Element of juggling and magic – an interview with Adam Ben Ezra

Adam Ben Ezra (photo by Ezra Gozo Mansur)-2

Last week, I had the chance to catch a live performance I’d been looking forward to for a while. Israeli musician Adam Ben Ezra is not only an upright bass virtuoso, he is an outright bass superstar, on a personal mission to bring the instrument to the forefront. His solo performances are electric, earning the charismatic and creative multi-instrumentalist a reputation as a one-man orchestra.

Using a looper to accompany himself, Adam builds the structure of his concerts around the completeness of the bass, handling it like a percussion instrument and applying effects to make it sound like an electric guitar.

He is also a rare example of a musician who thrives in the current environment. While many of his peers will rightfully speak of the hardships of being a professional musician in the age of declining record sales, infinitesimal streaming revenue and piracy – with some even predicting an impending collapse of the non-mainstream music industry – Adam uses the tools of the modern media to his advantage, and to great success. Famous, among other things, for his Youtube videos covering everything from the Seinfeld theme to Billie Jean, he is currently on the tail-end of an ambitious world tour, appropriately titled “Journey Around the World”.

I caught up with Adam on the day after his electrifying performance at Capcana (The Trap) in my hometown of Timisoara, Romania, to talk about his his creative process, his upcoming record, the world tour and finding success in the musical landscape of the present moment.

Your most recent release, Pin Drop, is a solo bass record and you’re mostly known for your solo work. What is it about this format that appeals to you?

I mean, in solo, it’s very easy to express all of my abilities on the bass. I like the magic of it – of one person who makes a lot of noise, lots of sounds. (laughs) It’s a music show but there is also an element of juggling and magic. I think it’s very unique and original. That’s why I really like to do it.

It’s very easy to do a solo tour. It’s just the two of us, me and my assistant. So it’s very easy to perform all over. With the trio, it’s much harder. I also like the way in which I communicate with my audience. It’s just me and them. It’s like in theater: a one-man show, when there is just one actor and he owns the stage.

It allows you to focus on the audience and their response rather than communicating with another musician. 

Exactly! With the band, it’s me and the gang performing for you, and we have our in-jokes and it’s great. I love that! Music is communication. I love to play with people. But playing solo is a really different experience.

What is the feeling you get before a show? Is it intimidating to know it’s just you, with nobody else to rely on?

It’s a process. In the first years of performing, I didn’t enjoy it. I like to play, but I had so much responsibility and I needed to own everything. It was very hard to get to the point where I could enjoy it. It took a while. Now, I feel like I own the stage. It’s very relaxing.

Yeah, for me it was a process to explore the bass through the show. The show was developed and my technique was developed with it.

By seeing what you can bring out of the instrument in this type of environment. So, the environment dictates where the music is headed.   

When I play with the band –  because I play bass –  in a second, I would be the accompanying musician. This is the role of the bass. So it was simple for me to explore myself with the solo performance and with the audience. It was also a personal process, because I was a very introverted kind of person. I was a shy kid. Through this process, I opened up.

I was just going to say, you don’t come off as shy at all.

(laughs) That’s after ten years of performances.

You’ve said in several interviews that you approach music as a story. As a fiction writer, that’s something I found very interesting. There is a great narrative coherence to what you do, not only in the music, but also in the way you set up your live performances. Could you tell me a bit about that? 

It’s a combination of two things. Music is a storytelling method. It’s emotional storytelling for me. I also relate to instrumental music as songs. So I have this structure in my head, like a pop song. There’s the verse, there’s the chorus, there’s the guitar solo, there’s the coda. Because I listen to a lot of songs. All kinds of songs – Sting and Pearl Jam, Guns & Roses and Michael Jackson, you know?

But, on the other hand, I listen to a lot of classical music. In classical music, there’s a structure of story. There’s a subject, there’s the development of the subject as a second theme. The second theme relates to the first theme. So I really try to do it that way, and I think it’s more interesting. Nowadays, when I listen to jazz and there comes the improvisation part, at some point, I get bored. The solo itself can have a story, but the whole piece doesn’t always feel like a story.

It’s about finding the balance between the story and the improvisation.

There is improvisation in my songs, but there’s a very specific part and it needs to serve the whole structure.

The song structure has to be very coherent.

Also, through the whole show. Because I do all kinds of styles, I try to make a story out of it. And the story is “Journey Around the World”. I want people to get a very solid idea of what they experienced.

How do you apply this storytelling method when you’re composing? Can you tell me a bit about your creative process?

The first thing that I followed was the development of the technique, in the beginning. I was a bass player, I wanted to do more. I wanted to explore. I started drumming. I found that it’s simple for me to write the music according to the technique that I develop. Now, my technique is quite established, though I continue to develop it. But when I started to compose, it started with an improvisation – nonjudgmental improvisation. Until I stumble upon an idea that I feel can be a source of a song.

Then, I try to find the melody, so I find the motif. And you hear clearly in these songs that this motif is the only one in the melody. It’s the same thing, but it’s developed. It’s a “classical music” kind of variation. So I try to find a source. It can be a chord progression or a groove or a source of melody. Then, I try to develop it and to find the right structure.

Like an organic growth.

Exactly! And I need to fill the whole timeline, so that it goes part to part naturally.

Talk to me a bit about Pin Drop. What was your vision for this album?

My first album, Can’t Stop Running, was a trio thing. It was a whole different process. Actually, I didn’t think Pin Drop would be an album. I was invited to a little studio in Liechtenstein to do a performance and they said, “It’s going to be recorded and we’re going to film it”. I said, okay, best case scenario we’ll have a few good videos. (laughs)

But there was magic in this session. The reason I called it Pin Drop is because it was in a studio with lots of people with their headphones. Everybody needed to be quiet, so they won’t ruin the recording. I was very focused, because I had one take for each song. It’s not like in the studio, where you can retake. One take, that’s it!

