From here on out, Marco Benevento is only going to perform in tiger suits - why else do you think he named his album TigerFace? If you believe that, perhaps you'd like to have a little discussion about a prime piece of real estate we're looking to unload. However, this next bit of information is dead serious - Benevento has delivered an album with not one but two songs with vocals on them. For lack of a better term (or maybe because we're feeling particularly lazy) let's even call them "pop songs." If you've been following the musical endeavors of Mr. Benevento-a musician whose prolific output over the years quite frequently gets branded with the "experimental" or "jazz" stamps-the tiger suit scenario might initially seem a lot more plausible. His live shows, after all, have been known to be rather raucous affairs. Would a tiger suit really be out of place?
Spend any time listening to the new album or conversing with its lively, articulate and occasionally mischievous creator, however, and you're liable to walk away with a new impression of the man and his music. Over the course of a conversation, you're as likely to hear mention of the Black Keys and Kris Kristofferson as you are Keith Jarrett or Brad Mehldau. You might be surprised to hear that Tortoise's John McEntire and Antibalas multi-instrumentalist Stuart Bogie make appearances on this record, or that the basics were recorded in LA at EastWest Studios - the same studio Pet Sounds was recorded. And you might learn that Benevento learned to play the piano for fun and still believes wholeheartedly that music should be an entertaining and uplifting experience for all parties involved. Four records into a storied solo career (we can discuss the rest of his output at another time), Benevento is hitting a different stride, or at least discovering another side to his music.
"I've reached this new starting point where it's like, 'Oh, I could actually do it more like this now,' which is more along the lines of the universal language of popular music - melodies that you can hum in your head that stick with you for a while whether the music is instrumental or has vocals," he says. "More popular music than songs with crazy changes," he adds with a laugh.
The vocals on TigerFace (supplied by the lovely Kal Traver from indie-dance outfit Rubblebucket) may come as a surprise for fans, but for Benevento it was a natural progression facilitated by time, opportunity and a natural evolution as an artist.
"(The addition of vocals) was more like 'Let's just open up this door and see what comes out' and I was floored," he explains. "It seriously was just kind of fearlessly opening up some new doors and not even thinking what it would mean if I did do that."
What that will mean to his fans, press or the perception of him in general is something that Benevento takes into consideration (he originally toyed with the idea of releasing the album under the name Human Assembly to differentiate it from his past solo efforts), but he humbly acknowledges that he's one of those rare and lucky artists who's fortunate enough to be able to follow his own muse and make a living doing so.
Part of that equation has been the formation of his own label, The Royal Potato Family, which is as much an extension of Benevento's community of kindred souls—talented, upbeat, experimental folks who aren't afraid of a good melody—as it is a business endeavor.
Ask him about it and you can almost feel the glow. "I feel like it's just fueling the fire," he beams. "It makes me want to write – to show my friends what I've been up to – just to say, 'Look, I'm adding to this pile of art that we're creating' and the response has been very positive and very supportive."
"It's nice to try to create with people who are in the same boat as me – they're kind of doing well, but they're also kind of trapped in this vague cloud of 'what kind of music are you?'" he continues.
Those like-minded souls are out in force on TigerFace. Longtime collaborators like Ween's Dave Dreiwitz, Phish's Mike Gordon, The Barr Brothers' Andrew Barr, Tea Leaf Green's Reed Mathis and drummer extraordinaire Matt Chamberlain all lend their talents to the recording. The sessions started on the West Coast, with Tom Biller at the legendary EastWest Studios and wrapped in Brooklyn with Bryce Goggin at Trout Recording. Along the way, Benevento and his family moved from Brooklyn to Saugerties, offering the pianist the luxury of a home studio, which allowed him to experiment with vocals and engineering.
The result is the free-spirited TigerFace. Playful and accomplished, it craftily lures you in with its rich melodies and unassumingly dazzles in a way that could only be achieved by a bunch of mad musical geniuses on a rulebook-tossing fun-bender. Standout tracks include the angelic yes wave anthem "Eagle Rock," the soaring garage psychedelia of "Going West," the piano riff rock jaunt "Escape Horse," and the happily lilting "Fireworks," which bounces along like a long lost Italian folk song beamed down to Benevento by ancestors from his father's homeland.
It gets a little rowdy at times. There are loops, baby grand, upright and tack pianos, a Baldwin Fun Machine and more synths and analog keyboards than one could count on two hands. And, of course, there are the vocals on the infectious dance rock rave-up "Limbs Of A Pine" and the pastoral psych rock meditation "This Is How It Goes." All of this being said, however, there was ultimately zero concern for what corner you want to box the results into. At the end of the day, Benevento doesn't really care about labels. He just wants to connect – with his audience as well as his band-mates.
"I feel like I've really reached a new level of entertaining the crowd and entertaining the listener in the car when they turn the music on," he explains. "It's not so heavy and it's not so jazzy - it's more melody driven. It's a natural evolution of the sound – of the band, of me as a composer and songwriter and performer."
He hopes that people will listen without prejudice.
"It's really just a matter of the ears in the world hearing it and hopefully just liking it and embracing it as music and not 'instrumental rock' or 'experimental jazz,'" he says as he contemplates the album's release.
If you want to truly experience his music, Benevento recommends coming to see the band live. Far from being a serious, "eyes-closed" event, he believes in providing his audience with a good time. Dancing is encouraged. Transcendence is on the agenda. Entertainment is the order of the day. Tiger suits are optional.