A washboard miked up and plugged in to be used as an electric instrument is not something you’d expect to see at a rock concert. But for the Ben Miller Band it’s a regular staple — and crowd pleaser — at their live shows.
The trio, comprised of Ben Miller, Doug Dicharry and Scott Leeper, began as organically as their idea to use a washboard — not to mention, an electric spoon — at every show. Miller began attending and later hosting open-mic nights in Joplin, Mo. while working a “cruddy job” in the tech department of Wal-Mart.
“It was pretty tough for me to work at a job like that,” the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist toldRadio.com over the phone. “My brain started to eat itself. Boredom is a really great motivator. I didn’t have anything and that helped the boredom. It made me have to do something.”
The Wal-Mart techie by day, performer and host by night eventually met the trumpet playing Dicharry at the open mic night. On the weekends, Miller would play solo shows for dinner crowds at the same restaurant where Dicharry worked as a waiter and where the washboard became a quick way to get people’s attention.
“In the middle of the set I’d call out to [Doug] to play washboard with me. He’d leave his tables and come over and pick up the washboard and play a song and went right back to waiting tables,” Miller said. “People loved it because they had no idea he was a musical genius and his tips went up hugely.”
After opening for ZZ Top last year in Europe — a role they’ll reprise in the States this fall — they no longer play for tips at local restaurants. They also might not be the lone wolves they claim to be on their current single, “The Outsider,” which Miller wrote after watching an episode of the MSNBC prison show, Lockup.
“The people in there have to become a group for safety. You have to stick with your race and you have to stick with your kind and you give up something for that safety. You give up your autonomy,” he explained. “You can’t come from your own perspective completely. It has to be colored by what’s good for that group.”
For Miller, the song is a reminder that even though they’ve been accepted by some music fanshe needs to resist the temptation to just follow the crowd and “maintain a sense of his own perspective rather than sublimating it or deferring to a group.”
Most would not recommend playing an electric washboard to fit in with the popular crowd, but for Miller the odd instrument is the perfect addition to his brand of music, something he likes to call “Ozark Stomp.”
“When a bar was going to hire us, they’d be like, ‘What kind of music do you play?’” Miller said. “We didn’t feel like we fit in with any music style…so, we just figured we’re from Ozark and people stomp to our music.”
It’s easy to see why people can’t keep their feet still. At a show earlier this summer in New York City, the guys played a whole slew of instruments, some recognizable, others not as much so. Dicharry played the drums, mandolin, trumpet, trombone,washboard and electric spoon. Miller sang, using an old telephone as a distorted mic, and played the acoustic guitar, banjo and a tambourine, which he played with his left foot. Meanwhile, Leeper played a one-string washtub bass.
“Really anything can be a musical instrument if you make noise with it,” Miller said.
But not every instrument resonates with the audience. The band learned this after filling a hi-hat with a coffee can “full of junk” that would make a shaking sound and then topping it off with a doll’s head they had found in the garbage.
“We thought it would be a good way for people to start dancing,” he said. “It just turned out to get kind of creepy. But you never know until you try.”
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