Q: So you're in a long-term relationship. Why does your new album, "The Wave Organ Song," make it sound like you're the loneliest man on the planet?
A: It's funny, I think the sadness or melancholy is more about feeling a little out of place. It's not so much feeling unloved or lonely - more like a change had to happen. That's one of the undercurrents - just the decision to leave San Francisco - because I loved that place.
Q: You once said seeing the Grateful Dead with your father and older brother changed your life. Do you still feel that way?
A: For sure. There was so much to that band, in a way, that stayed with me. Now that I'm 38, it's been with me so long I feel it's going to be a through line. It's influenced how I approach my whole thing, concentrating on writing good songs and making them new every night.
Q: You're known for creating loops and doing guitar improvisation during your shows. Is it entirely live?
A: It's all created on the fly. Sometimes there's a misconception that it's prerecorded, but I set up the soundscapes live to improvise over. I sort of cater it depending on where I'm playing. I definitely feel for some of these singer-songwriter dudes who are playing in a loud bar because you're lost. I can crank it up.
Q: Do you feel things have changed since you recorded your tribute to Matthew Shepard, "What You're Hiding," more than a decade ago?
A: That's one of my oldest songs that I still play every night. I used to play it without any introduction or anything and I noticed in some places people would have these quizzical looks on their faces. I realized some people didn't know who he was. That tells me there's still a need to talk about that stuff and keep it on the forefront.
To hear Garrin Benfield's music, go to www.garrin.com.
Follow Aidin Vaziri at twitter.com/MusicSF. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just one voice and one guitar but The Wave Organ Song (released May 17) wants for nothing. The fifth full-length fromGarrin Benfield finds the SF/NYC singer-songwriter stripping back the layers to reveal a shining core composed of gorgeous, emotional guitar work and a voice comparable to 70s luminaries James Taylor and John Denver muddled with the open-wound ache of Elliott Smith. The tunes are similarly meshed, conjuring both Hunter/Garcia ballads and classic radio fare, approachable but exposed, intimate but universal in nature. It is in Benfield’s words a “musical journey best accompanied by candlelight and a bottle of Pinot Noir.”
But this is also music for the road, a lovely song cycle for finding one’s way in the world after they’ve gotten lost, a balm for sore hearts, and tentative encouragement to love again, knowing full well the dangers. It is a beautiful album full of the strongest original material yet penned by Benfield and capped off with a sparkling cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen,” an invitation to walk home from school together and perhaps be outlaws for love & life. The hurt and the hope of The Wave Organ Songare equally genuine and measured out with a careful hand, a bittersweet concoction that lingers long after one’s first taste. (Dennis Cook)
Garrin Benfield is currently on tour supporting his new album. He plays next on Thursday, May 26, in Portland, OR and full tour dates can be found here.
Here's what Garrin had to say to our inquiries.
Instrument(s) of choice: Martin HD28-V with Sunrise soundhole pickup, Martin D45 Special with Sunrise Soundhole Pickup, Alvarez Yairi WY-1, Baby Taylor with Martin acoustic pickup, Fender Stratocaster with noiseless pickups.
1. Great music rarely happens without…
An element of chance or risk-taking. Whether it's free jazz or chamber pop, my interest is piqued by feeling that the rules are being written as the performance progresses. I try to approach every song or show with only the expectation that it's going to take me somewhere.
2. The first album I bought was…
The Outfield’s Play Deep, I think. Also loved The Thompson Twins, Duran Duran, Men At Work, et al. I was discovering what music did to me in the early eighties. The first record ever given to me has a lot more cred to it, I guess - Meet The Beatles - which I played on my Fisher Price turntable!
3. The last song or album to really flip my wig was…
"Thirteen" by Big Star, from #1 Record Radio City. It just jumped out at me in a big way, maybe because of how distinct it seems from their other material. It's a perfect, succinct portrayal of that incredible time when you begin to innocently rebel against the powers of authority and assert some independence and live your own little life. I think it resonated so much, too, because I have really fond memories of that time. I know that's not the case for everyone! This version of the tune has really "woody" sounding doubled acoustics, gorgeous vocals, and that bridge! I ended up covering it on my new record.
4. When I was a kid I wanted to grow up to be…
A bus driver, a street hot dog vendor or a garbage man; I think the theme there was vehicular. I was fascinated by trucks and carts.
5. My favorite sort of gig is…
The ones that sneak up and grab you by surprise. You’re tired, bummed by the travel, there's hardly anyone there, and the sound guy's already being a dick. You struggle through the first three tunes, and then a wave of serenity comes over you, which transforms your abilities. You connect with the room, more people show up, and the collective energy of the place is elevated. Everyone walks out of there in a completely different space. You and the sound guy exchange appreciative glances. Folks you didn't know two hours ago talk to you as if you are the best of friends. In some small way you've restored their faith in significant chance encounters. You drive out of town so thankful that you get to do this!
