By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious.
Woodstock, New York might not be the center of the musical universe these days, but the name still retains a certain kind of mystical power for people of a certain age. Most recently, it has been experiencing a kind of cultural renaissance, as a place where artists flock to when they grow tired of the kinetic energy and frenzied pace of New York City and her five boroughs. Woodstock is also where I reach Marco Benevento, late on a Monday night in October, who fielded our phone call from his home in the town with a population of under six thousand.
Benevento, a pianist and multi-instrumentalist, has been a part of the New York experimental jazz and rock scene since the late 90s, and his personal style has always been just ahead of the curve: from his experimental jazz work with the Jazz Farmers, to his instrumental anthem rock as part of the Benevento Russo Duo (a collaboration with drummer Joe Russo), and now to his avant-garde acid dance party sound as the leader of his own band, Benevento has always been one to push the sonic envelope. Benevento’s latest album, Swift, is an ambitious, vibrant, and unique sounding album that highlights the band’s technical prowess, while clearly communicating to us listeners that these guys are, well, still having a ton of fun.
What’s going on?
I’m home, been on the road a little bit with my band because we put out our record last week.
This is your fifth album as a bandleader, right? How do you define your role now, in comparison to everything else you do?
Yeah, that’s about it. This is my main project, this is where my heart and soul is, and it’s my main focus. This is obviously my most favorite thing to do, because I’m writing my own music and lyrics, and going on tour with guys I love to play with. We’ve been doing this for seven years, and this is my fifth record as a leader. Yeah – you said it right. [Laughs]
How did you get this group together?
The bass player and I had known each other for a while before playing together; that’s Dave Dreiwitz, and he was touring with Ween for about ten years. Right as they broke up, we played a couple of shows together. Also, we have a Led Zeppelin tribute band named “Bustle in Your Hedgerow”, and played a handful of shows under that name – you know, playing Zeppelin is just super fun, so we met a while ago, maybe in 2004, something like ten years ago. So I’ve known Dave for a while.
Andy [Borger] is somebody that I met through a great bass player, Devin Hoff, who plays for Nels Cline. Devin Hoff and I played together a handful of times, and he recommended Andy when I was looking for a new drummer. Andy has played with Norah Jones and Tom Waits, and lives in Brooklyn, and you know, he came recommended by a friend. Straight off the bat, he was just really a “good feel” drummer, the kind of guy who supports the music and has a great groove. He’s been my drummer for the last four or five years, and hasn’t done anything really with Norah or Tom since they had worked together back when, so he’s been free – so has Dave since Ween broke up – so we have been touring around a lot, and finally made it into the studio in March, and recorded this new record. We had played a lot of these tunes live before recording them, so we were sort of this well-oiled machine before we went into the studio. Some songs needed some minor detail work, but for the most part everything was done when we went in there. Everybody kind of knew what to do, I mean – we made the record in three days.
That’s impressive. How many dates are you planning on playing to support this album?
Well, I’m booked through May. [Laughs] I basically know what I’m doing until the end of May 2015. In the fall we’ll be covering Portland, Maine to Atlanta, Georgia, and we’ll also be covering a route out to Chicago and back, from here in New York. We’re going to hit the West Coast in March, and then Louisiana, and Texas, and we’ll drive out West. We’ll be in New Orleans for Jazz Fest. You know – I’ve got kids at home, so I go out on the road for about two weeks at the most, but then come home and hang out with my kids and wife, and then go out on the road again. I have to have a healthy balance of touring and not touring.
I love where I live; I live in Woodstock, New York, and we just moved here from Brooklyn. We’re finally in the country, so I love being out here, and I love hanging out with my kids and wife, and with my parents who live down in New Jersey. I like trying to balance the two worlds. I know a lot of people think it’s impossible, but so far it’s been working, mainly because I get to choose how I tour. I’m the boss, and the only way I could fuck this up is if I do it to myself. Which I do, all the time [laughs]. But you know, I always look at the calendar and talk to my manager, and I know what happens to me after fourteen days of touring. I know I need to start heading home about that time. Everybody feels it – you’re on the road for fourteen days, driving six hours each day, sleeping in hotels. It’s exhausting. It can be different if you’re traveling on a tour bus, and get a driver, and you’re playing bigger shows so you can afford a bit of a luxury, but I’m the one doing the driving. This stuff really drains you. You get to a city, play a gig, and then hang out with a lot of people, and it’s really double duty because you’re doing all the work. And you know, I do hand off the driving here and there, but for the most part we’re all just out here punk rocking it, really [laughs]. Maybe we’ll afford that tour bus down the road, and that will be easier for us. And you know, the most important thing that you forget about is actually catching some sleep. If you don’t do that, you can really fuck yourself up big time.
