The music never stops for Marco Benevento. Whether he’s on stage doing his day job playing keys for Joe Russo’s Almost Dead or performing in his eponymous solo trio with bassist Karina Rykman and drummer Dave “DB” Butler, he’s always got something to keep his hands occupied.
Even during the pandemic, he was hard at work at his former Fred Short home studio in Woodstock, NY, putting together what arrived on June 10th as Benevento. Inspired by the sounds of West African psych and confined by varying degrees of social distance, Benevento connected with San Diego poet Al Howard (from California) and Ghana-born percussionist/Woodstock local Mamadouba “Mimo” Camara (from outside his house) to fill out the new project.
He’s gearing up to throw his first festival, Follow The Arrow, on June 18th in Accord, NY, not far from his artistic haven in Woodstock. The new venture will include a rare performance from Surprise Me Mr. Davis, Benevento’s old band featuring Marc Friedman, Nathan Moore, Andrew Barr, and Brad Barr. The Barrs will also headline the festival with The Slip. Benevento dots the lineup with a trio performance, a Benevento Family Band set, the debut of a new collaboration with Alecia Chakour (Tedeschi Trucks Band) dubbed 40 Love, and more.
Live For Live Music recently caught Marco by phone at his Woodstock home amid a lunch of quinoa, vegetables, tofu, and salmon to chat about this busy summer of Benevento.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Live For Live Music: So, you went into quarantine and you came out with a West African psych record. How did that happen?
Marco Benevento: [Laughs] Good question. Well, I was able to get to all these songs that I was working on. Obviously, my life is all about touring and playing all over the country and when that all ended, I still wanted to keep it up and play a lot. So I just recorded a bunch in the studio, which is great. It’s a little building right next to my house up here in Woodstock, and got to all the tunes that I wanted to get to and played all the instruments myself, engineered it myself, definitely bounced it off a couple people…some people I looked up to musically to sort of get their opinion. Be like, “Dude, is this good? I can’t even tell if this is good or not.” [Laughs] Because I’d just been trapped in the studio, making these tunes.
A couple tunes are reminiscent of the sort of psychedelic West African thing, like Francis Bebey or William Onyeabor or Kiki Gyan. Some songs are obviously not like that as well, but it’s definitely an experimental sort of synthesizer, drum machine record.
And then, there’s some glimpses of normalcy in there. Some tunes that are like, “Oh, yeah. You could dance to that one.” But yeah, I just kind of was able to dive in all the stuff that I wanted to work on and just went right to it.
I even had my kids sing on some stuff and I had this drummer who teaches at the school, who’s from Ghana, come play some African percussion on a bunch of tunes, as well. I guess that’s the other sort of big piece of the puzzle, really, is having [Mamadouba “Mimo” Camara] on some tracks. It really brings out the whole West African psych element.
Live For Live Music: And that’s another interesting thing about this record. It’s definitely a product of the pandemic and quarantine—a time when everybody was keeping their distance from one another—but then you go ahead and reach out to collaborators like Mimo or Al Howard. What made you want to do that?
Marco Benevento: Well, Mimo, I always wanted to kind of get him over to the house and he couldn’t even come in because he is immunocompromised as well. I recorded him outside on a hot summer day and put a microphone out there and gave him headphones. We even wore our masks, this is kind of right in the middle of it all, and safely had him over to record.
And then Al Howard was someone who I just collaborated with just via email and via text. A good friend, Nathan Moore of Surprise Me Mr. Davis, told me that Al’s been really, really busy and he has a lot of lyrics and he has a lot of ideas these days, and if you need anybody to collaborate with, you should reach out to him. It was just like a friend reaching out, just being like, “Dude, Al’s kind of killing it. If you ever need help with any lyrics, he’s a good guy to talk to.”
I’ve been writing lyrics and singing for not that long. I mean, even though I guess it’s probably been about seven or eight years of me doing that, which seems like a long time, in the grand scheme of things I feel like I’m very much still a beginner in the lyric department and the singing department because a lot of my records and songs that I play live are instrumental.
Anyway…he sent over a bunch of poetry, a bunch of stuff he was working on. I wasn’t so psyched on lyrics that I had, so I kind of combined my own lyrics with his lyrics and kind of made it all work. And it was a really cool experience because I’d never done that before. I’d never been handed sheets and sheets of lyrics and then been like, “Oh, I’m going to put all this stuff sort of in my music,” or rearrange it or maybe repeat this line twice or change it up a little bit to sort of fit what I got. And it was a really fun process.
