An interview with Marco Benevento
WOODSTOCK— Nippertown’s Sean Nevison sits down with the beloved Marco Benevento about his new album, “The Simpsons” and why Woodstock continues to hold the key to the musical world.
Sean Nevison: So this all began for you at a very young age. Can you describe how important making music was in your formative years after you began playing piano, through high school bands and then winding up at Berklee?
Marco Benevento: Yeah, music has always been in my life. Just on my own putting on headphones and playing with synths, a four-track recorder and a drum machine. The piano was fun, but at a young age could be boring so I added everything to it with the synths and such. Then played in high school bands and really started experimenting. Right now I’m sitting in my home studio in Woodstock as this has obviously grown, looking at 20 synthesizers, four tape machines and a whole lot of other gear I’ve collected.
I definitely fell back in love with the piano, but growing up you want those colors and sounds. I got deep into jazz at Berklee and basically wanted to be a jazz musician. I moved into New York and met so many musicians and just played. The jazz side escaped a little and I wound up getting into improvisational music down there and adding funk and rock and started touring and playing out a ton. It’s still evolving for me and that’s what is so special about it.
SN: How important do you think it is to start young?
MB: That’s a good question and funny because I saw that Bill Withers didn’t start playing until he was 30, so after hearing that today I was like I guess it doesn’t matter. It’s almost like a sport though. Like tennis for me, I grew up playing tennis at a young age and was really into it and even played in high school. Then it kind of slipped away with the music taking over my life. But five years ago, I started playing tennis again and fell back in love, and it was easy to pick up because it was kinda ingrained in my DNA, ya know. So music-wise, I really do think it helps with your comfort level. So when I’m playing a gig and sit at a piano, I just feel like I’m in the living room on a couch with my friends. It feels comfortable and all the studying I did really helped. It’s not make-or-break either way. There are so many songs that aren’t that hard to play, but it doesn’t lessen the quality. I think with improvisation and jazz and all the harmonic realms, having all that from 15-21 years old really was helpful. So if I was learning that now it would be more difficult. It’s like learning a language, it’s easier when you are young.
SN: Your own band started in 2006. Can you speak to the progressions you went through as a songwriter and the various players along the way?
MB: I have seven studio records now and one live record. I wanted to start a band with Matt Chamberlian on drums and Reed Mathis on bass. I knew Matt from touring and him producing a Benevento/Russo record. When working with him, we went to Club Largo in LA and saw John Bryant play his one-man show. He was playing Thelonius Monk, the Stones, a crazy version of a Beatles song and bringing in modern pop from that time period. I’d love John because of all the soundtracks he did and seeing him live was so cool. Then he asked Matt on stage who in turn asked me onstage and I was just like, this is awesome! This is what I want to do! So that first record we were improvising and we had ideas for songs and that became the record “Invisible Baby.” It was inspired by a Swedish band, Esbjörn Svensson Trio, hugely too. Those guys are amazing. We liked what they did having jazz chops, but playing rock. Songs without a singer and the melody was the voice. So that was the beginning. Along with that moment at Largo, it just fell into place. Then we made a couple more records of originals and covers. The third record was more “dancey” and we were playing bigger rooms by then. We had the stand-up dancing crowds now and we had a piano with pickups and my good ole silver tone amp and I would trigger drum loops with pedals. Then we made the fourth record and Kalmia Travers from Rubblebucket sang with us and I fell in love with that idea of my lyrics being sung and then I just wanted to do that. So the fifth record, I sang all the songs and we were just becoming more of this experimental rock band; adding the lyrics, stories and moods was so powerful. The last two records are all singing tracks with like one instrumental. We kept the jazzy vibe but it wasn’t traditional so that when we play live, we sing way more now at the shows and my bass player began accompanying me as well. So as a band we just evolve and evolve. Twenty years of touring and we are still evolving together.
SN: During the pandemic, what was it like not to be able to tour, connect to an audience and how do you feel you might have changed as a person? How did you use this pause in life?
MB: A lot of my friends had different experiences. Some people were miserable. Some got stuck in not the greatest places and it was so tough. It was situational. For me, though, I was stuck on 80 acres of land here in Woodstock with peacocks, goats, chickens. I also have my recording studio separate from my house. My kids and my wife and me get along so well. There’s a pond with a canoe. It couldn’t have been a better place to be quarantined. I was nervous about getting sick and my parents’ health and obviously money not coming in. My family looked at it like we were all on the boat together and we said, “how do we make this work together?” We didn’t spend money, we stopped eating meat, we made our own bread and we saved. Otherwise, it felt like paradise. It was weird not seeing or playing for anyone. But I recorded an entirely new record. I’m getting ready to launch that. I played tennis a lot with friends. Then I started doing outdoor deck concerts for local folks and felt that crowd energy again and that was so great. I fared well these last 15 months and it was definitely strange. I felt for my friends that couldn’t play or even rehearse. Also 20 years of touring, that’s a lot. So this was my break and I didn’t have to do anything. Getting on an airplane, a cab, hustling from show to show…. it was nice to take a break. I’m a road junkie — don’t get me wrong, I’m so excited to play shows again. I did a stream with these guys called Stage It, which was cool. You could see people commenting and encouraging you and it was pretty cool. You’re playing and in the moment, but then you see these compliments and people leaving you a tip and I thought it was a cool middle ground, but ultimately so strange.
SN: Now you’re going back on the road, you come up to our area playing with moe. and this all must be very exciting. Are you swept up in the moment as venues switch to full openings and indoor venues in the fall as well? Or are you still concerned with the unknowns?
