Great interview with Tommy Benedetti from John Brown’s Body; Playing #Syracuse, NY TONIGHT 1/18/13!!! @johnbrownsbody
You’d be hard pressed to find a current roots-reggae band with more drive, innovation, and straight up talent than Ithaca, NY’s John Brown’s Body. If you have ever been to one of their performances, you know what I’m talking about. If you call yourself a reggae fan and haven’t seen them yet, you should either hustle up and get to one, or drop the “fan” moniker from your self-description. These guys wail!
As an octet, JBB brings its own veritable mob to the stage, dazzling fans with their unique, forward-thinking-yet-true-to-form Jamaican style. Having had the pleasure to open for JBB several times during my college years, the band always brought their A-game to the stage, and never relented during their performances.
I say again… Go see this band when they come near you… You will not be disappointed in the result! I got in touch with drummer Tommy Benedetti prior to their performance in Syracuse, NY to talk about the group’s lengthy history, their humble beginning, approach to writing music, and their plans for 2013.
G- Hi there and thank you very much for taking the time to speak with Live High Five today! How’s the New Year treating you?
T- So far so good, Greg, and thank you so much for calling. Yea, we’re off to a good start! We’re coming out your way to Syracuse and a bunch of other dates in the Northeast in January, so we’re going to kick it off proper!
G- Road dogs as always, huh?
T- Of course.
G- Beautiful! So, for some of our readers who may not be familiar with the group… First of all, that’s unfortunate, but let’s get everybody exposed! It’s a very large group of talent that you play with, but if you could please introduce the members in the group… Who is everyone, what do they play, and where does everyone come from?
T- Absolutely. Well myself, I play drums for the band and I’ve been with the band since day 1, and I’m in Boston right now. I’ve been here for the better part of 20 years. Our horn section is Drew Sayers. He lives in Brooklyn. Our trombone is Scott Flynn, and he’s also in Brooklyn. Our trumpet player is Sam Dechenne, and he lives here in Boston with me. Our guitarist is Jason and he lives in Ithaca. Elliot Martin, of course, is our singer and lives in Ithaca, born and raised there, and our keyboardist Jon Petronzio is in Ithaca as well, and our bass player Nate Edgar is in Brooklyn. So, we’re kinda this spread out between… Pretty much the way it’s always been with the band, it’s been the Boston/NY thing.
The last couple of years we’ve had a few guys move down to NYC, so that’s become another geographic point of the band. But for all these years, it’s been the Boston/Ithaca kinda thing.
G- Right on. Now, that’s like the reggae version of Wu-Tang Clan, man… You guys are huge!
T- That’s just the current guys, too. We could really go deep and get the past family tree, but that’s the current lineup. We have been through changes over the many years, but this current lineup is very solid, and it’s definitely a family vibe we’ve got going.
G- Excellent! Well, as I mentioned earlier, I can remember playing shows with JBB way back in the 90’s in Ithaca and Syracuse. The funny thing is, it was such a pro-caliber band and I never quite knew how or where you guys came from. For all I knew, you guys came straight off the island in Jamaica… It was tripped out to me. To reminisce a bit about your history since you’ve been there from the start, can you tell us a bit about how JBB began, and how you got into the Roots Reggae style?
T- Yea. Well, JBB was formed probably around 1996/97, that general time, and there was a band in Ithaca that preceded JBB called The Tribulations… I don’t know if you remember that band or not.
G- Yes I do.
T- So that band was also a big… I believe it was a 9 piece band so we even had 1 more back then. But that band was a more rock version. Kevin and Elliot were the singers, and we had a 3-piece horn section, and I was actually tapped to be that band’s drummer after I finished from Berkeley School of Music in Boston. Berkeley is definitely another one of those points where a lot of the guys met in Boston.
You know, a bunch of the guys in The Tribulations also grew up in Ithaca and went to high school together and stuff, so they all… I mean Kevin and Elliot and the bass player Josh at the time, they formed The Tribulations, and somehow they got into this amazing music. I certainly wasn’t listening to reggae when I was in high school, you know?
