Friday, 28 March 2008

Brendan Benson

I’ve always promised myself that if I ever end up sharing a lift with Sean Penn, that I would turn to him and ask, "Aren't you Michael Penn's brother?" Similarly if I ever bump into Jack
'White down at Woolworths I would say to him, "Aren't you Brendan Benson's mate?" Our readers don't need the latest, supposed trend-setter to point out the talents of Mr: Benson; we've known since his debut album of '96 One Mississippi. True it was the Jason Falkner co-writing credits on half of the tracks that first alerted us to the man, but once found the ragged glory of this excellent release certainly put Brendan Benson onto the musical map. And yet the next five years past without a word from the man until finally a follow-up, Lapalco, arrived and brought with it all the promises of the first album fulfilled. A classic slice of American pop greatness bursting with subtle melodies and beautiful arrangements that stood alongside the best of them. Brendan's now close to the release of his brand new album, so on a pleasant evening in late September I head down to a sold out Borderline to have a chat with the man. Later I'll witness a honey of an acoustic gig at which he is ably accompanied by one of the Waxwings. The new songs sound good and Brendan seems like a lovely bloke. He's relaxed, but jittery at the edges, during our interview. He starts a train of thought, and then stops and starts again, as he does his very best to make sure he is answering my questions as honestly as he can. He really is thinking about his answers and like his music it all comes from the heart first, so sometimes he has to pull himself up mid-sentence saying, "no that's not it, what I mean here is...". He's endearingly modest about it all as if he's sur­prised anyone would actually be interested in inter­viewing him. At the very end of the interview he asks me if what he's saying makes any sense and once I've cut out all the dithering and false starts his thoughts do make perfectly good sense, and are those of a real songwriter and musician of integrity and worth.
Right so it's over to the man himself to tell us how it all began.

Brendan: I first started in high school playing in a couple of punk bands with my friends. American hardcore, not so much west coast but east coast, particularly D.C. bands like Minor Threat and such. It's kinda funny when I look back, silly really. That sounds so lame because it wasn't silly at the time.

It seems a lot of American artists of your generation, Jason Falkner, Pete Yorn, start off from punk and new wave perspectives.
I think it's because that stuff was easy to play. At the time it seemed like, I could do this. Unlike say Van Halen.Those guys were bigger than life, all that rock god crap, whereas the hardcore guys seemed like just regular guys, and to be like them seemed possible. The bands were short lived and all the other guys went on to do other things outside music, like my best friend became a teacher, and I was the only one that stuck with it. I was like, I can't quit this it's so much fun and I love it so much. I wrote all the music in those bands, though I left the lyrics mainly to my friend. After they finished I started writing and recording songs on a cassette deck up in my bed­room. Pretty much like everybody else. So my story's not much different to lots of others at that time.

So was this stuff punky?
No it was very different. I can't say how long it was until my songs took a turn and became more recog­nisable as my style, whatever that is, but over time they really did change a lot. What was inspiring me and what I was listening to I can't remember, but whatever it was didn't really make its way into the equation any­way. I can't really explain why I write the type of music I do. People will make comparisons and stuff, and sometimes I'll agree, but mostly I don't feel very much in control of what comes out. I don't set out to write this or that type of song. That just isn't what happens.

Jason Falkner

So how did you first meet Jason Falkner?
I was living in L.A. and our respective girlfriends shared a flat together. He was in Jellyfish at the time, but I didn't know Jellyfish or anything. I just used to hear him playing acoustic guitar about the house. He played his own songs or sometimes Zombie songs, and I didn't know the Zombies, and I was like, "Wow what is this?This guy's insane, he can play and sing so well". He was like a huge talent; my jaw was on the ground most of the time. I was enamoured and admiring of his abilities. This was at the time I had just started to pick up a guitar and play. I never played in front of him because I felt so inferior About a year later after I'd left L.A and moved back to Detroit, I then moved to San Francisco, and I called him up and went down to L.A. to see him and hang out. This was when he was just starting up The Grays. I had a tape of my songs and he had no idea that I wrote music or anything. So I left the tape with him and went back to San Francisco, and he called me up and said, "this is great, come down and we'll demo it together .We did it just on a little four-track but he has such a great sense of engi­neering that he really brought the songs to life. Both sonically and also he added some parts. He wrote the middle section on "I'm Blessed" which is so totally Beatles that I was just shocked and impressed that he could so effortlessly come up with that calibre of stuff. We did this over three weekends and we ended up with six songs. I was just giving the tape out to my friends. I wasn't shopping it about or anything. A friend of mine at the time knew some people at labels and she said, if I didn't mind, she could give it to them and consequently I got a call. I was dumb­founded. I use words like shocked and dumbfounded and that pretty much describes my whole career. I'm mostly in a perpetual state of, "really you want to lis­ten to my music?"

So what's the story behind One Mississippi? There's the finished version, but isn't there also an original version with Jason all over it?
We recorded the album together, but then every­body involved said it was so Jasonesque, and really it was supposed to be more like my record but it was far more a Jason Falkner album. So I went into a recording studio and made the record again with a couple of other guys, so we could play it live, but we kept some of Jason's production ideas and stuff and that's where it got a little weird. I think he got a little offended that he didn't get credited, but I think that even if he had got credited more he still would have been upset. It was kind of a traumatic experience for me. I didn't know how to make a record, so I was mainly going on what people told me, and as it turned out I lost a good friend over it. We fell out and I was not sure it was worth that in the end. I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth and that's why I took so long to make the next record. I felt so bad about what had happened with Jason and on top of that the record didn't do that well and I got dropped by the label. I cringe a little bit when I think about that album. I made some mistakes, and maybe lis­tened to the wrong people, because I didn't have enough experience in doing all this stuff.

