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You can call him Raconteur Number Two, but Brendan Benson, the other songwriter in Jack White's first side project, has been pumping out tuneful, classic power-pop on his own since 1996's One Mississippi. Despite his modest solo success, he's definitely been overshadowed — a fact to which he seems comfortably resigned.
"I think Jack [White] was the main focus most of the time, which is understandable," he says. "The jury is out. I can't tell. It feels to me like people don't know me by name. They don't notice and probably don't care about the other aspects of the band or care who the other guys are. It's just 'Jack's new band.'"
Benson is at home in Nashville (like White, he's a native of Michigan who moved south) getting ready to head back out on the road in support of his latest record, My Old Familiar Friend. The album is full of the concise, tuneful pop that earned Benson critical acclaim and comparisons to Todd Rundgren, Alex Chilton, and Cheap Trick. As for Raconteurs fans expecting more of the Jack White-assisted blues and psychedelia of that band, well, Benson's not so sure they're paying attention to his solo records anyway.
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Prior to the success of The Raconteurs, he'd been through the major-label blender before releasing albums on a string of indies, all to considerable critical fanfare, but little commercial success. With The Raconteurs on hiatus, Benson wasn't looking forward to going "solo" again. He enlisted superstar producer Gil Norton (Foo Fighters, Pixies, Echo & The Bunnymen) to "steer the wheel" as he focused on singing and playing guitar.
The process turned out to be educational, but not entirely what Benson expected. Actually, he's one of the few musicians who'll avoid claiming his latest record is the greatest thing he's ever done.
"I thought it would be great. But I didn't agree with the process all the time. It was kind of too late. I had kind of given up. It's a lesson learned. In the future, I'll know how to pick a producer."
Upon releasing the album, Benson again found himself with a new record and a management team, uncertain how to find an audience. Management changes resulted in "not spending enough time in the States, definitely not the West Coast."
"We didn't really have our shit together in some ways, like publishing and marketing the record." When asked why marketing such pop-based material has proved difficult, Benson admits to being mystified. "I think these days you need something more, something more than just music. More than just good songs. You need a brand, an aesthetic, an image, and even, I don't know, a color scheme," he laughs. "I'm terrible at that. I was never interested in that. I'm more interested in music, I've been asking myself that forever: Why can't it just be based on music?"
"I was always fanatical about music," he says. "I would take a record and study it, research it, find out where these people came from, if they were in other bands, if there were more records I could get. I think nowadays, if it's available on the front page of iTunes . . ." Benson trails off. "That's being a little harsh, but it's kind of like that. [People don't care] if it's not just a click away."
Regardless of music industry woes, Benson's focus on "the music" is apparent. Benson sounds most excited when describing his live band, featuring members of Ben Folds' and Ryan Adams' touring bands, as well as "fifth Raconteur" Mark Watrous on guitars and keyboards. While his records showcase Benson as a measured craftsman, his live show is a looser animal.
"One of my biggest influences is The Stooges. Those records are undeniably ferocious," says Benson, who sang with Iggy Pop on The Stooges single "Free & Freaky." "That was one of the highlights of my life. I mean, The Stooges. You can't deny it."