Brooklyn, NY based Pianist/Organist/Composer/Virtuoso Marco Benevento has accomplished many things during his musical tenure. Between his indie-rock duo Benevento Russo, his band Bustle In Your Hedgerow (you figure it out,) Garage A Trois (with Stanton Moore,) and his solo output, one could say Marco Benevento is slightly busy. Add a family on top of that, and it makes you wonder when the guy has time to sleep.
With a host of accolades under his belt, including Independent Music Awards wins and nominations, extensive performance credits, and his own record label Royal Potato Family, Marco is the type of musician that real musicians should look up to for inspiration, and motivation. This guy is busy! What have you done with your craft today?
Currently touring in support of his new album, Tigerface, on Royal Potato Family, you’ll find Marco revisiting Syracuse, Ithaca, and Albany on November 29, 30, and December 1st respectively. I caught up with Marco on the phone a day before the election to talk about his new release, his work/family balancing act, and what he has in store for 2013.
G- Hi Marco!
M- Hey what’s happening?
G- Not much. How are you?
M- I’m doing good. Sorry I missed your call.
G- That’s ok. Kevin informed me that you were probably putting your kids to sleep so I totally understand. You’re in the city right now, correct?
M- Actually, I moved from Brooklyn up to Upstate NY in Saugerties.
G- Oh ok… I was just going to ask how the situation was. Did Saugerties get hit at all?
M- Not as bad as Irene hit us last year. It hit coastal NY and NJ way worse than it hit us up here.
G- Good. I still have some friends in NYC that just got there power back, and I’m glad that you missed all that fun action down there.
M- Yea I know. I got lucky.
G- Yep. Mother Nature always wins… She’s not one to mess around with. But anyways, thank you for taking the time to speak with Live High Five this evening. It’s 10pm… Shouldn’t you be in bed by now?
M- (laughs) I should be.
G- So, you said that you recently moved up to Saugerties, NY, but I wanted to get your take on the NYC music scene… Tell me a bit about Brooklyn, NY’s music scene from your perspective… How is the scene in your eyes and how are the responses at your shows down there?
M- Well, we just played the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan, and about 500 people came to the show… It was one of the bigger ones we’ve done in NYC. And, you know, we’ve been touring for a while now. I’d say for the last 4 years we’ve been relatively busy… Dave Dreiwitz on Bass and Andy Borer on Drums and myself. So, it’s kind of this well oiled machine that’s got a good 2 hour set going right now, playing a lot of songs from the new record, Tigerface.
And, you know, the Brooklyn scene is just overwhelming and amazing at the same time. I lived there for 10 years, and, you know, there’s so many people there, it’s hard to stand out. You really have to meet a lot of people and, of course, be well versed at your instrument. You have to be able to get around in a lot of different musical settings. And it was fun while I was there! I moved to Saugerties, as I mentioned, but while I was in Brooklyn, I created a really thick network of musicians and friends and I keep on meeting new people from around there. There are a lot of musicians and artists around there…
G- Oh yes.
M- And it’s really inspiring to live there and creative with people and collaborate with people that you may have met just that day or within that same day. It’s great! It’s really a humbling experience.
G- Right on. I lived in Brooklyn for a while and went to school at NYU. It’s just a super versatile area musically. Did you have a favorite venue in Brooklyn or in NYC as a whole?
M- In Brooklyn, there’s a really great venue called The Bell House, kind of in the Park Slope/Cobble Hill area. That venue is incredible and the people who work there are super nice, and we had some great shows there. Southpaw is a classic venue that we’ve played a bunch…
G- I loved Southpaw! Unfortunately, it closed down.
M- Oh it did?
M- I didn’t know that.
G- Yea it closed down. Such a bummer… I loved that place!
M- But on a smaller scale, I should mention that I loved this place called Bar 4 in Park Slope. It holds about 50 or 60 people and has a bar, a small stage with a piano there, and I had a residency there where I played every Monday, you know, and it was just a blast! You’d get a lot of the local folks and it was a really good time down there at Bar 4 in Park Slope.
G- Right on! So, a little bit of a NY education we’re getting here today! You are just about to embark, or are already on a tour supporting your new release, Tigerface, which you released on Royal Potato Family. Can you tell us about the record… Where was it recorded, who was behind the boards, and how long did it take you to complete before you were comfortable with releasing it?
M- This record was pretty unique in the way that it was actually tracked in November and December of 2012, so that’s 2 years ago, and the record basically just came out. We tracked it 1 day at Trout in Brooklyn at Bryce Scoggins’ studio, and 2 days at East West in LA, which is where The Beach Boys recorded Pet Sounds, and we had my friend Tom Dillar engineer percussion, who has worked heavily with Jon Brion and lots of other people at East West studio. He’s a good all-around dude who loves experimental music and loves music in general.
