Donny Benét is a Sydney based singer-songwriter and accomplished session musician whose fourth solo studio album, The Don, is out now. We caught up with him in the week leading up to its release.
Just as a general comment, I’ve been noticing a lot of saxophone in new releases of late. Sax obviously features prominently on your new album, The Don. But I’ve noticed saxophone in some of your earlier work, dating back as far as 2012. Would you consider yourself a bit of a trendsetter?
(Laughs) I was using saxophone years ago when everyone was doing shoegaze, not that I’m the true (laughs) – no, it’s uh, I’ve grown up around – my brother plays sax – I’ve grown up with saxophone for years and it just sounds pretty good and he’s a bad arse at it. Yeah, I mean I was – first of all, playing synthesizer on my early music, doing the little solos and things like that and I just, you know, financially when I could afford to start using sax in shows and all that, I just wanted to include it as well so, yeah.
You obviously draw a lot of inspiration and influence from the 80s. So Donny Benét, what’s so great about the 80s?
I think the – well it was all session players back then. So all the players on the recordings were pretty damn hot. I mean, you know, like it’s usually like the Porcaros or you know, half a Toto or all the Steely Dan records, they’re all Steve Gadd. I mean I’m talking late 70s there or maybe that’s early 80s. But yeah that period I think like, you know, that was very early MIDI. Like if there was live drums, you had to play the click and be pretty hot. Then when all the drum machines came in and all the sequencing, it was pretty – it was a lot of the guys that were session musos that had found a way to adapt in that environment, I guess. So all the programming was pretty top notch. Yeah I think, I dunno – I mean, the songwriting’s always great from that period. I mean, it’s pretty flamboyant, decadent and extravagant. It’s pretty fun, I mean I think all the music then is really, wouldn’t say taking the piss, I mean it’s good, it’s you know, it’s like the kind of shredding and winking their eye at the same time. It’s pretty cool. So I mean for me that was – I grew up in the 90s so I used to hate grunge back then being at high school and like, all the kids playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. And you know, anyone can play it. I was really into like Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown. Just trying to think – I didn’t have many CDs or anything. My dad used to play lots of old soul, lots of Elvis. So it was like, to hear like, grow up in that music and then kind of be around that stuff – I mean now I recognise the good stuff that’s good, the simplicity of it. And that’s a lesson in itself to take from music. But yeah I think you know, being an electric bass player, that’s kind of my main gig, I was really drawn to bass heavy music. I mean, the only thing probably from the era I listened to was the Chili Peppers. I’ll unashamedly say that.
You mentioned soul a moment ago. Have you been listening to the new soul revival – Daptone Records, Sharon Jones, that sort of thing?
No I haven’t, to tell the truth. I mean, I kind of, I don’t know. I used to play a bit of jazz and there’s like, you know there’s movements of like recreating 1950 or 1990 or whatever and I kind of don’t see the point of it. Like it’s, even with – I kind of learnt a good lesson really quickly with writing this. A friend of mine got me into DJing and I’d kind of never done it and you know, it was fun. I just got to play music that I kind of liked and it was really beneficial to me that it helped me pick tempos for songs. I’d play a bunch of songs that I really liked and see people’s reaction to it and I was like, ‘cool’. But with DJing, there’s lots of, you know, you’ll get crate diggers and you’ll get real obscure kind of funk. You know, there’ll be like a real obscure funk disco song. And the cool thing about it will be the bassline, right? The song sucks. And then you go, well I could – you know – mate will be like, “oh that’s a really good song, what’s the bassline like on that.” And like, yeah, but you know, someone’s already written that song. And even with the temptation of like, you know, writing something sequence and you know, getting your Giorgio Moroder vibe going and putting the – you know, I’ve probably got a few little brown stains here and there on the album of me using the Giorgio Moroder disco snare drum and stuff. But it’s almost pointless to try and recreate that stuff. And like, all the stuff – the soul revival stuff, to answer that question, I mean that’s cool, it’s just not – I’m kind of funny about all that stuff, like of recreating something. Like if it’s already good and it’s already there – unless you can do something really different with it…
I don’t know that many people that really want to go back and listen to 80s music…
You don’t feel hypocritical at all making that comment, given your sound is so influenced by the 80s?
