Interview: Benmont Tench

Dean Budnick on September 30, 2014

Benmont Tench is finally going it alone. Well, not quite. While the founding keyboardist of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers has just released the first record under his own name, the rich and rewarding You Should Be So Lucky, he has done so with the active support and counsel of companions old and new. Those pals include producer Glyn Johns (The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones) and players such as Petty, Ryan Adams, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Ethan Johns, Blake Mills, Jeremy Stacey and Don Was, who not only contributed bass to the sessions but also later issued the album in his role as the president of Blue Note Records. It’s certainly fitting that Tench’s chum Ringo Starr, crooning advocate of “With a Little Help from My Friends” is in on the action as well.

The material you draw from on the new album spans 30 years, including songs from the late- ‘70s and those that you composed around the time of the sessions themselves. What finally led you into the studio to record these tunes?

The gestation of the record came partly from me feeling like I’m not getting any younger. I want these songs to have a hearing and if I don’t do them, it doesn’t look like most of them will get done. So, I might as well go ahead and do them if I get the opportunity. Glyn Johns gave me the opportunity. At the same time, friends of mine that I would play the songs for—like Matt Sweeney, Blake Mills, and Sean and Sara Watkins—were really encouraging about the material and liked them. So, that gave me a little more courage to do it.

In terms of their encouragement, they would just be over at your house swimming in your pool and then, it would extend into your living room where folks would play music?

Yeah, that’s how it happened and then, eventually we stopped swimming and just played because the weather turned cold. We’d just kind of hang out and play, “Do you know this song by so-and-so and the so- and-sos?” Some song by someone really obscure. We’d play songs for each other that way and every now and then, somebody would say, “Check this out. I just wrote this. What do you think?” So, we’d do that kind of thing and one night, I showed a few of them to Blake and to Matt and they were like, “Wait a minute. You should do something with these.”

Don Was is on the album and when he came on, he hadn’t actually signed you yet. He just joined in because he’s an old friend you wanted to play on a few tracks?

He came on because he’s a great bass player. We had a couple of ideas for bassists and Glyn said, “I think Don would be great. I think he’d really like to do it,” and I said, “Absolutely.” He is flat-out a great bass player. So, of course, we get Don. Then, just in the course of a conversation when we were brainstorming about how to put a record out in this day and age with file sharing, I said, “Don, how do you put a record out?” And he said, “I’d like to put it out.”

There is a great range of material on the album both with and without vocals. How did the instrumental “Wobbles” come about?

It’s called “Wobbles” after a friend of mine in New Orleans, whose name is not Wobbles but she refers to herself when she’s had too many as Wobbles. I thought that’s marvelous. I went to college in New Orleans, and I fell in love with the music and I fell in love with the rhythm and I fell in love with the city. So, I’ve had that melody kicking around for a while. Since she lives in New Orleans, I thought that’s the ideal name. Then three days too late, I wrote a lyric for it. I put the lyric in the album so that anybody who feels like trying to figure out how to sing along is free to sing along. At shows, I’ll probably sing it some nights and just play it instrumentally others. I’ll take a poll of the audience.

How about the opener, “Today I Took Your Picture Down,” which might be my favorite. What was your intent there? Were you trying to write in a particular style?

I don’t think that I set out to write in a particular style. I think it reflects what I’ve been listening to and I’d been listening, as I always do, to a lot of Bob Dylan. I don’t generally sit down and go, “OK, let’s write a song,” because I don’t have that skill. When I was in Nashville, where I had a publishing deal, it was interesting to try to conjure that skill and I never really developed it. It’s a real talent to say, “I’m going to pull a song out of the air now and it’s going to be good.” I didn’t say, “Today, I took your picture down. I have a title, now how am I going to make a song out of it?” It just kind of wanted to be what it is and say what it said.

Speaking of Dylan, you could have picked any song from his storied career, what led you to “Duquesne Whistle?”

Since the first second I heard it—I got it the day it came out—I flat-out loved that song. Glyn wanted some covers, I think, because I had a preponderance of slow songs and it sounded like it’d be a ball to play. I wanted to play some stuff with David Rawlings and Gillian Welch if they were around, and they were. So, “Duquesne Whistle,” and the joy of playing that with those two, how could I pass it up? It’s Robert Hunter and Bob Dylan writing songs together. I mean, come on. You’re not going to beat that. It’d be interesting to know what the writing process was like. Who threw what line out? Did Hunter send him a complete lyric and he modified it? Or did he just put the music to it? I don’t know, but they’re great lyrics.