So, it was a different record for me in the fact that I spent 2 years making it where normally, when I track a record, I’ll track it and maybe 6 months later, I’ll be done with it. I definitely do overdubs, but I don’t normally dwell on a lot of things. But this one, because we moved, in the time span of 2 years, I was able to sit with the music and listen to every take a lot, and really did a lot of frankensteining, a lot of post-production, overdubs, keyboards, and even, you know, listen to a take so many times that thought I should add vocals to a couple tunes, and actually sang them myself with my wife and some friends, and then sort of realized that it may be wise to add a singer, but I was like ‘No.’
I think it was the fact that I was able to spend 2 years with this. I feel like it let it breathe a bit more and let the tunes grow into their full potential.
G- Alright, and can you tell us a bit about the tunes? Where did you find the inspiration to write your new material? And to delve a bit further, since this is a 2-year project and you say it’s a bit unique, what was your general approach to writing songs?
M- My typical approach to writing songs is a bit loose. The difference between writing and recording songs would be when we’re recording and we’re in studio, there is a lot of quick decision making happening because we’re recording, we’re rolling, and at a certain time it’s going to be over. So, there was a lot of in-studio idea making, in-studio bridge writing or outro writing, and melody writing. There’s a lot of spontaneous writing in the studio.
These days, I almost like to be very under-prepared when I go into the studio because it’s nice to allow the input from the other musicians and it’s nice for you yourself, as the leader and organizer of the project, to just, you know, be open to suggestions and try things because it may feel slightly awkward in the studio, but when you go back and listen, you might be surprised of that things that come through that you might not normally do if you were just at home writing a song yourself.
So, I like to keep it open. Also, on the other side of things, there’s some songs ideas and chord progressions that I have in mind that I’ll sort of play the guys and say ‘Hey, this is a little song idea I have,’ and before you know it, we’ve just opened up a can of worms and everybody has an idea for how the song may go. So, I like to keep it loose.
Basically, though, a couple of tunes on the record were preconceived and in my brain from years past, and it’s pretty loose, and the post-production really glued it all together.
G- Nice. Right on! So, since I have you on the line, maybe I can get some trivia answer for some of the Marco Benevento fanatics out there. To get into a bit of your history a bit further, you’ve been performing for many years… When did you personally start your instrument and who were your main influences growing up?
M- I first started playing the piano when I was a kid with the classic piano lessons that you kind of hate that your parents make you do. But at the same time, I liked it, you know? I was interested in playing the piano and found myself sitting down as a kid just sort of noodling around with the keys here and there. Aside from the teacher that didn’t really turn me onto it, I still got into it in my own way. I had keyboards in my room and then I actually got a 4-track and really sort of started that whole thing where you put the headphones on at night and start messing with sounds and write music as a kid. So, I feel like that was an important part of growing up and, you know, learning about music on your own.
And then, you know, music that has inspired me along the way as a kid… I liked Rock N Roll, Led Zeppelin. And then I got into experimental jazz and I got into some electric Miles (Davis) along the way. I was also interested in traditional jazz like Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson and things like that, and I would say those experimental bands that came through along the way really opened up my eyes to this, like Tortoise. They put out a record called Standards that I really liked.
I like instrumental music. I like Booker T and the MG’s, sort of on the classic side of things, and I even like “The Memory of Elizabeth Reed” by The Allman Brothers. I hear that on the radio and it’s like ‘WHOA wow… That’s the Allman Brothers?!”
So, I went to concerts, and definitely saw some jazz… Made it to some NY clubs and NJ clubs growing up, and just had music coming at me all the time, and I was always playing music as a kid. I was always in bands, even when I was 15. We were playing Sweet 16 parties and what not, and it was always around. My folks liked music, and I was always doing it, and somewhere along the line, I decided to go to music school. That sealed the deal for me. And after music school, going to NYC, really cracked a lot open.
G- Yea it’s a sink or swim city, and you’re more than treading water, my friend. So kudos and keep it going!
M- Thank you!
G- Since you brought it up, another little quick bit of trivia, what was your first concert? Can you tell us how old you were, and where it took place?
M- Oh my first concert… Ugg.
G- Here I’ll share with you… Mine was MC Hammer, with En Vogue and Vanilla Ice opening.
M- Oh that’s awesome!
G- Not too bad! If you were in 6th grade and didn’t go to the show, you were the plague, so of course I went. (laughing)
M- You know, one of the first big shows that I saw was The Grateful Dead in 1991 when I was a freshman in high school.
M- I saw them at Giants Stadium and Steve Miller band opened up.
G- Wow. Ok, I think you kind of trumped me there. (laughing)
M- (laughing) I don’t know. That one was pretty good! I probably went to some other concerts as a kid, I just, like… I can’t even remember. I went to see Merlin The Magician when I was really little somewhere in Atlantic City I think, and that really freaked me out. It was awesome! (laughing)
G- Right on! What I’d like to ask now is, out of all of your collective output, do you have a favorite song you have ever written, or maybe to get to the heart of it a bit more, if you were to give 1 song to someone who had never heard your music before in order to make a new fan, what song would you select, and why?
