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Published: 2007/08/24
by Jared Hecht

Marco Benevento: Innate Dorkiness and Distilled Tonic

Marco Benevento is many things to many people: half of The Duo, a quarter of G.R.A.B., a lone musician with a piano, a side-project staple – all of which are accompanied by a classic smile on the stage. He’s also a father, a husband-to-be and a T-shirt entrepreneur. Yet, as the following conversation reveals, one thing remains true through it all- this man is pretty fucking cool, and I’m not talking about Williamsburg-Brooklyn cool. Whether he’s engaged in telekinetic stage fights with Skerik, playing Benny Goodman with Mike Gordon, or picking his nose with Joe Russo, his personality is steadfast. He’s a self-proclaimed dork, but embracing it makes him real. Marco discusses his new release Live at Tonic, rumbling with musicians of all sorts, and his inevitable fatherly duty of teaching his daughter the finer points of life.

JH: Let’s talk about the new CD. During your residency at Tonic you had a bunch of musicians come out and play with you: Reed Mathis, Matt Chamberlain, Mike Gordon, Bobby Previte, Mike Dillon, Russo, Dave Dreiwitz and many more. Do you have a favorite night of music or memory from your stay at Tonic? What are your favorite moments on the new CD?

MB: I would say those are two different answers. One favorite night of music would be without a doubt the trio night [with Reed Mathis and Matt Chamberlain]. Mainly because when I moved to New York seven years ago, my whole goal was to be in a trio. That night was my favorite because I was playing the piano and playing in more of a jazz setting. We were playing cover tunes of today, some Leonard Cohen, some Radiohead, and some Carly Simon but it was in the jazz format. It was nice to be in that world.

Plus, I had played with Matt and Reed in 2004 on the Ropeadope New Music Seminar tour. We were supposed to play in Philly but the night got cancelled and the night before we had played in New York. I called up the Knitting Factory and was like, “Hey! All these awesome musicians are off tonight. It’s a Monday night. Can we do a gig there?” Skerik, Matt Chamberlain, Mike Dillon, we were all off. I called everybody and the people that showed up were Chamberlain, Brad Houser, Mike Dillon was there, and Reed was in town doing a gig with some other folks. So Reed came down and I just remember being like “Holy shit! I’m onstage with Reed and Matt.” They were my rhythm section for this vibe that I’d yet to fulfill in my life.

That was in the back of my mind and it finally came together for Tonic and it was just great. Matt is a very different drummer than most that I’ve played with. He’s a rock drummer that can improvise, which is really cool. So that was my favorite night. Every night was awesome in its own regard. I had always wanted to do an evening with just drummers. Back when I was at Berklee College of Music I would hang out with The Slip guys a lot. I’d always go to their house and we’d just play music, they had a great piano in there house. It would be me playing piano and five of my friends playing drums. And since then I always thought that I wanted to do a show and an album where it was just me playing piano and like five drummers. Drums are my second favorite instrument.

So the Trio night was great. Later that night Matt and Reed stayed at my house back in my apartment in Brooklyn and we sort of sat down in the kitchen and were like, “Whoa we gotta do that again! That was awesome! We have to do a West Coast tour.” And it happened.

Another favorite memory was the solo gig. I had never done a solo gig. I wasn’t frightened, but I had never done it before so I sort of popped that solo cherry and it was pretty nerve-racking because it was like, “Oh my God it’s just me! What do I do?” So I sort of hid behind all my instruments in this way. I didn’t just play piano, I brought all my instruments and I could run over to my organ and turn on my drum machine and do this and that. It was really cool. I didn’t really hide per se. But if it were just a solo piano gig.I think I’d like to do that next, just a solo piano, no bells and whistles. And if I do have any bells and whistles it will all just be acoustic stuff.

I’m like the ADD guy who needs to be doing a million things and likes to be doing a million things because I don’t like being known as one, well you know, “The keyboardist from the Duo!” So this year has sort of been my year of reaching out there in the internet world at least, which is a huge part of how people know about you, and reaching out and making more of a presence.

