Six questions for ... Brendan Benson
"Well that's kind of always been the case with me. I'm always at the wrong place with the wrong time." That's Brendan Benson, speaking from Nashville shortly before he embarked on a week-long tour in support of "My Old, Familiar Friend." In this case he's only talking about the weather -- mid-December's not the most pleasant time for an East Coast jaunt, one that brings him to the 9:30 club Wednesday night -- but it's a statement that could also work for his career. He's a songwriter with a near-unparalleled knack for melody as well as professional misfortune. "Friend" is his fourth album for a fourth different label, a comedy of errors highlighted by his time spend on Virgin Records in the '90s. Things are going pretty well lately, though, highlighted by a recent two-album stint as "the other songwriter" along with Jack White in The Raconteurs. Still, he acknowledges his fans are mostly "people in the industry, people in the press and musicians." He was in a good mood when we chatted and shared horror stories about major labels, Kim Deal and the "power pop" label.
It seems to take you a while between records, but I guess this time it would be for good reasons, as opposed to previous reasons. Is that accurate to say?
Yes. I figured it out. I finally figured this out. The reason I don't make records every year is because I get dropped. (Laughs.) For whatever reason. And then it just takes a long time to sort out a new deal. To negotiate it, all that crap. So that's been it. Being dropped for the first time, I think I was depressed. But there's this story that I went into this deep depression and stopped writing and all that, but I never did. I didn't know how to go about getting on another label. That first deal kind of fell into my lap. Some friends helped me out. I didn't even ask for it. I was just recording songs with my friend and some of my other friends were like, "Hey, I know someone who works at Virgin, do you mind if I send them something?" And I was like, "Sure, go ahead." So the second time I around I just had no idea. What do you do? Do I just start sending records to labels? I suppose that's what you do. (Laughs.) I was signed based on a demo, too. I wasn't playing live. They didn't seek me out.
(Kim Deal ripping Benson's posters down from venues, after the jump.)
Is it a really dramatic process to get dropped by a label? Or is it something that just takes 30 seconds and then you're like, well, that just happened.
(Laughs.) Well, now that's how I feel. But at the time, yeah, it was really dramatic. I was slightly traumatized by it. Not to sound too dramatic. I had high hopes. The label also had high hopes. I just didn't know how the business worked. I didn't know that people came and went so easily. Bands, staff, people at the label. I was shocked when my A&R guy got fired. I was just like, "Oh my god, that's terrible!" (Laughs.) But really it happens every day, it happens all the time. There was a point at which I thought I was going to be the next big thing. I honestly believed it. I was naive. It was my first time making a record and I couldn't believe how excited people were. So then to be dropped a year later ...
But (Virgin) kept me on, too. They kept me on for a long time. That was another reason it took so long. They kept me on for like another year, wanting to hear more songs. So I'd send them a song and they'd say, "Cool, cool, let's hear some more." And I'd be like, "What the [expletive] is going on?" (Laughs.) They even brought me out to Los Angeles and set me up in this house. Brought all my gear and my studio and everything. They set me up in this house just so I could write and be close to the office.
Because that's when you do your best work, when you're close to the office, right?
(Laughs.) Exactly. Again, I didn't know. I was like, OK, as long as I'm not dropped. Because I didn't know what I was going to do if I couldn't play music. I had no other plan. There was no Plan B. So I did what they wanted. I jumped through hoops. I did that thing. They cleared house. These new guys came into Virgin and just dropped every band. Except two -- me and Sam Phillips. I thought that was great but it turned out not to be so great because I probably could have not wasted a lot of time and just moved on to something else. Instead of sitting there trying to write for them, trying to write for this guy in particular, my new A&R guy who I didn't like at all.
Was that really weird, to be writing your songs, but then with one specific guy's taste in mind?
Oh, it was terrible. I'd go to the office and play him new stuff and he'd literally have a guitar in his office and pick it up and play along with the songs. Upon first listen, playing along! Not even really listening. I don't know. It was belittling. Like, what are you doing? Just [expletive] put the guitar down and listen. Or else I'm leaving! I'm not sitting here while you learn my songs. It was ridiculous. It was really weird. It was a power play. I think it was all just a power trip.
It's so different now. I'm in a much better position. I have a little fanbase. It's not huge but I've gained a lot of respect, I think, and ... regard. Acknowledgment from people in the industry, people in the press and musicians. And that kind of keeps me afloat. I'm still able to make records. And I can do them the way I want. I've managed to scrounge up the money to do what I want so far. I don't do very decadent, expensive projects. Now it's just making that connection, filling that gap between me and people. (Laughs.) You know, people who listen to music. I thought the Raconteus would help me do that. But it really didn't. I'm not sure how much it helped. I'm playing the same clubs I always played.
Yeah, I'm pretty sure I saw you at the 9:30 club back in 1997, opening for the Breeders. Sound right?
Oh, yeah, totally. That was hilarious. (Kim Deal) hated me. (Laughs.) She hated me for no apparent reason. She had my posters removed from the venues if they were in her sight. Well, I think I know why. And it's so ridiculous. We had two mutual friends. A couple that was married. And they got divorced. And I didn't know Kim Deal but she was friends with the wife. And so was I, in fact, better friends with the wife than with the husband. So when they divorced she got in her head ... she just took sides. He had kind of screwed her over, the husband did. I wasn't involved in any of that. It just happened that I knew. But for some reason she thought that I was involved in screwing this woman over. (Laughs.) It was really weird. Strange. That tour sucked by the way.
It seems like to be labeled "power pop" is to almost, like you've said, give yourself a ceiling of critical or cult favorite. I think part of this has to do with the term. "Power pop" sounds like a treat a 7-year-old gets if he finishes all of his broccoli. There are all these new subgenre names like chillwave or [expletive]gaze, so I think maybe you need a cooler name for it.
That term is just so ineffective. It describes nothing. I don't get it. Whatever my genre is, whatever my niche is, I would like it to have 'rock' in the term. I think that's more fair to say than pop. Power pop. Like pop-rock. I'll take that even. (Laughs.)
By David Malitz |
December 9, 2009; 8:30 AM ET
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