6. One thing I wish people knew about me is…
How much I love playing a supportive role to another artist, as a sideman or harmony singer. Such a nice relief to not have to run the show!
7. I love the sound of…
That moment right before your favorite band is about to count off the first tune of the night. There's a little air pocket or vacuum before the excitement washes over the room.
8. One day I hope to make an album as fantastic as…
Either Joni Mitchell's Hijera or The Beatle's Revolver. Hijera for its restlesssness, its scope, its insight, and its production and sounds. Wait, that goes for both of those records.
9. The best meal I ever had on tour was at…
A sushi place in Denver, after playing Swallow Hill -- landlocked raw fish never tasted so good.
10. I always find the coolest audiences in…
Small towns - without a doubt, the most attentive and appreciative folks out there. I've been asked why I play places like a bakery in Richmond, Vermont, a winery in Sunol, California or a coffee shop in Conyers, Georgia. I love that concentrated energy of a small room filled with deeply listening people.
11. The worst habit I've picked up being on the road all the time is…
Accumulating lack of sleep over the course of a few weeks, counteracting that with caffeine, regulating that with beer.
12. Led Zeppelin or Radiohead, which flips your switch the most and why?
By the time I first encountered Zeppelin in any meaningful way, I was already one of Jerry's kids, so they came across to me as somewhat harmonically monochromatic compared to what the Dead were doing in their free jams. Zep tended to lean on blues modalities very heavily, obviously. The first Radiohead record I got and loved was The Bends. It had the creepy insularity of their later more high concept work, but was essentially a rock band playing really good songs with great production and guitar sounds that were already hinting at greatness. I cover "High and Dry" and "Black Star" from that record, as well as "Knives Out" from Amnesiac.
13. The craziest thing I ever saw was…
Way past midnight, a guy chasing me and my singer off his property with a shotgun in rural North Carolina while we were trying to find where we were staying that night.
An Interview with Garrin as it appeared in Bourgeois Magazine, 2002
What was the first affirming experience for you as a musician? The moment you knew you were going to do this forever?
I spent countless hours listening to my brothers and sisters jam around the kitchen counter. That was my formative musical experience. I wanted to be a part of it so badly, that the first chord I learned, a D major, was the doorway into the life I'm trying to live now: a musical one, guided by a spirit of fun, not necessarily perfection, but connection. I'm trying to get back to that memory of my brother bringing me and my Dad to see the Grateful Dead in 1987, where my Dad brought earplugs but never used them, because he recognized the vibe as being one that he had witnessed in his own kitchen.
Who was the first person to hear one of your songs, and what was their reaction?
The piano player in the college band I was in heard a song of mine I've still yet to record: "Bay Rag". We were a psychedelic funk band and I introduced an acoustic old-timey kind of tune to him, and he instantly recognized the beauty of it, which really encouraged me. I wrote it in a really paranoid state while visiting my family for Christmas. Before that, I sang the Beatles for talent shows at summer camp.
What was your first gig like?
It's hard to trace when the very first one was, but I remember playing outdoors at the junior high school in my town for a spring concert they promoted, and because we could sort of jam, or improvise, we were pegged as the headliner. My first girlfriend was there. I remember I sang the Whitest version ever of Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster". The 15 or so folks who were around by the time we played really liked it.
What are the reactions of your family, friends, and loved ones when finding themselves in your songs?
Lately the reaction I've gotten from people who know me has been that perhaps I'm a guy with alot on his mind. Aside from the lyrics, they seem to be impressed by the effort we put into the production.
Have those reactions made you refrain from speaking so candidly through your art? Or has it propelled you to express yourself even more?
I really don't feel like I have a say in the matter. I'm drawn to create by extreme emotional states, whether it be depression or elation, both are catalysts for expression. What else can you do with that stuff? You don't want to be around me when I'm styfling my outlet, which is playing guitar and waiting for the words to come. I'm not a nice guy to be around when I'm not able to let that stuff out.
Has there ever been a time in your life or an experience in your career that has made you want to throw in the towel?
Just having towels on stage in the last couple years has made me feel like a real pro. Driving all day to play to no one has it's drawbacks, yeah. It can be demoralizing. But then you've got the sold out gig, or at least the one where one hippie nods his head rythmically throughout the whole show that make you want to do it again.
Why do you think people like your songs so much?
