Though he’s finally back home in Nashville after endless press days in the UK, Brendan Benson sounds genuinely bummed out. The reason is simple: Benson’s late summer tour is his first proper solo trek in forever, one that doesn’t involve the rest of the Raconteurs — i.e. his best friends and on-again/off-again band of the past five years.
“I’ve missed playing my own music,” says Benson, “but it’s a little sad to be going at it alone again. It’s bittersweet, you know? It means we don’t get to hang out anymore.”
Instead, Benson’s bringing a solid group of sidemen along for the ride, musicians who have played with Ryan Adams, Ben Folds and, well, the Raconteurs. He’s also got a new record to hawk: My Old, Familiar Friend, which is an appropriate title considering the album serves as a reminder of what a great power-pop songwriter Benson is.
It’s been a while since you did the solo thing. Are you revisiting a lot of old material on this tour? Or are you mostly sticking to the new album?
We’re playing a lot of old stuff, even songs I can’t bear the thought of [performing] anymore.
Like ones from your first record [1996's One Mississippi]? That came out 13 years ago at this point, right?
Yeah, that’s crazy man. We’re doing “I’m Blessed” and “Sittin ‘Pretty.” Maybe “Crosseyed.” That’s about it.
Which of your old solo records are you the happiest with?
Probably [the 2002 LP] Lapalco. It’s just got a cool vibe to it. I like the way it was recorded, the way the songs sound.
You submitted a completely different version of One Mississippi originally. Will any of that ever see the light of day?
The stuff I did with Jason Falkner? Maybe. It was my first record, and it was very laden with [Jason's playing]. It felt more like his record, so I just had to do it again. I couldn’t justify putting it out when it wasn’t really me. Jason’s a whiz—a powerhouse musician — so everything was played really well. I’m not like that, you know? And if I’d toured behind it, people would have been shocked to see I can’t play it like that.
See, I thought Virgin told you to just scrap it because it wasn’t poppy enough…
Well, it was a little bit of that, too. It wasn’t that dramatic, though. The label could sense that I was unhappy, and they agreed with me that it’s not my record…The whole thing is a drag. Regardless of whether it sounded like me or not, it’s a really cool record. And what makes it worse is I think it’s lost. The last time I checked with Virgin and tried to buy the masters, they said they couldn’t find ‘em. I have rough mixes on a cassette tape but that’s it.
You ended up working with Jason again on the second record, so did you find more of a middle ground that time?
Well, a lot of time had passed. I had gotten better and more confident, and he understood what I wanted more. So when we did that, it was a lot easier. He was sensitive to not having a hand in everything, and I was more assertive, so it was a better balance for sure.
And by your third record [2005's The Alternative To Love], you were playing a lot of the instruments yourself, right?
Did you do that on this one at all?
I play everything on “Lesson Learned.” It’s something I recorded at home, not with [Foo Fighters/Pixies producer] Gil Norton. Actually, as a side note, there are a lot of songs like that—ones I recorded before starting with Gil on the record. I’m going to put them out at some point. I think I’m going to call it The Other Record, actually.
Would that be alternate versions of everything?
No, songs that were passed up for whatever reason. It may happen next year or something.
I noticed a lot of the new songs posted on your MySpace in the past couple years didn’t make the cut…
Yeah, some of them might be on it, like that [cover] song “Only in a Dream” by Young Hines.
Tell me about working with a major producer like Gil.
He’s the only big time producer I’ve ever worked with. He’s known for being a ball-breaker, cracking the whip all the time. The first thing we did was listen to everything — all the little ideas and demos — and he’d take notes on everything, completely reducing it all down to scratches on a page. Then we picked a [backing] band and moved into more pre-production…That’s when I realized this guy’s gnarly. He’s really involved in the arrangements of songs and the structure, right down to the last kick-drum hit. Which I liked. I wanted someone to come along and do that for me because I’m tired of doing everything myself — writing, producing, whatever.
Do you feel like your singing and guitar-playing benefited from being able to focus more?
I think my guitar playing got better because of the Raconteurs. It was totally trial-by-fire, where I was forced to play better guitar. The music called for it, but I’ve always been more of a rhythm player.
You’ve never been much of a shredder…
Nope. Never a shredder. [Laughs] In fact, I couldn’t as a kid. I had friends that could, but…
Did you try to at least?
Yeah, my fingers wouldn’t move that fast. But beyond that, I was more interested in melodies and singing along — that kind of thing.
Which is why people have always reduced your records to Big Star comparisons and power-pop mentions.
I’d never heard Big Star before someone said that about the first record.
You must have gone back and seen why people thought that, though.
Yeah, I thought it was really cool, and since then, I’ve gotten way into Big Star. Even with the Beatles — I always liked them but I never owned one of their records. I was more into the Rolling Stones. I know that doesn’t make sense if you’ve heard my records but I wanted to be in that band…maybe because it’s such a foreign thing to me. I eventually got into the Beatles, though, and man, what a great wealth of material they have to discover. It’s an endless supply of cool songs.
My point in all this is people would make these references I didn’t know about, really, and when it came time to write again, it was almost like I was trying to live up to all of that. It belittles what you do. No offense to you, but I don’t read my press anymore, and that helps, but you learn what you do through reading about it. Which is not necessarily a good thing — be aware of what you do, but don’t think about it too much.