Mental Flossing with Marco Benevento
Marco Benevento’s baby is gleefully bouncing on his hip as he plays one of the many vintage keyboards that clutter the basement of his Brooklyn apartment. Although it happens to be the morning of Valentine’s Day, when given the choice of doing a phone interview or a sit-down, Marco chose the more personal option. As we’ll soon find out, he’s quite verbose, both musically and verbally, and eye contact is his preferred method of punctuation. So, here I am: invading the Benevento homestead on a holiday devoted to love and have shown up sans chocolates or flowers, with only a tape recorder in hand.
While there is certainly love in the air, it is the potent aroma of fresh organic coffee that is most seductive. Marco and daughter Ruby are hovering over a recently purchased antique Mattel Optigan keyboard, while mother Katie slices some homemade banana bread in the makeshift recording studio/practice space’s quaint kitchenette.
Marco’s excited to discuss his new album, Invisible Baby, which consists of concise instrumental ditties and sounds more like indie rock or pop than the freeform jazz. It features drummers Andrew Barr (The Slip) and Matt Chamberlin (Critters Buggin, Tori Amos) and bassist Reed Mathis (Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Tea Leaf Green). Benevento, who claims the songs just wrote themselves, adds an array of piano, analog synthesizers and other assorted toys.
Like the freeform improvisation for which Marco and longtime collaborator Joe Russo are known, our conversation takes on a life of its own, often becoming a deep tangential study in the psychology of music. It’s not surprising given his deep passion for the art form and lifelong dedication to his craft. Or perhaps it’s just the coffee.
JW: At what age did you start playing music?
MB: Early, like five or six.
JW: Was your family musical?
MB: My family was musical in the way that they listened to a lot of music. My dad would always sing Italian music to me, and Beatles songs. I thought my dad wrote “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” until I heard The Beatles’ version. My parents bought a piano for my brother and me when we were younger. Before they bought it they asked me, “If we bought a piano, you would play it, right?” So they found an old antique upright and my brother and I took lessons. Then we learned a little bit about chords. My brother actually quit and I stuck with it. Music was always in my family. After dinner, we’d hang out by the piano and we’d try to play music. My older cousins knew how to play music so they would play and I would play. It was very beginner-type of stuff. But, I think it’s an important thing actually because it was just lots of love around music and family time.
JW: So you eventually attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston and made a lot of connections that I assume you still maintain today.
MB: Definitely. I met The Slip there, in Boston. I played with those guys a bunch. I think I was in their band for a little bit when they were really young. We would go play a room and play like Stevie Wonder tunes and some Slip tunes. I feel like I did their first gig with them in Boston, but I was like 18 or something. It was very casual. I had no idea what I was doing. I was like, “Oh sure, I’ll get on the train and take my keyboard over your house and play with you. Wait, who are you guys?” I actually got along with [Slip bassist] Marc [Friedman] pretty well. We would hang out a lot at Berkelee and he suggested I meet the rest of the band.
I met Joe [Russo] before college. I knew Joe in New Jersey. We grew up in towns that were next door to each other.
JW: Did you play music together in those days?
MB: Yeah we played in the sixth grade, long before high school or college. We played in all these bands together.
JW: Do you have photos and tapes from that era?
Marco laughs and walks towards the refrigerator where an 8th grade class photo is hanging.
MB: Look at this one laughing. That’s me and that’s Joe. So yeah, Joe and I go way back. When we first started playing music together, we just got along so easily. When we started playing again more recently, everything just sort of happened so easily because we grew up in the same town, because we learned our instruments together essentially, because we were in detention together, because we both liked Rush and Led Zeppelin together back in the day. Joe actually came to visit me at Berkelee because he was considering going to school there, but he decided to go to Boulder. But, when we got together in the city, it was just easy because we had known each other as kids. There was a lot of mind reading going on and musical connections. It was like we were brothers or something.
JW: It’s like the Barr brothers. There’s a certain chemistry that goes with just knowing each other even if it’s in a non-musical sense.
MB: Right, there’s a certain unconditional love and forgiveness. You don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not. You don’t have to play a certain way. You know each other so you just play how you want to play.
