Interview: Marco Benevento
Last week, we had the chance to speak with pianist/songwriter Marco Benevento, who just released his fifth studio album, Swift. Marco elaborated on the new release, the Benevento Russo Duo days, touring with Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon of Phish, and his constantly evolving musical style.
You’ve been deeply engrained in the live music scene for well over a decade now. At what age did you begin playing, and when did you realize that this could be a career path?
MARCO: I started playing when I was a kid. I started taking the classic piano lessons with my brother at school when I was seven or eight years old. Then I got into reading music. My dad got me a synthesizer and we had a piano in the house. I always played music. I was into sports too: soccer and tennis. I was also really into skateboarding. But I was always into music. I started learning to play some rock and roll as a teenager. Probably around age 15, I started playing in bands, playing sweet 16 parties. I feel like a lot of kids were doing it; playing battle of the bands, random parties in high school. We would practice, party, and experiment in peoples’ basements for hours. It was a classic way of growing up and learning great music.
When I decided to go to Berklee College of Music, I guess you could say that’s when I started to get serious about it. After college, I moved to New York and started playing gigs and teaching lessons. The New York hustle was quite a realization. It’s kind of a constant realization; that playing music my lifestyle. I still realize it now. You can’t really back out of it. You’re in love with it. You’re somewhat in need of it. It helps your creativity and your mind. I don’t know what my life would be like now if I wasn’t making music. You can’t just switch jobs at this point.
Who have been your biggest musical influences over the years? Is there anyone in particular who you’ve modeled your style of play after?
MARCO: There’s no one person in particular, but when I was at Berklee studying jazz heavily, I had a chance to study with Brad Mehldau, my favorite pianist at that point. He was still an up and coming modern jazz player. I would go and see him play at The Village Vanguard. He had only recorded 2 records in at that point, and now he has probably 20. I was really into his style of playing and his jazz approach. Lately my whole mindset has really evolved from jazz to what I’m doing now, which is more rock and roll with elements of jazz. I really love David Bowie, Neil Young, LCD Soundsystem, Wilco, My Morning Jacket. I like the more modern rock bands these days. I’ll always love the classic stuff – Little Richard, Paul McCartney. Mehldau was a real inspiration in the jazz world and a soloist, pushing the limits with technique.
I’m really in love with the song writing process, which goes more with the rock vibe that I am doing now. Fifteen years ago I was more of a student of jazz. You realize you’re not a student anymore but more of an artist. Someone who needs to create and sell tickets to shows. You want to represent what you really like and really shine on stage. I really enjoy people interacting and dancing at our shows, and there is a lot more of that now.
The Benevento Russo Duo was officially born in 2001, but you and Joe (Russo) met years before. How did The Duo come to life and how much experience did you guys have playing together?
MARCO: We came to life as a necessity in New York City doing the hustle, playing as many gigs as we could. We played $50 gigs here and there. Sometimes we would get lucky and get $100. Joe had a friend that booked for The Knitting Factory. His friend offered him a residency spot, every Thursday night, and it paid $100. Instead of paying 4 guys and making $25 each, he just had me come down with my organ, and we would make $50 each. Back in January of 2002, in our mid 20’s, that was basically grocery money for the week, so I said “Hell yeah! Lets do this.” That’s really how it started. I brought my Hammond organ down two flights of stairs every Thursday. Eric Krasno (Soulive, Lettuce) would occasionally come and sit in. Word got out. Tapers would start coming to record the shows. We did that residency for almost a full year. I think that same year we did a show at a venue called Tobacco Road in Manhattan and we made $1000 and each got $500. I remember thinking “Holy shit! We did this as a two-man band. This is amazing.” Then we really started traveling. We got out to California and started playing festivals like High Sierra.
One day we heard Mike Gordon (Phish) was looking for a drummer for his solo project. He was on the same record label as us at the time, Rope-A-Dope. The guy at Rope-A-Dope recommended Joe, because Joe is an amazing drummer. Next thing we know we are touring as a trio with Mike. Then Trey (Anastasio) called and wanted to tour as a quartet for a summer tour in 2006. We thought we had made it after that, and that all of our shows would be a sell out. Ultimately it wasn’t as next level as we thought. That was my first introduction into the real touring world. Being on a tour bus, travelling around the country. That’s when I realized how much work and dedication this thing really takes. There is never a dull moment. You occasionally go home and rest up, regain your sanity. You write new music along the way. The duo was really a first step for me to make a name for myself. Later on we did some acoustic records. I started recording some songs. Then Joe got an offer to play drums with Further. That’s kind of where we left it, and we haven’t actually played a Duo show in several years.
Let’s talk about the new album, Swift, which was released just last month. Where do you begin when writing new material? How did you decide to take a stab at lead vocals after all of these years?
MARCO: Well I introduced the vocals with my last album, Tiger Face, which came out in 2012. I had Kal (Kalmia Traver) from Rubblebucket sing some of the lyrics and melodies. At that time, I was imagining a girl singing those parts. I was blown away by Rubblebucket’s performances and really wanted to collaborate with her. That was the first time I had heard my own music with vocals, and I really liked it. I thought I would collaborate with Kal again with a lot of the tunes that ended up on Swift. I literally had the phone in my hand to call her, and I thought to myself “Why not try doing this yourself, so you can actually perform them live”. I basically just turned on the microphone and started trying some demos. We got a great reaction when we began playing them live. People were really receptive to it. People who have come to the shows had seen that I had opened that door. It’s a nice element in our show. We have a lot of instrumental songs, but you can sense that the crowd really enjoys it and gets more involved; singing along. It was a very natural evolution of sound for me. After Tiger Face, it really made me want to try it again. I finally pulled it off, and I’m totally hooked. I’m really glad that I finally did it. I like entertaining the crowd and feeling that energy from them. It’s a whole new vibe for our band. We are playing bigger rooms and people are singing and dancing.
