Brendan Benson chats to Incendiary

"

Like when words don't fit in, you know, sometimes I'll opt for a word that isn't necessarily the best, or the most descriptive word I could use but it just sounds nice, you know?

"


 


 


Looking out of the train window, approaching Amsterdam's Zuid WTC station it looked like a nice day, the sun was out, birds were flying around in the sky looking relatively pleased with themselves and there was hardly a cloud in the sky. In fact, it looked like spring had arrived, but as soon as I stepped out of the train and made my way to the tram stop Mother Nature hit home that this was still February. That's right, it was bloody freezing.


It was the type of cold that seems to go straight to the bones, so, once the tram had finally arrived, carried my freezing body into town and handily dropped me off at the Leidseplein I scarpered into the first public house I could find and drank a pint or two to warm me up. I always like to get to an interview early because, well, there's no reason to keep people waiting. It's not professional and they have schedules to keep. Still, it's not the greatest thing in the world to turn up to an interview feeling pretty close to half cut is it, so I managed to refrain from ordering that third pint of Old Speckled Hen and headed off to the Paradiso with plenty of time to spare. Which was a good idea in itself because navigating through the bowels of the Paradiso can be a rather unsettling experience if you don't have a map. It's certainly a lot more comfortable than it used to be down there, leather sofas, big bowls of chocolates on tables and what not, but the place is a maze and if you're not careful (or you're drunk) you can be lost and wandering around for hours down there.


 


After a few wrong turns I finally found Brendan's dressing room. True, I was helped in my quest by a large sign on the door that read, " Brendan Benson - Dressing Room" in big black letters, but I was relieved and proud of myself at the same time for not having to ask for directions. Inside were his keyboard player Dean, his tour manager, a label PR woman, a couple of other journalists and, of course, Brendan himself.


 


The first thing that struck me was that Brendan was a lot taller than I'd remembered. True, I'd never met him beforehand, but I've seen him on stage a few times and I was  stood in the front row at the Melkweg when he supported the Flaming Lips and yet he never seemed this tall. He'd never seemed this strong before either. By that, I don't mean he looked all muscular and body builder like, but I'd remembered him as some kind of weedy guy, like Dougie Howser with a guitar, but up close? There's certainly nothing weedy about him. Wiry, yes, but he looks like he's made from solid oak. Dressed in a brown leather jacket, a golf jumper (navy blue with big white diamonds on it) jeans and a pair of brown shoes so nice that I want a pair of them he seemed relaxed and approachable, but had a cool rock star look all the same.


 


After a bunch of polite greetings the other journalists were ushered out of the room and Dean went to practice some songs, leaving Brendan and myself to get on with the interview. After failing to find a corkscrew, Brendan decided to take the healthy option, opened up a bottle of water and chomped down on an apple whilst I fiddled about with my notes and prepared myself.


 


(In: Incendiary - BB: Brendan Benson)


 


 


IN: So, Brendan, it's nice to finally say hello. New album and everything coming out, back in Amsterdam and I understand that tonight's going to be an acoustic show?


 


BB: Yeah, that's right.


 


IN:  So where are the Well Fed Boys? Back at home getting fed?


 


BB: Well, they're retired.


 


IN: Oh really?


 


BB: Yeah. Well, a couple of them; Chris got married and has a baby now and another guy, he had to get a job but, you know, I can't pay them. I can't like, retain them so it's always... it's never certain if anyone's gonna stick around from album to album. But the drummer's stuck around, Matt. But I love this band now, they're great, they're called the Stiff Tissues now.


 


IN: Stiff Tissues? Excellent. Another good band name I have to say. That's cool. Now, I've obviously read up on you and done some research and what have you and you always record the albums pretty much on your own is that correct?


 


BB: Yeah.


 


IN: Do you play everything on the album?


 


BB: Yeah I do but, I mean, Matt played drums on a few songs actually, on this album and, you know, pretty much if anyone happens to stop by the house I'll get them to just pick up an instrument or sing a little part, you know? But mainly it's just me.


