Australia’s favourite party band The Bennies return with a new album Wisdom Machine and a national tour to show it off. The Bennies’ bass player Craig Selak spoke to Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips just prior to heading out on the road.
Hey Bennies, you’re not fooling anyone. On face value, you might be that larrikin, F-bomb dropping, reggae-tinged, punk party band that we all know and love. Behind the facade however, is one of Australia’s best-drilled and hardest working bands with a level of musicianship that only dogged determination and hours and hours of rehearsal can bring. “Yeah we rehearse all the time,” bass player Craig Selak tells me. “We don’t aspire to be too showy or anything but I think it is important if you are crafting tunes which are quite short and also, a lot of the attention on the band is about the content, so it is important to back it up with some substance. I think the addition of Jules on guitar … he joined the band just before our album Rainbows in Space and really injected a lot of musicality into the band and that’s something which inspired us all to lift our game. I think we’re really starting to hit our straps now.”
The Bennies are about to get even more road-hardened as they’ve just kicked off a string of 28 dates in 30 days in support of their new album Wisdom Machine, the follow up to their critically acclaimed 2013 release Rainbows In Space. Wisdom Machine offers up more of the energetic, genre-meddling fare we’ve come to expect from the 4 piece Melbourne-based funsters but with an added dimension, a move forward both musically and lyrically.
“I think it was pretty much assumed that we wanted to keep doing what we’re doing,” explains Craig. “We wanted to add a bit of depth to it this time. We actually took time to write for this album, wheres normally we’d just do it on the road or whatever. This time we took a month off and didn’t do anything else except write for the album and we came out with 22 songs. We actually ended up recording all of them because we couldn’t pick for the album at that point. Our thought process was that people like The Bennies because they just want to put our records on and not really think about anything else. It is a sweet release, a head banging good time. But also we thought, if people want to dig deeper, we might add some depth there, so we tried to go deeper with musical aspects and also lyrically but we didn’t want to lose our identity.”
For the most part on Wisdom Machine, Selak and his rhythm playing partner in crime, drummer Bowie are fulfilling their engine room duties and holding down a solid groove but occasionally Craig gets to bust out with some free-flowing bass noodling as he does on the track Burn Out City.
“Yeah thank god they let me off the leash,” he laughs. “The way I normally jam, particularly with the reggae tunes, is I just feel it out. A lot of those takes were just what happened in the studio when jamming. The bass lines were really inspired by Sublime and when we tacked on the end section, it was almost Gracelandish. It was really fun to just feel off all of the percussion and have a walk around. I got to play a really sweet old Gibson Grabber on that tune. It was one of those classic basses where the strings were like a metre and a half off the fretboard. We ran it through a hundred different amps and it just sounded like a piece of wood with strings on it no matter what we did to it . The strings might be a hundred years old, I don’t know it just had so much character. It was a real blast to play on it.”
For the record, Selak played three basses on the album; the Gibson Grabber, a Squier Jazz and his touring bass, a Gibson Thunderbird, all through his Mark Bass amp gear. “My main bass for the whole thing was a Squier Jazz 70s vintage modified, I think they are called, which is a sweet sounding bass. In the past, I’ve just run a P Bass. Normally we’d do drums and bass first but this time we did guitars before the bass so I could really find an area to poke out from and the Jazz sat really well with that. I have an endorsement with MarkBass, which is the greatest achievement of my life for sure. I absolutely love MarkBass. Always played them. I run a Little Mark III live as I do in the studio. I experimented with pedals for a period but mainly now it’s just for flavour. For the style of music we play, it is so eclectic and a clean sound just works for everything. When we play Party Machine live, I’ve got an octave fuzz for a drop out section, for Corruption I use an overdrive and a bass wah too which is really fun. I was able to sneak that on the album. Other than that it is pretty minimal. I just try to use feel to get my point across.”
Wisdom Machine ends with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, an epic track which runs at just under ten minutes long. It’s a tune Selak can see the band stretching out even further on while on tour.
“Because of the transitions in that song, I think we can get quite indulgent on that one,” he says. “For this recording we were pretty strict on trying to get things down properly and well recorded but live, we are really four musicians that like to jam. We don’t like to pre-organise shit, so if there is an opportunity to stretch it out and we’re feeling it, we will definitely go for it.”
There’s also quite a bit of brass on the new album, I wondered how that will factor into their stage show?
“As you know touring is quite a constraint on the budget,” Craig explains. “We’re not taking a brass section out with us this time but whenever we can, we will. We played a few shows in Melbourne and were able to do so because the brass section is from Melbourne. I think in the future, it is something we’d love to do more. At this point we are just trying to make it so that we can tour as much as possible. Sometimes we’ll use keys for the brass parts and I think we are also going to work in a couple of samples off a drum pad. But also it’s nice to add that point of difference live. On stage we are a different beast and hopefully a bit more raw so we’ll probably just bail on a bunch of it and hope it works out.”
The reggae flavour in The Bennies’ music is strong, however it’s not the famous jamaican rhythm sections such as Sly and Robbie which have influenced Selak as much as the punk and thrash elements and other more surprising musical heroes. “My bass influences are more thrash metal,” states Craig.” I started playing guitar and was really into a lot of 80s thrash. But I really loved Queen! So Brian May is probably more of an influence on my bass, even though he is a guitarist. I love Matt Freeman from Rancid and I really love Tim Commerford from Rage Against The Machine, the way he manages to balance between the groove between their songs and just the power when he needs it. It’s something I aspire to. But we are playing at a festival in Belgium called Groezrock with Rancid and it’s a dream come true. I’ll be side of stage where Freeman is playing with a notepad and a pen.”
The Bennies’ music is so upbeat and contagious and their gigs can be so wild. After all, it’s what fans come to expect gig after gig. But The Bennies are merely human and it’s impossible for anyone to be switched on one hundred percent of the time, every day of the year. Touring with such a gruelling schedule, how does the band deal with the days when someone might be ill or simply below par mentally?
“Yeah, life doesn’t give a fuck if you are on tour or not unfortunately,” says Craig. “We have actually had some very tragic things happen while we have been on tour but I think it comes back to the chemistry within the band. Three of us have been friends for over 20 years. When we met Jules and he joined the band, we felt like we’d known him our whole life. It’s not put on the energy and excitement of the songs, that is genuinely how it feels when the four of us get together. We just love each other’s company. Touring so much together we have learned when to kick someone and when to give them a hug and that’s an important balance for any group. It’s really clear if a dude is struggling, give him a high five, give him some space. Our goals are aligned and that is to be the best band we can possibly be and the best dudes we can be and we keep each other on track. I think that is the only way.”
Many bands don’t ever get to tour outside of their own state, let alone travel the international miles that The Bennies have been able to accrue. Craig suggests that there are two clear factors which have enabled the band to enjoy the global recognition that they have earned so far. “Honestly, I think the two things that have worked for us overseas are the same as Australia; touring as much as possible and having a really positive attitude towards people saying no to you. I think those are the two greatest things any band can do, particularly now that you aren’t really making a huge amount of money on record sales. What your value is, is your live performance. If you can get in front of as many motherfuckers as possible, it’s always going to be good for your band. Even if it just means you are learning to play better together. That’s the attitude we take overseas. This next tour coming up I think it is 28 shows in 30 days which sounds daunting but it is really exciting. That’s the kind of mentality which has helped earn the band some notoriety overseas and we just plan to keep doing that.”
Wisdom Machine is out now. www.thebennies.com.au