As much gifted composer as he is exhilarating collaborator, Marco Benevento has been amplifying each of his eclectic projects with a striking sonic palette for years. So it’s no shock that his fourth studio effort, TigerFace, finds him expanding the canvas with fresh compositions and a who’s who of guest musicians. Joining Benevento this time around are drummers Matt Chamberlain (Bill Frisell, Pearl Jam), John McEntire (Tortoise, The Sea & The Cake) and Andrew Barr (The Barr Brothers), bassists Dave Dreiwitz (Ween), Reed Mathis (Tea Leaf Green) and Mike Gordon (Phish), violinist Ali Helnwein (Traction Avenue Chamber Orchestra) and saxophonist Stuart Bogie (Antibalas, Superhuman Happiness). It’s quite a roster, but at the core of the album, it’s Marco’s compelling push to weave analog alongside synth, and rock anthems stapled to breathing ambience that makes this another record sure to make heavy rotation.
On the eve of the album release, and multiple spins, we caught up to get the lowdown.
Congratulations on the release of TigerFace – I’ve listened to it numerous times and am blown away by the pop accessibility of it and also the uncompromising compositions in the second half – an album that fulfills many different ears. Would you call this your most musically diverse recording yet? Were these compositions primarily inspired by any type of movement, artists or recordings you’ve been hearing?
It might be my most "accidentally" diverse recording yet. I think the main contributing factor to it being accidentally diverse is that Tigerface was recorded in Nov/Dec of 2010 and was finished roughly two years after tracking was done so I had a lot of time to listen to everything and plenty of time to tweak and overdub sounds and…..why not, write some lyrics and try some vocals. I’d also say that this record was being worked on during a big transitional phase in my life during which my family and I moved from Prospect Heights, Brooklyn to Saugerties, NY up in Hudson Valley. That move took some time away from the recording process. It allowed me to soak up and listen to a lot of the takes of each of the tunes and really find out how the song wanted to go.
I also didn’t want to rush anything this time around. Prior to this record I had released an album a year for four years (Live at Tonic, Invisible Baby, Me Not Me, Between The Needles and Nightfall) so I felt like I was in no rush to release another record right away. The compositions on Tigerface were merely sketches, if that, when we tracked them. I did a lot of composing on the spot and we also composed some tunes from scratch. The overall vibe during the process of making this record was one with absolutely no boundaries; every move made was made without caution. Almost like being the yes man, any idea in my head that I had, I had to try. I’ve always loved the spirit and electricity of an upbeat show and have always been checking out new bands and discovering older bands that I haven’t heard of yet. So my influences lately run from Rubblebucket, Superhuman Happiness, The Black Keys, The White Stripes and Sleigh Bells to B. Bumble & the Stingers, Dr John, The Band, Dr Hook & The Medicine Show and Can.
“This Is How It Goes” literally sticks in your head in a good way – what was the creative inspiration in regards to including Kal on lead vocals on these tracks and the collaboration in general?
Oh man, Kal [Traver] is amazing. I saw her totally rock a crowd in Burlington with Rubblebucket. I was floored. And prior to that we played a gig together in Denver with The Everyone Orchestra so we knew each other a little bit. While I was editing "This Is How It Goes" and thinking of what it might need I honestly intuitively felt that it needed a high vocal part; sort of a cross between Debbie Harry and Satomi Matsuzaki (Deerhoof), something high and thin and cute but super badass too. My wife and I with reckless abandon wrote lyrics syllabically (ooooohs and ahhhhs and eeeeees) to the piano melody. We really didn’t want to think to much about the words because we just wanted to hear what the vocals would actually sound like on the tune.
Ours friends, and me and my wife (during a pretty late night of eating and drinking) recorded a version of the song with all of us singing. It sounded like a chorus of people and we loved it and had a real fun time doing it. I almost released that version of the song! The original chorus is on the record, however we’re just in the background. After sitting with it for a while I thought I should try one with a singer who could possibly nail that Debbie Harry/Satomi Matsuzaki vibe and well of course Debbie Harry was the first person I thought of to call, but it seemed like a pipe dream. A couple months before I had just seen Kal and Rubblebucket and was totally blown away by the sound of her band and her voice so I reached out to her. We pulled it together for a day of overdubbing in Brooklyn at Trout.
Kal had so many ideas and her enthusiasm actually made me feel like the song needed vocals all along. Adding a singer to my music didn’t feel awkward at all, it was my first time trying it so you never know, but it wasn’t strange to me, actually it felt very natural. She sang harmonies with the melody and overdubbed herself to create these thick moving vocal lines. I was totally impressed with her natural ability to come up with real great supportive ideas for the tune and of course floored by the quality of her voice and how well it worked with the tune.
I was particularly floored by the composition “Going West” – its just so in your face and bombast- almost an arena rock tune – I almost heard shades of Dennis Wilson’s “River Song” in there – what are your thoughts on that song and how do you feel it stands out verse your prior work?