 


IN: Ah right. See I always wondered how the Well Fed Boys kind of fit into that, because onstage you did seem like a really tight knit group on the two or three times I got to see you.


 


BB: Yeah and they just came after the record really. They didn't play on the record or anything but it worked out pretty well. I think they got it, I think. But live is always different you know? I mean I don't make much of an effort to make it sound like the record. It'd be really hard. But then again, NOW it sounds a lot more like the record since Dean is playing keys. We never had a keyboard player before, I mean, really, a proper keyboard player.


 


IN: Yeah, you had someone standing there playing tambourine and filling in on a keyboard whenever.


 


BB: That's right but everything sounds really good with the band now.


 


IN: Well I saw you a few times with the Well Fed Boys and you seemed to be a pretty tight group and I look forward to hearing the new band, but then again tonight's going to be an acoustic show.


 


BB: Yeah, so don't expect too much. (laughs) But I hope we'll be back over soon, you know.


 


IN: Good stuff. I find that your songs are very simple to catch on and very easy to hum along to but the more you listen to them you realize how many layers are in there so I was wondering how you put that together? How do you start, do the lyrics come first and then build everything up on top of that or what?


 


BB: Usually they come together. I mean the lyrics and the music come at the same time and then I just start recording. You know, I start recording pretty soon after its... once I get it fleshed out enough. I'll start recording, which will also determine things. You know, that's all part of the writing process a little bit. I like to explore different things and usually I'll leave all those things in. Heh. Heh. I mean like, I think most people will try things and take them off again, but I just leave it all in there.


 


IN: Yeah I mean I just love the fact that when you first hear the songs you get something in your head and you'll think, "Yeah that's good, I like that," but then something just completely unexpected comes in and you think, "Where did that come from?" But it always works and it always takes it to another level. I don't know how noticeable of it you are but a lot of bands use tempo changes and tempo changes are great, when they work, and it's what kind of makes a song interesting in the first place, but a lot of your tempo changes come about because the tempo of your lyrics change throughout the song. And it's one of the things I love about the way that you write is that it's not just a standard line length throughout the whole song because, like I say, after one verse it completely changes into another rhythm and it's the rhythm of the lyrics that I've been getting into and...


 


BB: Yeah me too. I like that and Elvis Costello's great at that too. All that phrasing. I love that. I don't know how good I am but I do like it and I think I try. I mean, that's important to me. Like when words don't fit in, you know, sometimes I'll opt for a word that isn't necessarily the best, or the most descriptive word I could use but it just sounds nice, you know? And vice versa sometimes too.


 


IN: Well I have to give thanks to you for reminding me of the word 'sinch'

 


BB: Sinch, right (laughs)


 


IN: 'Cause I haven't used that since I was about six

 


BB: Really?


 


IN: Yeah and I heard it and I'm like, "Right! I'm going to use that in conversation from now on"


 


BB: Yeah well, sometimes I wondered... Are you English?


 


IN: Yeah.

 


BB: I wondered if some of those things would translate, like 'sinch'. I didn't even know if English people would recognize that word, but apparently they do, so that's good. Heh heh.


 


IN: I've noticed with a lot of your lyrics, there seems to be this constant reassessment of yourself, like on the new song, Feel Like Myself Again. It starts with almost like a rant against somebody saying, "I'm telling you this" and suddenly changes to you looking back at yourself again.


 


BB: Yeah


 


IN: Do you find, I mean, I'm not a musician at all but when I'm writing my own stuff, whether it's a short story or whatever, I always find that I can write better if I'm in a bad mood or feeling down and I'll suddenly use that to bring me out of that mood.


 


BB: Right, right, right, so it all works out.


 


IN: I kind of picked up on some things like that in the new album. Do you work in the same way?


