Benjamin Hazlett is a Los Angeles-based touring/session guitarist and producer. Beginning his career with the band Avion, Hazlett has worked and toured with artists including Meredith Brooks, Miranda Cosgrove (iCarly) and two-time Grammy winner Colbie Caillat. Since the fall of 2009, Hazlett has been touring with Latin pop superstar Paulina Rubio, playing in the U.S., Central and South America, the Caribbean and Spain.
When he’s not trotting the globe, Hazlett is a sought-after session guitarist who also has performed on many feature film movie scores. You can hear his guitar playing in recent trailers for summer movies The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and Inception.
Hazlett’s ability to tune into the intricacies of sound and manipulate his boutique effects, amps and guitars into just the right blend is what captivates audiences and sets him apart from other guitarists. The musician recently took time out of his busy schedule to discuss his pre-show routine, the new album he co-produced for his wife Hope and his enduring love for Gibson 335s.
What’s it like to work with one of Latin pop’s biggest stars? How does it differ from any of the other gigs you have had?
It’s been a bit entertaining to be a part of, to say the least. Being that it’s an experience that is out of the ordinary, I get a kick out of the reactions from different people who know or find out that I play guitar for Paulina Rubio. It’s fun when we’re departing from an airport in some random city/country and see photos or articles of the prior evening’s concert on the newsstand or in a magazine. Before touring with Paulina I had mostly toured across the U.S. and Europe. When I was young – junior high and high school age – I grew up in New Mexico. So there is a familiarity I feel when I’m immersed in the Latin culture. I do my best to practice speaking Spanish as much as possible. Ultimately, I love how friendly and family-oriented the Latin community is abroad. If you’ve ever experienced or been a part of a Latin tour, you would know that Latin tours are different in that they are a bit more laid back than most. There’s been so many shows where we perform for huge audiences and start the show at midnight or later. It’s pretty wild.
Tell us about a typical show with Paulina. How do you get in the zone? What goes down before you get up on that stage?
The performances with Paulina are definitely energetic and quite interactive. Paulina is very talented at reading her fans and giving her whole self on stage. I’ve seen her be spontaneous at just the right times and I never feel alone performing with her. She, more than most artists that I’ve seen, really thrives on a cumulative energy with the musicians on stage. She understands the value of eye contact and vibe. I’ve seen so many great musical “performances” from various bands or artists, in which the performers don’t seem to be performing “together” or even seem to acknowledge each other. It’s really the opposite with Paulina. The success and failure or vibrancy or lack thereof always comes from the top down. Paulina is definitely a leader in being aware of her fans and giving so much on a consistent basis. I believe the audiences can feel that unity and camaraderie that we share together.
Before each concert we generally know it’s time to start when our tour manager comes to our dressing room and says “circle time.” We all know that it means we meet up with Paulina in her dressing room and just take a couple minutes to get on the same page. Sometimes we talk about the set or someone will say something encouraging to the group, but every time, we stand and hold hands in a big circle with Paulina. The band and dancers do this thing where Paulina will squeeze the hand of the person on her right, that person will pass it on and that squeeze goes around the circle and continually gets faster and faster until you kind of can’t keep up... then we all shout “One... Two... Tres... Quatorze!!!” And with a loud applause together we run out and open show.
Who was the guitar player that first inspired you to pick one up?
Well, I was about 11 years old and I remember my dad getting his old acoustic out of the attic to play a couple Christmas carols this particular December. I had never seen my dad play guitar before or even knew that he played at all until then. I had never seen anyone play up close and I just thought it was the coolest thing that he could make his hands move so exactly just when he wanted. From then on, I couldn’t put the guitar down. It was kind of serendipitous because I learned how to play on the same guitar that he did when he was a teenager back in the late ’60s. He bought this old Epiphone FT-130 acoustic from his guitar teacher and was “George” in a Beatles cover band with some buddies in high school.
What was the first guitar you fell in love with that you saved up all you pennies for?
After playing that acoustic for a couple years, I had been fantasizing about buying a Les Paul Custom Black Beauty. I was just 13 and for the next couple years I had little a lawn-mowing business in my surrounding neighborhood, even to the extent of marketing myself with business cards and door-to-door promotion to get enough lawn-mowing jobs to earn the cash to eventually buy that guitar. I think I made about $10 a lawn. I’m glad I got the guitar when I did because it wasn’t too much longer after that when our insane dog we had at the time, named Chewbacca or Chewy, ate through the cable and starter of that poor lawn mower in the backyard. Thus, the end of my lawn-mowing career.
What’s the best part about being a guitar player? Not a drummer or a bass player, but a guitar player.