MB: I’m still a little hesitant and I worry about the variants. It seems like an experiment. We are all vaccinated, my family, my friends. So I feel that is good and we are headed in the right direction. I’m hoping that as a whole, like starting with NYS at least, we will know when things are dangerous again. It seems looser now with all the rates down so that feels good, but packing people in a room makes me feel nervous and who knows what will happen. All we can do is everything we can to make it better. I feel like I know, with my bandmates, and we all talk all the time and we will know if we don’t feel safe. I’m so excited to play. We have shows booked through the spring, but we artists still don’t know if all of them will happen.
SN: Can you speak about The Royal Potato Family record label you began and the relationships you have formed through that and what records you are most proud of?
MB: The best thing about RPF is its total transparency between my manager and me. We know every cent and every effort going into the records. Kevin runs it and has really done great with it since we began it. He is so great to work with and has made some amazing records. It supports our community of musicians and friends and it feels like a Royal Potato Family and it brings me joy. I can go to Kevin and be like lets out our a record and he’s like cool. Simple. It’s different now; record labels changed so much. But making music with your family and friends is so meaningful. Right before Needles and Nightfall, the jazz label Verve was going to do our record and it felt great, and I thought it was cool. They were courting my band and we thought it would be great, we all thought it was. But then radio silence. It was that time where labels were scaling down, budgets for albums were going down, in the 90’s they would give you 200k to make a record. This was the beginning of them disappearing. So then Kevin and I just said, let’s just do this.
SN: Wearing so many hats, a more human question, as so many struggled during the pandemic, and so much was brought to light regarding social and political problems in our country, did you find yourself learning more about any certain issues or championing any causes? What is most important to you as a person when it may come to the challenges our country and human species faces?
MB: I learned so much and tuned into the world. I was never a “news” guy. Before the pandemic, I didn’t get involved. I am and have always been concerned about our society, but over these last 15 months, my wife and I watch Democracy Now when we cook every night. I watched so many moving stories. BLM, LGBTQ rights, the Dakota Pipelines….I just feel so much more knowledgeable about what’s happening. We did donate to voter registration causes and the fight against the pipelines. We really donated to those causes specifically and there are so many problems happening, but we tried to focus on a couple of specific ones that meant so much to us.
SN: You have several side projects, playing with Joe Russo as a duo and also playing with JRAD. What do you love about those projects? What do you find yourself listening to?
MB: Bustle In The Hedgerow, that’s just fun, it’s basically JRAD minus one guy and we play like one show a year doing these Led Zeppelin songs. JRAD though we had no idea it was going to get that big. It’s a wild ride and we’ve played so many cool venues. But I’ve known Joe since seventh grade. But all those guys I’ve played with forever. JRAD is a really fun thing. However, my focus is on writing my own music and becoming a better singer and songwriter. I love writing lyrics now and preparing this new record. It’s been very exciting for me.
I love Bowie and Kraunghbin is a favorite newer band. I have a huge collection of vinyl too. Sometimes I get really into record labels and discover artists that way… like Big Crown, Secretly Canadian, Light In The Attic, Now And Again Records is a great label. All sorts of stuff from Somalia, Ghana…Florida, Italy, and I just love going into a record store. I love that vibe. I listen to Harry Styles and Billie Eilish and things like that because of my 14 and 11 year old daughters, and that’s been cool too.
SN: As an Upstate New Yorker, what do you find special about the area you live in?
MB: First of all the nature, the trees, the river, reservoirs, mountains. It’s beautiful and picturesque. I mean just sitting outside seeing bald eagles. Even a simple thing like doing errands, I am always just amazed at the beauty here year-round. I grew up in Northern NJ in the ‘burbs. Being from the East Coast, I know the beauty and I love the seasons. I love it all and my roots are here around the Hudson River. Musically, Woodstock has so many venues: Levon’s, The Colony, Cafe, The Pines, Bearsville Theater and more, and there are amazing recording studios up here as well. It’s a musician’s paradise. Coming into this scene, I was like, “oh dude you are here, let’s do something.” I immediately recorded with AC Newman of the New Pornographers, and Amy Helm, right when Levon passed. So posthumously, I am on a song with him on drums and it was unreal. We did anti-fracking benefits and really got involved in the community. Then you have John Medeski and Donald Fagan and Larry Campbell and it’s like everyone can play and sing. That was helpful for me to feel confident about singing. If you live in Woodstock, you sing. Otherwise, people look at you funny, haha.
SN: Can you give any hints about your new record or is it top secret?
MB: No, I’d love to answer that. It’s a crazy experimental record. It was like me playing the piano to a drum machine, then a song with me singing, then an experimental one with drum machines. It’s a weird home recording record with all the worlds you want. You can dance to it and I think it’s a record that you can listen to front to back and really enjoy.
SN: Ok, now to end with a couple of fun ones:
As a fan of music, what would be your dream moment if you could teleport through time and drop into any concert or musical moment ever, whether as an audience member or to join the band/music going on?
MB: Wow. I thought about this the other day. I wish I was at Trident Studios in London when Bowie was recording those two records, Ziggy Stardust or Hunky Dory. Man, that woulda been the place.
SN: As a father, do you have something that you bonded with your children?
MB: “The Simpsons!” They love “The Simpsons.” I love that I turned them onto “The Simpsons.” I love that at one point they were like, “oh it’s kinda an old show,” but then they came back to it. Now they love it again and we watch it together. Even the current episodes are awesome. My oldest always brings up that “The Simpsons” predicted the future and we have fun talks.