 


BB: Yeah I know what you mean but I'm the opposite though actually. When I'm depressed, it's really hard for me to do anything, you know what I mean? In fact, writing or playing the guitar is like the last thing I wanna do when I'm depressed. It's weird, but it's not until I feel better that I can sort of, not kind of see clearly but maybe I can understand why I was depressed. But you know what I mean? So yeah I write more when I'm feeling good.


 


IN: Yeah?

 


BB: Yeah. And I think that might explain why the music is sometimes more....


 


IN: More upbeat?

 


BB:  Yeah, more upbeat. The lyrics are kind of a little darker because I'm thinking like, you know, I'm able to work, I feel good enough to work. But I think I'm still reeling about maybe what it was that got me down or annoyed or whatever.


 


IN: It's like Aimee Mann once said that when she writes something she'll always start writing about somebody else but by the end of the song it's always about her. And it's like she doesn't realize it until she's singing it...


 


BB: Right


 


IN: ...and she realizes that it's actually about her. But it's that kind of thing. And one of the things I really like about the new album is that it feels really honest. And in that I mean you can write about whatever and you can write about generic subjects. You can make lines rhyme and this that and the other, but you never get the impression that your heart's not in it...


 


BB: Right


 


IN: And the same goes for Lapalco, which I absolutely adore..


 


BB: Well I'm guilty of that sometimes though. But this record mostly I'm, well, I think there's some songs, or some lyrics that I'm really proud of. Like What I'm Looking For, for instance is, you know they're really sort of, well, they're not great. They're not very clever or witty or, I don't know, really profound or anything but I'm really proud of them. 'Cause they're just super it's like, I just said it and it just came out.


 


IN: Well that's what I like about your stuff. Your lyrics are always really accessible and very easy to get into if you know what I mean? There might be a lot of word association going on and following the rhyme on, but at the basis of everything you can tell that you're actually saying something that you want to say and with a lot of acts that's missing. I don't know whether they just run out of things to write about or something, but with you I always get the sense of that, "This who I am. This is what I want to be, so just take it," and what I like about that is that you're not pretending to be anything and whether you mean one thing or another it still feels pretty honest.


 


BB: Yeah well I think my biggest hurdle as a songwriter is that I became, somewhere along the line, I got a little sort of jaded and I think that my biggest challenge is to write direct. To write something and say something in a song you know, which is hard, something I feel. You know, I edit myself a lot and I have to make a conscious effort to sit myself down and go, "OK, come on just fucking say whatever it is you wanna say!"


 


That's why I say I'm proud of What I'm Looking For and a lot of the songs on this record whereas on Lapalco I think they're kind of jaded and kind of really superficial stuff and not really getting down to it. But you know, I don't really compare the two records. I mean I haven't really heard that record (Lapalco) in so long, although we're playing some songs from it but I think that might be true because at the time, when I wrote Lapalco I can remember struggling with that a lot more and this time I guess it just kinda came out.


 


IN: Well I have to tell you that I really do love Lapalco, for all the reasons I mentioned liking the new one, but also because I have so many good memories of that album.


 


BB: Oh well that's good.


 


IN: Like I can remember you struggling through the Hurricane festival. You were first on the Saturday morning and I can just remember you saying, " It's really hard to play rock and roll at 11 in the morning" and yet I was still walking out going, "yeah, that was really good".


 


BB: Yeah and that was the first festival I'd ever played in my life. It was the first one and when I arrived there I was feeling, "Yes this is so great," and feeling really stoked but then, playing it was, so..(sighs) But it was fun. But we were too loud! I can remember it was so loud and I just couldn't figure out whether it was ok or not.


 


IN; Well you've certainly been busy lately because apart from Alternative To Love I understand you've finally put something on to tape with your dear friend, Mr Jack White?


 


BB:  Jack. Yeah we've made a record. It's done, it's excellent and it's really cool. It's gonna be a really cool record I think. It probably won't come out until late in the year or whatever but it should be really cool.


 


IN: Yeah, well you've got Alternative To Love to tour and Jack's got one coming out..

 


BB: Yeah. I've got this one and he's...


