I first met Ben and Alison Smolin when I was a sophomore or junior at the University of Montevallo. Ben contacted me because he heard through our mutual friend, David, that I wrote music articles for UM’s student-run newspaper, The Alabamian. At that point, Ben fronted and Alison drummed for a U2/Coldplay/Radiohead-influenced, Birmingham-based five-piece rock band, To Light A Fire. The band played Montevallo’s coffeehouse, Eclipse Coffee and Books, to great response and kept coming back over the years. Ben and I kept in touch and bonded over our love of great, local music and the flourishing musical community in Birmingham. As I began doing more music journalism, Ben would constantly tell me I was building my “musical empire”. He also inserted the phrase “living the dream” into my vocabulary.
The last time I interviewed To Light A Fire was for a show at Workplay in December 2011. They continued to tour for a while after that; they had been all over the southeast and made it to the midwest during the course of their career, no small feat for an independent band. As To Light A Fire faded into a hiatus, Ocean Liner quietly arose.
I caught my first glimpse of Ben and Alison’s new project during an open mic night at Pale Eddie’s downtown. I recognized one To Light A Fire composition, “Hushabye”, but all of the others were completely new. The songs came out raw and stark without the camouflage of distorted and ethereal guitar effects and heavy hitting drums. All they had was an acoustic guitar, a keyboard and the intertwining of their emotionally charged vocal harmonies. I was in awe and couldn’t wait to hear more.
“Basically, we took a hiatus from To Light A Fire and needed a creative break,” Ben Smolin reveals. “Alison is pregnant and we’re about to have a kid. I’m about to go back to school. With To Light A Fire, we were practicing two or three times a week and I spent all my time booking. I really like what we did, but I’m at a point where I don’t necessarily want to spend two or three times a week in a practice space. I think there are some more important things in life. It’s not that I’m giving up on music, but I want to do it in a chill sustainable way where I can make the art and put out the art. Having a band with your wife, who you live with anyway, it’s very low key. A lot of the songs I wrote are just more singer-songwriter.”
In the first quarter of 2013, they put out their self-titled, 10-song debut filled with the same achingly honest arrangements they introduced at Pale Eddie’s. They kept in mistakes, making everything sound as natural and as human as possible. Lyrically and vocally, Ben Smolin shines, writing some of his best songs yet, highlighted especially in the piano-drenched opener “Drowning” and the gentle fingerpicking intro and satirical bite of “Glorify Your Misery” (“You can’t say you’ve found religion/And never change/You don’t wanna find God”).
The record is a little more than just the beginning for the band. In fact, listeners will not be able to pigeonhole the duo as easily as they would think. .
“The other thing that I’m really excited about is that we have a lot of White Stripe/Black Keys kind of stuff that we’ve recorded that we’re going to play at Workplay,” Ben Smolin says. “We haven’t released the record yet, but it will be our next EP. We have a lot of material. I’m constantly writing music and playing songs. Alison follows me, though she does write her own parts and we discuss. To Light A Fire was very equal and it took a long time to write songs and get them down. In this situation, I write songs and Alison will help me determine whether it’s good enough to play live. It’s so simple. I’m just looking forward to putting out a lot of music.”
As they did with To Light A Fire, Ben and Alison plan to release videos to accompany current songs as well as introduce new ones.
Ben Smolin admits that he might never “make it” in the typical sense of the phrase, but he will continue to make his art without any agenda or interference.
“I will keep writing songs and playing songs 20 years from now, even if no one cares,” he states. “That’s why I chose Ocean Liner as the name. An ocean liner is a gigantic ship, but compared to the ocean, it’s really small. However, compared to people, it’s really big. Basically, I can make music as big or as small as I want to. If it goes somewhere, that’s great, but if not, I can still put music out under my own name. It’s just a way for us to put music out there and it can be whatever it turns into.”
Ocean Liner will be playing Workplay Theatre on Wednesday, July 31st with support from Florence’s The Bear. The all-ages show starts at 9 p.m. and is $10 general admission ($3 charge added to anyone under 21).