An Interview: Marco Benevento
Photos By Rex Thomson
As the release of Marco's new album "Between The Needles & Nightfall" approached, I had a chance to talk to Marco. The new cd comes out today, Tuesday May 11th.
J-man: Marco, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Can you describe your playing to people who may not be all that familiar with your music?
Marco: Umm… Yes? I guess one of the first things that I would say is that it’s instrumental. So that narrows it down a bit and then… I tend to call it a combination of rock, and jazz. But, it isn’t that easy to picture or imagine after you just say those things. Although, it does narrow it down a bit. Because some songs sound like rock tunes without any lyrics and some tunes sound like more jazz form where there is more improvisation. So, the middle of those two genres.
J-man: Can you tell me about your experience at Berklee College of Music, and how that effected who you are as a musician?
Marco: The biggest thing that changed my life at that school at that school was, two things. The first thing was Joanne Brackeen. I studied with her even after Berklee as a matter of fact. The other one was, I had a bunch of friends who loved learning together and playing music together. We had a two year residency at a place called “The Chopping Block” in Boston. We would host jam sessions and meet tons of folks that way.
So I had a healthy combination of going out with my friends and getting my ass whopped by Joanne Brackeen. She had me doing stuff that I felt was way above my level and I sort of met in between, in the middle where I improved as a player tremendously. But, of course there is lots more improvement to go. I mean, that’s the beauty of studying music; you realize that you are sort of in it for the long haul and the only things you need to do is to do gigs and practice. If you can make a living doing that then you’re lucky enough to study music for the rest of your life.
J-man: True. Tell me about your utilization of effects and what that lends to your music as well as how that same music could be played acoustically and what that raw sound my offer.
Marco: Cool, I would say that the electronic stuff… Meaning, my use of electronics; consists of circuit bent toys and guitar pedals, essentially. The circuit bent toys came to my life when I was in Chicago. I met a guy who’s name is Tom Stevenson and he showed up at a gig with a bunch of… well, a duffel bag of circuit bent toys. There was a “Speak-&-Read” and all of these colorful little lo-fi gadgets, that I immediately fell in love with.
What I like about those circuit bent toys is that there is a marriage between the glitchy, low-fi sound effects and the acoustic/very natural acoustic element of the piano. It’s sort of like instead of hearing a pianist play the piano, it’s like hearing a pianist play a piano with a David Lynch sort of mind frame (Laughs).
Marco: … Meaning there is all of this sort of spooky, dark undertones happening throughout a whole song. It’s not like the whole gig has spooky undertones, but certain songs can lend themselves to… “Oh, this section would be nice with some sound effects going, during this part, or an intro or an outro.” The coolest thing about the circuit bent toys for me, is the originality of it all. It’s very new and very original. It hasn’t been done before, you know? A lot of people are getting into it. There’s a lot of folks… I’m sure “Speak-&-Reads” and “Speak-&-Math” are captured on more records these days, more than ever before, I feel like.
So, it’s catching on but it’s a new thing. You know, I like to use them sparingly… I don’t want to overdo it. I mean really, the focus of the music is the song. So, going to the second part of the question, “How would it be without the circuit bent toys?” I’ve done that before and it’s actually pretty great. The music still comes across as a touching, grasping song to someone.
I see the toys as an embellishment. They don’t need to be there and if they’re not, it’s not a big deal. But, you do have a sort of enhance performance of the song when you have the effects. I feel like it adds. They add a nice little “Oh, that was like a piano trio but with an Atari in the background for that little section. That was really cool. You know, that little lo-fi, glitchy sound underneath that section made it even more spooky than it already is.” So, it’s an enhancement.
