Approaching two decades as a band, Black Stone Cherry was recording its seventh studio album just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and the world was going into lockdown. With no touring in sight, the band chose not to delay its release, and “The Human Condition” will be available everywhere on October 30, 2020 (pre-order here). After the previous two records—”Kentucky” (2016) and “Family Tree” (2018)—embraced the band’s Southern roots, this one sees a return to the punchier, heavier sound of its self-titled debut (2006). As the band prepared for a socially distanced concert in Glasgow, Kentucky—its first show since February—Live Metal’s Greg Maki caught up with guitarist Ben Wells to discuss the pandemic, the new album and more.
LIVE METAL: It’s been a crazy crazy year so far. How have you been making out during this pandemic and lockdown and everything?
BEN WELLS: It was a little bit of an adjustment, especially earlier on. When it first kind of happened around springtime, it was definitely an adjustment getting used to the fact of not touring any this year and being at home as much as we are. But I’m a pretty positive dude, so we just try to find the silver lining and enjoy the time we do have at home, which we don’t normally get a lot of. So, you have to take the good with the bad, I guess.
Were you still in the studio finishing up the album when everything hit?
Yeah, we were in the studio first of March. We finished it right at the end of March. So while we were recording, that’s when everything was really starting to happen. But we finished recording, I guess, before all the real, real lockdowns really started to take effect. But yeah, we were in the studio, making an album and watching our phones and seeing the world shut down around us. It was kind of bizarre.
I assume the songs were pretty much already written ahead of time, but did any of what was going on play into the making of the album?
I think, if anything, subconsciously, we kind of just put all of our emotion and feelings into the creative process of the album, because we knew that all our touring was disappearing, and we didn’t know what the rest of the year was going to hold. So we just said look, we’re gonna put everything we have into this record and then that way we at least have something to show for this year.
So, the new album, “The Human Condition,” comes out Oct. 30, your seventh album. Does it feel like you’ve been around that long? You’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of the band, but I feel like your first album just came out, almost.
At times, it does feel like that. I didn’t even realize the 20th anniversary of the band was happening until I did an interview a couple weeks ago and somebody reminded me of that. I was like, wow, that’s crazy. ‘Cause this is what we’ve done. It’s just been part of our lives. We joke sometimes, we try to remember what was life like before Black Stone Cherry? We’ve definitely had different career turbulences, but nothing’s ever felt like it’s droned on. It’s been a great experience so far.
So how did you approach this new album? To me, the last two albums seemed to really embrace the Southern roots of the band, and this one seems a little more aggressive or modern sounding. What is your take on it?
I totally agree. That’s one of the goals we were trying to achieve. We kind of wanted to do an album that went back to our first album. So it was really good to do that, turn the amps up a little more. With each album we do, we never want to repeat ourselves and sound the same, but I think we were just in a headspace to make a big, loud rock album.
You self-produced this one again, which I assume you’re getting comfortable doing that since it’s the third one in a row you’ve done. What are the pros and cons of producing the albums yourselves?
I’d say the pros is we are able to get in there by ourselves and do everything the way we want to do it without having somebody look over our shoulder or having to ask permission. Sometimes you work with producers and there’s another vote in the room. And we’ve worked with some excellent producers before, but we just decided a few years ago to kind of take the reins on our own, because even when we had a producer working with us, we were doing a lot of the stuff—we had a lot of input. All four of us are very hands-on. It just made sense to get in the studio and do it ourselves. But with that comes a responsibility and a little bit of pressure, because we can’t get in there and just phone it in. We have to get in there and really push each other to get the best performances we can, no matter what it takes. And we really did that on this record.
How has the songwriting process evolved for you guys over the years? Did you specifically write for this album or did you pull stuff from the past that you had worked on?
A lot of the songs on the record were either fully finished songs or parts of songs, ideas we’ve had from the past. And it’s just because we’ve always liked those songs. There might be a guitar riff or something from four years ago that we never really finished, but we liked it. I think this time we were like, look, let’s not let all this stuff just continue to go to waste. Let’s put some use to this, and we did. So it was really cool to bring some of those songs back to life. Some of the songs on there we’ve had for over 10 years, and they’ve just been sitting around. For whatever reason, they didn’t make previous albums, and now we were able to focus on them, update them a little bit and make them ready for an album, and that was a lot of fun to do. But then we have a song “Again,” which was completely written in the studio. That song didn’t even exist before we went in the studio. So there’s definitely a little bit of both, from old-school stuff to stuff that really came off the cuff right there in the recording process.
