Marco mirrors McCartney with a little help from his friends

July 21, 2022
Marty Halpern

Marco Benevento’s musical influences are limitless. From psychedelia to jazz and everything in between, these references are easily identifiable throughout his musical resume. On his latest release, he threw these influencesˆa studio full of keyboards and other obscure instruments into the pot at once. The result, “Benevento,” is a genre-defying exploration caused by being home-bound during the Covid pandemic.

Despite so many ingredients, the album is the Benevento’s most expressive. The keyboard player soloed on every song, providing the ability to venture off in a multitude of musical direction.

The album is also filled with several firsts for Benevento. His wife, Katie, and daughter, Ruby, added backing vocals, and the family’s music teacher, Mamadouba “Mimo” Camara, contributed his unique African drum sounds on a handful of tracks. Benevento also reached out to friend Al Howard to contribute lyrics to the album.

Photo: Marty Halpern

While unintentional, the album has several similarities with Paul McCartney’s debut solo record “McCartney.” They both start with a quick musical interlude and remain open throughout. caught up with Benevento to discuss the new release. McCartney’s song “With A Little Help From My Friends” just as accurately describes how this album came to be.

Slide & Banjo: Hey Marco. Congratulations on the new record. You take this one in a unique direction. One area is mixing African drum music with your keyboard/synthesizer/piano grooves. You didn’t have to look far for a musician to help.

Benevento: Yeah. There’s this guy Mimo. He lives in Woodstock and teaches at the school my daughters go to. It’s awesome. There’s an African drum class at their school everyone takes. When I go to their concerts, I’m super moved by it. I love a room of drummers. Beginners or professionals, it’s cool to hear the interlocking drum patterns. It’s so cool Mimo, who is from Ghana, is here in the U.S. adding culture to our community.

I had him set up all his drums in my yard. I recorded him on three tunes I thought it would be cool to have him on. That opened my eyes because I’ve never heard my music with African drums. I love listening to that music anyways – electronic drum music from the 70s and 80s. I was like “I’m going to go for it on a couple of tunes.”

I was happy to make the attempt at my weird version of it. I’ve been a big fan of repetitive songs that are eight or 12 minutes long with drum machines and synthesizer solos. I took a stab at that and was like here we go.

S&B: Any Marco Benevento album is guaranteed to have some weird instruments in it. You’ve put gaffer tape on your piano strings to get a certain sound. You have a studio full of keyboards, synthesizers, and other unique instruments you’ve acquired over the years. It seems like almost all of these instruments made an appearance on the record.

MB: This is my pandemic record. I played the keyboards, all the drum and bass parts. I did everything down to the Clavioline solos. I’ve been collecting keyboards forever. I have an eclectic collection of keyboards from the 50s to the 90s. I dove in and embraced the colors of the instruments I had from the Hammond to the Clavioline to transistor keyboards made in the 40s.

Photo: Seth Olenick

S&B: You’ve been releasing music covering a wide array of genres for decades. With such a prolific output, you seemed generally concerned about how this album would be received. It’s hard to imagine you still have those worries so far into your career.

MB: I was telling a friend, “I don’t know if I should put this record out. It’s weird and experimental. There are keyboard solos on everything. It’s just me messing around in my studio.” My friend was like, “You mean you don’t already have a record like that out yet?” I was like, ”oh yeah, I should put this out.” It’s a window into my brain in the studio while being trapped here and not doing anything.

S&B: Another unique element of ”Benevento” finds you reaching out to an old friend, Al Howard, to collaborate on lyrics.

MB: I met Al maybe 20 years ago. I remember him from the High Sierra Music Festival. He’s a cool dude who is friends with a lot of my friends. I heard Al had been trying to put out a song every day. My friend Nathan told me Al’s been writing tons of lyrics and it might be a cool collaboration to get together and hook up.

I said to myself, if Nathan is looking to Al for his lyrics, I want to be a part of that too. I texted Al, and said send me over some words. He sent tons of lyrics and poems he was working on. I had been at my wit’s end with my lyric writing. I wasn’t into my own words. I liked some, but wasn’t sold as a final product.

