Brendan Benson is best known as a member of the Raconteurs, along with the White Stripes/Dead Weather’s Jack White and Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler of Greenhornes.
But he’s also released four stellar solo albums, most recently “My Old, Familiar Friend,” this past August. The collection is irrepressible melodic pop rock redolent of Benson’s musical influences, including the Cars, Todd Rungren, Cheap Trick and the Kinks.
Hitfix caught up with the lowkey, genial Benson prior to his second performance at ASCAP’s Music Café at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah (Yep, we're still cleaning out our interviews from the festival). He filled us in on what’s next for the Raconteurs, his thoughts about becoming a first-time dad in April, and why he just doesn’t understand Bruce Springsteen.
Following his Sundance appearance, Benson and his band embarked on a month-long tour. He is also collaborating with singer/songwriter Ashley Monroe, who joined the Raconteurs and fellow guest Ricky Skaggs on the Raconteurs’ “Old Enough.”
Q: Since we’re at Sundance, it seems appropriate to ask what’s the last movie you saw?
A: “The Invention of Lying.” It wasn’t great. I love [Ricky Gervais]. I’m inclined to think that the powers that be changed that movie. It was his idea. It could have gotten… it could have been way better.
Q: Congratulations on your first child coming in April. Are you going to be able to resist the urge to write songs only about your kid?
A: I think I’m too self absorbed still. Maybe the kid will change that about me, but there’s no one more interested than myself to write about. (laughs)
Q: You’re here playing at ASCAP’s Music Café. Part of the idea is to use this opportunity to meet directors and music supervisors who may license your music. What’s your experience been with that and what’s your expectation?
A: Not a whole lot, but I’ve had songs in some movies. My first license was in “Zero Effect,” on my first record, which was really exciting. [2002’s] “Tiny Spark” was used in “Along Came Polly” and I think it was used in another movie sooner than that and I’m best known for that song and it’s not hugely popular, but that’s the most popular song that I have and I know it’s because of the movies. People are like, ‘Oh yeah, I know that song!” And then TV shows and stuff, commercials, like an iPod commercial, that was a big deal.
Q: You’re on tour in February. What’s the key to survival on the road and not killing your band mates on the road?
A: I think there’s a combination of things. Humor would be key. If everyone has relatively the same sense of humor, then that helps. And things in common, like food, eating. If there’s one person who’s vegan, say, then that person might be alienated in my band (laughs)… Last night we went to this vegan restaurant because someone said it was great. It was okay, I think some of us would have preferred a steak.
Q: There are bands who will take a slightly less talented musician for someone they can live with the other 22 hours of the day off stage.
A: That’s for sure. In fact, to my detriment, I’ve done that. I just like somebody so much or [they’re] a great companion and maybe not the best musician or the best person for the [job]... but I don’t care.
Q: Bruce Springsteen talks about how “Born to Run” started his lifelong conversation with his audience. “My Old, Familiar Friend” is your fourth solo album. Where is that in your conversation with your audience and where is that conversation headed?
A: That’s a really far out concept to consider, and a little lofty. It sounds cool and just like Bruce Springsteen is famous for… he’s got great one liners, but what is he talking about? You know what I mean. So I’m not sure I agree or maybe I haven’t hit that point yet or maybe I haven’t started this so-called conversation with my audience. I have a hard enough time writing a little something on an email blast. My manager is like ‘write a little something’ for my fans. And I’d rather not. That’s not my life. My life is me and music, it’s not me and my fans. ..It’s a cool concept, I like that. It sounds nice, it sounds neat, but I’m not a huge Springsteen fan for that very reason, I think, because I never knew what he was talking about.
Q: You live in Nashville where there are songwriters everywhere. Do you find it inspirational?
A: Yeah. I don’t know if it’s inspiring so much as it’s great practice. It’s great to keep in practice. You want to surround yourself… with any kind of art, you need to stay in practice. You can’t always be inspired. Or you can’t wait for it.
Q: It’s a craft there. There are times it becomes an art.
A: They write crap songs though (laughs). I’m not a fan of the new country stuff. Not always. At best, it’s clever, though. It never just hits you. I don’t know it very well. Still, I think it’s admirable to and it’s a good idea to stay in practice for when maybe something does happen. Something does really come to you and you’re ready for it.
I started out painting… well, I kind of did them at the same time, music and painting. And then music became easier for me and I pursued that. But while I was painting, I studied with this guy and who sort of taught me you can’t afford to sit around and wait.
Q: It’s a muscle.
A: Right… [he’d say] “so go out and fucking draw that flower over there.” And I’d be like, “I’m not inspired, I’m not into flowers…” and he’d be like, ‘I don’t give a shit, go draw those fucking flowers.” You know what I mean, like ‘Shut up, punk.’ He said it should be like breathing, it should be like second nature. I like that, so at the very least, I write a lot of dumb songs and sometimes they even make it on my record.
Q: What do you get out of being in the Raconteurs that you don’t get out of being a solo artist and vice versa?
A: So much. I haven’t decided which… I think I definitely prefer being in a group, writing in a group too. I have a group of guys with me, but they didn’t write the songs. They don’t have a whole lot of emotional stake in it. But bless their hearts, they’re fucking good. They’re great. But it’s a different thing.
Of course, the biggest thing is playing in the Raconteurs or in a group, you’re sharing everything. You share the glory and whatever when it’s not glorious. When it sucks, I don’t have the bear the load myself. And you can take turns doing things like if I’m tired… some nights I’m not in the mood or I’m tired or something like that and so I can fall back on these other guys, like Jack, maybe he’ll take over. We’ll do more of his [stuff]… With me, it’s like man, I gotta carry it the whole time. And that’s kind of a negative way of looking at my solo stuff, but at this point, I’m in that phase coming off the Raconteurs. But there’s things that the Raconteurs can’t give me that my solo stuff gives me and I’m not sure what that is at the moment. Nothing’s coming to mind.
Q: We’re not catching you on a good day, are we?
A: I know, I know. Oh my God, this should be an interesting set today.
Q: Is there a new Raconteurs record in the works?
A: Not as of yet. I mean, I think we’re all just really focused on other things. I barely talk to those guys. We’re all busy, but it will, like it always does, it will come around and we’ll get together again and hang out and maybe make a record or maybe not. Terrible answer, sorry.
Q: It’s the truth.
A: It’s a real spontaneous thing, really. The Raconteurs was, is and always will be, hopefully, should be spontaneous. If we feel like doing it. We’re not contractually obligated, we don’t need it. We don’t have to do it, which is cool.
Watch "A Whole Lot Better" from "My Old, Familiar Friend" below: