Marco Benevento: Using Time For Fun
Photo by Will Schwerd
Marco Benevento retools his ever-evolving solo project with the help of some funky friends, extra gaff tape and high-school tennis lessons.
The title track of Marco Benvento’s latest album, Let It Slide, kicks off the record with a piano sound that likely isn’t familiar to listeners’ ears. While that’s far from a rarity for one of Benevento’s tunes—considering the keyboardist’s penchant for using samples, pedals and circuit-bending techniques to create otherworldly melodies with his instrument—this time around, the effect wasn’t so complicated. But it may have actually led to the creation of a whole new instrument.
“When we were touring with Gibbs [one of Benevento’s upright pianos], I would reach my hand inside and mute some strings for this song ‘Atari,’ and I always liked the sound of that,” Benevento explains as he waits in a backstage room at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg before soundcheck. “It doesn’t sound so ‘piano-y’ or trebly, almost like a harp or some sort of Japanese instrument. And when we were tracking ‘Let It Slide’ in Queens, I was thinking that I didn’t really like the piano sound on the song. We took a break to change a microphone or something, and I wanted to mute some strings for the song but couldn’t reach all of them.”
Necessity being the mother of invention, Benevento searched his surroundings at Diamond Mine studios and spotted something the place had in abundance—gaff tape. Before the session continued with another take of “Let It Slide,” Benevento had covered his piano strings with the tape, allowing him to achieve his intended muted tone while still being able to use both hands to play.
“I didn’t even tell the guys,” Benevento continues, “and after we did that take, Leon [Michels, producer and instrumentalist on Let It Slide] and Jens [Jungkurth, Diamond Mine’s engineer] were like, ‘What’d you do? That sounds awesome!’ It has a really cool sound, especially with delay. Piano has such a mood. But it’s my instrument, so I gotta make it work, and changing the sound with the gaff tape really sealed the deal and made the song sound better to me. The guys asked, ‘What do you call that?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know—gaff tape on piano strings?’ And they were like, ‘Gaffiano!’ So everyone started calling me Gaffiano.”
That wouldn’t be the only time the Gaffiano’d piano was utilized during the Let It Slide sessions—shortly after finishing the title track, Benevento’s studio collaborators urged him to improvise with the newfound sound, prompting the musician with suggestions like, “Play Keith Jarrett meets Sun Ra!” After about 20 minutes, the studio session moved on, but three short segments from the improv exercise made it onto Let It Slide, appropriately titled “Gaffiano #1-3.”
The invention of the Gaffiano—besides providing Benevento with a kickass new nickname—succinctly illustrates his willingness to play around with his music. Despite being lauded by fellow musicians, friends and, of course, fans as one of the top keyboardists in the game (a compliment that he himself would likely balk at), Benevento revels in experimentation, pushing boundaries and, seemingly above all, making sure that both his audience and his bandmates have a damn good time at his shows.
Karina Rykman, who has played bass in Benevento’s touring trio for over three years and sings background vocals on Let It Slide, describes him as a “fearless” musician who “can play circles around anybody. It’s just shocking to see him play every night. And if I can do anything to support and enhance that, then that’s a win in itself.”
Similar to Rykman, Michels, a multi-instrumentalist and all-around studio guru—known for his own group El Michels Affair, as well as his stints in Dan Auerbach’s The Arcs and other acts in the Daptone orbit—is a relative newcomer to Benevento’s musical world but quickly recognized his singular talent. “Marco is one of the most technically proficient and talented keyboard players I’ve ever met—but he definitely plays that down,” Michels says. “Besides becoming friends, it is amazing for me, as a producer, to know a piano player with his taste and crazy technical skill. I can tap him for overdubs and different live stuff.”
In what has unfolded into a sort of Upstate New York fairytale friendship, Benevento and Michels reconnected—after originally crossing paths when Benevento subbed for Michels in The Arcs four years ago—on their shared, adopted home turf around Woodstock. They bonded over not only their love of music but also their affinity for tennis—something that became a running theme throughout the extended creation process for Let It Slide (and inspired the album’s cover art).
