Interview | Photos | Marco Benevento

By Meghan Bender

A few weeks ago jazz-rock fusion pianist Marco Benevento came through San Francisco, and Meghan Bender caught up with him about the record, tour, home life, and his other collaborations. Benevento is on tour right now through April promoting his newest album TigerFace.

Click here to jump to photos from Marco's February 1 show at Don Quixote's in Felton, CA!

JamBase: TigerFace has so many different styles and really shows off your versatility. I think that this is an album that is going to introduce a lot of people to your music who didn’t know you before. What was the process of making that album?

Marco Benevento: It’s funny you mention that you think it will reach out to more people who may not know my music, because I feel the same sort of way. Especially with the first three songs which have the addition of vocals, more pop sensibility rather than a jazz, experimental, instrumental kind of thing. In that way, I totally agree with you.

I actually recorded all of this music in November and December of 2010, but TigerFace just came out 4 months ago in September of 2012, so that leaves you with almost 2 years of post-production stuff that I was doing. Normally there’s a quicker turn around with my records. I always spend time over-dubbing some keyboards I have at my house or maybe messing with the arrangement of songs and cutting things up, but generally this stuff gets released maybe 6-8 months later. I sat with TigerFace for almost two years, so maybe that’s a contributing factor to why it's different. I was really able to spend a lot of time on each song and was even able to bring the idea of having vocals on one tune to fruition, so it could have been that simmering period.

And, I think in addition to moving from Brooklyn to upstate, we have a house now and then there’s a side studio house so I can work at all hours of the night and not really have to worry about waking up my kids or wife, so maybe that serious focus with no interruptions, maybe that was a contributing factor to why it might be different.

Marco Benevento by Susan J. Weiand
And the third factor is, just as a normal human being, there’s a growth. Invisible Baby, one of the first records I made with this band, was made in 2007, so there’s been a natural evolution as a musician since then, which I think is a huge contributing factor too. We’ve gotten turned on to all kinds of new styles of music along the way.

Sometimes I hear a song and think to myself “Ah, I’ve gotta write a song like that!” I’m sure lots of musicians get inspired that way, much like the Beatles were inspired by The Beach Boys to make Sgt. Pepper. When I played it (TigerFace) for my friend Matt Butler of The Everyone Orchestra, he said it was very Marco-esque and “There’s something about your melodies that are very ‘you’,” so it’s not a departure, just more of an evolution. I bet I’ll get into using more vocal stuff on other records; it’s sort of opened up the door and I really like it. I’ve gotten a lot of great responses from that actually.

On the new album you’re collaborating with Kalmia Travers (of Rubblebucket), how did that come about and how was the songwriting process different?

It first started with the song “This is How it Goes”, which is the second track. The band recorded that and, obviously, what you hear at the end of the record is the first version of the song which is without any vocals and with me playing the vocal part on the piano. So, it started with me listening to that take, and as I listened to that piano melody I started hearing some syllables to that piano melody like “eee’s” and “ahh’s.” When my wife came over to the studio we started writing words to the syllables, so basically “This is how it goes.” We had some friends who were over for dinner and wine and we were like “why don’t we try this” and we all decided to sing it. We had a chorus effect going with that melody and I was the most surprised, more than the people who hadn’t heard the song, and my wife frantically wrote it all down. The song was almost released as that, without Kal. I almost did it like a chorus thing like we did in the studio with our friends. But after listening to it a whole lot with the vocals I thought “Maybe we should get somebody to sing it.”

I played a festival in Vermont and saw Rubblebucket, saw Kal that thought “What about her?! She’s amazing!” I had known her from an Everyone Orchestra gig that we did in Colorado many years back, and I recognized her face and I knew the keyboard player. They were familiar faces but I didn’t really know how amazing their music was, so anyways that night I was like “Alright this is it’ and the next day I called their manager. She really got into it and overdubbed herself 3 times on backup vocals and was really good at adding a lot to the song. I loved that, so we decided to get back together again.