You know I am in The Duo and I freaking love The Duo and I’m excited to tour with Joe again this fall, but I also play piano and do other things. I have played with Charlie Hunter and all these other musicians and learned all this other music and I love doing all this other shit. This year was my year to branch out. I made my own website and started booking some side projects. I’m really psyched that I’ve been able to have the time to do so. I would say the main reason I have had the time is because I just had a baby girl in March. It was like no way am I going to leave my fiancome to figure it out. I wanted to be home and be around them so I had a bunch of time off and Joe and I had to scramble to figure out how we were going to survive so we booked some Bustle gigs and some random Duo gigs. For the most part I was home.

Towards the end of last year, I was really feeling like we [The Duo] were starting to over-saturate every market. That to me is the worst thing that can happen that you’re always everywhere so you don’t really go anywhere as far as bringing your attendance up at shows. If every three months you’re at Charlottesville, NC, how are you going to get bigger? It’s like what happened to The Duo at the beginning. We had a residency at the Knitting Factory when people came every week to see us. After a year of playing there we had to stop doing it because we didn’t know how we were going to grow if we were always there for free. Like if we do a show at the Wetlands or Tobacco Road, how are people going to actually pay? How are we going to make $50 each?

Five years after that it’s like, “How are we going to get bigger than the Bowery Ballroom?” because we keep on playing the Bowery Ballroom. Actually the promoter in Charlottesville, NC, the guy who booked the room was like, “I’m going to wait. You guys can’t come back until nine months from now!” And I was like, “You know what? I’ve been living in this van for fucking a long time!” So it was perfect timing with needing the time off and everybody in The Duo world realizing it, manager included and Joe, obviously.

We sort of forget the world we’ve been traveling in until it all stops. I was like, “Wait a minute, I’m a person in this world that has a life!” My whole life can’t just be living in the van and just touring. I don’t have any regrets about touring or anything. I didn’t think twice about booking tours and being on the road. I loved every second of it only until the last year of The Duo it was like, “Wait a minute, I need to do something else because I’m only doing this.” So it has been great to reach out and stretch out and do other things. I definitely plan on keeping a nice balance of life, family, and I think that’s what my daughter has done to my life is to make me realize that I’m someone’s dad now. I need to teach her about swimming, about tennis, about other things, instead of daddy is on tour and daddy is tired and daddy plays the piano.

This Tonic shows made it nice to work on something on my own. I can figure out how to write and arrange my own music as opposed to having it be a communal process like it is with Joe. We both figure out and rely upon each other to finish music and get ready for a tour which is awesome, it’s a beautiful thing to be like, “We need to get together and work together to write music!”

It’s equally as good being in a band and deciding all together how to write music or being home alone and deciding how to write music on your own. You have to have a healthy balance of sharing and alone time with composing music. There were many times when we used to do interviews, where Joe and I would read each other’s minds and finish each other’s sentences when we talked. And I was just thinking that I should learn how to finish my own sentences.

It has been really cool and sort of weird in that way too because it’s like, “Where’s my best friend Joe Russo?” But everybody wants to be satisfied. We’re not twenty two and jumping in a van and being like, “Woohoo!” Joe is thirty, I’m thirty and it’s different. We’re older, we’ve done a lot of things. We have gone through the adolescence of our touring years. Now it’s like we’re going on tour, how much are we making, and what are we going to do? Are we going to do something different? We want to make it more mature without losing the child-like stupidity and I don’t think we’ll ever lose that.

JH: How did your mini-tour in California go with Matt Chamberlain and Reed Mathis?

MB: It was cool. It was a bunch of works in progress that I came up with when I was at home huddling in my own basement world here. I have a duplex apartment and downstairs I have a ton of keyboards, lots of microphones and drums and I’ve been learning how to record on software like Logic and ProTools so I’ve been messing around with various ideas. I’ve been trying to figure out ways to arrange music.

The tour was great because I got a chance to hear all these new ideas with standout musicians. Reed is an amazing bass player and Matt is an incredible drummer. It was nice to see the light for the tunes that were otherwise sort of my own creations that I made down in the basement. It was nice in that regard and in the way we all just got along. We’re all pretty positive folks and we’re not trying to be cool. It’s like the kids in Williamsburg. You go to Williamsburg in Brooklyn, kids are trying to just be cool. They forget that the coolest thing is to be yourself which is sometimes just being a total dork. I’m a total dork, Matt is a total dork, Reed is a total dork! It was just really nice to be dorks together and in love with music and serving the music.

