Ben Harper is trying kickflips. He's about five attempts deep and has had a few near-lands. But it's time to rehearse, so the board needs to be put away. "Let's go, Ben," his bandmate, Dhani Harrison, says as he skates by, a blur of fluorescent pink and hair. "One more try," Harper says. "I've got this." One more try, and he makes himself an honest man. "I was getting nervous being put on the spot," Harper says. "It's like I'm at the X Games."
Skate session over, Harper kick-pushes toward the recording studio, where Harrison and singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur are already setting up to begin rehearsing for their first live shows since forming the band Fistful of Mercy this summer. When the trio first debuted their nine-track album, "As I Call You Down," at a listening party here at Hot Records in Santa Monica, Calif., in August, one question permeated the room. What possibly brought these three guys together? "Simple," Harper says. "Skateboarding."
Harper was driving in Los Angeles one day in the fall of 2008, listening to the now Internet-only radio station, Indie 103.1, when a new artist caught his attention. Dhani, the son of late Beatles guitarist George Harrison, was introducing a song from his band, Thenewno2's, debut album "You Are Here." "The music was so compelling and the interview was so smart, that I pulled over to the side of the road," Harper says. "It was a moment that was informative in an intuitive way. I knew it was telling me something about myself and my future, but I didn't know what."
At the time, Harper had never met Harrison. Or so he thought. He didn't know Harrison lived nearby in Los Angeles or that he was the longhaired guy he sometimes saw skating at The Cove in Santa Monica, where Harper skated with his son. Harrison, however, knew who Harper was. He grew up skating to his music in Windsor, England, and had been a fan for years. But it wasn't until August 2009, at Lollapalooza, that the two officially met. Thenewno2 had played earlier in the day, and Harrison and his girlfriend hung around to catch Harper's show. "I came off stage and was like, what's the skatepark guy doing backstage?" Harper says. "Then we just talked about skateboarding."
It wasn't until later that week, at a dinner, that Harper figured out the skatepark guy was the same guy whose music had compelled him to pull over to the side of the road. "At first, we didn't say, 'Let's do something together,'" Harper says, "but we started a friendship." They saw each other at the skatepark from time to time, talked on the phone frequently, thought about collaborating. At the end of one phone conversation, Harper remembers Harrison telling him, "I recognize you. You love like I love." "That was one of the deepest sentiments anyone's ever said to me," Harper says. "I was like, that should be the title of one of our first songs."
A few days later, Arthur, a longtime friend of Harper's, was in L.A. and texted to ask if he was interested in collaborating on a few songs. "I asked him if he knew Dhani Harrison," Harper says. "Joseph said, 'Why? Is he in our band?' Well, as a matter of fact." A few days later, the three musicians were in the recording studio -- Harrison and Arthur met on the first day of recording -- and less than a week later, had written and recorded the nine songs of "As I Call You Down." That line from Harper and Harrison's phone conversation became the first line of the second song on the album and the title of Track 5 became the band's name. "Sometimes you get lucky with a group of people," Harrison says. "And I think when you meet someone at the skatepark first, it's a lot easier. You've hurt yourself on the same walls. You've established a language."
Harrison began learning that language after getting his first skateboard at age 6 and skating the mossy, rainy terrain around Windsor. In 1987, when he was 9, Harrison's dad took him to a Bones Brigade demo under the Westway in London. "After the demo, my dad introduced himself to the guys and invited them over," Harrison says. "We ended up becoming friends." Harrison spent the winters in his mom's hometown of Santa Monica, where he was a regular at Rip City Skates and frequently met up to skate with his new friends, Mike McGill, Steve Caballero, Tommy Guerrero, Lance Mountain and Tony Hawk at McGill's private park in Encinitas. "I'd be there, watching Hawk, at 18, in his pink helmet and pink pads," says Harrison, who is currently wearing a pink T-shirt and sitting in front of a pink laptop. "He used to say pink is punk and I totally agree with him. Maybe he had some influence on me."
Harper learned the language in Clairemont, Calif., where he got his first board at age 9, a Steve Caballero fiberflex. He went to grade school and junior high with pro Chris Miller and skated the Upland Pipeline. "You couldn't keep up with Chris," Harper says, "but he was always motivating you to do bigger and better things." In high school, Harper's board took a backseat to a basketball, track cleats and a guitar. "I never stopped skating," he says. "But I didn't keep charging. There's a difference. Right now, I'm in charge mode." Actually, they both are. Ben and Dhani skate together nearly every day, at The Cove or on the ramp Harper had built in his backyard, "for his kids," by Hawk's ramp builder. When Fistful of Mercy's on the road, they make sure to allow time for a skate session at a park near the venue. "Dhani's the superior skater," Harper says. "He's got a lightness of being that allows him to do amazing stuff. And he has one speed." Harrison, of course, believes the same about his new friend. "He's frontside smith grinding the dog bowl, which is just balls-crazy weird stuff I don't do," Harrison says. "Englishmen don't skate the dog bowl. It's dangerous." Instead, he's working on a trick made famous by his favorite skater, Rodney Mullen, a Casper 360 flip. "Ben's gotten better than me, so I'm back to learning tricks on YouTube videos," he says.
No matter their differences, Harper says he and Harrison have one thing in common, one thing that drove their passion for skateboarding and unites them still today. "We share Dogtown," Harper says. "Out in the Inland Empire, we were drawing Dogtown crosses on the walls in Clairemont."
"We were drawing Dogtown crosses in the forest, onto trees in England," Harrison says.
"Those guys shaped my childhood," Harper says. "They shaped my life through skateboarding. It's because of those guys that I knew I would never leave skateboarding alone. They defined skating for life. So I have a lot of skating left to do." Besides, he's still working on that kickflip.