Marco Benevento by Susan J. Weiand
This time she came up to my studio up in Woodstock and she came with the incredible horn player Stuart Bogie from a band called Superhuman Happiness. He’s also played with Iron & Wine and Antibalas. So, anyway, Stu and Kal came up for a session and that when "Limbs of a Pine" got all flushed out with vocals. It had been an instrumental track like “This is How it Goes” prior to their arrival, but we did it again and Kal wrote those words and the melody too, so it was way more of a collaborative thing.

We played the Bowery Ballroom on our tour and she sat in and played those tunes with us. We played two nights at Higher Ground on a NYE run with them and she and Alex (from Rubblebucket) sat in on a couple of tunes and vice versa. When Kalmia is not around, I have a sample of her part from "Limbs of a Pine"", because it’s a very short melody, and I put a tiger mask on and run around kinda like I'm singing it. I'll put the tiger mask on Dave and he’ll play his bass in the tiger mask, and Andy plays the drums with the tiger mask. It’s pretty funny and pretty engaging, it’s a total dance party kind of tune so people are all dancing around.

When you were recording this album, do you go in with the songs completely written out or do you improvise in the studio?

Kind of both. I had an idea of how I thought “Fireworks” should go and I played it for Reed and Andrew in the studio. We played it a bunch and did some spontaneous writing in the studio, like 4-5 tries of a possible bridge, with me calling out chords in the studio, like “go down to B flat!” It’s kind of a healthy balance of me having a sketch and us figuring out, like “maybe we should have a bridge, let’s try to write something quick right now” and it works. There are both elements. I love to be under-prepared for studio time I always feel like, especially with the fact that you can go home with your computer and edit it. It’s so much easier than it was way back in the day, knowing that you can chop stuff up and make parts up out of improvisations, I love doing that. “Limbs of a Pine” was started from that drum riff that Matt Chamberlain wrote, which gave me an idea for a bass line and I mentioned it to Dave when he was here. He played it and I had an idea for some chords, and it actually became the first song on the record, with vocals.

I really like improvisation in the studio, it’s freaking great, and because you’re in there and you know that time’s going to run out at some point you make quick decisions, which is a good thing. It’s easy to make 30 seconds of music seem like it takes so long to write if you dwell on it and dissect it. It can be really bad, like you can’t see the forest through the trees, ya know? You gotta be able to have that kind of attitude, like “come on, just pick some chords man, we gotta finish this one”. I’m in both worlds. I might like the improvisation world better, going in there and making stuff up knowing that you want to make a record, because everyone has that whimsical kid-like attitude where there’s nothing blocking their hands from doing the right things on their instruments.

Marco Benevento by Susan J. Weiand
What’s your favorite kind of venue to play?

I have a preference for the bigger rock rooms, and its mainly because- generally, they’re just empty spaces or a bar. There’s no baggage that comes with the room, so you can essentially do anything you want with the room, like a classical cellist could go in there and do a gig or a metal band could play there or even a jazz band can play there. That’s what I like about the rock rooms, you can do whatever you want in them and not feel like you’re doing the wrong thing.

If you’re in a jazz room, it immediately has a connotation about it, and you immediately imagine people sitting down, two sets, it's going to be jazzy…. Even as a performer you are so vulnerable to the vibe of the room, you can’t help but play the room, so if I’m in a jazz room, we get our rock on but for the most part you almost feel bad because it’s a small room, people are sitting down, they might be getting hit too loud with the music because the room’s not really dialed in for louder stuff. There’s a place in Seattle called the Triple Door, a very formal venue where you sit down, and I’ve played so many times there and I love it but I don’t think I’d want to go back there now. No offense to the venue- the sound system is incredible and the people who work there are great- but it’s just not really a vibe-y room where people can dance and stand up and move around. I feel like our band sounds better in that environment these days, versus a mellow jazz room.

The band has really grown to be playing venues like the Independent (SF) and the Bowery Ballroom (NY) and the Highline (NY), rooms where people can really move. And that’s just probably the natural evolution of song writing and being a musician and touring, and wanting to connect with people and entertain people for the evening, including yourself.

Dave Dreiwitz and Andrew Borger
by Susan J. Weiand
How do you find the musicians you collaborate and tour with? Are you bringing your band out to the west coast?

