For many years loyal readers have asked us to interview Brendan Benson, an artist who has tracked his records in a variety of settings, from full-blown studios to home setups. In 2005, Brendan became a member, along with pal Jack White III, of The Raconteurs and their two albums achieved a nice degree of success. But Brendan's solo albums are truly special as well, with clever songwriting and full, interesting arrangements. I met up with Brendan before a show of his in Phoenix, Arizona.
You first popped up on the radar with your One Mississippi record in 1996. Did that start as sessions with you and Jason Falkner [Tape Op #35]?
What was going on before that with you?
I played in a couple bands in high school — mainly punk and hardcore. I think we came up with enough money to go into a real studio and record a couple of songs. Those bands kind of fizzled. I was left with just an acoustic guitar, so I started writing. I can't remember what I was listening to at the time, all I know is that it wasn't punk anymore. The acoustic guitar was dictating to me how to sing. I met a girl and moved to California. Her roommate started dating Jason; we literally met sitting on opposite ends of the couch at her apartment. I had this cassette tape that I carried around with all the things I'd recorded, but I don't think I played him any of my stuff then. He was in Jellyfish at the time and I think he was shocked to even learn that I played guitar. He turned me onto some cool stuff, like The Zombies and Todd Rundgren. I broke up with the girl, moved back home [to Detroit] and met another girl. This time I moved to San Francisco. Jason and I kept in touch. I gave him a call and told him I wanted to see him and he invited me down to L.A. This time I had a cassette tape and I gave it to him. A week later he called me up and said, "Dude, this is cool stuff. Let's do some arrangements and fill it out some more." I was so happy. We holed up in his apartment, drank a ton of coffee and started recording.
He's always buzzing with energy!
He brought out the 4-track — a Tascam Porta One or Two. We recorded six songs like that. Then I gave it to some friends who knew people at record labels. I got signed amidst a bidding war with Virgin, Columbia and Atlantic. I hadn't even played these songs live!
That was a different time for the music industry.
Yeah, money flying back and forth and they were signing everybody!
I heard that they rejected the first version of the record. Is that true?
I kind of did, more so than the record label. I don't know that "rejected" is the right word. I was insistent that Jason was going to produce the record, because it made sense. We went down to [Daniel Lanois'] Kingsway [in New Orleans] to do it and we spent a ton of money. It just turned out to sound more like Jason than it did me. I didn't know what my sound was then and he was a league above me. At the time I just didn't have the confidence to express what I needed from my album. All I knew was that I couldn't play it. He'd done some guitar parts on the album that I didn't even think I could replicate on stage! [laughter] I didn't know the chords! He was really upset about that, and rightfully so — he worked hard on it. But I couldn't let it come out because it didn't represent me.
Was it pretty amazing working at Kingsway?
It was so cool! That was such an experience. It was just a big old house and they did nothing to soundproof it or anything. They put the console in a spot that worked and that's where it stayed! There were drums set up in the sunroom with French doors. How in the hell did they make that sound good? Daniel Lanois was there for some of it and he was elusive — he would vanish up into his room. We got up the nerve to ask him if he would produce a track. He was so stoked to do it. Man, that was the weirdest experience. It sounded nothing like the other stuff! Jason and I were looking at each other thinking, "Oh, my god. I'm not going to say anything! Let's just finish this." [laughter]...