Benmont Tench: A Heartbreaker Goes Soulful on Debut Solo Disc

Not many keyboard players can say they’ve changed rock history, and Benmont Tench is far too modest to make such a claim. But as a founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Tench’s keyboards are indelibly etched on a slew of hits, from “Refugee” and “Jammin’ Me” to the Heartbreakers-backed hit for Stevie Nicks, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, Green Day: they’ve all tapped Tench to lend his sublime keyboard sorcery to their songs.

Yet it’s taken until now for Tench to take center stage with his very first solo album, “You Should Be So Lucky” (Blue Note). Produced by Glyn Johns (The Who, Eric Clapton, Eagles, The Beatles), “Lucky” spotlights Tench as smart songwriter, and a more-than-capable vocalist in the vein of Mark Knopfler, Bob Dylan and Del Amitri’s Justin Currie. Running the gamut from retro garage rock to rain-on-the-window balladry, it’s a poised disc well worth checking out.

On the eve of its Feb. 18 release, Tench talked to Reverb about the new effort, his favorite gear, his time with Tom Petty, and his love of a Liverpool band that changed his life.

Take us to the moment when the light bulb went off—that you knew you wanted to play keyboards.

I was 6 years old, and living in a house in Florida that my family had rented. My mother’s mother had been a piano teacher, and both my parents played music. My dad, who was a judge, played guitar and piano.

One day my cousin was over; he was a good athlete and could do anything. Well, he goes over to our piano, and he did that thing with the black keys—where you roll them with your knuckles, back and forth—and I was intrigued. And I said, “I’m going to do something better than my cousin, dammit!” [Laughs.] So I started monkeying around on the piano. Then I started lessons at age 7 and right from the start, I wanted to be a composer or a songwriter.

And here you are full circle, living out that childhood dream. What kind of feel did you shoot for on “Lucky”?

It’s very much live in the studio. Everyone who plays on the album is a friend of mine, and almost everyone has been to my house. I’ve always liked to record as live as possible, and I’ve always loved tape machines. Nothing on this record went anywhere near digital until it was readied for CD. To me tape feels better, and I can sink my teeth into it. And when it goes to vinyl I can sink my teeth into it even more. There’s a 14-song version of the album on vinyl.

Juke Amplification

Producer Glyn Johns' famous drum mic technique

You describe an old-school approach, and the record has an old-school intimacy to it—like something cut 20 or 30 years ago.

That’s because Glyn Johns produced and engineered it. He did many of those great records from 20 or 30 years ago, and I love the way he thinks and hears. He offered to do it a while ago and so I finally took him up on it. The only other person I ever wanted to make a record with was [Heartbreakers bassist] Howie Epstein, and he passed away in 2003.

Do the Heartbreakers record live as well?

Nowadays the Heartbreakers play live in a rehearsal space with floor monitors, and Tom turns his mic around to face the band. It’s how we’re doing our new record, how we did the last record [“Mojo”] and how we did the Mudcrutch record [released in 2008]. It’s a lovely way to record.

You’re an unabashed Beatles fan. How would you describe their impact on you?

With The Beatles, it’s like the first time someone saw an electric light or a motion picture. I was 10 when they showed up—“She Loves You” was just a marvel of joy and emotion. And they were four friends having fun and playing music.

What did you learn from them?

The thing to take away from the Beatles is the spirit in which it was done. They were fortunate with technology, where they stretched it to a certain point but you couldn’t tweak things with a computer. You had to cut bits of tape, throw it up in the air, and see how it came back together. It’s like this: You’ve seen beautiful, laser-cut pieces of wood, but have you seen things cut by hand? My parents had an ivory chess set they got in the 1940s and it was breathtaking because it had so much soul. That’s the difference between what The Beatles did and the cutting edge of technology today. If they had access to AutoTune, it wouldn’t have sounded as human.

Elements of Benmont Tench's Keyboard Rig

Which pieces of gear are your absolute favorites?

My favorite is my Hammond C3 organ that I got in 1978. I have one in my house, but this was the first Hammond I ever owned and it’s been on every Heartbreakers record but the first two, and on every tour we’ve ever done since ’78. A guy named Bill Beer modified it, and he was secretive. When he passed away I went to have it serviced, but Bill had wiped out a lot of the serial numbers and disguised the parts, so you couldn’t quite trace what he did to it. It’s on “Refugee” and everything else. It’s just a beautiful sounding instrument and it’s the favorite thing that I play.

The piano I play at home I got 7 or 8 years ago, and Nicky Hopkins played it at his house. It’s a Mason and Hamlin 1928 grand piano. It has a beautiful, beautiful sound; I can’t walk by without playing it, and if I sit down with it at night, I’m not leaving until 4 a.m.!

Juke Amplification

Tench singing with the Heartbreakers at Hollywood Bowl.

You sing all the lead vocals on “You Should Be So Lucky.” Did you ever sing in The Heartbreakers?

Early on it’s me and [drummer] Stan Lynch singing the background vocals on “I Need to Know,” “The Waiting” and “Refugee.” But I don’t think I sing on anything else.

When I started doing demos for this album and sent them to Glyn Johns, he said, “You need to start singing every day and practicing everyday,” and so I did. I just told someone, “I sing like Chet Baker if he couldn’t sing.” [Laughs.]

Considering you played a key role in forming it, where do you think The Heartbreakers’ sound comes from?

I don’t know. Keep in mind that we grew up in the same area, Gainesville, Fla., and listened to the same radio stations. We heard Slim Harpo, the Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong, all back to back: That’s 40 minutes on the radio in Gainesville, Fla. in 1965. The fact we knew and loved that music gave us a common musical language. And the fact we loved the way Tom wrote gave us a vision and a focus.

My only role in The Heartbreakers is to play the songs the best way I can. It’s not a job. It’s family. It’s blood. At this point it’s absolutely blood.

We’d love to see you hit the road in support of your album. Any live gigs planned?

I’ll play on a few radio station solo shows, and a few songs on piano and guitar at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles on Feb. 13, followed by a Q&A session. I’ll also do a few nights at Largo in L.A. from Feb. 20-22. And that’s all the live shows I have planned for now; I hope it doesn’t give me panic attacks or that people walk out bored en masse. I have no bloody idea! [Laughs.] I love playing with the Heartbreakers but with them, I can just play piano and hide behind it. I can’t do that now. So it’s like the maiden voyage of the Titanic, and the goal is not to hit the iceberg.

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