Marco Benevento On His New Album, New Instrument & The Arc Of His Career
Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Kyle Hollingsworth, Tim Reynolds, Eddie Roberts, Jorma Kaukonen, Jeff Sipe, Eric Gould and many more.
Words by: Chad Berndtson
Marco Benevento is one of the most celebrated keyboardists of his generation, so it’s no surprise he’s in such demand, from Joe Russo’s Almost Dead to a slew of upcoming dates with Dan Auerbach’s The Arcs to the one-offs, sit-ins and other collaborations he’s so frequently a part of.
But Marco for years now has also been focused on his own music: a growing catalog of songs that expertly straddle the indie rock/jam band divide and that balance out his trio shows with as much tuneful pop and rock diversions as there are the passages of wild improvisation — the Marco-ness for which he’s long been known. Marco’s sixth and newest album of his own material, The Story Of Fred Short, arrives in April, and it’s the second straight album where we’re hearing not only keyboards but also an increasingly confident lead vocalist — Marco, yes, learning a new instrument and how to use it to his advantage.
Here’s Marco on singing, the story behind The Story Of Fred Short, next steps for JRAD, the nagging Benevento/Russo Duo questions that follow him and Joe wherever they go, and much more.
JAMBASE: Talk about The Story Of Fred Short. For folks who know your music going all the way back to the Benevento/Russo Duo, how would you describe this?
MARCO BENEVENTO: It’s an extension of our last record — of Swift — in that all the songs have singing and vocals on them. It’s catchy. These are pop tunes with simple melodies and lots of drum machines and synths. It has that element, and then Side B is almost a more conceptual side about Fred Short, which is the name of the street I live on here in Saugerties. I just made up a fictional character — this guy who lives here, and his identity. That side of it has some songs that go into each other seamlessly. There are track markers but they all kind of go into each other.
JAMBASE: Is that more conceptual material intended to be performed as a full piece or suite?
MB: The first three movements of Fred Short are meant to be performed in a row and we have been doing them in a row. They don’t have to, but they definitely lend themselves to that.
JAMBASE: And the singing on Fred Short is all you?
MB: Yes, I’m doing all the singing on the record and will be singing live too. We’ve been feeling this out live for a while. Dave Dreiwitz and Andy Borger are with me, they’re the guys I’ve been touring with for the last three, four, five years.
JAMBASE: Has the focus on singing been a challenge for you? I think it’s safe to say it’s not your known instrument.
MB: It’s a new instrument! I’m finally over the hump of beginning it, and I’m starting to feel a lot more comfortable with. I do enjoy it very much. This is pretty new. Our records before Swift and Fred Short don’t have much singing on them, so I feel like when we perform now, it balances out the show a lot. We still do a lot of heavy jamming and instrumental action, but we throw in a few songs with vocals and it’s a nice change in the night. It’s heightening what we do a lot more and it’s cool to see people in the audience singing along to these songs now.
I was hanging out with Charlie Hunter — I remember this vividly, from three years ago at Jazz Fest — and I was telling him, “Charlie, I’m singing more.” And he said, “Yeah, you know how it took you 30 years to be like you are on your main instrument? It’ll take another 30 years just to figure out what your vocals are meant to be.” And that wasn’t a challenging comment, it’s more, you’re learning a new instrument. I’m learning what keys I can sing better in than others, how to maintain my voice on the road when I’m singing every day. Dave will sing with me sometimes; we’ve been giving him a mic to sing harmonies and sometimes he’ll take a lead.
JAMBASE: What’s the hardest thing about this?
MB: The hardest thing about singing is singing in tune. Maintaining my voice on the road isn’t that big a deal because the songs with vocals are maybe about half of a given set, not the whole set. We still have a lot of instrumental songs in there. But when you’re recording a record, you get to try out all the different passages and vocals and get them right. Live, it’s hard to home in on the notes and get it really sounding good. I feel like I hear that about other bands all the time: “Yeah, that band played great but the singer was inconsistent.” Live singing is a whole different kind of animal, and projecting to the room and the crowd. There’s no quarter inch out of my voice box to help me plug in with no feedback, you know? So dealing with the mic, worrying you can’t hear yourself, singing out of tune, these are all part of learning the new instrument.