When I got Al’s lyrics it was fun to literally copy and paste stuff he wrote and put it in what I was creating. I’d use some words here. Repeat a line there. Use more of my words in the intro and more of his in the outro. It was a cool experience to collaborate. I hadn’t done that before. I immediately finished three songs in two days with Al’s lyrics. I was like keep ‘em coming.  

S&B: Another aspect that clearly stands out is using your wife Katie and daughter Ruby for background vocals. Most of the world was on lockdown while you made this record. Did that impact your decision to use their musical skills?

MB: It wasn’t a thought-out decision. The kids were doing zoom schooling at home. I’d be working and see Ruby standing by the sliding door. I’d say come on in and sing some of this new song I’m working on. I was like, “put on these headphones and sing like this.” I forgot I had done that.

When I went back and listened to the recordings, I finally remembered. It turned out super cute and innocent, but it was random.

My wife Katie has always liked to get involved. We’d put the kids to bed and hang out with a couple of glasses of wine. All of a sudden, she’d have a microphone in her hand, sing something, and be like, “There you go babe.”

S&B: With all this new music in the can, how did things take shape allowing “Benevento” to be introduced to the music world?

MB: A friend of mine was asking if I had been keeping busy during the pandemic. I was like, “oh yeah. I’ve easily got enough new stuff for two albums.” He asked what the name was. I said, I didn’t know. He said why don’t you call it “Benevento”? The next one you can call “Benevento 2.” Just like Paul McCartney did.

I didn’t plan a two-album McCartney-like release from the beginning. It just turned out that way after the fact. The follow up is almost done. I don’t know if people will want to hear it, but there’s more experimental material in there. It will definitely be released at some point.  

Photo: Seth Olenick

S&B: Like “McCartney,“ you kick this album off with a short song. The quick and dreamy “Like Me.” A little something to tease the palate of what’s to come.

MB: I always wanted to have a burner song at the beginning. Sometimes an album’s first songs are an experimental musical intro. Macca’s first record has “Lovely Linda,” which is him noodling around. That leads in to the next song.

The song, “Like Me,” I played it for a friend who said aren’t you going to finish it? In my mind it has a Stevie Wonder vibe to it. The parts are a playful introduction. I followed my heart. I went for it and hoped people were used to these burner songs to start a record.

S&B: That flows into “Marco and Mimo,” which clearly showcases the merging of the Benevento sound with Mimo’s African influences.

MB: I thought that was the song that best embraced the whole West African influence. That was a top-five song for me. I wish I had more songs like that. Talk about keyboard solos. There’s a good one there.  

S&B: While this is a departure of sorts for you musically, there’s never a moment where you don’t feel like you’re listening to a Marco Benevento album. How were you able to incorporate such divergent styles without stepping too far out of bounds?

MB: There are some “inside” songs that meet the vibe of what I’ve been up to. “At the End or the Beginning,” “Winter Rose,” and another one or two. Those songs are why I felt like I can put this out there. There’s some “normalish” Marco songs on there.

With “We Were Here,” I love the element of albums where songs morph into each other. They don’t end, they just go into something else. I did this with Fred Short. We’re going to be practicing these songs to see how they will be best performed live.

Photo: Seth Olenick

S&B: To me, the song that best exemplifies everything you were looking to put into the album is “Do You Want Some Magic.” It’s got everything you’ve touched on so far – a long repetitive song with a great drum beat that allows you to weave in and out of several musical flavors along the way. It has a taste of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” to me as well.

MB: I added the Hammond organ at the last minute. It definitely has the bubbly, crunched up Steppenwolf organ.

There’s a band Neu, they have a lot of long songs that don’t do much. It almost like early Shoegazing music. You get lost with everything repeating sonically. It becomes a hypnotic weird thing.

I always wanted a song where you sit on a groove forever and add things here and there. I love the drum and bass groove of that one.  

S&B: As we touched on earlier, your Fred Short home recording studio finally hit its space capacity, forcing you to expand. How is the new space, and is the extra room just an excuse for you to buy more keyboards?

 MB: [Laughs] That’s a very good question. It’s definitely version 2.0. I can actually have people in there and it’s not so cluttered. I have a table now and a place people can sit.

I was slammed in that small space. It’s nice to have bands over. I have two studios so there’s enough room for me to record. I can be a legit engineer and record bands in there. I want to do more of that.

S&B: Thanks for your time and insight Marco. Continued success.

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