He sent me a bunch of lyrics and then I immediately wrote him back, “This is working really well for me. Send me more stuff. I love this.” So, it’s sort of a collaboration between his lyrics and mine, and that was kind of nice.
It was also nice to plop his lyrics in there and sing it and then take it out and be like, “You know what? This song should be instrumental. I’m just going to take the words out.”…[Or] for me to see his lyrics and to be like, “Oh, right. I should try to write lyrics like this, too.”
It was really cool of Nathan to reach out to me and tell me about Al Howard and how busy he was and how fun it is to sort of collab with another lyricist. …That was a new element, for me, for this record…Because nothing was going on, I really got a chance to mess with every song a lot.
Live For Live Music: I think that it sounded very much like it was still your voice, even if it was somebody else’s words. On a song like “Winter Rose”, for example, it still has that sound from your previous music. And at that same time you’re working with these other people, you’re doing all of the other instrumentation—except for Mimo—without Karina or DB. Where do they fit in with the new material and how do you see it transitioning to the stage?
Marco Benevento: That’s a good question. [Laughs] I’m about to find that out. I’m about to find that out real quick. I sent them all the tunes and they’re all working on them and learning them. And we played “At the End of the Beginning” live and we’ve played “Winter Rose” live. We got those down. I’m curious to see how a lot of the other tunes are going to fit into our trio setting. There’s a lot of sounds going on, so I’m kind of curious to see. …But those guys can obviously learn the simple bass parts that I played and the simple drum parts that I played and play them, because I’m not much of a bass player or drummer, but I pulled it together for the record.
I’m curious to see what songs will really translate well live and which sections of songs we could extend and improvise on. That’s the beauty about playing with all the amazing musicians I play with like Karina and DB. They’re really talented and they’re really great at playing, so it’s just a matter of time and experimentation before we finally find a comfort zone with it all.
Live For Live Music: It’s kind of like you working with Al’s lyrics and changing things, making it your own. Once those two get a hand on these new songs, they could even start doing things the way that they would interpret it and make something even newer.
Marco Benevento: Right, yeah. Good point. That’s what I like about transforming the album version to the live version, is that everybody brings their own personal element to it. So without a doubt, over the course of the next four or five months, we’re going to be playing a lot of shows and without a doubt, it’s going to evolve and Karina’s going to add her incredible vibe and personality to each song, as is DB.
Live For Live Music: You mentioned that you had your family doing some vocals on this album and then just the other day, when you were at Red Rocks with JRAD, you brought out your daughter to sing a Beatles cover. What’s that experience been like for you, bringing your family into your artistic and professional life like that?
Marco Benevento: Oh, man. It’s the best, super proud Papa moment. And we didn’t push it on her. We were like, “Oh, do you want to do this? Try it with us.” And she was like, “Yeah, sure.” I was really amazed. She rose to the occasion and she was there at soundcheck and we ran…Actually, we ran “Ramble On Rose” at soundcheck because she knows that one and she’s sang that, which is really cool. And then she saw that we were doing that Beatles tune, and I was like, “Oh, Joe. Ila knows that. She just sang that in the talent show like a month ago with her friend.” And he was like, “Oh, have her come up.” It was just funny to see everybody’s reaction because they’re like, “Dude, your kid is so down to do this. She doesn’t even realize it, really.” I’m like, “I know. She’s going to realize it in a couple years that she’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I played Red Rocks with JRAD.'” [Laughs]
I mean, there’s a big music community up here and the girls, both our kids are into music and into Rock Academy shows, the School of Rock shows, and stuff. So they’re used to singing into a microphone, monitors, and playing shows and soundchecks and rehearsals. And they got it, obviously, because they were raised by my wife and I here in Woodstock. They know what’s up. They like music. They get it, and it was really cool to see her comfort level and, of course, just to see her smile… and also to see her like a little awkward.
Right before the song, right before she started singing, she’s like, “Dad, Tommy [Hamilton]’s going to sing with me too, right?” I’m like, “Yeah, don’t worry. Tom’s going to sing with you too. It’s going to be okay.” She killed it. She did a really great job. I was so impressed and inspired and motivated and, of course, teary-eyed. Just like, “Oh, my God, this is so awesome. I’m so glad they came.”…Next time I got to get [her big sister] Ruby up there doing something with us.
