Donny Benét: ‘It’s A One-Man Karaoke Show’
The son of an Italian disco accordionist tells DOUG WALLEN why the synth is now his instrument of choice.
Italian accordionist Antonio Giacomelli Benét played on some seminal disco records in the early ’70s. Later he moved to Sydney for love and passed his love of music on to his son Donny. While Donny got started with the accordion and cut his teeth playing Italian music in hotel lobbies, he graduated to bass and then to synthesisers. Donny has since played in Jack Ladder’s band The Dreamlanders and is now striking boldly out on his own.
The first fruit of his solo endeavour is Don’t Hold Back, an album of retro synth ballads that’s equally sultry, funky, and daggy. Recording in his father’s garage, the younger Benét comes off like a disco-era sex symbol gone to the seed, plying his desperate come-ins over chintzy canned backing one last time. It may sound like a joke project, but Donny approaches tinny drum machines and gurgling synths with profound admiration. If a tune like ‘Sophisticated Lover’ elicits giggles on first spin, its faltering vocals and plinking melodies soon prove disarming for their very sincerity, imperfections, and homespun vigour.
How long have you been doing solo stuff?
As Donny Benét, a few years. Just doing little background gigs in lobbies for quite a while now, as well as before that in other guises.
What were the other guises?
Nothing of note. Just playing accordion or synthesiser or bass in little Italian bands.
When you say you played in lobbies, was that just the nature of the music?
Yeah. It was my dad helping me cut my teeth and get a bit of performance experience. And just trying new stuff.
When did you switch from accordion and bass to synths?
Probably by my late teens. That was about 10 years ago. I just couldn’t really … I wanted to modernise the sound of the accordion, and the accordion just doesn’t cut it. So synthesiser was a logical step. And you’ve got things like the pitch bender, which is a huge bonus for getting stuff across.
How do you play live these days?
I run everything through a computer. I’ll use [music sequencer] Ableton or something. Obviously the synthesiser stuff is all live, and I’ll play a bit of guitar and sing. It’s a bit of a one-man karaoke show.
Speaking of karaoke, there’s this kitschy humour to both your music and lyrics. At what point did you decide to work that in?
It was when I was doing a lot of those hotel lobby gigs. My dad’s friend got me a bit of time [playing music] in Las Vegas. A lot of the songs were influenced [by that]. There’s a lot of stuff about unsuccessful love. Over there everything was based on money, so it was reacting to that and trying to get some kind of reaction from an audience. As far as the kitschiness, being a child of the ’80s it’s just trying to make positive music and those elements come out in it for sure.
There’s a bit of Miami Vice in there.
Yeah, why not? [Laughs] Definitely. It’s funny because the guy that does all the Miami Vice stuff is Jan Hammer, who’s probably one of the best proponents of the Moog synthesiser ever. He was a huge influence in the solos and just some of the sounds. I took a little break down in Miami for a few days [while in the States], and that [instrumental] song ‘Tropical Fever’ was written from being in that environment and the sights and sounds.
Synths have become ubiquitous again, much like they were in the ’80s. Do you think they’re overexposed?
It depends how you use them, I guess. When they came out, it totally freaked out musicians and composers. I was reading this thing about Prince and the drum machine, and he was saying it opened a whole new world up to him. Because he could think of a rhythmic pattern he wanted to be played and get exactly what he wanted programmed into a machine, rather than rely on someone else to interpret it their way. A lot of musicians used it in that way, which is great. A lot of other musicians and composers got really lazy and just used it for the hell of it. As far as now, there’s some guys that use it really well and some people that use it really badly. It’s just one of those things. Like the John Maus stuff that’s coming out: I really enjoy how he gets the subtle sounds out of a synthesiser. Whereas if you hear [synths] on commercial radio, it’s just basically saving money from the producing point of view. So there’s definitely huge differences in the way you use it.
The John Maus stuff is really immersive.
Yeah, it’s nice. You can put a lot of colours into the song, with just a few sounds. It’s also easy to record with synthesisers: I did my album in my dad’s studio. It was really cost- and time-effective. Not to mention I was going after that particular sound anyway.
When I saw Donny Land Studios credited, I wasn’t sure if that was home…
That’s my dad’s studio in his garage. It’s pretty cool. [Laughs]
Do you bounce ideas off your dad or collaborate with him?
Kind of. He released all this stuff in the really early ’70s; it was almost pre-disco. His heart was in the right place, but it just wasn’t the right time. So he got a bit funny about that. But if he’s around, he’ll say, “Do this”, or, “The beat’s not right for this.” He’s still trying to get me to use the accordion again, but at the moment people don’t want to hear that. He was friends with Giorgio Moroder back in the ’70s. He did a lot of sessions with him, so he’s definitely got some good knowhow.
I imagine it’s a fine line between sincerity and irony for you. I know you’re sincere, but there’s that humour at work. Is it hard to get that across to people?
When I do a show, usually about halfway through the second song people are along for the ride. Which is great, because I’m trying to keep everything quite subtle. There’s the sincerity and also the lightheartedness about it. I mean, the music’s trying to be fun. People tend to react to that as they get into the set. I’d like to keep it in the middle rather than go one way or the other, if that makes sense.
Jack Ladder’s new record has some deadpan humour that’s been a bit divisive. What have you learned from playing with him?
I’ve actually learned a lot playing with him, but also having Kirin [Callinan] in the band. Kirin did a whole pile of shows for us: he’d play in the Jack Ladder band, but he’d also do some sets before. Seeing Kirin do everything solo was just an incredible thing. I learned a lot from him just about performing and putting on a good show. He’s definitely a huge talent.
“[My dad] was friends with Giorgio Moroder back in the ’70s. He did a lot of sessions with him, so he’s definitely got some good knowhow.”
The first press release from Rice is Nice promised “mind-melting Moog solos” from you. You don’t hear synth solos much these days. How do those go over live?
They always go down really well. The solos are really part of the song. It’s the ’80s thing: you had the huge guitar solo and the sax solo. You’re starting to get saxophone solos coming back into songs, which is great. It breaks up the structure of the song and shows off a bit of the performer in another way. I find they bring a bit of energy, as well, to the performance. You can use the pitch bender and it’s the last range of emotion you can put out. It’s turned out to be part of the sound and people enjoy it, so I’m happy to do it.
A lot of what we’re discussing are ways to stretch things that bit further, especially when you’re playing by yourself.
Well, that’s the thing. I mean, even compositionally, I just think it breaks up the song. It’s just another aspect that you can add to the song.
Several of your songs are built around imperatives like “Don’t” and “Let’s,” often in a romantic setting. Did you notice you were writing songs like that?
Yeah. That’s influenced a lot by that Vegas thing. Working by yourself, you can get devoid of energy, so that can reflect when you’re writing. When you’re getting a point across, you really have to do it strongly. But it’s also that romantic thing. I just like how it works.