From Side Player to Frontman: Benmont Tench on Solo Debut, Playing With Tom Petty and Bob Dylan (Q&A)

 Sam Jones

Benmont Tench insists he isn’t the hardest-working man in show business, though he understands why you might think so. He’s a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as the keyboard player for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but Tench would also be a candidate for induction someday in the sideman category if we only considered his studio session work and live gigs with the likes of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Stevie Nicks, U2, the Rolling Stones, and a veritable who’s-who list of rock greats. No other player in one of the classic rock bands has also had such a rich, dual career as an accompanist to the stars.

Now he’s taking on a third career… as a singer-songwriter. His first solo album, You Should Be So Lucky, is hardly the keyboard showcase some might expect him to have been holding in all these years (although it does include a couple of instrumentals, recorded at producer Glyn Johns’ behest). Instead, it’s full of simple, melodically rich songs that betray the influence of some of the guys Tench has backed over the decades, like Dylan, John Prine, and maybe even a blond fellow Floridian. On the eve of the album’s release, he talked with The Hollywood Reporter about why it took him until age 60 to emerge as a frontman.

You’ve been writing songs since at least the late ’70s and presumably stockpiling them. So it seems odd to hear you say you never really had any grand designs on releasing your own album before you got talked into this one...

I don’t think I ever really did, because I didn’t have the confidence. I was just writing songs because, if a song shows up, you’ve gotta write it. I didn’t know what to do with them. I didn’t have any faith in my voice. There wasn’t an outlet for them in the Heartbreakers, because Tom’s not going to want to sing stuff that isn’t on his mind. He doesn’t have a problem with words, so he’d want to sing his. And I like to write complete songs, not just write music. So it didn’t feel like there was any call for it. It wouldn’t have mattered if I was 30 or 60. It’s like, “Solo record from keyboard player in band”… [He grimaces.] There’s a reason why people are in a band, in the role they’re in. Solo records traditionally don’t always turn out well. But sometimes they do, and I hope this one did.

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Not very many people are clamoring for the next Joe Perry Project album, it’s true.

You know, Ronnie Wood made some wonderful, wonderful records. But he’s an artist in his own right, as far as I’m concerned. But I’m not ego-driven in that way, that there’s any reason for that. I guess any record that anybody makes is a vanity project, though.

What drives the session work for you? There are long lag times between Heartbreakers recordings and tours, but it’s not like other guys who’ve been in your position haven’t been okay with spending that time by the pool.

It’s probably that I get antsy. It’s also the Calvinist ethic, growing up Presbyterian in the South. If you’re idle and somebody calls you up and says there’s work, so you work. You make a living for yourself. And I certainly work plenty hard in the Heartbreakers, but if there’s down time… The thing to do is play music if you’re a musician. The thing to do if you’re living is to learn. And these days I don’t do a lot of sessions. But I play with Ryan Adams a lot, and Ryan is really damn good. I get to play a little bit with Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch, who are crazily good. And Don Was called me up and one day recently and said “Ringo and I are taking a plane up to Merle Haggard’s place tomorrow. Do you want to come?” And you should hear the version of “Born to Lose” we cut. I’m going along as a fan and as an observer and as a learner. I never feel like I’m a major player in any of this. I’m almost like a guest that’s been let in behind the curtain to see how everything operates. I really never know how the hell I snuck into a room.

What I do is take the opportunity. The closest call I ever had was when I was 17 or 18, and my friend Sandy was helping Mudcrutch [the Petty-led band that preceded the Heartbreakers] carry their guitars. I was a fan of theirs and I’d go see them play shows, and they knew I played, and one night Sandy called up and said “Look, they’re playing five sets at a strip club” -- or a bar, or whatever it was -- “and they wondered if you wanted to come sit in, or just come see the show.” And I went out to my mom’s station wagon, and I looked at my Farfisa portable organ, and I thought, “This thing’s too heavy to put in the back of this station wagon. They probably don’t want me to sit in anyway.” And there was a split second that I remember very clearly where I went, “Oh, what the hell, I’ll bring the organ along,” and loaded it into the station wagon. If I had not done that, my life would be entirely different. And the lesson from that is that… I just had to catch the current and not battle against it. I’m not an overly skilled piano player or organ player at all, but I think I’m the right piano and organ player for the Heartbreakers. And I’ve been the right piano and organ player for a lot of sessions that I’ve been called on.

