Interview: Marco Benevento

bill bodkin goes inside the mind of marco…

Marco Benevento might not drink Dos Equis, but he still is one of the most interesting people you’ll ever experience.

The Jersey born, New York raised, Berklee (School of Music) trained pianist has made his bones in the industry creating wonderfully vivid compositions that are offered up to consumers of his craft as a musical “choose your own adventure.” His songs paint such fantastical mental images that you become enveloped in the comforting yet kinda crazy blanket of Benevento. Simply put, his music is as much a visual experience as it is an aural one.

Yet, listening to Benevento talk about the creative process or how much he digs running his own label, The Royal Potato Family, is just as fascinating. It’s like listening to a sage master weaves tales of wisdom and wit around a campfire with you, elbows on your knees, sit, mouth agape hanging on his every word.

As he traveled to Boston for a gig, we were able to catch up with Benevento via phone and talk about a myriad of subjects, ranging from his creative process to his new album TigerFace to performing in New York City (where he’ll be performing tonight at The Bowery Ballroom).

Pop-Break: I absolutely love your new album TigerFace. It’s just such an incredible album and I wanted to ask you a really broad, sweeping question about it. You create such vivid and creative music, can you talk about the process of constructing such fantastical music. There are so many layers and elements in these tracks, how do you put them altogether?

Marco Benevento: Umm…yeah that’s a pretty heavy question. It comes from a lot of places like, it can start all sorts of different ways. Sometimes I’ll sit down and pick up this kid’s circuit bent toy or like a kid’s keyboard or one of those strange glitch boxes I might have and I’ll just start playing around with that. And I might come up with a chord progression and I’ll remember it for a minute. But it was because of that toy and the way it sounded that I was able to write something. Sometimes I’ll throw that in my looper and record that and sit with that loop for a while and go wash the dishes or clean the house or do something and let this weird circumvent toy loop play and be like “Oh I can put these two bass notes down.” Or I might hear a bass line in my head or a melody in my head and start writing around that. It’s like ear candy those circuit bent toys or those kids’ Casio keyboards; they’re really fun and you immediately start playing it as opposed to say you sit down at your piano, I may be would come up with something different.

With that being said, I do sit down at my piano and write a lot of melodies and chord progressions and what not. I think what makes it more unique as opposed to pop music is that it is instrumental music and I’m pretty much writing melodies over the chords and not particularly thinking about what I’m going to say with the words and what the story is going to be. It’s a lot of just imagination and mood — songs, bass lines or chords that put me in a certain mood and make you feel a certain way. So it’s not like “Is this song about the girl or is this song about the relationship” or however many things you want to write about. Instrumental music lends itself to the “choose your own adventure” aspect of listening. They get to have their own relationship with it.

The creative process for me is all over the place. I play upright bass so I’ll play bass and maybe write something over that or I’ll play drums and record something over that. Or I’ll let a drum machine play and then I’ll play some piano over that. The song “This It How It Goes” for example was written around a demo on a children’s Yamaha keyboard and you could actually see it on YouTube. There’s a little clip that I put [up] of me playing the circuit bent toy by itself and then the [full] version of the song fades in, so you can see how that song started. So it’s kind of a…whatever, however it works. I try to remember it and record it and if it turns into a song over time that’s cool. Then sometimes ideas linger and stay for a while and they turn into songs years later. The song “Soma” was an idea that I recorded in 2006 and it finally became a song. I think even Joe Russo and I when we were playing as a duo even tried that as a song. But now it finally made it on a record. It’s a really slow, natural and enjoyable process.

PB: How do you feel that this stands out from the rest of your catalog?

MB: I feel like it definitely does stand out but I don’t know how. I feel like a lot of my records are all over the place. Invisible Baby has a certain kind of tone to it — it’s sort of the beginning of the jazz/rock sorta thing for me as a piano player. Then Me not Me has a jazz/rock element to it but it’s a little more mellow, there’s a more jazzy side on some of the songs. And Between the Needles and Nightfall has more upbeat dance tunes on it. And this one is an evolution of all three records put into one. Listening back I can notice it. I think the compositions are a little big stronger. I took a lot more time with this record. The three other records I made before this had a pretty quick turnaround even though I did a lot of overdubbing and post-production on them.