Live For Live Music: Get the whole family band going?
Marco Benevento: Yeah.
Live For Live Music: That’s great. On Benevento, as you mentioned, there are songs that dabble in the West African psych sounds and then there are other ones that are more conventionally identifiable as Marco Benevento songs. Can you see any kind of line that you could draw from The Story of Fred Short to Let It Slide to this new record?
Marco Benevento: Oh, absolutely. The Story of Fred Short, Side B especially, has kind of a lot of dancy, upbeat, synthy, drum machine-y kind of jams and I feel like “Winter Rose” is kind of a bit of an extension of that. Same with “At the End or the Beginning”.
It’s funny how that works…I played “Winter Rose” in the car for a bunch of family and friends and I was like, “This is actually a song I wrote. This is a new song.” And they’re like, “Oh, yeah. I know. This sounds like it could be your song.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s cool.” Because sometimes I wonder, “Oh, man, does this even sound like it could be me?” And it’s nice to hear that they’re like, “Oh, yeah.”
Every sort of album that comes out, a new song that comes out, they’re like, “Oh, yeah, that’s you.” Even though it’s an evolution of what I’m working on, they’re like, “Oh, no. It’s a total Marco-sounding song.” And that was kind of good to hear versus maybe someone being like, “What the hell is this? This is you?” But a lot of the response and the reception has been like, “Oh, yeah, totally. This sounds like your brain.”…Every album is the evolution of what you’re working on and hopefully there’s threads connecting each of the songs together so it sounds like it’s coming from one artist.
The Story of Fred Short, I also did in my studio basically by myself…Let It Slide, working with Leon [Michels], there’s a lot of Leon and he produced it and we sort of co-wrote a lot of songs together. I feel like Let It Slide, there’s definitely threads in there that are like, “Oh, yeah. That’s a Marco song,” but then there’s also songs on there that are like, “Well, this is…” I felt like that’s kind of a different record for me because there’s a lot of other input coming in with Leon, which was really, really great. Since then, we’ve been working on a ton of stuff together. He’s hired me to be on a bunch of sessions for all the artists he works with, which is really fun.
Every album is an evolution of your own musical self. I always try to encourage all my buddies to make records and make records and make records because if you’re sitting on a record for too long, then you kind of miss the whole evolution of everything you’re working on and learning. I’m a big fan of completing a record and putting it out and thinking, “Okay, I want to make something better next time.” Or, “I want to try to do this better.” Maybe I was slightly unsatisfied about something on the record before, so I want to try to do it better.
I know that some musicians are the other way around where they’re like, “Oh, yeah. I’ve been working on this record for four years. I probably need to work on it for another one or two and then I’ll put it out.” I’m like, “Dude, six years?!” Working on a record for six years… that’s too long, at least for me, because I’m always learning and listening to things and messing around with stuff, so I feel like if I don’t put it out, it’s going to be old.
Live For Live Music: The flow of Benevento, the trance-like elements, stylistically mirror the pandemic itself. You kind of put your head down and get locked into a groove and then you look up and five minutes or five months have gone by.
Marco Benevento: So true. In that way, I was even hesitant to put the record out. I’m like, “Is this even good? This is really weird and trance-y and this first song is like a minute and a half and there’s like no singing or no nothing, it’s just a weird little drum machine synth-y thing. Should I put this out?” I don’t know. I had my doubts about this one because I didn’t know if it was good enough or I thought maybe it was too weird. And then I was just like, “You know what? I don’t really have a crazy, weird, experimental synth record that’s a little questionable.” [Laughs] I was like, “I should have one of those out there. That’s what I’m into.” So it was fun to embrace the weirdness and all the experimentation that I was doing.
It’s like a painting. If you keep on messing with the painting, it’s going to just be too thick and there’s going to be too many colors and it’s going to be overwhelming to look at. There were elements of that, I felt like, with this record where I’m like, “Man, this is just crazy. There’s a synth solo and then another keyboard solo and then a piano solo. What is going on with these songs?” And then you get encouraging feedback from your friends and you put it on in a car ride and people are singing along and you’re like, “Alright, this is a song. This is a good song. This works. Don’t overthink it, man. Just put it out and let your freak flag fly, baby.”
Live For Live Music: Totally. I think this is just kind of the ideal time for people to be ready for something like that, something more experimental.
