Who are you? Where are you from? What style of music do you create?
We are both originally from Texas; I’m from Ft Worth and Britton is from Dallas. But we’ve both been in New York long enough to consider ourselves New Yorkers. We’ve taken up residence in Brooklyn and love the music spirit and scene here. I have a background in classical and jazz composition and also play a lot of funk and soul. Britton is a gigging chamber percussionist and recording artist, specializing in new (ie 21st century) music, who plays actively throughout the east coast, and especially in NYC. However, this band is very much in the singer-songwriter vein, albeit with unusual instrumentation.
An 8 string guitar? Custom made? What’s the story behind this beast?
It’s made by Novax Guitars; it is the model created for the jazz funk guitarist Charlie Hunter, who plays independent guitar and bass lines simultaneously, much like a jazz organist would. I’ve been a huge fan of his since I was a kid. The guitar combines 3 bass strings and 5 guitar strings with separate pickups and outputs, allowing the player to run the bass side through a bass amp and the guitar side through a guitar amp so the one instrument sounds like two completely separate ones. In addition, the frets are “fanned” (angled) so that the bass side has a long neck scale (like a bass guitar would) and the guitar side has a shorter one.
It’s an amazing instrument, probably the finest crafted guitar I’ve ever played, let alone owned. To really hear it in its element though you should check out some of Charlie’s tunes! Although they’re amazing, it’s not what this band is trying to do; I don’t have the chops of him, nor am I trying to imitate him (other than the obvious use of his guitar/bass combo instrument). Rather, I was attracted to this instrument because I felt something was missing in our tonal spectrum. In early rehearsals, I was playing standard 6-string guitar and Britton was playing on a 5 octave marimba, which extends down to cello low C. The rich resonance of the low frequencies really filled out what was otherwise a pretty sparse texture. Unfortunately, moving a 5 octave marimba is quite difficult and not at all suited for NYC club gigging. The marimba we use live is 4 and 1/3 octaves – much easier to move, but we lose out on those beautiful rich low tones. I was looking for a way to keep the low notes in while still maintaining my guitar parts, and the Novax was the perfect solution. It was a huge challenge – basically like re-learning how to play guitar – but the musical possibilities with the instrument are endless.
How does one start down the path of becoming an expert in percussion?
Britton has been active in the field of percussion since she was in middle school; working with everything from timpani to snare drum to keyboard percussion instruments played with mallets (ie marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, etc), the latter attracting an extra-special interest for her (though in her ongoing professional work as an orchestral and chamber percussionist, she has to play pretty much every percussion instrument under the sun). She began her musical training on piano, which is a natural progression to keyboard percussion.
She was first introduced to percussion in her school music program, and has continued intensive study through undergraduate and graduate degrees, studying with some of the top names in the field. Today she is a full-time percussionist, playing all over the east coast but especially active in the NYC chamber scene, including with the Grammy-nominated Metropolis Ensemble, and is a recording artist with Naxos and Nonesuch record labels.
There is no silver bullet, just a lot of study, a lot of shedding, and a lot of drive. And needed most of all is an undying love of the instruments and the music. And of course – if one is to become a professional gigging percussionist – a willingness to schlep loads of heavy gear from venue to venue.
How did the two of you come together? Was there an “ah-ha” moment?
Britton and I are married, so the story of us coming together is quite different than the story of the music 🙂
Although both of us are musicians, we had never played together until a party in 2010, where we were asked to provide music. I played guitar and sang some of my songs and some covers, and she played hand percussion (mainly cajon if I recall correctly). At the party was Scott Sellwood, a good friend, and longtime indie musician and songwriter with bands including Drunken Barn Dance and Saturday Looks Good To Me. After the show, he encouraged Britton and I to work on a stripped-down, guitar and percussion project. We wanted to add in the keyboard percussion element since we felt it was highly unique and added something new to the singer-songwriter genre. Once we started rehearsing with the marimba, it unleashed a flood of inspiration, and we fell in love with the combination of textures.
The name “The New Benjamin Britton” is a light hearted reference to both of our first names and their phonetic similarity to the famous British composer Benjamin Britten.
What was the last song you listened to?
“Either Way” by Wilco from “Sky Blue Sky”
Who or what influences your style? Have your tastes change from when you were younger until now?
We work in so many genres it’s tough to pick a single source of influence. For this band in particular I would say the main artists we lean towards directionally are Paul Simon, Sufjan Stevens, and Belle and Sebastian. And of course no one ever escapes or outgrows their Beatles influence.
Certainly my tastes have changed considerably from when I was younger. Then I liked more straight ahead pop and rock, especially classic rock. I’ve since acquired a taste for extended funk jams, classic soul, jazz from early 1920s to the avant garde, modern and atonal orchestral and chamber music, and indie singer-songwriters, among countless other genres.
How big of a role does the web / social media play in your music career? Connecting with fans? Any challenges?
A huge role. I don’t think any band today can grow without embracing social media. Whether you love it or hate it, social media is the most immediate and utilitarian way to connect directly to large numbers of people, both in broad swathes and in quite targeted ways. We get excited as each new person connects with us through these channels and enjoys the music. Music is meant to be shared and social media enables and democratizes that like nothing else that has ever existed.
Do you actively perform? Any tours? Where can people see you live?
We do actively perform mainly in the tri-state area around New York, though we’ve taken a multi-month furlough to finish up our debut album. Our last tour was through the midwest, focused in Michigan and Illinois (a live clip here), but we don’t have a new one scheduled currently. However, we do keep an active gigging schedule; usually in Brooklyn, Philly, Jersey, or other usual local suspects. If you can’t make that, watch for frequent live footage postage on YouTube! And hopefully a more extensive tour later this year.
Where can we grab your music? Buy a CD? Where can we connect with you online?
We are in the process of scheduling the release date of our debut album “Raise A Glass Broken Land” … it will be mid-summer but exact date is still being coordinated. However in the interim, you can stream it for free on our website (benjaminbritton.net). If you just can’t wait (who could) and want an advance copy of the CD (full disclosure: they are REALLY cool!), email us at email@example.com and we’ll mail one to you. The best way to connect with us is on Facebook: facebook.com/newbenbritton. From there you’ll get lots of updates, videos, musings, and the occasional gratuitous picture of our (very cute) puppy. It’s also the best way to stay on top of our new CD release, which will head to all major digital retailers including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Spotify, Rhapsody, and pretty much anything else you can think of.
Any last thoughts? Shout outs?
Extra special thanks to all our friends and fans here in Brooklyn and NYC – and we still get a thrill out of being the most unorthodox ensemble in most NYC clubs we play.