Marco Benevento - “Live Performance - You Can’t Edit Your Mistakes”
By @312mrg Photos: Rickie Kostiner & Adam McCall
Cue dramatic deep buttery movie theater preview voice... “In a world of so many live music acts that draw the attention, focus and dissection of a rabid fanbase, that world always seems to course correct and clamor over a certain few. But in this case, it’s a musician. He’s seemingly at the heart and core of so many things we LOVE. Marco Benevento in SWIFT!”
Marco Benevento is associated with a long list of must see acts (Click HERE for a past playlist the Barn pieced together). But there is a blossoming confidence and creativity centered around Marco’s now five album deep solo career, as evidenced by the evolution of his songwriting. Tapping a spring of inspiration, Marco finds it playing with the context of his trio. It is his heart and soul, and it’s what is right and good about our music scene: creativity, spontaneity, feeding our musical OCD and unsatisfied hunger for the unexpected.
It's rare to come across a casual Benevento listener. He isn’t capable of attracting that little of attention. He leaves his stank on you. His stage persona is vibrant like a peacock and his tone and styles are a demented and manic sonic assault.
I caught up with Marco in advance of a fall/winter tour that hits some notable and intimate spots including Woodland’s Tavern in Columbus (great slices!), Martyr’s here in Chicago(great vibes), and concludes at the epicenter of the New York scene, the Brooklyn Bowl. This conversation started as an interview and became an inspirational story. It’s about pushing boundaries and breathing the air around. Success is said to breed complacency, and while he's experienced plenty of success, Marco continues taking risks and challenging himself.
He's also slid into another musical suit that he’s only rented in the past -- but this time he owns it. The recent release of his new album Swift has expanded and refreshed his songwriting capabilities, this time with lyrics.
Swift seems to follow an evolution for the concept of including vocals in your songs that has progressed from anthemic chants like "Play Pause Stop" through dipping your toe in the lyrical pool with TigerFace. Looking at your solo career historically, it seems there was a drive to do more with your voice as an instrument. Was it a vision?
It was both, it was a vision and a natural evolution of sound for me. Because like you said, with TigerFace, the first two tunes was kind of the beginning of hearing my songs with words and a singer. And I really liked that element a lot. When I heard "This is How It Goes," with the vocals about 3 years ago, I remember sitting in my studio and some light bulb or something went off, and I was like, "OH! This is really nice to hear my songs with words, I’ve never really done this before."
I don’t know, maybe it’s getting a little older and wanting to sing more. I don’t really know what drew me to it --- either a natural love for wanting to sing more or a natural love for wanting to hear my songs with vocals. So when I was writing all these new tunes for Swift, I actually thought I’ll have Kal[mia Traver of Rubblebucket] sing them. But then I had a moment when I realized I’m going to sing them myself.
I was singing a lot in my studio, doing a lot of demo-ing. We were playing the songs live, and we got A LOT of great feedback from the audience. We had been playing all these new tunes -- like five of the new songs off Swift we were playing prior to the record coming out for many months. And we’d put them towards the end of the set, where we were all warmed up and felt like we had the crowd’s attention.
And at the end of the show, these people would come up and say, “I really love that you are singing now”, and “those songs are great”. It was really cool, because even prior to going into the studio and the record coming out, we had road tested them, so there was this great reception in that regard. So that was somewhat reassuring. I like having that other element in our show, the singing element really brings people’s attention toward the music. You see them engaged a little more, and it was really rewarding.
I’m working on lyrics, I’m working on singing, I’m finding what keys are good for my voice. You know, our show is still 60/40, instrumental and vocal, but it’s been really well received, which has led to this energy and I’m totally hooked on it. I’m already working on a bunch of new songs for the next record. I’ve just been bombarded with lots of new song ideas... lyric ideas. I’ll admit that writing words, it being a new “instrument” for me, it’s hard. Because you really want to get something down that you like, or that makes sense. So I like the challenge, I really like doing it.
The Barn: "Witches of Ulster"...that is such a great video, I really love the colors used...it matches the tone of the song perfectly...how much influence did you have in it its interpretation and who made it?
Marco: A lady named Anne Beal... she made a video for a friend of mine’s band called Arc Iris. I loved her video and I love that drawing on film look. I’ve always wanted a sort of animated video and it felt like now was the time. I sent her footage of me driving in the car, I sent her footage of me rolling down the hill on my skateboard with the camera facing up, footage of leaves from the fall foliage, told her what I imagined. I told her I wanted to have a driving video...I kind of had a vision for what I wanted it to be like, be then she just NAILED it! Did a great job!
Is there a story behind the Witch element?
It’s more of stuff that relates to my life, I wrote the song in the dead of winter and was super nestled up here in Woodstock, which is in Ulster County and it just sort of of imagination world of looking out the window and things that happen outside of the house.
You have said you never really liked the sound of your voice and that it was too nasally. How did you trudge the hill to get to the place where you could let go or confidently allow your vocals to redefine what Marco Benevento does and his associated sound?