Then, moving on to the other electronics; the guitar pedals. I’m very excited about that because I haven’t seen a pianist do that yet; get a guitar pick-up, stick it on a piano and run it through a Wrath pedal and an analog delay. Then run it into a tube amp, much like a guitarist would. Using the piano you can get the same sort of, crushing chords and seriously lead distorted lines on the piano and it’s actually pretty simple to do. You can do it on any instrument; a cello…
Yeah, but I think that, just to finish that long answer, it came to me when I was about to go on my first piano tour. My piano Trio tour started in 2007 at Yoshi’s in Oakland, California with Matt Chamberlin on drums and Reid Mathis on Bass. I was just getting ready to fly out there and I was thinking, “Oh, this is exciting, I don’t have to fly out there with any gear, I just show up and play piano and it‘s awesome.” Then I was listening to demos of the new tunes that I was getting into and I was noticing that there is reverb and delay on the piano and there was also sort of a cued piano, so it sounds a little bit different. Then I added some distortion on some parts on the demo I made, just because you can do that on Logic or Pro-Tools or whatever program you’re using.
I found myself… I just changed my mind and was like “Wait a minute, I want to go, do this tour and play with my band and get those sounds that I have on my demos, that I had been sending to everybody. Why can’t I play the piano through an amp or through these pedals live? I was just like “Duh, you can do it. All you have to do is open the drawer and put a guitar pick-up on the piano.” It’s as simple as that. So, it started off as getting all of these cool sounds on the computer, on the piano. Then I was like “Ok, how am I going to do this live? So I experimented with it, and that’s where it began.
J-man: Well, I appreciate the level of innovation involved in what you do.
Marco: (Laughs) It’s funny how that is, because sometimes, well in this case; the level of innovation isn’t really very high at all. It was just like “Oh, this Dean Markly Guitar pick-up I could stick here on this piece of wood on my instrument, instead of on that piece of wood on his instrument, a guitar. And I can use it as a pick-up…
J-man: Right, but it innovative in the sense that there weren’t people doing it. So that’s what I appreciate about it in regards to innovation.
Marco: Right, I guess my point is that innovation can be as simple as that, just having that idea of like “Oh, it’s that easy.” Then continuing to do it live and doing it amongst jazz rooms where sometimes people are like “Whoa, whoa, whoa, what are you going to do? Open that Steinway and stick what in there? Wait a minute we don’t do that here.”
J-man: (Laughs) You do now…
Marco: … Some people are really frightened by it, when really it can be used in a super-sweet way.
J-man: Sure. I see that the Duo doesn’t have any scheduled tour dates; are there any plans for a tour or shows in the works?
Marco: Joe and I really want to make a new record. So there’s plans for a new record.
J-man: I see…
Marco: We’re busy touring with other acts. Joe has been playing a lot with Furthur and have been doing a bunch of stuff with Garage A Trois, my Trio and Surprise Me Mr. Davis. But as soon as we get together, I got a feeling what we’re really going to work on is a record. More so than live shows.
But we do have one live show on the map. It’s acoustic; I’m going to actually play piano and sort of incorporating the piano into the Duo. Which is a nice little middle group there. We’re playing a show in New York. I forget the date but it’s at the Highline Ballroom, some time at the end of August. We have one show on the map for the year.
J-man: You mentioned Garage A Trois; How did you get involved in that project? Additionally, many view that as sort of a super group; how do you feel about that notion of people perceiving it as a super group?
Marco: Umm… I mean, I guess I’d say that in ways it is… I guess. All of the people in the band have their own things going on, and their own very strong personalities. People know Stanton from Galactic and people know Skerik from all of the amazing things he is doing; Critters Bugin’ and all of his bands. People know Mike D from… They could know him from Ani Difranco, they could know him from Les Claypool. Same with Skerik. But, I guess the point is that the history of everybody individually is pretty darn heavy as far as how many gigs they have done and who they have played with. Blah, blah, blah.
So, I mean I can see it as a super group… and I’m not trying to blow smoke up my ass or anything like that. But, it’s a bunch of super amazing musicians (Laughs), that have there own project. Also, I feel like “super-groups” or whatever, those kind of groups that have strong individuals in them; get together, maybe ten times a year. That’s the case with us; we play maybe ten to twenty shows at most, a year.
