“One thing I hope the new record conveys is that people should listen
to each other when they play,” legendary keyboardist Benmont Tench
tells me, seated behind a seven-foot Steinway grand piano in midtown
Manhattan. “You can have amazing technique, but listening means knowing
when not to use it.”
From his signature piano and organ work with Tom Petty and
the Heartbreakers to his accompanying artists like Bob Dylan, Johnny
Cash, and the Rolling Stones, Tench’s near-psychic sideman abilities
have kept him on tour and in the studio for the better part of four
After years of elevating other musicians’ projects, Tench steps into the limelight with his debut solo album You Should Be So Lucky.
Produced by Glyn Johns and featuring the contributions of such heavy
hitters as Don Was, Gillian Welch, Tom Petty, Ryan Adams, and Ringo
Starr, the album brims with an alluring blend of instrumental elegance
and songwriting eloquence. We all knew Benmont could play the daylights
out of anything with keys on it, but who knew he could write songs like this?
Days before the album’s release, Tench sat down at New York’s Steinway Hall to talk to Keyboard about his transition from keyboard journeyman to solo artist.
You’ve been playing with Tom Petty and the
Heartbreakers since the 1970s, and with just about everyone else since
then. What was it about now that felt right to make your first solo album?
Years ago, Glyn Johns said to me, “Why don’t we do
something together?” I was kind of intimidated—I thought he was just
being nice. But about a year and half ago, I thought to myself, “Time’s
a-wasting, and I’ve got a lot of songs that I don’t want to be lost on a
cassette tape somewhere.” I thought they were good songs, and some
friends of mine—like [guitarists] Matt Sweeney and Blake Mills, and Sean
and Sara Watkins—were all really encouraging. So I got the courage up
to call Glyn and said, “Do you have time?” He made time and he made it
happen. And he found the right recording studio in Sunset Sound. So I
would have to say it was all Glyn.
Another place that this record comes from is the club
Largo in Los Angeles. I sit in with [producer and multi-instrumentalist]
Jon Brion a fair amount there, along with other friends of mine. I also
play with Sean and Sara Watkins. We do a monthly show called the
Watkins Family Hour there, with Sebastian Steinberg, Don Heffington, and
Greg Leisz. Every now and then they’ll say, “Ben, do a song.” So
playing at Largo also helped give me the confidence to dare do something
Have you been writing songs on your own for a long time?
I just write when I feel like it. Years ago, I had a deal
and I tried writing songs in Nashville for a while. It was instructive
and I made a lot of good friends there. But in the end I realized that I
just wasn’t the guy with the skill, talent, or love to say, “Hey, let’s
come up with a song” every day. People who can do that have a real,
So when something comes to you, you write it down?
Yeah. Usually the best ones are like that.
What is it about the way Glyn produces that drew you to him for the project?
I like the sound that he gets and the directness of his approach, musically. He doesn’t get overly clever, but there is imagination.
I really like the fact that he still records on tape and uses “tried
and true” methods, many of which he developed himself. He’s got a really
musical ear and he has a great way of guiding a recording session
without being overbearing or bossy. But he definitely guides it!
Can you give an example of how his direction changed a song in a way you weren’t expecting?
There’s a song on the album called “Like the Sun” that I
wrote more on guitar than on piano. We were trying it with me playing
rhythm guitar, but I couldn’t quite communicate what was in my head.
Glyn suddenly said, “I’ve got it!” He took the guitar away from me and
had his son Ethan play an arpeggiated pattern on 12-string guitar. Then
we discussed some records we both liked, and he had me sing the song.
Later I put keyboards on it. So I had absolutely nothing to do with the
way that song was arranged.
The new album shows serious attention to space. It’s not over-dense with tracks. . . .
The records that I like the most sound like that. So while
I admire approaches like Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” and I love a
lot of those old records, that school of production is not the one to
which I would lean. The Beatles’ records, by and large, were very
sparse, although there are some that are deliberately over-the-top. There’s a lot of room for the voicings in
those records. The same goes for the Rolling Stones’ records, and
clearly the Howlin’ Wolf and Slim Harpo records—all the things that I
really love. Some of my favorite musical experiences are when I hear an
artist just play the song to me on one instrument. It’s almost always
more enjoyable to me than the final product.
The album liner notes say that You Should Be So Lucky was recorded entirely to tape. Why was that important to you?