Folks are bored and sickened by what they see on TV and read in mainstream publications. But if any of those producers are reading, I'm willing to talk. Seriously, I want to communicate with people. Songs that have no emotional reaching-out do not interest me.
Is there a song written by another artist that you wished you had written? If so, why?
I'm so caught up in the songs of my own that I haven't written but which are constantly keeping me awake at night that I can't really get into what I wish I'd written. I have a closet filled with the unfinished and unrealized. I'm starting to clean that out.
What song of yours do you think should be played on the radio, and why do you think they are not playing it?
Well, from my new record, "Hungry Ghost" and "Lonely Journey" are great candidates, I think, for the mainstream. The problem, perhaps, is that they don't deliver the climax within 30 seconds. And if you watch CNN, that's about how much time I can devote to the main story before I start reading the ticker tape at the bottom of the screen.
Do you feel that due to the lack of "out" musicians, that a lot of the focus is on your (irrelevant) sexuality rather than your (relevant) art? And do you see the focus being increased or decreased as time passes?
My sexuality is not "irrelvant". I feel blessed to have been born with a unique sensitivity and perspective on the world. Having said that, there are alot of writers and artists who are satisfied with attempting to express and entertain that particular community. I come from that ghettoized world but am very interested in seeing where else I can go. After hearing my records or seeing me live, no one has ever said to me that I play "gay" music. Certainly, someone's sexuality has no influence on whether I will communicate with them verbally, say at a party or something. I'm into an exchange with everyone, regardless of who they sleep with, and I hope they extend the same openness to me. I haven't noticed attention on my sexuality getting more intense.
What or Who is the main driving force for you when concerning your music? Connection. I see no point in composing a piece, no matter how esoteric or complex, if no one gets it or is moved. I guess in terms of music, no art for art's sake.
Do you ever get sick of playing, talking about your music, and promoting yourself?
At less than stellar live gigs, I have to find the one or two people who are really digging it and play for them. And if they're not around, I play for myself and my own expectations of myself. The talking about music happens less than you might expect for me. I don't surround myself with musicians, but when I do it's really fun to talk shop.
And if so, what do you do to remedy the situation?
In terms of actually playing, there's only your own self-imposed limitations to stop you from going somewhere completely new with a tired, old song. So I try to get past that and remember how important it is that I do the best that I can at every gig.
What is the hardest thing about being a musician in San Francisco?
The thing I envy most about the San Francisco bands that had a huge part in me coming here was their sense of community. In the mid to late sixties, it wasn't so much the band as the community that surrounded them that had this incredible vitality and eccentricity. I'm very attracted to that, and it seems to have somewhat dissapeared from San Fran. I still love it here though. Every musician you talk to will mention the rent, and yeah, that sucks. But there's some history and energy that keeps me here.
What advice do you offer to others?
Don't undervalue the first experiences you have with music. You may look back on them as your happiest times.
When you have released an album, what are your thoughts and wishes for it?
Having released two records, I can now say that at the time of their completion I felt that it was the best work I had ever done. And I hope that is always the case. Keep moving forward. You want it to sell. You want letters of personal and critical praise. You want to hear it played out of passing car windows.
What is your ideal situation as an artist? (What do you dream of for your future?)
I've always said that if I could travel and play, whether solo or with a band, to other towns and countries, and have an audience, that I'd be happy. To have enough money to keep the whole thing going, to compensate the people involved who are supporting you.
What do you see happening in San Francisco today that gets you excited?
I like talking to people at the Gold Cane on Haight Street about what they're gonna pick on the jukebox, and I usually try to play this holier-than-thou San Francisco thing of playing weird tracks off of "Surrealistic Pillow". But we usually get there so late that I never get to hear my selections anyway.
Who are some of your favorite local artists?
The "Mother Hips" are a great band. And have you ever heard Holcombe Waller's falsetto? Vanessa Morrison is on her way up. Sean Hayes is a great, quirky writer.
What are you reading right now?
Trash. But I've taken on my father's habit of ripping, very cleanly, good articles out of magazines and collecting them, sort of like, the "best of" the trash.
What's in your cd player right now?
Let me get up and look. Hold on one sec....Nina Simone.
What is the next step for you and your career?
I need to grasp more firmly what it was that brought me to music in the first place, and why I always look back on that as the most fun I ever had. Once I've regressed to that blissful place, maybe I'll take some back with me to SF and try to explain it to the folks I'm playing with. One of those people, by the way, is bassist Joshua Zucker. We do a duo thing. We came together about six months ago and I feel like I've met someone who there's not much explaining to do with. He always says, at the end of every gig we've done together, "there's more to come" or "it's just the tip of the iceberg" or something like that, whch makes me feel like I've still got so much more to do.