In the current indie music culture, acoustic bands are a dime a dozen. With an over saturation of guitar-based acoustic rock, recognition isn’t something bands of that genre can easily attain, mainly because mass appeal for an acoustic pop/rock duo is rarely accompanied by originality. Ben Hallowell and Joe Navin, better known simply as Ben and Joe, are an exception to the rule.
Ben and Joe put forth a blend of groovy hooks and quirky personality that convinces you to give them a second listen. The eclectic duo takes this combination and runs with it. Their sound is minimalist, yet complete. Ben and Joe make the most of their voices and instruments, proving that a two-person band is capable of authentic versatility.
Since their formation in 2013, Ben and Joe have been through many layers of growth. They started by playing local open mics, and it was during those early experiences that they got a feel for their sound. Their compatibility as musicians was evident from the beginning. As their band developed, they began booking gigs at restaurants.
They built a solid reputation for themselves, and eventually music venues contacted them to play in York, Harrisburg, Gettysburg, and Philadelphia. They’ve also been featured on the bills of music festivals like Fall Jam in Gardners and Pink Houses Festival in New Oxford and have been promoted on XPN and are popping up on college radio stations.
They recently finished recording their first self-titled album, is on sale at various record stores in Lancaster. The record, though minimal, is not bare boned. It is rounded out by the prettiness of Hallowell polished vocals and the use of simple but unconventional instruments. A trademark instrument of Ben and Joe is the stylophone, a small, handheld keyboard played by touching it with a stylus, producing tones similar to circuit-bent toys or the soundtracks of early Gameboy games. Hallowell got the idea to learn to play it after hearing the David Bowie song, “Space Oddity” and it’s featured on “Blackout,” the first track on their album. He also beatboxes, a skill he’s been perfecting for about five years. The unexpected pairing of beatboxing and acoustic music is an unusual but clever marriage. In their simplistic but offbeat way they’ll even occasionally throw in the kazoo, proving that sometimes, less is more. This carries over to their live performances, where everything they play on the record is reproducible for the stage. During shows they’ll pull out various covers from Frank Sinatra to ’80s pop songs. A fan favorite is their rendition of the theme song to Will Smith’s ’90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, for which Hallowell’s beatboxing ability comes in handy. Their intriguing approach is both fascinating and charming. Ben and Joe know how to keep an audience’s attention.
Their lighthearted nature makes its way into fun medleys about the amusing circumstances found in everyday life. “Drinking on Sunday Morning,” which Hallowell sings in a jovial tone, is enough to make anyone crack a smile. “International Girls,” a song based on an experience Navin had while being enamored by the Australian women he encountered during a trip abroad, is more than a little humorous. “Stepped out of the plane my heart begins to rain/never saw girls looking finer.” The matter of fact way they describe the scenario is an example of how funny life itself can be. Their expertise is the ability to observe the world around them and extract the quirky side of normal existence.
Their love for music started early. Hallowell was singing in choirs by the age of 7. He was sent to Valley Forge Boys Choir for two years, which he describes as a unique experience. By high school he was performing in musicals and he won the lead as Danny Zuko in the classic Grease. Hallowell idolized the vocal talent of the opera singer, Luciano Pavarotti. He considers the famous tenor to be an inspiration to him as a vocalist.
“The guy just oozes work and dedication to his instrument.” Hallowell says.
He went on to earn a degree in music business and technology at Millersville University, but what he really values was getting the opportunity to perfect his voice – his main instrument. In 2010, Hallowell joined a barbershop quartet. It was this polished vocal style that prepared him for Ben and Joe.
Navin also got started in music at a young age. When he was in seventh grade he was determined to play his grandfather’s guitar. The first song he ever learned was Three Doors Down’s “Kryptonite.” He laughs at it now but still maintains a fondness for that song. He came to admire the work of guitarists like Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads. After Navin went off to college, he developed an interest in electronic dance music. It was this wide variety of influences that contributes to Ben and Joe’s eclectic style. Eventually, he got lessons from Trey Alexander, a musician from the greater Lancaster area and a man Navin calls a “guitar guru.”
Writing songs is a team effort for Ben and Joe. It often starts with Navin playing a simple guitar riff and then they build on it to construct a song from the ground up, but there is no strict method they use. They let their songs evolve organically and they create a mash up of both of their musical talents.
Lyrically, they tend to steer away from sappy love songs or taking themselves too seriously.
“We don’t like to talk much about feelings. We like to keep things light,” Hallowell states. Navin makes a distinction between their brand of lightness and deliberately trying to be funny. “We aren’t a comedy band,” he says. “We just say things plainly. We want the songs to be practical and literal.”
Hallowell responds, “Sometimes that bluntness can transform into humor…if we’re lucky.”
Despite their aversion to feelings in their subject matter, they let a bit of seriousness through. In the song “I Don’t Feel Well,” Hallowell speaks of his struggle with Lyme disease, but it became about something bigger as he reflected on his work with the Department of Human Services with Pennsylvania.
“I don’t feel well today, these joints and bones feel like sticks and stones/ Could you please help me find the answer instead of more prescriptions doing your dirty work?”
He speaks of his experiences working in his occupation. “So many people just want to get better, but they take all these pills that make them feel worse.”
Other songs such as “I Didn’t Know,” explore the heartache of being rejected after spending a beautiful evening with a woman walking together in the snow. No matter the lyrical content, they deliberately do not impose their own feelings onto their audience. They paint the picture literally and let go, giving the listener the chance to decide how it makes them feel.
Now that their record is released and they have a more recognizable platform, they are hopeful for the future. With plans in the works for playing the college circuit and their ambitious drive as they write a second album, they aim for the stars but keep their expectations centered, not wanting to forget why they play music in the first place.
“I just want to buy a new guitar sometime,” Hallowell says with a smile. They keep their heads in check as they bring their music to new fans and make danceable acoustic rock fun for everyone.
Ben and Joe perform at Penn Square Grille, 2 E King St, Lancaster, PA 17602, on Friday, March 11 at 10 p.m.