Marco Benevento: Yeah. I was full-on suck-it mode and just like, “You know what? Yeah. I’m putting it out.”
Live For Live Music: And one more thing just about this album is that, I was reading that it’s the last one from your Fred Short studio and kind of a swan song for that chapter. What’s it like to be leaving that creative home and moving to a new studio?
Marco Benevento: Oh, man. Very overwhelming. And transitioning to the new studio, it was a lot of work to take down all the walls and all the soundproofing and all the wood and unplug everything that was plugged in and set it all up into a new room. It was slightly overwhelming, but it had to be done. There was no room, it was floor-to-ceiling everything. Actually, when I took out everything and put it into the new space, our friends came over and saw the studio empty. And they’re like, “Oh, dude, there’s windows in here?” I covered up everything. I just put keyboards across the windows. I didn’t have time. I didn’t have room for windows. I couldn’t have a window.
It was something that needed to be done and I knew that it would take a bit of time, a lot of time, to set up and get up and running. But it needed to happen. I did it, I worked on it in January all month and set it all up. And I’m fully functioning there right now. And actually, I was pretty fully functioning in there quickly, like in February. I can’t just not have a place to work, so I made sure that sh*t was working as soon as I could make it happen.
[I] was in my studio for ten years, so after being in there for ten years, you’re like, “Oh, if I had a bigger space, I could do this and I could do that. And I could walk around the back of this thing so I could unplug stuff easier instead of having to wheel it away from the wall and reach around the back.” You know that if you had a bigger space, you could kind of picture what it would be like. And I had a vision of what it was going to be like, so it was kind of easy for me to do it all, it just took a lot of work.
But now that I’m in there working, it’s so much easier, less cluttered. I can have a lot more people in there now. I even have isolation. I have studio B, I have one big room and a smaller room, so I could have a drummer in one room and not have any bleed, which is cool. …I can’t wait to see what happens over the next ten years in this new studio.
Live For Live Music: How long until you cover up the windows with keyboards?
Marco Benevento: [Laughs] Good question. Well, I just have really narrow windows, kind of up high, at eye level or even higher than that. All the keyboards can sit below it and it’s okay.
Live For Live Music: Let’s talk Follow The Arrow, the new festival you’re curating. What made you want to throw your own festival like this?
Marco Benevento: I didn’t want to. It was recommended. It was an idea that a friend of mine had, who works at Levon Helm Studios, who works for Amy Helm and a bunch of people. And he was like, “Man, there’s this great farm. We just had a fest there. We had Amy Helm play and I’d love to have the Benevento Fest or the Benefesto…It’d be cool if you curated a day.” And I was like, “Dude, I’d love to do that. Great idea. Let’s do it.”
I was touring so much over the last four or five years. I mean, I’ve been touring a lot over the last 20 years, but we were trying to make it happen over the last couple years and we haven’t been able to because of the schedule. And we finally found a date and we were able to get The Slip. And then as soon as we got my buddies The Slip to confirm and we had me and I was like, “All right, let’s just get a couple other bands like Antibalas.” We wanted to get Rubblebucket, but we couldn’t get them. They were busy already. We got Antibalas and Mikaela Davis and just a bunch of people that I know and love musically and even just personally.
It’s just two stages, one day, noon to ten at night. There’ll be amazing food there. It’s a really cool location, like 20 minutes south of Woodstock, not far from here. I’m really looking forward to it. We’re going to do a family band set at noon with my kids and Katie, my wife, and my cousins and my dad. Alecia Chakour and I are going to debut our duo called 40 Love, which is just basically her singing and me playing piano and it’s almost jazzy, lounge-y kind of vibes that we’re going to do. Scotty Metzger‘s going to be floating around, special guests sitting in with everybody. So is Stuart Bogie, he’ll be around playing. I’m really excited.
And then, of course, we announced the festival and I get a call from a bunch of other musicians, friends who were like, “Dude, why didn’t you ask me?” Actually, Nicole Atkins was like, “I’m going to be in Woodstock that weekend. I want to come sit in.” And I’m like, “Yeah, come.” And Elvis Perkins was like, “Dude. …I’m around. I want to sit in.” Who else? It’s funny, they all came out of the woodwork like, “Dude, I’m going to be around. I want to play your festival.” So there’s all these people that aren’t even on the bill that are probably going there anyway.