Since you mention Robert Hunter, can you share your thoughts on the Grateful Dead?

I love the Grateful Dead. My first experience with the Dead was that I’d heard all about them. I’d heard one or two things on the first few records and it didn’t really do it for me, but I kept hearing how great they were live. So I went to a Miami Pop Festival and they played. They were on early in the morning and I made sure to be on the grounds in time to see them because it’s the legendary Grateful Dead, and they were awful. But I knew enough about what they were up to that I said to myself, “Oh, they weren’t good today because they’re trying something new every day and you can’t catch it every time.”

So I kept my eyes on them and when I got Workingman’s Dead, I obsessively listened to that. They’re a model to follow because the interlacing of the guitars is beautiful, the guitar work is lyrical, the groove is fantastic. It’s very creative and they sing from the heart. They don’t always hit the note, but they sing from the heart. And the songs: Above all, it doesn’t matter what you are if you don’t have songs, and the Grateful Dead have really good songs. It’s a very unique songwriting style and you can’t get away with writing like that unless you really have it down. They’ll stretch the chords and the chords will keep going and things won’t repeat, so you can’t really get a hold on it but it still flows and makes sense. It isn’t just fucking around just for the sake of, “Look, I can do something that’s a different chord here.” Everything flows, it’s all organic, and that’s a real gift that Garcia and Hunter had with each other.

Back to Dylan for a moment. Along with The Heartbreakers, you backed Bob Dylan for a number of dates in the mid-‘80s. He has a penchant for rearranging his songs from tour to tour and even from show to show. To what extent was that a challenge?

I’m a big believer that you’ve made the record, and if you made a really good arrangement on the record, it’s thoroughly legit to use that arrangement because it’s a really good arrangement. But if it’s a really good song, it’s thoroughly legit to go, “Oh, this song feels like something else today. It feels like a piano song and not a guitar song today.”

It was rare that Bob drastically changed the songs on the spot. What he would do is he would break out a song we had never rehearsed in front of 20,000 people, and that was wonderful because I, for one, knew all the damn songs. [Mike] Campbell knew all the damn songs and everybody else was a quick study. So if you think you know what Bob’s up to, you’re kidding yourself. He seems to be a very unique thinker and a very, very clear thinker. If you try to figure him out, then you’re just wasting your time. It’s better to try and figure yourself out.

You’ve cited The Beatles as an early inspiration. Even though Ringo Starr is a friend of yours, when he joined the session for your debut album, did you ever step back and think, “Gee, he’s part of the reason I’m here today.”

Well, you’re always aware of that and then he picks up a tambourine and shakes it and the whole groove changes. You go, “Damn,” and you’re just delighted by how good a musician he is. I wanted some loose feel on that song [“Blonde Girl, Blue Dress”] and Jeremy [Stacey] was the perfect drummer for it. But there was a little bit of slop that I wanted on it and when Ringo called up, I said, “What are you doing? Grab a tambourine and come down here,” and he was there in 20 minutes. He did it in like two takes and just did exactly the right “White Album” versus Levon kind of tambourine that meshed with what Jeremy played on the drums and what Tom [Petty] played on the bass really well.

You’re someone who has been able to thrive both in the studio setting and in the live context through the years. Do you have a particular preference for one setting or the other?

I prefer gigs to the studio. Playing in the studio is great. My favorite times playing in the studio are when everybody is playing together at the same time and people are singing and going for it. I don’t mean being macho, I mean being really present in the song, which is the way we do most of The Heartbreakers stuff. My least favorite times in the studio are when you’re building a track or overdubbing. Those are thoroughly valid but it’s just a matter of if you like to paint in watercolors or oils. I like to paint in watercolors.

But the great privilege of The Heartbreakers is that my musical position in it is such that, yes, I have to play the song, and yes, as I said, sometimes the arrangement is right and you play it closely to that. As in an orchestrated piece, sometimes the French horns play right against what the brass are doing or whatever. However, I have enough freedom within that on most of the stuff to loosen up and play with it a little bit—especially since Mike Campbell is just somehow getting better and freer and looser every day. He’s more lyrical in his playing. I get to just sit next to Mike and just laugh with delight at what he’s playing and play off of that. Traditionally, we’ve stuck to something pretty close, but of late, we’ve been loosening it up more and I really welcome that.