Denfeld News

Nov. 25, 2007
Duluth Budgeteer News

Speaking as a child of the ’70s
By Matthew R. Perrine

Tony Bennett’s musical odyssey began way back when … somewhere deep in Duluth’s west end.

“My grampa was always strumming a guitar, or a banjo,” he recalls. “As far back as I can remember he was really into old country music — the Hank Williams type of country music, the hard-living country music ... not whatever it is that passes for country now.”

He delivers that last line with a hearty laugh — but he means what he says.

“And my dad was always talking about playing bass for surf bands in town when he was younger,” Bennett continues. “So music was always kind of around.

“I was always making noise on my grandma’s Hammond organ — making everyone angry.”

Again, a laugh.

He may joke about a lot of things in life, but music is certainly something Bennett takes seriously — or at least semi-seriously.

“Making money off of music, for once, that would be great,” he jokes about a recent conversation he had with WDSE co-worker Steve Ash, who used some of Bennett’s music to score a documentary about ceramicist Broc Allen. “I’ll put all that time that I’ve spent avoiding other human contact, just sitting in my house on Fridays and Saturdays; when everyone else is out partying and ‘whooping it up,’ making connections, I’m in there playing the same three chords over and over again.

“It’d be nice to put all that practice to use.”

Indeed, the road to Cars & Trucks, Bennett’s latest endeavor, has been a long one.

Back to those “way back when” days, the future Dames/Bloodstool/Seed Math/Cars & Trucks mastermind got his first guitar in his early elementary years — as a gift from his grandfather — and his dad was gracious enough to teach him the theme to “The Twilight Zone.”

“When I learned that, it was like a whole new galaxy was laid out in front of my eyes,” Bennett said.

After fiddling around a bit with that first one, he received a second guitar — this time from his dad.

“Then I really started focusing on not learning how to play the instrument very well, but learning how to look cool with it,” he says with a certain nostalgic pride. “You know, like doing my best Angus Young head-bob dance [Laughs], trying to look like Eddie Van Halen and taping it up.”

Then came the quintessential junior high experience of learning chords from guitar magazines and writing songs about … hooking up with girls.

“And I had no idea what I was talking about,” he says with a big laugh, mentioning bad sex metaphors about “cakes and pies and things.” “It was really horrible.”

See, at the time he was listening to groups like KISS and Poison and ... you know how that goes.

But there was something more: As he was writing these songs, he would separate the sections into verses, choruses and solos — even going so far as to, probably much to the chagrin of his teachers, listen to the “song” in his head and study the clock to see how long it was.

It wasn’t until grade nine or 10 that he “found some other weirdos who also played instruments.”

“It was a magical time,” he said with a big laugh.

It all paid off, though. His first serious band, the Dames, made enough of a name for itself in Minneapolis’ hard rock scene (Bennett and crew moved down there for a year to “test the waters,” if you will) to open for the likes of Queens of the Stone Age, Mastodon, Hank Williams III and countless others.

“We did way more than I ever imagined,” Bennett said. “... We had a lot of cool experiences.”

Namely, he said, was the opportunity to play with (on a number of occasions) one of his all-time favorite bands, the Melvins.

“We played with them a few times — to the point where they knew us,” Bennett said, still seemingly somewhat in shock. “… We’re sitting backstage, like, just talking about boring life stuff and he’s asking the drummer about my wedding — all these bizarre things. It was some sort of weird dimension that I entered for a brief time.

“It was a real trip.”

Eventually, though, the Dames ran its course.

“I’ve always liked bands like Ween or Led Zeppelin,” Bennett said, “bands that can play a mandolin song, and the next one is a super-hard rock song. I kind of wanted [the Dames] to be like that, so we had these pop songs next to these Melvins ripoffs. [Laughs]

“When we started playing gigs, eventually it started feeling weird. We’d play this super-heavy song, everyone would go ‘Yeah!’ Then I’d be like, ‘All right, now here’s a little love song!’”

In fact, the bulk of Cars & Trucks’ soon-to-be-released debut album is culled from material Bennett was writing during his tenure with the Dames.

“I’ve always kind of compartmentalized them in my mind for some reason,” he said. “If I write a Beatle-y kind of song, you know, that will go in this pile. If I write a hard rock song, that’ll go in this pile.

“Then, if I write a weird keyboard song, that’ll go in the Seed Math pile.”

So it’s easy to see how the poppier tunes — the material that would eventually become the Cars & Trucks songbook — got “excised” and squirreled away … until now, that is.

“I’ve been enjoying playing music that’s a little more, I guess, nuanced,” Bennett said. “I can play quietly, or I can vary my pick attack. Whereas before it was just, ‘Ten! You’re either loud or you’re off.’

“It’s nice to be able to have a little more subtle dynamics.”

Instead of writing riffs and “just bludgeoning stuff” these days, Bennett is more concerned with melodies and interesting chord progressions — the type of songwriting preferred by his favorite groups, like the Move (the group that would morph into Electric Light Orchestra), Supergrass or the Who.

“I’ve always listened to a wide range of stuff, and taken influences from lots of different places,” he said. “… I don’t know; I’m never quite sure where a song is coming from, as far as influences go.

“But I was a Beatles freak growing up, so that has to fit in there somewhere. [Laughs] As much as I listened to (Metallica’s) ‘… And Justice for All,’ I listened to ‘Rubber Soul’.”

This maturing of his musical tastes was inevitable, though, he says.

“As you get older, you end up discovering all these different bands, and all these worlds open up,” Bennett said, mentioning that modern power pop crusader Brendan Benson’s first album was “revelatory.” “Now I’m walking around telling everybody about the Move, and nobody knows who the hell I’m talking about.” [Laughs]

As evidenced, these days it’s pretty much just records from the late ’60s and early ’70s for Bennett.

“It feels like bands (back then) were really trying to accomplish things,” he offers, “whereas now they’re just happy being in their little niches: ‘We’re this kind of retro’ or ‘We’re nu metal’ or ‘We’re this, we’re that.’

“… When I listen to a Move album, it sounds like messing with people’s minds was their main concern — and they wrote catchy songs at the same time.”

Indeed, it’s this exploratory nature that Bennett hopes to bring to Cars & Trucks’ second album — which, he reports, is “mostly written.” (“And I’m thinking concept album,” he says with a big laugh. “Just to be pretentious.”)

“When you listen to the Beatles — I mean, that’s the most popular band of all time — a lot of that stuff is just flat-out bizarre,” he said. “I’d like to point this band more in that direction. I’d like to have that kind of crazy, anything-goes sort of feeling that music had (back then) — I really respond to that.”

Cars & Trucks’ self-titled debut will be released Saturday, Nov. 24. To celebrate, the band is playing a show at 10 p.m. at Pizza Luce with Mark Lindquist, Retribution Gospel Choir and Equal Xchange. Cost is $4. For more information, visit

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