Q&A With Marco Benevento of the Benevento Russo Duo

The following Q&A with keyboardist Marco Benevento, who’s at the heart of an October 25 Westword preview of area appearances by the Benevento Russo Duo, was a family affair. The phone conversation began as Benevento was checking on his infant daughter, Ruby, who’d just gone down for a nap. He then ambled through his Brooklyn apartment to the curb of his building in search of better cell-phone reception – and shortly after he settled on a spot, his mother, Jacque, drove up, having just arrived for a visit from New Jersey. There was no place to park nearby, so Benevento hopped into her car and found a space without taking a break from the interview; he put his phone on speaker. As a result, a chuckling Mrs. Benevento makes a cameo appearance, to her evident delight and embarrassment.

Benevento proves to be just as open and good-humored when tackling an array of additional topics. He discusses the arrival of a piano in the Benevento family home; holiday gatherings, and their influence on his approach to music; the gift of a Hammond B3 organ, and the difficulties he had fitting it into a Subaru; his early relationship with bandmate/drummer Joe Russo; Russo’s background as a member of the late, lamented Boulder group Fat Mama; Benevento’s time at the Berklee College of Music, and the moment when he got serious about his playing; his reunion with Russo, which came about due to his intense need to urinate; the pair’s fascination with circuit-bent toys; his view of the jam-band scene, which has embraced his combo; and a shout-out for eclecticism inspired by give-and-take about his most recent solo CD, Live at Tonic.

And now, without further adieu, meet the Beneventos:

Westword (Michael Roberts): How old is your little one?

Marco Benevento: Six months old. Her name is Ruby.

WW: Is she your first?

MB: Yep, my first baby.

WW: Tell me about her.

MB: She’s starting to ramble a little bit – go “Da-da-ya-ya-la-la” (laughs). And she’s started teething as well. She’s got three teeth, bottom teeth, and she’s grabbing stuff. She’s smiling, she’s laughing out loud. And she’s got a little personality going, and she’s small enough that you can carry her anywhere, which I do.

WW: She’s portable.

MB: Yeah! And she doesn’t get too loud, too crazy in restaurants.

WW: How does she react to music at this point?

MB: I’ll sit her on my lap when I play the piano, and she’ll just sit there and stare, and then she’ll slap her hand on the piano every once in a while. And she’s got this favorite CD where, if she starts screaming in the car, we turn on this jazz kids record with Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald singing songs like “Three Blind Mice” and “A Tisket, A Tasket” and things like that. So she obviously responds to music.

WW: Sounds like you’ve got a budding musician.

MB: Some friends of mine are like, “Keep an eye on that left hand. She’s going to be doing all those bass lines” (laughs).

WW: What was your first instrument? Was it the piano?

MB: Yeah, I was five years old when my parents bought an upright piano for the house at some antique store. I actually have a vivid memory of my mom turning to me when we were in the store. I don’t know what I was doing. Probably just running around going, like, “What is all this crap?” And she turned to me and said, “If we got a piano, you’d play it, right?” And I was like, “Oh yeah! Of course I’d play it!” Not even knowing really what that meant. But I always liked music. My dad was born in Italy and came to the States when he was fifteen, brought his brothers and sisters and his dad and mom. (Pause). Oh look, there’s my mom. My mom’s pulling into town right now. But yeah, we were always surrounded by music. My dad would always sing Italian songs, and my uncle would play guitar. We would be surrounded by that at parties, as entertainment. Sort of like what music started as.

WW: When the piano got to the house, did you take lessons?

MB: I played it first. I knew the keys and I would write songs with titles like “The Fireman” and “The Policeman.” I’d write the notes down and circle them and try to remember what I’d written the next day. I never really remembered it or played it right again. And then I started taking lessons after the fact. I don’t know how I was then. Maybe eight or nine. But lessons would come to me through my cousins. My cousins would say, “Play this,” or “Practice that,” and I’d play it for, like, two months. Or I’d hear something and try to play it.