It's a great album, but does the Falkner version still exist?
I have a cassette of rough mixes. Years later, after we had made up and he had been recording some of the stuff on Lapalco, we were talking and we both wanted to put it out. I was on Star Time and I told the label that it was really good, because it was: when I listened to the tape it was really cool and it's some­thing I think a lot of people would be really inter­ested to hear It wasn't right for my debut record but maybe now it should be released. Jason was all excited about this idea but when we went to look for the mastertape at Virgin, nobody could find it. So all I have is this really hissy cassette of rough mixes and that's it. Maybe I can put them up on the website sometime but that's not the ideal. It is such a great album and all we can hope is someone at Virgin eventually unearths the tapes.

The first time you played over here you had half The Grays as your band.
Yes, Buddy Judge and Dan McCarroll, that was fun, I think about them a lot. We kept in touch a long time afterwards even though I'm pretty hopeless at keep­ing up such things .They are good friends, I can count on them. I thought so much of them that I felt really honoured that they would play with me, this silly kid.
So how did you approach Lapalco?

I don't think I ever really knew that I was going to make another record, but I was recording music with­out any real intentions or anything. I was thinking that I should be looking for another way to make a living, but then in the end I realised I just had enough songs to make another record. I didn't set out to make a second record; it almost happened accidentally really It's weird you know, that record is conflicted or I was conflicted during the years that I was making it. On one hand I felt that I needed to prove something with that record, I was a professional songwriter and needed to show that somehow, and then on the other hand I'm thinking I'm shit, and it's just luck, serendipity, that I'm allowed to do this. It was like some of the time I was trying to write the most obscure and rarest melody, and on the other hand it was "I don't give a shit, this sounds cool to me", and I think the latter is the best approach to such things. It's always been a struggle for me. I always have some­thing to prove, I guess.

So when you write a bunch of songs can you pick out what are the best ones? Or do you need someone else to come along and say, that one, that one, and that one?
I definitely do need an outside opinion, almost to a fault. Sometimes I don't stand up for songs I really love. In fact there's one right now, "Baby On A Rug", I was so happy about and really excited to play to peo­ple. Again I recorded the new album at home, and Chad Blake, who is my all time favourite engineer, is mixing the record, and so I sent him a bunch of songs to mix, and I was really waiting to hear what he had to say about this one particular song. He had great things to say about all the other songs, and said things went really well, and then right at the end he said: "You know that song 'Baby On A Rug'? Well I just don't get it. I can't do anything with this, it's sort of an idea but it's incomplete". And I was sort of crushed by this and lost faith in that song for a while, but we play it live now and every time we play it I realise why I like this song so much. I think I'm a little bit insecure and a little bit lacking objectivity, at the same time you have to also be really confident up to a point.You have to in order to keep on going, to keep writing the song, keep record­ing the song.You've got to think, "I'm the man, this is a masterpiece, the song to end all songs". And at the end you sober up a bit and know it's just another song, and then I let someone else decide for me. I have 16 songs that could be on this next record and I love them all, so I depend on the reactions and responses of those around me to help me decide what make the album and what doesn't. Occasionally it's obvious that a song just doesn't fit, but generally those songs that end up on b-sides are just a matter of being uncertain of what others think about them, rather than a reflection on
what I think about the song.
The b-sides compile into a great album in their own right on CDR.
I haven't tried that yet, I'd be really interested to hear that.
Though you have to leave off that dubious dance remix of "Metarie."
Oh that thing. It was an idea of my management at the time, and the first time I heard it, I had never heard one of my tracks given that treatment so I thought, "cool, put it out". And it was maybe a week after it came out, I was, wait a second this is a pile of crap, I shouldn't have allowed this. The guys who remixed it obviously didn't give a shit about the music. It's bullshit so I apologise for letting that happen.

So let's talk about the new record. When's it out?
They are telling me February but nothing is certain yet which is a real drag, because the records been done over a year Soon after I stopped touring the last album I.did the new album, and I was anxious to get it out because I took so long between the first two records. I was trying to redeem myself by getting it out quickly but there were problems with the label.They didn't like the record, well the London office didn't like the record, but luckily the American office love it so they picked it up worldwide which worked out the best. I really don't know what to say about t except it sounds incredible since Chad Blake mixed it. I recorded it at home and it sounded okay; I'd got a little better at recording so it sounded better than Lapalco. But then we got Chad to mix it. He's expensive to hire but he took less of a fee to do it because he really liked the material, which blew my mind when he did that. And it just sounds so good, I can't believe it, it sounds unreal. It's out in February but it's well worth the wait, I think it's a great record. I'm proud of this bunch of songs I worked hard on, and Chad's work on it is really something special. It's like I was say­ing earlier about having something to prove and I feel I've proved it with this record. It's a moment of truth now. It's my third record and something's gotta give. I sell enough to get by I don't have to work another job, but it's not quite the quality of life I would like. I do know now that I'll always want to make records even if I'm destitute and no one really cares anymore

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good timing for this great interview with Brendan, Jay! I was listening to Alternative to Love just the other day. Excellent collection of tuneage.