JAMBASE: Are you working with vocal coaches at all?
MB: I get a lot of coaching from my friend Kenny Siegal [Johnny Society] who owns a studio up here called Old Soul. A lot of bands come there and work there — Ratatat do their records there. So I went up there and he’s been helping me. Our record label a while back put out a tribute record for Harry Nilsson, and that was the first time I ever sang on a record. With Fred Short he was acting as my sort-of vocal coach. He’s not a music teacher or a singer or a professional vocal instructor, but he just has good ears and we’re friends, and he’s someone [from whom] I would take the punishment of singing one song and even one passage over and over for four hours. He wants to get it right. But I think I will try to work with some other people to. I’d love to get a couple of lessons with Amy Helm or someone up here.
JAMBASE: Has this focus on vocals changed how you write much?
MB: I think I’m always evolving but it’s similar to before. One of the main ways I’ve been writing music for a long time is with drum machines and synths — coming up with ear candy, or a nice-sounding chord progression that might help come up with a melody. What’s different now is I might let a chord progression loop or repeat and instead of coming up with a melody on piano, I’ll close my eyes and wait for something to come to my head and then sing it. The melody search used to happen on the keyboards, so that is different now. But even going back to the Benevento/Russo Duo, we had very singable melodies that we never put words to. So I feel like it’s always been there, even if it’s not as apparent on Invisible Baby and Between The Needles And Nightfall and the older records.
JAMBASE: Staying on the arc of your career, how do you think you’ve changed over the years as an improviser?
MB: I don’t think much has changed. If anything, like I was mentioning before, having more songs with vocals makes the improvisational segments of the show much more exciting. We don’t have to rely on improv and jamming to fill up a night of music. I love the idea that we can accomplish some things with vocal tunes and don’t have to jam longer. But if we want to, we can get into some shit and head into a really long jam which is fun. Early on, maybe two records in, we really had to extend a lot of the songs because that’s all we had: a handful of instrumental tunes.
Sometimes in the night you’re really feeling the itch to dive into your instrument — you can sense from the crowd and the room and the band members that it’s time to go off for 15 minutes. That’s really cool to still have that — it’s not going to go away. But to have the option is a very positive thing.
JAMBASE: So your focus for 2016 will be on the album and your band, primarily?
MB: Oh, absolutely. We’re going to be touring a bunch promoting this new record. There are other things floating out there that I’ll be involved in, but yeah, the main focus is the band and trying to get this music off the ground. This is my sixth album I’ve made on my own. I’m trying hard to grow my own set, grow the record label — these are things I’m passionate about. I like that I am the curator and I can figure out how to make the show go. It’s a heavy load, it’s a lot of original music and trying to turn people onto it and make sure they’re not scared of it — that they get it and understand it. Our music is pretty upbeat — this is stuff to listen and dance to, hopefully.
JAMBASE: In the midst of getting people turned on to your own catalog, do you feel pressure from your audience’s knowledge of your other situations — JRAD, or The Duo, or other things they’re maybe hoping you’ll play?
MB: No, you know, if anything, I’m seeing super Deadheads at a lot of our shows lately. I am thinking, oh man, I wonder if they’re going to like this, it’s not really jammy like that — it’s not really jam bandy-sounding to me. But they’re right in the front row dancing and they seem to love it. I think it’s like with any original music: I have fans that really like it and know the names and the changes of the songs. That said, it is my sixth album and I’ve been touring with Dave and Andy for five years, and there are people who still really haven’t checked out the music, especially the more recent records.
But great things can come from that. People who have come to the JRAD shows have come out and supported my band too. I think it just takes time. The Dead — and for that matter, The Duo — have been around for a lot longer than my band, it’ll take time. Look at Wilco: they were awesome from way back and put out a lot of records and then later on they started turning up in more jam community settings and people started seeing them from there. They started checking out Wilco’s music and now know it. So it takes time. I’m happy people are coming to the shows and are very positive about the tunes and checking us out.
JAMBASE: Turning to JRAD, I think we’re all familiar by now with the JRAD origin story and that you guys never anticipated this to blow up like it has, so I won’t dwell there. But you’ve been doing this for three years now, what itch does playing in JRAD scratch for you, musically?