WW: For some budding musicians, the lessons are such a drag that it kills their enjoyment. But it sounds like your early music instruction inspired you instead of limiting you.

MB: Right. Yeah, I got lucky, I guess. (Pause) Could you hold on a second? I’m going to help my mom park the car. (Pause.) Yeah, a lot of people get turned off by lessons, but I wanted to learn how to play the piano. I wanted to learn what to do. I took the classic piano lessons that people quit after a while. Me and my brother would go and study with this, like, church lady, and we’d sit at our house and hate on it a little bit – but I secretly liked it, because I was learning how to read notes, and I liked the songs I was learning. I did recitals and stuff. I got a chance to play at home, and for Christmas I’d play Christmas songs and blah-blah-blah. I just liked music for what it did for people. It makes them smile, it’s entertaining, it’s fun to watch them play a song after you eat dinner. My cousin would go over and play, like, “Pressure” by Billy Joel, and my other cousin would go over and play Pachelbel’s Canon, and then I’d go play “Jingle Bells” or whatever. It was in the family, it was something we just did. My uncle would play guitar and we’d sing Beatles songs. That’s the good thing about the Benevento family and how music entered my brain, my being. It was always entertaining and fun. It was never really heady, so to say. Even though I went to music school and all that stuff. That’s when it all sort of turned around – and you become self-conscious (laughs). Which is okay, it’s cool, and you sort of get over that. But I feel comfortable with music, and I feel comfortable playing with anybody. I’ve been around other musicians and I’ve been in so many different situations: playing with Trey [Anastasio, of Phish fame], playing with Joe, playing with Mike [Gordon, also known for Phish]. (Pause) I’m going to sit in the car. (To his mom, Jacque Benevento) Do you want me to drive?

Jacque Benevento: Yes.

MB: Okay, you’re on speaker phone. So hello, Mom.

JB: Hello!

WW: Hi, Mrs. Benevento. I’m a journalist from Denver, Colorado. How are you?

JB: I’m well. How are you?

WW: Good. Do you live in town?

JB: No, it took me an hour and a half to get here. I live in New Jersey.

WW: How was traffic this morning?

JB: Not very good, I’m afraid (laughs). I’m just dying to see my granddaughter.

MB: She’s sleeping right now. But we were talking about music.

WW: We were talking about how music was such a big part of life in your family.

JB: That’s a very good recollection. Lots of music. Lots of singing. Lots of dancing.

WW: Are you a singer?

JB: No, not at all (laughs). I’m a very poor one.

WW: So what was your role during the family sing-a-longs and play-a-longs?

JB: Just to encourage everyone.

MB: She made the lemon cake! She made the most amazing desserts for us to eat. After we had our big meal, we would eat our dessert and drink coffee and go over to the piano. Everybody had a key role. We would all get together, and we still do – we still get together on Sundays and have pasta at my grandma’s house. (To mom) Thanks, mom. (Pause.) It’s just like one of my friends said. He said, “Of course you’re doing a residency at Tonic, where you play with all these different people. It’s just like you bringing somebody into your house, which is what you do all the time. You’re a good host. You’re like a warm person who likes to bring someone into your house and show them what you’re up to.” And the Live at Tonicrecord was like that. It was like a sneak peek into New York life and the musical thing I do when I’m in my own town. Which is cool, because I didn’t even realize, when I read a show review that someone wrote about the Seattle show I did with [Matt] Chamberlain and Reed [Mathis]. And they said that very thing: “It’s nice to see what’s going on in New York, and get into an artist’s brain.” And that’s sort of what happened with the Tonic record, which is nice.

WW: When did you first discover the Hammond B3?

MB: That’s a great story. I went to summer camp – I went to the National Guitar Summer Workshop in Connecticut. At the time they had a small keyboard program, and I wanted to go to a summer retreat where there were only a few keyboard players, so I could get some attention from the teachers.

WW: How old were you?

