Brendan Benson: The Epiphone Interview

Over the last decade, Nashville has once again become Music City--not just a country music town but a true music metropolis for musicians of all styles and backgrounds. Most quietly go about their day writing, producing, and recording albums that make their way around the world to become the soundtrack for our times. A simple trip to the grocery store here might include bumping into a critically acclaimed indie pop star or a rhythm guitarist who played on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline or maybe James Brown’s former bandleader. But even in a town rich with unique talent and perspective, Brendan Benson stands out.

Benson is the rare musician who sees the big picture--he writes, produces, engineers, and now runs his own label. And he has the rare gift--a kind of musical "second sight"--that puts an ineffable shine to any of his endeavors. A measure of that respect and admiration can be seen on the faces of accompanying musicians who watch Benson in action on stage or in the studio.

But even after many excellent solo albums like One Mississippi or Lapalco and his work with the Raconteurs, in our Epiphone interview Benson still came across as humble, self-effacing, funny, and mystified--in a contented sort of way--that any of his musical endeavors have worked out. But clearly, they have. His new album You Were Right, made for his own label, Readymade Records and recorded in his new studio, is his best so far and signals a new era for the Michigan native, an era of fevered energy that comes with finally having the tools to build whatever your imagination can dream up.

Epiphone spoke with Benson from his home in Nashville where we discussed his upcoming concert at the Ryman for the David Lynch Foundation with Ricky Skaggs, Eric Burdon of the Animals, and Jack White, and his favorite guitar, a 1965 Cherry Red Casino.

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Thanks for speaking with us, Brendan. It's been a big year--new album, new studio, new label. With all that's been going on, what is life like for you in Nashville?

Busy! But it's good. Mostly it's great. I'm a self-admitted workaholic so I don't mind all the hectic scheduling. But it is very hectic. And also--add to that a 3-year old and a 1-year old and you have a recipe for a nervous breakdown (laughs).

Brendan Benson: The Epiphone InterviewYou opened a studio for yourself. Was that something you've been thinking about for a long time?

I think to say I've opened my own place is misleading. It is my place but it's not a public facility. I'm not in the studio business. So, I just work on my stuff or for my friends or projects that I'd like to work on. So in other words... I don't make any money on it (laughs). I lose money in copious amounts.

But I kind of went in that direction early on. When I started writing music--or when I went on my own when bands I was in didn't work out and I decided to go it alone--I'd make recordings on a dual cassette deck that had a little mic-mix feature so I could do overdubs. So I was hooked when I discovered that.

And I went on from there. Eventually, I got a Porta Studio cassette 4-track and then went on to 8-track cassette. So all along I've been sort of learning and educating myself. But also, I was interested in that sort of thing--the recording concept--that side of things: How does one get that sound.

So it was kind of a natural evolution and finally at the age of 40, I thought I'd have a proper studio--something that's not at home. And now I've got it. And it kind of came at the right time. I'm starting to produce a lot more. So it works out well. When I want to do something I can do it at my place.

You've probably been in both good and bad studio environments. Did those experiences figure into your planning?

Yeah, I think that's one of the advantages that I can offer people because being an artist, I'm very sympathetic to those issues. How important is the line of sight, just being able to look up and know that someone is there--all those things are important. Engineers can sometimes take the easy way out.

Headphones are a big drag (laughs). I haven't figured that one out yet! I'm used to them. I'm fine under headphones. But a lot of new, young artists struggle with them so I do as much live as possible, although my studio is kind of not-ideal in that way. I'm aware of that being an artist so I can sympathize. The studio is made up of a few smaller rooms rather than a big room. But I make do.

Brendan Benson: The Epiphone InterviewDid you find that when you were making You Were Right you had a different attitude since you knew it would come out on your label and that you could make it all in your place?