I have a visceral reaction to digital recording. If you
gave me a blindfold test, on first listen I probably couldn’t tell you
“This one is tape, that one is Pro Tools” if they’re both equally well
recorded. However, if I’m listening to music over a period of time, I
enjoy it noticeably less if it’s a digital medium. I played a CD at home
the other night for the first time in two or three months. At home, all
I listen to is vinyl. I listen to CDs in the car because they’re
convenient, and I listen to MP3s if I’m traveling. I’m not a snob about
it. But it was my record, Glyn is a master of tape, and he far and away
prefers recording to tape. To me, tape has a sonic kindness to it. I
also really dig its limitations, the fact that you can’t tune or
beat-correct something. You can punch something in, but it’s still going
to be your best effort, not one that’s tweaked by a machine.
Everything you do on tape is human. Even your “workarounds” are going to
be monkeyed with by hand.
How much did you rehearse the songs before recording them?
I hate rehearsing and I hate getting arrangements
together. To make this record, I simply gathered a bunch of my friends,
some of whom were also friends of Glyn’s, as well as his son Ethan. We
listened a lot to each other and we all spoke a common musical language.
So when I played the songs for them, they knew what to do. We didn’t
have time to rehearse, because we made the entire album, start to
finish, in 11 days. That’s all we had time for. I prefer to have people
“learn” a song rather than rehearse it. That’s the way we do it in the
Heartbreakers, and why it’s usually the first or second takes that have
the magic in them. So you need to make sure the tape is rolling right
from the start.
The opening track “Today I Took Your Picture Down”
begins with eight bars of Zen-like piano chords that ring out like
chimes. It’s a sneaky way to start an album.
Well, Glyn thought it was a strong song and that it was a
good way to introduce people to my voice, because we aren’t talking
about Luciano Pavarotti here. [Laughs.] Glyn also got this crazy,
gorgeous kick drum sound that [drummer] Jeremy Stacey hits. I hope it
comes across on the final record. It’s just all air.
Your piano solo on that track sounds like a page out of
your own sideman playbook. After years of soloing behind other singers,
is it surreal to be taking a solo on your own song?
I don’t think of it in terms of the solo. I think of it in
terms of being the guy who’s the center of attention on the record. I
already had a tremendous amount of respect for anybody who was the focal
point of a band or record. But once you put yourself in the position of
having to be that, it only increases your respect.
The song “Veronica Said” has a kind of “Bruce Springsteen meets the Velvet Underground” vibe. Tell us about that one.
Yeah, I never noticed that originally because I wrote the
first verse and chorus a long time ago, and since I couldn’t remember
how the rest of the song originally went, a month before we made the
record I wrote the last two thirds of the song. It wasn’t until I tried
it on piano that I realized it had a little bit of Bruce in it, like
“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” And that’s a compliment, because he’s a
terrific songwriter. But to be honest, the biggest influence behind that
song is just straight-out Lou Reed, as far as the lyric goes. I’ve
always listened to a lot of Lou and Velvet Underground.
There’s a great organ part on that track as well. Is that a Hammond B-3 or a Farfisa?
It’s a Farfisa. I loved using that, especially through a Leslie speaker. That makes “the drunken sailor” sound.
Do you still use effects pedals with your Hammond organ?
Yeah, although for this record I used them mainly with the
Farfisa. I think the pedal thing comes from my love of [the Band
keyboardist] Garth Hudson. I like the drawbars, so the Lowrey organ that
he played wouldn’t be the right organ for me. But there’s something
that it does that works, so I can throw my organ more in that
direction by using pedals. The trick is not to make it sound like a
synthesizer. You still want it to sound like a Hammond. You just want to
mix the paint a little bit.
You also surprise with a number of instrumentals. “Ecor Rouge” is almost Charles Mingus-like. How did that song come about?
Glyn said, “Come up with a couple of covers,” which I
thought was a great idea. At the time, I thought it was because he
didn’t like my songs! [Laughs.] He also said to come up with a
couple of instrumentals. So for the covers, we have “Corrina, Corrina”
and “Duquesne Whistle,” and I wrote three instrumentals—two of them are
on the CD and the third is on the vinyl version of the album. “Ecor
Rouge” came about when I was at Jonathan Wilson’s house in Los Angeles.
He’s a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and producer, and we were going to
do some rough demos of songs to send to Glyn. While he took a phone
call, I sat at his piano and that song showed up in a very basic form. I
went “A-ha!” and I chased it down once I got home. “Ecor Rouge” is the
name of the street in Alabama that my aunt and uncle’s house is on. I
spent every summer there when I was a kid. That song just sounded like
Alabama to me when I finished it.
You captured that idea on your iPhone voice memo recorder. Is that becoming a new favorite sketchpad?
When I was at Jonathan’s and that song came to me, I just
popped my phone on. It’s terrific because you don’t have to carry some
other recording device. These days, whoever makes your phone, there’s
bound to be some kind of recorder in there.
