Marco Benevento: A New Form of Fusion


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Some people who are in bands never studied or never got into the jazz world. That jazz world opens you up to this whole other way of being a musician. It's like I got screwed, in a good way, like 'Oh no--now you know you like improvising'
With his work has one-half of the Benevento-Russo Duo, Marco Benevento has helped fuse elements of indie rock, improv jazz and jam band aesthetic, exciting nationwide audiences in clean concert halls, smoky bars, and muddy, open-air festivals like Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits. Benevento is a student of the piano, trained at Berklee School of Music, but he seems most comfortable when surrounded on all sides by a collage of black and white keys, assorted buttons and knobs, trigger pads, guitar pedals, and an intriguing mix of circuit bent toys.

Invisible Babies is a collection of Benevento-penned tunes that for lack of a better word "didn't work" with band mate Joe Russo. After a guest stint at New York City's famed Tonic, Benevento came to the realization that the time for a solo record was now. Drummers Matt Chamberlain (who's recorded with everyone from Tori Amos and Natalie Merchant to Brad Mehldau and most recently Critters Buggin) and Andrew Barr (The Slip) and bassist Reed Mathis joined Benevento for the recording of Invisible Babies. After hours upon hours locked in his basement editing tracks, adding layers, toying with sounds and otherwise becoming a Pro-Tools masters candidate, Benevento emerged with a modern jazz record worthy of the iconic Fusion tag of 1975 or so.

Benevento spoke with All About Jazz just prior to the release of Invisible Babies about the recording of his first solo record and the cliche "learning experience" that it was.

All About Jazz: How does this record, or just working solo in general, differ from what you've done in the past with the Benevento-Russo Duo?

Marco Benevento: Well the big difference [on Invisible Babies] is that it's piano. With the duo I'm playing the Hammond organ and the Wurlitzer and even though they're keyboards, each of those instruments is very different. The piano is an instrument I've been studying all my life and obviously has a very different sound that the organ or the Wurlitzer.

Another thing about this record is that I had creative control over the whole thing and I didn't really need to consult anyone about it. Anytime you work alone, you get to hire who you want to hire and do what you want and the musicians you work with trust that whatever you do will come out good or as planned. They trust your plan. Reed [Mathis], Matt [Chamberlain] and Andrew [Barr] had a lot of trust that my plan was gonna be a good one.

AAJ: And so with the duo is there a lot of collaboration in the songwriting process?

MB: Well yeah of course. With any band—or I would assume with any band, but I guess every band is different—but most bands I would say, they get together in the room or practice space or whatever and they try to bounce ideas around and some person likes it or wants to change it. For the most part, with this record I was consulting my wife more than anyone. Actually, she came up with that second part of "Bus Ride"—the chord progression part, and then I put a melody over it.

It was nice to have my own personal vision and be up from 10 at night till 3 in the morning messing with Pro-Tools and learning Pro-Tools and putting stuff together and thinking, "What can I add to this?" or "What can I do to this?" And then looking around my basement and adding.

I have this old pump organ from the 1800s and I added some of that and I added banjo on some stuff and I have a bunch of circuit bent toys here. So it was fun to just self explore in my nest. And I'd been working on my own nest for awhile—my wife and I just had a baby and Joe [Russo] and I took some time of the road—so my little basement in my apartment here in Brooklyn has just been overflowing with instruments and ideas.

AAJ: Did you have solid compositions before you sat down with the guys to record, and then did you go back and do post-production and toy with the recordings and make everything sound how you wanted?

MB:Kind of "solid ideas" in the sense that I had just decided that these parts would work and I would send them to the guys.

With "Are You The Favorite Person of Anybody," all I had really was a bass line and a piano part and I sent Reed and Matt the raw piano part and told them to imagine what they could do. There was a lot of emailing of mp3s—"Check this out, what do you think?"

Pretty much they would learn the song and when I flew out to Seattle [to record] we would just play it, without any rehearsal really. Reed knew all the notes and Matt knew the rhythms and on the week long tour we did, it just blossomed into something. After 3 or 4 nights of playing that stuff we said "Alright, well let's go record it" and it came together.

"You Must Be a Lion" was a song I had finished before we went on that tour. "Bus Ride" was pretty much done too, although, Matt was the one who suggested, "Why don't we just hit the cymbal and do some out-of-time shit for a while and then boom go into the third section." So that was his idea conceptually.