Live For Live Music: That’s awesome, it’s a really cool lineup. And there’s a bit of a reunion theme with The Slip getting back in gear and playing as well as Surprise Me Mr. Davis. What made you want to bring that back off the shelf?
Marco Benevento: Well, as soon as we got Andrew [Barr] and Brad [Barr] and Marc [Friedman] to say yes with The Slip, I was like, “Well, guys, all we need is one more dude to come up to make it Davis and then that’s one more band you could put on the bill.” Not to mention, we all freaking love playing with each other and Surprise Me Mr. Davis is a very rare occasion.
I was just overwhelmed when Nathan [Moore] was like, “All right, dude, I’m coming up. Let’s do this.” I’m just so excited to play with those guys. I love that band and we don’t get to play enough and the music is timeless to me. It’s such great music. It’s just because we haven’t done it in a while, and pulling Nathan out of his house in Virginia is a good thing because he’s been stuck in there a bunch. So, I’m happy to pull him out of there, bring him on stage and have him sing with us.
Live For Live Music: When was the last time you guys even played together on stage?
Marco Benevento: Oh, man. High Sierra, like six years ago. Maybe more.
Live For Live Music: Where does that fit in with where you’re at musically now compared to 2016 or 2010, when you guys put out The Man That Eats Morning for Breakfast?
Marco Benevento: [Laughs] It’s going to be a lot of those songs. We don’t have any new songs, that’s for sure. [Laughs] So, it’s just going to be a lot of those jams and…It’s funny, because everybody evolves musically. Brad and Andrew have been playing a lot with the Barr Brothers Band and they’ve been writing a lot of new music and evolving their own thing, and The Slip even has been evolving and writing some new songs and playing a little bit more lately. And Marc’s been playing and touring with all sorts of folks. And Nathan’s been writing music and doing all sorts of stuff. And I’ve been very busy with my own stuff and writing music and, of course, playing with JRAD.
But then, once we get together with Davis, it’s like the good old days. Good old boys just going back and playing the songs that we know from 2012 or even earlier and then sort of seeing what happens. Since everyone’s evolved a little bit, just seeing like, “Oh, what’s Marco’s piano solo going to be like tonight?” Or, “What’s Brad’s guitar solo going to be like tonight?” Or, “How are we going to steer this song in a new direction?” I don’t know. That’s the thing about Surprise Me, is that there’s the word “surprise” in the band name. So, there’ll just be lots of surprises. You never know what might come out of Nathan’s sleeves, just because he’s a magician on his own, anyway.
Live For Live Music: Speaking of Surprise Me and surprises, you’re bringing back the Marco Benevento Trio with bassist Reed Mathis and drummer Andrew Barr for the As Summer Into Autumn Slips festival in Pembroke, MA, which also has Surprise Me Mr. Davis on the bill. What’s driving all this revitalization? I mean, Surprise Mr. Davis kind of came with that convenience, but then getting the Benevento Trio back together too…
Marco Benevento: I know, man. It was like one of those things. If people ask for it and want it to happen, I’ll totally do it. I mean, it wasn’t my idea. It was their idea to have it be Reed [Mathis] and Andrew [Barr] and myself, the original trio. And they were requesting that we play a bunch of stuff from those first records, Invisible Baby and Me Not Me. And it’s great because we all live in different places. Andrew lives in Montreal, Reed lives in Oakland or San Francisco, and I’m over here in Woodstock. So it’s not that easy to just bring the original band together. I’m glad that those guys decided to do it because it just gives us an excuse to hang out and play music together, and that’s all we would want to do anyway.
Also, my band currently has a new repertoire compared to the repertoire from 2010 or something…so it’s nice to go back in time and play. There wasn’t any singing or there weren’t any tunes kind of like that back then. We played almost like jazz clubs. We played Yoshi’s in Oakland or we would play sort of smaller clubs in New York and I would just play piano. It wasn’t a lot of effects. Even volume wasn’t crazy loud.
Now, we’re playing for a dancing, standing audience, selling out Bowery Ballroom-type size rooms. But when we first started, it was smaller little spots and we definitely experimented a little bit more, musically speaking, and songs maybe were a little longer. But now, it’s evolved, like I said, so it’ll be cool to revisit the old concept, the old band. Meanwhile, it’s just the same music I play.
Check out the new Marco Benevento solo album, Benevento, on the player below or on your preferred streaming platform. Tickets for Follow The Arrow are on sale here.
Marco Benevento – Benevento