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Marco Benevento talks tour, groovy new pop album ‘Let it Slide’

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Optimism and positive vibes come crackling down the phone line when you’re speaking with prolific keyboard wiz Marco Benevento – and it’s infectious.

In a few days, Benevento will return to the road with his band for an intensive tour set to encompass nearly 50 shows, including a date in Portland (one of Benevento’s favored locations) on October 17 at Port City Music Hall. The show is planned as an album release celebration for Benevento’s new melody and groove-driven LP “Let It Slide.”

Benevento has long been recognized as a bold voyager in the rock-jazz-jam world. Whether he’s playing with his own band, with drummer Joe Russo in the Benevento/Russo Duo, or in Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Benevento effortlessly creates wondrous extended passages on the fly, but on “Let It Slide,” he further embraces a pop sensibility, and the idea of brevity over longevity – something he’s hinted at on previous records.

“It’s more of what I’m feeling over the last two or three years of writing music,” Benevento says about the art of crafting a good contemporary pop song. “It’s almost harder to write an amazing two-and-a-half- or three-minute pop song, and I’m very much drawn to that.”

Instead of packing a suitcase or taking care of business before his tour begins, Marco is tinkering in his studio in Woodstock, New York, and explaining how he and producer Leon Michels (whom Benevento met when he subbed for him on tour in The Arcs – a side project for Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys) came up with some of the irresistible new grooves on “Let It Slide,” the musician’s seventh album.

During the following interview, Benevento explains how he and Michels crafted “Let it Slide” during a series of sessions that included some intense tennis matches followed by cool downs with wine and pizza. He talks about the influence his children have had on his music, and he flashes back to 2006 when he and Russo toured with Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon of Phish.

The Maine Edge: A number of the new songs from “Let it Slide” have been playing in head in recent days. The focus here seems to be on hooks, melodies, riffs and cool sounds. Did these songs come relatively quickly, or have you been stockpiling songs in that genre?

Benevento: I’ve been definitely stockpiling. I’m always writing in this studio, and I came to Leon with 20 demos, and we knocked it down to ten. We trimmed a lot of fat off each of those songs, which was really cool to do. We realized that maybe there was too much there, and we could get rid of stuff. That’s a much better feeling than “We need more.” What happened in the end is that we were left with 10 concise pop songs with a bit of a psychedelic edge to them.

The Maine Edge: Some of that edge comes from the sounds you and Leon came up with. At times, it’s almost on the cusp of breaking up but it never actually does. Obviously, that’s intentional.

Benevento: Right, it’s intentional warmth and intentional distortion, as well as complete saturation onto tape. That’s one of Leon’s signature sounds. He’s intentionally degrading the sound. If you just go straight from computer to the record plant to press your record, it sounds different than if you had gone from computer to tape machine back to computer then maybe back into the tape machine, then back into the computer and then to the record plant (laughs). Since I’ve worked with Leon, I’ve purchased two tape machines, so now I have about 38 tape machines in my studio and they act as giant effects pedals (laughs).

The Maine Edge: You’re a family man. How have your children impacted your songwriting?

Benevento: Their inspiration is always seeping in there somehow. When we started making records 10 years ago, the kids were just forming (laughs) and that was a big, exciting time for me. There’s a song on the first album called “Ruby” – named after our oldest daughter. On the “Between the Needles and Nightfall” record (2010), there’s a song called “Ila Frost,” for our second daughter. Having a family and a house, and this whole situation up here in Woodstock is just totally inspiring.

The Maine Edge: When you’re writing and recording, do you bounce ideas off people around you to gauge a reaction?

Benevento: I’m a social songwriter. I like bringing people into the studio when my song is like 30 per cent finished and hearing what they have to say. It might be my 10 year old daughter, my 13 year old daughter, my wife or a couple that comes over for dinner. I like to bounce things off people early on. I like to get people in there to maybe help me see the forest for the trees. Sometimes when you’re writing, engineering, recording - doing everything - you can lose perspective. I bounce things off my kids all the time.

Sometimes, their reaction is subtle. I’ll just play it for them and we’ll walk out of the studio together and I’ll hear them singing one part of what they just heard. They’ll just latch onto something that I didn’t even think about.

The Maine Edge: In my opinion, writing a well-crafted pop song is an art form.