I’m bringing my band out there, my east coast guys. My band has gone through so many different changes and I’ve really found some good guys. They live in New York. I’ve known Dave Dreiwitz for a long time, he’s in my Led Zeppelin Tribute Band, Bustle in Your Hedgerow, I’ve known him for a long time and he played with Ween. And Andy Borger is an amazing drummer, he supports the music so well and is just an easy going kind of guy on the road and just plays the right drum parts at the right time, so I’m finally bringing them all out there.

The band initially started with Matt Chamberlain and Reed Mathis, I remember telling my wife “I gotta start a band with Matt and Reed”, it was just sort of my All Star band. We got together for a couple of tours and a couple of records, and then we got Andrew Barr from The Barr Brothers who was free and totally down to do gigs. Then Matt started becoming less available, and Dave became more available because Ween broke up, and then, I could go on…there’s been a lot of evolution of it all, but they’ve become my dream band accidentally. Back in 2006 I was thinking Matt and Reed, but now that Dave and Andy are here, they know the music so well. We’ve been having some great shows over the last 6 months and it's just been a whole ‘nother level of putting on a good show.

It used to be very difficult, we had to fly Reed in from San Francisco and fly Andrew in from Montreal. There was a practicality about it too where we had to decided, “This isn’t working”. It’s unrealistic to be flying these people in, and because of this thing that couldn’t work, we found new ways to make it happen.

What role does technology play into your set?

I have to mention another little happy accident that happened with the whole piano thing that I’m using right now on the road- A lot of times I write music on the laptop, you can put on the headphones and mess around on the laptop, writing music in the van or on the airplane, and I started making a bunch of demos on the laptop (this is the very beginnings of the band). I would just use all pre-programmed sounds (fake drums, fake bass, fake piano) on the laptop. I would always make the piano sound like it was coming out of an amp using the effects on the laptop. So I would add delay, distortion for the bridge a little bit, do some minor EQing, things that are easy to do on a laptop. I sent all the demos to Lee and Matt before we went on our first tour. So I’m picturing us on stage, I’m playing piano and Lee and Matt playing bass and drums, but then I thought “how am I going to get the piano to sound like it does on the demos? I want to have that in there.” If you go to a club and say you want to play piano they’ll just put mics on the piano, there’s no way to add delay or anything. But, I realized that there’s a way that you could. I was sitting at the piano thinking “what the fuck am I gonna do?” I wanted those sounds. And on my desk right next to the piano was this piece of shit transducer pickup that Dean Markley makes, which you can stick to the front of your acoustic guitar that gives you the ability to hook it up through an amp. They totally suck for acoustic guitars because they’re not loud enough, and the sound you get out of it is really shitty. So it was sitting at the desk for a while like, “this is the worst pick up of all time”, until I picked it up and stuck it on the piano just to see what would happen. I plugged it into this old Silvertone amp that I have. It's this really small guitar amp that has amazing tremolo on it, it sounds really good, and turned it up, turned the tremolo on and was like “this is it! I can do this!”. So I added some distortion and some reverb and the whole pedal board to the piano.

Marco Benevento by Susan J. Weiand
I can travel with these pedals, plug the piano into them and plug it into a guitar amp and so I can have that effect of the piano. And of course I'll have the mics on the piano and the clean piano sounds, but now I also get all the weird sounds that I want to hear. So that’s how it all started. It's evolved into a better pickup system and I travel with my own little hot-rodded piano when I’m on the East Coast. When I fly out west, I bring my pedals with me and plug into the piano that the club has.

With sound guys, I’ve realized that it's not a very conventional set-up for a band. It’s very weird, a piano with effects, a laptop that’s powering a little synthesizer that I’m using to trigger some other sounds, and a looper on the floor that I’m triggering sounds with my foot, all sounds that I made from scratch from old keyboards, no presets. I’d show up at a club with my pickups and start sticking them to the club piano and the sound guy would be like “Uhh, what are you doing to our piano?” and I’m like “It’s cool!”, especially at the jazz clubs. We were invited to open for Jamie Cullum once at Carnegie Hall, and I stuck those things on their 9-ft. Steinway. They were a little scared at first, but it worked, and it was a total dream to play there.

