Ben Harper
John Russell  /  AP file
Singer/songwriter Ben Harper is considering converting his classic Buick to run on electricity, or vegetable oil.
updated 7/19/2007 1:29:17 PM ET 2007-07-19T17:29:17

Ben Harper knows guitars better than cars, but the rock, folk and blues singer/songwriter does have some interesting rides in his garage. His guitar collection includes a 1930s Weissenborn Teardrop and a custom 2005 National Reso-Phonic Model D Western square-neck.

Harper's taste in cars is also varied; he likes American classics and modern hybrids. Ever the environmental enthusiast, Harper is considering converting his 1964 Buick to run on either electricity or vegetable oil.

While touring with his band, the Innocent Criminals, Harper shared with news of his latest album "Lifeline"; how smooth the 2008 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG drives; and asks the all-important question of why there isn’t a sporty hybrid fit for a rock star that has enough space for his two kids (with his wife, actress Laura Dern), his dogs and surfboards.

ForbesAutos: Is buying a guitar anything like buying a car?

Harper: No. Not so much for me. Guitars are a real passion to me that I can't compare to that. I am not a car collector yet. As a guitar collector, I get into the finite details of guitar collection. With cars, I like driving around in hybrids and I'm into the next step — electric cars.

ForbesAutos: What cars are you into?

Harper: I am a GM man. I am a Chevy guy. I have a '64 Buick Riviera that I am having converted into an electric car. I am not driving it until it is converted. Well, I take it around the block to keep it broken in. But, it's a mission right now that is out of control.

ForbesAutos: What cars do you own?

Harper: I own a Toyota Highlander Hybrid. It has a three rows for the kids, the dogs and the surfboards. I also own a Lexus RX 400h, a hybrid as well. The Toyota is a 2007 and the Lexus a 2006. I still have my ’64 Buick Riviera. I am going to convert it with either corn oil or electric.

ForbesAutos: Speaking of space for the kids, does being a father and husband now affect your music?

Harper: It has to. I don't like people who talk about fatherhood and marriage as an exclusive club. I was connected to the music in my heart before I was married or with kids, but marriage and kids expand that in a specific way too.

ForbesAutos: Do you have a dream car?

Harper: The right car is the right car. If I can pull it off, I am open to it. My dream car right now is a 2008 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG. I test-drove it the other day. You have to test drive it. It was insane. It really drives well. It's like flying a spaceship. Mercedes has an incredible line right now. They are always keeping it tight in the design department. But that isn't the car for me now. I am into being environmentally aware and focused. I want to be responsible.

ForbesAutos: How often do you drive your cars?

Harper: Man, I'm driving all the time. L.A. is kind of a mandatory car-time city.

ForbesAutos: Some car designers view cars as the largest thing you'll ever "wear" and that they say something about you. Do you think this is true?

Harper: Why not? I don't want to typecast a group by what they drive, but sure, if you drive a hybrid you are going to be seen as someone who cares about the environment. But I know people who own hot rods who are environmentalists and do a lot of good. I go back and forth on that and really have no firm statement on that. It is the largest thing you will wear in a lot of ways. But then, I hate to be defined by a car, myself.

ForbesAutos: Why do you think Americans are so passionate about their automobiles?

Harper: I think what may have made Americans so passionate about their cars was the Golden Era of the car in the '50s through the late '60s. The way they were making those Cadillacs, Fords and Buicks, man, they were so elegant and tasteful. I think that was the birth of the love affair between Americans and cars. It was car as art. Not that they aren't art now. The Ford Mustangs are as good now as they ever were and the Cadillac, too. Those 20 years, people of the '50s through the '70s really cemented Americans' relationship with automobiles.

ForbesAutos: What do you miss from older vehicles that you would like to see reemerge?

Harper: I'd like to see a more elegant line. Well-designed exteriors crossed with an environmentally conscious fuel system for healthy transportation.

ForbesAutos: What would you like to see in a car that you have yet to see?

Harper: Well, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid is a cross between both worlds. I would like to see a very tasteful hybrid that doesn't look like it is the soccer-mom car. I'd like a sporty, three-row vehicle with storage in the back that doesn't look like it's for a soccer mom or like a flower delivery vehicle.

ForbesAutos: What was the first car you ever owned?

Harper: A 1950 push-button Dodge Dart. You push a button to start it. It was a big hit in high school.

ForbesAutos: Did it land you any ladies?

Harper: I would imagine it had the opposite effect with the ladies. You find a push-button Dodge that impresses. Mine had a permanent snowstorm falling from the roof. The roof was falling apart and it was probably asbestos.

ForbesAutos: Have current fuel prices changed your driving habits?

Harper: I drive way less. It has me on my bike and that is the silver lining — I get exercise. I also carpool and have gone hybrid.

ForbesAutos: What do you listen to on the road?

Harper: I've got John Prine in one car. He is one of the great songwriters of the last 100 years. In my other car I play lots of Zeppelin and Mos Def.

ForbesAutos: I know you aren't into labels, but what might you say your new album is about?

Harper: I am not a big message person. I don't like to define my own record. It sounds too self-ingratiating. I don't like to wax poetic into my own my process. It feels unnatural, you know? I hope people pull from the emotion that we put into it. We broke down some barriers working with each other, with me working with a band again after all this time.

ForbesAutos: How was going straight from touring back into the studio?

Harper: It was really intense. I have very high expectations for that process in terms of creativity and giving all of myself. I thought going right into the recording studio would be the best way to record an album that sounds as good as it does live. That exhaustion we experienced brought this record to life. You are dazed, but extremely focused. It takes a lot of focus to have 25 songs to perform before an audience. I wanted to take that live aspect to the recording studio. You don't ever play as well as when you are touring.

ForbesAutos: What kind of feedback are you getting about your album?

Harper: So far people are connecting in the places I hoped they would. It's a warm, personal record. It was all natural. There were no computers on this album. It was just the band and myself playing. We didn't use any computers. I am getting a really strong sense about the production, too.

ForbesAutos: Do you have a ritual or process before performing?

Harper: I used to have a ritual process. But I realized that you become dependent on it at an obsessive level. Now my process is to not think about it until I hit the stage.

© 2007


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