Who brought the ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) cover to the table? (“Don’t Bring Me Down”)
We were looking for a cover song to do as a bonus track, and we were looking at different songs, different artists. We couldn’t really all agree on one, and I can’t remember who it was, (vocalist/guitarist) Chris (Robertson) or (drummer) John Fred (Young) pulled up the ELO song, and we love Jeff Lynne, we love ELO. And as soon as they pulled it up, we’re all like, “Of course, that has to be the one we do.” It’s just a feel-good song, puts a big smile on everybody’s face. The song is already so great as it is, we didn’t really want to change it too much, and we just kind of played it in our style. Once it got done being mixed and mastered, we listened back to it and we said, “Look, this can’t just be a bonus track. This has gotta go on the record.” And I’m so glad it did because it’s just a fun song.
The album title, “The Human Condition.” Are you making any kind of statement about the human condition? What do you mean with that title?
Not really. The first of the year, we were talking about songs for the album. January and February, we’re talking about preparing to go to the studio and talking about what songs were going to be on there, and our bass player Jon (Lawhon) had said in the conversation, “You know, we write a lot of songs about the human condition.” And then it kept going, and Chris said, “Wait a second, that’s kind of a cool title. Let’s save that.” So we saved it back, and we tossed around a few other ideas in the studio. But then once the album was done and we were able to listen to it and listen to all the songs, we thought that that title just fit perfectly, especially in a year like this, where everybody’s feeling different emotions and going through different conditions. And we thought it fit pretty perfect with the rest of the music.
So you’ve got a couple shows coming up. I guess one is tonight (Oct. 23).
Tonight, yes, in our hometown. Very excited about that. It’ll be our first show back since February. And then we’ve got one in November, but we’re also doing a broadcast concert on Oct. 30, which is the day the album comes out. It’s really cool. We filmed it last week in an empty theater, beautiful theater in Bowling Green called SKyPAC, and it’s being edited together right now. People can buy ticket to virtually for 10 bucks and watch the concert from the comfort of their couch.
Are these couple shows—the show tonight and the one November—are they kind of like to test it out to see if maybe you could do more of these in this sort of format?
Yeah. They’re social distance shows. They’re outdoors, and people can buy pods, 10-by-10 pods, and they come with six tickets, and you and your group can stay in the pod. But they’re adhering to all of the guidelines, and I’m just glad that there are some places out there that are being proactive and trying to get live music back to some degree.
A lot of bands and artists are saying they don’t want to release new albums until they know they’re going to be able to tour. But you guys, obviously, are going ahead with putting the album out. Was there any thought given to maybe delaying until you could tour more to support it?
We talked about it for a minute, but then we were like, OK, if we delay it ‘til this is all over with, when’s that gonna be? So we were like, we need to give our fans some music, because we need it just as much as they do. We needed something to look forward to this year since all of our shows were canceled. We wanted to have something to put out this year that we can still be excited about. I’m glad we are, and I think people are really going to latch on to it because everyone wants something new and exciting, and like I said, something to look forward to.
You were just saying you didn’t even realize the 20th anniversary was coming up. One of the things I was gonna ask is if you’re planning to do anything special to mark that for the band, but it sounds like maybe there’s nothing planned at this point.
Well, I’m sure we definitely will. We can’t let something like that just go by. I’m not sure exactly what we’ll do, but we definitely want to do something.
Here’s one that might be a tough one for you. Excluding the newest album, because everyone always says the new album is their favorite, do you have a favorite Black Stone Cherry album or song from the past?
That’s really hard. Honestly, each album we do we’re super proud of, and it’s hard to pick just one that I would say is my absolute favorite, because there’s pieces of all of them that I love. So it’s really hard to say which one is my favorite album, because each time I listen to them, it takes me back to a different time in life, and I appreciate that. So I don’t know. That’s a hard question. I couldn’t really pick a favorite album or even a song. It’s really hard.
Looking back, what are one or two things that you could pick out as being highlights for this band, things you’ve accomplished?
I would say probably doing our first arena headlining tour overseas was pretty incredible, and we filmed a live DVD of that. Getting to tour with some amazing artists, like Alice Cooper and Def Leppard and bands like that, was pretty incredible. But really, we take nothing for granted, and each time we’re able to do something and feel rewarded by that, when fans come up and say, “Hey, this song helped me get through a rough time,” or “This song, we used it at our wedding”—that’s the stuff that means the most to us.
I know just about every rock guitarist in the past 30, 40 years has been influenced in some way by Eddie Van Halen. Did your paths ever cross at any point?
No, unfortunately, I never did get to meet Eddie. I got to meet his son, Wolfgang—incredible guy. But I never got to meet Eddie, unfortunately. That would’ve been an amazing thing if I could have. But yeah, he was a titan, and I think, obviously, his influence will live on forever, just like Jimi Hendrix.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Just that we’re excited about the new album, and we hope everybody checks it out and loves it as much as we do. We’re very, very proud.