The pencil drawing of a roaring tiger that adorns the cover of Marco Benevento’s latest album suggests something shocking exists inside. However, what awaits between the flaps is a indeed a surprise, but it’s hardly the sensory assault alluded to by the tiger face. On the contrary, the album opens with a reinvention of Marco’s textured piano, bass and drum experiment as we know it. He introduces the album with a catchy dance song highlight by a concise vocal epigram.
Yup, that’s right; the album has vocals. It’s only on two songs, but Kalmia Traver of Rubblebucket lends an arresting lyrical melody to open the record. From there, TigerFace moprhs gradually into a more traditional Marco Benevento recording, but it’s a big step in a bold new direction – one that further blurs the lines of jazz, rock and popular music.
We caught up with Marco to learn more about the trailblazing collaborations on the record as well as a host of other topics includes his approach to employing loops in the live setting, his move from the city up to Saugerties, New York and how he widdled an eight minute block of ice into his most accessible song to date.
Hidden Track: Initially, I was almost thinking of attempting to do this whole interview about the first song on the album, Limbs of the Pine. We don’t really need to that that [laughs], but it is quite groundbreaking in the context of your music. It’s a cool way to start the album with such a different vibe compared to your other music. It‘s almost an indie, party vibe. Where did that come from?
Marco Benevento: Yeah sure; let’s see. Dave Dreiwitz, Matt Chamberlain, and I were at a studio in Brooklyn called Trout where I’ve recorded a lot of my stuff. Bryce Goggin is the engineer there, and he’s fantastic. He’s worked with Pavement, a lot of Trey’s solo projects and just so many people. So, we were there and we were tracking some of the tunes for the record, and I just had a tempo in mind. I had a concept, which was that I wanted heavy drums with a simple vocal melody, or a melody that I could play on the piano that would act as a vocal part. I wanted something that is upbeat with almost like a lyrical or vocal piano line. The first thing I thought of was MIA with lots of heavy drums and someone rapping almost over the top of it.
For a while as we were working on it, the song was just called MIA, because I wanted a song that had that MIA energy to it. Then, as we were working on it and discussing it in the studio, Matt came up with that drum breakdown. At the studio, Bryce has this old Roland 707 drum machine, which is that drum beat. Then Matt recorded a drum part to that drum machine and I improvised some keyboard parts. My idea and the MIA vibe is the part when it goes [hums the melody] through the bridge part of the song, that became the melody for the song. It was almost like a canned song with a drum groove and us just vamping in one key and me doing weird keyboard parts over it. It was a long eight minute track that had like a cool drum riff and I really wanted to add more to it. I felt like the song deserved more attention and maybe some cutting up and sculpting to turn it into a tune.
After sitting with it for a while as a jam, basically a couple months before I wanted the record to be done, I talked to Kal to coming to the studio and recording, and this is after we had done This Is How It Goes. That was actually the first song that Kal and I collaborated on, so after things going well – which was written a whole other way – but after hanging out with her, I thought I should have her up to have a songwriting pow wow up in Saugerties where I live now. I thought about bringing Stu up [Stuart Bogie], because I like Stu’s role in Superhuman Happiness. I really like his band and the way he writes music for that band. So, I thought maybe we could get a little Stu vibe and a little Kal vibe. Of course I’m a big fan of Rubblebucket and their song You Came Out of a Lady.
So, we just had a session up at that the studio. I basically played them my long track of what we had, the long seven or eight minute track. We ate dinner and drank a bunch of wine, and we had some whiskey, and went out in the studio at maybe 10 pm or later and we played it over and over and just had a stream of consciousness idea writing session. Stu came up with a handful of horn lines and layered himself, and Kal just basically wrote the words and that melody line on the spot in the studio and had a great time coming up with ideas. Kal did some harmonizing of herself and she also played flute. We just layered more things on top of something that already had so many layers anyway.
So, then I was basically left with a bunch of ideas from Kal and Stu. We knew that Kal’s melody line was going to be left in there. I sat with it for a while and it was like a whole thick brick of ice and I had a chance to take things away from it and make a song. Instead of being an eight minute chunk of time, I sculpted it down to three and a half minutes. It was the biggest collaboration that I’ve had with all these musicians just to come up with one song and it happened in different studios and in some cases a full year and a half later. It was kind of cool to sit with it with it for so long and finally give it a real song form with a melody, words, an intro, keyboards, a drum machine, a breakdown, and an outro as opposed to a big block of music with layers. It was one of my most favorite endings to a long process, which is just a three and a half minute dance party. It’s not an MIA song, but it has the right idea – a girl rock dance party.
HT: I hadn’t realized you moved out of the city. What happened, did you get tired of the city or want more space for kids or something?
MB: I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of the city. It was more of just a realization of, “You know, we don’t actually have to live here anymore.” Basically I’m just on and off tour, so we thought it would be nice to have some land and some space, because I have a lot of things in the music department [laughs]. I have a lot of keyboards and a lot of gear.