So, yeah – it’s a lot of work, but I love doing it. And it’s great to write and record your own songs, and get people to know you for your own music.
From what I understand, this is the first album that you sing on. You’ve been in the music scene and putting out music pretty regularly since 1999 – what kept you from singing for so long? You’ve been doing this for a while, and your voice is good!
I studied a lot of jazz at Berklee College of Music, I was there from 1995-1999. I played a lot of jazz gigs, and jam sessions, and hosted a jam session for two years at the Chopping Block in Boston, Massachusetts. Getting into jazz, and moving to New York – I’m from New Jersey, so I always knew I’d move to New York – in the late 90s and early 2000s, a lot of the music I was into was experimental, and acid jazz and that kind of thing. It was sort of the norm of the group I was hanging out with. For me, it was normal to play a Rhodes keyboard through a distortion and delay, and doing instrumental music and improv, with elements of rock music and jazz. I never wound up singing during that time because it was more of an atmospheric, jazzy, rocky kind of sound. That went on for a long time. Then I played a lot with the Benevento Russo duo, and we had songs that were kind of anthemic rock, instrumental rock songs. Those could have had lyrics, but we never sang on anything.
In high school, and growing up, I sang all the time in bands. When you’re growing up, you’re competing in battle of the bands kind of competitions, or in school choirs, and playing sweet sixteen parties, or what not. I sang all the time! But getting into jazz, and moving to Brooklyn, that sort of stuff just didn’t lend itself to singing. I had two kids, and we moved out of Brooklyn to Woodstock about three years ago, and I got involved with a few more projects that involved me singing. A friend of mine wanted me to do all the music of James Booker for his wedding – James Booker is one of my major influences, and a huge hero of mine in my life and the piano world. When I was doing his music, I thought to myself “well, I have to sing, because he sings” so I sang for that thing. I also sang on a Harry Nilsson tribute my record label put out. It was my first time singing in the studio, and I had never done that before, so it’s been sort of sneaking in there over the last three years [laughs].
With TigerFace, my previous record, I finally decided to bite the bullet and write lyrics for one of my songs. I sang the part myself for the demo version, but in the end Kalmia [Traver] from Rubblebucket did the vocals for the final album. For this record, I remember thinking to myself “I’ll just call Kal again” and get her to do the vocals, but I thought about it and realized I needed to start doing this myself, because Kal can’t always be there on the road with us. I just jumped into it blindly, and there are some pretty terrible moments of singing on the record, for sure. [Laughs] But I like it, you know? I like that we just went for it, and it doesn’t matter. It’s one of the big things people talk about for this record, but it really was not a big deal at all, and it felt like a natural progression.
Do you find that having your own label, Royal Potato Family, gives you more freedom when it comes to making decisions like these?
Well, I’m definitely not getting any preconceived ideas about how my record should be. And not that labels really step in like that, I don’t think. But my manager who I work with, Kevin Calabro – he started the label with me. And he’s like water – he lets me do my own thing around him, and maybe chime in a little and ask me how it’s all going, but there’s never really an issue or anything that he feels like he needs to lay on me because he has a certain expectation of how it should be. There’s a level of trust and understanding of the path and where I’m going with it all. Hopefully at some point there will be something that happens at this dance, maybe something big [laughs]! He lets me do everything, and it’s awesome. I do find that I’m involved every step of the way, from artwork to merchandise, to the timing of everything and the way everything comes out – I’m really involved in the whole process, so we make it work for me and for him, versus on a label that’s putting you on their schedule. So yes, I definitely feel free to do what I want to do, which is great.