I feel with Matt and Reed my guard is totally down. I don’t even care about being too wired or too tired or too anything around those guys. I am whatever I feel like being and they are too. It really helps with serving the music more than trying to play the music. Matt and Reed and myself all have this childlike awe when we’re sitting down and playing our instruments. Matt hits the cymbal and he looks like a little five year old that has just hit the cymbal for the first time and is like, “Whoa! That was cool!” Or he will come up with a drum beat and be like, “Holy shit, what’s going on?” And I’ll look at him and be like, “Well I have no idea!”

There’s just a lot of nice things going on there. I think the common ground that we have, of course with varying degrees, is the fact that we all have thousands of shows under our belts. We have toured and played so many times that we’re just very comfortable behind our instruments. I think that has a lot to do with it. Matt is a seasoned drummer. He has done so many gigs. He’s very confident and relaxed behind his drum kit. Reed is too behind his bass. He’s not trying to do anything that is impossible. He’s functioning as a bass player which is an important thing for musicians to realize across the board is that they all have a function. I have a function of being the pianist, Matt is functioning as the drummer so he just plays the drum beat. Everybody has their own function which people forget about sometimesespecially if you go to a music school because everyone wants to stand out. You know drummers overplay and bass players overplaythanks to Jaco.

But I feel like we have all matured and we have a lot of gigs under our belt to the point where all you want to do is a make a song sound good or make an improvisation sound good. I really feel like we all connected on that level. It was a total success.

JH: So over the past year or so you have played with The Duo, GRAB, Bustle in Your Hedgegrow, and solo residencies. Additionally, you have had a kid and are getting married. Is there ever a time when you say, “Enough! I need a break from music!”

MB: No. That’s what I do. This is what I do. My purpose is to not get burnt out on playing. I’ve finally only been able to play with these other people only over the past year. For the past four years I was only playing with Joe, primarily. For the most part I was a one man in one band sort of guy. This is all new to me to be able to play with other people. Maybe if we were to talk in five years after I have been doing a million things maybe I’d be able to just focus on one thing.

I do remember hearing that from Charlie Hunter. We went on a tour and Charlie was just like, “You know what, I gotta stop taking all these gigs with other people and just work on my own trio.” I thought it was great that he could do that and just pick one thing and go with it and make a living from doing that.

I always thought that could be a goal of mine to sort of hope to pick one thing The Duo or the Trio or whatever. But like I said I’m all over the place and enjoy being all over the place so I don’t see myself settling anytime soon. My fiancs a musician too, she plays drums and guitar. She loves traveling and meeting me out somewhere, flying out to see music. She’s very supportive in that way too as is my family. I’m leading a healthy balance of my own band as well as other projects. I see myself continuing to do other projects over the next couple years as well as recording and touring with Joe.

JH: How does it feel to go from playing giant ampitheatres last summer during GRAB tour to doing solo shows at Tonic and small venues like Joe’s Pub? What’s scarier?

MB: I was comfortable in each setting. The greatest thing about touring with such a pro musician like Trey and his whole crew is that the dude has the sound dialed in so well that when your on stage you can hear everything out of your monitor right there and you’re playing music. The energy from the crowd was incredibly different. I got filled with positivity so quickly on that tour and being around all those people was so awesome and so brilliant, I just felt great. But like I said I could hear everything just as well as I could anywhere I was playing.

I think what helped with that too was that Trey, Mike, and Joe came over to my apartment and we rehearsed at my house. Katie, my fiancwould make quiches and lunch for us and we would hang out and practice at my house. So we sort of bonded and got together nicely here in Brooklyn. We’d walk up the street to get sushi when we were done. It was a nice living room hang and that helped with the comfort level on that ampitheater tour.

As far as choosing one or the other I’m a big fan of people sitting about eight feet away from me, so I like the smaller rooms and I like the fact that if the PA system broke people would be able to still hear the piano. So I do love the smaller, avant-garde, jazz rooms, however rocking an ampitheater, like Bonnaroo! I don’t know where I was when I was playing there. There was something on YouTube, a video of Joe and I playing “Casey Jones” with Phil Lesh, Mike Gordon, and Trey and I watched it and was like, “Did this really happen? That’s pretty epic!” I didn’t really realize it at the time but it’s great that I was in that time with those guys because it wasgreat. I like both settings a lot. I’m way more familiar with the smaller room, so that’s why I’m leaning more towards that now. But I’d love to do another ampitheater tour with who knows whoanybody! But I’d be just as excited to play PNC Art Center as I would the Village Vanguard.