I basically realized that everyone hates the sound of their own voice... and I should have realized it earlier. Maybe the moment when you are singing and you hear your voice and thinking, “man my voice sucks," but then I would re-listen and think, “you know maybe it doesn’t sound that bad...it’s the sound of someone singing."
It was probably that moment I was writing and thinking I was going to call Kal to do all these vocal parts, and I just said you know what, I’m going to do them myself. I was playing them in the studio for myself, I was playing them in the car for my wife and kids who are 5 and 7, and you start to get used to it. I would play them and they would never say anything bad about my voice, so I just accepted it and went with it. You just gotta go for it, you know.
Sometimes I hear my voice, and I still think I don’t really have a great voice. I’m so used to hearing a recognizable voice like Robert Plant or Chris Robinson, or Rod Stewart -- you know these singers with character. My voice has this dull character or lower tone, it’s just basically an instrument playing a melody and providing a melody. Just adding that fourth element of an instrument to the three of us -- to the piano, bass and drums -- has turned it into a whole ‘nother thing which has probably been the biggest attraction. Just a whole new sound in there.
It really helps with the show. It helps as a musician to push myself to a new beginning...it’s really added an element and helped me creatively, writing music. I mean I already have about seven new songs done for the new album, and I feel more inspired to write music.
Yeah, he came over to the house and listened to all of the demos. I was inspired to have him come over to the house because of the trumpet player from Rubblebucket, his name is Alex (Toth) -- he and Kal are responsible for a majority of the writing for Rubblebucket. We were having a conversation about our new records, and he was telling me he was going out to LA to have a 3 day pow-wow with some guy about lyric writing. He was going out there to sit with this guy for three days and try to come up with lyrics and songs, and my first reaction was: that seems like a waste of time. We then got into a deep conversation about the importance of lyrics and words in your music. By the end of our conversation, my entire thought process about writing music and lyrics had changed. I was thinking, "wow, I should have a pow-wow, because this is my first album with lyrics and vocals? I should probably do that and not easily dismiss it as a bad idea."
So I thought... who lives around here in Woodstock that I can have over and show them the words and play the demos for? Hear if they’re like “dude, you’re crazy!” or, “yeah, it sounds fine”?
So Amy Helm lives up here, Tracy Bonham lives up here, and they were people I had thought about...but then Aaron’s name came up, and I love Ween. He just moved up here, and I had just done a lot of the keys on his new record, and we decided to trade services, in a way. I played on his record and in return he came over and we had a “lyric pow-wow” -- which is just like what a lot of Woodstock people do when you’re off the road. You are kind of up here just doing projects with people and generally just sort of hang out, record for them and just kind of do the rodeo with your friends.
So he came over, we drank some tea, we listened to all the demos, I pulled up all the words and you know, some songs he would say, “that sounds fine”, and some songs he was like, “I might change that word”, or “maybe try not to use too many of this word or that word…”, you know he gave me simple subtle little compliments and comments, he didn’t really get too deep. But having him around was cool, having him listen to the music and say, “Yeah, that line doesn’t make any sense, but make it all happen with the second line” or “I like this, it reminds me of something Dylan would write…”.
I mean, I realized I never really never checked out a lot of lyrics. I was always more interested in the music part of things, and now I really find myself interested in the words, and the story and the way that all ties into the music. Like I mentioned, it’s a really great new instrument for me.
Have you ever thought about revisiting any songs and thought about adding your vocals to add a layer to them? Or are you forward thinking?
Yeah, I’ve thought about that. But I don’t think I’ll do that. But I have thought about adding some words to some other songs I’ve written. Or maybe reworking and adding vocals, but I don’t know if I will rush into that…
What about any covers you perform, like say Amy Winehouse’s "You Know I’m No Good"… I mean it has it’s arrangement, but does this newfound interest cause you to rethink something like that?
Maybe newer covers, like we’ve been playing "Doorbell" by the White Stripes and I sing on that...but I don’t know, I can’t see myself changing [arrangements], because I kind of like the way they're mine, just instrumental groovy numbers.
It appears you've stripped down, scaled back or honed in instrumentally to the piano with a handful of toys and pedals? With the arsenal you've used in the past -- electronic gizmos and Speak & Spells -- is there a focus on less pyrotechnics to make the vocals stand out?
You are a little right with that, but the only reason why I’m hesitant to say I’m scaling back, is because in a way what I’ve almost done is just consolidate. I have all these circuit bent toys that I use for certain parts of songs and they help me write as well. And I make tracks with them with drum machines etc., and toys and tape delays.
But now what I’m doing is instead of throwing them all in a road case and touring with them, I sample them at my house, make loops with them, and then trigger them with my feet, a little loop station. Instead of relying upon the battery operated toys that can typically break and don’t give you the same sound the second night in a row. I’ve taken all these sounds and condensed them into this little thing I can trigger. So it may appear that way, but instead of carrying this gear, I have it at the touch of a button. And I did that out of necessity because they break on the road or thinking I only use this for one part of a song, so I can just trigger that with one thing.