When we put out Between the Needles and Nightfall, my third record, Verve – the jazz label – was really interested in it, and we played Carnegie Hall, and the woman from Verve was there, and she was like “OK – you guys need to come to Verve, like, tomorrow.” So we went there and they gave us all their CDs and all this music that was piled up from the archives of Coltrane records, and all sorts of crazy shit. They knew I was working on the record and they were really interested in putting it out, and it was this big thing. I thought it would be really nice to have some big record label like Verve to support us and put us on the map, you know, because Royal Potato Family had only been running for like a year at that time, not very long. So we were like “Whoa, Verve – that’s amazing, we should do it!” So, I started working on the record more, and thinking about all the different stuff that might come from releasing it on a bigger label, and you know, they had scaled down their staff to only like four people… it was awesome to know that they were interested, but Kevin pointed out that even the big labels weren’t doing well. It’s difficult, and there are all these middlemen you have to talk to with bigger labels. We still thought it was a good idea to put the record out with them, and they came to another show in New York, and it looked like we were going to go with this Verve deal. But we were finishing the record, and waiting to hear back from them, and all of a sudden they just disappeared in a weird way. But Kevin said, “Verve or no Verve, we’re gonna put this record out in the fall, and you’re going to tour on it, and it’s going to be great.” What was kind of cool about it was that I felt like my music was maybe deserving of some other bigger label to help smaller artists out, basically. However, I didn’t know eventually where all the money would go, and how it would be worked out, and after having our own label for a year I realized I liked the way that we were doing it. And after those guys lost interest, I felt we should keep doing it on our own. It was still validating in this weird way – Verve! We felt like we were on the right path. That’s sort of when our music was changing from a sit-down crowd to what we’re doing now, which is an upbeat dance kind of crowd. The first two records might be a bit mellower, and lend themselves to a more traditional jazz crowd, but that’s when we began to move towards more of a drum machine, dance-party kind of vibe. In the end, I’m glad I didn’t get the deal, quite honestly, because it might have just thrown me all off, and maybe I would have had to compromise on certain things and not be so experimental. You never know what might have happened.
It’s hard, because when you first learn music as a kid, you learn it because it’s something you connect to, and you want to do it when you want to do it. You want to do it the way you feel it because it’s artistic, and expressive, and creative. As soon as those limitations get thrown on you, it’s totally invasive and off-putting. I love music, and it’s the most sacred thing in my life. Don’t tell me how I need to do it – I mean, I’ll definitely take your criticism if I need to write a certain song for a certain thing – but when I’m making my own records, and putting on my own shows, I want to stay true to my own thing. It’s kind of nice to know that’s basically how I’ve been over the last five records versus having to do something that the record label wants me to do.
Can you identify a point in your musical education or career where you decided to return to that state of wanting to do what you wanted to do? Did the shift from more traditional jazz to this experimental “dance party” sound happen organically?
It happened organically, but I can pinpoint a couple of moments where I’ve had epiphanies. All through my life I studied music, but the intensity increased at Berklee College of Music. You’re a student – you’re paying to get your ass kicked, and you’re paying to get hit by so much criticism from your peers and your teachers. And of course, you get some compliments here and there as well, and it’s intense. I was practicing a lot, and really wanted to be a jazzer, and moved to New York, but kept studying with my private teacher from that time, Joanne Brackeen – who by the way, is the only woman pianist to tour with Art Blakey, and totally a bad ass; you should look her up.
So, you know, I was a student for what felt to me like forever, five or six years. Heavy jazz music school. I was studying everything from jazz piano, to upright bass, to frame drums, and congas – I was doing film scoring, doing everything that I could. So when that was all over, and I moved to New York, I started getting my Masters degree at Queens College. I was in this heavy school vibe for about seven years. Then that whole experimental scene in New York happened [laughs]. I had an epiphany, and I felt that I needed to stop taking lessons with anybody, and had to just do gigs and practice, and focus on art. That was around 2002. I started playing with Joe Russo and we formed the Benevento Russo duo, and along that way we played with Mike [Gordon] and Trey [Anastasio] from Phish, Charlie Hunter, Galactic, a bunch of other people. We toured around for months, and months. Lots of things happened, and I felt like I needed to get away from the academic setting at that point, on focus on some other shit. Whenever I wanted to maybe open up a Chopin book, or a piano-ey kind of classical song, or read music, or do a challenging thing, I still do it.
