Third Time’s a Charm: An Interview with Brendan Benson

For the last 10 years, if Brendan Benson didn’t have bad luck it seems he’d have no luck at all. With labels and the artist at loggerheads over his infectious, critically acclaimed albums of perfected pop, Benson appeared to be a musical fish hoping to become big. But when labels are at odds with you, they can not only chew you up and spit you out, but use a Hoover to vacuum the water out of the bowl and let you flop around until you croak, all the while displaying a big, conglomerate-wide grin.

After releasing Lapalco in 2002, Benson should’ve reached that next rung of stardom, but again was wallowing. But it seems that with The Alternative to Love, Benson has finally hit that “it” factor with his label, albeit after a tough go around with the British division of V2.

“I’m well on my way to not really giving a shit what they say,” Benson says of the various rows he’s had with. “Nobody can predict pop culture. That’s impossible. And they’re kidding themselves and everyone else if they think they can. We were licensing the record to V2 in Europe and the main office is in London. When I turned it in they said, ‘I don’t know if we want to do this. I think you should work with someone else.’ I was like, ‘Fuck you! That’s not an option, see you later.'”

The Alternative to Love is a genuine work of a man who knows he is hitting his stride and is waiting for everyone else to catch up to figure it out. Whether it’s the cavity-inducing “Feel Like Myself” or the quasi-Spector homage during “The Pledge”, Benson creates great pop gems that will be cherished and treasured by those lucky enough to seek them out. Perhaps the best part of the album though is that it was done without any sort of grand scheme or plan.

“I had no vision, I really didn’t,” Benson says. “I have little visions for a couple of songs. Sometimes they take me by surprise or it turns into something different. For example, ‘The Pledge’: I had an entirely different idea and then it became really obvious early on it was turning into a Ronnettes style of song, so I just said fine, I’ll go with that. It’ll happen like that sometimes which is what I like — just the element of surprise is still there.”

Benson says there were about 20 songs or ideas for songs he had going into The Alternative to Love and from there 16 or 17 were developed. He says that this album was also more rewarding or satisfying to make than Lapalco.

Lapalca was a collection of songs that I was writing over a few years sort of leisurely and half-hearted,” he says. “In the end there wasn’t a whole lot of money to work with and there was no money to mix or master it properly. This one was written and recorded in about five months, which is really quick for me. It was really cool and it just poured out. And I could mix it properly with Tchad Blake and that was super. That was really the icing on the cake to have Tchad Blake do it.”

Blake, who has been known for his tight production controls with some artists in the studio, was somebody Benson had no problems working with.

“Oh god no,” Benson exclaims. “I just said, ‘Do that Tchad Blake thing you do.’ That’s what I like so much — he has a sound, but his sound really doesn’t ever interfere or eclipse the music or the songs. It was cool and pleasant sounding and showcases the songs really well, I think. So I just gave him free rein. In fact I told him if he wanted to take things away then go ahead. I wasn’t even there, we talked on the phone a lot.”

Benson says that he has a few personal favorites on the album, including “Feel Like Myself” which was written around the time of Lapalco. He also enjoys “Biggest Fan”, inspired by meeting eager and avid fans on the road. But listening to him, there is one song that seems to be in a less than personally desirable state — “Between Us”.

“I’ve always liked that,” he says. “It’s too bad because I put that on the record unfinished. There’s no verse, no ‘B’ section, there’s a whole section of music without words and I always meant to write words for it. I suppose because I really liked the one section so well and the other part a lot. Everything else I tried just wasn’t good enough or was taking away from another section. I just didn’t want to fuck it up.”

Of all the things that Benson has done, perhaps the biggest is his working relationship with a certain Jack White. The White Stripes front man and Benson seem to be on different ends of the rock spectrum, but the chemistry between them was quite obvious.

“It’s a difficult thing generally,” Benson says of trying to find that synergy between musicians. “We’re pretty different not just in the styles but the way we make records. He does it really quickly. I work pretty quick, too, but he does it super fast. I thought we would be on different pages all the time but it worked perfectly.”

Benson and White, who has praised Benson’s new album, have recorded an album of material together that will probably be released in 2006 with touring to follow. Benson also said the duo might be named the Raconteurs but nothing is confirmed. He’s heard the new White Stripes album and says it is “going to blow people’s minds”.

Benson will be on the road in Britain for most of April before returning to North America, landing a prime supporting slot with Brit popsters Keane in May. There are no plans on producing anybody, unlike last year which saw Benson co-produce If We Can’t Trust the Doctors, the critically acclaimed album from Blanche. And he finally is beginning to think that, yes, Brendan Benson has made a very good album.

“I just starting to really think that I might have made a decent record,” he says with a laugh. “I’m super proud of the record and I love it but it’s always kind of scary when you put it out there just to watch it go to either sink or swim. And this one seems to be treading water pretty well.

“After putting out two or three records now I feel a lot more confident, I find it a lot easier to write. I don’t have that anxiety anymore about ‘What if I can’t write? What if I can’t do it? What if I’m a fraud?'” Maybe now he’s provided himself an alternative to those worries.