It’s no secret that Marco Benevento has superior taste. Over the years his sound has developed from a heavy, dark, and pulsating offering of eccentricity, into an elongated space, balanced with more sonic love, light, and wisdom. Just as we all grow up and evolve in our feelings and life-living, it’s evident to me his music has grown along with him as a person and that is something special. He really puts his feelings into his music and while everyone says they do this, I think it’s a meditative practice to keep it up forever and ever and ever, and actually do it. Especially when playing tunes you’ve played so many times before. But, he busted out the classic BR Duo song, Becky, with Joe Russo and JRAD during a Viola Lee jam (around 19:00)the other night on October 3 that took the beloved BR Duo track to a higher dimension, right amongst the gooey history of the Grateful Dead and surrounded by the rest of his brethren that mean so much to both him and Joe. It’s like their way to say, we’ve come this far, but we’re still building, and we’re still having fun.
So humble and so so fly, I think it’s pretty unanimous that Marco is THE monster of the Rhodes, upright piano, and most any collaborative or passionate key-slamming on tour today, but he’s really coming into his own learning a fairly new instrument in his repertoire: his voice. We had a really dynamic, fun, and informative chat session the other day where he really gets down to the nitty-gritty regarding this growth, his DJ name, and his upcoming tour in support of upcoming new album, The Story of Fred Short. I hope you enjoy it as much as me, as I really can’t wait to see what the future holds for Marco and his band, kicking off their 12-city run tomorrow night, October 8, in Baltimore. Look for them here in Chicago for two shows at none other than every music fan’s favorite venue, Tonic Room, on October 23 & 24. Without further adieu, Mr. Marco Benevento.
Q: So I got ahold of your upcoming track, “Dropkick,” to be released soon. Can you talk about this, or the upcoming album at all?
A: Oh ya, definitely. We’re home working on a new record. We’re gonna release a 45, then release a new single in the winter, probably like January. The record will come out in April and it’s gonna be called The Story of Fred Short.
Q: Oh, nice! Like, the same name as your recording studio?
A: Ya, it’s actually the name of the street that I live on out here in Woodstock (NY).
Q: You’ve done that before, with the shoutouts to your hometown, right? With “Witches of Ulster?”
A: Yup, exactly. I’m in Ulster County. Gotta keep it personal.
Q: So then, what is the deal with Fred Short?
A: So, supposedly, this like…you know, ancient old dude named Fred Short, owned all this land around here. And one night I just improv’d ALL THIS MUSIC. Like I think I basically was trying to, or did, tap into the spirit of Fred Short. Cuz’ I’ve been here for four years, and hearing a lot about him, and his legend. I’ve been improvising music for…awhile now and, that one evening I just came up with a whole side of a record. I’ve just been flushin’ out all these tunes, you know. So, ya, Side-A of the album will be The Story of Fred Short, like this whole, long, bunch of songs that sort of go into each other.
Q: So that will be like, four or five songs?
A: As a record? It will be a whole record with nine or ten songs on it. But one side will be sorta dedicated to the story of Fred Short.
Q: Are you going to have vocals that kind of explain his tale? Or, how will it be about his story?
A: Well, it will basically be about … ‘everything’ and not really a “tale” but…ya…my interpretation I guess (laughs). It’s all in there, though, you’ll see.
Q: Nice. And will you be singing on all the tracks?
A: So far, ya. I think all the songs will have me singing in some way or another.
Q: That’s really cool. I don’t know how long this has been up on your site, but I noticed on there that you discuss this evolution of singing. That you once hated your voice, and the sound of it, and you just kinda changed your mind about that. What changed for you?
A: I just started singing more with other bands and other projects. People will want me to sing Dr. John stuff, or James Booker stuff, or you know…. really all sorts of stuff. I just started singing more, I guess. And I guess, mostly, it’s just not caring about it as much any more. I felt like it would be a good thing to add to our show…to our repertoire. It feels really natural to do and I really like it, so I guess I’m just over the hump of it…you know, basically learning to sing. Learning a new instrument.
Q: That’s pretty awesome–
A:—Well, it’s a slow process (laughs).
Q: So in the past, when you’ve come to Chicago, you’ve brought your piano with the guitar neck you sottered inside above the keys. Do you still tour with that?