MB: I was… fifteen? And before I went to camp, I cut out an ad in the newspaper that said Hammond organ B3, and I’d always been talking to my parents about how I love the sound of it and I want to get one. I had that cut out on my desk in my room. And at the time, the summer program I went to happened over my birthday, so I was gone. I didn’t see my parents for my birthday that year. But then I came home from my camp, and there was a Hammond organ waiting for me. My dad had found the ad on my desk, and he bought it for me. And I just freaked out. It was an amazing gift. I sat down and played the Hammond many, many days in a row, and eventually figured out it wouldn’t fit in any car I had. So I had some guy modify it, chop it up, when I was in music school. Then I was able to fit it my Subaru so I could take it on the road – the Subaru my mom gave me after I graduated from college.

WW: We’re in a day and age when you can get so many different keyboard sounds from a variety of different instruments. But there’s never been anything that could duplicate the sound of the Hammond B3.

MB: Exactly. (To his mom) I’m going to finish this interview, okay? You can sit down right over there. (Pause.) Yeah, I agree. When I was fifteen, the organ sounds that were available weren’t as good as they are now, so that wasn’t an option. But now it’s ridiculous how good these samples are of great keyboards. Back then, though, you couldn’t do that, so that was a great gift.

WW: Do you still have that B3?

MB: Yeah. That’s the one I still play on. It still has dust on it from festivals Joe and I played five years ago. I need to clean that thing off. But yep, same Hammond, same everything. Although the Leslie blew up along the way, so I had to buy a new Leslie.

WW: I wanted to ask about Joe. Was he in the group Fat Mama that used to be based in Boulder?

MB: Yeah, that’s where his name first started getting around, when he was, like, nineteen. We grew up in the same town in New Jersey, and we’d known each other, played with each other, when we were in seventh grade, 1991. Then we went to different high schools and I went to college, and Joe moved to Boulder, where he played in Fat Mama and toured around like crazy. It was sort of the height of the jam era, I guess I would say.

WW: And Boulder, if not the capital, was one of the capitals of that.

MB: Totally. Sometimes if you say “jam,” people get offended – like, “It’s not a jam band.” But Joe was involved in this experimental sort of music realm early on, touring and playing and making a living at it – selling albums and stuff. It’s amazing. So that’s where he got his recognition. They sold out the Boulder Theater.

WW: For a lot of people who didn’t like jam music the way that label was applied, Fat Mama was a real standout, because it wasn’t a cliché jam band.

MB: Exactly. Everybody struggles with the terms “jam” and “jam band,” and they were one of the bands that were able to break through. It was like, “Sure, you can call us a jam band, but if you really listen, it’s not only that.” They were monster players, they had incredible taste in music. They liked some amazing music that they covered and played. Miles Davis tunes, Keith Jarrett tunes. So that was impressive. And while he was doing that, getting a taste of being on the road as a nineteen year old musician, I was in the shit, so to speak, studying with Joanne Brackeen and Brad Mehldau and Kenny Werner. And I got a lot of jazz chops, and wanted to start my own trio, and hosted this jam session at this bar for, like, three years in a row.

WW: Let’s back up a minute. Was the music school you attended Berklee?

MB: Yeah, Berklee College of Music. The reason I went there was because every major they had was a major I wanted to choose (laughs). I got the book and it was like, “‘Film scoring’ – yeah! ‘Music production and engineering’ – yeah! There was all this stuff, and I was like, ‘Sweet!’ It was like going to a restaurant and wanting to order everything on the menu. So I went there and just had a core group of friends I loved playing music with, and that’s pretty much what kept me there. I also didn’t care about anything. I took criticism well, I can humbly say. It is hard to stay in school when you’re learning about music and you’re constantly being judged. But just like in the world, you learn to put your suit of armor on you and let that bounce right off you and say, “I’m just going to stay true to what I’m doing and something will happen.” So I stayed there for four years, actually, and graduated. And I’d say the two main reasons I stayed there were the friends I played with and the open sessions we continually ran whether it was at a bar or someone’s house. And the second reason was JoAnne Brackeen, who really let me know I could go to the next level of music. She kicked my ass, and I liked it. I was like, “Yes!” She followed me after a class, and she walked up to me after class and said, “Do you practice?” And I said, “Yeah, I practice.” Of course, I was thinking, I really don’t. I play all the time, but I rarely practice. But she was like, “You know, you should study with me.” And that was pretty cool. What teacher says that to a student? And she said, “You could be one of the best piano players at Berklee if you practiced.” And I was like, “Whoa!” It was that sort of little beam of light that some angel was shining on me. So I was like, “Okay, put me under your wing and tell me what to do.” And she did. I gladly accepted the challenge, and two years later, I got some award for outstanding achievement. It was, like, two-hundred bucks!

