A Conversation with Marco Benevento

Tell us something no one knows about you.

Well, I jumped out of an airplane once. I was in Montana on a cross country drive. I had so many dreams about flying, I realized that I just had to go do it.

As a kid, what first sparked your musical interest?

Well piano was the first instrument I played, but what really got me into music were synthesizers and drum machines. I had a set-up in my room with two keyboards, a drum machine, and a four-track recorder, and I would just plug them all into my headphones and write music. I loved playing piano and learning how to play music, learning rock, jazz, classical music, but what really sparked my interest were the different kinds of sounds. Plus, playing with bands in high school. I had the classic piano lessons that your parents sign you up for, and I liked it, but there was a moment where I almost could have stopped playing. But luckily, with the synths and the bands, I stuck with it.

Watch: “At The Show”, a single from Marco Marco Benevento’s new album Swift, premiered last month.

So do you think you really found your niche when you were able to be creative and experiment your own sounds?

Yeah, but it takes a long time. That’s a realization I’ve had over the past few years and throughout my professional career. It’s something I was doing all along in high school and college but never really realized it until now, when I’m able to do my own stuff, write my own music, play with the people I wanna play with.

What were some of your favorite musicians growing up?

I loved the Beatles… and Led Zeppelin was huge for me. I liked that Herbie Hancock track “Rockit”, I used to skateboard to that a lot. But when I first heard instrumental music, I was like ‘Wow, this is awesome.’ I remember hearing “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” by the Allman Brothers on the radio, and “Glad” by Traffic. I really liked The Meters a lot, a lot of their instrumental stuff from the record Look-Ka Py Py. But I liked everything. I got into jazz, like the contemporary pianist Brad Mehldau. I actually went to his house and got a lesson from him, and we talked about rock music, and jazz, and everything. I was kind of all over the map.

If you could go back to any musical time period and experience any artist at any venue, where would you go?

I’d love to see Zeppelin right when they were blowing up, at Madison Square Garden or something.

Your new album Swift will be released this September, and it’s the first album that includes some of your own vocals. Can you tell us a little bit about that evolution and how you came to embrace your own voice on this record?

Going back to instrumental music, I was really attracted to that for a long time. I played a lot of jazz and experimental music, like with the Benevento Russo Duo, and our music kind of evolved into rock songs without words. They were really simple chord productions with really catchy melodies, but the melodies were just played on an organ or a Wurlitzer electric piano. Even Invisible Baby, my first record, all the way up to TigerFace, a lot of those songs sound like instrumental versions of tunes with vocals. Then, adding Kalmia from Rubblebucket to two of the songs on TigerFace was kind of the first step towards turning those melodies that sound like they should have vocals into actual vocal melodies. And I must add, before I had her sing on it, I sang in the studio with my wife and two of my friends. So in that way, I’ve kind of been growing up to this point. It feels like a very natural evolution of sounds for me.

When I was writing the new songs for Swift, for a while I thought I would just call Kalmia and have her sing them again. But then I thought, ‘Well then I’m going to do exactly what I’m doing right now.’ And when we perform those songs live with her recorded vocals, you really miss her. You miss the live vocal aspect of it. So I figured I would just do it myself. I’ve been singing the music of James Booker, some music by The Band, and Dr. John’s “Such A Night”… I also did a Harry Nilsson compilation and I recorded “Are You Sleeping”. Over the last couple years, I’ve been singing a lot more on stage, and I’ve been getting a lot of great responses. So now I’m coming back around to singing, and a lot of people have said that it’s a nice change.

Swift is named for the singer, songwriter, musician and producer Richard Swift, member of The Shins and more recently The Black Keys. What was your favorite part about working with Richard? How did his guidance help shape the album?

My favorite part about working with him was that he didn’t think about things too much. He didn’t stop us or hold us back in any way, not that I thought he would, but he worked fast and was extremely complimentary. He gave us the thumbs up on everything. He works with bands that he likes, so it wasn’t a job for him. We had actually known each other for a while too, so it wasn’t an out-of-the-blue phone call.