JW: Are you a football fan?
MB: confused, Um, yeah?
JW: There was a 60 Minutes piece on Tom Brady a month or two ago and they were out on the practice field with Tom and one of his receivers. Tom told the reporter what play he was going to run, but never told the receiver, who ran the pattern perfectly. When the reporter asked the receiver how he knew, he said he could just tell from the look that Brady gave him. I assume it’s a similar type of thing, improvising with Joe after all these years.
MB: Absolutely. We would play games in the car while we driving many many miles. We would do mind-reading games where I would hold a card and look at it and Joe would guess it. I would just look at the card and then look at him and he did it like twice in a row even.
JW: The suit and the number?
MB: Yeah. We would do it back and forth in the car and it was pretty amazing. And it happens on stage too, with songs. We never write setlists, but we look at each other and are like, “Okay, I know what you want to do.”
JW: Before starting a song from scratch, or as you’re segueing?
MB: No, before the song. I’ll be like “So, what do you want to play?” And, he’ll just look at me and I’ll be like, “Oh, okay, Soba’. Let’s do it.”
MB: Well, I’ve been lucky to be in a band with someone I’m so close to. I’m sure Andrew and Brad [Barr] would talk about the same thing. They probably have an incredible mind-reading thing going on. I’m very much into that realm of music. That’s sort of how I do my own thing anyway, within my own life. If you give someone enough space and you don’t really invade them too much, they’ll be who they are. And even with [my wife] Katie and [my daughter] Ruby, I’m really into letting things just breath naturally and not forcing a lot of things. This is life. What do you want to do? We can do whatever we want to do. I think and I know that there’s a direct correlation between being a musician and performing. Your own philosophy in life immediately comes through on stage. A lot of people will say, “Oh, Marco’s such a happy guy and he’s got a lot of energy.” And that’s so true. It really comes across. I’m very vulnerable on stage and I’m just like, “This is who I am. This is what I do.” Sometimes, with Joe, I’ve been on stage and thought that he was fucking pissed and people think he’s angry. It’s just how he is. Maybe because we’re the ying and the yang it works really well, our music. There’s all this tension with just how we are as two different people.
Are you in a rush? Cuz I’m not in a rush.
JW: No, I’ve got time. Well, let’s delve a little deeper into the improvisational realm then. Carlos Santana says that the music is already out there in the cosmos and he’s just a conduit channeling it. Even someone like Bob Dylan claims that the song already exists and he’s just the one writing it down.
MB: It’s true. Totally. I’ve been saying this a lot. Even with this new album, Invisible Baby, the tunes wrote themselves. They revealed themselves to me in the van or in the hotel room when I was messing around with a certain keyboard sound.
MB: Yeah, exactly. “Atari” and “Bus Ride” also wrote itself. Or, “The Real Morning Party,” I had nothing to do with that song. I actually did it in the van. I was cracking up the whole time.
JW: It sounds like that.
MB: Yeah. I erased it, but I saved the MP3 and I sent it to Katie and some friends and they all loved it and I thought that it could actually be a song.
JW: When I listen to it, it actually sounds like you’re cracking up as you’re playing it.
MB: Oh God, when we were recording it in the studio, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing in my headphones. It was a really cool feeling and it’s like the cheesiest song in the world. It’s not the cheesiest song in the world actually. There’re others.
*JW: It reminds me of a demo on a *
MB: Casio keyboard! Totally, exactly.
JW: Except the drums are much cooler.
MB: Right, the drums are much cooler.
JW: But it’s great. It’s got that retro innocence to it.
MB: That song wrote itself. “Ruby” actually did too. I was going to call it “The Arrival of Greatness,” but my dad was like, “You can’t use that title. It’s too [trite].” I had a dream about Ruby before she was born and in the dream I was holding her and she fell asleep on my arm and I remember thinking it was such an amazing feeling. I woke up and realized I was really going to have a kid in six months or so. It just felt really good. I went in the van with my keyboard and headphones and decided that I was just going to embrace that feeling that I had in my dream but not play anything or write anything without remembering that feeling. I wanted to stay in touch with that connection to my baby and try to write a song, or not try to write a song. So that’s how that one worked. It just sort of wrote itself. It’s important to leave yourself open. If your canvas already has paint on it before you try to paint a picture, you’re going to have to work around that. If you have a totally blank canvas, you can do whatever you want.
