Benmont Tench talks about his first ever solo album

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“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 decades.

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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 like this.

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, serious gift.

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 them.

I felt like just playing the melody was good there. I initially thought we were going to put strings on it, or someone mightinterlace 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 life.

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 wooden one.

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 music since.

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.”