M- I’d probably pick “This Is How It Goes” from the new album, and I think that’s because, first of all, it’s a newer song and it’s fresh for me in my brain. It’s a surprise for me to hear lyrics in my music… I’ve never had that. And I also feel like that song is pretty easy to listen to and the melody is pretty catchy. I feel like, on a universal level, of all the tunes I had, it was the one I would be mostly likely to see on the radio or something.
G- Alright. And on the same token, I’ve seen you before and a lot of the people who are up in this area and are excited about the shows have seen you before, but what should your fans, both old and new, expect of the performances when you guys hit the road, and what should some of the first time listeners expect to see when you take the stage?
M- I’d say get ready to hear an acoustic piano through guitar amps, and get ready to hear a rocking show! You know, it’s… the thing is definitely along the lines of good time music, and I think people should just get ready to hear some PIANO ROCKTRON POWER!
G- (laughing hysterically) Right on And we’re expecting and awaiting it! So, to take it to a serious note for a second, I wanted to take it back to touring for a minute because, as a man who has several different projects, a label, and a family, getting away from home must be difficult at times… I’ve done it myself, and it’s tough. How do you balance your many endeavors and family life with your performance schedule?
M- Well, I just like to immerse myself at home when I’m home, so that’s basically how I do it. My longest tour is like 2 weeks long so it’s not that bad. But, when I’m home, I’m really involved in the school that my girls go to, and just in the community meeting people around here. So, I feel like that balances it out for me.
And I’m able to do that a lot more now because I’m not working on a record and don’t have anything looming in my head that I want to finish. So when I’m home, I’m home, and that’s great. I definitely have a tendency to be home and in my studio, and be sort of locked into this music world, but I have to get out of that because it’s like ‘Dude, you’re home. Hang out with your family… It’s the best thing ever!’ And I love doing it… I’m very much a family man and love being at home with my girls and picking them up after school and taking them to karate and all that stuff. I think that’s a big one, and another big is that the tours aren’t that long, and they’re filled with some space between them.
G- Good. Right on. Well, you have already played shows all over the place, and have an extensive performance background behind you, but are there any bands or artists that you hope to share a bill with in the future? What 3 artists would you like to perform with that would complete your Dream Lineup?
M- I’d like to play with Paul McCartney one day. That’d be pretty awesome!
G- Yes. Yes it would!
M- Uh, and what was the other question? (laughs)
G- Well, you answered a solid one, but if you could pick 3 artists to perform with you on stage, not necessarily at the same time, but if there was a Marco curated lineup that would make up your dream bill, what would it be?
M- I’d love to have a co-bill with 3 bands. Superhuman Happiness, which is a band that is on our label, and they are INCREDIBLE! They just have some awesome, awesome music. I’d like to do a show with them, and the band Rubblebucket.
G- Rubblebucket! Right on. And Paul McCartney?
M- Oh absolutely… We’d have to have him in there somewhere. Maybe he’d just be serving popcorn to everybody.
G- That sounds like a good one! Now, since you’ve played all these shows, do you have a particularly memorable moment and can you tell us where was it and what was it like?
M- We played Carnegie Hall opening up for Jamie Cullum.
M- And it was great being asked to be on that bill. We played the Newport Jazz Festival in RI a few years back, and maybe that helped us get the gig a little later. Playing Carnegie Hall was just incredible. It was a sold out show. We played for 45 minutes, but it was just… It was like the best sounding gig, and I just couldn’t believe we were playing there, and somehow, I just felt no nervous energy or anything. I just felt really comfortable and very happy to be playing that room, and we had a great gig.
G- That is awesome! I didn’t know that you played there before. I wish I knew about it a long time ago when it happened!
Lastly, and to finish up today, there are a lot of young bands out here. You’ve done it on the road and in the studio, and a lot of people look up to you for inspiration and really like what you’re doing, so what advice can you give some of the young, up and coming bands everywhere who want to make it in music, on the road, and as a professional musician such as yourself?
M- Well, you just got to start at the beginning would be my advice. A lot of people don’t know where to start, but you have to start at the beginning. I remember reading something in a magazine in an interview with John Medeski, and when they were starting out, they’d get 50 people to come see them at the Knitting Factory or something, and I remember reading that John mentioned ‘Well, if we can get 50 people at Knitting Factory, we should be able to get 50 people everywhere else in the country,’ and I thought wow… That’s a very practical way of starting. Play for 50 people in NY, and then try to play for 50 people in Philadelphia, and then try to play for 50 people in Baltimore, and just branch out from there. So that’s one bit of advice.
The second bit of advice would be to not freak out, and to realize that you can learn a lot of things from a lot of different people. You can be in a lot of situation with a lot of different musicians, but remember to make the art that you’d like to make over anything. Don’t let anything make you feel like you should change your ways… Just stay true to your intuition and the art you want to make for people.
G- That’s excellent! Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with Live High Five today. Marco will be in Syracuse, Ithaca, and Albany on November 29, 30, and December 1st. Marco, safe travels, play your heart out, and we’ll see you when you get up here, ok?
M- Great. See you soon!