A live act virtuoso and seemingly always sparked by his curiosity and musical adventurism, Marco Benevento, is developing another instrument – his voice, which is featured in his 5th and latest record Swift. Just coming off his performance and celebration at the Gathering of the Vibes 20th anniversary, Marco graciously talks to Grateful Web in the late hours, just after midnight. Marco talks vocals, piano, Swift…goats, royal potato & Bob Dylan.
GW: Marco, this is Vinh from Grateful Web. How’s it going?
Marco: Going good. Sorry, I missed your call earlier. Reed [Reed Mathis of Tea Leaf Green] just sort of decided to spend a couple of days with me right after Gathering of the Vibes.
GW: No, it’s fine. How was Gathering of the Vibes?
Marco: It was their 20th anniversary. I just played there with Branford Marsalis, Warren Haynes, Joe Russo, and Jackie Greene. Reed was there playing with Billy Kreutzmann and his band. He just decided to come and hangout after the fest because he has a couple days off before his next tour – and he has not been out to my house.
GW: That’s cool. Wasn’t Reed part of your trio way back.
Marco: Yep, he was. He’s on the first three records.
[Marco Benevento first three albums: Love at Tonic, Invisible Baby, Me Not Me.]
GW: Your latest album is Swift, which is said to be your “boldest and most bracing” album of your career. Can you elaborate?
Marco: It’s the first record where I’m singing. The focal point is not really so much around the piano but it’s more around the singing and the songs. So, there is less improvisation and more…groove oriented music and doesn’t involve a lot of changes.
GW: Your last album TigerFace has two tracks or so with vocals. What were the factors that pushed you towards adding the vocal instrument?
Marco: The door opened with adding vocals to my music with Kalmia from Rubblebucket. She’s the lovely vocalist on TigerFace on the first two songs. I love Rubblebucket very much. To have her sing on it was such a blast. It was a treat for me because I’m a huge fan of their music. When I heard the vocals I thought, “oh, I should try to sing it myself”. So instead of missing Kalmia vocals when we’re playing gigs, somebody could actually take that role. I decided to do it myself. Realistically, we have five records out and one of them has vocals. Half the show is instrumental and half is more vocal oriented. I think in a night of lots of improvisation and instrumental music it’s nice to throw in some nice simple vocal melodies to change the night around a little bit. In a way, we get people’s attention more, they start dancing more and sing along.
GW: How’s the vocal endeavor going so far and is it going to continue?
Marco: I enjoy doing it very much and I’ve been doing it with various other projects. I’m learning a new instrument for sure but it feels very natural to do.
GW: Do you feel you’re more expressive with the vocals versus just the instrument?
Marco: Yes, it’s more expressive. It’s sort of hops into another genre in a way leaving the experimental rock and jazz thing. It puts it into this almost radio friendly sounding music.
GW: My understanding was that Swift had been recorded and then you re-recorded the album with Richard Swift?
Marco: No, that’s not true. We went to the studio and recorded the record there. We had made some demos at my place. We also made demos in Oakland, California. Then, we just went to Richard Swift’s place and made the record in three days.
GW: You had quoted “I was sick of going back to my studio and turning a session into something else. I wanted my process to be different”. How was the process different with Richard Swift?
Marco: After we recorded, I left everything in his hands. He finished it all as far as the mixing, possible editing ideas and whatnot. I had never recorded a session and then taken my hands off the session, “alright, you mix it, let me know when you’re done, then we’ll get it mastered…I trust what you do”. I’ve never done that with my own band. It was nice to just play the music, leave, two weeks later get the mixes, and from a tasteful musician that I respect hear something that he feels is good. It’s like, ‘oh, cool!’. Richard saw the vision and he made it sound as good as he could. To me, it was nice and it was different. It was also cool to be sort of an outsider as far as the finish product goes. On other records, I’ve taken them home, overdubbed tons of keyboards, edited stuff around, made the ending the intro, the intro the ending and changed lots of stuff around – musically speaking. It was nice to just commit to what we’ve played. It was sort of a hands off experience.
GW: You’re obviously happy with the record.
Marco: Yes for what we did, that was exactly what I wanted to do at the time. I’m extremely happy with it.
GW: That’s going to happen in the future as well?
Macro: The next time I’m going to make it in my own studio…inspired by Richard’s studio and all these other studios I’ve been to. I’ve collected a bunch of gear. I have my own place and I feel like I’m ready.
GW: There is a track on Swift – I just saw a kind of cool video on it. Actually, the whole album seems like a lot of fun including this video/track “If I Get To See You At All” at a farm house, young kids playing with you, and roosters running around. Any meaning behind that song?
[Marco Benevento Videos: http://marcobenevento.com/index.php/video/]
Marco: There’s really no meaning behind the song. The whole video came up because of my relationship with GoPro…works for GoPro. He sent me some cameras to make my first video for the record “At The Show”, which is a black and white video. Then, he gave me some more cameras to make another video and that was “If I Get To See You At All”. That was just my experiment with their cameras around my property. There were also some footages of some shows we did in the fall.
