Someday in the near future, don’t be surprised when a child, splashing in the water, playing a game of Marco Polo, responds with “Benevento”. Having already proven himself over the past decade as one of this generation’s finest keyboard players, the recent drop of “Tigerface”, further indicated he is poised to break out to a level of acceptance and popularity unseen by his contemporaries.
The premiere piano player on the scene is Marco Benevento. The Berklee School of Music grad has been steadily playing for over a decade, but has experienced a major shift in exposure and acceptance of late. A huge fan of sound experimentation and Moth Robot out of Chicago, he uses an piano rigged up with a variety of circuit bent toys, guitar pick-ups, amplifiers, pedals and other effects including an organ. Benevento does not sing, but rather uses his keyboard to treat his audience to one long jam session after another, using pedals and effects to create a altered and euphoric atmosphere, interspersed with moments reminiscent of classical, jazz and pleasantly weird music. Between his unique rock jams on fan favorites including “Real Morning Party” and “Atari” one can expect a healthy serving of his usual sardonic and strange banter into the fray.
Currently playing in a circuit that includes a few talented piano-driven front men including Ben Folds, Nigel Hall, John Medeski and major contributing player Page McConnell, Benevento continually manages to carve a unique niche all his own. Adept at choosing classic songs to cover in an exemplary fashion, Benevento takes the structure of the original song only to interpret it into an original improvisation take all his own. Benevento is contagious and often hilarious, with his talent oozing onto everyone within earshot as he performs like a man on a mission, desperate to share his love for music. In a musical spectrum where one is constantly forced to be pigeon-holed into a specific category, it’s more simplistic to quickly conclude that no one plays the piano like Marco.
Marco spends most of the calendar year extensively touring in various different bands at a myriad of festivals and in an endless list of cities. With the relentless and exhausting tour schedule transporting from city to city, that as a musician ultimately, “you are not paid for the gig, you are paid to get to the gig.”
Through a partnership in his own label, The Royal Potato Family, Benevento recently released his fourth and strongest studio album, “Tigerface” and is currently on tour in support of it. Carousing in the current incarnation as the Marco’s trio, including respected and professional musical veterans Dave Dreiwitz (Ween) and Andy Borger (Norah Jones). At a concert hall near you one can witness firsthand the kinetic carnival he relentlessly cascades to those in attendance, complete with whizzing, whirling and wacky surreal sounds, layered and fused with pounding of extravagant avant-garde craftsmanship on the ivories. TigerFace showcasing his collobaration with musicians including drummers Matt Chamberlain, John McEntire and Andrew Barr, bassists Dave Dreiwitz, Reed Mathis and Mike Gordon , violinist Ali Helnwein and saxophonist Stuart Bogie. At a live show, rather than the traditional keys player hiding behind his instrument, he shares his extrovert personality, natural enthusiasm, charm and people pleasing demeanor in a fun-loving and free-wheeling esoteric exercise through stage banter that infectiously invites everyone into the fray.
Marco includes a bevy of impressive guests on his addictive new record. When I caught up with one of them, Mike Gordon, and asked him about Benevento, the answer summed up perceptions of many in succinct fashion, “Marco, ah…the coolest cat around.” Equally cool is Marco’s choice for the first vocal part ever included on one of his albums. Kalmia Traver, of Rubblebucket, adds a quirky and mesmerizing eloquence to the most alluring and addictive track for Benevento to date, “This is How it Goes.” The pair have announced a New Year’s run at the Higher Ground in Burlington.
At an intimate venue last year, Marco started the show by saying, “So little time and so many songs to play.” As long as he continues to consistently part new paths in water that most of his peers simply tread in, we will be listening. In the future, when paddling in a pool playing with kids and asked to respond to, “Marco?” If you feel that Benevento is a mouthful, simply replace it with, “Genius.” No one will know the difference.
L4LM: Growing up in NJ, what shows did you see as a youth? Did you see jazz or jam?
In 1991, I saw the Grateful Dead play at Giants Stadium and I was just getting into wearing tie-dyes, patchouli oil and Tevas, so it was my initiation into that world. And around that time at 15, I had a band that played all the sweet sixteen parties called “The Riddlers” and we covered a lot. I really like the Doors, and I would play many parties in high school playing the Who tunes and we even did “Chalkdust Torture”. I saw my first Phish show in Binghamton and started taking jazz lessons and my teacher suggested I see jazz. I remember my first jazz show at Trumpets in Montclair. I learned then how to improvise and how people make music. I have always loved rock music and always been into jazz. I realized I had to see people make music to learn how to actually play it.