JH: How has it been playing with Dillon, Skerik, Moore in Garage a Benevento?

MB: You know what’s great about playing with them? They’re so open to trying new ideas. They’re very outgoing and it’s like playing with the Beastie Boys. I feel like they’re in your face. Mike D. and Skerik are very rambunctious. It’s awesome and so much fun. They’re very positive people too. That’s what I like about them. It’s totally different. It’s like a party, man. It’s so much fun. All their tunes are so simple and we really get a chance to improvise and have fun and not worry about if the song sounds good or notin a good way though! Not in like a sloppy way. It’s rambunctious in a fun way.

JH: Are there certain specific things you learn from playing with various musicians? For instance, how would you describe the difference of learning to play with Trey and Mike as opposed to Mike Dillon and Skerik?

MB: What I learnedTrey is a genuine listener. He’s a good listener. He wants to know that you’re listening and that you can hear him. He wants to be able to hear you. He was always looking at me a lot letting me know he could hear me or turning to the monitor guy a lot saying, “I need more Marco!” He’s very aware of responding. Most musicians I play with are like that too but I remember him being like that a lot.

But for example Mike D. was definitely wanting to hear me too but at the same time I felt like his focus was more like, “What’s the vibe like on stage? Is it positive? Is it up? It’s up! Let’s go! Let’s play!” What I learned from playing with Joeman I’ve learned so much from playing with that guy. It has been an amazing journey accidentally starting a band with him. Joe is very much a listener too. Joe also really cares a lot. He wants to make sure that the songhe’s sort of like OCD almost, obsessive compulsive about it. There were many days when we would try to practice or write music and things wouldn’t go anywhere for like a month. Maybe even longer. He’s always searching for the perfect way to make a segue which is really cool because you have to have that patience to write a killer song.

What I liked about playing with Mike, what I learned from him was how to embrace stupidity. He’s such a quirky weird guy. He just looks(_mumbles_) I didn’t finish that so you don’t know what I was going to say

JH: “He looks pretty,” is what you were going to say.

MB: He looks pretty! He just has this funny way ofI remember first touring with him I felt a little awkward even because I was thinking, “He hasn’t said anything. Is he okay? Is he bored? Is he wondering why he’s in the Duo band and not on a private jet or whatever?” Mike would just bust out the funniest joke or funniest response to something that I’d just be like, “Oh my god! You’re just so into your own little creative, colorful, crazy head that I don’t even need to worry about you because you’re psyched!”

He’s just conjuring up some weird joke or thought or new lyrical line for a song. He would sort of laugh at himself and look at you and be like, “Wasn’t that funny?” You know he wrote the song that was like, (_In Gordon voice_) “The tires are the things on your car that make contact with the road.” I think he’ll embrace that within himself and it will come out with his playing and improvisation. He will embrace that sort of stupid note, that quirky note that makes you turn your head and be like, “What did he just play?!” And he’ll do it again and again and he’ll turn his bass line which could be really weird to start with into something amazing. I always felt like he’s a great improviser too and felt like Phish was really good at those improvisations where they would sort of throw something out there that was out of the ordinary but embrace it and really turn it into something epic.

JH: I only had a chance to see one of your Tonic shows and that was the one with Gordon and it seemed like you guys were having a great time on stage, smiling and communicating and laughing.

MB: Yeah he was like, “I got a good idea I’ll put down my bass and whistle with my hands.” And I was like, “That’s awesome.” You know if you’re trying too hard to be cool in Williamsburg you’re not going to do that. I really like that about him and about a lot of my friends. They just don’t care to be stupid or dorky or whatever. It would suck if you were constantly worried about how cool you were or you were constantly worried aboutyou know what I mean? It’s sort of like throwing your hands up in the air and not trying to impress anybody, just play your instrument. If you like it you’re going to bite and come back. If you don’t like it you’ll go post something online saying you don’t like it. Whatever. Everybody has their own opinion about everything. Some people don’t like the Beatles and some people like the Beatles. No matter how big or small you are, there’s always a good and bad thing about everything it seems like. There’s no right or wrong way to look at it so why not just embrace whatever it is that you’re doing and love it and be likecool.

