With a fascinating debut album under their belts, an ambitious design for a companion film and the spirit of old-school, impactful late 60’s and 70’s rock on full display, Center in Exile are riding a rocket ship of momentum. To say the sky’s the limit would be an understatement. It’s far more likely the power trio hailing from Cleveland, Ohio will find themselves bursting through the stratosphere and into the great beyond. Based on their love of all things Sci-Fi as well as strongly incorporating into the overall vibe of the band, I have a feeling they’d be just fine with that.
Over the course of a hour long conversation with the band, I learned a lot about the band as well as them as people and the huge role that The Big D Show on WCSB 89.3 in Cleveland played in getting their music heard. From their early musical beginnings, to shenanigans with some famous musicians as well as their favorite science fiction movies. For drummer Chris Frate, he’ll take the original Planet of the Apes. But he loves the original Star Trek series as well. Bassist Pat Duffy, a self-described movie buff, he prefers Star Trek: The Next Generation over the original. He has a love for James Bond that led to the James Bond theme song making an appearance at his wedding. And lead singer/guitarist Ben Bellardco 2001: A Space Odyssey and Fantastic Voyage tops his list.
The musical chemistry that pours out of each song on their debut album is only more apparent when speaking to them. They’re all born within a month of each other and live within five minutes of each other. Whether Pat’s preference for 60’s garage rock or Chris and Ben’s classic rock influences, they find a way to perfectly blend these elements into a truly unique vision. The members have a strong bond as evidenced by the fact they are as close as friends as they are as musicians. It’s worth noting that throughout our talk, there was a ton of laughing. A ton of jokes. But most of all, there was an undeniable love for their craft that you can’t help but feel inspired by. Check out my interview with Center in Exile below and make sure to check out their debut album!
Listening through your album, the first thing I wanted to ask was about how your creative process works.
Chris: (laughing) We just listen to Ben.
Ben: I have a genesis on the material but it’s- before Pat came along, it was just Chris and I. The two of us have a certain part of the process of jamming, trying riffs and then together, really honing the drums because in our world, it’s all about the drum fills.
The rhythm section is pretty tight, with a lot of emphasis on it. Is that a natural process that comes with the grooves or is it more of a preplanned intent?
Ben: We just want it to be absolutely right. We think if you don’t have the right drum fills, you do not have the song.
Chris: Ben and i were in a band before- back in high school So we’re really tight with each other. And Pat and i were also in a band together and so we were kind of tight ourselves. So it’s kind of like a venn diagram. We merged the two and it works out because we played with each other before. You know, we’re kind of tight.
Pat: And I’ve been in other bands as well.
Ben: Chris and I, we sort of come from The Who, Led Zeppelin, Rush thing and Pat meanwhile is Mr. Punk.
One band you guys were in before this was The Center For Rock Research. A band in which you would cover entire classic albums. Did that experience inform the sequencing and pacing of Center in Exile’s debut album?
Ben: One of the albums we did cover was Rush, 2112. We’ve always been impressed that they created not only an album but an entire story in the science fiction world. And so the sequencing and all the details come together from something like that.
Chris: One of the first things we did with The Center For Rock Research was Tommy (Who Album). I remember one of the discussions we had was what sequence to use because there is the album sequence and there is a movie sequence. So sequencing in that sense was something that we did get into in regard to how the group of songs felt best.
Pat: Well- I wasn’t in The Center For Rock Research (laughing)
So how did Pat get into involved with you guys in this project?
Ben: The origins of Pat. We discovered Pat slam dancing or punk dancing to one of our songs. And w thought, this is our guy.
While recording your album, what were your main instruments of choice?
Ben: We love to talk gear! Pat has an amazing array of basses that i would not let him use. So I made him play my Fender Jazz bass.
Speaking of the bass. One thing that I found was the unexpected catchiness of the bass playing that constantly makes a strong presence in the mix. What was the thought behind that approach to the bass?
Chris: I’m not the bass player but I witnessed the discussions that went on. Ben always has every part written in his head before we play it and then we come in and try to put our own little take on it. And Pat’s take is to be a little busier player, like a Geddy (Lee) or something like that…but a punk version. And then Ben is trying to get him to conform more to what is in his head and the result is a merge of those two.
Ben: I always have to make sure the spaces are in the spaces. Cause space and rest, those are as important as notes in many places.
With that in mind, as a power-trio, do you feel you are able to cover enough musical ground or do you feel your number one mission is to ultimately serve the song?
Ben” It’s funny about a power trio thing because that’s always been my kind of ideal set up.
Pat: I seem to only have ever been in power trios.
Ben: Sometimes people will say, “Why don’t you get a rhythm guitar player?” And I’m like, no. I always thought it was like if you see The Song Remains the Same, and you’re used to having this roaring rhythm n the background, say in like the “Black Dog” solo, but live that totally falls out but the band doesn’t care! They just keep going.
That’s interesting because with you guys, you can feel the chemistry pouring out of the music. And that chemistry would lead me to think that in a live setting, there would be a good opportunity for each song to have a fresh interpretation versus a straight reenactment of how the songs sound on the album.
Ben: Yes. And right now, that song “Simple”, with the Jonestown II lyric, we have to totally reinterpret live because we used an instrument no one has ever used before.
Ben: A Whole Foods Paper Bag.
Can you speak to how you came to that and how you made it work for the song?
Chris: (Demonstrating on his leg how he used this) You do not know how hard it is to mike a bag live!