Good question! Well, I would say that being a guitar player at times can be like being a guitarist, a bass player, and drummer in one instrument because the guitar is very rhythmic, melodic, and one can incorporate bass lines as well. The real beauty of just having a great Gibson acoustic is in those moments when you stop and sit on your back porch after grilling out alone or with some friends and just play songs. Because at the end of the day, it’s about songs. The solos come and go, the fills are nice, the bass is grounding but it’s just great to play songs. It’s the songs that move us and inspire us and ultimately change us and spur us on to change things. I love being a guitar player and every day I am thankful that I get to do that for a living and share that experience with people that love music all over the world.
What was your first experience with a Gibson guitar, either playing one, or noticing someone else rocking out?
I think the first time I can remember ever seeing someone “rock out” with a Gibson guitar was when Marty McFly saved the day by performing at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance rocking Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” in Back to the Future. I was just a little kid and I remember that cherry red ES-335 he played and could never really get it out of my head. I remember watching that scene over and over to see if he really played that guitar lick.
Who is your favorite Gibson Signature Artist of all time and why?
[Laughing] Man! I feel like it’s not fair to say just one. If it’s a matter of “favorite artist of all time,” I’d have to say Paul McCartney. Because, in some facet, every favorite artist of mine can be traced back to the inspiration from The Beatles.
If you could be any Gibson guitar, or felt like there was a specific Gibson guitar that represents you and your style, which one would it be?
Hmmm... If I had to be an acoustic, I’d be a true vintage J-45. It’s just that kind of guitar that makes me want to play songs all day. If I had to be an electric, I’d be an ES-335. It’s peculiar finding what exactly represents someone’s style because we all share so much from each other and from various sources of inspiration. I find that there is so much that goes into “good tone” like amp choice, effects and how to put it all together. I love experimenting with all kinds of boutique effects and tweaking them to make “that sound” that you hear in your head. But, most of all, I love the way the ES-335 feels when you sit with it. And when I play mine on stage it just moves with me, if that makes sense. And, of course, I love the semi-hollow vibe as well.
We typically see you playing Gibson 335’s, what makes you love this guitar? How does it handle with the intense touring that you do all over the world?
The ES-335 is just classy. It has such a pristine chime and I find it sings in so many different musical settings. It handles really well on tour. Thanks to my guitar techs, it’s never been broken. I think we were in Argentina and did this concert and it started pouring rain. We played for about half an hour still in an intense downfall of rain. The crowd loved that we kept playing but, in the meantime, my ES-335 was soaked! When I got home, the guitar was fine. The only thing was that someone in the Transportation Security Administration at one of the airports thought it would be fun to just unscrew a couple things at random, like the input jack, amongst other things. So I suppose the only thing to be concerned about with touring isn’t the intensity of the travel, it’s the security at the airport!
When you are not on the road you can be found… ?
When I’m not on the road I can be found mostly in Los Angeles, California. I live there with my wife and we are expecting our first child in November! We have some very dear friends that we love to spend time with and we encourage one another in our endeavors. Our circle of friends are quite family-oriented and we share common faith which definitely helps keep me grounded when I travel. We like to do game nights, barbecues, movie nights and go to fun events together. I just had the honor of attending the Inaugural Thirst Project Gala in Santa Monica. The Thirst Project is an organization that raises awareness of the clean water crisis, in which 1.1 billion people on our planet don’t have access to clean drinking water. They also raise funds by traveling across the U.S. and network with many musical artists, actors and celebrities that also share in that vision to eradicate this epidemic. This is likely the biggest global issue we face today. Every $5,000 they raise builds a well that can supply fresh drinking water to over 400 people in a community for the rest of their lives. Check out www.thirstproject.org.
Music-wise, when I’m home is when I get to be a part of various studio sessions playing guitar on many feature film movie trailer scores. I really love recording so much. It’s like having a child, something is born and it has a life that goes beyond you.
Any guitar players or bands out there right now that you are excited about? Who is blowing your mind right now?
Well, if I may, I want to mention three artists that have been the most inspiring and mind-blowing experiences I’ve had over the last several years.
First off, my wife is an artist and composer and she just finished her French/English record that I think is literally the most musical and inspiring thing I’ve heard to date. Hope’s record is like a journey in a Tim Burton film with glowing cinematic quirks you’d experience in a Danny Elfman score and the songs and melodies are completely addictive. She is releasing her album Never the Same on iTunes and in stores for an international release in the fall of 2010. The record has legitimately the finest musicians in Los Angeles involved featuring live orchestra with the most amazing instrumentation and arrangements. Hope is genius.
Second, I love the band Carney. They just released their album Mr. Green Vol. 1 on iTunes. Carney is a resurrected marriage of Led Zeppelin, Jeff Buckley and Django Reinhardt.
Third, I have been so inspired by this band that is called Pomplamoose. They’re a YouTube phenomenon duo with Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn. I really don’t know much about them at all, but their music is fantastic. They inspire me to always remember that creativity overrules the “system” of how music has been forced to be produced.
These artists are proof that what’s most important is creativity that simply can’t be ignored.