JW: A lot of people are terrified of that. To some, there’s nothing more intimidating than a blank piece of paper staring back at them.
MB: You’re right. But I guess I’m not in a rush to write music even though I seem to have been writing a lot lately. This whole album came from the nesting period I think; just me being home and preparing for a baby. We had a bunch of months off.
JW: Well, some people say it’s about getting your ego out of the way. There are lots of people that have musical talent, but the ones that really shine are the ones that are able to embrace it and not be self-conscious.
MB: Well yeah. My family has just nurtured that [notion] of just being yourself and not caring or questioning anything or thinking too much about anything. We have a pretty big family and everyone is very unique. I think that if everyone were to wish that someone was different then it would be a lot harder to be yourself, you know? They’ve all been very supportive of [me] doing whatever [I] want. I think that’s been helpful. My family has really helped me be the musician I am without ever really teaching me about music, but just encouraging me to be myself. I was just talking to my dad the other day and he said, “Look, you could make money. You could not make money. You could make music. You could not make music. As long as you’re happy with yourself, that’s all that matters.” I was like, “sweet.” That’s sort of how I feel. I made this record and it’s out and I’m really glad that people have been listening to it and liking it. It was really easy to make and I didn’t really think too much about it.
JW: It just seems very carefree, a window into your consciousness. It seems like you must have gotten along very well with Trey [Anastasio]and Mike [Gordon] from Phish, as they share a similar approach to music.
MB: We got along great. It was really easy to be myself around Mike and Trey because they’re very much into being themselves. You can just jump in and be your own freaky self. Mike, especially. He’s an amazing guy and just very creative. He doesn’t really force anything upon anyone. He’s a pretty mellow dude. I do remember hearing about back in the early days of Phish and maybe they even did it up until they finished, but they would get together and have the circle jams or whatever.
JW: The [Including Your Own] “Hey” exercise.
MB: Right. They would turn the lights off and play a groove.
JW: And drink mushroom tea
MB: _laughs_Yeah, I was going to say that, but I didn’t know… So, Trey would play something and then it would go around the circle and the Mike would change his thing and then Jon and then Page, so that eventually it would just be this ever-changing heartbeat. I was always into that. That’s such a great way to write music and get together with your friends, especially when you’re young and learning to play your instrument.
JW: You said that when you were writing the song “Ruby” and were trying to capture the same feeling you had in a dream. I would assume that this lucid space is also something you try to tap into when you’re improvisingif you’re lucky.
MB: If you’re lucky, definitely. With Joe, there’s a lot of eye contact, and there’s also a lot of purposefully avoiding eye contact. I know where he’s going. I don’t have to look. But every now and then, when we do something together, we’ll just sort of look up and laugh. With other folks, like at Sullivan Hall playing those Thursday nights, it’s a whole other thing. There are all these different personalities and I don’t usually play with them that often. It’s a similar thing to what Joe and I do as far as a mindset, but it’s definitely different. We have no idea what we’re gonna do. Bobby [Previte] is really good at that. I feel like Bobby and I have a really great connection too with improvising. It’s hard though because you’re sitting in a venue and people are there and they’ve paid money to come see you. You’re there to just make up music. You want to try avoid the expectations, but it’s hard to because all of these people are there, the lights are down, you’re ready to play and everyone’s looking at you like, “What do you got for us?” and I always feel like, “I got nothing..I’m not supposed to have anything. I’m just supposed to sit here and do it.” Sometimes you go to a show and there’re writers and other musicians or people that are just there to hear one or two songs and then leave. One of my most favorite things about going and seeing music is seeing a musician be the total freak that they are. I want them to be themselves and just totally let go of everything and just have a wonderful release. Did you see The Fringe when you lived in Boston? It was George Garzone and Bob Gullotti and John Lockwood. I’d go see those guys every Monday night and it was like “mental floss.” When I go and see improvised music especially in the smaller places I really just get to sit there and zone out. I really feel like it’s very therapeutic for me. I love listening to free music, Ornette Coleman and stuff like that.