Ah, yeah, no, of course I’m a hypocrite. I mean I dunno if I’d listen to my – I unashamedly – and look, I’m not bagging those guys at all, that’s – I only ever play, you only play music for yourself, cos you’ve got to and then if people enjoy it that’s a real bonus. So you know, in saying all that little preaching stuff I’ve said, pretty hard to (inaudible) all the time. And you know, it’s hard enough playing music as in dragging your band around the country and all that. So you know, if you wanna play something you play something that you enjoy. So to listen to stuff then that’s got that – like, I dunno. Again, I haven’t really checked it out as much as I’m probably talking out my arse a bit here. But it’s like, I’d probably just go to the source and listen to that if that makes sense. And then, you know, I guess the parallel drawing is like I mean, I don’t know that many people that really want to go back and listen to 80s music (laughs). I kind of, for me it’s the inflections are more – it’s equipment based as well, like using Linn drum machines and using synths like – I mean the ironic thing is you can use something like a Minimoog is like, 40, 46, 47 years old. It’s still being used on electronic music now, like that sound. So it has, it’s kind of cool, you know, you can get those instruments like that can be of a time but they can also move onto something else. So I mean I’m not really answering your question well there. Yeah I probably am a hypocrite but that’s cool. I mean I’m the one who gets to – I get to get up on stage and kind of recreate what I heard as a kid and enjoy myself, so that’s – if other people like it, that’s cool. I mean, that’s how it goes.
You played bass on the new Oh Mercy record. How did that collaboration come about and what was the recording experience like?
I met Alex (Gow) in Melbourne through a gig and I think he was – I think, cos I played on Olivia Bartley’s Olympia records as well. I played on the first half, a couple of tunes on the first one and I just did the last one a couple of months back. So I think the association was through Liv. It was Laurence Pike, my buddy from longtime, from everywhere. We went up and I think Alex contacted us and said Scott Horscroft, (GM of A&R at) EMI, who owns The Grove, he was recording Alex’s album so, Alex said can you come up and do it. Think we did the whole album in like, six hours or something. It was great, like Alex was really, very nice – I mean he’s an incredible songwriter, he’s a great guy, he loves cricket so that makes it easy. He was incredibly organised and had great demo recordings and he was very specific about what he wanted. And so you know, when you get in – Laurence and I do the studio thing really well, so we can adapt to things pretty quickly. Well actually we just did (Sarah) Blasko’s album as well. We’re just about to hit the road with her. So yeah it was just a matter of us doing some charts, doing a little bit of homework, we turned up – think everyone’s all one or two takes. You know, I’m sure Scott took a few liberties and moved notes here and there but I wasn’t involved in all that process. But yeah it was just a really enjoyable – great songs, they played themselves. He was really specific about what sounds he wanted so I just took up two old Fenders and pretended to be a Scott Walker session player. That was kind of it. It was really easy and it was just really fun.
You mentioned Alex is a big fan of cricket. Do you share his love of cricket at all?
Yeah, we didn’t realise at the time we did the session, we kind of didn’t have that much time. So had I known – I only found out just recently cos Laurence was having a beer with him and he got the Test turned on, the South Africa Test. I was like, ‘oh man’, so. I reckon we’ll have a – he’s going to be supporting Jack Ladder, the Jack Ladder show’s coming up, which we’ll all be on. So I reckon we’ll roll the arm over and I think he’s a bit of a mean leg spinner, so that’ll be good.
I think Malcolm Turnbull will go down as one of the most spineless, pathetic prime ministers we’ve ever had.
I have to ask, what do you make of the ball tampering saga?
(Laughs) It’s funny actually. I was listening to it on the way home today, on Radio National. Yeah, ah, you know, I think Smith just tried to talk his way out of it and try cover for the team. He’s just a – he looks like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. And I think he just didn’t want to throw Bancroft under the bus and I reckon Warner’s just a – Warner was a bit of a dog and I reckon he was happy for him to take the heat for it. So yeah, you know, I mean, Faf du Plessis is still playing and he got caught ball tampering so, you know, everyone’s done it. I think it’s just the way they – I have no idea why Smith done it, spoke the way he did. I mean, they could have, if they would have kept their mouth shut it could have blown over. That’s what one of the cricket writers was talking about today on the ABC (laughs). I don’t know, I think the thing that was most annoying about it was how – it’s really weird, I kind of took a break from giving a shit about politics the last few years. And I just – it was so annoying how – I think Malcolm Turnbull will go down as one of the most spineless, pathetic prime ministers we’ve ever had. I just couldn’t believe he jumped on board and said that the Australian Cricket Board needed to act decisively. And I was just like wow, that word’s just not in your vocabulary at all. So yeah, that’s probably more annoying. I mean, you know, it’s a shame that I won’t get to see Smith play for a year. I mean Warner I can live without, I mean, you know. Some people are into him.