Benevento: It’s almost harder to write that amazing two-and-a-half minute or three-minute song with a great intro and a verse, chorus and bridge, and I’m very much drawn to that. It isn’t done on purpose, it’s more of what I’m feeling over the last two or three years of writing music.

The Maine Edge: Do you plan to record more music with Leon?

Benevento: We’re working on new music all the time and we also have a mutual love of tennis. We play a lot of tennis and then we’ll get pizza and wine (laughs). We’ll get really sweaty and feel really good and hit the shit out of the ball and have a solid competitive tennis match, then we’ll chill out and he’ll play me some crazy song he’s been working on.

I’ve basically been working on his new music. He’s always cooking up something new. He’s got kind of a Turkish record on the back burner and also an avant-garde instrumental jazz record. He’s juggling a lot of different projects with different people. I’ll make another record of my songs with him, but right now we’re working on all sorts of different things.

The Maine Edge: You’re looking at a lot of shows coming up very soon. How excited are you about your upcoming tour?

Benevento: I kind of feel like we’re overdue for a tour like this. I haven’t been on the road with my band on an intensive tour for a long time. The kids are a little older now and we have a well-oiled machine over here working. My wife is a stay at home Mom. She makes jewelry and she also makes T-shirts for us. My family will join us for part at least part of the tour and that’s really comforting for me.

We really like the new record and a lot of people have been telling me they like it as well. I’m excited to get out there and play all these shows and see what the hell happens with them live. Songs change when you’re playing them live (laughing).

The Maine Edge: You worked with some of the same folks for years. It seems like there is a strong bond with your band and crew.

Benevento: There is. I’ve known Jeff (Volckhausen), our lighting director, since the second grade. We went to elementary school together. Our sound guy has been with us for a while. We have more than 10 years and seven records worth of material. There are some nights where we mix things up quite a bit (laughs).

The Maine Edge: Do you prepare a set list in advance or do you prefer to call it as you feel it?

Benevento: Lately we’ve been writing set-lists so I can see how this new music is going to work with the older songs. I like doing it both ways. This band is comfortable enough that we can do it on a whim, but it’s also good to have a sit-down with the band to get their input. They might suggest a song I hadn’t thought of doing and it might turn out to be one of the high points of the night.

The Maine Edge: You first popped onto my radar around 2006 when you were playing with Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon of Phish. A lot of people in the jam-band community discovered you at that time and follow your music to this day. Was that a good time for you?

Benevento: That was a great time for us. Joe (Russo, drummer) and I had the Benevento/Russo Duo and we toured as a duo for a while with me on organ. Mike Gordon wanted to play with us - and I don’t remember how that happened.

We were playing as a trio and Trey caught wind of that, and he joined us, or in reality, we joined him (laughs). It was amazing. Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead) was on the bill and we were playing for like 20,000 people every night.

The Maine Edge: Was that a little bit surreal?

Benevento: It was one of those "Is this really happening?" situations. I was like ‘We’re going to be huge; we’re going to be famous after this’ (laughs). We’ll have a tour bus and I was sure that all of those fans would come to our shows.

We did a three week summer tour with them and then we (Marco and Joe) went on tour in the fall and it was pretty much the same as it was before Mike and Trey played with us (laughing). There might have been a few more people there.

It was a reminder that you still have to push your own music and people have to catch on. I had the best time on that tour playing with those guys. It was so much fun. Trey was down for playing some of our duo songs and we were down for doing Trey songs and songs Mike wanted to play. It was a cool, collaborative effort.

(At the conclusion of my interview with Marco, I asked him if the state of Maine held any special memories for him based on past visits to our state. He paused briefly before laughing out loud.)

Benevento: So many memories just flashed through my mind. We’ve had the pleasure of going to Eventide Oyster Co. (86 Middle St. in Portland) where Arlen - the owner - was actually shucking oysters in our green room at one of our gigs. I thought that was amazing. I love eating seafood and it was one of the best seafood experiences I’ve ever had.

We’ve also had so many great times at Empire (music and event hall above a Chinese restaurant on 575 Congress St.) We’ve had so many great shows in that room. I have memories of amazing shows in nearby Portsmouth as well. We always have a blast up in that area and I’m looking forward to coming back.

(Tickets for Marco Benevento’s album release show at Port City Music Hall, 504 Congress St. in Portland, on October 17, are available at www.PortCityMusicHall.com.)

Last modified on Tuesday, 08 October 2019 10:18

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