by Kimberly Shires
Ben Tufts is one of Washington, D.C.’s most prolific drummers, having worked with hundreds of artists. Ben’s versatility and easy nature has made him one of the go-to people for both studio work and live performances. Ben has performed a diverse range of styles including, but not limited to punk, rock, funk, top-40, metal, and Latin.
Alchemical Records met up with Ben at the Lost Dog Cafe, where he used to volunteer to spend time with with dogs waiting for adoption. Ben’s altruistic nature is not limited to dogs. Ben hosts an annual concert where all proceeds support the Craig Tufts Educational Scholarship Fund.
On April 6th, Ben Tufts & Friends will host their fifth annual tribute show. This year’s concert will be hosted at Gypsy Sally’s and will start at 8:30 PM. The show is a tribute to some of the great artists of 1969, such as Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez. Local artists will perform, including Kristie diLascio, Aztec Sun, Bobby Thompson, Holly Montgomery, and Hayley Fahey. The show will be sponsored by 7DrumCity in Washington, D.C. Proceeds from the show will be donated to the Craig Tufts Educational Scholarship Fund. For more information and to purchase tickets, click <a href=”http://www.gypsysallys.com/event/1833587-ben-tufts-friends-present-washington/”>here</a>.
The Craig Tufts Educational Scholarship Fund was set up in honor of Ben’s father, who passed away ten years ago after losing his battle with brain cancer. Craig Tufts, Chief Naturalist of the National Wildlife Federation, communicated his wish to establish the fund. Ben recounted a sentiment that he learned from his father’s by saying “if you want the ideas and the concepts that you hold dear…to outlive you, you’ve got to pass them on to somebody.” The Scholarship Fund sends one child each summer to participate in an outdoor education and adventure camp connected with the National Wildlife Federation. The 2017 winner, 10-year-old Melani Sleder, recorded 319 bird species, initiated a library program for young bird lovers, and became a certified nest-watcher. For more information about the Fund, visit: <a href=”www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Education-Programs/Craig-Tufts-Educational-Scholarship>www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Education-Programs/Craig-Tufts-Educational-Scholarship</a>.
Last year, at least 50 musicians donated their time for the two-night event. Ben said it is important to feature diversity, and he is committed to booking female artists on half of the bill. Ben keeps a spreadsheet of artists he books for local venues to ensure that he strikes a gender balance and includes artists of color as well as LGBTQ artists. Ben loves that artistry connects people, narrows gaps, and strengthens community through the inclusion of all sorts of people. Ben said that, statistically speaking, female drummers do not start many bands, despite being just as skilled as the rest of the drumming community. Ben says, “It’s crushing that my female students haven’t seemed driven to start bands like my male students have.”
Ben identifies strongly as a teacher, and he has drumming studios at both 7DrumCity in Washington, D.C. and the Contemporary Music Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Ben credits his father with his love of teaching, reflecting that “when you see somebody get excited about something, it makes you ask yourself if you should be excited about it too.” Ben remembers his father would suddenly stop and say “look and listen” with the an expression of sheer joy on his face, one that he kept throughout his life.
Reminiscing on his days growing up on a farm, Ben laughed, “My friends were records.” His childhood record collection and his curiosity led to a wide range of tastes including rock, R&B, pop, jazz, and beyond. His diverse interests pushed him to build a wide portfolio of drumming styles. Ben reflected, “All I ever did was listen to music, so I got drawn to stories. A good song is a good story, and the genre doesn’t matter.” Genres typically originate from a region. Ben added, “It’s hard to express yourself effectively in any genre without understanding at least some of its traditions.”
Ben was first influenced by his parents record collection and self-identified as a rock-and-roll kid. He was obsessed with the Beatles and the first couple of Led Zeppelin records. Ben laughed, “I was a little snob and didn’t like anything contemporary in the 1980s until Nirvana came out…. It was hard for me to get really excited about music where I couldn’t hear somebody’s hands working or hear the air in the room.” The first record to really grab his attention in the 1990s however was Fishbone’s <i>Reality of My Surroundings</i>. An interest in stories told by women led to a love of Tori Amos, Veruca Salt, and Ani DiFranco. While in college, Ben tenaciously mined through old school jazz, R&B, and soul. “I don’t know what it was…but I couldn’t get enough of it.”
Ben does not half-heartedly listen to music, and he admits that he can obsessively listen to the same artist over and over. He noted, “when you listen to an album 1,000 times, it is part of you.” Some of his recent highlights have been Elvis Costello, the Police, Hiatus Kaiyote, Anais Mitchell and D’Angelo. At one point, Ben actually had to ask a friend to borrow his old D’Angelo album, just to take it out of his hands. In Ben’s words, “It was like a disease.”
Despite being the accomplished drummer he is today, Ben didn’t set out to be a drummer. As a kid, Ben drew stick figures of himself performing in a band, but oddly enough he never drew himself as the drummer. Ben started playing when he joined his junior high school band program. He decided that the drums were far more rockstar than the clarinet. Ben resolved, “I didn’t start playing music so that I could play the drums. I started playing the drums so that I could play music.”
Ben is currently the drummer for three local bands, Fuzzqueen, Uptown Boys Choir, and Virginia Creep and works for hire with dozens of other acts and singer-songwriters. Ben considers each band to be his family, which is “sacred in the most secular interpretation possible.” Ben expressed that all musical interactions are based on relationships, and he honors the relationships he has established locally. Ben has had opportunities to tour with national bands, but has almost always declined because he didn’t want to cancel the dozens of local shows he had already booked. Ben believes it is better to keep your promises to his local relationships than to gamble on a prospect on the other side of the country.
Ben is currently rehearsing with three or four bands right now that he has never played out with live. He also might be composing the music for a podcast which will require him to flex his composition muscles, and to learn how to be a recording engineer, which is very exciting for him.
Ben is proud to be a drummer and a teacher, and he has a sense of humbled pride in everything he has been able to accomplish so far. Ben is most proud of the work he has done with other artists when he really “believes in the music,” a sentiment that guides him in many of his artistic pursuits.
Kimberly Shires is a native of the DC Metropolitan area. Kimberly is a freelance writer, music degree holder, road bike warrior, songwriter, corporate ladder climber, and a Subaru driving nature enthusiast.