Is your criticism of our PM based on him going down the path of the plebiscite/postal vote?
Nah, just in general, everything. He really sold his, you know – Abbott famously said that he’d sell his arse to become prime minister. I think Turnbull bought his way in and at the same time sold his arse to become prime minister. So I think they’re both as bad as each other. But yeah, I mean the plebiscite stuff – the photo of Gladys Berejiklian and the Turnbulls at the Mardi Gras this year was pretty rich, so, yeah. I usually don’t get very political about that stuff. It’s, you know, it’s always a great way to start an argument with someone who’s a friend and you don’t realise it’s in there. But the ball tampering thing, you asked, that’s what I found most annoying about it.
OK, let’s discuss your new album. How would you say this one differs from your previous releases?
It got mixed by Burke Reid at The Grove. So that immediately turned – I had tears in my eyes when he was mixing it, saying “I’m such a fraud, you’ve made it sound so amazing”. I think it sounds really good. I think it was really good to get a fresh set of ears onto it and he really – it was weird, cos Burke had never actually heard my music, like I’ve known him for a few years… I had some real quick references for him. I didn’t want to bury him with – I think when you work with someone it’s good not to bury them with your own ideology too much. It’s like, see how they interpret it and I think he did an amazing job doing it. I guess what differed this time for me is I wrote a lot more songs. So what I was talking about before, the hypocritical aspect of me recreating something, I had like, Giorgio Moroder songs written and I had songs from a DJ set song that someone had shown me that I had written and I’d been down that path and I was like ‘woah’. The thing is, I wouldn’t listen to – I’d hear this and go, this sounds like that song, I’d rather just listen to the original song. So I probably wrote about 35 songs and ditched you know, 25 of them. And it was good, I gave a lot more time in the writing process. I used to write my songs kind of quickly, which, you know, you learn. Like any time you put something out you learn so much from that. So I think I learned to be a lot more careful with why a song should go in there… I was very vicious with my editing and I was very, you know, objective about it. So if something didn’t have to be in there it was taken out. So I think for me I think it has a lot more space… I’m really happy with it, I put a lot more work into it and spent a lot more time with it. I wanted to make – this is also what’s different about it, by the time it came – I started playing with a band back in 2014 and I started writing this album in 2015/16 I think. And so I was writing songs with the thought in mind of how they’d be to play live. Because a lot of the earlier songs were really based on, you know, there were a few impossible tempos from drum machines or patterns for a drummer to play… Writing these songs with that in mind it probably put a lot more space in it. So yeah, that’s probably actually quite a major thing about it and not the prior ones.
You spent some time in Vegas performing Tom Jones covers. Would you characterise that as a happy period in your life?
(Laughs) Ah, it was a period of my life. I did use to play in hotel lobbies, and you get your chops up. I look back on prior things sometimes going, I wish I didn’t waste my time doing that, but then other times thinking doing that got you to where you are now. So I guess doing a shitload of gigs, by the time I did my first solo Donny gig back in Sydney, I’d already done hundreds of gigs so it wasn’t a new thing to me. I didn’t really get nervous. The first gig I was – it wasn’t nerves, it was kind of, I had no idea what happened, and then after that I enjoyed it so much that there was actually no aspect of nerves in there which was great. But to get to there I think you have to go through the other period. So, you know, I’m glad I did it. Let’s put it that way.
I’m kind of always poking the piss at what a poor lover I am or you know, fictitiously what a great lover I could be.
I understand that you attribute your sexualised lyrics to the Tom Jones influence. Do you feel that this type of content is still palatable in this day and age, given the current social and political environment?