*JH: Speaking of people being coolone the cooler things that I think is happening are these wonderful T-Shirts going around right now. One of my friends always wears your shirts. Where’d you come up with the idea to start a T-Shirt company?*

MB: I’m looking at them right now. I think I did the wrong thing apparently. What I did was I got a bunch of money one tour and I had a lot saved so I was like, “I’ll invest it in T-Shirts because I’m definitely going to make a lot on T-Shirts. You get over 100% profit! So I have a huge pile of T-Shirts in my apartment that I’m staring at. My fiancalls it my “free business.” I give a lot of them away. I do sell them whenever I can but you know

It totally came from the insanity of traveling and being on the road so much. This is at the point when it was just Joe and I in the van with our tour manager who was really young and pretty much just in it for fun. We’d just be in the van and be like whatever, hungover, heat-deprived, or bummed that we had do drive sixteen hours you know fucking crazy shit. We would just blurt out”Bronco, our tour manager, his friend our friend of a friend got busted shooting up in the office.” And I was like, “Shootin’ up at the office! That’s a great T-Shirt idea!” If you keep track of that thing, things that would make a great T-Shirt idea, it comes up more than once. It comes a lot. And unfortunately some people actually make the T-Shirts

We were at this Thai restaurant in Madison, WI and there was this hot girl eating next to us and we were like, “Come to our show!” Total dorks. We were like, “Well what do you do?” And she was like, “I’m a DJ.” And I was like, “I’m a DJ too.” That’s a great way to pick up chicks that was another T-Shirt idea. “Remote Control Cars” was more the serious cool one that I thought would be good but apparently isn’t very cool at all. I need to pitch that in Williamsburg, maybe they’ll buy it.

It’s sort of a subtle underground way to connect with the musician. In some ways you know like wearing a Jerry Garcia tie, if I can even say so myself, it’s just a little window. You can be like, “Oh that’s one of Marco’s stupid T-Shirts!” It’s kind of cool to create another identity besides the rock musician or jazz musician. It’s nice to have another T-Shirt or logo that reminds you of someone too. You can go see the Grateful Dead and then go out to a fancy restaurant and wear a Jerry Garcia tie. It’s sort of a stretch connecting it to his line of clothing, but he’s the only other musician that I know that has another line of clothing. Although Gwen Stefani does doesn’t she? J. LoOh shit a lot of people have them actually. I’m way behind the times.

JH: Do you find a correlation between the perfect T-shirt design and playing piano?

MB: (_Laughs_) I mean yeah in a way where if you’re honest about both you’re probably going to come up with something that you and other people like. If I’m honest about “Oh totally Shootin’ up at the Office is fucking hilarious.” I’m going to put it on a T-Shirt and honestly do it and be like here wear this. And if I honestly think that certain chords may work even though they may be a little bit of a stretch it will come together and the end product will be something where someone turns their head and says, “Who is this?” or “Where’d you get that shirt?” I guess if you take a risk and go off and make something that makes people feel like, “What is that?!” then it will help you. That’s how I connect the two.

JH: If you could do another residency like Tonic and make a similar CD, where would you do your residency and who would you play with?

MB: I’d do it at the Triple Door in Seattle. I love that room. That piano is amazing. The sound system in there is unbelievable. The soundboard tapes that I get from them are the best ever. I think I would do a solo piano show in there with some other acoustic instruments, maybe. I’d probably treat it in a similar way where I’d do solo, a duo, a trio, a night with drummers. I’d probably do a lot of the same things again. Maybe if I did do it with Mike [Gordon] we’d have some more time to get all that stuff together so I could put more Benny Goodman stuff on the album. The only Benny Goodman tunes that made it were semi-put together well. All the other tunes that night we frantically got together. But it sounded good. I love that setting of bass and piano with no drums so that would be cool. But I would definitely have an evening of circuit-bent toy madness. I’d fly in my buddy who makes all those toys for me and do a duet with him. That would be something that I would do different. And I hopefully would maybe collaborate with Nels Cline.

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