“I played when I was in high school and started getting into it again three or four years ago,” Benevento says, “and [Leon] said, ‘Are you sure you wanna play me? I’m really good.’ I was like, ‘I’m really good, too. I was undefeated in high-school doubles.’ When you play tennis with a musician friend, it can be really lame—they come with the wrong sneakers, like, ‘Dude! What’re you doing?’ But Leon played when he was a kid too, so we both have that crazy competitive edge. Our games are pretty damn even; we go to a tiebreaker all the time. So we’d play tennis in the morning and get our asses kicked, then work on tunes in the studio. It became super fun and casual—there were no deadlines. I wasn’t in a rush.”
Though Benevento brought in another member of the extended Daptone family, Nick Movshon—who has played with the likes of Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson, along with The Arcs—to lay down nearly all of the drums and bass on Let It Slide, the record is really a collaboration between him and Michels. And it’s likely just the first of many. According to Benevento, the duo both have kids around the same age—who add some backing vocals to the album track “Send It on a Rocket”—and still play tennis “all the damn time,” in addition to their work in each other’s home studios, which Michels says will play a part in at least a couple new albums over the next year.
“I see us playing on each other’s albums until the end of our lives,” Benevento says. “We live close to each other, we like hanging out and we both have home studios. We’re also both very creative and abundant with the stuff we’re working on. I feel like I’m always gonna need him, and maybe he’ll always need me.”
The Marco Benevento trio may not boast the biggest touring entourage, but they certainly don’t skimp on the backstage vibe when they arrive at a venue. In the Music Hall of Williamsburg greenroom, Christmas lights line the walls and countless miniPolaroids cover the coffee table and fill a nearby photo album— chronicling hundreds of memorable-but-maybe-not-remembered nights with friends and strangers alike. A 45 spins on a record player perched atop the main attraction of the whole scene, a hulking road case they’ve affectionately dubbed Bläkbäkka—an appropriately goofy spelling they’ve recently settled on—whose etymology encompasses both the case’s color and a reference to the Star Wars character Chewbacca.
“We’re always egging each other on to be more and more ridiculous,” Rykman says of the camaraderie of the trio—which currently features touring Guster drummer and longtime Benevento pal Dave Butler. “And of course Marco is so dialed-in in terms of the vibe. For example, Bläkbäkka is not light, but he makes it into every greenroom, and Marco is immediately lighting the palo santo, dialing up the record player. He just wants the vibe to be on point for everyone—the whole crew and everyone who encounters us—and I’ve taken that same ethos to my own band. [Marco and I] are just so aligned in how we conduct ourselves and how we want to present our music to people. We want to leave people with a feeling—jubilation. It’s amazing to meet somebody like that.”
“We all know how hard it is on the road,” Benevento adds. “You’re all together in the van, and there’s not much room for doing what you want to do. So everybody knows how to be chill and enjoy themselves. We have a record player backstage because sometimes you’re in a greenroom for hours, waiting for the opening band or whatever, and we’ve had the Polaroid camera forever. Even today, I went to Urban Outfitters to buy film for tonight. It’s fun to throw all those photos out in the greenroom and be like, ‘Whoa, what night was that? Who was that person?’”
On this tour, Benevento and company are getting their first extended chance to take on the Let It Slide material, translating the tracks to the live stage while figuring out the best way to assimilate them into the keyboardist’s catalog. Benevento laughs as he refers to the effort as “hit-or-miss, for sure,” but also notes some pleasant surprises, including the emergence of album deep cut “You Got Away” as what he calls “this unexpected hit, at least live,” that has gained a jamheavy outro that Benevento considers the trio’s “No Quarter” or “All Along the Watchtower” and features a moment where the band holds out a collective note while their sound engineer adds a phaser effect to the house mix.
