Marco Benevento talks to Pollstar about his upcoming album, “The Story Of Fred Short,” giving readers a look at the process of crafting songs “from nothing.” He called us from his studio that’s located on his property in upstate New York, where he recorded and self-produced the release.
A 2009 NPR piece on Benevento declared that, “After more than a decade of jamming, improvising and experimenting with sound, Benevento has discovered his own way into music by combining the thrust of rock, the questing of jazz and the experimental ecstasy of jam.”
Since then he’s continued to explore his take on rock via new instruments – namely his own voice. With a mix of psychedelic and dance rock, the new LP is described as “his boldest and most adventurous work yet.”
Due out April 1 on his own Royal Potato Family label, The Story Of Fred Short marks his sixth album overall and the second to feature Benevento on the mic.
Brooklyn Vegan praises the LP’s first single, “Dropkick,” as “lightly psychedelic pop that could appeal to Damon Albarn fans as much as (or more than) Jerry Garcia fans.”
In addition to being the first album Benevento’s produced on his own, this is the first time he’s featured guitars on his original songs. The guitar parts on The Story Of Fred Short were recorded by his friend Brad Barr of The Barr Brothers/The Slip. Benevento is joined in the studio and on the road by bassist Dave Dreiwitz and drummer Andy Borger.
While discussing his favorite venues, the experimental multi-instrumentalist chatted about how you can have a “freakin’ throwdown” at a 200-capacity room where “the PA barely works and there’s not really any lighting and there’s no stage.”
Your studio and album are both named after Fred Short. Who is Fred Short?
I live on Fred Short Road. I moved here with my wife and our two kids about five years ago and we live in paradise. I love it here in Woodstock, N.Y. I’m 3 miles from Levon Helm’s barn. There’s a ton of musicians up here. David Bowie actually used to live here. Jack DeJohnette lives here, John Medeski lives around here. It’s a great place to live.
I’ve always wondered who Fred Short was. … Anytime I would give my address to someone they would always be like, “That’s sort of a funny name. Who’s Fred Short?” … I’ve just sort of been talking to my neighbors and people around here about Fred Short. He used to own a lot of this land around here. … He’s actually a Native American Shaman whose whole family and generations and generations of Fred Short relatives have traveled here from New Mexico to the Catskills. He’s a Zuni Indian. … I still haven't found what his real name is. All these [Native Americans] were given very common English names like Fred Short and John Joy because the Dutch settlers didn’t understand their names. They were like, “Whatever, your name is Fred Short.” And actually Fred Short was a 7 foot; like he was huge but he got named Fred Short. And they called him 7-foot Fred. I’m piecing together all of these stories from the neighbors here and people around here who do knew him.
I collect pianos and I go on Craigslist and try to find free pianos because I frequently need them for parts and whatnot. Actually, I’m working on making a bookshelf out of the body of a baby Grand that I have. … I went and I got this free piano from this really old dude in just a dump. And he’s like, “Where do you live?” And I was like, “I live on Fred Short Road.” And he was like, “Oh, this piano was actually …” It was in the family somehow. He was like, “I know Fred Short! My wife was friends with his great grandfather.” Some crazy fuckin’ story. I don’t even know. I was amazed. And actually that night I got the piano and I came home and had a night in the studio, which was great, and everything was all set up and I started recording. And i was just thinking, “Fred Short is a funny name. Who is he? And who was that old guy?” And [thinking about] the piano I have. I knew he was a Shaman and he was an instrument builder. He used to hold vision quests, have people over for that kind of spiritual awakening or whatever. … I just had a lot of that on my mind and I had my own little vision quest or whatever (laughs) and recorded for an hour and a half and that became Side B of the new record. And it’s all in sequence and all in order and everything, I just trimmed the fat and figured out where the songs were and where the segues would go and whatnot. And basically turned my improvisations into a sort of concept about Fred.
And Side A are singles that are separate from the suite. So Side B is a lot of songs morphing into each other, a lot of little short Fred Short stories. But yeah, that’s the story with that.
What else can you tell readers about your songwriting process? The video you published in January about balancing family and life on the road mentions you often play songs for your wife and kids. Is that part of your process?