But this record I recorded in November and December of 2010 and it’s finally coming out now; so the music is in my brain and I’ve been messing with it for the last year and a half. So, I think that had a lot to do with it. I sat down with all the takes and took notes on all the takes. I included a lot more people on this record compared to the other records, I added vocals, I just was pretty limitless in my ideas and more importantly taking action on those ideas and I can do that because I have the time. Some people have the idea of what they want to do on their record but actually don’t do it because they think it might be a bad idea. I just tried some things I normally wouldn’t have tried to do — one being the vocals, two being actually hooking up with John McEntire, the drummer of Tortoise, I figured that would never happen for some reason but it totally happened and it was a really fun experience. And having Mike Gordon (Phish) on the record…we just did stuff on the wind.

Even the recording itself in November and December of 2010; Matt Chamberlain called me up, because he was playing in New York City, and said “I’m going to be in New York, let’s hang out, let’s record something, let’s do something!” So we ended up recording last minute at my favorite studio in Brooklyn called Trout and then we recorded after a tour in LA. There was a lot of spontaneous stuff happening and I think it really helped out the music and production a lot.

PB: You recorded in EastWest Studios where The Beach Boys’ legendary album Pet Sounds was recorded. Did working in such a famed space add anything to recording of this record?

MB: Most definitely. Just driving to the studio the day of the recording [I thought] “I’m going to record in the studio, Studio C at EastWest, where Brian Wilson record Pet Sounds and [also] where a lot of records were made.” You get an excited, uplifting energy just knowing that you’re going into a great space where if something doesn’t work, someone’s there immediately to fix it. All the choice stuff is there, all the old, good stuff is there. And of course working with Tom Biller who produced the [Benevento/Russo] Duo album Play Pause Stop who I’ve known for a while and having him as the engineer really helped. I think Reed [Mathis of Tea Leaf Green] even mentioned something that “these are the same panels and same walls that Brian Wilson was looking at when he made his record.” You got inspired and pumped up to make something good. And Flea was working in the studio next to us. So he’d come out, go to his pick-up truck and we’d be like “Holy shit that’s Flea!” It was cool. We were the smallest band that may have ever gone into that studio, but it was really cool.

PB: You own your own record label, The Royal Potato Family. How has owning a label influenced you as a musician? Has working with so many artists help you evolve as a writer or player, especially since you’ve worked with a lot of the artists on the label?

MB: The good thing about having your own label first and foremost is, if you end up on a label, specifically a bigger label, they may want you to sound [certain way] or what songs should be on the album…you know they can get involved. That could throw you off a little bit and maybe end up doing something you wouldn’t have done if you had your own label. So it’s kinda cool to be able to have all those ideas and execute them like using Kal [Traver] from Rubblebucket and John McEntire, overdubbing and taking time to do this record. I feel like I didn’t have to run it by anyone, talk to anyone about it, I just did anything and everything I wanted to do and I was able to do it without having to consult with anyone. Or even having to impress anybody and be like “I wanna be on this label…it’s awesome!” I feel like if you have your own stuff going on, you can make your own decisions and make your own great record and try to do it. Consequently when you sell records you get a lot of the money back and you don’t have to filter through different people. You reap what you sew basically.

[In reference to the bands on his label] When I listened to Superhuman Happiness I was really psyched. When Kevin [Calabro] said they were on our label I was psyched and I said “Yeah! This is the kind of music I like — it’s rock, it’s modern, it’s catchy music.” That was a great part of “Whoa we have a label and these guys are on our label! How do we evolve this little thing we created and spread it out?” So basically we’re trying to push the bands we like and get it out there. I get inspired by all the musicians on the label for sure. Superhuman Happiness, Sam Cohen and Yellowbirds, Mike D(illon)’s bands. I feel like we all egg each other on and we all want to make great records for the little record label we’re on and like being. It’s small, it’s literally small potatoes!!

PB: You guys are playing New York City tonight. Is there some extra juice that you get from playing a hometown show?

MB: I love playing in New Jersey and New York and it definitely feels like home turf. It feels like you’re home. I’m excited because I know most of the people in the room and we’ll have a lot of guests there, it’s the CD Release, Kal from Rubblebucket will probably be there and sit in with us. We’ve been working pretty hard, we drove out to Kansas City and played 12 dates. And we’re about to do the same on the East Coast and traveling South. Having a hometown show where you can regroup and re-energize before the next time you leave and go out and play a city where a lot less people are coming out to see you. I get charged for sure.

PB: And finally, what are your plans for the remainder of this year/early next year?

MB:
We’re doing a New Year’s Eve run with Rubblebucket. We’re in Rochester, NY and then two nights in Burlington, VT. We’ll have a show at The Highline Ballroom [in NYC] on the 28th of December. Then we’re going out to the West Coast and do a tour from San Diego to Seattle and then we’ll probably go into Colorado. We’re pretty much hitting a lot of states in the country in the next six months. We’ll be touring the record.

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites

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