We realized that we needed a sound guy to travel with us and he can really dial us in. We’re bringing a light guy with us too now, so there’s five of us, and now we can really pull off that whole thing that I’m imagining which seems pretty weird, but it's pretty much just a rock show in the end, an instrumental little rock party.What’s your connection to Berklee like? Do you keep in touch with your old mentors?

I have a tight relationship with Bruce Thomas who was one of my teachers at Berklee. I always call him when I’m in town and we keep in touch, and he knows that he’s really inspired me. The other inspiration at Berklee was Joanne Brackeen, the first female pianist to play with Art Blakey. She really whipped me into shape and I took lessons with her after Berklee, even in NYC.

I have fond memories of it, it was a great experience for me, and I actually took more credits than I needed to. I took upright bass lessons and drum lessons and Hammond organ lessons, all sorts of stuff. Played a lot, said yes to everything, just full on knowing that it’s good to be busy and to meet people. I was there for four years.

That’s where I met Brad Barr and Andrew Barr and Mark Freidman, they were all going at the same time and I even hung out with Mark for a little bit in the dorm rooms. Joe Russo would come to visit me. The band I was in, The Jazz Farmers, had a residency at this place where we played every Tuesday for two years and all kinds of people would come sit in. Brad would come sit in, Mark would sit in, the older jazzier guys that were around would come sit in, and I think that that really helped me out and made being at school more cool.

Anything coming up with Garage A Trois or Joe Russo?

Garage A Trois is taking a little break and probably won’t do anything until 2014. As for the duo, Joe’s one of my best friends and I see him all the time. He comes up here and plays at the Ramble and will stay with me. Joe and I want to make a record, I don’t know if we’re going to pull off a tour because he’s so busy with Furthur, and I’m busy with this new record and discovering this new band I’m in with Dave and Andy. We both recognize our own artistic needs right now but we want to get together and make a record really bad, especially knowing that we have a studio here at the house.

Andrew Borger by Susan J. Weiand
What do you like to do outside of live shows to connect with fans?

I love hanging out with my people after my gigs, I love selling the merch myself and getting down there and getting all dirty, sometimes saying just “name your own price on the merch” so people will get the music in their hands and listen to it in the car on the way home. I hate scaring people away, I love to go out there and so that’s one way I get to go out and meet them. I, quite foolishly, give out my phone number, often, and get texts from all these strange people thinking “shit! I gave that person my number last night”. But yeah I frequently give stuff away for free.

I don’t really do the Facebook thing much, I posted a little video I made with my phone for "This is How It Goes" on my Facebook page. I once did a thing where if you pre-ordered the record you would get a five-song EP of just songs I recorded on the piano at my house. I reach out in little ways, I think that’s important and it's cool how the audience is thankful that you’re doing what you’re doing.

How has having kids has influenced your music and vice versa?

OH MY GOD, YEAH! There’s a tiny little vintage turntable that I got for my kids, so whenever we go to the record store or garage sale we try to see if we can find dollar records. It’s kinda cool to see your kids put records on the turntable and be their own DJ. So we have this one record that is Bert and Ernie, with Bert in the bath, and then you hear Ernie push a piano into the bathroom and everybody starts showing up in the bathroom and playing, so I like to bring this little toy piano in the bathroom when they’re taking a bath and sing weird little things like “What would you do with a cow in the bath!” We have a lot of fun.

There’s a lot of moments where I sit down to play the piano and they’re like “STOP!” but you can get their attention. It’s pretty amazing what music can do to kids. They really get focused. One of our favorite radio programs is this podcast called “The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn”, a DJ who plays great music, and whenever I put on his podcast they just sit down and draw or chill. They just focus. One time I could tell that Ruby was getting upset with Isla and I was seeing it all happen, so I went over to the record player and put on "Low Rider" and they totally forgot about what they were about to be arguing about. Music is a big part of their lives too, whether or not they know it now, I see it, and I’m using it. If I didn’t have it I’d be screwed.

Continue reading for photos from a February 1 show with Marco Benevento and Mike Dillon Band!


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