JW: It’s such an interesting concept: having people pay to come watch you improvise literally with nothing prepared. If you’re truly going to take that gamble and put your self out there, you have just as much of a chance of having a train wreck as you do of having this amazing cathartic experience. The bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff.
MB: Right, and I love that. It’s one of my most favorite things to do. The Sullivan Hall thing I just couldn’t believe. I remember thinking, “There’re 300 people here to see me, Stanton Moore and Marc Friedman. We’ve never played music before and there’re 300 people here.” People wanted to come see us to see what the hell was going to happen, you know.” And, I had no idea what we were going to play. All of these people were telling me how great it was going to be and I was just like, “How do you know it’s going to be great? We’ve never played a show together.”
JW: Was it great? I only caught two of the shows in the residency.
MB: It was one of my most favorite nights actually. I read somewhere that it was someone else’s least favorite night, but that’s how it is. Rolling Stone critic] David Fricke was there, so I wanted to play these three songs upfront that we knew and then we sort of were left with the rest of the show to make stuff up. It was really awkward at first because we had no idea how we would mesh. But, I liked it because it was so risky. You know? It was like, “How are we going to end this song? There are 300 people here.” But, I love that wildcard, not knowing what’s going to happen.
JW: Technical ability will only get you so far in improvisation, so clearly there is a certain mindset that one must possess to be successful in a freeform setting. Have you been able to determine what causes great improv? Do you find yourself less prone to stress because of the way you live your life and does this in turn help you as a musician?
MB: Yes, totally. I feel like so many people get sick or end up worrying. You do it to yourself, just like Radiohead said. You can make yourself sick by thinking about it enough. You can also bring your confidence level down or up with your own head or make yourself totally healthy. I totally feel like getting a hold of your head is really important. However, sometimes I do a lot of traveling. If I’m flying somewhere and am really starting to lose my head because I’m so busy and deprived of sleep, I actually wind up having a killer [show].
JW: It’s a release.
MB: Yeah. And maybe it’s because you’re so close to being asleep, that you’re almost in that dream state. It’s easier sometimes because you’re really relaxed and you wind up being more of a channel. You’re just so tired that you’re just about to crash and you’re just surrendering and then you sleep. Sometimes it hurts when you’re just super exhausted and you can’t focus, but sometimes it really helps. Sometimes I play my best shows when I’ve been home and got a lot of sleep, practiced a lot, ate a killer organic tofu brown rice meal, went to the venue, had some water and Vitamin C and I really played to my potential. So, I’ve found that some musicians really try to do the same thing every night so it winds up being just as good as it was last night. Sometimes Joe does that. He’ll have a really good gig and then he’ll have the same meal he had that night the next night. Sometimes you try to dial it in and it doesn’t work. I would say all in all it’s hard to dial in a recipe for when it’s going to be a great show. But, that’s the point. The music is going to be what it’s going to be. You have to get to a point where you don’t let it bother you and the way to do that is to just gig all of the time. It’s like anything you do. It’s like cooking. You get better at doing something the more you do it. If you make an awesome pasta dish or whatever, you’ve made it so many times you don’t have to think about it.
JW: The difference being that you can’t follow the same recipe with art.
MB: You can’t and that’s the great thing about it. I have that attitude about albums too. That’s my album. It’s done. What am I doing next? I’m glad I put it out there, but what’s coming next? I don’t like to dwell on things too much. With Invisible Baby, I just looked at it in simple terms, “This is the A section, this is the B and this is the C section”
JW: The invisible baby was a C-Section?
MB: laughs Yeah! After the B section, we’ll have a C-Section and then we’ll have a baby!
JW: Why “Invisible Baby”? Is that because you had that premonition before Ruby was born?
