Music: Motor City to Queen City

Detroit Pop wunderkind Brendan Benson gets connected to Cincinnati

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After being dropped by Virgin Records, Power Pop cult hero Brendan Benson almost quit music. Now, he's on the top of his game.

Brendan Benson might be Detroit born and raised, but he's established so many recent connections to Cincinnati, he could almost be considered an honorary native son. Benson's produced a handful of new tracks for local Garage heroes, The Greenhornes, and started a side project with White Stripes guitarist Jack White and Greenhornes' bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler, provisionally called The Raconteurs, who have recorded an album that reportedly rivals anything ever identified as Grunge. And now Benson has hired former Afghan Whigs drummer Michael Horrigan to provide bass for the tour behind his latest album, The Alternative to Love, which sadly cut short his work with The Greenhornes.

"We started doing the record and it was going really well, but I had to leave to tour this record," says Benson as his tour caravan crosses into Washington state. "I think they might put out what we had finished, maybe four or five songs, on an EP. I wanted to continue and finish it right, but it wasn't an option."

Benson's recent Cincinnati associations are just a part of the latest chapter in his acclaimed yet unfairly cultish career. At the age of 18, he dropped out of school and moved to California with the specific aim of being a star. Over the next six years, he made a lot of interesting friends, including former Jellyfish guitarist Jason Faulkner and producer Ethan Johns, who helped Benson record demos of his songs. The demos made the rounds, and the buzz began to grow that Benson was potentially the Next Big Deal in Indie Rock, which led to his signing a contract with Virgin Records for his debut album, One Mississippi, in 1996.

The album was a critical success but didn't do much actual business. When Virgin restructured, Benson found himself without a label. He took his second album advance money and returned to Detroit, where he bought a house and converted it into a studio space. Over the next six years, he produced area artists to make a little money, waited tables to make a living and worked sporadically on his sophomore album, Lapalco.

When the album finally came out on Star Time International in 2002, Benson had few expectations for it in light of the relative failure of One Mississippi. But Lapalco became an unexpected (albeit minor) independent hit. Star Time re-released One Mississippi the following year, and then Benson began thinking about his third album.

"Fortunately, I really didn't stop to think about things much," says Benson. "I had just finished touring Lapalco, and I started on it immediately and it came on so quickly I didn't have time to fret or worry about anything. The only thing I thought about was getting it done fast because we had built up some momentum on Lapalco, so I wanted to get it out."

With only intermittent help from friends, Benson created the effervescent, '60s-fueled Pop of The Alternative to Love in his home studio relatively quickly. But his signing to V2 necessitated a lag time in working out the details of a new release. So, while Alternative was complete, it took well over a year to finally hit shelves.

Given the depression and despair that nearly overwhelmed Benson after being dropped by Virgin ("I nearly quit music altogether," he says in retrospect), it seems like signing with a major would be the last thing on his mind. But he's confident in V2's ability to increase his exposure.

"I liked being on Star Time, but I realized the limitations," he says. "I didn't want to have such a low profile anymore. I wanted to give it a real go. It did get weird with V2. We were licensing the record to V2 in Europe, and when I turned in the record there, one guy said, 'Maybe you should work with someone on this.' And then I started to feel reticent, like 'I'm not gonna go through this again.' So I said, 'Fuck off.' But luckily, V2 in America called up and said, 'We love the record, and we want to sign you directly to the label and do it worldwide.' It worked out great."

It might seem as though Benson has found the best way to make his records is in his home studio, without any outside interference. But he's quick to note that this isn't necessarily the most efficient way to work, nor the method he'll employ in the future.

"Being in a real studio is inevitably going to be stressful," says Benson. "The clock's ticking, you're paying for the time. But doing it at home at my leisure and all (by) myself is just tiring. It was kind of a drag to do it myself. There were times that I had some great ideas, but there were times that I had no ideas, and I can hear it. I was wishing that I was in a studio where somebody could set the mics up for me and press 'record,' and do all that. So I think next record I'll do that. I'm going to go into a studio and not spread myself so thin and focus on the songs and writing and performing them, and not so much arranging and recording and producing and all that crap. I'd like to have some help, maybe get a producer, get a band; maybe the band I'm with now. I'm really happy with them."

BRENDAN BENSON opens for Keane at the Taft Theatre on Tuesday.

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