The strings behind your solo on “Ecor Rouge” are so organic and moody, they almost sound like a Mellotron.
Oh, it’s not! That’s a string quartet called the Section
Quartet. They’re really good—they’re like a rock ’n’ roll band in the
sense that they play “head arrangements.” Sure, they write things out,
but on this record they came in, we played them the songs, and they
figured out what to play. They’re incredibly intuitive and they play
beautifully together. We actually brought the new digital Mellotron down
to the studio, but we didn’t end up using it because we had such a
great string quartet.
That song’s harmonic structure and the solo itself have an almost jazz sensibility about them. Do you listen to a lot of jazz?
I listen to a lot of Louis Armstrong, but I have over the
course of my life listened to the obvious jazz giants, like Lester
Young, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis.
The organ solo on “Hannah” envelops and wraps itself
around the song, the groove and the piano riff, but it never overshadows
I felt like just playing the melody was good there. I initially thought we were going to put strings on it, or someone might interlace
around what I was playing in the second half of the solo. I had tried
playing some other kinds of solo things, but I thought, “No, that’s not
the mood. That’s not what I’m trying to say.” Originally, that song was
very much like “Not Fade Away” and “Mona,” like a tribute to Buddy Holly
and Bo Diddley. That was, until a few weeks before we recorded it, when
I woke up out of a sound sleep. Once again, I turned the phone recorder
on at the piano and changed the chords, the mood and the melody—and it
came out like we recorded it on the record, which is vastly better than
it was before. But I will confess that I definitely copped the organ
sound on that song. It’s a cross between Mitchell Froom and E Street
keyboardist Roy Bittan, who played some of the organ on Springsteen’s Born to Run.
“Hannah” also makes use of lots of space, whereas a lot of songwriters who accompany themselves on keyboard tend to overplay.
Well, I like space. I don’t like it when people fill it
up. There are a few exceptions: Billy Preston and Allen Toussaint fill
it up but somehow leave a lot of space in the groove at the same time.
Elton John fills up the space really forcefully, but he knows what to
play and how to voice things so the song is presented well. But I’m not
really interested in anything other than songs. Even the best
instrumental performances are about the melody and the song.
“Blonde Girl, Blue Dress” is another song with a simple
lyric and a groove that glues everything together. In the press
materials for the album, why did you liken this one to a Haiku?
Well, calling it a Haiku may sound a bit pretentious, but a
Haiku says things in a few words and leaves everything open. The first
time I sat in with Tom Petty I was 17 years old, and he was already
writing good songs. I’ve always loved how while he can write an
involved, complicated lyric, a lot of the time he’ll say, “The least
amount of words can create the most emotional impact.” So I think that
one came right out of listening to and loving Tom’s writing for my whole
How did you get Ringo Starr to play tambourine on that one?
Ringo was originally supposed to play drums, but we got
our dates mixed up. When he called and said, “Okay, I’m ready,” I told
him, “Oh dude, we cut it already, but it really needs a tambourine with your feel
on it.” He replied, “I’ll be right over!” And he was there in 20
minutes with a gym bag full of rattling stuff. After Glyn mixed that
one, the only comment I had was, “Turn up the tambourine!”
The title track “You Should Be So Lucky” has a great Wurly solo on it. What is it about the Wurly that still intrigues you?
It’s fun to play and the tone of it leaves a lot of room
for other instruments in the mix. It also speaks a lot and it doesn’t
take up as much room as the piano. There’s a lot of Wurlitzer on this
record, and that’s because Glyn really liked it. I have three different
styles of Wurlitzers. One is the traditional 200-series model like Ian
McLagan played. I’ve also got a beautiful tube 100-series, a wooden one
like Ray Charles used. And I have a Wurlitzer electric spinet that
sounds absolutely beautiful and chimey. Most of this record features the
The instrumental “Wobbles” accesses your inner Professor Longhair. Can you talk about your affinity for New Orleans music?
I went to college there for two years. New Orleans is a
city that if you spend any time there at all, it lays claim to you. It
becomes something that you deeply love. I knew nothing about New Orleans
musical culture besides some songs that were already old when I got
there—things like “Mother in Law” and “Rockin’ Pneumonia.” But when I
got to New Orleans, I was immediately hit with the music of Professor
Longhair and the Meters. I haven’t stopped listening to New Orleans
Who are some other New Orleans piano players that inspire you?
Everybody! Henry Butler, Toots Washington, and Allen
Toussaint. Good Lord, Toussaint is just astounding. His playing is
flowing, lovely, and gentle. He’s never overselling it, but it’s always present. He’s remarkable.
