By Whatever Means Necessary: Brendan Benson Goes Undercover

[18 February 2011]

By Alex Bahler

Brendan Benson isn’t interested in doing what everyone else does – at least not until the right time comes.

Over the phone I congratulate him on the birth of his first child, a boy, earlier this year, and ask when fans can expect the seemingly requisite

“It’s funny, I thought ‘Well, I guess I have to write that song about my son now that everyone seems to do,” he says dryly. “I can’t force it. It’ll have to happen on its own. Nothing has come yet”.

Another thing expected from an artist is touring, and for that one, Benson’s not waiting around for divine inspiration. Calling from the inaugural venue of the tour in Milwaukee, Benson will be on the road (“for about 45 days”) with back-from-hiatus Washington power-popsters the Posies in the next couple months. He says he doesn’t know the members of the Posies all that well, but they have at least one thing in common: they’re fans of influential ‘70s underdogs Big Star.

“I met [Posies singer] Ken [Stringfellow] years ago, we played some shows together when he was with the Long Winters,” he says. “[Guitarist] Jon [Auer] I had never met until recently in Memphis – that’s when this whole thing began, in Memphis a few months ago. We did this Big Star tribute. That’s when we got to know them.” Fitting, since Stringfellow and Auer participated in the reformed Big Star that finally recorded 2005’s In Space after a decade of performing.

Benson’s latest appearance on record was originally supposed to be a secret, for no other reason than just because. This new one is a vinyl 7’’ single – and for the kiddies, digital download – on his own Readymade imprint (a idea from before his first proper album), which finds him playing the pseudonym game as Well & Goode with Raconteurs touring member Mark Watrous (presented as “Midas Well” to the other’s “Upton O. Goode”, though it’s not clear who is whom). Produced by Benson, it comes complete with overwrought (but tongue-in-cheek) back story including a fictional climactic meeting of the four minds at the Cheesecake Factory.

“I wondered if it could be done,” he says matter-of-factly, “just put it out there, not do any press or anything. And also not let on who it is.” The idea for Readymade came the same way, he said, to put out the demos recorded before his Virgin Records debut, One Mississippi. The business being what it is, things got altered along the way that meant the secret identity of Mr. Well & Mr. Goode would have to be revealed. “The way things went, we weren’t originally going to show our faces or put anything on the cover. One thing after another got changed and then we just said ‘Well, let’s just do it’. It entitles you to take on another personality.”

That personality, like Benson’s own, is a touch more relaxed and conversational than the hard-charging swamp rock the Raconteurs like to whip up. The collaborative part of the process took place after Benson had the finished songs and volunteered them to Watrous. “I gave them to Mark and said ‘If any of these things you feel like working on, by all means have at it’,” he says, describing the origin of the single. “He was living in New York at the time, and he’d send me the ProTools session file. I’d put a guitar on there and send it back to him, and he might change a few things, so it was back and forth through the internet.”

The songs, “Two Birds” and “Spray Tan,” are summery ‘70s-styled chunks of aural chocolate that should come standard with any Camaro lease. Lyrics like “all us clever, birds of a feather / the lion and the lamb lay down together” certainly evoke the sun-stoned poetry you’d hear from that decade’s easygoing ‘60s hangover. But Benson wasn’t necessarily going for the seasonal vibe on the record. “I don’t know why that is, the summer vibe”, he wonders. “Probably just the two of us being pop musicians.”

Arguably his most famous conspirator in the pop world is Jack White. Despite the Raconteurs being the brainchild of both Nashville-based songwriters, the group is too often introduced as “one of Jack White’s other bands”. As a friend once joked, White doesn’t really write new songs anymore – he just forms new bands. Is that media perpetuation, of playing under a false shadow, a bit frustrating?

Benson lets out a sigh. “Yeah, frankly. It happens more often than you think…it’s not a huge deal but it tends to kind of get on my nerves,” says Benson. “It’s kind of nice to be able to air it out, let people know that it was a collaboration, very much so. We started this. I’m not in Jack’s band, we’re in this band together.”

This is the part where the rock journalist is supposed to sensationalize things into a full-blown feud – suggested headline: Benson Bites Back at Jack! There’s nothing to see here, folks, and there shouldn’t be in the foreseeable future. He says the band has no plans to record the follow-up to 2008’s Consolers of the Lonely just yet, simply suggesting “we may get around to it” before admitting how busy everyone is these days. With White goofing around with Conan O’Brien and making albums with goth-blues outfit the Dead Weather (featuring fellow Raconteur Jack Lawrence, who is also gearing up for a new album with the Greenhornes, of which the group’s Patrick Keeler is also a member – got that?), it’s anyone’s guess when the Raconteurs will ride again. Putting aside the slight annoyance with being written off as a backing member, Benson prefers playing in a band to doing the solo thing. “Ideally a band that collaborates instead of hiring a band for the road,” he explains. “For example, in the Raconteurs, everyone shares everything and gets responsibility. I like that better”.

With the tour kicking off, plans to record his next album in March, and the yet-to-be-immortalized-musically child crawling around, Benson is keeping busy like the rest of his band. He says he “definitely” looks back and wonders how he got where he is over the past decade and a half. “But that should be the case with everyone in whatever they do.”

Wise words. As for the most basic component of being a singer, the songwriting process, Benson says it is different than when he was starting out. Except when it’s not.

“It’s kind of different every time. I guess oftentimes something will occur to me, like a lyric or something, and I’ll sit down at a piano or with a guitar. I don’t think it’s changed much since One Mississippi. It’s still like a compulsion.”

Like you just have to do it?

“Yeah, by whatever means necessary.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/133557-by-whatever-means-necessary-brendan-benson-goes-undercover/