There was a healthy balance of both worlds: "Yeah this tune is down, this is how it is" vs "I don't know what to do—what do you guys think?" Which is good because no matter who I am playing with, whether it be a one off or a week long tour or a band, I would love for people to just put their input in, instead of being "Oh it's Marco's [project]—you're the bandleader, just tell me what to do!" I've known those guys for a while so I trust they would say something if they didn't like it or they would suggest something if they were feeling like it should go in a different direction.

AAJ: And then you went home and started adding layers in your studio.

MB: Right. We did some raw tracking and then I came home and got to work. In "Ruby" I added a bunch of circuit bent toys after Andrew and Reed and I had tracked. "Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody" I looped that drum groove that's in 11. I found this loop and looped the tom thing that Chamberlain was doing and put some analog keyboard swells and some circuit bent stuff over it, just to create intros and outros and to color it up a bit. Even though it was colored nicely in the studio with all the great gear we were using, I wanted to... I don't know it's my own thing. Like I said, I'd be up late and just think "Oh this needs something!" And I'd look around and just pick something and record it.

AAJ: I didn't even notice that track was in 11. I really dig when a band can take a complex, sort of nerdy time signature and wrap it in a pop context to where you don't confuse the listener.

MB: Right—Joe and I have been doing that for a while, for sure. So I guess there's that sort of natural comfort.

AAJ: With the post-production you did on this record, is that something you get to do in the Duo as well?

MB: It's something I've never done with the duo before mainly because I didn't really know how to use the programs. This album is my Pro-Tools final, essentially. I couldn't afford to go into a studio and have someone edit for me because that would have taken way too long and it would have been 3 times the amount of money I spent. So I just figured I'd do it myself. With the duo—we're working on a new record right now, and I plan on getting more involved with post-production at my house.

I also went to New Orleans in December and recorded with Skerik and Mike Dillon, the new Garage a Trois stuff. We tracked and I took the hard drive home and I put a lot of shit on the Garage stuff. I wish I could send it to you but I can't. I added a bunch of stuff and cut up a bunch of drum stuff and ran it through an old tape recorder and then ran it to my four-track and then ran it back into Pro-Tools. I've been getting way into that. When it's something I really like I'm into bringing it home and fucking with it and messing with it sonically. As a musician, I'm sure you know this, you get into studying sound and rhythm and harmony and then you get further into studying how you can cut all that up and add stuff or move stuff and loop stuff or chunk it up. You get into sonic explorations and textures.

AAJ: Did you deal with that fear that you were going to sit there staring at the track for too long and dissect a song too much and not know when to step away?

MB: No, I'm good at saying "This is done." I'm actually the one who'll be like, "Can we move on already!" More so than most musicians I know. I have a healthy balance of knowing when to stop and knowing when to continue. But I know what you're talking about—I know those folks where you're like:

"Dude when is your record gonna be done?!"

"I'm working on it!"

"Dude you've been working on it for five years! Seriously?"

I guess my opinion about records and music is you wanna edit it so it's as clean as it can be and it's good but my thing is, when is the next record coming out? What's the next project gonna be?

I've been looking at records like this lately and it's been helping me out a lot: alright—you're gonna make a disc that has 8 or 10 songs on it. That's it. People are gonna go home and get an mp3 version of it or they're gonna get the disc. They're gonna listen to it, maybe 5 or 6 times if you're lucky, in a month. And that's it, then they're like "Cool that was good, when am I gonna go see 'em live." Then they see 'em live and then a year or 2 years from now they come back to you and think "Oh what is he doing now?"

I try to take the listener's stance as often as I can I guess. I've been having talks with the Duo's manager about me putting out a record and with Joe about it. It seemed sort of severe—"What are you doing? You're putting out a record?"—at first. But in reality, I've never put out a piano record, in my life. This is with Matt Chamberlain! This is an honor. This is great! It was funny that I was getting this immediate opposition but now everyone is sorta cool with it. C'mon—I hope to put out forty records in my life—this is one of them.

AAJ: This has a totally different feel than Benevento-Russo Duo. My favorite track is "Record Book"—I can't hear the Duo putting out a song like that but obviously you had that song in you and that song deserves to come out. You just have to find the right outlet.

