Putting On A TigerFace: The Barn's Marco Benevento Interview

TigerFace.  It's not an image I often think of, but in the context of the music of Marco Benevento, its easy to make some quick associations.  The head of the beast. Large, majestic, iconic, dangerous.  Yes, Marco's music is all of those things; well, maybe not so dangerous... but there's certainly enough risk taking contained to make it metaphorically so.  Bold and unrestrained in whatever form, Marco makes as huge, confident stride with his latest release.

The style and flow of his playing and songwriting have never been more innovative as he draws inspiration and encouragement from a broad palate of friends and influences.  With a slew of contributors, the liner notes read like the guest list to an unpredictable musical party -- defying genre or scene, yet somehow feeling totally cohesive.  He'll take the trio on the road this fall and feature the bass playing of Dave Dreiwitz (Ween) and drumming of Andrew Borger (Tom Waits, Norah Jones), including a stop at Chicago's Martyrs on Saturday 9/22 (click here for a chance to win free tickets).

We caught up with Marco to discuss the new record and its place within his always evolving career.

I want to dive in by talking about the new album, TigerFace.  I've listened to the whole thing a half a dozen times but I keep coming back to those first two songs.  They are such departure before getting back to familiar territory.

A lot of the vocal things happened after the fact.  We tracked a lot in December 2010, after the end of a tour.  It was a bunch of new ideas and  one song "This Is How It Goes", the second song on the record, was the first one I wound up toying with.  It is basically unedited and the exact take from the studio, the second of four takes.  I improvised a piano melody for the chord progression and wrote lyrics to that melody.  My wife and I and two friends actually sang it in our studio and we were like "Whoa! This sounds great with vocals!"

I wasn't planning on doing it, but eventually I came around to hiring [Rubblebucket's] Kalmia [Traver] to sing the melody.  After a while of hearing that scratch vocal part, I just thought it would be cool to have a singer that was a cross between Blondie and the Japanese singer from Deerhoof.  That really thin, delicate voice over the music.

I love Kal and I've played with her before so she was the first person that came to mind. Recording was an eye, and ear, opening experience.

When I listened to it the day after we tracked it with the vocals I actually laughed out loud.  I thought, "I've never heard my music sound like this!"  And I really liked it -- it was a nice change, a very natural evolution of the song and my songwriting over many years of working at it.  I wasn't purposely staying away from vocals prior to this but can't say I was seeking it either.

We released "This Is How It Goes" as a single that actually came out a few months ago and the response kind of led us to try and do something new.  "Limbs of a Pine" was more collaborate.  Kal wrote the words and the melody.  Matt Chamberlain wrote the drum part.

Tell me about the architecture of the album.  How did you decide to put those songs up front as opposed to sliding them in elsewhere in the album?  By making them the lead tracks, are you trying to communicate something or make a statement?

It was pretty hard to figure out the order. I tried scattering those tunes amongst the other instrumentals that sound closer to my other records; they just stuck out to me like a sore thumb.  I thought of somebody giving a record a chance and thought three songs was what they'd usually give it.  I felt that if I can get 10 or 15 minutes of someone's time... if they heard the first three songs and they liked them, I'd be satisfied.

And it's not that the rest of the album is secondary. I really like the tunes that are on there. I just felt I would grab the attention of people by putting those up front.

Defintitely. It drew me in and made me a more active listener before getting to that familiar, yet almost indescribable place: very much like jazz but with lots of hooks and rock sensibility.  I love that.

The third song doesn't even have vocals but does have that lyrical sense about it. I almost put "Fireworks" first to establish the foundation of instrumental music, but eventually went with "Limbs of a Pine."  It really felt I wanted people to put the record on and say "Whoa! This is Marco's new record?!  What!?!"

That's what happens. you just evolve.  It's not like I'm abandoning anything -- I'm just writing music naturally.  Instrumental music is always happening!  It's nice to do a change.

It almost has a transitional feel.  "Eagle Rock" also has a very sly vocal hook, but feels closer to your more established sound.

I wrote those words, too.  It's that choral singing where everybody's just chanting - almost soccer stadium style.  You can't really tell what the words are, it just sounds like  "whoa ohhh ohhh oh" -- that real anthemic rock thing that Arcade Fire does so well.

Are the tunes on TigerFace going to make up the bulk of the live set on your fall tour?

We'll play six or more songs from the record. We play "Limbs Of A Pine" -- I actually have Kal's vocals sampled for that main part. I can trigger it up on the keyboard when I'm ready.  It's kind of fun to pull that out as a dance tune near the end of the night. "This Is How It Goes" we play instrumentally.  But hey, if Kal's around and she can sit in...