MB: The title? No. Have you seen that skit on Saturday Night Live making fun of Iconoclasts with Charles Barkely and Bjork? Do you know what Iconoclasts is? Well, they pair up two pretty famous folks and they hang out and shoot the shit. So Saturday Night Live did a skit where they paired up Charles Barkely and Bjork, a total weird combo imitates nearly the entire skit from memory, much to the delight of his wife, Katie, who is now in the room. I thought it was a really great skit. At one point, Bjork says in creepy Bjork voice “Would you like to hold my invisible baby?” Katie and I were just laughing a lot about that line all the time. She took some sticker lettering and wrote “Invisible Baby” on my phone so I had that on my phone for a while. When I was looking for a title for my album I just figured I’d use that. A lot of people come up to me and say, “Oh is Ruby the invisible baby?” and I’m like, “No, she’s the real baby!”
KB: Our friend said, “Oh, invisible baby’ is like your music.”
MB: Right and it actually matched the painting that I used for the album cover. It was done by Baptiste Ibar. My parents actually have that painting in their house. He’s a really great Brooklyn artist. His paintings are actually featured in The Science of Sleep, that Michel Gondry movie. He’s a longtime friend. He did the whole design of the album artwork. It’s all analog, even the artwork. It’s a scanned-in photo of a handmade painting. Katie wrote all of this [text] down and we used handwriting on the cover. All of the instruments were captured on some nice, old equipment.
JW: Clearly a lot of the keyboards you used were analog, but you also chose to record to analog tape instead of digital, which is much cheaper, and easier.
MB: Well, I played my piano and ran it through all of these effects, old distortions and delays and then ran it through an old tube amp, an old projector from the 50s, put a mic on that tube amp and speaker, ran that through an old mixing board, ran that through tape and then ran that through a computer. So it goes through all of these wonderful things before it gets captured. When you listen to it, even though it is on ProTools, it’s after it’s gone through all of these various effects, instead of just going straight from the mic into the computer.
JW: And that was just a stylistic choice in an effort to capture the warmth and authenticity of analog?
MB: Yeah, totally. I mean, for a band that’s just piano, bass and drums, I like to make it have a big sound. [Drummer] Matt Chamberlin recommended we go into the studio to record and he knew of a great studio. He knew of a great engineer. And right away, he was suggesting which mics to use on his drums and that was impressive to me. That’s important as a musician. You want to know how to capture your sound. It’s a good learning experience to me. [John] Medeski is really into that too. He wants to play an instrument that vibrates and there aren’t that many keyboards out there that do that. The piano does. The Wurlitzer does. The Hammond Organ vibrates because there’s a tone wheel spinning. He needs to have that connection. And, that’s an important part of a musician is to have that connection to your instrument and then know how to capture it. Especially because that album is going to be out beyond my life, so I feel good that I took the time to really capture everything the way that I wanted to capture it. I really represented what I was trying to go for with this record, which was to have it be a piano trio, but to have it be a little more than that by adding melotron, banjo, Casio keyboards and then choosing how to capture it all.
JW: For an instrumental album, it’s certainly very lyrical, which is a bit ironic I suppose.
MB: That’s funny. That’s good. For me, when you sort of hear words in melody even though it’s just instrumental that has a connection to just being a vessel. You just want let that music speak through you.
JW: Well, I assume that playing all those Led Zeppelin vocal lines with your right hand certainly helps.
MB: That’s a really good point.
JW: Have you ever thought of working with a vocalist?
MB: I have, but no one’s really asked. If it comes up where I meet someone that’s written lyrics to one of my songs, I’d be into it. I haven’t gone out and looked for someone though.
JW: Do you feel like it might be limiting though? You’ve said that you like the fact that your music is open to interpretation to the listener.
MB: Right, and they get to paint their own picture. I love it when I catch people just getting lost in the music and they can interpret their own meaning from it.
JW: This is going to sound a bit sacrilegious, but when you’re covering Zeppelin, obviously there’s going to be a little improv here and there, but for the most part you’re staying true to the original structure of the songs. In a certain sense, is that less rewarding than just going out and playing freeform all night?