MB: Actually this is a great segue into what I've been thinking about, which is that a lot of these tunes are tunes that just didn't work with Joe. Or—tunes that Joe didn't work with, I could say instead. Maybe I fucked up by playing him my little demo versions at home, with me playing piano. He would hear it and it would be hard for him to get out of that piano fact and it was hard to transfer to organ, Wurlitzer, foot-bass, and drums.

Ha—I actually never thought of it like that. Actually, Wayne Shorter spoke at my graduation from Berklee and he said some out shit, but one of the main things I remember he said was don't throw away anything you write down and don't throw away anything you record. He was like, "I just picked up a song I jotted down 30 years ago and it's one of my favorite things now."

When you come up with a rhythm or an idea harmonically and you write it down, that means something—whether you hit now or 5 years from now or 30 years from now. Whenever something didn't work with Joe I never thought, "Oh that sucks, I'm never gonna play that again!" I always thought I could find other outlets—I'm a musician, I'm not just some guy in a band. I like to do a million things.

I'm really happy that I was able to get these tunes out. Andrew I've know almost as long as Joe and Reed I've known a long time. Matt I've know for about 5 years. These aren't brand new relationships.

AAJ: How'd you decide to work with those four guys—was it pretty natural, in that you knew once you decided to put out a solo record that Matt, Andrew and Reed would be your guys?

MB: In like 2004, Andy Hurwitz at Ropeadope Records put a two bus tour together—it was a ten day tour called the Ropeadope New Music Seminar. Every night was about four or five acts; there was a cellist that played and then Joe and I played, Charlie Hunter played with Bobby Previte, Sex Mob played and then Critters Buggin played. And we were all on two tour buses, so it was 16 of us and 8 on each bus. It was my first bus tour.

So, Chamberlain is the drummer in Critters Buggin, so that's where I got a chance to hang with him. A night [of the tour] got canceled, in Philly, and we were in New York. The buses stopped in New York and it was a Monday night and I said, "Dude, there are so many amazing musicians right here, stopped in New York, [who] don't have a gig." I called the Knitting Factory at noon that day and asked for a gig and they actually gave me the night. I didn't know if anyone was free, but I figured I'd call whoever and I know they'll wanna play cause you're on tour, you have the night off—most likely you're gonna want to play or hang out.

So Matt was in and Reed was in town because he was playing with someone else, which is sort of a weird coincidence. We just had an amazing night of improv and I have it [recorded]. One of the songs is on my website, on the "More" page.

That was the first night I had really played with Chamberlain and Reed and I remember just feeling like it was the easiest thing in the world. I'd never played with a drummer that was as comforting and easy to play with. It was effortless. I've always known in the back of my mind that I was gonna do something with [those two]. That was in 2004 and three years later we did the Live at Tonic record and a tour to promote the record, and I called Matt and Reed to do that tour.

AAJ: Was this record the natural progression from doing the "Live at Tonic" record? After doing that were you convinced it was time to go into the studio and cut a solo record?

MB: Yeah—totally. I actually wanted to do more with the Live at Tonic. We had about 8 or 9 tracks of stuff that we could edited, and I wanted to bring it home and put out sort of a different live record. But the multi-track tapes that I got from the person who taped it were totally blank.

I didn't plan on releasing Tonic at all—I do gigs in New York all the time that get taped that I have at my house and I never release them. But Andy wanted to release it and I said sure. It wasn't really exactly what I wanted but it's still great music and I figured I should put it out.

So then I thought, "OK now I can really go into a studio and do it over again." I realized that in the wake of Tonic I could release a studio record that even has some tunes from Tonic on it. "Record Book" is on disc one of Live at Tonic, but with Chamberlain on drums so it has a whole different feel to it. "Ruby" is called "The Arrival of Greatness" on Tonic.

AAJ: With regards to your songwriting, all your music seems to have a pop sensibility to it, but how much improvisation goes into the music, specifically on this new record?

MB: I would say there are sections [of songs] that lend themselves to improvisation. Certain songs follow a traditional jazz form of ABA tune—you play the head, solo, play the head and it's done. "Are You The Favorite Person of Anybody" is that. There are definitely more sections to improvise that are designated as improv sections than say a Duo record.