"Going West" was written at my old apartment in Brooklyn on my most favorite keyboard in the world, the Optigan, that’s the keyboard instrument that you hear in the intro that’s playing the drum, guitar, bell and organ sound, yes that’s the ONE instrument, the Optigan (you should check it out immediately). I wrote it just before going to northern California for my very first Christmas away from my family and cousins in New Jersey. For Christmas the past 30 years I’ve always been in Jersey so it’s hard to break that habit (oh the sauce is so good). It felt like a big deal at the time to go west for Christmas and leave the Beneventos and the Jerz behind. Even though I’d been to Cali many times before that it still was a leap into a new family and a deeper connection to them and to the West Coast.
The song started out as a simple chord progression that we might have tried live here and there, but on Tigerface it wound out morphing into something bigger and more involved with lots of effects and sound candy popping at you. It’s also the only tune with the incredible drummer Nick Kinsey (Elvis Perkins, AC Newman) so I wanted to try and bring out his best trait which to me is relentless pocket and positive aura. The thing that finally strung it together on the recording is that extremely cranked up Farfisa line that almost sounds like tremolo guitar. After a long drive and listening to two Black Keys records I wound up adding that heavy, gritty blues dimension to the track. After all that being said the thing that makes this tune stand out from other tunes is it’s simplicity, specifically in a harmonic sense. Overall it sounds like a classic rock jam or like a classic blues progression. I really haven’t written a whole tune like that.
You have a solid mix of contributors on TigerFace that include Matt Chamberlin, Mike Gordon, Andrew Barr and Reed Mathis….how much of a creative input did they have and are there any interesting recording stories that our readers might be interested in?
I wanted to record a type of song with minimalistic chords and changes; like some Talking Heads tune, or Can song, or MIA song, something more beat or loop oriented. In the end we wound up with the song "Limbs Of A Pine." It’s an interesting song on the record because lots of people contributed to that one. It started as an 8 minute drum loop that Matt Chamberlain wrote over the Roland 707 drum beat. I added minimal synth lines over it. Dave added the bass line and face melting fuzz bass solo. The tune lived like that for a while before I decide to actually edit it down.
After listening to the long jam for a while I thought it’d be nice to cut it down to a three or four minute tune. I’d heard Superhuman Happiness and thought I should involve Stu Bogie because he’s such a freak and such a sweetheart and such a great songwriter (almost more of a "vibe" writer). I thought it’d be great to have Kal back on another track (we recorded "This Is How It Goes" earlier), so we had a writing/recording session in my studio. Stu wrote some horn lines and added to the vocal lines that Kal came up with. Kal wrote the words rather ferociously in a whirlwind of inspiration and came up with the vocal line and all the harmonies in what seemed like two minutes. That particular tune is the most conglomerate one on the record. The editing process was also was stretched over a two year period so it really had some time to evolve.
Everyone varies in the creative input that they give to the record. With Reed and Andrew when I show them a new idea or a new tune their approach and their endless stream of ideas totally floor me. They are so good at picking things up and playing them right. Reed and Andrew are almost like brothers to me. There is a lot of intuitive playing that those guys have that just sits right with all of us when we play. We have a special understanding and trust unlike any other bandmates I’ve had. So their contribution is just being the badasses that they are. Andrew plays toms in a kit real well. I like the party rock music and he really brings that dance element to the music. His drumming on "Eagle Rock" is really an epic journey of beautifully woven together drum performances. John McEntire (Tortoise, Sea in Cake) plays drums on "Soma." He really let me steer the ship on how I thought the drums should go, which was a pretty fun, unexpected situation to be in with such an incredible drummer.
I’d say in general there is a trust that the other musicians have in me when making a record. They know that I’ll wind up messing with things, looping things here and there, editing song forms and tweaking drum sounds, during post production, but I feel like they know the end result will sound decent.
Coming from a jazz background- you’ve almost effortlessly morphed your music into the more electronic sound populating amongst the indie scene. You obviously have more vast, formal musical chops than say Dan Deacon, Washed Out, Tycho and others- do you feel musicianship in some ways has been less appreciated in return for something trendy or danceable?
I don’t feel like it’s less appreciated. People just grow, and grow into different directions, and wind up appreciating different things in different ways during different times as they evolve as a people. As a performer and a songwriter I feel like you are constantly connecting, or getting closer to connecting with your own sound and style. It takes your whole lifetime and beyond to really dive into your thing. I was moved by Brad Mehldau’s music in 1998 and listened to it a lot. I still am moved by his music now 14 years later, but I have Sleigh Bells’ song "Infinity Guitars" blasting in the car. Brad’s crowds are still there and people are still discovering him, just as Sleigh Bells’s crowd is still there and people are still discovering them, same goes for, say, Keith Jarrett and Wilco. I’ve been feeling like an important thing as an artist is to just get your show together, entertain the audience and be a good DJ; meaning find a good order for your songs or clumps of songs that go well together and keep your audience captivated.
