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.
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