Of mulch and pop hooks: Brendan Benson on the state of his career and garden
The Raconteurs co-frontman chats about his new solo record, Motown, and digging up weeds
Brendan Benson is in an odd spot. The 38-year-old Detroit-raised, Nashville-based songwriter caught a taste of mainstream stardom in supergroup The Raconteurs, but generally remained in bandmate Jack White's considerable shadow, even though Benson co-wrote most of the songs. His own solo catalog is similarly underrated, an impressive collection crammed with countless pop hooks. With a newly released solo record, My Old, Familiar Friend, and two sold-out shows at Schubas on Aug. 20, Benson spoke to The A.V. Club about his seemingly frustrating status and his garden.
The A.V. Club: You brought in a band for the newest record, The Features. Were you worn out from doing albums by yourself?
Brendan Benson: That’s exactly right. I couldn’t bear the thought of making another fucking record like that. Writing it, engineering it, producing it, performing it—and after having made two records with The Raconteurs, which was such a pleasure because there were four of us. It didn’t all come down to me or any one of us. You share the burden and the glory—that’s the way it was meant to be. I never wanted to be a solo artist; I just kinda turned out that way.
AVC: Some of your songs have this Phil Spector, Motown vibe, especially “Garbage Day” from the new album and one of your older tunes, “The Pledge.” What about that era appeals to you?
BB: It’s funny 'cause I wouldn’t think of myself a huge fan of Phil Spector or Motown. At some point, it must have gotten into my psyche. It’s really hard to explain. During “The Pledge,” I never thought Motown or Phil Spector when I wrote the song. It’s just the drum pattern, mostly. When I played the drums on it, that just came out of me. I thought, "Well, this is total, fucking ‘Be My Little Baby’ or whatever." But then I thought, "Well, fuck it, I’ll go for it. We’ll put a bunch of reverb on it. We’ll get a tambourine and drench it with reverb."
AVC: Could it have been a Detroit thing, seeping into your unconsciousness?
BB: Maybe. With Motown in Detroit, that shit’s all around you. You might not even notice it. I certainly didn’t. It’s just a matter of course there. You hear it on the radio; you hear it in shops. I wasn’t particularly a fan, although there are some songs I definitely like. But generally, it’s not something I’d tune in or crank on the radio.
AVC: Would you rather be known for your solo stuff or as The Raconteurs' guitarist?
BB: It doesn’t matter. I would just like to be a little bit better known. [Laughs.] I don’t care about fame. I don’t care about the attention. I just care about being able to make music, or being able to put out records and have other opportunities come along, like producing stuff, or scoring a movie or being a part of music in any way. It’s necessary to make a name for yourself in order to do that, so that’s what I hope for. I don’t care if it’s because of The Raconteurs or my solo stuff. Of course, deep down, I do love it when people prefer my solo stuff. It’s more of me. But it’s not a big deal. I’m proud of everything I do.
AVC: What more do you want to do?
BB: I’ve made a record with this woman here in Nashville, Ashley Monroe. I’m psyched about that one. I’ve also produced some songs on this new record by Cory Chisel, and I’m excited about that and producing more. That was really enjoyable for me, and something I’ve always wanted to do. I do it a lot at home, just with friends and stuff, but he’s on a major label. So we’re able to go into a cool studio and have our pick of people to play. It was perfect. And I don’t mean an expensive studio with expensive session players; it was just nice to have options.
AVC: You confessed to being a gardening enthusiast in a recent interview, which is about the most un-rockstar hobby around. Are you a horticulturist stuck in the body of a rock star?
BB: [Laughs.] Possibly. You’d be amazed at all the un-rockstar things I do. But yeah, I’m interested in it, just as far as hooking up my own yard. Mostly, I like to dig and pull weeds and shit, get dirty and sweaty. That’s the extent of it. I can’t identify plants. I made a mistake. I think I mentioned that, and now everybody’s like—
AVC: Have a lot of people been asking about it in interviews?
BB: No, you’re the first today. But people are asking about that. It’s no problem. I love working in my garden. It’s really just me sitting in my garden, drinking a glass of wine. That’s mostly my gardening skills.