MB: Yeah, of course. Sometimes it occurs to me that I’m just playing [Robert Plant’s] vocal lines and his vocal lines aren’t really that intricate. They’re just bluesy, which is great, but as an artist and musician who wants to just chill and channel at the same time, being in a cover band isn’t the most rewarding thing, which is why we do it ten times a year. It’s fun. It’s a party scene. We love that music, so we love to do it, but as a creative artist, it’s not as rewarding.
JW: What does come to mind as some of the most rewarding improvisation moments in your past?
MB: A lot of the earlier days with Joe, sitting in the Subaru, touring with a Hammond Organ and a drum set in the back, were magical. I can’t pinpoint just one. A lot of nights that I’ve had here at Bar Four in Park Slope have been incredibly rewarding. It’s a small place, there’s a piano and about 20 people there and we’re more into a jazzy way of improvising. We’d play for about 90 minutes and I’d come home and just think how much I love playing free jazz. It all goes back to seeing The Fringe. Like I said, it’s like “mental floss.” It’s very cleansing.
JW: There are certain bands most bands – that go out and play the same set every night; great bands, like Tom Petty or something. Do you see any reward in that, personally?
MB: Yes, I do. I was just talking to Chamberlain about this because he just did a three-month tour with Tori Amos. He called me at the end of the tour and was out of his head. He was telling me about that feeling when you’ve been out on the road and you’re playing the same stuff every night, but when you go out on stage you just crush it because you know exactly what’s going on and you’re really getting to know the tunes on a microscopic level. Joe was also recently telling me that he misses our well-oiled machine. We used to just go on the road and we’d be all greased up and ready to go. There’s an amazing reward to having that train that is just ready to roll and that is playing the same songs every night. And, there are those little subtle changes that really do it for you in that particular situation. However, I find that I do get a little antsy. I get a little antsy pants. That’s just how I am. I get like, “Woah. Can we do something different please? Can we start the show with like you hitting the cymbal for like five minutes?” I just have that in me. I like curveballs. I like to surprise myself. I like to satisfy myself and sometimes when you’re playing the same thing every night, it’s hard to satisfy what you’re intuitively feeling to do at that moment. There’ve been nights when I’ve sat down at my instrument and I just want to play some weird stuff. It’s a double-edged sword, for sure. You want to represent yourself as a band and all of the music you’ve written, but at the same time, you want to represent your own self and how you’re feeling at the time. So it’s a delicate balance, for sure. It’s like everything. You just need to have a balance.
What I learned when I was at music school, which sort of seems like an oxymoron, is that I’m just going to be a student of music all of my life. That’s the biggest thing to learn. There’s no rush to get anywhere, except to just find your own comfort on your instrument. And, that comes from a certain jazz mentality like Coltrane and Bill Evans and Miles [Davis]: improvising every night, doing things differently each night, just being yourself. And that’s sort of what’s happening to me, but I’m in a rock world too, so I’m trying to do that in the rock/pop world. That’s sort of interesting because a lot of bands, like you said, play the same songs every night. They’re almost hiding behind their band because maybe some musicians if they weren’t in a certain band would have a really hard time playing with a lot of other people. I’m the type of person that loves being in a band, but I don’t need to hide behind it. I need one band to be one thing and another band be another thing.
JW: So what’s next for you, both in reality and on your fantasy chart?
MB: I want to make a new studio record with Joe. We’re working on that. I also want to make a new studio record with Matt and Reed. I was thinking about doing a record where we do all our own interpretations of covers. Then I was thinking maybe not. I actually have some originals that didn’t make it onto this album so maybe I’ll have some new originals on it. I was thinking about making a totally out-there experimental disc, just solo, me and all my keyboards and toys. I made Marcobenevento.com and on the cover there’s a little record player spinning and there’re all these weird circuit-bent little ditties. Somebody emailed me and asked when I was going to make an album with just circuit-bent toys and I’d really like to. I thought that would be something that wouldn’t sell any copies, but it would just be fun.
Jefferson Waful is the lighting designer for moe. and also co-hosts Jam Nation on XM Satellite Radio.