Brooklyn—New York City’s most populous borough, claiming more than 2.5 million residents—is colorfully furnished with an eclectic “next generation” community flowered with ethnic enclaves and a progressive art culture. Flooded with talented musicians from every genre of music, Brooklyn can dangerously become quick sand for any artist trying to rise above their peers and stake claim as a worthy “professional.” But for experimental pianist Marco Benevento, that’s exactly the position he feels most comfortable. “You basically feel like a ‘nobody,” Benevento explains, “and that’s actually a good thing. It’s quite humbling.”
Humbling as it may be, Marco Benevento is far from a “nobody.”
In this modern era, there are few musicians who are as innovative and limitless in their craft as Marco Benevento. Literally inventing his own instrument by fusing elements of a baby grand piano, found toys, guitar pick-ups, and effect pedals, Benevento has become the go to pianist for musical projects ranging from traditional rock (Surprise Me Mr. Davis) to experimental jazz (Garage A Trois) to even the scoring of films (The House of Usher). Through these many projects, Benevento has fruitfully found himself alongside some of the greatest musicians on the scene having shared the stage with world class bassists, drummers and guitarists alike.
At 32 years old, Benevento released his third solo album in as many years, Between the Needles and Nightfall. Arguably his most complex and intimate album to date, the record further affirms Benevento’s dominance in the music scene and leaves fans’ mouths watering, thirsty for more.
Jarrod Dicker spoke with Marco Benevento about the making of Between the Needles and Nightfall, his multiple “side” projects, the inspirations and influences behind the music, Joe Russo, Brooklyn, Berklee College of Music, and more.
Between the Needles and Nightfall
THIRSTY: For the readers who are unfamiliar with your “weapon” of choice, could you briefly describe your unique instrument and the mechanics behind its construction?
Marco Benevento: It’s a piano with guitar pickups that’s plugged into a guitar amp. Basically, the idea came to me when I would use my laptop to create demos. I would have a piano track, a bass track, and a drum track and on most of the piano tracks I would use reverb and a bit of distortion. I’d add some delay and make the piano sound like it was essentially coming out of an amp. I realized [laughs] as I sent demos to Matt Chamberlain and Reed Mathis that if I were to fly out and do a show with them at Yoshi’s Jazz Club in California and sit down at their house piano, it wouldn’t sound anything like the demos. So I had a few guitar pickups in my drawer that didn’t work so well on the guitar and decided to stick them into the piano and run it through an amp. When I heard the sound, I was like, “Oh! That’s exactly what I’m looking for!” It was pretty simple; getting a transducer pickup and plugging it into an amp is a minimal cost of $30-$40. So it’s actually relatively cheap to pull off. That’s where it all began and I soon started to incorporate pedals with distortion and delay while I played.
THIRSTY: Did (or do) you face any difficulties playing live with this instrument?
Marco Benevento: The blend of the clean piano and the amplified piano is the hardest obstacle when playing live. You have to learn how to balance it out.
THIRSTY: The interesting thing I find about your solo work is that every time I listen to a track, I’m able to create a new disposition or narrative in my head based on how I interpret the instrumentation at that moment. As you are the premier mind behind the latest album Between the Needles and Nightfall, what are the rousing forces and/or motifs woven throughout this record?
Marco Benevento: I think I was just trying to simplify my life a little bit. When I was first thinking about the record—and then eventually recording the record—I was listening to the album Flow Motion by the band Can. You should definitely check out that record, there are a lot of tunes that are loopy with really cool sounds, drum patterns, and guitar tones.
THIRSTY: Sounds interesting, I’ll definitely check that one out.
Marco Benevento: Yea, so with Between the Needles and Nightfall I was just trying to get a vibe down at first. The actual song “Between the Needles and Nightfall” was an improvisation that I had come up with. It was our last day in the studio and I told everyone that I had this tune, so we decided to just put it all together then and there. Whenever you begin to compose a song, you improvise it with something in mind. When I sit down at the piano, I get inspired to create something based on how I’m feeling. I was just feeling a certain way that morning and recorded it; played it for Mathis and Barr and then orchestrated it in the studio.
THIRSTY: It seems like a very improvisational record compared to your previous solo effort Me Not Me which contains interpretive cover tracks by outside artists. The other thing I find very interesting is your track titles. It’s easy when you’re a lyrical band to simply extract words from a song and brand them as a track title. But for someone who doesn’t use any lyrical content, what is the exact process behind creating track and album titles for you work?
Marco Benevento: Well specifically, Between the Needles and Nightfall is the story behind our second child being born. My wife received acupuncture during labor at around 5PM, and then my midwife—who was with us—said, “Well hopefully you’ll have your baby between the needles and nightfall.” And we did! We had our baby at 7:45 right before nightfall. It was our second baby, Ila Frost (Editor’s Note: Ila Frost is a track on the new album). She came into the world between the needles and nightfall. So that’s where that came from. The titles are my own way of reaching people besides playing the music they hear.
THIRSTY: You are an active member of the band Surprise Me Mr. Davis. Nathan Moore is one of the best lyricists around (in my opinion). Would you ever consider having him assist you in creating an album that is primarily lyrically dominated?
Marco Benevento: Yes, well, Nathan has been working on lyrics for the songs on Between the Needles and Nightfall and I hope to cover that live with ‘Davis. I think a lot of tunes could have lyrics but we’re just sort of waiting for the right singer or person to grab all the tracks and say, “Hey I think this is how the song should go.” I’m not opposed to it at all.
THIRSTY: Well at the Bowery Ballroom album release show when you played My Morning Jacket’s “Golden” the fans sang the lyrics along to the music.
Marco Benevento: Yea, definitely.