I remember hearing a great story behind the old Duo tune “Mephisto”. How do you go about naming so many songs that are strictly instrumental?
MARCO: Sometimes I just name them based on what the song reminds me of. I have a song called “Atari” on my first record. There is something about the sound that reminds me of early video games. Another song called “Bus Ride” was written on a tour bus. Sometimes you’re thinking about a person when you’re writing a song, and you name it after them. It’s really pretty fun and easy.
It’s been amazing to watch the progress of your career since the early Duo days. I was fortunate enough to see you with GRAB (Gordon, Russo Anastasio and Benevento) in 2006, as well as Garage A Tois (Stanton Moore, Skerik, Mike Dillon) in 2011. Tell me a little about your experience as a part of these two super groups.
MARCO: Playing with Trey and Mike was a blast. Trey was a total whirlwind of creativity. It was so great to be around such a successful songwriter and performer. Just seeing how creative he is on the road and studio. He’s never off. He’s like a little kid that just has endless creativity and thoughts on songs to play, songs to cover. It was really inspiring and I enjoyed seeing how creative and professional he was. He really has a childlike awareness about him, which opens the door to an endless amount of creativity.
Touring around with Garage a Trois; Mike D and Stanton are both incredible percussionists. Skerik is amazing as well. We had a blast on the road. It was more of a punk rock jazz vibe. It was very energetic, aggressive, and we were never holding back. Similar to The Duo, I was playing the bass lines on the organ.
Playing with these groups, everyone is an incredible musician. You can’t really stump them with an idea you have. I’d play a new song for Skerik, Mike D, and Stanton at sound check, and we would play it that night. Everyone is such a great player that you’re never worried about anyone missing a note, or it not sounding right. It’s just nice to see everyone in their element on the road. Mike D practiced tabla every morning in his room, so I would wake up to that. Stanton would whip out his brushes and play his drums in the van. Skerik would always turn me on to crazy punk rock from Seattle. It was just cool to see everyone’s personality during the day. Then at the gig you just get together and rock it out.
Speaking of super groups, the most recent has been Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. Many have regarded JRAD as the best Grateful Dead music that has been played in years. How did this project start and how has the experience been?
MARCO: It essentially started when Further ended. I know Joe dedicated about three years of his life, maybe more, to learning all of the music of The Grateful Dead. It’s a lot of work. I feel like Joe really embraced it and really got to know the catalog. I think when Further was ending he was maybe thinking to himself that this could be a good opportunity to play all of this same music with his friends; guys who he has a lot of experience with over the years. It was exciting for him to play The Grateful Dead experience, but play with his New York friends. Being that he has so much knowledge on creating a Dead set list, and knowing what really sets off the Deadhead mindset. I saw The Dead twice and I liked them, but I like them a lot more now. I didn’t really know how to go about creating a Dead set list.
Now when we play a set and we’re done, of course people say that they really like the way we play it, but what I really like is that people are blown away by where certain songs are placed in each set. It’s amazing to see how well people knew The Dead’s tendencies. The way Joe scopes the sets really adds the draw. It’s rewarding seeing the people smile from ear to ear in the audience. I have about 100 dead tunes down now which have been great to learn. We’ll see where it goes.
We live in a very different world of music these days, with options like Spotify and Soundcloud. What are your thoughts on the revolution of digital music, and what advice would you give aspiring artists as they record new material?
MARCO: I would say that it is great to have it all accessible on your phone. You can listen to hours of music on Spotify on a long drive. It’s cool to be able to tap in to anything that’s out there instantly. But I’m also heavily addicted to collecting vinyl. I enjoy flipping the record and listening to Side B. I’ll be washing the dishes and listening to Side A, then cleaning the kitchen listening to Side B. I think that element of putting together a record and knowing the “set list” of your record is really important. I really like the way my new record, Swift, came out. It flows like a record because I listen to so much vinyl. It helps you understand how albums are supposed to flow. You can potentially miss out on the entire experience. You need to know your records, rather than just knowing every song here and there. It’s cool to get into that process of making a record. My advice would be to listen to records and make records.
There is such an abundance of great new music around you right now. What new artists/groups have you been listening to this year?
MARCO: I’ve been listening to a lot of Foxygen and Rubblebucket. Lately I’ve been really into Superhuman Happiness. I love listening to Wilco. I have always loved The Shins as well.
What’s in store for 2015? Will you focus on touring with your band or potentially working with other new projects?
MARCO: Being that the record came out a month ago, I have at least another year of touring with my own band. I am coming down South to Atlanta in a couple weeks to play Terminal West. In late February and early March of 2015, we are going out West. We will be playing New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Austin along the way to San Diego, and we will tour up to Seattle. I know what I’m doing until about June. We should know by January about the festivals, and we’ll see what happens.