 


IN:  But that's one thing that's really annoyed me about the way that you've been promoted in the press, especially over here and in the UK and stuff, but every time you hear your name mentioned it's...


 


BB: Oh yeah (he knows where I'm going with this)


 


IN: ...Friend of Jack White, Brendan Benson and its like, well, I mean I put it in the review, you two are not of the same musical cloth at all.


 


BB: Yeah I know, but what can you do?


 


IN: Well, we'll just leave that one before I get angry at the state of the music press again. Going back to the new album; after having listened to it a few times I have to say that the drums seem to be a lot more important, or prominent in the mix than they have been in any of your previous albums.


 


BB: Yeah, yeah. That's, I think, 'cause of two reasons. One is that, like I said, Matt plays on some of the songs and because he was there I was able to record them better. I mean, I was able to sit down and listen to them and place the mics carefully, whereas before I couldn't do that. I'd put the mics up and I'd kinda guess where they should be and I'd play and I'd run down and I'd listen and then I'd have to go back and guess and I could never listen while they were being played. Anyhow, so that's one reason and I think the biggest reason is cause Chad Blake mixed the record and he made it just come to life I think. Especially the drums, he made them sound, you know, tougher, kind of bigger and I think he turned them up a lot.


 


IN: There was such a long lay off between your first album and Lapalco and I can remember you saying that you had kind of writer's block, for want of a better word, but I was so pleased that this one's come round and is almost right on the heels of the last one.


 


BB: Yeah


 


IN: So, are you back on a roll then?

 


BB: Yeah. Well, I think writer's block wasn't the right thing to say. I don't know if, you know, I probably did say that but I was never, I was never blocked. In fact, I mean, I've been writing. I write pretty consistently. I might not be that prolific so I guess I don't write, like, all the time but every few months I'll have a writing spurt or something. But yeah, this record was unusual, kind of, for me. Because it did, it like came out of me in four or five months. It was kind of rushing out of me and it felt great, you know, it's a great feeling. In fact it's been done for a long time. But then I've had to wait for the record company to get their stuff together and that's too bad too because, you know, that answered so much to that , "Why does it take you so long to write?" You know, like everyone wanted to hear something more exciting, like I'd been into rehab or whatever but, you know, it was really just nothing, I just took my time.


 


 


 


 


And at that point, our time was up. The label rep appeared and told me to wrap it up so farewells were said, I wished the man good luck with the show and stepped back into the maze as Brendan went off in search of that elusive corkscrew. I stood in the corridor for a few moments, feeling rather pleased at how the interview had gone, but then the fear took over me again. I had another problem now. Where the hell was the exit?


 


 


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The show itself was pretty good, although I think the crowd enjoyed it more than Brendan did himself. He seemed to be having some trouble with his voice and never seemed entirely comfortable on stage. He apologized for the state of their playing as he explained this was the first show they'd done without the band, but the crowd reassured him anyway and after a few songs he started to relax a little. Folksinger and Good To Me seemed to suit the stripped down approach rather well I thought. But the new songs were where the night really came to life, Spit it Out sounded even more retro and jaunty with just guitar and keys and Alternative To Love seemed to take on a  new life altogether. Feel Like Myself was fantastic and had the whole crowd nodding heads and grinning widely and Brendan's favourite What I'm Looking For went down a treat too.


 


Despite the warm applause and constant reassurement from the crowd and Dean by his side, Brendan cut his encore set short (judging by the setlist) and retired earlier than the crowd would have liked, probably because his voice was going but possibly because he just never seemed comfortable at all out there. But never mind the shortened set, the set was certainly entertaining and nobody in the crowd went home disappointed except, perhaps, Brendan himself. The guy deserves to be huge and he deserves your attention. I hope to see him back here, very soon, but I hope he's feeling a little more confident in himself. Always the perfectionist, always the self critic, perhaps it's time somebody told him straight, "Brendan! You're great, so just accept it and get on with it! Those people don't applaud for nothing, you know?"


 


 


 


Interview and photographs : Damian Leslie