Brendan Benson took some time out from working on his new record to talk to us about being a son, being a dad and the genetics of music.
I’ve often wondered where my obsession with music came from. No one else in my family is, or ever was, a professional musician.
My grandma on my dad’s side sang for a big band and even wrote a Christmas song, which she very proudly registered with the copyright office. My grandpa on my mom’s side played the piano sometimes after dinner, depending on how drunk he got. Usually, it culminated in a furious and demented attempt at Bach or Chopin. No one in my family’s history had ever dedicated their life to any of the arts, as far as I know.
So, why me? Is it something that I just picked up? Was I born predisposed? Is it in my DNA? I get asked a lot in interviews to account for my musical abilities and I never have a good answer. Since becoming a father, it’s become a little clearer.
When I was a baby, my dad tells me, he used to place me on the floor between the stereo speakers and watch my reaction as he played records by Bowie, Roxy Music, The Nazz, T. Rex and The Stooges among others. Apparently, I writhed with delight - freezing momentarily at certain musical breaks or kicking extra hard in the choruses (some things never change).
He did this routinely almost like a sort of schooling. Maybe it was these early “lessons” that set me down the musical path. I think my father is, tragically, an unrealised artist. Always living vicariously through the music. I like to think that maybe he was trying to steer me in the direction he wished he’d gone.
My mom tells another story in which I would hum incessantly, but instead of a pleasant, musical humming, it was more like some sort of atonal Gregorian chant. I remember this “chanting”. It was a very soothing sensation to me. I would go transcendental. My body resonated like an instrument. It was very Zen. I think I might have been developing a sense of pitch.
Evidently, it was also very loud and very grating on the nerves of anyone unlucky enough to be within earshot (which was the entire house). And when someone finally snapped and told me to stop, it was like the proverbial needle scratching off the record or the sobering lights at bar close.
Now I have a son who is seven years old and I am observing the same behaviours in him. For better or for worse. When he was just able to walk, I played a record on the stereo…LOUDLY! I watched as he waddled over to the speaker and leaned his little body in, pressing his ear to the sound. He was transfixed, his eyes like saucers and his drooling mouth agape. Then suddenly he would break out into “dance” and drone along loudly.
To this day, he dances around, humming like a lunatic. Sometimes he gets stuck in a pattern, a loop, as if he’s glitching. And he’s oblivious. And if that poor unfortunate soul within earshot happens to be me, I snap and immediately feel sorry. Because I understand.I did it too. He’s just finding his voice. He’s got it too.