So, when I left Boston and I finished Berkeley, I joined The Tribulations and played with that band for the last year and a half of its existence from 1993 to 19950ish. So, that band disbanded, and we all went our separate ways for the better part of the year, and then a few of us decided we wanted to get back together and play music together. Kevin had called me, because I was back in Boston, and the core people of that band, the four or five of us, ended up getting back together and reforming, and tried to come up with a more Roots approach the The Tribulations had. You know, really getting into the composition style of that music, like Gladiators and Culture and Lee Perry, stuff like that, so we really wanted to scale it down a little bit and go with a Roots sound.
So, you know, JBB was kind of formed around that, you know? We started just playing small shows in NYC and Ithaca and a couple of things in Boston, and it started out as really wanting to document a bunch of Kevin’s songs, and that became the All Time record. So, we didn’t really have intentions of putting that out as an album at first… It definitely had a slow start like that, just trying to get back together and play some music together and find a different approach to the music, you know?
G- Right on. Well, you’ve certainly sustained quite a viable career over the past couple of years, man. The name is everywhere, and you guys have been everywhere, and I guess that’ll follow into the next question… You guys have a pretty expansive fan base right now, but for 2013, what should your fans, both old and new, expect of the performances when you guys hit the road in 2013? Should we expect any new material or special appearances, and what should some of the first time listeners expect to see when you take the stage?
T- Well, first time listeners are gonna pretty much get hit with a giant sound. That’s what I always tell people when they ask about what to expect if they haven’t seen the band. The band is an 8-piece band with huge drum and bass sound, and a 3-piece horn section, and a full organ rig… We don’t skimp on the phonics in the band, and we never have (laughing.)
We’ve always brought out a 3-piece horn section, with the exception of a few years in the early 2000’s when we had a 2-piece. But you know, we travel with a full B3 and a Leslie and a Clav, as far as the keyboard world, and we like a big sound. People are gonna feel good when they leave a JBB show… That’s pretty much guaranteed.
G- Love it! Now, given your catalogue, you’ve got a bunch, but I want to know… do you have a favorite song you have ever written or if you were to offer 1 song to someone who had never heard JBB before to try to make a new fan, what song would you give them and why?
T- That’s a great question, dude… It’s actually a new one! If I had to exclude… We do have a new record coming out in a few months, so I guess right now I won’t draw from that just because I can’t give too many details on that anyway.
But I guess what I would have to… Off the top of my head, man, maybe a song like going back to the Spirits All Around Us album like “33 RPM” sums up a lot of the qualities of the band that I love. That song, when that song came together on that record, it was a watershed moment for the band, you know? It was one of the first songs that Elliot had presented and written for the band. Up till then, Kevin had written all the material… The first 3 albums and material on the 4th record.
So, when we came up with that groove, I just remember it being a real different kind of groove for us. That 4 on the floor, relentless kinda tempo, and just the tonality of it, it was just a fierce sounding groove to me. And when I heard the mix of it off the record, just hearing that vocal style that Elliot had written over it… That rapid-fire style that he’s developed so amazingly over the years, I think that song… I mean, we still perform that song to this day and it never fails to crush people up, you know? Just the tempos, groove, the bass line, the horn head, lyrically it’s a unique approach to lyrics.
So, if I had to pick one, “33 RPM” would be the one.
G- Right on. Very good! Well, I’m sure you’ll be playing that when you hit Syracuse…
T- We gotta now, man!
G- (laughing) Right on! Now, you’ve already shared stages with hundreds and hundreds of high profile acts, and there’s no slowing down for you, but what I’d like to know is if you were to personally select a feasible 3-band dream bill that JBB would curate, who would you select to join you on the road?
T- Oh man… Once again, great question. I mean, to think back, it’s hard to say because, like you said, we have played with some of our heroes and our greatest musical inspirations we’ve been able to play with. You know, there’s a band called The Black Seeds out of Wellington, NZ that we actually have dome shows with in the states and in NZ as well, and every time I think of playing shows, I would play every show for the rest of my life with those guys!