A: Yup, I still tour with that little upright piano. It has a bunch of guitar pedals velcroed to it, and we run the piano into a guitar amp. Then I run my vocals into some effects just to add a little more to the vibe of the music.
Q: It’s super awesome. Do you have a name for that little rig that you…rigged up?
A: Oh, ya! I bought this piano for $100 on Craigslist, and when I bought it, it said “Gibbs.” Since then, we’ve painted it black. But we still call that guy “Gibbs” anyway. I’ve toured with another piano that we called “Joanna,” like “Joanna the Piana” (laughs.). She just got too old and couldn’t handle the road. But Gibbs can handle it.
Q: And for the record, Gibbs is a one-of-a-kind, right?
A: Yup, totally one-of-a-kind. They’re hard to find, those upright pianos. They only have 61 notes? Maybe 64? (Compared to the standard 88) They’re just like, these mini, upright pianos, you know, but they do not sound mini at all. They sound like…pianos.
Q: That’s really cool. It probably makes it a bit easier for travel, then, right?
A: …Well, ya…but I mean you’re still carrying around a piano. It’s still like moving around a heavy bookshelf. But, I get to play an acoustic instrument, and I get to play the piano, my favorite instrument. Mostly, I don’t have to say “yes” to a keyboard. Which I do a lot on some gigs. It is what it is. But satisfaction sort of caps at a certain level when you’re playing a fake piano. You know? Computerized sound. I just like playing the real deal, even if it is a little smaller.
Q: Absolutely. And that’s definitely a big change from the old days, for you too, right? You used to tour with SO much equipment with The Duo back in the day, and any time I saw you, you were swarmed with decks of keys and cables.
A: OH YA. Huge difference. I used to tour with a Hammond organ, a Leslie, a big ole’ bass rig…man… all sorts of stuff!!! I’m sitting here looking at the small piano right now, Gibbs. It’s still a piano, and a hassle to load into the van, but even though I’m doing that, it’s a LOT easier than it used to be for sure. (laughs) Back then we were hitting the road pretty hard, and just shoving all the gear into trailers every night to make it work… those were the days (laughs).
Q: They were some really great days. We all miss the BR Duo. Do you have anything to say in response to Joe Russo’s mention that he’s ready to bring back the Duo?
A: Well, ya, I mean, we talk about it all the time. We’re tryin’ to find the right time to pull it off. I’m super busy, and so is Joe, but we’re both really dreaming about it.
Q: Nice, we are too. Do you think you would do the show in Brooklyn, or?
A: That’s a….great question (laughs). (In a Seuss-like voice) I would do it anywhere: I would do it on a boat, or on a plane. I would do it everywhere; I would do it anywhere!
Q: That’s great. Maybe you can make that your slogan, and hold a contest to let your fans vote on where you guys would play. Do you need a PR person to get this show going?
A: (laughing) HA…. will definitely let you know. We’re dreaming about it though, it’s on the radar for sure.
Q: And did you see or hear the segment Mike Gordon teased from your song, “Fireworks” at Magnaball (36:10)?
A: You know, it was so cool, he texted me about it. He said, “I played one of your songs at our festival!” and I just thought it was pretty awesome. He followed up by saying, “I played your most Italian-sounding-song in one of my solos.” I was definitely psyched. I’ve known Mike a long time and we’ve played together, and you know, we like each other. He’s been to the studio here, and we’ve recorded. We’re friends. It was a really nice message to get. Actually, a couple years ago during an Antelope jam, Trey said “Marco Benevento” in place of “Marco Escuandolas”–
Q: –I was there! Alpine 2010.
A: You were there? That’s so funny – so many people were texting me! Asking:
‘Hey are you here?’
‘Where are you?’
‘Hey dude, you here?’
And I was in Brooklyn, just like…uhhh…where? Saying, “I’m here in Brooklyn, where are you?” And unanimously:
“WE’RE AT THE PHISH SHOW! TREY JUST SAID YOUR NAME!”
So that was pretty cool, too. I’m just over here humbled like, ….that’s pretty cool!!