Yeah sure, sure. Yeah I mean it depends how you’re writing it… I personally don’t think there’s anything degenerating towards women in my lyrics, I think it’s – if anything, I’m usually doing the degenerating myself and my – I’m being the hopeful, balding, middle age, overweight guy that I am, trying to convince, you know, selling the idea of a sex symbol to them. But look, yeah, I think so, like I really – It’s this hard thing, I was chatting to a friend of mine, who’s just been out touring with another Australian band, I’ll keep it down cos I don’t want to – it’s not my place to name drop people and misattribute what they say. And she was saying about all this, she said like, it’s really amazing that it’s happening. And I think it is, cos there’s a lot of behaviour that’s not cool and which needs to be – it will be called out. And she said like it’s really like, it’s great that it’s happened. And she said but the funny thing is with it is it’s the good guys that are shitting themselves about it… It’s a culture that needs to change as well I guess, in that – a good example is I’m curating a Rage special that’s coming up and so they give you the keys to the vault and you go through and you look through tunes. And so I was looking for – so I put on like, “Do You Think I’m Sexy” by Rod Stewart. It’s like, you know, it’s like a bitchin’ tune and he’s like, just a sexy man and back then that was what they did. And then I was looking for a Kiss song. And there was, you know, there’s like all the hits and then there’s like a few other ones. And I was just like ‘I don’t actually know all that many Kiss tunes’. You know, the tunes everyone knows, they’re good. And I was like ‘what are the other ones like?’. So there was this one called “Lick It Up”. And I checked it out and I was just like ‘oh man, this is filthy!’. And then there was another one called “Let’s Put The X In Sex” and it’s like – there was this thing of like a period of you know, it was mid-80s and there were women in high cut bikinis and they were getting sprayed by water and there were these middle aged men with long hair and leather and you know, the lyrics were like, I can’t remember but you know, they were pretty like, they were very suggestive…and I was just like man, I don’t think mine are as bad as that. You could not get away with that any more. And I almost wanted to include it on the Rage playlist. It probably wouldn’t have been a very popular thing to do. Just more to just to see like, hey guys, this shit doesn’t happen any more, and that’s a good thing. And I think now like there really is – and that was a real novelty back then, I mean you know, it was the beginning of MTV, mid-80s like, you put – you know, you objectify women, put them in bikinis and spray water and champagne all over them and that’s, you know, you’re going to get everyone’s attention. You know, these are the days of like, you know, man would go to Hooters every Friday night and you know, get drunk and ogle at women. And like that doesn’t fly any more. So it’s like – and I think it’s good now, like if you’ve got to do a – if you’re an artist and you write a song, you can’t write a song like that anymore, saying, you know, “I want to ram you with”, you know, something like – you can’t do that. You wouldn’t do that. And I mean I personally wouldn’t do that, because that’s not how I speak to – the women in my life, that’s not how I’ve spoken to them. And I wouldn’t approach someone I didn’t know and speak to them that way… I guess on the flip side, the music’s got to be better. You can’t have a gimmick of that. If you’re a director, that’s not a gimmick you can have in your film clip… Bringing it back to I guess the sexualising in my lyrics, I’m kind of always poking the piss at what a poor lover I am or you know, fictitiously what a great lover I could be. So I think it’s like – you know, if I’m going to sink the ship, I’m not going to take anyone down with me, I’m going to go down by myself (laughs). So I guess for my mind that’s how I’m trying to be very – not overly aware, like at the same time, they’re just fun songs. Like it’s – I guess, you know, I love watching James Bond movies and I realise Sean Connery’s not actually a secret agent in real life. It’s a character. I mean it’s probably a bad example to use as well (laughs) considering they’re overhauling how James Bond is. But I guess you get the – I don’t know if you get the picture but it’s just like, at the same time it’s something entertaining and funny. Well yeah, it’s not a bad thing. It’s a character.
If you could collaborate with any artist, in any medium, past or present, who would it be and what would you ideally create?
I wish I was teleported back to the late 70s or early 80s and was a soundtrack writer, I guess. Working with someone like John Carpenter that you know, is really kind of, D-grade crappy horror films or – yeah, just that. I’d love writing – I’m trying to get into things like soundtrack writing but man it’s such a closed door. But that would be, I think something like that would be so fun. Collaborating with someone outside of your medium is great cos you’ve seen – and I’ve done you know, bits and pieces of that before and it’s really interesting how people perceive music and what they, you know, the different terminology they’ll use for something. The particular reason why they’ll want a particular sound or tempo or – so yeah, I think that would be really nice to do something like that. I mean, it would be really tempting to say I’d be great to play with Miles Davis or Prince, but, I mean that’s kind of cool, but yeah I think just working with great filmmakers and doing soundtracks would be amazing. That’s what I’d say.