MB: Man, I’ll be in a fucking One Direction cover band with Joe Russo if he asked me to. I’ll play with Joe till the end of my life, not to mention Dave and Scott [Metzger] and Tommy [Hamilton]. We’ve all been working so hard over the last 15-or-so years in this same, similar scene, so when I hang out with them, it’s hanging out with my crew. When I’m playing music with them, whatever music that happens to be, it’s amazing. This music fortunately just happens to be music that packs in bigger rooms: we can do this and pay the rent, man.
But we’re all buddies. These are the guys we started the whole scene with in New York and the area. This particular lineup started with Bustle In Your Hedgerow and evolved into this, and I think for Joe, when Furthur ended, he was just excited to try out these tunes he’d learned with his friends and decided to run with it. We’re just so seriously enjoying ourselves — it’s a fun outlet.
The other thing is I did get to learn the catalog of the Dead. When I was in high school, I didn’t listen to the Dead much — I remember being 15 or 16 and thinking it was too mellow, or too country or whatever. I definitely appreciate it now. I’m into it. The only thing I would be fearful of is that when you play anybody else’s music, you get pigeonholed into just that one thing. I have other outlets, of course, and I’m so busy with my thing.
JAMBASE: The pigeonhole concern makes sense, but I think all five of you have been pretty consistent in not framing JRAD as the main priority.
MB: Right. It might be financially a main gig for everybody when we’re doing it, but it’s just fun — that’s what it is. It’s amazing that it’s become so rewarding, financially too. Our thing is, let’s make sure we don’t overdo it. We’re going to keep it alive, but not overdo it. It’s kind of hard to walk that line. But I feel like Joe and the management he’s working with are good at looking at the full year and finding out where it makes sense. We’re only doing 25 to 30 JRAD shows this year, whereas we did over 50 last year. That was a lot.
JAMBASE: I always have to ask The Duo question. Any thoughts on when you and Joe might lace up those spurs again?
MB: We’re fantasizing about making a new record here in my studio. Literally any time we’re out together for JRAD, he brings it up or his manager brings it up. I always say the timing will present itself. We’re so busy with JRAD and my own thing and other things, so we’re waiting for the space to open up. But we talk about it every time.
JAMBASE: Time goes fast — it’s been, what, four or five years since you’ve moved to Saugerties [New York]?
MB: Yes, five years this April.
JAMBASE: And you mentioned Kenny and Amy, you must be firmly entrenched in the scene up there by now.
MB: I have a bunch of friends, yeah, and there are a lot of people up here. But what I like is it’s just been amazing to have a space — another building connected to my house where the workspace is incredible. I’ve done a lot of work here and brought others over too. My friend does the music for Bob’s Burgers, I’ve helped out there. I’ve recorded a lot. I put keyboards on a lot of records. Carl Newman from The New Pornographers, he came over here, I did keyboards. Shakey Graves was just at Levon’s place, I worked on that, Tracy Bonham is here. It’s like a whole other crew. Joe and Scott and Dave and Tommy are a crew, my crew, my people. Up here it’s a different crew, sort of a newer crew to also live in. And it’s a moms and dads crew, too. We have two kids so we’re constantly doing stuff in the community and at the school and meeting a lot of people.
JAMBASE: Very cool. Well, Marco, the name of this column is The Art Of The Sit-In so here’s me asking for your sit-in story: you with another band or someone else with one of your bands. What comes to mind first?
MB: Man, you know I love playing with Matt Burr, from Grace Potter & The Nocturnals. This is a couple months ago, but he did this Pink Floyd thing [Dark Side Of The Mountain] and that was fun as hell. Another one I’m excited about is actually a sit-in that’s coming up. I’m going to sub in Dan Auerbach’s project The Arcs, for their keyboard player, for a run at the end of April.
JAMBASE: Do you know Dan?
MB: No, but I know Richard [Swift], we did Swift with him. Leon Michels their keyboard player is having a baby, and they reached out. Dan and Richard were like, “You’re the only guy we want.” Holy shit, what a nice thing to hear. So I’ve been learning a lot of their tunes and getting deep into it. This will be fun.