Q: Uh, ya, I’d say. The place definitely went wild. It ended the first set and everyone was going crazy. It’s on the Alpine DVD if you wanna check it out.
A: For sure. I mean, it’s just really flattering. I really like Mike and those guys, and any time I’m in Burlington we try to link up. I love collaborating with him, and all those guys (members of Phish).
Q: It’s perfect you mention Burlington. I was hoping to ask you about a show you played at Higher Ground on 12.30.04 where Mike played the whole show with you, and Page (McConnell, Phish keys player) sat in for Cars, Trucks, Buses. (Full Photo Catalog by Mike Wren from the show here)
A: Oh ya…that’s right! That was pretty cool.
Q: Pretty cool when your cameos are by various members of Phish…was Page just around, or how did that come about?
A: I guess just over the years, we’ve met and gotten to know each other. You know, we did GRAB (aka Mike & The Italians), and I’ve toured with Jon Fishman (Phish drummer) who was in my band for a couple shows, a couple tours, which was really, really fun. So, ya, whenever I’m in Burlington, I shoot Page a text too. A couple times we’ve hung out and just recorded double-keyboard stuff together.
Q: Um…that’s awesome! Would you ever release any?
A: It’s mostly just for fun and inspiration, but…
Q: Never know?
A: Exactly. It’s definitely really fun. He’s been sending me some of these improvisations and they’re really fun to listen to. The whole like, idea that any of the guys from such a well-known band, that I like, especially going way back to seeing them in high school, it’s just…it’s cool. It really all started back when we started playing with Mike. So, ya, Burlington was probably something like…we were all hanging out and one thing lead to another, and boom, Page is sitting in on “Cars, Trucks, Buses.” Cuz’ he’s there, we’ve been hanging, and you know…we’re musicians. We don’t wanna just “hang out,” we wanna play music together. That’s how we “hang out.”
Q: I saw recently after North Coast Music Festival here in Chicago after you played with JRAD, you tweeted that you had a night off in Buffalo and were searching for somewhere to play some keys!! So I’d say that sentiment is true if you rarely get a night off, and you still wanna play.
A: Totally!! I was like, “What do you mean we have a night off? That’s not a tour if you have a night off!” (laughing)
Q: Well, I can’t say I wasn’t a little bummed, as most of us hoped you’d find a way to pop into the Garage a Trois late night that Sunday to close out NCMF. But obviously you had already left town.
A: That woulda been fun as sh*t. So, so fun. Love those guys.
Q: Can you just get them, your band, Phish, and everyone awesome to do like, a big superhuman collective show like the Polyphonic Spree? But you don’t have to wear the robes? Together with all the greats?
A: I’d do it in a heartbeat. Let’s make it happen (laughing).
Q: We have a lot of plans to make, then. Also getting Dave (Dreiwitz) to play some trumpet on your record (Marco’s bass player, formerly of Ween). Has that happened before, or is it a rare treat we’d be lucky to catch?
A: Ya, of course. We’ve had him do it before, on a song about fracking that ended up on a record. We recorded that here at my studio and it was awesome. We both played drums and Dave played bass and trumpet, and I played piano and organ, and we both sang stuff. On a whim, he’ll bust out the trumpet, which is awesome. It doesn’t happen often enough, though, I’d say.
Q: I recently heard some older stuff and I believe he plays on the piccolo trumpet?
A: It’s actually called a “pocket trumpet,” cuz’ he’ll literally just bust it out of his pocket and jam. It’s a tiny little trumpet. It’s hilarious, he just busts it out and rips a solo. (both laughing) He is just so great.
Q: He is such a goofy person it seems like!
A: He is. But, man, is he also just such a smart guy. He is an encyclopedia of music knowledge, and I love picking his brain.
Q: And was Andy Borger, your drummer, in the Norah Jones scene in Ted the movie?
A: Ha!!! I’m not sure I’ll have to ask him when I see him.
Q: Cool, I guess you’ll have plenty of time coming up when you head out for tour (starting October 8 in Baltimore & ending October 25 in Cleveland).
A: Oh ya. We all tour around in a sprinter van. The three guys in the band, a sound guy, and a lighting guy. So it’s all five of us… and, well, lots of time to ask lots of things really.