We had the best time with them, and they’re like brothers from another mother, you know? Those guys and us completely hit it off, and people don’t really know that band. They’re also on Easy Star Records, the label that we’re on, and they’ve toured Europe a lot and they do come to the states once in a while.
G- That’s a mighty haul!
T- Yes, it was a hell of a flight, but it was worth every second. You know, that band is… I can’t say enough great things about them.
I would love to do a tour with Stephan Marley. I really love what he does musically and I think he’s got just a nasty, nasty band! And I think the way he approaches music, fusing different grooves and vibes, always brings it back to incredible roots stuff. I’m a really big fan of what he’s been doing over the past few years.
But like I said, we’ve been lucky enough to play with Burning Spear, Culture, jimmy Cliff, The Meditations… These are some of the untouchables, you know?
G- No doubt! Well, you guys are gonna keep going and those opportunities are going to present themselves in the future, so keep knocking it out like you do!
T- Yes sir!
G- To get a little bit cookie cutter since I’ve hit you with some thought provoking ones, with so many performances under your belt, I’m certain there are several that will stand out in your mind, but do you have a particular craziest or most memorable show that you have played to date? Where was it and what was it like?
T- Umm, man… Playing our first time in Hawaii was really memorable. I think we went on the Pressure Points tour in 2005 or 2006, but the first time we were there, people were really waiting… We didn’t know this, but people were really waiting for the band to come over there, and the shows were just completely psychotic! Amazing! I mean lines around the block… Awesome!
We’ve been there subsequently a few times after that, but the first time was really awesome! We went to Maui, Big Island, and Honolulu for the first time. Since then, we’ve gone back like 3 or 4 times to the islands, but that was incredibly memorable. And like I said, going to Europe and London for the first time was humbling… Really awesome.
But closer to home, one that I can think of is we played a show out your way at Smith Opera House on NYE…
G- In Geneva.
T- Yea in Geneva, and I believe Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad was on the bill as well, and by the end of the show, somehow 200 people ended up on stage! So, we were literally playing the last song and we could not see each other. The stage was literally full of people, and we were like ‘Wow… I guess there’s no security in here,’ but it was kinda cool. Nothing but cool, but it was to the point where the band could not see each other, so that was pretty… There’s actually photos of it out there somewhere.
So, that’s kind of a memorable. That was a pretty awesome, weird experience!
G- Yea that’s pretty fun! I’d have probably been on stage myself if I had been there!
T- There you go!
G- I just have one left for you… You‘ve been doing this for a long time, you’re in a professional touring act, and a professional recording group. A lot of the knowledge you can impart on some of the young up and comers out here would be very worthwhile, so can you offer any advice to the young up and coming bands everywhere who want to make it in music, on the road, and as a professional musician like yourself?
T- That’s another great question, Greg. Well, I think these days, you know, the first thing is, as a drummer, and as a working musician, is really put in the time. No cutting corners. Like, when I was at Berkeley, I had the luxury of playing drums for 6, 7, 8 hours a day, for the better part of 3 years, everyday. I’m not saying you have to go to music school, but to put in that kind of time was just invaluable.
And just to get out and see as much music as you can, and really open yourself up to different kinds of music and different styles, you know? Don’t get too involved with stuff in the scene, you know? Really dig the music!
When we were starting, it wasn’t about how many fuckin’ Facebook friends you have and shit. We couldn’t give two shits about that for the most part, but it’s part of the game these days. But people just, you know, sometimes they feel that certain bands and certain scenes… It isn’t about saying you were there, either. It’s kind of weird.
And playing a ton of music with as many people as you can. A bunch of us, when we get off of the road, we’re working musicians. I have a residency every Sunday night here when I’m home in Boston, and we all play a ton of gigs when we’re off the road. Blues gigs, sessions, or whatever. We are lucky enough to be tapped into a cool scene here in Boston, and in NYC, where there’s an incredible network of musicians that are working, and you get your name out there and you get the calls.
T- You gotta have a good approach, and you’ve gotta be positive, and just take in as much music as you can. Muddy Waters, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Burning Spear… Take it all in and the stuff you love is gonna stick.
This is happening TONIGHT in Syracuse… Great show and great dudes! Swing out and rage with us!