WW: It sounds as if you were really enjoying your time there, but that conversation told you that you could enjoy it but at the same time go further than you ever thought you could.

MB: Right, which is something that’s a hard thing to find in music school. Teachers don’t want to scare you, and they don’t always want to push you. It’s easy to be babied at a music school. You can pay your tuition and be babied – have everyone say, “You’re good!” But it’s hard to find that balance of struggle and happiness. And she was the perfect person for me along my lifeline to meet at that time.

WW: After graduation, when did you and Joe reconnect?

MB: I actually stayed in Boston for another year, because I had tons of gigs there, and I was making my money in Boston. But I’d always known I wanted to go to New York. I grew up around here, and even some teachers would say, “Boston is the bullpen and New York is the playing field.” And it’s true. No diss on Boston, but you sort of need to try to hit a more competitive town. So I moved down to New York and lived in Bushwick. Found a huge loft, sanded the floors, built a place to put a bed and had this crazy artist’s loft in the ghetto, because it was cheap. I put my piano in there and practiced all the time, played, went out and saw music nightly. And I went out one night, and I wanted to see Medeski Martin & Wood at Tonic. I’d always been into John and what he was up to. And also the band.

WW: Chris Wood was another Boulder guy.

MB: Yeah, totally. So I was standing in line, but funnily enough, I had to pee. I’d been drinking a ton of beer. So I ran across the street to the Delancey Lounge, ran downstairs to go to the bathroom. And I ran into this guy I knew from Berklee. I was like, “Hey! What are you doing here?” And he said, “I’m playing downstairs with somebody you know, I think. Joe Russo?” And I was like, “Holy shit! I haven’t seen him in six years.” So I ran downstairs and I was like, “Dude, what are you doing living in New York.” And he said, “Oh, you know, gigging, playing.” Just like what I’d been doing. Playing two gigs a night for fifty bucks each, try to make a hundred bucks a day, trying to survive being a musician and getting your name out there. I said we should do some playing and got his number and called him up, and I actually got us a gig at this Moroccan place where we played downstairs every Thursday. It was like a $5 cover, and we made maybe $125 total for the band a night. It was me, Joe, a percussionist and a tenor. And we’d play music, and these Moroccan cats would come play these amazing Moroccan instruments with us. It was just a fun New York thing to do. And then in January of ’02, Joe got offered a gig from Jake Szufnarowski, who used to run the Wetlands. Jake had now been working with the Knitting Factory, and Jake offered Joe every Thursday at the Knitting Factory. And Joe was like, “It’s only a hundred dollars, so why don’t we just do a duo. You can bring your Hammond organ down and we can make fifty bucks each.” And I was like, “Sweet!” (Laughs.) I carried my Hammond down two flights of stairs every Thursday, and then back up two flights of stairs, for a year, and that’s where the snowball effect began. The word was out: Free Thursday night. And people would come sit in – trombonists, saxophonists, guitarists. And then Eric Krasno from SouLive started showing up, who I had known. We started getting busy musicians, pretty well known musicians. And tapers were coming to tape our show. We were like, “Whoa!”

WW: So you guys stumbled on the sound of the two of you together not because you’d conceived it ahead of time, but because you were being paid so little that you didn’t feel you could ask other people to commit to the gig?