L4LM: With so many musicians in the scene kicking ass out of Berklee (Lettuce, Hornsby, Turkuaz) how did that experience shape you?
I was into it man. As a kid growing up, playing sports and music and being nice to your parents, I had a great relationship with my parents, but I was happy to be away at school. I liked school and the education part of it, taking all sorts of different classes like hand drum, upright bass and film scoring. I was in a band called The Jazz Farmers and we had a residency every Thursday at the club called the Chocolate Box. It worked for me, just like the Lettuce guys I think, because you have teachers and a crew you are learning from, and it’s good to be out there doing gigs while you are out there in college. I had a teacher named Joanne Brackeen and she was a female piano player who kicked my ass into learning shit I didn’t think I’d do like Chick Corea solos and other crazy jazz stuff and I got a crazy jazz award thing before I left because of her.
L4LM: When did you first experiment with effects and circuits? Why do you think more keys players don’t do what you do, to this extent?
As a kid growing up, I liked the synthesizer and Moog keyboards and I’ve always had a four track recorder and a drum machine, so I always had like a two tiered keyboard stand rig in my room and I loved to put on my headphones and record with that. I played some covers or improvised some stupid kid stuff making cassettes, so that probably opened door to that side of things, like almost the engineering side of things, or a production side, which goes hand in hand with working in studios and working with Bryce Goggin at his Trout studio (Brooklyn) specifically and seeing all his electronics and how he works things to make records, different approaches you can have and then making my own records on my laptop and what makes things sound awesome. I think most musicians, or you said piano players, don’t get into it is because it is a another door to open and I can see how musicians would not want to open it. It is a whole different side of the brain and way to thinking. Cool, that’s awesome. It feels very natural. I’m walking around my studio and seeing all these toys that I want to turn on!
L4LM: You are known touring machine, how do you maintain your energy at each and every gig without becoming complacent, and how do you play off the crowd at an intimate show after performing at so many big fests? Does it make a difference or is it just another show?
It makes a difference because your environment is always changing the way you are thinking or hearing things, but there is definitely a similar thread between them all. Even when Joe (Russo) and I were on tour with Trey and Mike and doing our duo set first, even though we were playing a huge room we were still doing our thing, we still had the monitors by us and were facing each other so there is always that connection with bands that no matter where we are you are gonna say, “ok, we are gonna do the songs we know and are getting better at playing”, but at the same time like when we play Dazzle in Denver, a sort of smaller jazz club, you can change the set a little bit, people are sitting down as opposed to the Highline Ballroom of 600 standing people. I like to change the set for the audience. I think the musician to audience interaction is invisible, you can’t see it, but you can really feel it like “somehow I think we really lost these guys, why did we play this one?” I like that part of touring. I keep energized because music keeps me recharged – you forget about all the mundane stuff that just happened to you, the boring stuff you don’t want to talk about with anyone and you have it heal you and forget about all this shit I did to get here and it will be all good.
L4LM: When you choose to cover popular songs like Pink Floyd’s “Fearless”, Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” and Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” is it 1) Because you like them 2) You know you can ‘go off ‘ on them or 3) You know they are going to be crowd pleasers?
Probably all three and then more! The fourth element is that they lend themselves to the band, they should sound good when we play them and that we are doing it our own way, but it also should work for the audience. Sometimes you can do a song that fits the three things you say, but then you try it with your band and it doesn’t work. You actually have to find an interesting cover to do that actually sounds really good.
L4LM: After years of touring and hard work, how do you account for the recent spike in popularity of your work?
Oh, that’s awesome. I don’t know, I wonder that myself, “What is going on? What do I do here?” I am very content and super pumped at the way things are going. I have rarely been in a musical situation over the last 10 years that I have been bored by. I’ve always been able to do something I want to do. I love playing in all my various gigs. I’m not a backup guy. I can be, I mean if Wilco needs a keyboard player (laughs) but I really like following my own musical brain and making things that other people aren’t going to make. I have a supportive grass roots team. My manager (Kevin Calabro) and my booking agent are not taking advantage of anybody, or doing anything weird, they are just good people.
L4LM: With involvement in so many bands like Garage a Trois, Benevento/Russo Duo, Bustle, Surprise Me Mr. Davis, Bitches Brew – is one any more challenging or requiring a vastly different approach than another?