But, I got involved in the band when Charlie was wanting to leave the band and they just sort of wanted a guy to cover bass lines, soloing harmony. So, obviously an organist is somebody that can do both bass lines and harmonies. So, they called me up, and obviously I was very siked because I know them all as individuals and before the band, I played with them all a bunch. The band was pretty comfortable for everybody… For me and for them.
Then, the greatest thing that happened out of that was that I got a chance to have another compositional album. So, I composed music for those guys and then I composed music and had another band as an outlet to try it with. A lot of the tunes that I wrote, worked really well with them. On the new record there is a bunch of my own new tunes.
It’s awesome! I love doing it! I’m actually talking to you from New Orleans, obviously we’re doing a bunch of shows down here. In New Orleans when we play, we do really well. Also, New York; we’re playing the Bowery Ballroom and some bigger venues. My main focus right though, is my own band with Reed and Andrew; the Trio. My new record that’s coming out is sort of… I feel like it’s a culmination of a lot of the music that I have been writing for the Trio. Reed even said that it’s his most favorite record that we’ve done together, the three of us…
J-man: I listened to your new record… Your publicist sent it over. I was impressed. It’s really solid. I appreciate the music you’re making.
Marco: Oh, cool. Nice, man! Thanks. There’s step along the way that you need to learn what the hell you’re doing. I’ve been running the piano through some pedals for the last three years and doing that live and on tour, in the studio and duh, duh, dah. It takes time to really find that middle ground, that finesse compositionally, also electronically and sonically live. It takes a while and I feel like all albums can be… You can learn from every record. Even though you could say “This is the record. This is my favorite one.” I really liked “Invisible Baby” when it came out. But now I listen to it and I can see how I needed to do that to get to “Me Not Me”, to get to where I am now… Which is a pretty thick, heavy blend of more rock and electronic music with jazz. Rather than a piano trio with sort of jazz record.
J-man: What do you enjoy most about being a touring musician and life on the road? As well the other side of that; what do you dislike about the road?
Marco: (Laughs) It’s probably the same answer, right? I like being away from my house, my family, and I like being on the road learning about music. Then the thing that sucks about it is that I am away from my family (Laughs). I think performing in general, doing a gig… It’s sort of like the Tiger Wood Theory of the ten thousandth hour… Well, it’s not his theory, but you know…
Marco: … it’s a common theme where people that have focused for the majority of their life on a certain thing… Like, I’ve focused on playing the piano since I was six. Granted, through high school and elementary school I mean who really focuses on playing piano or a craft? But, I was playing the piano all of my life. Some days I would play for eight hours.
When you go on tour and you’re doing your thing, I feel like you’re getting closer and closer to that life long… Like I was talking about earlier, about the life long study of jazz and music in general, really composing music. I just feel like you’ve got to chip away at that. When you’re on tour, sure you’re busy and you’ve got to do these shows. But, you’ve got to think of it like, you’re helping yourself out… And I should think about it more often but I do think about it. About how the important it is to deal with mind frames, emotions, sleep deprivation, all sorts of things when you’re on a gig. You’re dealing with so many things. At the same time you’re just trying to come across as an artist who has songs… If you like their music buy their cd, you know?
There are a million things going on around the tour that people don’t see. The ride to the gig, the hotel room we stayed at, the crazy late night we had the night before… There are so many factors. I just watched a movie “The Hangover” last night. They eventually made it to the wedding and everything was cool… But, That’s how it is on the road. “Shit!” (Laughs) “We’ve got to try to pull it off and just get to the next gig.” and try to have new songs. Just show up to the gig, it’s only an hour and a half or two hours at the most… Some are three hours. I just, I like that you’re chasing… You’re trying to get closer and closer to be better at music.
At the same time, I’ll die slightly unsatisfied. I’ll die thinking I need to practice more, of course. It’s just awesome when you start thinking about it. Touring is really important to because that’s how people find out about you and people really appreciate when you come to their town. I just did a gig in Hattiesburg, MS on Wednesday night with Billy Martin from Medeski, Martin and Wood, and Dave Dreiwitz from Ween. The three of us did an improv gig and they were so happy that we were there. We all sort of felt like “Oh my god, how do we play music together?” It was like our second gig together and it was a very sort of weird feeling on stage. It was good and we had a good time but, people are so appreciative when you come to their town. You know?
