Ben Rogers is tempted by the dark side

Vancouver tunesmith Ben Rogers finds his inspiration in murder, vengeance, and the God of the Old Testament

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      If Ben Rogers seems more than a little obsessed with murder, vengeance, and various other unpleasantries of life on his sophomore album, The Bloodred Yonder, that might have something to do with his upbringing. Raised in a Christian household, he’s more than passingly familiar with the Bible, which he’s read a couple of times. And if the Vancouver outlaw-country singer took anything away from the Good Book, it’s that sometimes the dark side can be more fascinating than the good one, especially when you’re a storyteller.

      “Old Testament God is definitely a bit more interesting to me,” Rogers says with a raspy, nicotine-cured laugh, on the line from a Toronto tour stop. “The Book of Judges God, Ecclesiastes God, the Book of Job God. Revelation God is pretty vengeful too. For a god that’s so loving… I mean, creating all those beasts with so many eyes to come and set the world on fire—it’s a pretty interesting imagination he’s got.”

      The same might be said of the man behind The Bloodred Yonder, who gallops enthusiastically from topic to topic over the course of a riotously entertaining, hourlong interview with the Straight. Asked for some of his favourite obsessions, Rogers lists off spaghetti-western composer Ennio Morricone, literary giant John Steinbeck, and the Academy Award–winning ode to violence There Will Be Blood.

      “I’m definitely influenced by other writers and films,” he notes. “I think I watch There Will Be Blood about once a month.”

      On The Bloodred Yonder, Rogers comes across as someone who’d love to do whisky shots with blackhearts like Nick Cave, Johnny Cash, and Cormac McCarthy, his songs marked often by biblical references. All sublime pedal steel and loping badlands guitar, “Wild Roses” has Rogers invoking Eve, Abel, and rivers of blood before singing “The Lord banished me to wander ’til I died.” Later, “River” starts with soft, Sunday-service organ and then builds into a Copperhead Road rocker flared with such lines as “Like the voice of God speaking from a burning bush” and “God saw the world he made didn’t turn out right.”

      “The dark side is there,” Rogers acknowledges. “I think, at this point, I’m only interested in reading things that have a bit of the dark side in them, whether that be dealing with death or murder, and those kind of subjects, or whatever. I’m sure to some people those kinds of things are too dark. But that’s just life.”

      Still, there’s an argument to be made that Rogers has lightened up since his debut album, Lost Stories: Volume One. That release was a largely acoustic affair, sounding like it was recorded for nights when the Jim Beam bottle is almost empty and the campfire’s down to nothing but glowing coals. The Bloodred Yonder is intentionally more raucous, with Rogers backed by local stalwarts (and now bandmates) Matt Kelly (pedal steel), Erik Nielsen (bass), Leon Power (drums), and John Sponarski (guitar). Helping orchestrate things in the producer’s chair was his older brother Matt, best known around town as the guitar-slinging half of blues badasses the Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer.

      “Lost Stories: Volume Two could be recorded and released tomorrow,” Rogers says. “But I wanted to shift gears on this one and give people a bit of a different flavour, get people dancing and offer a few different narratives in shorter songs. And playing with the band is fun. I love playing solo, but playing with the boys is really fulfilling. It gives me the freedom to perform a bit more. They’re like brothers to me, so there’s that too.”

      Those brothers would help Rogers realize the potential of some of the songs on The Bloodred Yonder.

      “Some of them I wrote anywhere from a year to four or five years ago,” he says. “I feel like they were waiting for the right band to interpret them.”

      The Bloodred Yonder operates as a loving tribute to the golden age of country while bringing something new to the table. Musically, Rogers and band prove nothing if not flexible, swinging easily from bourbon-hazed ballads to gun-smoke folk to paisley-dipped Americana.

      On the storytelling side of things, Rogers proves a master at avoiding country’s clichés. Sure, there’s girl trouble in the saloon-boogie gold of “Wanted”, but that’s conveyed with lines like “I’m wanted by Pistol Jones and Missus Jones too/By every Tom, Dick, and Harry, but I’m not wanted by you.” In the organ-laced “Don’t Buy Me Roses”, Rogers heads to the tailor for his wedding-day suit, but everything goes south after he reveals the name of his bride: “Well, as he sized me up I spoke her name/He up and ran straight to the funeral parlour to give my measurements to the coffin-making man.”

      The Bloodred Yonder isn’t, however, fixated on love and its various miseries. “Panhandler” has Rogers recounting a life led on the rails, starting with “My mother died of dust pneumonia up in Oklahoma back in 1935/My father hung himself in the pines until his bones became wind chimes.” “The More I Learn”, meanwhile, starts with “Well, my dog took a shit and I went to pick it up/There was a hole in the bag” and ends by name-checking Russian nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov.

      How clever is Rogers on The Bloodred Yonder? Well, as sure as Hank Williams had a drinking problem, no one has ever started a country song with the line “Somebody just called me a fag/For picking flowers from a chain link fence,” that coming in the shimmering ballad “Sinners”.

      “I was living in Silver Lake in Los Angeles, in a warehouse with a couple of people, and it was about 1 in the morning and I was hungry,” Rogers explains. “I wanted a burrito, and I was told that Burrito King was where Gram Parsons used to like to go and eat burritos. So I thought, ‘I’ll go there and try it out.’ I was walking down the street, it was dark out, and this BMW was sort of riding up beside me. The driver had an Acapulco shirt on and just looked crazed. He rolls down his window and goes, ‘Hey faggot, come here.’ I’d stopped to pick these flowers off of a fence.”

      After being followed a while, Rogers finally flipped off the driver, who became enraged and started chasing him with his car.

      “I wound up running and eventually hiding in the drive-through of a KFC. It was closed, so I just hid in an alcove,” he relates. “Even though I was scared, I thought the situation was pretty funny. I didn’t have anything else to do for a while, except watch this guy, who was sort of circling around looking for me. I could hear this mariachi band somewhere off in the distance—a wedding or something like that—and it sounded almost like a heavenly host watching over me. I started thinking about Gram Parsons and Grievous Angel. And then I just wrote ‘Sinners’ right there, while I killed some time. I didn’t get a burrito, didn’t get KFC. But I did get a song out of it.”

      And, one supposes, proof that, no matter how much murder, vengeance, and other unpleasantness happen to be in this world, sometimes good gets the last word.

      Ben Rogers a release party for The Bloodred Yonder at the WISE Hall on Friday (September 18).