There was such an electrified environment in the studio that you could hear a pin drop. Especially at the end of the songs, where they needed to wait for the last note to end. It was so quiet. It was a challenge to record as many songs as you can and have a good take. Luckily, I could make an album out of it. All of the songs went exactly like you hear on the album.

Do you have any plans to record a new album soon?

Actually, when I finish the tour now, in March, I’m getting into the studio and recording my third album. Some of the songs you heard yesterday, at the show, are going to be included. It’s going to be a different process. It’s going to be solo, but it will be recorded like a regular album.

I’m working with a producer who is more hip-hop and pop oriented. I wanted to have this electro kind of feeling, like you hear in the show. It’s something that I experienced last year, with the computer, with beats, with the synthesizer. So I wanted to have someone who comes from this field and, together, we are going to be making this album.

Who are you working with?

He’s an Israeli producer called Itzik Ptzazati. Most of his work was with Israeli artists. There is a very famous hip-hop singer called Nechi Nech, whose albums he produced. Now he lives in New York, so I guess he’s going to move to the international community.

He is coming to Israel just for this album. It’s going to be a very intense two or three weeks of recording and then we’re going to continue working by e-mail. It’s going to be very exciting.

With the recent changes in how people are listening to music, many musicians complain that it has become very difficult and downright unsustainable to continue making music. You’ve had great success by using the internet and social media to make your work known. What advice would you give a musician who is currently struggling in this environment? 

I think the best advice for musicians all around the world is, “Don’t get bitter over things that happen.” Things happen and you need to survive. This is surviving. Things are happening. We are animals. It’s cold, then it’s warm, then there’s night. If you’re strong and you go with the changes, you’ll survive. If you’re stuck with the old ways, you won’t survive. So that’s what I did.

I started to perform solo in 2008. My first album was released in 2015. In these seven years, all I’ve done was to just produce singles for Youtube. Just getting the feedback. Getting the public awareness. I think that’s really important. And try to challenge yourself. I was doing all kinds of things that were new to me, all these theme songs of series, all kinds of covers. It’s not original music. I didn’t start playing original music until later on.

But it was an original take on that music. 

Exactly! And this media is so powerful that I had to exploit it.

Were you already a full-time musician when you started posting your Youtube videos?

Yes. I’ve been a full-time musician since I was twenty-two, so it was, like 2005-2006. I was a bass player in Israel, playing in all kinds of scenes: jazz, pop. I was also an electric bass player, making a living. I enjoyed it. With time, I developed my thing and then I started doing this Youtube thing and it went on. Now I’m here in Timisoara. (laughs)

You’ve done this very ambitious world tour. Are there any moments that really stand out?  

There are some shows. I remember a show in London last year and in Vienna, also last year, that were really special. In London, it was at the Jazz Cafe and in Vienna it was Porgy and Bess. These are big clubs. Four hundred people came in London. It was a standing show and I felt like a rock star. It was like… [starts roaring]. (laughs) It was really mind-blowing for me.

There are all kinds of shows and experiences. Some of them are good some are bad. There was one in Italy. It was in July, outside of a a castle. We finished the soundcheck and the clouds came and it started raining. And the public was coming. So we moved everything to the castle. Taking all the stuff, connecting it. Quick line-checking. Five minutes.

Could you tell me a bit bout the music scene in Israel?   

Israel is a tough market because it’s very small. We have eight million people in the country. Two million of them are Arabs. Some of them, I don’t know, maybe one million are ultra-orthodox people. There are not a lot of people who listen to music. So it’s basically mainstream pop.

In Israel, the mainstream pop music is, like, an Arabic pop, let’s say. Because we are living in the Middle East. So it’s really commercial. Most of the market is this way. There are really good musicians, jazz musicians, ethnic musicians, playing the real Arabic music, not the mainstream Arabic pop. So, for musicians that do art, it’s quite hard to play only in Israel. Most of them are teaching.

When I play in Israel, I play once every two months, something like that. I’m very lucky because I can play all over, but I also feel very lucky to be raised in the Middle East, in Israel, and to be exposed to all the inspiration around. I’m very influenced by Arabic music. That was the sound that was there throughout all of my childhood. My grandmother came from Baghdad. On her TV, there was the Egyptian channel. So I heard the sound, the language and the music all of the time. And Jewish music is very influenced by it.

Israel is a big melting pot. All kinds of people came from Eastern Europe, from Western Europe, from America, from Arab countries, from North Africa, from Ethiopia, from Russia. There is a mixture of all these flavors and I’m very happy to be a part of it.

If you could travel back in time to when you first started out in music, what advice would you give yourself, to make things easier?

It cannot be easier. (laughs) It’s just hard work. It’s just practicing your butt off. Lots of hours of practicing. Practicing playing, practicing being on stage. It’s lots of hours. There is no easy way.

You know, it’s a tricky thing, because my advice for myself as a young musician would be to be maybe more sociable. It’s not connected just with being a musician, but being around the right people. On the other hand, I was practicing most of the time, so that’s why I wasn’t more sociable. (laughs) There are pluses and minuses. I don’t know…

You’ve been teaching yourself to play various instruments. Are there any new ones you’d like to pick up in the near future?  

I’m still practicing the flute and the clarinet. I’m trying to get to a good level. Because I’m touring a lot, I’m trying to focus on the smaller instruments.

Maybe harmonica, then.

(laughs) Yeah, harmonica. Maybe that could be the next one.

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