That’s definitely one part of the process. As far as the beginning of the process, sometimes I’ll just set up a drum machine and I’ll just find the right tempo and come up with a bass line and then a sort of melody will pop into my head and I’ll sort of make up words, just sing to the grove like oohs and ahhs and ees and then sort of go back and maybe decode the ooh and ahhs and almost start hearing words. Sometimes it will happen like that – sort of a very vague, almost blurry vision of what could be a song. Eventually it turns into a verse, then you sort of dive into the lyrics. Then at that point I might actually share it with somebody, where it’s not such an infantile stage of this blurry mess. It’s become more of a verse/melody thing where I maybe have an idea of a chorus or a bridge in there. Maybe once I establish that I’ll play in for some people and get a very communal social environment with the song. Some people hear stuff that you don't hear and some people might have some ideas that you're not hearing because you’re stuck in it for too long. I find that to be a really, really good part of the process. They may even have one word or one backup melody line that might just spawn a whole new series of ideas.
But the germ of the idea comes from nothing or it comes from just the drum machine or a bass line. Sometimes I’ll just sit at the piano and just like the way two notes sound together. I gotta say this one thing that is very, very cool. There’s a documentary called “Here Is What Is” and it’s about Daniel Lanois and the footage is amazing. There’s this part in the beginning of the documentary where Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois are talking about music. … Brian Eno was like, “You’ve got to make sure in your documentary that people know that music comes from shit. It comes from absolutely nothing. People say, ‘You’re so talented.’ It’s not from talent. It’s taking a germ of an idea, a small something and turning it into something over time and nurturing [it].” So it goes to what I was saying about the sort of blurry vision about the song. It’s nothing. It’s this little baby that’s not even formed. It’s like this little tiny thing that needs some attention and finessing every day. That was a really inspiring thing to hear from him. I was like, “Oh, right. It comes from the smallest, simplest idea.” It’s like, “Really? You write songs from like with a drum machine? How does that work?” Sometimes getting the right tempo and the right inspiration in your space is all you need.
That’s pretty amazing how a song comes from nothing. That’s probably why people who aren’t songwriters are so intrigued by it.
They’re like, “You’re so talented that you can just write songs like that.” Sure, it sounds simple, like it just came to you. But it’s like, do you want to hear all the versions of it before it became this? You probably don’t.
So for the most part, it’s whenever something comes to you, rather than saying, “Today I’m going to sit down and write a song.”
Oh my god. That’s the worst thing you could possibly do to yourself. It’s like. You’ll get nowhere so fast, you’ll be so judgmental, you’ll think everything you do is crap or so derivative. That’s another problem, that there’s nothing original. Anything you do, it’s going to sound like something else, to somebody else, somehow. That can be so distracting, especially when it happens to yourself writing music. And you’re like, “No, this sounds like the beginning of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand.’ We can’t do that.” That can be a huge problem.
It’s like a friend that you have, you can’t describe what it is, you just like being around them. It’s an unexplainable thing, same with writing a song. … It’s so weird to describe. You just have to like the instrument you're with, like the moment you’re with, like the studio you’re in and be in a good headspace or something. And [you] can also be angry. Sometimes you can let out some frustrations, or [sadness]. That can sometimes also be a good setting. Even though it may not feel good to you. You’re exuding emotion and feelings and desire or something. As much as it hurts or feels awkward or whatever, it could be a great place to come to write a song. It doesn't have to come out of, like I was mentioning earlier about just liking everything. It can come out of a sore moment too.
Do you have any personal favorite tracks from the new album?
I feel happy that I went ahead with my plan of basically what became of Side B. I mentioned to my drummer about two years ago, “Man, I did this improvisation last night where I wrote song after song and the tempo sped up. I feel like I have a whole concept about Fred Short. … It gets a little faster and gets a little faster for [the third song] and gets all psychedelic for the fourth song.” I was telling my drummer this and I sort of hoped he would be like, “Whoa, man. That sounds like a big undertaking, like don’t do that. I don’t want to deal with drum machines speeding up on stage.” He was like, “Man, that sounds really exciting. Go for it!” I feel like I achieved something by following my first thought. My friend was like, “First thought, best thought. That’s it, man. Do it.” Some people say, “The first take is God. The second take is man.” … My favorite part of the record is Side B. Before this whole record came out I was actually thinking about having it be an EP about Fred Short without any other songs on it. But I wanted to add these singles to it to make it a full-length record. I feel like it’s kind of nice to have Side A that’s almost kind of normal sounding and then Side B is like this psychedelic excursion by way of Casio drum machines and fuzz bass.
You could listen to one side or the other based on your mind, or listen to the singles and then go on the journey of Side B.
I’ve been kind of listening to the whole thing from start to finish, I just like the way it sort of brings you in, the first side, and the Side B just takes you out!
What was the inspiration behind some of the tracks on Side A?