Yeah, kind of. That was the idea. Ultimately, the idea of having my own place would mean I could work whenever I wanted and it would be sort of more fun on my terms and all that. But it wasn't necessarily so. I think having a family kind of cut into that little fantasy of mine (laughs). It's not about me anymore so I'm coming to terms with that slowly and painfully-that whole concept. And then you know, this record started out with a goal in mind which was to write a song every month. It was going to be released digitally every month and toward the end of the year, I would put out a record of these songs. I liked the challenge of that and working towards that every month. That's where my studio came in real handy. I could get in there and record the stuff when I needed to. But then it became almost a burden, having this song due every month--even though I was actually doing a lot more than that. I was digging up old songs--old ideas that never saw the light of day. In fact, some of those songs are from the mid 90s when I was living in Oakland, California with my cassette recorder. And I just kind of stumbled upon these old ideas and I thought: "I want to see if I can bring these back--salvage these."

So the whole song-a-month thing kind of went out the window (laughs) and I started working up these old ideas trying to kind of rekindle them. Which was really a weird thing to do--I found out--along the way; trying to conjure up these old feelings that I was so far from now. It was an interesting study or experience. I'm not sure it was entirely successful but at least the songs are out now.

Do you tend to build albums around a concept--for instance a 'loud' record, a 'slow' record?

I'd like to say that I do but I think I really don't. The extent to which I do that is when I'm sequencing a record and kind of finding a flow and finding maybe some songs don't fit on the record. I don't have a big vision for the whole thing. I mean I think I've lied in the past and said that I had a big idea (laughs). But what I do is I write a bunch and when I have enough songs that are strong--like I have 11 of 12 strong songs--then I make a record. And it's not even that deliberate. Halfway through I think--"oh... I think I'm making a record."

Most writers are like that.

Well, it's real easy after the fact to see the thread in it or to think you see a thread and to say"oh yeah, it was completely by design and a conceptual idea of mine."Wow--that's pretty amazing. I'm sure people do it and think that way and it's great.

Do you find it easy to talk to other artists you'd like to record or produce? What's it like being on the other side of the desk?

I find that it comes naturally. I don't have much experience being produced myself since I've usually done it myself. Although, I've always had help. I think I've just picked up the language along the way and I think I can be pretty articulate in that situation than I am in an interview like this (laughs). It's a lot easier for me to convey ideas musically. And I think so far people are responsive. No one has said: "wow that guy is out of his tree."

Brendan Benson: The Epiphone InterviewWhat are you working on now?

I'm mixing a record by a band called The Last International that I just produced and that's a whole other can of worms--mixing. I think I'm getting good at it actually because mixing is really a tough thing and an art itself.

You record sounds terrific. Very open, very easy to listen to. You can hear every instrument.

Oh thank you! But I hear all kinds of mistakes and I think: "Oh God! I should have done this or that..." I listen to old Paul McCartney records and they're dark as hell and I love that!

In contrast, on the radio today you rarely hear an actual guitar anymore where as on You Were Right, each instrument has a distinct tone and presence, as they should.

Thank you. I think sometimes today instruments have become more like very stylized versions of that instrument. Like drums for instance. What we now hear in a snare drum or identify doesn't actually sound like the source. So when I choose an instrument for a part, I choose it for the way it sounds. I might say: "I think this song could use a very small, box-y sounding acoustic guitar. So let's get that and mic it up properly and get that."

Brendan Benson: The Epiphone Interview

What's the story behind your Casino?

It's my favorite guitar and I think I got it at Blackmarket music in San Francisco. It's a '65, all original. I was making my first record with Ethan Johns engineering and I think he had one and brought one to the studio. And I fell in love with his so I found that one. And mine's actually a lot cooler than his (laughs). I've played my Casino forever. That was my main guitar.

Now, I'm really glad to have a new one so I can retire my vintage Casino. And the re-issue sounds great and plays great and I just love it. My vintage Casino always finds a way onto my records.

Tell me about the David Lynch Foundation Concert at the Ryman.

It started as an idea: hey, let's have a show and have it be more like a party vibe, invite some friends to come up and sing. I thought it would be something simple but it turned into a much bigger production (laughs). And at first I thought: "Oh what have I done? The logistics were knarly." But now, I'm super excited. I'm over the initial panic and we started to rehearse and the band sounds great and the guests are--for a lack of a better word--sounding great. I'm just really excited. I don't know what to expect. You can plan only so much. We know the set list and we know whose playing what song but who knows beyond that.

Well if anything, you got Eric Burdon and Ricky Skaggs on the same stage.

And I'm playing with Ricky Skaggs at the Ryman and I have no business doing that.