Throughout your debut album, there is a decent amount of ideas that seem to come out of left field. I think it speaks to your willingness to not necessarily play it straight, but to really push yourselves and your music to that next level. How important is it to you not settle and really push the band to maximize what it is you want to get across?
Ben: Playfulness is one of the spirits that I want to keep in the band. We want to play around with everything basically. What does a rock band have to be? You know. I want to be a rock band that has a science fiction story around it.
Chris: One of the things a lot of people asked us about is that most of our songs are pretty short. But you know, it doesn’t take that much to get the idea across You know, they serve their purpose and we get out of them.
Ben: I do not want to force a song out. If we have a song that is a minute and twelve seconds and we go with that and it’s right, I want to go with that. No one’s opinion that shouldn’t be here gets in. We did not want to let any of this music out until we were totally, totally satisfied.
Pat: We did a lot of experiments with stuff .
Ben: Pretty much Pat comes in with a new effect every week.
Can you tell me about the current climate of the music scene in Cleveland?
Ben: Well, we are proud of the Cleveland music legacy. And, Chris, his uncle Dale Peters- who mastered the record is part of that legacy. Dale Peters is the bassist of the James Gang. He is our living link to what we call the Holy Grail of late 60’s- 70’s rock.
Chris: I have a really interesting story involving my uncle Dale, Les Paul and Jimmy Page. Following the James Gang, my uncle became an engineer. One day he was recording Jimmy Page for The Firm so he let us hang out that day at the arena. My brother and one of my buddies was there and there guys were always getting into mischief. So they walked around and found the room where all the instruments were. And so they come running over to us yelling that they found the famous sunburst Jimmy Page Les Paul.
Ben: There is, lined up against a wall… the doubleneck! The So i picked this thing up- i men the feel of this thing, the action on this guitar. I didn’t get to put it through an amp but it was the greatest feeling guitar ever. While playing it, another door opens it and this huge guy walks in, “Hey, what are you doing?” The other guys bail out of there and I’m left there holding this.
What ended up happening?
Ben: We ended up being escorted through the place and lined up by the roadies who took our passes and getting booted out of there. But the biggest detail is after all of this, The Firm cancelled the show that night!
Chris: My uncle was pretty pissed off.
Ben: Working with Dale again is one of the miracles of this record.
One of my favorite songs of yours is “Return”. It’s insane.
It’s funny, Big D really graviated to that song as well.
Speaking of Big D, tell me about that relationship.
Pat: He’s making me famous!
Ben: The Big D show is the first radio to latch onto this. Carl, the producer, I had known him before he was in radio but a friend of his, Dave Thomas, started doing this college radio show. He’s more of an 80’s guy playing The Cure and Talking Heads. Carl is more of a late 70’s rock guy. His biggest bands would be The Kinks, The Cars. C Note, as we call him, he’s been instrumental in helping us grab onto some momentum and run with it. He’s a self-styled master of pure rock taste and the emerging Svengali of the Cleveland scene.
Chris: He’s the only guy in the world whose favorite The Who album is Face Dances.
Ben: So he got together with Dave. And Dave remembered seeing me from playing in a band at his high school dance. He asked for if we had any recordings. We gave him four songs, one of which was “The Return”. And he just keyed in on it and started playing it. He just played it over and over and over.
In addition to the album, you guys have also worked out an exciting treatment for a possible film project. How is that coming along?
Ben: It’s just a narrative that just kind of happened by accident as we were just messing around with The Center For Rock Research. Treating rock like this ancient rite- a long lost right the world has forgotten about. But then there’s these few guys who want to study it.
That seems like a pretty fair metaphor for the current musical climate in which rock seems marginalized in light of rap and pop and the distinct lack of people playing real instruments in new musical acts.
Ben: Some of the stuff, it’s real catchy and people are doing imaginative stuff.
Chris: My kids are under strict orders that whenever one of those songs comes on that is just singing and a synthesizer wash behind it, they have to change the station. There has to be instruments- can’t just be a synth!
You guys have hooked up with Australian artist Mark Salwowski. What role is he playing?
Ben: We tried working with videos, a little bit of CGI design on a simple level and our own photography. But I also loved the conceptual art of Ralph McQuarrie for Star Wars. The thought of being able to get one of these great Sci-Fi artists to imagine this whole sci-fi thing we are talking about.
Chris: Bein is just relentless. This is always on his mind. He’s searching Google for the right guy and then he ends up finding the right guy and finding out someway to get in touch with him because he is relentless in his pursuit of this- and then, they end up contacting Ben back!
What is the endgame for this narrative that goes along with the album?
Ben: (laughing) Ideally, a $90 million, ten part Netflix miniseries. I tried to rig it so the band wouldn’t have to be in every scene. We could be off trying to collect artifacts on a south sea island and then these other characters would advance the plotline.
Chris: It’s definitely futuristic-retro with a cool setting. I’m not really sure if anybody is going to end up understanding what’s going on.
Do you have plans for a follow up album?
Ben: Yes. I want to jump right into a new album. The first step is Chris and I making one long take of songs and recording that.
Keeping with the futuristic vibe, what does five years in the future look like for Center in Exile?
Pat: Being out on tour.
Chris: Five years from now, if we were really lucky, we’d be able to quit our jobs and do this full time. Maybe even be able to bring our music to somewhere like England.
Ben: I’m trying everyday to get a gig in England!