J-man: I do, as I am one of those appreciative folks.
Marco: … The down side is that, realistically you’re getting paid for that sort of bullshit. The gig is the fun part, you’re getting paid to be in the car all day. You’re getting paid to deal with other bulllllllllshit that just sucks. Which is why people have tour managers and managers because as a musician, we don’t want to deal with that. There is a lot of organization and there’s freaking a million things that could go wrong. From a flat tire to leaving somebody at a rest stop… (Laughs)
Marco: … it’s just amazing. There are fights, and you hit people in the van… You could break up with a girl in the van… It’s insane, the number of things that could go on.
J-man: I can imagine.
Marco: I like doing it… I’m going to do it all of my life. I hope to do less of it so I can be around. I have two kids and a wife, so I’d like to do less so I can hang around there more. But, I’m good at doing a balancing act.
J-man: Good, congratulations on the kids.
Marco: (Laughs) Yeah, they’re here with me in New Orleans.
J-man: Do you feel like that effects your focus? Or how does having your family around play into what you’re doing?
Marco: It effects me in a great way. I feel like I have all of my ducks here with me and we have a little nest somewhere, whether it be at a hotel room or somebody’s house. It’s nice knowing that they are there and that I can do my job as a father; helping out with changing diapers, putting the kids down for naps, going for walks and getting lunch with them… blah, blah, blah. All of that stuff that goes along with being a dad.
I like sort of doing that during the day and then going to the gig. There is some comforting feeling about that. Aside from touring, music and all of these crazy bands and random people that I am meeting; there is always sort of a common ground of like; alright I’ve got my wife, I’ve got my babies. This is the most important thing. I’ve got my dad and my mom.
Music is very important to me but, I mean family really wins. I wouldn’t give up… Not to say that I wouldn’t give up touring just to be with my family but, I found a really cool wife who wants me to go on the road, who wants me to play and who is very supportive of all of the projects that I’m in, so…
J-man: That’s a beautiful thing.
Marco: I know! It makes me feel like being responsible. I go home after a gig, get up in the morning, (Laughs) make pancakes…
J-man: (Laughs). In regards to playing; do you prefer a festival setting or a club style environment? Also, what do you think of the festival scene? What are some of your favorite venues to play?
Marco: I like the festival… Bonnaroo was amazing. I played Bonnaroo with Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon and Joe Russo. Phil Lesh played with us and we played “Casey Jones” and some original tunes. That festival is enormous and awesome and great. I love playing Bonnaroo. But, I think the festival scene is very important. I’m at the New Orleans Jazz Festival right now, so… I am a big supporter of large groups of people congregating and enjoying music together. I think it’s somewhat of a phenomenon quite honestly.
I almost feel like those people like music more than I do. So many fans that go to festivals by plane tickets, and camping food, and tents, and travel around just to see music. I’m like “Wait a minute… You’re not a musician and you do this? This is insane.”
Marco: … I like the smaller festivals too. I played the Telluride Jazz Festival and The San Francisco Jazz Festival. City festivals are pretty cool. They just infiltrate a city, like South By Southwest in Austin is really cool. As far as venues go, when I play with the Trio… I mean, I played Carnegie Hall in June. If anybody asks me what my favorite venue is, I get a chance to say “Carnegie Hall”… I can’t believe it.
Marco: I did a gig there opening up for Jane Cohen, who is incredible. There are a bunch of great rooms around the country. The Boulder Theatre is really nice… Now I’m thinking of rooms with really nice Pianos in them. I like Yoshi’s in Oakland. But, like here in New Orleans for example there’s these incredible little places like One-eyed Jack’s… That’s a really nice venue, I like that place. There is a total dive bar called Le Bon Ton’s. I think that was in Good Times… Was it Good Times? It’s just a dive bar that fits about fifty people in it.