“In The Afternoon Tomorrow” was basically started with the Casio drum machine and a little synthesizer. It sounds so stupid when I explain it. But I just liked the way these two things were working with each other, the drum machine and the synth -- and then the vocal line. … I think that song was maybe just inspired by gigging and touring … how you play your show and you see your friends and then you have to go the next day to a whole other town that’s six hours away. And you can’t do anything when you’re on the road, really, except do the gig, go crash and then get up and drive and hopefully make it on time for soundcheck [at the next show]. It’s about wanting to hang out with your friends more.
But no, there’s no theme or anything. My friend Chris Maxwell, who does the music for “Bob’s Burgers,” helped me write some words for “All The Other Dreams.” I had the chorus and he had a lot of the verse ideas. But anyway, there was not one thing. I’m just inspired by this freakin’ room that I have here – the studio. It’s like 20 feet long by 16 feet wide. It’s this little house next to our other house. It’s a separate space that I can just get groovy in, man.
It’s nice that it’s on your property.
I don’t have to go to work. It’s pretty amazing.
Your fifth solo album, 2015’s Swift, was the first release where you sang all of your own songs. You’ve said that you hadn’t liked your voice but now you think singing is awesome. It is totally natural to sing your own songs now?
Yes, I definitely don’t feel so self-conscious about it and I know where my highest note is. I’m more comfortable with it and I know a little bit more about maintaining my voice on the road and things like that. I just had to do it. People say the hardest thing is just getting started. It was. It was a little weird playing instrumentals all night and then finally singing. … I think “At The Show,” from Swift, was one of the earliest ones where I would full-on take the melody and sing it. Whenever we did that song [live] the response was so positive that it was inspiring to want to try and write more songs like that. Or sing like that too. I mean, I’m definitely still a beginner and I’m figuring it out. I’m not like a singer-singer. I am the frontman but I’m still working on being the frontman. (laughs)
I think that would keep things exciting – the opportunity to grow as an artist.
Yeah, absolutely. This is my sixth record and it’s only the second record I’ve made with me singing on it. I’d love to balance out the personal catalog of music that I have and have more songs with vocals because in a two-hour night of music at a live show it’s a nice thing to hear after lots of instrumentals, improvisations [and] some jamming. It’s definitely engaging for the audience. And I do like doing it.
You've said growing older and getting into music by The Band, James Booker and The Grateful Dead opened the singing door for you. Was there something particular about their vocals that convinced you to sing?
My friends and I recreated “The Last Waltz,” which is The Band’s last concert that they did at The Warfield in San Francisco. It’s like a three and half hour show with special guests and Dr. John was one of them. So I did the Dr. John part. My friends were like, “Man, you went all these years without singing once and you sing this Dr. John part and then you kill it. You sound so good!” It was nice hearing that. … Kal from Rubblebucket sang “This Is How It Goes” on our record Tigerface. That was the first time I heard my music with vocals, with someone else singing. That was back in 2012. And that’s really when it happened. I heard my song with a singer and I thought, “Oh man. I gotta have more songs like that.” And then Swift came along and I just did all the singing but I kind of didn’t figure out where my range was or how to sing. It was my first shot at it so it wasn't so solid. At least the second time around, I've had a little more experience doing it and I feel a little more comfortable doing it. But yeah, I’m totally hooked. I mean, I’m not avoiding any instrumental songs but intuitively what comes up is a lot of vocal ideas these days.
What’s your live show like?
Well, it’s definitely uplifting. We tour with our own piano. I have a 61-note upright piano that’s hot-rodded with guitar pickups and guitar pedals and I run it in a guitar amp. I have a synthesizer and lots of drum machines happening, a lot of different sounds happening. And my vocals have some effects on them. Our show is upbeat and psychedelic and uplifting and easy to understand.
How many musicians do you usually tour with?
There’s three of us – Dave Dreiwitz plays bass and he’s in the band Ween. They just had their reunion shows in Colorado. I’ve known Dave for a long time, longer than 10 years. Ween took a long break and he was more available for shows. Dave and I and our drummer Andy Borger, who’s played with Norah Jones and Tom Waits, he’s amazing. We’ve been on the road for the last five years together doing shows and this is our second record as a band together. They’re amazing.
Our live show is definitely – there’s no seats in the house. (laughs). It’s more for dancing.
Do you have any favorite venues to play? What’s the best environment for your live show?
There’s so many great venues out there. I like playing festivals, I like playing outside a lot, I gotta say. We played a really cool small festival in Oregon called Pickathon. It’s a very fun event.
