360°Sound caught up with New Orleans-based electronic artist BÊNNÍ (pronounced like “Benny”). The 34-year-old, who plays vintage keyboards and synthesizers, describes his work as 80s synth-funk soundtrack music — think John Carpenter meets Zapp & Roger. For nearly two decades, BÊNNÍ (aka Benny Divine) has been playing drums, keys, guitar, and more in numerous bands, from punk rockers Buck Biloxi and The Fucks to Southern rockers Natural Child. He’s currently working on his third BÊNNÍ LP, Provocation. In this interview, BÊNNÍ talks about his fervent Scandinavian fan base, talk boxes, Stranger Things, and more.
How did the idea for the BÊNNÍ solo project come about?
I was in studio with Natural Child recording Okie Dokie. They had a [Roland] Juno-106 [synthesizer] in the studio. I was fucking around on it, and I was like, ‘Everything I play on this sounds amazing.’ Right around that time I recorded some phone demos, some soundtrack music, like movie music. I love instrumental music. I always wanted to do an instrumental album where I do everything on it. At the time I was getting into Vangelis and Harald Grosskopf, stuff like that, and that band Warning. Around that time, I was getting super burned out on playing in bands. I was playing with like seven or eight bands at one point.
It just lined up perfectly where I could do my own little solo electronic project. I was doing this right before that show Stranger Things [with its 80s-influenced synth score] exploded. It was right before that when I started doing it. So, I think I kind of got lucky with the boom of that about a year after I started. Everybody was starting to get into it. I think that was half the reason [Memphis label] Goner [Records] was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll try something different. We’ll put out an electronic record by this guy who plays in all these punk bands.’
Really what happened is Eric [Friedl] from Goner saw me play live when I opened for Quintron in Memphis on New Year’s Eve like three years ago, and Eric was like ‘Oh man, my kids would love this shit.’ That was right before the Stranger Things shit. I’d messed around with keyboards, but I’d never really wrote electronic music other than like [electro-funk group] Super Nice Bros where I programmed stuff. All these other people I know who’ve been doing this forever, they all collectively groaned when Stranger Things got popular. There were like ‘Aww, here we go, now everybody’s gonna do this.’ I felt like an asshole a little bit. You’re just this guy BÊNNÍ who’s played in all these punk bands and now he’s got an electronic thing. But it really wasn’t like that.
When I saw you live in Austin last year you would talk to the crowd with the talk box, asking them to buy your t-shirts and stuff. It got a lot of laughs.
That came naturally to me. When I first started playing live my girlfriend was like, ‘You gotta stop trying to make everybody laugh, stop telling jokes. It’s dumb, blah blah blah.’ I remember playing one show in Birmingham (Alabama) at this festival and I was just normal ass, drunk as shit, talking through the box like I normally do, cracking jokes. And people were losing it. First of all, they loved the music, but they were just cracking up and having such a good time. And then after that my girlfriend was like ‘Alright, maybe you should tell jokes.’
I want people to be comfortable. I’m not trying to be super fucking serious. It might seem like it from my albums that I want to be all serious and shit, but I want the show to be more fun, which that’s probably my downfall and why I’ll never be successful. Trying to be too humorous live and really, I should be all serious and dark.
I tell the jokes because it’s so uncomfortable for me to be up there and the center of attention. It’s like ‘Fuck it, I’ll start talking to these people in a robot voice.’ If I make people laugh, I’ll totally feel fine, whereas if I was trying to be all serious, I would quit after like a week, like ‘I can’t do this.’ I like to play live. I have a lot of fun. But also, it’s hard to be one person up there when I’ve spent my entire life behind the drum set.
I believe there are three songs on the second album with a vocoder. Or is it a talk box?
It’s a talk box. A talk box is a tube with a little speaker on the end where the keyboard sound is coming out of the speaker going down the tube and going out of my mouth, whereas a vocoder is a microphone connected to a synth where you still sing it, but it takes the sound of your voice and changes it as opposed to you mouthing the sound with your mouth out of a tube. To me, the talk box is way more expressive than a vocoder. I tried to keep it limited with the talk box because I like to do a lot of instrumental stuff on an album, and then live I’ll do a lot of talk box because it’s more interesting live.
You’ve said your best shows have been in Denmark and Sweden. Do you have an idea as to why you’re so popular in the Nordic countries?
I have no clue. I don’t have the slightest clue why. It’s all punk venues, all the Europe places I played, except I did one tour where there were maybe like four venues that weren’t punk venues. I do really good in that realm for some reason. I guess because people know me from other punk bands and it’s just kind of something different. I played this legendary punk venue in Belgium called The Pit’s. The first year I toured there I was playing in the punk band Heavy Lids and I was playing solo as well. I was like, ‘Oh great, they’re gonna kill me here. They’re gonna throw bottles and try to fight me or something. We played then I got on to play last, and they wouldn’t let me stop. They loved it. They wanted me to keep going. The guy who works there, Sebastian, was like, ‘A lot of these old punks are into electronic music now.’ It’s just something different and fun for them. I think maybe that’s what a lot of it is.
I like the variation on your records. You have some driving, upbeat songs, you have ambient stuff, and you even have ballads, such as “Ard’rian’s Theme.” Did you make a conscious effort to have a variety of sounds?
Absolutely, the first few albums I did I went through the process of ‘I want a nice driving song with a strong beat, and then I want to go into something kind of ambient and dark, and then I want to go into something super upbeat like four-on-the-floor sound.’ I want a good variety. I like listening to that kind of music when I’m working, so variation helps that for me. It weaves in and out of slow/fast and different moods. “Ard’rian’s Theme” was kind of a slow love theme. It’s a change of pace. Make it interesting. Don’t make it sound the same the whole way through. It’s easy to be repetitive when you’re doing electronic music like that. With some music genres, it works. Like with punk, you want it to be full speed all the way through an album. But with electronic music, if you’re doing the same thing for every song it gets really old really fast.
So be on the lookout for a dude in a chain-mail coif. It just might be Sir BÊNNÍ, the dark knight of the talk box. Hey, Stranger Things have happened…