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Marco Benevento, member of the Royal Potato Family and pianist extraordinaire, has been called “one of the most talented keys players of our time” by CBS Radio. He self-produced his latest LP The Story Of Fred Short (out now) in his own home studio in Woodstock, NY, and we fell hard for it.
Aside from his immense songwriting and performing talents, and the endless list of names he’s played with both live and on record, Benevento is a self-professed tinkerer, known for circuit-bending and an incredible spirit of experimentation when it comes to electronics and effects. It should come as no surprise, then, that he’s got a soft spot in his heart for the king of all knob-twisting, wheel-bending, analog experimentation machines: the synthesizer. We recently caught up with him while he was working in his studio to chat about all things synth…
Where did your attraction to synthesis come into play?
When I was a kid, about 11, there was a KORG Polysix for sale at my local music shop in New Jersey. I bought it; it was $375. Well…my parents bought it for me, I was only in the fourth or fifth grade. And that was the big one for me. I basically figured it all out on my own and with the manual that it came with.
I knew synth stuff existed just from hearing songs on the radio, like “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock, and I was always wondered what those freaky keyboard sounds were. I grew up learning piano and getting into keyboards that way. And I remember finding out about Moog synthesizers and calling up the local music shop and asking, “Do you guys sell any Moogs?” And they were like, “No, those are dinosaurs, man. Those don’t exist anymore.” There was no internet or anything back then, you know? So I called up again and kept asking questions, like “How did The Who make the ‘Baba O’Riley sound?” And they were like, “I don’t know, kid. Stop calling!” [laughs]
Did you know what you were getting into? Did you have any knowledge of what synthesis was, or was it sort of trial and error?
It was trial by fire. When I was in high school, I started learning more about it. When I was a senior I got out early and took evening classes at a college, things like Introduction to Synthesis. So that was when I really started understanding things like waveforms, and harmonics, and started leaning about it more scientifically. And that opened up a whole other can of worms.
After the KORG, did you move on to a lot of other analog gear?
I used that for a while. I didn’t get any other synths when I was in college because I got pretty deep into jazz piano, and learning how to improvise. So all the synth stuff fell by the wayside; about five years ago I started collecting other [synths]. Now I have this Roland SH-1000 that I really like, and a Roland SH-101 that I use a lot. I remember [when I was younger] listening to Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Lucky Man” solo and thinking, “What the hell was that?” and even Van Halen’s “Jump”…
Yeah, throw a couple of detuned sawtooth waves and you’re good to go…
That was 1984, so I was only 8 years old or something. But I remember Rush, and those big filter sweeps I was really into. I gotta admit, I’m not that fluent in modular stuff. I have a KORG MS-20…
They just re-issued that, didn’t they? It’s modular, but it’s not, if that makes sense.
I actually used an old one for the bass on a record with one of my bands Garage A Trois – when I first played the MS-20 I didn’t use any of the modular stuff. Then I got this mini one, and have been going on YouTube messing around, seeing how people patch stuff. It’s sort of half-modular, in fact I don’t know if you’d even consider it modular…
It’s an interesting hybrid. Because you can play it normally, without ever having to patch anything.
Yeah, absolutely. Another early one that I was in love with was the Moog Prodigy. They sound amazing, it was another one of my early synth memories after I got the Polysix. There was one for sale, and I thought it looked so cool. I borrowed it as much as I could growing up…
You said you drifted away from synths until about five years ago. It’s interesting because we’ve seen quite the resurgence in that same timeframe from other artists rediscovering the instrument. Can you speak to that a bit?
Yeah, it’s all around. I tour a lot, and going from city to city is interesting. Like in Portland, Oregon, my friend comes up to me saying, “They’ve got this modular synth store here!” And there’s all these companies making [Eurorack] modular things that all connect together, now. I think it’s amazing.
For me, the reason that synths came back in my life is that I made a 180 shift in my music; after studying a lot of jazz and becoming proficient on the piano, I made about four instrumental records – heavily affected piano, more of a rock thing instead of a jazz thing. Now we tour around, and our crowds are getting bigger, and people are dancing, and I’m singing, and the music has gone from experimental to full-on rock and roll/pop music with drum machines and synths. The synths really came back into my world after producing things on my own, and wanting that sort of synth-pop sound. Now it’s more about the song, really simple changes vs. lots of changes and many more notes [in jazz].
What’s in your stage rig now?
I actually don’t bring a lot of synths with me on the road. I sample a lot of my synths, like the Roland and the KORG, and I trigger them with a MIDI keyboard. The reason I do that is because I used to travel with my synths, but they would just get thrashed out on the road. Sometimes you just use a synth because it has that one sound you only need on one part, and it’s not really practical to being everything on the road, to keep it simple. And realistically, that stuff doesn’t all fit in the van. Some people might think it’s kind of a lame way to do it…
It’s not, though. It’s practical – and do you really want to be traveling with all that gear? And what if things break down and need service? Who wants that hassle – but in the studio I assume you’re using the real things, right?
Oh yeah. In the studio, I love the imperfections and the little crazy variables that happen [with analog gear].
What kind of stuff are you using in your studio now?
I still have the Polysix. I use the Mellotron a lot, and I love drum machines. I have a very rare Casiotone 8000 that attaches to the Casiotone RC-1, which is the coolest rhythm machine in the world. They’re so hard to find on eBay, so I’m hoping this thing never breaks. [laughs]
I bet Moby bought them all, that’s why they’re so rare.
Totally, right! You know what I really love is a Roland JX8P – I have this little synth thing that attaches to it, called the Roland PG800. It’s this external thing that allows you to mess with all the sounds on the Roland JX8T, and I really like that one a lot. I have this old Wurlitzer, it’s a three-tier keyboard, and the one on the top is more of a synth called a Wurlitzer Centura Deluxe. That’s another favorite of mine.
If you could address an artist who’s getting into synthesis for the first time, and might feel overwhelmed, would you have any words of advice or encouragement?
Yeah – I would say buy it, use it, you’ll figure it out. It’s worth it. Get your hands dirty – if it’s something you’re interested in, the only way you’re gonna learn is by buying it and saying, “Why did I buy this? I have no idea how it works.” And then there’s gonna be one night where you look at it, and go, “You know, I’m gonna mess with this.” And you go on YouTube, and there are so many answers out there – it’ll open up a whole new world of songwriting.
I really love the idea of using synthesizers for composing. I like to call it ear candy – you get these amazing sounds you love, and almost feel you can bite into them. It gets you writing, instantly.
It’s the biggest way I compose music, I flip things on and get these weird sounds, and just record myself going for it, making things up on the spot. If things aren’t good, I might fire up another keyboard to get another weird lead sound to inspire things.
I would be remiss if we didn’t talk about the new album. Can you tell us a bit about how you recorded that?
I did the whole record here in my place. It’s our sixth record, more rock and pop than our previous ones. I basically wrote the complete Side B in one hour-and-a-half improvisation, which involved me standing up, hitting start on the drum machine, and playing along with the Polysix and SH-1000 and SH-101. I extracted the best of it, which ended up being about 30 minutes, after editing, and pulled out seven songs from that suite of music. It’s not jazz, or fusion, or experimental at all. It’s more of a rock, dance, ’80s synth party.
What do you think of this feature on Marco Benevento and his synth gear? Let us know in the comments below or drop a line on the Performer Magazine Facebook page or on Twitter @Performermag. And read more from the special Synth Issue of Performer Magazine.