“It’s really cool to see how the songs have integrated themselves into the set,” Rykman says. “Marco has a funny repertoire—basically half instrumental records and half vocal records. And with this new one, the songs are sweet, really fun indie-pop tunes that are oftentimes a little shorter than the drawn-out instrumentals, like ‘Bus Ride,’ ‘Greenpoint’ or ‘Fireworks.’ It’s cool to see the balance in the sets. At the beginning of the tour, we were writing setlists every night and basically sticking to them. But for as long as I’ve been in this band, I’ve found that the best shows are the ones where he doesn’t write a setlist, where he’s a DJ for his own show, if you will, reading the room and kicking them out as he sees fit. There’s something for everybody, in a huge way: If you want crazylong, heady improv, you’ll get it; but you’ll also hear super catchy, singable, indie-dance-pop. It’s cool to see those worlds colliding.”
Though Benevento has been a popular attraction on the jamband and jazz circuits for almost two decades, it has really been in the past few years that he has carved out a true persona as a solo performer. The keyboardist, who studied at the Berklee College of Music alongside longtime collaborators The Slip, first made waves with his Jazz Farmers project and truly crossed over to a national audience through his work with a childhood classmate, Joe Russo. As the Benevento-Russo Duo, the New Jersey natives seamlessly blended elements of indie, experimental and improvisational music into a defining post-jam sound that earned them stage time with Phil Lesh, Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon, among many others. In 2006, Benevento officially launched the current chapter of his solo career with a run of shows at the now defunct New York club Tonic, and he released his solo studio debut, Invisible Baby, in 2008 as The Duo were winding down. That album and the keyboardist’s next few releases were a natural evolution of his work with Russo, honing in on an instrumental, melodic sound that mixed progressive soundscapes with some wondrous, childlike musical toys. However, in time, Benevento gradually added vocals into the mix and started shifting in a more indie-pop direction. His rhythm section has morphed over the years too, incorporating an eclectic mix of musicians from his extended social circle, though his current band feels perfectly equipped for his current gaff-tape party.
It’s not just about the music for Benevento, Rykman and Butler, though. The keyboardist notes that his solo bands have been playing similarly sized venues for years now, but there has been a more recent push to up their live game and perhaps move to bigger rooms. For this tour, one change was the band going all-in on their all-white aesthetic, adding a white piano, white drums and a custom white bass—plus spray-painted white amps, microphones and mic stands—to their already mostly white onstage wardrobes.
“The last time I did a gig in New York, it was this tribute to Richard Swift,” Benevento says of the all-star public memorial for the musician, who played in The Arcs and produced the keyboardist’s 2014 album, Swift. “We all went drinking at a bar after, and [My Morning Jacket drummer] Patrick Hallahan was like, ‘You guys got the whites, and you’re jumping off the piano—what’re you gonna do next?’ And I was flattered that he even thought about that—what does he care? Then we were just riffing, and I thought, ‘What if we went full white?’ We high-fived, and then we just went for it—once there’s an idea in my head, I’ll go for it, full throttle.
“I really feel like everyone’s psyched on how to make the show really good,” Benevento continues, “because we’re not playing gigantic venues, and we’d still like to get to another level. I can feel it from DB and Karina because the songs are really fun and catchy, and the show is really positive.”
“I enjoy the grandeur,” Rykman admits with a laugh. “I like to not only play the correct bass parts, but also give the people a show. I believe in the presentation of things, and I believe that the fun of this band is contagious and palpable. It’s a true joy to make music with these guys every night.”
One phrase that sums up the Marco Benevento trio’s on-theroad ethos can be found right on the white shirts they don onstage. The shirts themselves spawn from Benevento’s short-lived online T-shirt company, Tubasunshine, but the origin of the mantra—also the name of an old Benevento track—can be traced back to a tour he did in 2004 with Russo, who he still plays with regularly as part of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead.
“It was like the third week of tour, so we were definitely at our wits’ end,” Benevento remembers. “We were soundchecking in Madison, Wis., and having so much fun, just laughing, goofing around, having a couple glasses of whiskey, and we kind of got the vibe from the venue, like, ‘Yo, are you guys done yet?’ We were like, ‘Aw, shit, we’re sorry. We’re wasting time.’ But then I said, ‘We’re not wasting time! We’re using time for fun!’ And it was just one of those moments where a lightbulb went off in our minds. You’re never wasting time—and if you feel like you are, you’re just using time for fun.”
This article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more subscribe below.