MB: Yeah, exactly! It was out of necessity that we decided to do a duo, and a lot of the duo scenario and how it grew was out of necessity – out of something accidental. So we did that for a while, and then we squished the Hammond and the Leslie and the drum set into the Subaru and drove across the country and we were able to tour and play, like, the High Sierra Music Festival. Then the Subaru died after about a year, and we got really lucky, and I bought a van. And since we had more room, Joe was like, “Why don’t you bring your Wurlitzer and your Arp?” And then we started picking and choosing a little bit more, and instead of improvising a lot, we started taking snips of our improvisation and started writing songs out of them. We slowly grew out of this improv exploratory duo into this band that was writing music and playing the same notes in the song every night and getting a vibe. Over this two or three years of touring, we really got into writing songs, and sort of just naturally morphed into an instrumental rock band, almost abandoning the experimental downtown New York thing. We were in the indie rock scene, almost. Which was pretty cool.

WW: At what point did the circuit bending enter the picture?

MB: Chicago 2005, I believe. We were playing a show, and this dude named Tom Stevenson showed up with a duffle bag filled with circuit-bent toys. I’d never seen anything like it in my entire life. And he was like, “A friend of mine told me to come here and bring these.” And Joe and I were like little kids in a candy store. We were like, “What does that do? What does this do?” We freaked out. That night, we picked people out of the audience. We told our sound guys we needed five extra lines and had people play circuit bent toys as an intro to “The Three Question Marks,” which is a song off Best Reason to Buy the Sun, and that was great. And then we went to his house and bought a Speak-and-Spell from him. And since then, he’s been really generous, showing up at all these shows and being like, “Take this! This is a circuit bent Easy Button from Staples. It’s got a pitch knob on it and it does this.” Or “I ripped this out of a teddy bear. It says, ‘I want to be your best friend,’ but if you turn this knob, it goes ROROROROW!” So I now have too many circuit bent toys. I have a serious collection, and I’ve been recording them a lot and figuring out how to use them as musical sound textures and instruments.

WW: We were talking earlier about jam music, and it’s interesting that you mentioned Medeski Martin & Wood, because they were a band that was embraced by jam fans, too, and I remember thinking, “How do they fit in with that?” And you guys are a group kind of like that. Does it make sense to you that you’re so popular with that audience? Or are you happy about that, but a little mystified by it?

MB: No, no, no. It totally makes sense. The most important thing that needs to be stressed is that the people who like quote-unquote jam music, they go out every night and listen to music. They’re just music lovers, live music lovers. We should say “I play live-music lovers music” instead of “jam music.” And that’s the great thing about the jam community. They’re the ones who are helping me to pay my rent, and that’s totally cool. They love live music, and if you go to JamBase or anything, you can type in “Wilco,” and they’ll come up. And they’re not a jam band. They’re a great live band, but they’re not a jam band. Or My Morning Jacket. There are classic jam-band type bands that’s like noodly white funk, and that’s where the connotation comes in. Unfortunately, people think of noodly white funk when they think of jam. You could say Ornette Coleman is jammy, because he improvises music. But unfortunately, jam gets tied in with this noodly, sort of spaced out, not always great musicianship category. Oh well. Over the years, that’ll change.

WW: It’s in the process of changing now because of groups like yours broadening the definition.

MB: Maybe it’ll be redefined and that word will be thrown away. But I don’t let that bother me. All I’m thinking about is what new song I’m going to write or what new gig I’m going to try to get. Whether they call me jazz, jam, experimental, avant garde, rock, whatever, it’s all music.

WW: That brings us back to the Live at Tonic set, where you’ve got this incredibly eclectic array of songs. Just on disc one you’ve got tunes by Pink Floyd and Benny Goodman. Does that send the message that these definitions are counterproductive, and the only distinctions that matter are good and bad?

MB: Yeah, that’s a great way to look at it. That wasn’t a conscious effort for me to do, but that’s been my whole philosophy. Whether I’m playing with Mike Gordon or Steven Bernstein or Matt Chamberlain, it’s going to be music – just music. Whether I improvise in one of them or improvise in none of them or cover a song or play an original tune, or whether it’s going to be jazzy or jammy or rock or experimental according to other people, it’s just music to me. It’s as simple as that.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts