Spanish language and culture? I’m from Mexico but I always enjoy the wide differences between our types of Spanish.
The only bit of Spain where I’ve spent long periods is in the South, specifically around the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Almeria and North to Granada. It’s a bit of the world I love deeply. Coming from England which is so temperate, it really hit me as it was the first desert I’d ever been to, surrounded by these enormous snow capped mountains and the Mediterranean sea. It was the extremes of it all that sucked me in. One of the interesting things culturally in that area is the enormous influence of the Moors and North Africa, it’s everywhere in the music, art and architecture, a fascinating clash between the Moorish and old world Catholic cultures. I guess in Mexico you have a similar clash between the old South American world and Spanish Catholicism, the latter of which brought some of that Moorish thing along. It’s all made for some incredible music and art!
6) Let’s talk about the video for ‘The girl walked out of town’. Any particular anecdote you wanna share about this song and the video? I pretty much fell in love with this track when I heard your album.
This song took a long time to write. I had to keep chipping away until it made sense as a whole. I think it’s the one track that brings all the elements of the album together into one. It was a nightmare to record cause it has such big changes throughout, we ended up doing it in sections and editing it together and I think it’s better that it feels like that. Morricone uses the editing trick quite a bit. It gives you that sudden jump cut feel, like a gear shift when the engine revs are wrong.
7) There is a cinematic feel for ‘Girl walked out of town’. Let’s say one famous director in the history of cinema (alive or dead) asks you for a song from Be Ready to be used in a film. He even lets you choose where in the film you can put the song. Which director and in which part of the film?
I can’t really answer that. I’ve done some soundtrack work before and the problem is that once you get too involved with the nuts and bolts of it, the unexpected magic can disappear. Music and moving pictures together really are one of the most powerful combinations ever though.
8) You mentioned that for Be Ready you expanded your sound from a very narrow, almost “one man army” approach you had before. Will you continue expanding?
To be honest it’s so much better working with other people cause they bring all of there musical life along to what you’re doing. Recording and touring the first album got to be quite lonely and insular, although it was something I needed to do at the time. There’s a great bunch of musicians involved now; Nat woodcock, John Greswell, Simon Lea, Pete Wareham, Andy Mellon and Garo. I think we can take on virtually anything with that line up.
9) Some time has passed since Be Ready was released. Looking back, is there any song in particular you have grown the fondest of?
I think ‘Blue’ is probably my favourite, I was always a sucker for a down tempo, minor key ballad.
10) The use of trumpets with your type of music always makes me think of Weird Westerns (those cowboy films with supernatural stuff – think Pale Rider). Any Western film you have enjoyed lately?
I haven’t really seen many westerns recently, not sure we live in a time when they’re a genre pushing the boundaries. A couple of films I’ve seen that are westerns in spirit but set in modern times that I’ve enjoyed…. No Country for Old Men. It basically has all the western elements. I like the fact that there is virtually no soundtrack, just makes it heavier. The other film which I loved was The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, properly trippy and weird but with underlying gravitas.
11) What’s the big plan for 2012? Tour, more recording?
I have about half of a new album written. Contemplating whether to record it in Mexico actually, so I can use some brass players from there and some guitar playing. Could be logistical hell, but you have to be ambitious! The plan would be to cut a record entirely live, Be Ready got me into that way of thinking. I’m just organising a tour at the moment, a kind of triple-header with Richard Warren and Piney Gir. So keep an eye out for that one, probably in a few months time. It’ll be a good night. There are other gigs, best to check on the Facebook page for when and where and hopefully some festivals.
And so this well-dressed stranger disappeared into the ether, back to the fold, ready to save another town, one note at a time, one gravelly-voiced line delivered after another…
Words: Sam J. Valdés López
Sloucher.org would like to infinitely thank Ben Nicholls, Dennis Hopper Choppers, Top Button Digital and Ollie McCormack (for his patience) for this interview.