Here’s how it works. We asked Milwaukee music veteran Mike Benign (Blue in the Face, Arms & Legs & Feet, Umbrella Man) eight questions about his band The Mike Benign Compulsion’s new record, "Here’s How It Works."
The disc, issued on vinyl with an enclosed digital download card, showscases not only Benign’s pointed, melodic songwriting, but also the skills of his top notch band, which includes guitarist Joe Vent, bassist Brian Wooldridge and drummer Michael Koch.
The LP is launched with a release gig at Shank Hall next week. Read on for the full details.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell me a bit about the new record.
Mike Benign: 13 songs. There's plenty of three-minute-or-less power pop stuff. But also a number of songs that take our usual approach off into some different, and hopefully unexpected, territories.
Also, this is a concept album of sorts, minus orchestral segues, ponderous lyrics or a Broadway musical-type story line. It's an exercise in "write what you know." All of the songs launch from various experiences and observations that come with hitting middle age. I turned 50 this past year, and the time leading up to that filled up with lots of new songs that touched on some aspect of getting older.
The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of devoting an entire album to a topic that's about as un-rock and roll as it gets. Why not acknowledge and celebrate the elephant in the room, right? Fortunately, Brian, Joe and Michael were cool with it. Probably because they're geezers now, too.
OMC: As time passes do you find it gets harder to write or easier to write? As we get older is there a bigger stockpile of experience from which to draw?
MB: Actually, it's gotten much easier for me to write. And to your point, there's no shortage of things to write about. The only issue now is finding the time. When I can make the time, I'm pretty prolific – no fear of the blank page. I tend to lose track of time when I'm up in the attic working on songs.
OMC: You made the bulk of the record in Rockford, right?
MB: We recorded most of the record with Daniel McMahon, who's also the guitarist for Miles Nielsen and The Rusted Hearts. He's recorded a number of Milwaukee bands, most recently Midnight Reruns, I guess.
OMC: How did you make that connection?
MB: We got to know Dan by doing a bunch of shows with him and Miles and the band. Dan already had a pretty good sense of who we were and what we were trying to capture, so that helped. Also, great guy – very easy to work with. Great vibe in the studio.
OMC: Then you did some stuff at Joe Vent's, too?
MB: We used Joe's home studio for some of the additional tracking and editing, like background vocals and percussion. And Tyler Traband's home studio for his keyboard work, which is stellar as always.
We also tracked drums on two or three songs at Madison Media Institute.
OMC: Then back to McMahon to mix?
MB: Yes, Dan mixed the record. He totally nailed what we were trying to do. We'd get the first mix on every song, and it was nearly perfect. Good ear on that one. And Justin Perkins mastered the vinyl album and digital files.
OMC: Certainly, you have to talk about the cover art, which is striking. Was the concept yours or (designer) Ken Hanson's?
MB: I went to Ken with the idea of having a male figure somewhere between 45 and 60 years old in a fetal position, a la John Lennon's pose in the famous Annie Leibovitz photo of John and Yoko.
Based on the theme of the album, Ken came up with a bunch of other ideas, including one where the same figure would be dressed in a suit, being battered by unseen forces.
So we shot both versions, and ended up using Ken's concept for the front, which the band and I are delighted with. We included the fetal position shot on the sleeve. Ken knocked it out of the park with the overall design concept, too.
OMC: How did you arrive at using Joe Pabst as the cover model? Did he need convincing to do the nude shot?
MB: Ken knew him from the art scene. You'd have to ask Joe, but my sense is, he trusted Ken, and so he didn't need a lot of convincing once Ken explained the concept. I know from talking to Joe before the shoot that he appreciated what we were trying to do conceptually with the album, and was excited about being part of creating something new. He was a good sport and a joy to work with.
OMC: OK, what are the details on the record release party?
MB: Shank Hall, Saturday, March 8, 8 p.m. start, $7. We like the early starts and early finishes. Makes it a reasonable night for the 40-plus set, and for people with babysitters. We'll have the LP available for purchase at the show. Testa Rosa opens.
Surprises galore, including the debut of a new video.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.