You seem humble about appreciating situations both large and small. You play with a lot of people at Largo in Los Angeles and even sit in at the after-hours jam sessions in the Little Room next door It shows you don’t necessarily value playing amphitheaters with Dylan over playing for 20 people.

In terms of playing music, they’re equally valuable. In terms of the level of presence that you have in the music, they’re the same. But boy, do I value playing with Bob Dylan. How could you not? I remember the night we were playing a festival in Australia, and he just walks to the other side of the stage and starts playing some chords, and I see that he’s showing Howie [Epstein, the Heartbreakers’ late bassist] a chord progression, and four chords in, I go “Holy shit, we’re gonna play ‘Desolation Row’,” in front of 20,000 or 30,000 people, even though we never rehearsed it. The best time to ever play a song for me is when I’ve never heard it before. You can discover something.

Do you have a favorite recording experience?

[Petty’s] Wildflowers was a special record. Damn the Torpedoes was a special record. Shot of Love and Bella Donna [by Dylan and Nicks -- his first two outside studio projects] were very special records. The Johnny Cash records [with Rick Rubin] were very special. Of course, Bob is gonna stand out and Cash is gonna stand out, but for sheer joy of recording, the Mudcrutch record we finally did was just the bomb. Let’s not say “the bomb,” shall we?[Laughs] It was the shit. There are no words for how damn much fun that was.

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I used to think of drummer Jim Keltner as the Zelig of rock -- the guy you’d see in the photograph of every great session. But in a way I think you supplanted him in a way as that guy.

Nobody can supplant Jim Keltner on any level. There are a lot of people that play on a lot more stuff than I do. I’ll do, like, three sessions in the course of a year now, but the records will all be by artists who end up being critically or publicly acclaimed, so it looks like I played on every record there was. There was a period when I played on every record there was, because I was hanging out with Don Was, and he was making every record there was.

People may be surprised that your solo album is not a showcase for keyboards.

I learned to play piano in a rock 'n' roll context or band context from country records -- you know, Floyd Cramer -- and from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Stax. And none of those are keyboard records. They might have a dominant keyboard part, but they aren’t about the keyboards, unless it’s the occasional “Sympathy for the Devil” or the occasional William Bell song that he wrote with Booker T. that might have a predominant piano. But it’s just the mesh of the instruments. It’s all ensemble playing. You know, the Heartbreakers always remind me that I’m in a guitar band. [Laughs] And when I put a record on, except maybe for Fleetwood Mac Live in Boston 1970 or something like that, I want to hear songs. I don’t want to hear people stretching out.

How would you describe the songwriting style you drift toward?

I think I drift toward sad love songs. There’s a lot of Bob and Randy Newman and John Prine that I listened to, and obviously a lot of Tom. All those guys are good with simple melodies, and the way that they use words always sounds like something that somebody would say. Even when Bob goes into the words that are in “My Back Pages,” even if it isn’t maybe something that you’d overhear in a bar, you can still see somebody speaking like that. They don’t sound forced-poetic.

How do you feel about your voice now?

I’m good with it. The joke I make about it is that I sing like Chet Baker -- if he couldn’t sing. [Laughs] There’s no showiness to it. The singers that I always like, whether they have skill and great technique or are astonishing like Lennon or Paul or Elvis or Little Richard, or whether they’re the ones that are more plain-spoken, like Bob or Tom, they aren’t in the way of the song. The song’s coming through them. They aren’t trying some lick. Aretha Franklin can sing licks in a song and it’s still part of the song. But I lean towards Lou Reed, Tom and Bob. Or Van Morrison, who can sing like an angel but still sounds like a guy who’s telling you something that is going through his head in the moment.

Anything happening with the Heartbreakers?

We’re hard at work on another record. I think it’s close to done. And as far as touring, I don’t know. Especially the last several tours have been really a blast, so I certainly hope so, but I don’t have any information on it yet. They never tell me anything. I’ll get to Paris on a vacation, and one day into my vacation the phone will ring and it’ll be “Tom wants to record tomorrow.” I’m like, you could have given me the heads-up! Can we wait a week? There was a running joke with me and Stevie Nicks for a long time. If Stevie gives me a call, within 10 minutes I’m getting a call that the Heartbreakers are busy the same day.

So if you book a solo tour, that will be when you get a call from Tom?

If I book a bunch of dates for me? Oh, we’ll be touring for sure.

Twitter: @chriswillman

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