You might know keyboardist Marco Benevento from his cultish Boston band the Jazz Farmers, or his sideman work with Phish's Trey Anastasio, or his duo discs on Wurlitzer and B-3 organ with drummer Joe Russo. Then Benevento upped the ante with a pair of splendid albums under his own name, the triple-disc Live At Tonic, and last year's Invisible Baby, where he abetted his irreverent jam-band wizardry and toy gadgetry effects with some pensive compositions and jazz-oriented acoustic piano.
All these elements are again in force on Me Not Me, a disc comprised predominantly of cover songs, from artists ranging from Led Zeppelin to Leonard Cohen to Deerhoof. Benevento, who was born in 1977, also provides three originals, including a track that's been part of his live shows for years, one he claims was invented by his circuit toys, and one knocked off in the early morning hours after his band had quaffed a few beers.
A Benevento interview is a lot like his records: Jam-packed with riffs, insights, and shifts of mood. He graciously spent nearly two hours on the phone going over Me Not Me song-by-song, with intermittent interruptions from his infant daughter Ruby.
On why he chose to do a disc of cover songs:
I guess it is a window into my brain. The goal as a musician is to write a song that sounds like a cover. You want something else to write it for you as you accidentally play it out your fingertips. Free jazz is like zen study that way, and that transfers to life and your day-to-day actions — you learn about yourself.
Also, I studied with Kenny Werner and Brad Mehldau, who taught me that it is in the jazz tradition to make records with popular tunes and re-harmonize and arrange them. Through Brad Mehldau's cover of "River Man," I got into Nick Drake. Covers help fill in those gaps for people.
I started listening to My Morning Jacket four or five years ago and I liked this song a lot. I haven't learned any other My Morning Jacket tunes, but I liked the way this fell on the piano, and with a trio it is a gorgeous song with a gorgeous melody.
On "Now They're Writing Music": [an original]
This one came about when I set up all these toys and sent them into a loop station. I had three tracks operating at random to get them in pitch. So I was walking around, ate dinner, whatever, and I sort of stopped and heard these notes and started counting out bar five and bar six and bar four and it loops again, and I thought 'cool loop! 'and transferred the toy notes to the piano and noticed the harmony. Then I went down to the World Café with David Dye live in Philly and played this live with the loops, and it was this vibe-y song. Then I put in a bridge passage and added a middle section after the fact and tracked them and then added a third part. Suddenly it became my 'masterpiece': Every day I had about 27 edits of it and it was killing me. Every evening I just opened up too many doors. It only lasts four minutes on the album but it took me months to do.
I got into circuit-bent toys about five years ago. It was like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe this isn't huge. 'And now it is everywhere. If you type in 'circuit-bending 'on Youtube, people inform you how to do it. There are circuit-bending after-school programs. But this song was 'written 'because three loops of toys were playing by themselves. I was originally going to call it, "These Things Are Telling Me What To Do."
On "Seems So Long Ago Nancy":
The reason I play this song is because, as dark as the lyrics are, I think it is beautiful. Just as a progression in music it is gorgeous, very circular-sounding. The melody to this — whew! You talk about musical genius, it is untouchable, very simple, but the strongest kind of simple. I have soloed to that song at least 300 times and I am still learning how I can connect that chord to that chord.
On "Mephisto": [another original]
I first wrote this on piano and I always wanted to record it on piano, so I guess you could say I'm covering myself. It has a Keith Jarrett progression and a soulful backbeat. My drummer Matt had the idea of using this weird piece of metal, this spring or whatever — that is where the sound comes from at the beginning. The song felt a little naked and so [engineer] Bryce [Goggin] and I added these dub effects, these tape effects. There is never going to be a perfect version of tune so we thought it would be good to mess it up.