Plus, having two kids was another reason to want to split, because the apartment was getting smaller and smaller. We also had two cars, a van for touring and a little car for touring. It was pretty tricky to juggle, so for about three years we looked at houses casually whenever we had the chance. We found a great spot. We couldn’t see that house go to anyone else besides us. It’s just a great place out in the country.
HT: Obviously the vocals are an interesting story. How did you and Kal meet. You mentioned the collaboration earlier, but I was curious how the relationship developed.
MB: I saw Rubblebucket play a small festival in Vermont about two years ago and I was just floored by Kal’s presence and how the band sounded. It’s really modern cool rock that had a lot of cool elements of a lot of bands that I like. They had a Talking Heads element, good songwriting and good layering. It was all there.
Then I kind of put it together that I had actually done a gig with her with the Everyone Orchestra. We’ve kind of run into each other over the years and then that video for You Came Out of a Lady, my wife’s sister played it for us and we loved it on YouTube. Little did I know, I actually knew her and we had similar circles and played similar festivals. Our first connection was on This Is How It Goes and I had written the words and the melody, and I had done mock vocals with friends and my wife.
I wanted to get a singer that had kind of a thin voice, almost like Blondie or like the singer from Deerhoof. I actually wanted to call Debbie Harry, but I figured that might be impossible and that I was dreaming, but I wanted a thin high voice like that along with almost a cute Japanese-like tone about it. I told Kal that and I mentioned the songer from Deerhoof and she nailed it. So that was my first collaboration with her, and then we did it again up at my place about a month later and we knew each other and it went really well. She loved the way the tune came out. Then at this past High Sierra and some other gigs, she wound up sitting in with us as well as at a couple other shows.
HT: This one is a little more general with respect to your friends and playing music. You guys have an extended family so-to-speak and you go on tour, a lot of people will hop on and off and a lot of people sit in and stuff like that. How much time do you spend practicing for something like that, say when you play with Kimock or someone who comes on tour with you? Say you’re trying to do a whole show with someone, is that a month of practice or maybe you bouce ideas around on email or something like that?
MB: Yeah, it depends on the show I guess. Like when I’ve collaborated with Steve Kimock, we never really do any emailing or talking about the gig, because I think we’ve kind of known we’d be able to pick stuff up on the fly, especially stuff that we both knew. Or maybe you can run through some chord progressions at soundcheck and then leave a lot of room for improvisation. Those are the gigs that are more orchestrated and put together by the venues or the musicians, and then there sit ins at a festival or a gig and there’s rarely ever any rehearsal, maybe backstage you talk about it for a second. Usually, you know each other or you’ve heard the song or talked about it before. I’ve never really been thrown into a mess where somebody says, “Hey, sit in on this one,” and it’s a really hard song to sit in on.
HT: I wanted to ask you a little but about using loops and the preparation of your songs in a live setting in terms of how much you think about the various layers, the timing of the loops, how much you want to replicate the studio, and that type of thing?
MB: Yeah, there are particular sounds that I like to replicate from the record. It’s not that hard. I have a looper to trigger say the Mellotron track, or the banjo track, or the circuit bent toy track from the song and I can just start or stop it with my foot and we can all play along to it.
Generally, it’s easy to throw that in there. It’s all pre-recorded and sometimes the loops are just intros to songs or eventually they sort of cut outs. Sometimes the whole song is to a loop, and we just make sure we have it cranked in the monitors and we can hear it and play along to it. It’s fun, especially when you make it to the end without messing up. [laughs] It’s like, “Hey, we nailed it!”
It’s like playing along with a click track sort of, but it’s at least a drum machine track that you made or something you have a connection to or actually created as opposed to some sort of beat that comes with the machine. It’s a tasteful musical decision to have the loop in there. We want the song to sound almost as good as it does on the record, so we want it to be piano, bass, drums and a ton of those things from the albums. It definitely is one of the trickier aspects of the band, but we’re definitely not avoiding songs that use loops or anything like that.
It’s more of just an evolution of the band after you make records and you want to make things happen live from the record. So, I use both a looper and a laptop. Sometimes the sound guys say, “Where do you want the background tracks in the mix?” But they aren’t really background tracks, you want people to really hear that stuff. I enjoy it, because it adds a whole different level of color to the band. It’s a more modern approach to piano, bass and drum instrumentation and helping to get it out of just a jazz category and into a rock category.
HT: Lastly, I wanted to ask you about the Terrapin Crossroads release party. That sounds super fun. Think you’ll do a lot of guests, play some Dead stuff maybe, or blow it out like that?
MB: We’ll probably have Phil sit in on a song and maybe some other people. We’re definitely going to stick to the album release feeling to the night, but we’ll probably have some people sit in, and hopefully we’ll have Phil sit in. It should be a lot of fun.
As it turns out, Phil did join Marco for a cover of Deerhoof’s Twin Killers during his show which also included Tea Leaf Green bassist, Reed Mathis. The TigerFace release tour continues this week throughout the Northeast and Midwest.
[Photo via TLG Instagram]