The Calico Room
107 S. Front Street
7/8-9 • $9 (one night) $15 (both)
Before calling Benji Hughes in Los Angeles, I wavered on which questions to ask. I’d heard stories. By reputation, his interviews are typically inconsistent and unconventional. Above all, I was unsure of which side of Benji Hughes to pry.
On one hand, there is the musical genius behind “A Love Extreme” (New West Records), his ambitious double-album debut that NPR and the New York Times gave glowing reviews, and Rolling Stone rated four stars in 2008. The 25-song album ranges effortlessly from laid-back, tongue-in-check dance-floor confessionals reminiscent of Beck, to unflinching, soulful piano ballads with glaringly personal lyrics. It’s all layered with Hughes’ hushed and soulful vocals that sound dipped in morning dew after a long night of partying.
On the other hand, there is the indifferent and enigmatic persona, who earlier in the year appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” wearing a cape and pulling flowers out of his sleeve looking like a lost member of The Allman Brothers.
After talking to Hughes, I realized—as we discussed music, facial hair and Bon Jovi—he was a hybrid of the two, encompassing both extremes of his album: cool, calm, eccentric and unpredictable.
encore: How did the idea of debuting with a double-album come about?
Benji Hughes: I recorded some of it over a period of time, and when it was time to put it together and choose its songs, it just made sense to package it. Sequencing-wise, it made it easier for me to put it into two parts. It seemed extreme to put 25 songs in a row, so it makes two nice little CDs—like a more flavorful experience. I get over stuff fairly quickly; you know, who wants to listen to a three-hour [album]… well some people do.
e: Most of the songs seem autobiographical, the exception being “The Mummy” [which features the lyrics: “Don’t get the mummy/when the mummy gets drunk he unravels.”] What was the inspiration behind it?
BH: Well, I hate too much explanation for a song, whether [people ask,] ‘Is this a true story?’ or ‘What exactly is this about?’ I like to leave it up to the listener. On one hand, if I say something somebody might be like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I thought!’ On the other hand, if they had a totally different interpretation, I could ruin it for them. It’s best for me to leave it mysterious. I mean—can’t you tell it’s about monsters and Joe Walsh? [Laughs] It’s totally obvious.
e: The album is pretty broad in scope, so it’s hard to pinpoint your musical influences. What albums are you currently listening to?
BH: I probably wasn’t listening to a bunch. I love music, obviously, but when I’m not doing music, I’m usually not listening to it. I’m out of the loop with new music. I know there’s a lot of new, good stuff out, but I just don’t keep up with it.
e: Well, the Internet and blogs makes it hard to keep up with new music – too much overload.
BH: Big time. But I enjoy a lot of old-school stuff: Motown, Phil Spector [and] jazz records.
e: Every article and review I read about you, they all mention your beard. Did you ever think your facial hair would get so much attention?
BH: It’s been one of those things; I just haven’t shaved it. It works for me. I’m glad it hasn’t caught fire. But I get a lot of people asking me for rolling papers.
e: Chuck Klosterman wrote in “Esquire” [in March] that the moment he saw the cover of “A Love Extreme,” he knew he “was going to love” its music. Can you tell me how that photograph on the cover art came about?
BH: I thought it would be a sweet shot: hair blowin’ around, shades, looking like you’re vibin’ out in some extreme vacuum in space. To be honest with you, I didn’t think about it that much; I just put some shades on. Obviously there was some wind going on. Was it just windy in the studio? Was there a fan involved? Y’all have to figure that out.
e: Cryptic. Is there any new music you’re planning on recording soon?
BH: Yeah, I’m actually working on some stuff for the new record. I don’t think I’ll spend three years on it again; I’m doing it with [producer] Keefus [Ciancia] again. I would like to think if someone enjoyed [“A Love Extreme”], they’ll enjoy this one. I’m not trying to go too far off the beaten path.
e: How’d you end up becoming a contributing writer for the music featured in “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”?
BH: I knew some of the cast that were working on the movie. They sent me a script, [and] one of my buddies, Charlie Wadhams, was thinking about tackling one of the songs, “Let’s Duet,” which was right up my alley. I grew up with a lot of old-school country; it’s one of my favorite types of music. I was like, “Hey, I can do this.” They wanted a Southern jam, and I’m actually from the South, [so] I know this kind of thing; I can do this . . . out in California. And it worked out. Would I have done as well on a disco track? I don’t know. Maybe. Not very likely. [Laughs]
e: Well, if they re-make “Saturday Night Fever,” you could prove yourself then.
BH: Totally. I’m up for it.
e: It’s been a little while since you’ve played in Wilmington. Has there been any change in your backing band?
BH: Yeah, minus our keyboard player. Might as well keep the same band—don’t want to confuse people. [But] it’s a lot more fun with four people. It’s hard for a keyboard player to not look lame onstage. That’s just a fact. I’m a keyboard player myself, so I can say that. [Laughs]
e: The keyboardist from Bon Jovi did a pretty good job at looking cool.
BH: That’s the one exception: that dude from Bon Jovi with the sweetest hair of all time.
Tickets for the show are available at Gravity Records and Edge of Urge.