I like playing in New Orleans a lot. I like playing in Philadelphia. I like paying in Portland, Ore.; San Francisco. I like The Independent in San Francisco, I like those type of rooms. But every once in a while we’ll play, like in Ithaca [N.Y.] we play at this little place called The Stone Cat. It’s an incredible organic restaurant that only gets their food within a 15-mile radius of the restaurant, like it’s a hardcore, organic, local, sustainable restaurant. When they’re done with [serving] food for the night, they have bands play. We just have like a freakin’ throwdown at this little restaurant that can hold 200 people, 300 people at the most! Sometimes those shows – when the PA barely works and there’s not really any lighting and there’s no stage (laughs) – sometimes those gigs, I gotta say, can be the best. Another room that’s kind of similar to that is a room called the Press Room in Portsmouth, N.H., which is a great town. We’ll do two nights in this little room where it seems like the floor is going to cave in at any moment. It’s just so much fun and everybody’s dancing and it’s hot. Again, our lighting guy is like flicking a light switch on the wall for lights and our sound guy’s like, “Man. Why are we playing here? There’s no PA system.” Sometimes those can be just incredible.
It’s just all about the music. It doesn't really matter if ...
It’s about the hospitality of the venue, first and foremost. And then it’s about the audience. Or that sort of goes hand in hand with the hospitality. The Stone Cat you sit down and you have a great meal and they’re just really happy to have you at their little place. It’s really nice. The 9:30 Club is a bigger version of that, in D.C. You go there and the hospitality feels like you’re playing in a small, comfy, organic restaurant in the middle of the country. They’re just really nice to you, the sound is great; they want to make sure you’re cool. But meanwhile, it’s this 1,500-person room, there’s going to be a line out the door, it’s in a major city. But still, the people that work there are super nice. It’s just a good environment for musicians and [the] people that work [there] know about what it’s like to be on the road all the time … They’re just dialed in to the whole lifestyle. And that’s really great. Some of the Fillmore kind of rooms are great too. ... I should definitely mention the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester [N.Y] because that place is incredible. … They redid it and it’s just … top shelf, next-level shit. It’s a classic theater from 1926, it’s really beautiful.
Was there anything else you’d like to tell readers?
I don’t know if I mentioned this but this recording was all done in our place here. That’s an important thing. I was the engineer and producer basically. I set up the mics. It’s in my studio. I finally felt like I was at the level where I could record and make a record myself. I have an 8-track tape machine that I used … I don’t really have a lot of gear here but we used it and we did it right. I felt like it was time. After recording with Richard Swift, who also has a minimalistic setup … in his garage, behind his house. But still an amazing place to work. It was nice to see, “Oh, right. You just need to know how to use your gear and how to get the sounds you want and then just go for it and commit to it and then you’re good.”
That must be a great feeling to produce an album on your own.
Yeah, definitely. I’m looking forward to making record No. 2 here.
Upcoming dates for Marco Benevento:
March 18 – Boulder, Colo., Fox Theatre
March 19 – Denver, Colo., Cervantes’ Other Side
March 20 – Crested Butte, Colo., Center For The Arts
March 31 – San Diego, Calif., Winston’s Beach Club
April 1 – Los Angeles, Calif., Bootleg Theater
April 2 – San Francisco, Calif., The Independent
April 3 – Santa Cruz, Calif., Moe’s Alley
April 6 – Arcata, CA Humboldt Brews
April 7 – Cottage Grove, Ore., Axe & Fiddle
April 8 – Portland, Ore., Wonder Ballroom
April 9 – Seattle, Wash., Tractor Tavern
April 14 – Cambridge, Mass., The Sinclair
April 15 – Kingston, N.Y., BSP Lounge
April 16 – Brooklyn, N.Y., Music Hall Of Williamsburg
April 22 – New Orleans, La., Maple Leaf
April 23 – New Orleans, La., Blue Nile
May 12 – Rochester, N.Y., The Montage Music Hall
May 13 – Hector, N.Y., Stonecat Cafe
May 14 – Buffalo, N.Y., The Tralf Music Hall
May 21 – Ardmore, Pa., The Ardmore Music Hall (Live From The Lot)
May 28 – Greenfield, Mass., Camp Kee-Wanee (Strange Creek Campout)
June 2 – Hunter, N.Y., Hunter Mountain (Mountain Jam Festival)
June 3 – Pittsburgh, Pa., Rex Theater
June 4 – Nelsonville, Ohio, Robbins Crossing @ Hocking College (Nelsonville Music Festival)
June 5 – Nelsonville, Ohio, Robbins Crossing @ Hocking College (Nelsonville Music Festival)
Visit MarcoBenevento.com for more information.