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Arts and Entertainment

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers' Benmont Tench Takes Center Stage With Debut Solo Album

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Even if his name doesn't ring a bell, chances are you're familiar with Benmont Tench's talents. As a founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers—and a member of its predecessor, Mudcrutch—his keyboard work is unmistakable. Add to that his contributions as a session player on albums by the Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, Fiona Apple, U2 and scores of others, and his presence is near-ubiquitous.

Earlier this week, he reached a major milestone with the release of his first solo album, You Should Be So Lucky. The sideman has become the frontman, and on this Glyn Johns-produced record, he's joined by friends such as Petty, Ringo Starr, Ryan Adams, Blake Mills, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

Tench is currently in the middle of three sold-out shows at Largo at the Coronet. Earlier this month, LAist caught up with him in his Tarzana home to get the scoop on the new album.

LAist: One of the songs on your record, "Like the Sun (Michoacan)," feels like a love song to Los Angeles. Do you feel that's an accurate assessment?

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Benmont Tench: It is. L.A.'s got a lot of soul. It's kind of a cliché that L.A. is a soulless cultural wasteland, but it's not true—it's just so spread out that it can take you some time to find it. And "Like the Sun" is about finally finding it. So I'm pleased with that song because it's got the hills in it, it's got people playing music in the canyons, it's got the 101, it's got my friends, and it's got Michoacan—this great all-night Mexican food stand in Downtown LA.

You've been in the L.A. area for decades. At this point, could you live anywhere else?

No, not full-time. I like to travel, and my latest obsession is Florence, Italy. But as far as living somewhere else, I don't think I could because I love this city and I have such wonderful friends. The musical community here is really strong and everyone seems to root each other on.

Speaking of friends, the list of collaborators on this album is impressive. Was it hard choosing the musicians since you pretty much know everyone in the business?

I'm really fortunate to have so many close friends who are really good musicians, and this just seemed like the right combination. And no one's on the record because they're a name. It wasn't like we said, "Ringo and Tom are famous, so let's get them on the record." They happened to be the friends who were right for the song.

Everybody seemed to play off of each other well. This entire album is essentially about a bunch of friends hanging out and me saying to them, "Hey, let me show you this song," and seeing what they could make of it.

The songs from this album span decades of songwriting. In choosing older songs and writing new ones, what did you learn about how your songwriting process has evolved over the years? Well, "You Should Be So Lucky" was written about a month before we made the record. And on the other side of that, I wrote the first verse and chorus of "Veronica Said" around 30 years ago.

With that one, I lost the demo and couldn't remember the rest of the song. I recalled that it was really trivial after the first verse and chorus—just some jokey wordplay—and I thought, "That part's not worth making a song out of, but the first verse and chorus are."

The crazy thing is, the new parts just showed up as I started singing. I'm not very good at sitting down and intellectualizing, but sometimes I can just catch one out of the air. I ended up finding the demo afterwards and thought, "Oh wow, the new one is so much better."

So you essentially co-wrote a song with your three-decades-ago self.

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I did, and it was a trip. At first I thought, "There's no way I can do this!" Talk about changing horses midstream and then changing back.

How did "Blonde Girl, Blue Dress" come together with Ringo Starr, Tom Petty, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings and Jeremy Stacey?

That song is maybe a decade or so old and I wanted it to feel like the Band—like Levon Helm. So I figured Tom and Ringo would be the perfect rhythm section, because I love the way Tom plays bass and Ringo's the best. Everybody was into it but some wires got crossed and Ringo wasn't around, so we just cut it with Jeremy—one of my other favorite drummers.

One day later, we were done tracking it, but something in my performance wasn't working. As we were talking about it, the phone rang and it was Ringo. And I thought, "I bet with the way he plays tambourine, it would do something really cool to the track, then I could sing it again."

So he came in and put the tambourine on it and we actually didn't need to touch it afterward. He did some kind of hoodoo on it.

Did you talk to Bob Dylan about your cover of "Duquesne Whistle" [which Dylan co-wrote with Robert Hunter] before recording it?