You used your own upright piano on the track “Why Don’t You Quit Leaving Me Alone.” What kind of piano is it?
We knew we wanted a couple of different piano sounds on
the record. Guitar players come into the studio and say, “I’ll use the
1957 Les Paul on this track, and then I’ll use the 2000 Stratocaster on
the next one.” Piano players wind up with the piano that’s in the
studio, for better or for worse. That leaves just one sound for piano
for an entire record. The Beatles knew better. So Glyn and I thought,
“Let’s bring the upright in from the house. It’ll come in handy.” It’s a
teak-colored Yamaha U7. It was actually in pretty bad shape, so after
the session I had it restored. It’s terrific.
How about the grand piano you used on the rest of the album?
That was the Steinway B from Studio 3 at Sunset Sound.
Do you play and write differently on an upright piano as compared to a grand?
Probably. The touch is different, and the sound and
tonality are different as well. What I really love about the Yamaha U7
is that it has a mute strip—a felt strip that can be lowered between the
hammers and the strings to dampen the sound. I like that because it
gets the piano really quiet. I use the soft pedal on grand pianos almost
all the time as well.
Have you added any new keyboards or effects to your rig of late?
Ryan Adams gave me the Electric Mistress by
Electro-Harmonix. It’s an analog stereo chorus/flanger pedal. He also
lent me their Memory Man analog delay pedal, and I went straight-out and
bought one for myself. When I play with Ryan I put a Vox Continental
and a Casio through those pedals. They sound gorgeous. I don’t know a
lot about gear, except that generally, the more recent something is, the
less I like it. [Laughs.]
After four decades plus of gigging, what still inspires you about playing live?
Well, I’m in my favorite band. You can’t be in the Beatles
or the Rolling Stones, but to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t want to
be. I’m in the right band for me. That’s what inspires me about gigging:
I’m in the damned Heartbreakers! The other thing that inspires me is
the gang at Largo - the musicians like the Watkins, Gillian Welch, Fiona
Apple, and Jon Brion, and the audience there who wants you out
of your comfort zone. That’s always exciting for me. I’d rather go
onstage never having heard the songs before, because that’s how you get
the real connection to the song.
Do you have any parting musical advice for aspiring rock keyboardists?
If I’m good at anything, it’s at listening. So if
you want to play with something like the sensibility that I have and you
want to know where I’m coming from, go listen to keyboard players like
Booker T. Jones, Nicky Hopkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Professor Longhair, and
Allen Toussaint. Then, listen to drummers like Ringo Starr and Charlie
Watts, because they don’t play “drum parts.” They listen to the singer sing and they play songs. That’s the lesson.
The Producer Speaks
“Benmont and I have been friends for a long time,” says famed producer Glyn Johns, who produced Benmont Tench’s You Should Be So Lucky,
as well as acclaimed albums by artists like the Who, Led Zeppelin, and
the Eagles. “He’s played on some of the records that I’ve made over the
years and I’m a huge admirer of his talent. A few years ago while we
were both making an album with Ryan Adams, I suggested to Benmont that
we make an album together. Somebody of his talent should have his
own album. We found a way to make the album very quickly at a
reasonable cost. One of the people who played bass on the album and who
uses Benmont frequently in his productions was [producer and Blue Note
Records president] Don Was. Don ended up picking the record up for Blue
Note at the playback party. That was absolutely brilliant. It couldn’t
be on a better label.
“Benmont comes up with the sounds he plays, 99.9 percent
of the time,” Johns continues. “That’s one of the wonders of the man—he
comes up with the most extraordinary sounds, apart from his amazing
ability to play or not. It’s about what he leaves out as much as what he puts in.
“I always record analog and I avoid anything to do with
digital until I have to let go of an album and it ends up on CD,” Johns
says. “There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that although an album
winds up in the digital format, it benefits hugely by going through the
analog process first. I have no idea why, but for me, there’s something
that tape does that gives a lot more honesty to the sound.
Digital is always too clinical for me. We recorded the album in Studio 3
at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, which is absolutely my favorite studio
in the world now, the major reason being their extraordinary console. [Sunset Sound’s website lists this as a 32-input API-DeMedio console. —Ed.]
It has the best set of mic preamps on any console I’ve ever worked on.
The monitoring there is incredibly accurate as well. There’s a very
honest sound in the room.
“Benmont is not only one of the finest keyboard players on
the planet. He’s now proven himself to be an extraordinary songwriter,
which nobody really knew about, myself included. I hope that this record
gets the airing it deserves, because I think there is a market for the quality it represents.”