By Scott Recker
Marco Benevento has long been known as a piano and keys savant, and a deep and innovative explorer of psych-rock and jazz, but lately, he’s been leaning into pop sensibilities, building punchy, catchy songs that value a good hook and brevity. And on his new album, Let It Slide (out September 20), Benevento dives even deeper into that, pairing with producer Leon Michels, who was in Sharon Jones’ band the Dap-Kings, and has also worked with Raekwon, among many other notable names.
DOPE caught up with Benevento and Michels to talk about how they met through Dan Auerbach’s band the Arcs and the lyrical themes on Let It Slide, as well as how they achieved the album’s sonic backbone.
Dope: You both have really diverse and experimental histories, pushing yourselves in all sorts of different directions. Sonically, what was the goal for Let It Slide?
Marco Benevento: I guess the goal was for us to figure out how my original demos were going to sort of turn into real songs.
Leon Michels: We found that about a third of the way through the record, that we landed on, like, a sonic theme where we ended up using a lot of cassette and running sound through cassette. This is the first record that I did after I moved out of [New York City] to upstate New York, so it was also a complete experimentation in the new studio, trying to figure out how it worked.
How did the new studio impact the sound?
Benevento: It was constant discovery, and there was no normal thing that Leon did because it was his new studio, so we just used whatever we felt like in the moment. Also, another aspect is: now, to work on some music with Leon, it was only 25 minutes away from my house [in Woodstock]. We could casually work from like noon to 3 p.m.— after we play tennis, we’ll record some music for a little bit. We both have kids and a crazy busy family life, so around 3 or 3:30 was the witching hour when we had to be home or whatever and go into dad mode, but it was super convenient to have it so close.
There’s plenty of great experiment directions on the record and a lot of gritty soul type of stuff, but it also leans into this really fluid, breezy sound. I feel like there are a lot of great vocal hooks on the record, and some solid pop sensibilities. What made you want to lean into that?
Benevento: I always wanted to have two-and-a-half, three-minute simple pop songs. That’s kind of easy to digest, and you kind of know where the chorus is and the verses—it’s simple. I’ve kind of been working, for the last couple records—I’d say since Swift— on figuring out simplicity. I feel like Leon really brought that out in everything—keeping it simple and trimming the fat off of everything. On a lot of stuff, we were like, “Oh that doesn’t need to be there, at all.”
Michels: Some of the songs we trimmed down from five minutes to three minutes.
Benevento: We spent a lot of time figuring out what the catchiest part was and saying, “Well if that’s the catchiest part, let’s just repeat it again.” The goal was to make short, poppy songs.
The “gaffiano” interludes are, I believe, a reference to how you manipulated your piano strings to get the sound that you got on this album. Can you talk a little about that?
Benevento: We recorded two songs, and I remember recording the third song and thinking that the piano just doesn’t sound like the right instrument for what we’re going for, and I didn’t even tell Leon or the engineer or anyone. I just put gaff tape on the strings because we’ve done shows in the past where I just sort of mute the strings with my hands, and it’s a part of the show that features the piano having another sound. I know that muting the strings almost sounds like a Japanese instrument or a harp or a cross between the two. I just put the gaff tape on the piano, thinking that it would help it not sound so piano-y, because the piano has such a mood about it, and I love it—that’s why it’s my favorite instrument—but when you can manipulate it a little bit, but still play it like a piano, it sounds like a whole other thing. It is a reference to putting gaff tape on a piano, so the guys were like, “What do you call that?” I was like, “I don’t know, I just put gaff on a piano.” And the guys were like, “A gaffiano!” And it sort of stuck.
You already alluded to this, but do you feel that manipulation led to the sound on this album being different from previous albums?
Benevento: Maybe the point was that I’m a piano player and this is a piano, bass and drums sort of band, but the piano wasn’t a feature. It’s a weird thing to admit to and say, but I’m a songwriter and an arranger and a performer. I’m definitely a piano player but to turn it into not a piano-y thing is basically what I’ve been doing over the last couple of records. On this one, we really hit it pretty good with the pop sensibility—more synths, more bass and drum parts and then vocals. And then a keyboard part here and there. It’s definitely a less piano-sounding record.