I’ve played all of the different venues you could possibly imagine. From a flatbed truck in a yard to Carnegie Hall. All of those shitty bars and shitty festivals in between. As well as all of the incredible venues. Tripledoor is an incredible venue, in Seattle. It’s a nice showcase room. I like to play those sort of showcase rooms where the people are sitting down, and the sound system is amazing, and it’s a very quiet room.
It’s also great to play a room like an art space, with a rent a pa and playing for two hundred and sweaty people who are freaking out over your shit. It sort of goes hand in hand with the first question you asked me about what kind of is it. I said “jazz and rock”… It’s like I could play the jazz rooms or the rock rooms and it still works. Maybe the repertoire and the attitude is a little different per night, but… Yeah, man. It’s pretty cool. But, of all of those venues I mentioned, most of my favorites involve festivals too.
J-man: Who are some of your jazz influences?
Marco: More modern and more to date; I studied with Brad Mehldau and I saw him a bunch. He was like the one pianist that I really liked going to see. I like his repertoire and I like his taste and his style. When I got a chance to study with him and I got a chance to go to his house, we were talking about how awesome Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were… and Brahms. We were trading licks between Monk, Paul Simon, Brahms, Radiohead… You could tell that he is the kind of musician that hears music as music. As just the twelve notes that they are. They can fit into any kind of setting, whether it be jazz… Like taking a Radiohead tune and fitting it playing it with his trio. Whether is was Vanguard or covering Super Trance or something. He’s done a bunch of different things.
I really got into Larry Young, as an organist. Because, I do play Hammond B-3 and I admire the dirty tone of all of those records. Jimmy Smith and Larry Young…
J-man: I love Jimmy Smith (Laughs).
Marco: (Laughs) I got really into Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and more traditional style. Wynton Kelly, a bunch of Miles records… Just like tons of shit. I’m really into… What have I been listening to lately? I have been listening to all sorts of shit. I have been listening to the Stooges, the Clash, the Who and… I like all of these new bands to, like the Dead Weather. I like the White Stripes and I like their music and The Dead Weather is another band that Jack White is in. All sorts of stuff. I have been covering a Shins tune lately. I’m obviously a huge fan of Led Zeppelin and Radiohead, and a lot of those bigger bands.
J-man: That’s apparent.
Marco: (Laughs) Yeah…
J-man: I have seen some of your adds on Facebook and various other sites, how have you been operating your marketing and do you find that on-line advertising has translated to numbers as far as ticket sales and album sales?
Marco: Yeah, totally. In a very small way…
J-man: It’s all relative…
Marco: There are many factors to why people come or don’t come to gigs. But, I have been working a little bit more with a publicist and I have been finding that I have been getting lots of great gigs and great reception at the gigs, from the fans. Meeting lots of new people with the Trio and playing with other bands so yeah, that helps. Every little thing helps, you know? It helps just as much as mailing flyers to somebody for street team. But, the internet is definitely great… you can be everywhere.
J-man: It’s a great resource.
Marco: Yeah, it is.
J-man: Lastly, can you tell me a little bit about your album?
Marco: It comes out on May 11th. As I said earlier, it is my favorite one that that I have put out as a solo artist, over the last four years. There is one cover on there, the Amy Winehouse tune called “You Know I’m No Good.” But the rest are all original tunes. Some of the tunes would almost come across as like, “Is this a song, or what is this? Did they improvise this?” I’m sort of into that element of a song being more of a repetitive loop almost and have different sort of things dropping in and out. Circuit bent toys, pianos and whatnot. So it’s got more of an element of looped writing and… Yeah. Just listen to it. It will be good for you (Laughs).
J-man: I enjoyed it and I think everybody else will.
Marco: Cool, man!
J-man: I appreciate your time today, Marco. Thank you.
Marco: Oh yeah, take care.
Purchase the album “Between The Needles & Nightfall” at www.marcobenevento.com
Read The J-man's Review of "between The Needles & Nightfall" Here.