THIRSTY: After you and Benevento/Russo Duo co-founder Joe Russo took a break from said project, he went out west to Boulder while you decided to study at the Berklee School of Music. If you could go back in time, would you still have made that decision to go to school? And if so, was Berklee the right choice?
Marco Benevento: I think it’s different strokes for different folks. It worked for me but I can definitely see how it wouldn’t work for some other people. I happen to be okay with it and I was able to meet a lot of teachers that were really inspiring. One in particular was Joanne Brackeen; she really took me to the next level. And of course I had a bunch of friends out there and every week we would have an open jam session for about two years straight. I had a scene up there as well as achieving a proper education. So it wasn’t just some boring music study stuff that so many young musicians get frustrated with. I liked being away from home as an 18-21 year old. I felt very free. I actually could have been anywhere studying music and would have been psyched. I dug it. I actually graduated with way more credits than I needed [laughs]. I would take classes like advanced ear training and such; there were so many weird things to get into. If you’re totally in love with music, it’s like a dream come true being able to study that stuff [laughs]. I was happily there for four years.
THIRSTY: I asked this question to Adam Deitch because he’s a resident of Brooklyn and it seems to be the new Mecca for an eclectic blend of homegrown music. What specifically draws you to Brooklyn that led you to craft a life there, a family there, and your music there?
Marco Benevento: That’s a good question [laughs]. I think it’s pretty progressive from the restaurants to the venues, from apartments to parks. You know it’s very progressive and there’s a feeling of being on the forefront of things here; checking out new music and knowing that all these great bands are coming out of this area. You basically feel like a “nobody” and that’s a good thing! You walk around, you have to find your own parking space, you have to figure out how to pay your rent, and there are a million people from different countries on the same block. It’s quite humbling.
THIRSTY: Specific to each group, you have regularly performed with drummers’ Andrew Barr, Matt Chamberlain, Joe Russo and Stanton Moore. Projects aside, do you have a preference to perform with one artist over the other? Does one drummer fill certain criteria better than the other?
Marco Benevento: They’re all really different drummers. Garage A Trois was essentially founded by Moore, Skerik, Mike Dillon and Charlie Hunter. I initially wanted to start a band with Matt Chamberlain because I loved the way he played rock and improvised music. He was the perfect drummer for me and a lot of people felt the same way about Chamberlain; he’s just a great drummer all around. So when I first started the Trio with Chamberlain, he had that sound I was looking for. But over the years he became really busy, so Andrew Barr—my friend from Berklee School of Music—was available and had a similar thing to Chamberlain but in a different way. The Duo was always Russo and I. He does an amazing job filling up that space of just two instruments. Everybody has their own thing they bring to the table. I’ve done Trio gigs with many different drummers so I’ve been able to have a lot of different musicians learn my repertoire. There’s this great drummer, Andy Borger (Tom Waits, Norah Jones, Ani DiFranco) who knows my repertoire and sometimes when Barr can’t do a tour, Borger will step in. I have a bunch of bass players as well that know my music, but there’s a reason why Mathis and Chamberlain were the first edition of the Trio.
THIRSTY: Can you say what the reason is?
Marco Benevento: Yes. They have this finesse with the Trio style of music. The piano is an instrument that can be easily swallowed up by the band if the player is not careful. Mathis, Chamberlain and Barr have a really tasteful way of playing along with the piano and exposing it as the lead instrument. It’s a very hard thing to do. The piano is a hard instrument to play live as well. It’s a sound-mans worst nightmare, you know? [laughs]
THIRSTY: When composing tracks for a new record, do you consider the listeners who will “hopefully” go out and purchase your album? Or—as it seems most musicians do—do you create music you want to make and hope that it is received well by your fan base?
Marco Benevento: It’s pretty much the latter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not personally alienating anybody when I write my music. When I write music, it’s a pretty personal thing. I write it with my own heart, thinking about my own self, and my own life. Eventually when it comes out, it’s most often accepted by everybody in a great way because it’s a little window to my own moody self; the things I’m going through, etc. I almost feel like fans and people who come out to see me don’t want me to think about their preferences when writing my music. It could be humorous if I do, almost like Wilco writing a song about their own band, “Wilco (The Song).” It’s pretty funny that they wrote that for their fans, or they honestly could have wrote that for themselves—I don’t know, I could be totally wrong. I think people want to hear what the musician is up to. They want to feel some sort of emotion. When they go to hear music, it’s an escape for them in the first place. I don’t think of anything else but what I’m doing at that moment.
THIRSTY: Well it seems to be working. As a fan I wouldn’t want it any other way. What should we be expecting in the near future? Will there be a new Duo album, more touring?
Marco Benevento: Well, I’m rescoring a movie called The House of Usher and we’ll be performing it live in Prospect Park, Brooklyn on August 6th…
THIRSTY: Ah, that reminds me, how did you get involved with the Bitches Brew Revisited? I read that you were involved in that show and was sort of surprised to see your name on the bill.
Marco Benevento: I have no idea [laughs]. I just got a phone call out of the blue saying that this event may come together and the next thing I know, I’m playing in a band with Cindy Blackman and Graham Haynes and a bunch of other jazz musicians.
THIRSTY: [laughs] So, back to the question at hand: Will there be an upcoming Benevento/Russo record in the midst?
Marco Benevento: Yea I mean Joe and I really hope to make another record at some point. We have a bunch of news songs that we’re trying to arrange at the moment. Other than that, the Trio is touring the new record and I have to work on a lot of the music for the re-scoring of the movie. Garage A Trois will be touring the new record all summer, so the Duo is sort of sidetracked at the moment. But Joe and I will talk about doing a new record eventually.
THIRSTY: Is there anything you want to get out there to your audience; a message, an opinion, a request?
Marco Benevento: I guess I’d say that I wish people would invent their own instruments more often. I hope people will get more creative with their instruments in the future.