Regarding gear, how tough is it lugging that piano from stop to stop on tour?
It’s difficult. I mean it’s easy in a way because it’s the lightest one I have, but there are all these pedals the piano run through and the amp, and my vocals run through all these pedals...so I guess I haven’t scaled back one bit (laughs)...but you are right in that I’ve had to find a way to highlight the vocals more than in the past with doing only instrumentals. There has been more focus on the song than the tweak out moment or the jamming. We love to take that Amy Winehouse song on a ride -- that’s an element I’ll never take out of my live performances. But I’ve had to really focus on these songs and playing them live, and focus more on the structured element of them.
You had the material in support of TigerFace, and then you had this mask. I’ve seen photographs of fans with the actual Tigerface or you guys would wear it on stage. Was it a concept or a personality for that tour? It almost seemed like an inside joke that took on a life of it’s own at shows…
Tigerface was actually a friend of mine’s band’s name, and I always liked the name. He’s actually done a lot of artwork for the band, including for that album. For years I’ve wanted to make an album called TigerFace, but I felt like I couldn’t because of their band. Then, they didn’t do any shows and pretty much broke up, and I thought, “OK, now’s the time”, and I told my friend I gotta call the record TigerFace and he was all about it.
The mask we just found at a rest stop, many albums prior to TigerFace, I think it was in Canada. You were supposed to put it on the front of your truck, but we cut a hole in it, and poked the eyes out and made a mask out of it. It was all coincidental.
When we first started touring that album, it was just hanging on the side of the piano, and then one night I put it on, and we just had to do it every other gig for the last 2 years. I flew with it to Italy, we traveled with it everywhere. We’ve destroyed it, we need to get a new one, so currently we are not touring with it. Those were some fun times.
You attended Berklee School of Music...when did higher education in music become what you decided you either needed or wanted to do?
I did a lot of sports and was always into music. I got keyboards, a Korg Polysix, 4-track tape machine, and a drum machine...and I taught myself in my room a lot. Just sequencing music and then listening, I was always into that element of music. And I decided to go to music school right around that time that you need to decide if you want to go to college.
I had just realized how into music I was, I had done a bunch of summer camps, I was playing in bands, and playing gigs all over the place, piano solo gigs, gigs at restaurants, and Battle of the Bands. It was all sort of coming to light that music was going to be my focus. So I got accepted to Berklee, and I had to decide a major, and I was like, man I want to do all these majors...this is awesome!
I was very much into film scoring, recording engineering, compositions. So when it actually came down to it, I chose film scoring because I was into that element of sitting in a studio and writing music for films. But my view changed sort of halfway through when I was realizing that performance was actually the hardest major, because you can’t edit your mistakes -- you can’t change anything. You just have to be honest and true and fully present there in that moment. And if you mess up, you mess up. You have to live with it. It seemed like the hardest thing to do.
When I first went there, it seemed like the silliest thing, because it would seem that everyone that could perform, given that they were going to music school. You have to dial in whatever you have to dial in. But it turned out to be the most intriguing and interesting major, so I went for that. Doing gigs and recitals, I got hooked on it.
I studied with Brad Meldhau. I had an incredible seven-hour lesson with him at his house. I studied with Joanne Brackeen for years and years. With Kenny Werner... I was pretty much a student of jazz for a long time. It’s morphed into what it is today -- less jazzy, more sound and song oriented and going back to this little kid, sitting in his room with synthesizers and a 4-track. Kind of evolved into a bigger version of that.
Very full circle…
...with the love of performance
I’ve always found your playing very emotional. When you improvise in those live performances, where do you find your inspiration? Is it meditative and free form or do feelings and emotion tend to influence your improvisation?
I find my inspiration from countless random (and sometimes not so random) thoughts. Or maybe something that happened that day, or a song I might have heard that afternoon on our drive to the gig. Ideally, things are coming and going in your mind as you are playing and it's more of a "let loose" sort of mind frame verses a "dwelling on things" mind frame.
I guess the best gigs are the ones that seem to fly by and no "blockage" pops up, no thoughts get in the way that might make you too aware of yourself! So it's all three of the things you mentioned: it's meditative, free form and emotionally influenced.
You seem to be connected at the hip with (your bass player) Dave (Dreiwitz, also of Ween) -- what keeps bringing you guys back together for different projects? What makes him so special to you?
Well, we are both from New Jersey. We both have a love for Led Zeppelin. And Dave PLAYS the bass, and stays in the world of playing the bass. I like that. He’s very supportive, he hits the right note on the one, and sometimes bass players can be a little noodly. And that can be really cool, and there’s moments when I really like that, but I love Dave. It’s like walking on solid ground, he’s always gonna be right there for ya, not gonna be doing anything super fancy.
Marco Benevento hits Chicago and Martyr’s on Saturday November 8th in support of Swift with Dave Dreiwitz on bass (Ween & Bustle in Your Hedgerow) and Andy Borger (Tom Waits, Norah Jones) on drums.