I read that you were considering releasing this album under the name Human Assembly as opposed to your own name,  How did you end up back at a Marco record?

I didn't have enough material to go that route -- I could seeing doing it if there were six or seven songs that were radically different.  But this is still very much in the style of what I'm up to.  I couldn't make that leap.  Honestly, maybe I will down the line if others are free to do some touring and want to open this up.  I'd probably start another band versus change the name of my touring act.

At any given moment, it seems like you're in half a dozen different bands.  Your trio is  the one that you're definitely the leader of... but I'm curious about your perception of your role in other bands?  How do you tend to lend your musical voice in such a diverse set of bands?

In Garage A Trois, we're all leaders. Stanton is very much a leader, so is Skerik and Mike D. We all sort of take charge all the time which leads to a lot of aggression and volume in our music. That's really fun. it's a in-your-face kind of band.

Surprise Me Mr. Davis is like a rock outfit where I am more of a sideman. I just kind of find a cool piano part or mellotron part or something nice that fits with the songs that Brad Barr and Nathan Moore have already written.

That goes for studio work, too.  I just got a call from Carl Newman from New Pornographers., who had me play on his solo record. I came in with a "what do you want me to play?" thing and he said, "just play a cool organ part!"

He likes my playing, he knows what I'm up to, he just wants me to come up with a cool sound, not necessarily something that will stick out in a brilliant or ornamental way.  I frequently have a softer voice in others' music which is a challenge in itself. But my favorite is my own thing, when I'm driving, directing writing.  I take it even further... I have my own record label!

When I'm driving the train, that's really the most rewarding.  It's my own vision and one of my favorite elements of having my own band is actually sitting behind a piano versus a synthesizer or Hammond organ!

LISTEN: The Many Bands Of Benevento: A Marco Playlist

It sounds like there is a lot of trust.  I always get the feeling that you're part of a collective musical mutual admiration society where everybody  gives each other a lot of latitude. Where did that approach come from?  

It probably started with  the way I was raised.  I've always been surrounded by people, family, situations....  if there's a piano, "hey, play us a song!"  Don't make a fuss.  Just do it.  Do your thing.  Being raised around music and having it around all my life was really helpful.

It stuck with me into college.  All the friends I've met at festivals and venues.  You naturally figure out how to help someone, how to make the music sound good. Ultimately, it's not about you.  It's about how the song sounds, how the music sounds and how you support it.  That total approach is something that you learn after years and years of touring and playing  -- it takes time.

Every musician will go through a period where they think they have to sound their best all the time .  They'll keep asking how they sounded -- they get worried.  After years of touring and collaborating, people trust you.  You trust yourself.  You figure out how to do it right. And if you do it wrong, you take that as a way to figure out how to make it better.

You've recently moved away from the city to Saugerties.  Given your reliance on collaborators, has that been a challenge?

No. It's actually pretty cool because I live 100 miles from the city and that's really not far at all.  It's easy for my friends to come up and spend the night and rehearse up there.  It's actually more conducive!

Less of a distraction?

Sometimes its hard to get together or find a space where you can actually play.  I'm not in the sticks -- I'm in the Woodstock area.  When i go to the Farmer's Market, I  i say hi to Chris Wood.  I see John Medeski.  Donald Fagan lives in town. David Bowie lives close by. Jack DeJohnette just celebrated his 70th birthday at the Bearsville Theater.  There are some cool ass musicians up here!

When you hear a song, what makes you think "I want to cover this"?

Normally it is just a song that I really like and listen to a lot.  I feel like it's something maybe I wish I wrote or hope that i could write something like.  First and foremost, it'll be one of my favorite songs, but in a different way than Led Zeppelin is your favorite band and all those songs are awesome.  A chord progression is really interesting or hits me really hard.  When I listen to that song i like it every time i listen to it.

For example:  "The Knife" by Heartbeats.  I wound up listening to that song once a night for an entire year.  Sometimes those favorite songs of yours don't translate well to your band.  They don't work in the setting that your in.

Marco Jamming Out The Phish Covers On Jam Cruise

They have to be songs that really move me.  It could range from quiet Leonard Cohen tune to a a really loud modern rock song by Sleigh Bells.  I really like "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy" by Leonard Cohen because of the way the whole chord progression works with the melody.  It's not about a style; it's about the way a song works, the way it sounds.

One more question that I have to ask on behalf of a friend.  Would you guys consider bringing on a vocalist for Bustle In Your Hedgerow?

We would do it if it was a really cool special guest. I don't see it permanently.  Everybody in the band likes the way we interpret and honestly it's kind of fun to play the vocal parts on a Hammond organ. It really comes close to the way it sounds when Plant's  hitting the high notes.

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