Michels: I had to fight with Marco to get him to play solos. He didn’t want any solos.
Benevento: [Laughs] That’s true. You did bring out more of the piano-y aspects, like the organ solo on one of those tunes and the “gaffiano” parts. The showy piano parts, I guess.
Michels: Marco is such an insanely talented piano player, but because you spent so many years just in bands where you were completely flexing on the piano, you have an aversion to it on your own music.
Benevento: That’s true.
Michels: But that’s some of the best shit because everyone likes to hear Marco Benevento solo.
What are some of the lyrical themes on the record? I sort of got a “hold on to what’s important and shed what’s not” vibe. Am I on track?
Benevento: Honestly, this is crazy to admit, but there were no themes when I was writing the lyrics, but it turns out there’s a theme. Other people who have interviewed me have asked the same question, and I’m like, “That’s true—there are a lot of songs about letting go. That you would be better off if you just let it go and move on” sort of themes, which I honestly realized after the record.
Michels: Which is a very Marco thing. When you hang out with Marco, he’s about as easygoing as it comes.
Leon, what was it like working with people like Sharon Jones and Raekwon? How did that impact you as a musician and a producer?
Michels: They all impacted me in different ways. Sharon, I mean, I basically joined the Dap-Kings when I was 16, so essentially, outside of my high school band, she was the first band I was ever in. That was the power of live music and reacting to her on stage. She had a huge influence on me. Raekwon was more of a bucket-list dream thing because I was such a Wu-Tang fan growing up, and also it was a super high-pressure situation, because those guys work in a different way than I do—live, especially. Everyone I work with teaches me something different.
How did you two meet?
Benevento: We met through Richard Swift, our friend who passed away about a year ago, just a badass drummer and producer. Richard connected us because Leon had to miss a couple of gigs with the Arcs, which is a Dan Auerbach side project, and Richard Swift was one of the drummers. There were two drummers. He recommended that I sub for Leon, so that’s how we got connected. I knew what Swift was up to, I knew what Dan Auerbach was up to, and I was definitely a fan of what Dan had done, especially that Dr. John record. That freaked me out. I knew a lot of people in that band, but I really didn’t know what Leon was up to, so I thought if Richard is recommending that I sub for Leon, I should check out what he’s done. And then I was like, “Oh, no, I got to get into what’s going on.” That’s how it happened. And then Leon and I just connected on the record and put some dates on the calendar. And then it was like Insta-bro.
Marco, you used to do more instrumental-leaning stuff. What made you want to get into vocal work and lyrics on the last three records?
Benevento: The first couple of records I made—this was like ten years ago —I was playing more instrumental music, so that’s just what it was. We played rooms that were more like a jazz room. It evolved into a lyric thing around the record TigerFace, which is our fourth record. And I had the singer from Rubblebucket: her name is Kalmia [Traver]. Rubblebucket is such an amazing band. They’re so cool. I had a song on that record, TigerFace, that lent itself to some lyrics, and I asked her to sing the melody on one of the tunes on TigerFace. I wrote the lyrics and she sang it, and hearing one of my songs with a singer was like … I remember that day. I remember sitting in my studio. It was a mind-blowing experience of like, “My music with a singer, I like this!” And then the following record I made after TigerFace, Swift, is basically my first vocal record. And I was thinking that I would hire Kalmia again to come sing, and I thought, “If I keep on bringing her to sing, she’s going to have to join the band. I should just try to do it myself.” It just evolved naturally to me being like, “Dude, just do it yourself. Try it.” Making the record with Richard was super fun and he made me feel like I was singing the whole time. Making Swift was definitely the start of something new, adding vocals, basically adding a whole another instrument to the trio.
This interview was originally published in DOPE magazine and has been edited for length and clarity.