GW: Yeah, I saw that you had mixed some concert shows into the video.
Marco: Yeah, it was more my own experimentation with that camera. I was just messing around and whatever. I just decided to put it up on YouTube as the video for the song. It’s more like a personal journey for that particular time.
GW: Those are your kids?
GW: Looks like they’re having a good ole time with you. I see roosters running around.
Marco: Oh yeah, we have a good time together. We have chickens and goats. We have bees as well.
GW: Do you like living out there – in a more rural place like that?
Marco: Yes, I was in Brooklyn for ten years. Before Brooklyn, I was in Boston for four or five years. I did about 15 years of city living. I thought it was time to get some more space and live somewhere I can have a studio and have a little more room to raise kids. We have two kids. And, I have like over 50 keyboards/pianos so it’s hard to live in an apartment with all that stuff.
GW: Yeah, you definitely need more space. Speaking of pianos, a buddy of mine and I were at one of your concerts and noticed your piano with all the effects and I guess pickups attached to the back of the piano. What is that?
Marco: The way the piano is rigged up is pretty simple. There are what they call transducer pickups taped to the back of the piano. Basically, they allow me to have a quarter inch out on my piano. You can buy these things anywhere really. They have pickups for a cello, an upright bass or an acoustic guitar even. Then, it goes in various pedals and guitar amps and allows me to have distortion and tremolo delay on the piano itself which is very unique…and mixed in with the clean sound of the piano is my favorite thing these days.
GW: Yeah, we saw all that hanging off your piano and thought ‘whoah!’ Great concert – it was fun.
GW: That’s not a setup you learned at the Berklee College of Music?
Marco: No, it was something that happened by accident. I was at my house and trying to figure out basically how to get effects on the piano (live) aside from sticking a mic in the piano then running a mic into effects and what not – which would be disastrous. I was at my desk thinking about that. I happened to open a drawer that had this old acoustic guitar pickup in it. It was a Dean Markley $20 or $30 guitar pickup and thought what if I stuck this on the piano. It would actually pick up the sound of the piano because you stick it on the guitar and it picks up the sound of the guitar. It kind of sucks for a guitar because a guitar isn’t as loud like a piano. And, those cheap pickups don’t really work that well. But for a piano, it works great; it’s a lot louder because of the soundboard. So, I plugged that into my amp -- the one I used on the road, the Sears Silvertone amp. It has a tremolo on it. When I played the piano through the amp and turned the tremolo on, I was like ‘oh shit’; this is the beginning of something cool.
GW: [Laughing] And you’ve used it ever since?
Marco: Yeah basically, maybe like higher end transducer pickups that picks up and sounds a lot better. I also figured out which pedals can respond better to the piano. You can’t go to Guitar Center and say ‘I need a distortion pedal for a piano’. So, you have to really experiment with the distortion pedal because they’re all different.
GW: With that rig, do you have technical difficulties or failures at concerts?
Marco: Surprisingly, the piano and the effects on my piano are the least of my worries. I’ve never run into any problems. Knock on wood with the piano. I run into problems with the vocals because I run vocals through effects as well. That could be tricky. Yes, for the most part, it’s been running pretty smoothly.
GW: Great. Last thing here. You co-founded the label The Royal Potato Family. What do you do specifically for that label?
[The Royal Potato Family: http://royalpotatofamily.com/]
Marco: I was the one that decided to use that name for the label.
GW: The Royal Potato Family
Marco: That was a name that comes from a joke that Bob Dylan told our drummer, Matt Chamberlain.
GW: Oh yeah? What was the joke?
Marco: The joke is ‘You got a royal potato family. You got a king potato, a queen potato and a princess potato. The princess potato turns 18 and it was time for her to go out and find a man to get married. She went on a date with the first guy and she brought him home. The king didn’t like him at all. So, she went out with a bunch of other dudes and found another one that she liked. She came home and the king said no no no this guy is a flake – try to find someone else. She went out for the third time. A month later, she finds Dan Rather. She comes back with Dan Rather. She tells the king I want to marry this guy. I’m ready. This is it. The king says you can’t marry him; he’s just a commentator’.
GW: [Silent pause]. That just went way over my head man. [laughing] It’s late. Ok, that’s all from me Marco. You got upcoming tour dates in August, looks like a busy tour schedule in October 2015 and an even a busier schedule in September 2015. [Marco Benevento Tour Schedule: http://marcobenevento.com/index.php/tour-dates/]
We’re looking forward to seeing you out there and hearing some more of you.
Marco: Alright, I’ll see you soon my man.
GW: Ok, I appreciate it Marco.
[The punchline of the Royal Potato Family joke eventually came to me 15 minutes after the interview. Texted Marco, I got it – ‘common potato’. Marco replied, ‘common tater’.]