Brendan Benson Biography
Sure, it’s also the man’s name. But as he wrote the songs that would become his dazzling new CD ALTERNATIVE TO LOVE, he never stopped imagining the two guitarists trading licks, the back-up singer adding harmonies, the bass drum booming through his spine -- never mind that he does all that stuff himself. Brendan Benson is a one-man band, but, he says, "band is the operative word."
He's neither a singer-songwriter (though of course his music is impeccably constructed and observed) nor a simple pop musician (though every note he's ever played is catchy as all get-out), and even "cult artist" doesn't cut it anymore, given the way fans, critics and DJs in both the U.S. and U.K. embraced 2002's Lapalco. Three years later, you could even say ALTERNATIVE TO LOVE is long-awaited. And from the revved-up guitar chug of “Spit It Out” to the Wall of Sound swoon of “The Pledge” to the haunted piano tones of “Biggest Fan,” it doesn't disappoint, offering up a dozen shimmering examples of dynamic rock'n'roll that's both joyous and bittersweet –as you might expect from someone whose publishing company is called Glad Sad Music.
Benson flies solo in the studio so he can work whenever inspiration hits, with "collaborators" who are always on the same creative wavelength. "It's childish," he admits. "It's hard for me to hand the sticks over, or sit there and listen to someone else and not just say, 'do it like this.'" But that's the way the Michigan/Louisiana native has always recorded, going back to his teenage years overdubbing one track at a time on a regular home stereo. Those bedroom sessions, and some recording in L.A. with producer Ethan Johns and Jellyfish's Jason Falkner, eventually evolved into Benson's mythological debut One Mississippi.
But when that 1996 Virgin release (reissued by StarTime in 2003) left him as another critical success story on the verge of getting dropped, he retreated to Detroit's Belle Isle neighborhood, using what was left of his second-album advance to fill a big old house with vintage recording equipment and well-used instruments. It was there he made Lapalco, which the Times of London dubbed "an album of such radiant beauty and wrist-slashing introspection that it puts all other pretenders to the Beatles/Beach Boys mantle firmly in their place." Entertainment Weekly, NME, Details and Mojo ("some records are so perfect they make you worry") also fell in love with it.
ALTERNATIVE TO LOVE feels like the precisely calibrated offspring of its predecessors – brighter than Lapalco, not quite as big a sugar-rush as Mississippi. "It's a nice kind of blend of the two," Benson says. Despite his professed allergy to singer-songwriter syndrome, Benson has been doing more acoustic gigs the past few years, which played into the songwriting process. And while the songs are mostly about love, heartbreak, and connection, the context isn't always romance – Bensons also draws on harder life experience, like being abandoned by his father, and the death of his grandfather who raised him. "A lot of times it might sound like I'm singing about a girl, but it just might be about someone or something entirely different," he says.
If Lapalco brought to mind certain dark-night-of-the-soul records from the late '60s and early '70s, Benson has found himself listening to things like Calexico, the Cars and the Pretenders lately. But if you were to hit him with that old standby of a question, "what are your influences?" he could give a unique answer. "A lot of times I'll record or write a song because I've got a new amp, or someone’s left a guitar at my house, or I’ve acquired a new microphone. I just have a real fascination with the sound of things." He even traded in some of the stuff that figured on Lapalco -- ALTERNATIVE TO LOVE was recorded on relatively newer stuff, digital as well as analog. "I don’t have a lot of conceits when it comes to recording music like, 'no computers were used in the making of this record,'" he says. “Computers make things easier. But drums and acoustic guitars, I believe, sound notably better on tape."
The record's intricate sonic imprint also stems from Tchad Blake's mixes. The producer/engineer, best known for his work with Mitchell Froom (Los Lobos, Latin Playboys, Elvis Costello, Crowded House) is a longtime fave of Benson's. "Oh my god, my hero," he says. "We just talked a few times on the phone. I said, do whatever you do, make it sound good! And he did. Some tracks, he kind of produced retroactively. When I heard them with headphones on I was laughing uncontrollably. I was so pleased."
ALTERNATIVE TO LOVE is a headphone record among other things, from the Spectoresque bombast of "The Pledge" to the mind-bending harmony and call/responses of the title track. Other highlights include the amiably wobbly "Cold Hands Warm Heart," which is already a live favorite, and the album-ender "Between Us," which lays the raw emotion of a woman's post break-up answering machine message over an almost-psychedelic anthem. Then there's the deceptively sing-song "What I'm Looking For," which offers up a worldview – about art, life and love -- in just 18 words: Well I don't know what I'm looking for but I know that I just wanna look some more. "That's pretty much it," Benson says. "That's me."
Which is not to say he lacks focus. If anything, he's too focused -- exclusively on rock'n'roll. When he's not doing his own stuff he's producing other bands (including V2 labelmates Blanche and the next record by Cincinnati garage-rockers the Greenhornes) and he and Motown compadre Jack White are working on a duo record." I could happily spend the rest of my days doing something with music," Benson says. "If I'm not working on music, anxiety sets in. Maybe it's not so healthy-to stay locked away in a studio–you've gotta live a life to write a song. But in Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke said if you were in jail, cut off from the world, with nothing but a view of the sky from a small window, you'd still have your memories to write about. I love that."