For me, I love improvising and I love making shit up. At Sullivan Hall [in New York City] this month, I've been throwing together bands and just making up music all night, which is really fun. But I also love having a song form and improvising within that form. As a musician, and music being sort of a meditation and a release for me, I'm looking forward to that moment where it's, "OK—improvise—GO!" That's the kind of stuff that makes me feel like I'm never going to get old.

In the Duo—we used to be 80% improv, 20% tunes. No we're 90% tunes, 10% improv. It was a natural switch and I love what I'm doing with Joe but I also love having this outlet to throw bands together and do this improvisational shit. Maybe as a drummer you can relate, but I love improvising—that's what got me into music.

This is definitely a jazz tradition and I studied at the institution. I still like to take lessons whenever I can. I mean—I studied. Some people who are in bands never studied or never got into the jazz world. That jazz world opens you up to this whole other way of being a musician. It's like I got screwed, in a good way, like "Oh no—now you know you like improvising."

AAJ: With the Duo, and maybe this is just my perception, but it feels like more of an indie rock or traditional rock outfit. Was there an effort on your part to not be as "rock" and try and do something a little more jazz flavored? And maybe that comes out in just the instrument choices in that it is a piano and not some of the other organs you play in the Duo and so it inevitably sounds more "jazzy."

MB: There wasn't a conscious effort to make it different.

As a matter of fact, I recently talked to Joe about this because the Trio is opening up for the Duo at Mexicali Blues in New Jersey on February 22nd. I was talking to Joe about it and he was hesitant to say yes and I asked why. "Well it just sounds a lot like the Duo." I was like "Woah! I don't think this music sounds like the Duo at all personally."

AAJ: Yeah I don't think it does.

MB: It wasn't a conscious effort, the only effort was that I wanted to put out tunes that I had been holding on to for a while and [I wanted to] play them Matt, Reed and Andrew and record it. Maybe naturally, like I was saying there were some songs that Joe wasn't really vibing with, so these songs are going to come out like this because they didn't work with the Duo.

AAJ: What is a circuit-bent toy?

MB: Oh, man, you need to type that into YouTube. Some schools even show little kids how to circuit bend their Speak-and-Spell and they love it. When I was a kid I always like to take apart my shit but I never put it back together or made it rework. It's definitely a natural instinct to want to take your radio apart or take the backing of your Casio keyboard and look at the little green circuit board where all the wires are soldering.

Circuit bending is where you go in there and intercept a wire that's on that circuit board and you solder it onto a toggle switch or a knob and the you hit a button on your toy and flip the switch or turn the knob and see what it does to the sound. It's awesome. The only reason that I found out about it was my friend Tom Stephenson in Chicago showed up at a Duo show with a duffel bag filled with these toys. He said, "A friend of mine told me to come here—he thought you might be into this stuff," and he pulled out all these weird toys with weird pitch knobs. Joe and I both [fell in love] with the toys.

AAJ: So you use them on Duo records as well?

MB: Yeah on Play Pause Stop I use them on the first track, "Play Pause Stop," a lot. And I use circuit bent toys live with the duo. They just make these weird lo-fi, glitchy sounds that can be really effective. "If You Keep on Asking Me"—there's a bunch in there. And at the end of "Atari" there's a bunch. Actually the very end of "Atari," the last two seconds, is a circuit bent Speak and Spell.

You should get into them man—I just got a midi circuit bent Speak and Spell that can be triggered with a drum pad so when you hit the pad it makes [amazing sounds].

AAJ: So wrapping it all up, what's next for you? You mentioned earlier that there is some Duo and Trio dates that kinda overlap?

MB: The trio—Matt Chamberlain, Reed and I are gonna do a bunch of dates in May—New Orleans Jazz Fest, San Francisco, Boulder Theater.

AAJ: And you're working on a new Duo record also?

MB: If all goes well, Joe and I will release a new record in 2009. And I hope to release Live at Sullivan Hall.

Selected Discography

Marco Benevento, Invisible Babies (Hyena, 2008)

Marco Benevento, Live at Tonic (Ropeadope, 2007)

Benevento/Russo Duo, Play Pause Stop (Reincarnate/Butter Problems, 2006)

Benevento/Russo Duo, Best Reason to Buy the Sun (Ropeadope, 2005)

Benevento/Russo Duo, Darts ((Self Produced, 2003)

Benevento/Russo Duo, Benevento/Russo Duo (Self Produced, 2002)

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