Backing a Beatle has to be the rarest honor in music.
Yet for drummer Jordan Richardson — the moptopped, babyfaced Texan behind Ben Harper’s Relentless7 — the opportunity was but a moment in the band’s breakneck activity over the last two years. 2009 found the blues rockers getting their sea legs on the world stage, shaking every conceivable festival to its core, and working with the likes of Ringo Starr, who appears on Harper’s tenth and latest studio album, Give Till It’s Gone.
“I’ve seen him motivate a Beatle, for crying out loud,” Harper says of Richardson. “The moment I heard him play, I knew he and I were going to have a future in music together. Because he was too incendiary of a drummer. You’re not allowed to allow yourself to miss out on musical opportunities like playing with musicians of Jordan’s caliber.”
Harper would have missed out on the opportunity all together if not for a sudden change of heart in 2005. That year the Grammy-winning frontman canceled his first appointment with Richardson and bassist Jesse Ingalls; Harper hadn’t met the guys and feared a potential lack of chemistry. When friend and future Relentless7 guitarist Jason Mozersky convinced Harper to reschedule, the session yielded an eight-minute epic jam, “Serve Your Soul,” for Harper’s Both Sides Of The Gun.
“Relentless7 was right in front of me,” he reflects on that first meeting. “I couldn’t not do it.”
While the four-piece wouldn’t reunite for another three years, Harper thought often about making music with that Texas trio. And so, in late 2008, he put aside The Innocent Criminals, his band for more than a decade, to rekindle Relentless7.
Richardson recalls how the group’s impromptu debut, White Lies For Dark Times, fell into place.
“One song led to two, and two led to three,” he says. “Halfway through the record, we all kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, I guess we have a band now.’”
What they captured became a blues-metal document of heartbreak tinged with Southern-fried rock. One might call the sound Ben Zeppelin — wailing riffs and thunderous backbeat on “Boots Like These,” “Number With No Name,” and “Up To You Now” deliver some of rhythm-and-blues’ fiercest momentum since Page and Plant wrote Presence.
“I think the bluesy rock thing is what united us, because we’re all based sort of in the mindsets of Hendrix, Zeppelin, John Mayall, great British music of the ’60s and ’70s, and Sabbath, and heavy music,” Richardson says. “And I think that was a huge sort of common ground for our first record. We never set out to make any certain type of one song.”
Richardson, 29, brings a lifetime of drumming to Relentless7. Born June 15, 1981 in Fort Worth, Texas, he grew up in nearby Crowley, where his father coached the toddler to mirror his strokes while the two played rhythms and rudiments on a pillow. Richardson was three years old. He soon inherited a Whitehall kit, and banged along to Steely Dan’s Aja record to the delight of his older sister in the adjoining bedroom (“It was never noise,” she says). By Richardson’s fifth birthday, his dad, a former garage-band drummer, surrendered: “I have nothing left to teach him.”
Just weeks after he turned 13, Richardson encountered his first musical crossroads — a talent show. He and a keyboardist friend (the duo called itself Random Plaid) defeated 700 student hopefuls with a performance of The Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein.” First Prize turned out to be Richardson’s first gig: headlining Six Flags Over Texas. The ’70s instrumental cover that won him the grade-school contest foreshadowed the vintage, progressive sound Richardson would later bring to several Austin- and Fort Worth-based bands, including Oliver Future, Spirit Animal, and Epic Ruins.
“He could play so well that it was hard for me to kind of figure out what to do with him,” remembers Joey Carter, Richardson’s jazz-band lecturer at Texas Christian University. In his early twenties the drummer apprenticed at a local studio, where he learned to engineer and produce records for a slew of area bands. Richardson would soon embark on two career firsts — his first (and permanent) move out of the South, and his first collaboration with a renowned musician. Richardson moved with Oliver Future to Los Angeles in 2005, the year that sparked the beginning of Relentless7.
“Ben is a great partner,” Richardson says, “and the creativity that’s born out of that is immeasurable. Being so busy with him, I feel the fire really lit under my ass to stay creative.”
For Richardson, staying creative means experimenting — pulling off the bottom heads of his drums, taping up the top heads, tuning his kit high, breaking out the mallets and maracas. When on tour, Richardson rotates between three C&C custom sets. His ’64 Rogers and late ’70s Ludwig kits are reserved for the studio, where Richardson explores John Bonham’s throbbing, atmospheric technique and embraces Stevie Wonder’s stutter style. “Even straightahead rock should swing a little,” Richardson says of his throwback approach to songs like “Clearly Severely” and “I Will Not Be Broken.”
Relentless7 played Lollapalooza Chile and headlined opening day of Bluesfest in Australia last month in support of Give Till It’s Gone, billed as a Ben Harper solo album. Says producer Adam Lasus, “They’ve captured something that is more real in the true sense of a rock and roll record than I’ve heard in maybe 20 years.”
Perhaps Richardson’s most invaluable trait is his instrumental ingenuity. Between recording and touring with Relentless7 last year, Richardson formed psychedelic group Epic Ruins and created what he calls “a total ’70s stoner record.” The album finds the drummer strapping on a 12-string acoustic and bass, and playing omnichord and synthesizer. He even sings on the opening track.
“Jordan’s just one of those rare, superstar drummers that come along once or twice a generation,” Harper says. “Like Ringo, or like Keith Moon, or like Bonham, or like Stewart Copeland. That’s Jordan. He’s a lead drummer.”