On "Twin Killers":
I saw Deerhoof at Prospect Park here; I was really late and hoping they hadn't played this tune yet. It's this funny, bad-ass rock thing and then this girl goes [Benevento sings in falsetto] and you go, "Are you kidding? 'I got there in time to hear them do it and they had such a humorous take. The drummer went totally free jazz on it the second time around, like this drum set falling downstairs underneath the band and I thought, 'Oh, cool, they are laughing at themselves. 'It was reassuring to see that they don't think of it that seriously because it is so much fun to improvise on, with a nice tempo that gets people off their seats; when they hear it they start dancing. I got into Deerhoof through Charlie Hunter, believe it or not.
On "Call Home": [the last of three originals]
It was the end of our two 14-hour days in the recording studio in Seattle, about midnight. We'd had a couple of beers and were somewhat exhausted and I went over to this tack piano. It is an upright with thumbtacks pushed into it that makes this brittle, honky-tonk kind of sound and I went over to it. At the time we were doing this song by The Kinks, "Strangers," off the Lola album. And so we go over to the piano and I started playing it and I just flipped and said, 'I don't want to record this song. 'I'd had just too many covers. I wanted to go home, or keep on drinking, or something. But I had this new progression I was thinking of and this circuit-bend toy drum and these loops to play along with in studio, and the guys learned it and we pulled it off instead of The Kinks song. It took us an hour.
My friend Michael, a great photographer who works for [the music label] Ropeadope played me this tune by The Knife, and it was like love at first hear. The groove is this infectious unstoppable loop. It's like Tom Tom Club, with this David Byrne tribal thing and then this electro, 80s, skateboard party thing to it too. I'm a former skateboarder and proud owner of the movie "Tron," and I hear that and also these circuit-bent toys that remind me of Afrika Bambaataa, those beats.
This is a good time to mention the optigan. It's a keyboard from the 1970s, and you put these transparent discs into them and it reads the wave forms on the record with the laser. It was one of the first sample-playback keyboards ever made. I use it on every track — it is one of the muses on this record. It has that scratchy warmth you get from a record that you can't get with an mp3.
On "Sing It Again":
This is one of the last songs on Beck's Mutations record. I played this live with Matt and Reed a couple of times and it just sort of sounds like a bar favorite, a mellow, pensive, 3/4 waltz. This is the first purposeful solo piano recording I think I've ever made in my life. It was very impulsive. We had tracked a couple of tunes and were outside having lunch and I said, 'I'm going inside to do a solo piano song. 'I'd never done one and thought it would be good: Playing solo should be required for every instrumentalist. It is just a good thing to know and learn that your own instrument can be all that's behind you and you can go out and put on a show. I didn't want to think too much about it. I said, 'Tucker let's go, 'and we did it in one take. I'm glad I made it. Maybe it is the beginning of more solo excursions.
I had all the Led Zeppelin records on tape since I was in middle school, but then the change went from tape to no tape and I didn't hear it for awhile. But I got Led Zep III, which has "Since I've Been Loving You" on it, and then "Friends" too. I've always liked ["Friends"] for the rhythm and harmony of it and I always have my ears open for a different kind of song that would work on piano. I played it a lot with Russo when we started at the Knitting Factory, and as I was gearing up to tour with Reed and Matt, it came to mind and we played it at the New Orleans [Heritage and] Jazz Fest. I overdubbed this Farfisa organ that has a slalom pedal that allows you to bend every note you are playing down an octave, so maybe you'll notice that bending sound in that section. There is also a lot of mellotron with the choir.
On "Run of the Mill":
It was my wife's idea to put this at the end. 'I don't care what else you have, put this as the last song, 'she said. I had been intensely practicing with Joe Russo, trying to write music, and we were beating our heads against the wall. I'd been looking for models of how to write a song and then I'm doing the dishes and heard George Harrison playing "Run of the Mill" and slowly that song crept into my brain. It is harmonically sneaky; it goes from f-sharp to d major and you don't realize at first how these melodies string together and the effect of the horns at the beginning. I learned it immediately and went to Joe, and he immediately fell in love with it and we went to the Knitting Factory and played it and people were saying, 'What is that tune?'