In Davis, I play the good rock keyboard part and don’t have to set the looper or get my laptop and have my effects, I just need to come up with the cool piano part for a rock band. It’s challenging, but I’m not trying to reach for crazy things or step on the pedal in time, it’s more basic rooty rock stuff. Garage is challenging that I am doing two parts, the bass line, the Rhodes part and the organ part, and I’m standing up and it’s like the loudest, craziest, punk jazz that I’ve ever played. It’s not challenging where I ‘m confused or don’t sure what to do on stage, its more challenging from a physical standpoint.
L4LM: How did Mike Gordon get involved on this record?
Soon after I moved up here, he called and told me his Phish tour was ending and he took the bus to my house to crash on his way to Vermont. Someone came over to bring him some guitars to try out. I was working on the difficult bass part for the album and thought, “wait, Mike Gordon is right here!” So I put a mic on him and without knowing the song, or ever playing that bass line, he did it.
L4LM: Why have we heard so little vocals from you and are we going to hear more?
I have no idea why I have never had a vocal track on a record until now. Probably because I’m not used to delivering live vocals in a band and we have always been drawn to instrumental rock music. We were not avoiding it, noone really asked so I had to open up the door myself on this last record. Actually, it happened on this record when my wife and I had some friends over for dinner and I played them the piano melody for “This is How It Goes” and we added like syllable singing with it. We made up words to it in like 5 minutes and set up a mic and recorded it and overdubbed it. Some songs simply lend themselves more to lyrics or a pop sensibility. “This is How it Goes” and “Limbs of a Pine” are two songs where the lyrics were always poppy in my ears and maybe more radio friendly, and I’m so happy because Kal (Kalmia Traver of Rubblebucket) was the perfect candidate for it and I’m so happy that it happened and that we are friends and working on things together. Definitely there will be more vocals but who knows how much more.
L4LM: I spoke with Aron Magner, a fellow keys player of the Disco Biscuits and asked about how the days of piano players like Elton John and Billy Joel in the forefront are gone and mostly all music in the scene is heavily guitar driven, who do you admire as a keyboard player?
On the jazz side of things, Brad Mehldau and I have played together in my living room and I love his stuff as well as Jamie Saft. I think Bruce Hornsby is great. There is no current Freddie Mercury of keyboards in the rock scene that comes to mind unfortunately.
L4LM: What is your involvement with the Royal Potato Family label and the other bands on it? Any one on it in particular you are most excited about?
I really like Superhuman Happiness and the Mike Dillon Band. My manager turned me on to Happiness and the label is more his baby. I’d love to be more involved with bands on our label but now I’m really focused on my piano and Kevin runs the grassroots of the label.
L4LM: How has moving to upstate NY and building a home studio facilitated the fostering of your creativity?
Immensely, it’s just awesome. I love it up here. When the family is asleep, I can just run out here and record all this stuff and be creative. I am on AC Newman’s record. He came over for 3 days and recorded all this crazy keyboard stuff for it. We had a place to go and didn’t have to worry about noise and it’s great to have this little box next to my house piled with gear and a studio.
L4LM: How do you name the tracks of your instrumental songs – by the feeling it evokes (“Fireworks”/”Real Morning Party”) and is it always after?
Yes, it’s usually after I’ve heard it a few times. I sent the demo version to my wife, a good song I thought for her and the kids to listen to in the morning. Sometimes weird personal stuff like “Fireworks” was when I saw fireworks up here with my kids. “Whoa!”
L4LM: How are your albums different and changing?
They are definitely evolving. I think they are getting thicker, as far as all the sounds and in terms of production. My laptop couldn’t handle as much on previous albums so now I can produce things a little bit more so the sound quality is evolving. I’m discovering more bluesy jammy progressions that are easy to swallow and a lot of my songs have been detail oriented with changes. I’m happy to see what evolves with my new studio. My favorite songs on the record are those I had nothing for before I went into the studio. “Limbs of a Pine” was totally improvised on the spot. Matt (Chamberlain, drummer) came up with an interesting groove and it became my favorite song on the record. Sometimes the best songwriting opportunities occur on the spot in the studio without preparation.
L4LM: What celebrity would you play in a movie?
Kris Kristofferson. I love that guy. Nah, I could do Zach Galifianakis. I mean if I had my big beard going and the daddy weight.
L4LM: Thank you so much, Marco. See you at Bowery Ballroom. Keep up the good work man.
Thank you so much. Have a great afternoon!
Marco Benevento – This Is How It Goes
Marco Benevento – Limbs of a Pine