A Few Minutes With… Marco Benevento
Interview and story by J Hunter
In an interview on BBC’s “Jonathan Ross Show,” Laurence Fishburne was asked why he doesn’t do martial arts any more. Fishburne’s answer was quite simple: “Because I’m old… It hurts!” I tend to avoid shows in “stand-up” nightclubs for exactly the same reason. And yet, there I was last October at Red Square, pounding on the wall next to the stage as Marco Benevento’s trio lifted the building higher and higher. The pain shooting up my back told me my chiropractor was definitely going to make his car payment that month, but I just DID… NOT… CARE! All I wanted was more of what I was getting, and the people stuffed into Red Square’s back-room concert space were on the same page as me.
Mind you, this was a piano trio I was watching – you know, the kind of group Vince Guaraldi used on the soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas”? And yet, the waves of energy and electricity that flowed off that stage left me completely gobsmacked. I’d seen the Ramones at their height, Peter Gabriel before he had hits of his own, and the Boomtown Rats before Bob Geldof got knighted, and those are the only times I could remember being exposed to that much raw power; the dual streams of intelligence and humor that came with this particular brand of power kept me glued to the side of the stage, spinal cord be damned!
I learned long ago not to expect my live experiences to translate to a band’s studio recordings, but Benevento’s new disc TigerFace leapfrogs those expectations without breaking a sweat. There are many reasons for this, and you can read about them here. And since Benevento is bringing his trio back to Red Square this Saturday night (December 1), I spoke with him for a few minutes about TigerFace, live shows and the studio where one of the most famous albums ever recorded was made:
Q: You were conducting a residency in Portsmouth, NH when you last played Red Square. How much of “TigerFace” was developed during that residency?
A: Mainly the songs “Fireworks” and “Escape Horse” were played during that time. A lot of the songs on TigerFace were written in the studio, so most of the tunes from the record eventually surfaced in our live show this fall (2012). The residency in Portsmouth was such a blast!! I think only 100 or so people could fit in the room, and each night was packed. We really played off the crowd a lot and extended some previously written material quite easily, because everyone was so close and the energy was incredible.
Q: The date was recorded at EastWest Studios in Los Angeles, where Brian Wilson recorded “Pet Sounds.” What’s the vibe like in that place?
A: The vibe of the studio is pretty cool: Low ceilings, small room and, of course, the ghosts of previous artists/bands are seeping out of the walls! We worked with the brilliant engineer Tom Biller (Fiona Apple, Kanye West), so the sounds that he got out of the room were amazing. I’ve worked with him before on Play Pause Stop (Benevento/Russo), so the comfort level was there, too. We did two days at EastWest and tracked “This Is How It Goes,” “Eagle Rock,” “Fireworks” and “Basilicata.” Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers was around doing some tracking, too, so we’d bump into him here and there. It was a first-class recording studio, indeed!
Q: You’ve got four drummers and two bass players on “TigerFace.” Why didn’t you stick with your normal rhythm section for the whole disc, and what characteristics were you looking for in the various drummer/bassist combinations you did use?
A: A lot of that was just coincidence. Andrew Barr, Reed Mathis and myself finished a tour in LA, so we decided to do some tracking after the tour, so that’s when the EastWest sessions happened. Matt Chamberlain texted me two days before he was coming to NYC to play with Brad Mehldau, and on a whim we decided to record at Trout in Brooklyn the night before his gig. Dave Driewitz – who was playing a lot with me at the time – was free, and the three of us tracked from 10pm-2am. I had some tune ideas but nothing solid. Mike Gordon stopped by for the day after a Phish tour, and we tracked his bass part on “Escape Horse” in 20 minutes. John McEntire (Tortoise, the Sea And Cake) was free to do tracking last year during some time off, so we got together and did the song “Soma” and the synth parts for “Limbs Of A Pine” were tracked on his EMS VCS3.
Before making the record I never consciously thought, “I should record with more people.” It just turned out that way, basically because I wasn’t in a rush. The vision for the record was to have no set vision and to just go and record whenever the time felt right.
Q: My favorite track has to be “Do What She Told You.” Aside from the fact that it’s powerful as hell, it’s really the simplest track on the disc (string section aside) – just you, Dave Dreiwitz and Matt Chamberlain.
A: That’s funny, because it’s the track that I spent the least amount of time on, on both post-production and in the studio tracking it. And many folks have commented about how that track is their favorite one. I used John Medeski’s mellotron on that because it happened to be at Applehead (a great studio in Woodstock), so that’s the strings you are hearing. It’s basically a simple blues piano thing that doesn’t have much going on harmonically, yet the live element is there, and Matt’s playing is so freakin’ badass. Also, that’s the first time Dave and Matt had ever played together.
Q: You co-wrote the opening track “Limbs of a Pine” with Rubblebucket vocalist Kalmia Traver, who also sings on the track. How did that come about?
A: It first started as a drum thing that Matt did at Trout during our late night session. He overdubbed himself three times, and after that I had Dave play a bass line that I was hearing; after that I added some simple synth stuff to it. The song remained a six-minute “jam” for a while. Then, a year and a half later, I had a creative songwriting session at my studio with Kal and Stuart Bogie (Superhuman Happiness). I played them the track and mentioned that I wanted to scale it down to a four-minute tune with a melody over the harmony and drum pattern. Kal came up with that amazing melody within minutes, and before I knew it, I had a whole new direction that I could steer the song. It really came together during post-production in my studio.
Q: I lost track of all the influences that appear on “TigerFace”: Jazz, blues, dubstep, Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Peter Gabriel… What in all of that (and everything that I missed) makes you sit down and start writing with that sound in mind? Is it a song? A lick? A memory?
A: I mainly start simple, but I also start with a sound that turns me on, meaning ear candy. I like recording with small circuit-bent toys to get the inspiration going. Sometimes coming up with three or four chords on the piano can get me going, too. It all depends. Sometimes I just have a concept in mind, or even just a tempo in mind to get started. It’s a slow process, but sometimes a song just pours out, and it’s hard to remember all that happened after the fact, too. Composing music is more about improvising in the moment. I find myself coming up with more ideas when I decide to improvise rather than compose. I do get inspiration from lots of different sources: the radio, older records, newer records and newer bands.
Q: You play a 1927 stand-up piano onstage. How many gadgets, computers and effects boxes are attached to it, and how much of the original piano is left?
A: I have a 61-note acoustic piano “hot-rodded” with transducer pick-ups. They run through overdrive, reverb, tremolo, delay and a compressor. I run that through an old Sears Silvertone amp. It’s the bee’s knees. I’ve never seen any piano player do that live. It was a discovery that I made in 2006 and have been tweaking and modifying ever since. I also have Mellotron, Optigan and drum loops triggered by a looper that sits by the piano foot pedals. Plus I have a laptop with other keyboard samples that I trigger with an external keyboard. We are a piano, bass and drum band, but there are lots of other sounds happening that we play along to.
Q: You mentioned last October that you wouldn’t mind doing a residency in Albany. Any chance of that happening? I’m pretty sure you’ll have a few people there for every show…
A: YES! There is a BIG chance that it is happening. Whoever comes to my show and brings me a Makers on the rocks and says “Residency, please” will be entitled to front-row tickets for that residency, too, and, of course, advance notice of the upcoming residency. See you soon!
(AUTHOR’S NOTE: That’s my plan!)