At first glance, Ben Caplan seems like a sage of east coast indie rock. After all, he sports a wizardly beard, screeches out a uniquely soulful sort of stripped-down folk, plays for gleeful crowds at massive fests like SXSW and is drawing legions of fans to local gigs like his shows at the Company House this week, two of which are sold out.
But Caplan hasn't always cast such a persuasive spell over Halifax's music scene. "Magical" certainly wouldn't be an apt term for the time he spent eking out meagre gigs here before releasing his lauded debut album, In the Time of the Great Remembering, in 2011.
"I fondly remember my first gigs playing for whisky at the King's Wardroom," Caplan says of his initially tipsy shows after moving here from Hamilton in 2005. "I think back to taking in enough of my King's Wardroom 'wages,' that I could barely stand by the end of the night, let alone play my guitar. It's lovely to look back on those days now, though my liver is probably pleased that things have changed a little."
The low point came during what he hoped would be a breakthrough. Caplan had managed to wrangle a headlining night at Gus' Pub, and he gave it his all—printing all the posters himself, buying an ad, seeking out a band willing to open for him. "Five people showed up," Caplan says, adding the dismal attendance wasn't the worst of it. "I had lost money on promoting it. The opening band belittled me and demanded that they get paid, even though the show was a bust and they hadn't brought anyone."
Then the PA toppled off its shelf and landed squarely on top of Caplan's laptop (which he had been using to record the show), shattering its screen and keyboard to smithereens.
Despite those considerable hiccups, Caplan couldn't have been happier to play, because the alternative was unbearable. In fact, some of those bitter pre-musical days are still inspiring his best lyrics. Take this from an untitled tune he's been tinkering with on his latest tour: "It's under control just as far as they've seen/but there ain't enough shit to climb out the latrine."
"I was revisiting my experience of trying to keep it together while I was in university, and drowning in a flood of overdue assignments and coping with depression. Fun times," Caplan says, adding that the monotony of those cripplingly everyday issues have made even his most stressful gigs pale in comparison. It also helps him appreciate his best shows all the more. A prime example would be a stop in Vlieland, just off the coast of the Netherlands, for a festival called Into the Great Wide Open this past summer.
"I played on a little stage, in the middle of the forest, with a clearing that fit about 300 people. About 1,000 people showed up," he says. "The whole forest was full of bodies appearing and disappearing into and out of the trees. The crowd went nuts for the set, and the rest of the time we were on the island, the rest of the band and I were treated like royalty. It was the best.
The Company House, 2202 Gottingen
Thursday, January 31 8:30pm
Friday, February 1, SOLD OUT
w/Paper Beat Scissors
Saturday, February 2, SOLD OUT