It was all a lot simpler than I maybe imagined it to be. I guess my main goal for this album was to record it somewhere and then just leave my hard drive with him. I didn’t want to bring it home or edit it further, because usually in my post-production process I go crazy. But for this one, I wanted to have a little bit of distance from the final project. It sounds like there’s a lot going on on this record, but it’s really pretty raw.

Was there any point at which you became frustrated or stuck? How did you overcome that?

I overcome those things in two ways. First, just accept what it is and decide to decide. Move on. Even if you’re not sold on the idea, whether you’re not swallowing it gently or you’re really frustrated, just decide on something and be okay with it.

Then over time, and this leads to my second answer to the question, when you play for people and you’re showing them an idea that you’re not sure about, you’ll sense what they’re thinking. So play for people, share with people. Especially if you don’t like it, because they just might love it. And it might make you like it too, if they stop and say ‘Wait, wait! I like that part!’ There are millions of things you’re going to be doing with your life, so why get cramped up on this one little thing?

You’re a husband and father, what do you hope to pass down to your daughters? Are you trying to influence their musical taste yet?

Oh of course. They’ll put the needle on the record player upstairs and listen to Harry Nilsson, The Beatles, Daft Punk, Foxygen… It’s all vinyl, and we just jump and dance around the room. But actually showing my oldest daughter how to play piano is interesting because you’re trying to keep them from getting bored. Every once in a while, we’ll throw in something special and fun like the melody from the Harry Potter films. Now I wake up every morning to her playing that on the piano. I just want her to be genuinely interested in it, so if I see her attention drifting, then I drop it and wait to see what happens the next day.

Music is a big part of our life here, and it’s cool to see the effects of music on kids. Every once in a while, if I sense some tension rising between the girls, I’ll put on a record that they both know or something they can sing along to, and all of a sudden that frustration and anger just dissipates. They’re drawing and singing and they lose all track of time. They’re so immersed in their own little world, and they don’t even know that they’re gone.

You’ll be traveling a lot on your fall tour, how much does a particular venue or city affect your live performance?

Oh my god, so much. It’s ridiculous. If you go somewhere on a mellow night, maybe there’s not too many people and it’s a Monday or Tuesday, sometimes those end up being the best gigs on the road because you end up taking more chances. You play songs that you wouldn’t normally play. Plus, if we go and play in New Orleans and then go play in LA, those are two different crowds. There are always different personalities in the rooms, and different ways that club owners run their venues. There are so many factors. Obviously, we play a lot of the same songs since we’re playing a lot of the new music, but every once in a while, it’s off-the-cuff and you all of a sudden decide to play a White Stripes cover or something. The band that I play with, we’ve been on the road a lot the last four years, so they know a lot about the curve balls that I’ll randomly throw, and everyone’s really accepting. So every night is different. And it’s so important to me as a musician to really connect with the people in the room.

Can you remember a particular show that really had a really profound effect on you?

I saw Neil Young at Carnegie Hall in January, and it really made my whole winter. It was right around the time when I was finishing some of the newer songs on Swift and just listening to his lyrics, the way that he connects with the audience, the simplicity of his chords, the rise and fall of the musical composition… He really brings your emotions up within that 40-second time period from verse to pre-chorus to chorus. You’re following his every move and you’re finding that climax, you’re with him on it. He had a bunch of guitars around him, a pump organ on stage, and he just played all the hits. It was just him, it was great.

What do you hope your listeners can take away from your music?

Just the feeling of what music does to you. When you’re seeing a band, and all of a sudden your mind starts to clear up, your thoughts go away, and you start to realize that music is powerful. It can actually heal you, it can make you feel rejuvenated. I don’t know what people in the crowd did during the day, but you’re always hoping when they step into the room they get those chills. I like calling it mental floss; music really gets in there and clears out the little cobwebs in the darkest corners of your brain. All of a sudden you leave and you’re like, ‘Wow, that band was so great and I feel so good!’ Just standing and listening to those vibrations, something changes your whole mind frame. That’s the goal, to really connect with the music and be engaged.

Marco Benevento’s album Swift is out September 16th, 2014 via Royal Potato Family. Make sure to check out his Facebook page.


Raised in Colorado's Rocky Mountains, Daillen is studying arts administration at the University of Virginia. She enjoys live music, hot yoga, and traveling the world.