Marco Benevento recently released a trippy new video for “Witches of Ulster” from his latest album, Swift; plays Harrisburg’s Abbey Bar on Thursday
Fans of keyboard virtuoso Marco Benevento have come to expect the unexpected. Whether it’s a dazzling improvised instrumental jam with sound effects from the circuit bent toys on his piano rig or watching him run around the stage wearing a giant tiger head. His latest album Swift finds the innovative improvisational keyboard virtuoso once again doing something that his fans have never heard – singing.
Benevento showed hints of his new direction with his previous effort 2012’s TigerFace – the first two tracks featured vocals by Rubblebucket’s Kalmia Traver including the dancey electro-pop track “Limb of a Pine.” The nine-track Swift – named after the producer Richard Swift – whose producing credits include Foxygen and The Shins – features eight songs with vocals by Benevento and one atmospheric instrumental track.
Benevento – who emerged from the experimental acid jazz-fusion scene of Brooklyn – toured as Benevento/Russo Duo with drummer Joe Russo in the early 2000’s and later with Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon of Phish in 2006. Lately, Benevento has toured as a trio with Dave Dreiwitz (formerly of Ween) and Andy Borger. The trio’s set morphs from jammy jazz-fusion to instrumental rock anthems to dancey electro pop. The only constant in the set is the party vibe.
Benevento currently lives in idyllic Woodstock, NY. with his wife, two daughters and 20 chickens, two goats, a beehive and a huge garden. “I love it up here. It’s amazing,” Benevento says. “I feel way more connected to the earth. The only bad thing about it is it’s harder to leave than Brooklyn.”
Living in Woodstock also provides Benevento the opportunity to collaborate with other great artists. “I have a little studio outside, there’s a lot of keyboards in it,” he says. “It’s a nice place to just vibe out. Some people call it ‘Keyboard Kingdom.’” Recently, Benevento did the keys for AC Newman’s (The New Pornographers) record Shut Down the Streets, contributed to Amy Helm’s latest album and performed some organ parts on former Ween frontman Aaron Freeman’s latest album FREEMAN.
We spoke to Benevento around 10 p.m. one night in late September and the conversations ranged from lyric writing to embracing experimentation and Bernie Worrell’s fascination with numerology.
Fly Magazine: So, we share the same birthday man. – July 22. Happy birthday!
Marco Benevento: Oh, hey! Yeah, happy birthday. That’s amazing.
FM: There are some cool people with our birthday. The author Tom Robbins and George Clinton also share our birthday.
MB: Right, I know. Bernie Worrell told me that about George Clinton. We did a gig together in Philly and we were like just totally hitting it off for some weird reason. We had hung out a couple times before, but this gig we were high-fiving and laughing and talking. Then he comes up to me and he’s like, “Wait a minute, when’s your birthday? You know I’m all into numerology.” I was like, “7-22-77.” And he clapped his hands and was like, “You and George Clinton! I knew it! I knew there was some reason why we were getting along.”
FM: Why do you think it took four albums to get vocals in the mix?
MB: I opened up the door to lyric writing with TigerFace but I never sang on my own shit. I thought I should call up Kal and have her sing these melodies. I was writing all these words and I remember thinking, “No dude, you should just do it. Figure what key might work for you and do it.” Honestly, it’s nice to get away from the jamming and just getting into the songwriting. You know playing like 25 songs in a night instead of 10.
FM: I heard you had some input from Aaron Freeman on the lyrics?
MB: He lives up in Woodstock and we’ve been seeing each other – I should mention his name on the list of people who might show up at a gig. He came over to my studio for like three hours and I played him all the demos and showed him the words that I had written. He just chimed in here and there. It was very minimalistic and a lot of songs he was like, “Whoa, that sounds great. I don’t know what you would change on that.” He was just really complimentary, really cool. It was validating. I played keyboards on three songs on his record. So I was like, “Fuck it. I’m gonna call him up and see if I can get some advice from him – like a trade, you know.” I’m a huge fan of Ween.
FM: You tour with Dave Dreiwitz from Ween.
MB: Yeah, Dave’s in my band. I love touring with Dave. He’s a wealth of musical information. I’m amazed how I learn something different every time we tour. I’m just like, “I can’t believe I haven’t heard this story.” We’ve done a million ten-hour drives and you think you’ve heard it all. Same with Andy – my drummer – he’s got some great stories too. The other day he mentioned something like, “I was at Neil Young’s ranch.” I was like, “You hung out with Neil Young and you’re just telling me this now!?”
FM: Back to the songwriting though. What was your process?
MB: I did a lot of syllable singing. I would hear certain words for the choruses and I’d sort of do gibberish singing for a while and sort of code it and decode it. I’d write nonsense and maybe change it into a story or maybe not – some lines just stayed because I liked the sound of the syllables together.
FM: Does this album feel like more personal, in a way, because of the lyrics? Does it feel any different?
MB: It does and it doesn’t. It’s not like the other albums were less personal. But yeah, I get to tell little stories about pictures that I see, whether it’s something that my kids are doing or my wife’s doing. I get to sing about something that reminds me about my house or something. So yeah, in a way it does. When people look at the lyrics and actually sing along with the music they might think, “Oh maybe that happened when he was home.”
FM: I read somewhere that you don’t like to be too prepared when you go into the studio – why is that?
MB: I like to go into the studio with a couple of song ideas. I like to have the that moment in the studio where you’re like, “What does that keyboard sound like? Let’s turn that thing on!” Because from that totally clean canvas – from a nothing state of mind, can come something totally new, very exciting. That’s how “Limbs of a Pine” from TigerFace, which is my favorite song on that record, happened. When we were going into the studio to record that session there was no preconceived notion, except the tempo. So, out of nothingness and total randomness in the studio can come your greatest thing – so I always leave room for that.
FM: Is that feeling of discovery what draws you to improvisational music?
MB: Absolutely. That’s the way I write music. I’ll improvise music for an hour and a half with like three keyboards and a piano and a vocal mic set up. And I’ll just go for it and be crazy and just go with the flow. Then you can edit down your hour and a half jam to like six different songs (laughs) and they all have this certain vibe and mood about them because you’re just in this moment of flow and creativity. There’s also another way I like writing music is just sitting down at the piano and playing a couple chords singing a melody in my head or out loud. There’s some different ways to get some inspirado going.
Catch Marco Benevento at the Abbey Bar at Appalachian Brewing Co. (50 N. Cameron St., Harrisburg) on Thursday, October 16. Superhuman Happiness opens. 8pm doors. $12 adv./$15 at door. 21+. Click here for tickets.