Another epiphany I had was seeing Jon Brion play at the Largo in LA. It was a place that was smaller – they moved and are at a bigger theater, but in 2005, they were in more of a bar type of place. At the time, Joe and I were making Play Pause Stop, and so we were out in LA recording it with Matt Chamberlain [Audio Production/Producer] and Tom Biller [Audio Production/Engineer/Producer]. We went out to the Largo to see Jon Brion, and I was floored by his one-man show. He played drums, guitar, piano, looped stuff on the drums, and wrote a whole song live. It was crazy! He had the craziest vintage keys up there, and a beautiful upright piano, and he’s such a great singer and songwriter, and he played his own stuff, as well as any covers that the audience shouted out. It was so good. I just remember being really inspired by it, and his use of the piano, and the fact that you could be a one-man show, and could be somebody that could just write music, do their own thing, and have their own band and show. I had never really done that or tried it, and was always involved in other bands, and it got me thinking. I felt that I needed to have my own band after that. I was in the Benevento Russo Duo, which would have seemed like it was my band – which in a way, it was, but it was also really a collaboration, fifty-fifty, and I wasn’t playing piano, which is what I ultimately wanted to do. And so I knew I wanted to start my own band after that, and began to play with Matt Chamberlain and Reed Mathis [Bass], and started making those records. That was that other epiphany, for sure.
Jon Brion is amazing. I love his score for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, and still listen to it on occasion.
Yeah, I was a huge fan of all of his stuff before that, and was a big Brad Mehldau fan – you know, Jon Brion came highly recommended. [Laughs]
Yeah, that Pat Metheny-Brad Mehldau collaboration is outrageous – not to have a fan boy moment…
Yeah, you know, I would say another epiphany was the day I had a lesson with Mehldau, I went to his house and had a lesson with him in April 2002. It was awesome – he was such a jazzer, and I loved his shit, and was just getting into that whole jazz world, but at the same time, I grew up listening to rock. There was something about him that I was connecting with, probably because he also has some serious roots in rock– he’s only seven years older than I am – and when I was there, we were talking about Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin, and all sorts of shit, and I was just like “oh my god!” This guy is a badass, who just blows seriously intelligent jazz minds away, but is also connected to this rock stuff. I was also in that boat, of being in the jazz world, but coming more from a rock background, so studying with him was another one of those amazing moments, for sure.
What were your favorite bands growing up? What bands you still enjoy from the rock world?
I loved the Stones and the Beatles, and Zeppelin are definitely at the top, as far as bands I listened to growing up. I like Cream, I like The Who – I love that heavy drum sound, Zeppelin with Bonzo, and Keith Moon. And Ginger Baker with Cream! He was huge. I wanted to play songs like that. Always really into the big drum beats, and the big tom fills. Earlier on I was a bit more into Neil Pert and Rush, but then when I discovered classic rock, it just blew me away. I enjoyed synth and organ stuff, and I liked The Meters a lot because the organs and the bass grooves were great. And Medeski, Martin and Wood were a huge influence, as well. When I first heard their stuff back in ’95, that acid jazz, groovy, and weird shit, I was like “oh man, this is it!” And it’s funny, John [Medeski] lives up here and we’ve played together many times, and we hang out, and it’s pretty cool.
I was recently reading about the great artist community that’s forming in Woodstock, New York, again. How often do you interact with other artists and musicians that live up there, and join in on that local scene?
Not often enough. And whenever we do, we all say that to each other. “We need to commit! We need to make this happen! Fuck going on the road, we should do this once a month at least, and make this Woodstock shit happen!” [laughs]. It doesn’t happen often enough, but when it does happen it’s great. We have the most amazing place in the world to do it, and it’s at Levon Helm’s studio/barn.
Um… holy shit.
[Laughs] Yeah, so that’s where we do it, which is like this sacred musical land. Amy Helm, who is Levon’s daughter, lives up here, and my kids go to the same school as hers. So I see her, and we’re friends. She’s great. We play a little festival around here. So it doesn’t happen often enough, but when it does, it happens at Levon’s place and it’s the best, and it’s with Amy Helm, and shit tons of people who show up. Shawn Pelton from the Saturday Night Live Band will show up – he’s lived here for a while. Natalie Merchant is up here, Tracy Bonham is up here. Jack DeJohnette lives up here, Larry Grenadier – Brad Mehldau’s bass player, lives up here. Oh – Donald Finnegan! There will be a night when we all hang out, and like, play a benefit for the school or something.
Can you give me like a week’s notice, and I’ll make my way up there?
Yeah, for sure! It’s totally under the radar, and it’s not even advertised that much. [Laughs] It’s really awesome.