No, I didn't. I really hope that he likes it if he gets to hear it, along with our cover of his arrangement of "Corinna, Corinna." In "Duquesne Whistle," the first verse says, "You say I'm a gambler, you say I'm a pimp," and I just thought it was hysterically funny for me to sing, "You say I'm a pimp," because that's so ridiculous. Bob can pull it off, but me…are you kidding? (laughs)

I love the fact that in Dylan's memoir, he wrote about how you were always lobbying for the addition of his lesser-known songs when the Heartbreakers were his backing band in the '80s.

I'm a fan. The thing is, when you have somebody like Bob, it's hard to even think of a parallel figure of his stature—the only ones I can think of are filmmakers, painters or poets. So you basically have Walt Whitman up there and you wonder, "Why are you only reading two stanzas from Leaves of Grass? What about 'To a Stranger' or 'Crossing Brooklyn Ferry'?"

So of course, I was probably just really annoying.

But I'm guessing it worked once in a while.

Every now and then, we would do something. And quite frequently, we would do something quite unexpected. It was remarkable when that happened.

Like what?

One time we were at a festival—I think it was in Melbourne, Australia—and Bob went to the other side of the stage and started a song that wasn't on the list. He started showing the bass player, Howie Epstein, the chords. Then, three chords in, he moved over to Stan Lynch on the drums, and I realized, "He's showing the band 'Desolation Row.'"

I knew the song but it was funny to think, "OK, we're here with 30,000 people at a festival. Sure, let's play 'Desolation Row' together for the first time ever." But it was great.

It probably helped that you were already a band before you played with him.

Definitely. We weren't a bunch of personalities who didn't know each other. We knew each other musically. And at this point, we're not a band—we're blood.

You've previously referenced the John Clayton quote, "When you're playing, listen to everybody but yourself, especially when you're soloing." Is that difficult? Honestly, it's really a hard discipline to follow. When you're soloing, you do want to pay attention to yourself because you want to be in the song, yet also not have it be about you. Maybe it's a zen thing.

One time, I was working on a Johnny Cash album with [record producer] Rick Rubin, who said to me, "That's great, but can you play less?"

I played less, then Rick said, "That's great. It's a perfect part, but if you could simplify it a little bit…"

So I got it down to one note. I'm not kidding. And then he said, "That's perfect. Now just play a little bit less."

Then I said, "Well, then I just won't play."

And he responded, "No, you have to play. Just play a little bit less."

So I had to find a way to somehow play that one note a little bit less. And it worked.

Switching gears a bit, you've become a staple in some of the best shows at Largo at the Coronet—from Jon Brion to the Watkins Family Hour. What do you love about that place?

Largo is one of the biggest blessings that L.A.'s had bestowed upon it. The thing with Largo is, it's a place where you go to see somebody do an incredible, professional performance, yet you may also hear them say, "I have no idea what I'm about to do," and the audience cheers them on.

Do you have a special affinity for the Largo piano?

It's a beast. It's interesting, because it plays you more than you play it. Every time I hit a note, I don't know what it's going to do, and that's fun. However many members of the band you have up there, that piano is an extra member because it's going to contribute.

It's fun when you surprise Jon Brion with some unexpected improvisation. In some of those moments, he'll actually laugh out loud. Is that kind of collaboration like a conversation?

He's remarkable and really fun. And yes, that's what playing music is—it's a really intimate form of communication. It's a language, and you get to know somebody through playing with them.

And you never know what's going to happen. I remember a night at the old Largo when Jon was playing and a mariachi trumpet player in full dress walked on stage and joined him. Apparently, [Largo owner] Mark Flanagan saw the guy walking down the street and invited him to go up on stage. The kind of cultural crossing we get here is pretty terrific.

What are you most excited about with these shows at Largo and the release of the album?

I'm just curious, because I don't know what it's going to be like. I've never performed by myself like this. I'm not trying to make a big name for myself or anything; I just really like these songs and hope other people enjoy them!

Thanks for speaking with LAist, Benmont!

Benmont Tench's solo debut, You Should Be So Lucky, is available now, and a vinyl version featuring additional tracks will be released on April 15.