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Benevento/Russo Duo: Hero Rock, Mind-Reading and Constant Movement

By Published: November 27, 2006
AAJ: When I heard Best Reason to Buy the Sun, I was greatly taken by the bass lines. I thought they were the best bass lines I'd heard that year, and they weren't even being played by a bassist. But they're greatly simplified on this new record. I still notice them on "Best Reason to Buy the Sun —the song on Play Pause Stop, that is, not the album—and on "Hate Frame. But overall, the bass lines are more integrated into the songs. Again, I think it's all about serving the songs.

MB: Right. They're more functional. The bass has a function, instead of being a featured instrument. That's what happens when you start playing bass lines with your feet, because you can't really play a ripping bass line with your feet. I mean, you can—you can do some things that are kind of cool, but you can't be jumping octaves or doing tons of embellishments. You can do it, but it doesn't really come across as well. And since a year or so ago, I've been traveling with the foot pedals, really enjoying that super low end of those foot pedals. I've also really enjoyed having a free right hand and a free left hand to do chords and melody, as opposed to doing bass lines with one hand. So now it's kind of a nice balance of both worlds, with simple, functioning bass lines, and some ripping bass lines on "Best Reason, "Hate Frame, or "9x9. Also, our engineer did a really great job of dialing in that tone. It's hard to dial in that organ bass tone; it's really round. Live, it gets lost a lot and it's hard to sharpen that up. [Soulive organist] Neal Evans was just like, "Forget it; I'm getting another keyboard. He plays bass lines on another keyboard.

When we went out with [eight-string guitarist] Charlie Hunter, he was saying, "I can't hear the bass! It's just so [in a low, guttural growl] mhhrrrrrrrrr. It's so round and muffly, and you have to figure out how to dial that in; you have to pull out some of the higher notes just to get some of the attack. When you're in the studio, you really have to work hard just so you can hear the bass notes. I am considering getting another bass-line keyboard, a third keyboard, but it's so hard—it's hard to expand the already huge rig. I don't really even a place to put anything. If I put it there, where's the Wurlitzer going to go? If I put it over there, how am I going to reach it? I'm definitely going to expand my rig over the years, but I don't know how. I'll have to figure that out.

AAJ: So to conclude this nerdy gear talk, I now understand that you're dividing bass, keyboard and a guitar-ey, or lead sound between various cabinets. I have always found a lot of your keyboards to evoke electric guitars; certainly there's riffing, but a lot of it is tone. Part is just distortion, and you do play through Mesa Boogie amps. So I guess the rock-guitar quality is just the result of distortion, amplification—gear.

MB: Totally. Exactly. I don't know if you've ever heard of Quasi.

AAJ: Oh, yeah. The drummer from Sleater-Kinney, Janet Weiss—that's her duo with her ex-husband Sam Coomes on keyboards.

MB: Right. I mean, when I heard that band, that dude, I was like, What is that instrument? And it was a keyboard. I mean, you can tell it's a keyboard, but it's so distorted, and played through a guitar amp, so you do get kind of confused. You get tricked into thinking it's a guitar. But there is something really cool about a keyboard that is sounding like a guitar, because in many ways, it's obviously not a guitar. In many ways, it's obviously a keyboard. You can play lots more notes; on the guitar, you're limited to six notes. You can only play six notes at a time. So you can get that guitar tone, but you can play way more notes, double tons of different notes.

So it has this interesting new-guitar kind of sound. I'm into that, and I'm pretty picky about what goes on in my rig, as far as gear goes. I want to make sure that I play an instrument that vibrates. I don't want to be playing any type of keyboard that is generating a sound digitally. I have nothing against digital equipment, but live, it's kind of a whole 'nother ballgame. There's a hammer that hits a reed in the Wurlitzer, and there's a tone wheel in the organ that makes a tone. Those are my instruments.

You know, a guitarist plays his guitar, and the strings vibrate in his hand, and it shouts through the amplifier. As a keyboard player, in order to find that kind of organic, crunchy, natural vibration from your instrument, you pretty much have to go back and get the old stuff. So I've been dealing with a lot of that—figuring out how to maintain those sorts of instruments. I love them, but it's so hard. We did a show with [keyboardist John] Medeski once, and he was changing a reed on one of his Wurlitzers, and I said, "Oh man, I know that. That's a pain in the ass, isn't it? And he said, "Yup, but nothing sounds like this, man. You can't get anything else that sounds like this. And it's the truth. You can get something that sounds like it, but [laughing] it's not it. It doesn't really respond; it doesn't have this personality that you get to play onstage. So it's important for me.

At the same time, I do have this digital keyboard on my rig right now, but if you do have one of those keyboards, it's a good idea to play it through a tube amp to warm it up a little bit. Or go in there and modify the sound a little bit so they don't sound so right, so fake. The only digital thing Medeski's got on his rig is this new digital Moog Voyager thing that Bob Moog made pretty recently—but he plays it through an old Danelectro tube amp or something like that.

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