The whole element of being a good performer is to keep the audience in the palm of your hand, hanging on to all of the music that they are hearing. So, for some that could be Radiohead and for others it could be King Crimson or Dan Deacon and others, Frank Sinatra. I do think it’s important to be able to get around on your instrument and to be able to "play," however at the end of the day it’s the art that you make that people really cling onto. I think that the musician himself should basically be himself and not act a certain way or play a certain way. I’d hope that they are giving me their heartstrings and exposing their honesty and dedication to art and music to you.
What are your personal thoughts on the rush of synth based bands – ala Purity Ring and Grimes?
I personally think the keyboards should be run through amps and not DI boxes. I guess that basically just means that synths sound better through a tube amp to me and can benefit from some other color. Sometimes the synth stuff I hear is so clean and sounds so standard or very "factory preset" and that it can really take away from the whole musical part of the song. I feel like you really gotta give some personality to those machines to make them fill your head up with enjoyable tones. I do like some modern synth rock stuff (like Ratatat and Chromeo) but some of the super electronic stuff that I’ve heard at some smaller scale festivals sounds weird, bad-weird, like robots f*#*ing other robots and has no vibe to me.
In my sonic experimenting I’m leaning more towards the marriage of acoustic instruments with effects or electronic synths. For our show live I run the piano through guitar pickups, effect pedals and amps. I use the synth to trigger samples from some older keyboards like the Optigan, Mellotron, Farfisa etc. All in all it’s figuring out how to reproduce what you’re hearing in your head onto your instrument; and that job takes a lot of time and a lot of listening.
How would you describe yourself as a songwriter and composer these days?
Gentle, kind, clueless and crazy.
You’ve played in numerous musical configurations over the years from the Duo to Garage a Trois – obviously you regard them all fondly but which ones most particularly stand out as being creatively inspiring and fulfilling? Which ones did you find most challenging?
The Benevento Russo Duo was and still is a band that compares to nothing else I’ve ever been involved in. Joe and I have known each other since 1989 so we had this mind reading thing happening that is just unexplainable. Our improvisations, early on in the life of the duo, surprised ourselves ever night we played. We grew into writing more tight instrumental rock tunes, but as we grew that connection always remained. I learned so much about touring with Joe, we really can’t wait to do it again.
Every band is challenging in their own way. You have to learn how to meet in the middle and compromise with people. You have to learn how to listen and how to be supportive on stage and backstage. It’s a very interesting job (I still have a hard time saying that). You kind of have to be like water and move around effortlessly in time with everything staying flexible and open to new paths.
Would you ever consider working with an outside producer? If so who would you most like to work with and why?
Yes of course – all signs point to Jon Brion for me. I wound up playing with him and Matt Chamberlain at Largo in 2005 and he’s played with Skerik in Critters Buggin for a tour, so he’s relatively close by amongst some friends; maybe it’ll manifest. I’d work with anyone that wants to work with me; that of course I get along with artistically. I would never really grin and bare any situation involving the art that I make, I’d notice it before we even started or just abandon ship mid way through. I like a lot of things about Jon. First of all he knows so much about music that I’d really feel like he’s creative input would be valuable. Secondly he writes great music. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has some incredible music in it and his own records sound amazing. Lastly I feel like if we wound up creating something out of thin air in the studio that he’d most likely play the best complementing part to whatever it is that you’re playing, most likely on some keyboard that you’ve never heard of.
You’ve been collaborating with Dave Drewitz (bass) for quite some time – how would you describe your musical relationship with him and what does he add to your compositions that others probably couldn’t?
Dave is such an amazing person. He is an encyclopedia of musical knowledge and his taste in music is so good. He brings along a little cassette deck on tour with mixes that he’s made – from vinyl! He’s such a badass and such a sweetheart too. He’s got the sound, that classic rock bass sound… that…sounds like a bass. Dave knows so many tunes too, so if randomly I start playing a Beatles tune or a Stones tune or any tune, rock or jazz, he most likely knows it and will seamlessly pull it off live. Well I like the parts fitting altogether in a band, so me and Dave’s musical relationship is great, as long as he does the bass part, I do the drum part and Andy does the drum part, we’re all good. Things can get hairy on stage, or in the studio for that matter, when you wander from your part too much. He brings this uplifting element to the band that will bring us closer to the gods of rock.
Can you talk a little about your label the Royal Potato Family? Its one that constantly spits out risk taking bands that are musically relevant within their inner circles –where do you see the future of the label and what artists on there are you most proud of in terms of growth and potential?
So far so good. Actually we are expanding and trying to figure out how to maybe have a festival down the line. A lot of the musicians on the label are close friends and would get along musically to. My manager and label partner Kevin Calabro has been doing a lot of the day to day work for the label and has actually turned me on to really great bands that he brought to the label like Superhuman Happiness, Neal Casal and Yellowbirds. What I’m most proud of about the Royal Potato Family is that we are afloat! We haven’t sunk, actually I think we need a bigger boat.