Q: What are you listening to when you’re traveling? Is it a fight to play music or do you mostly agree on what you’re tuned into?
A: We listen to a lot of different things. I like to make mixes from old records that I have. So I have a bunch of hour-long, or one-and-a-half-hour mixes that I just made from old records I’ve been collecting and I just sorta put them all into the same track. I’ve actually uploaded all those mixes onto Soundcloud, you should check them out. I have an alter-ego DJ name, called “I’m a DJ too.” (laughs)
Q: Awesome, can’t wait to get into those. Do you make any of those together? Or that’s just your thing?
A: Well, we kinda all contribute, but those are mostly me. Dave will rock cassettes sometimes, which is really cool. He’s got some good ones and an old cassette player that we listen to. We also like listening to podcasts. We really like one called, “The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn.”
A: You are also a wealth of info.
Q: Ya, that’s a really good one for long drives. It’s about an hour-long, and this guy, Ben Vaughn, plays 8-track tapes and old vinyl, and cool 45’s and all sorts of stuff. He’s also a vault of musical knowledge, and will play some genres of music that you’ve just never heard of before. Like, he’ll play you a band that you’ve never heard of before, and it’s like, “coming up next, instrumental reggae from 1962, covering The Beatles,” and you know, there’s just a curve-ball to everything. Which I love. It’s definitely gotten us through some long drives for sure.
Q: Are you going to be doing any GoPro videos for the upcoming singles you’ll release off the album?
A: Ya! Definitely. We have a video for “Dropkick” that will be coming out in November. The GoPro guys were actually out here at my house this summer and did a bunch of filming, as well as at a show we played in California. They’re working on another video for us with footage from both, and really from all over that’s been collected.
Q: I really liked the skateboard video you made for “Witches of Ulster.” Definitely looking forward to seeing the new stuff.
A: Thanks, me too! It’s a lot of fun.
Q: And will Richard Swift have a hand in producing The Story of Fred Short?
A: Hmmm… well….no (laughs, hesitates)…but, well, I hesitate to say because we have talked about it. He plays in The Arcs and The Black Keys, so he’s been super busy and we haven’t been able to make it work. But, it would be pretty awesome. The other thing is, I guess I also kinda had a personal goal that I wanted to make my next album, this one, at my house. Like…with myself. By myself.
Q: Like, FUBU style?
A: (laughing) Ya I guess so. It’s just great working with Richard. If we could, we would, that’s for sure. I’ll tell you one thing: that guy is a cool muthaf*^’n cat. Hopefully we can collaborate again down the line.
Q: Do you plan to have any guests on the upcoming album?
A: I can only say that there is a lot in the works, for sure. We’re still figuring some stuff out.
Q: Is the full album being your band, kind of a nod to the FUBU-esque independence? As in wanting to make this album for yourself, by you?
A: Not intentionally, honestly. It’s just that we’ve been touring together with these guys, you know, Andy and Dave, and they know all the music. So it’s a bit easier to say, “Hey guys. Come over to the farm and let’s record,” vs. the time it takes to teach the music to someone new. So, ya, I’m not avoiding it at all, but it’s mostly ease of use. That doesn’t mean I’m avoiding it though, cuz’ it’s still early. If there’s a certain place or certain person to do a certain thing that feels right; that works, great! Like I said, we’re still figuring it out so for all I know this could totally change. We’ll just have to see.
Q: And as far as your upcoming tour, will we hear some of the new songs debuted?
A: Absolutely. We played some out West, and Richard (Swift) actually really liked what he heard, so I think we are doin’ somethin’ right.
Q: Awesome. And have you seen or been to Tonic Room before? It’s one of my favorite places in Chicago. I’m probably there too much in fact (laughing).
A: (laughing) Well, I definitely know about it. I’ve been hearing really great things, especially lately, and you know, I really wanna play a smaller, more packed room in Chicago. Versus like, a bigger room that is half-full. We want the intimacy back in Chicago. Get back to the roots. Just get it packed… and have a super hype show where we’re all having a blast, both nights.
We are definitely looking forward to those shows, and I think given the charming aesthetics and setup of Tonic Room, it’s going to be a really special weekend. Thanks for your time, Marco, and we’ll see you all soon.