The alternative to success 

In an upstairs bedroom in an unassuming Victorian row house on a block of unassuming Victorian row houses on Detroit’s East Side, Dean Fertita, singer and guitarist for Detroit psychedelic-pop band the Waxwings, is standing stock straight, fingers poised on his keyboard, his inquisitive stare waiting for affirmation from the home’s owner, singer-songwriter Brendan Benson. They are rehearsing for Benson’s latest musical coming-out party scheduled for the following night at a swanky joint in a near-North burb. At that show, the duo will perform poppy rock nuggets from Benson’s second major-label record, The Alternative to Love, in front of a packed house of record store clerks, writers, scenesters and rapt, longtime fans. But at the moment, Benson is distracted by the presence of a journalist unloading batteries, cassette tapes and cigarettes from a plastic bag. They perform a bit more of the song “Cold Hands (Warm Heart)” and call it a night. Amps unplugged and guitars stashed upstairs, Benson and Fertita’s girlfriend are downstairs preparing a dinner that, judging by the smell, consists largely of fried garlic and olive oil. This is the same kitchen for which the shopping list — posted on the door of the fridge — currently consists of only two items, “bread” and “marmalade.”

Soon Benson settles into a chair with his back to his home studio — a bank of mixing consoles and computers he refers to as “the one good thing” that came out of his long-since-soured first major-label deal with Virgin Records 10 years ago. He lights up a smoke and offers the writer a jelly jar of red wine.

Before the conversation is over, Benson will be seemingly psyching himself into the prospect of being a rock star. After all, he nearly is one in England. And, after a decade of living through cult success, a failed major-label deal, a depressed, nearly hermitic period away from making music, an indie-rock resurrection, another label deal gone sour, the very public fandom of a multiplatinum rock star pal and the recent signing to yet another major label, Benson’s learned to be both prepared for anything and comfortable seizing an opportunity when it presents itself.

Of course, this kind of record industry drama happens all the time. But because Benson’s from Detroit and returned as a prodigal son to a rock scene that revitalized his songwriting, when his story is told around here, it’s as if legend. But the fact is, none of this would mean anything if his music was shit, or even average. Thing is, Benson’s music is remarkable. It’s a mercurial and clever blend of the timeless and the ephemeral, mannish-boy and boyish-man, hyper-focused aesthete and would-be shaggy rocker. Starting with his critically adored, (largely) publicly ignored major-label debut One Mississippi and continuing through each subsequent release — up to and including his latest The Alternative to Love — Benson’s earned a reputation as a songwriting force to be reckoned with, a lost boy not afraid to keep the pen to paper and lay his emotional heart out while still stepping up to rock when the footlights call for it.

He has a seductive way with both lyric and six-string, dangling bits of autobiography, reverse self-hagiography in front of listeners looking for lyrical Rorschach tests and a wistful imagination tied with a recklessly reverent regard for pulling an unlikely melodic rabbit out of even the most weather-beaten hats. Consider his recent roughed-up take on Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Let Me Roll It” or the naked emotion (cleverly disguised as supremely self-controlled pop music) he’s unfurled on such recent songs as the aforementioned “Cold Hands” and the confessional well-worn favorite “Metarie,” in which he claims to have innocently asked a girl to “go with me, and no one else.”

In person — both in conversation and in performance — and on record, Benson is a disarming mix of nervous tics girded by an edgy self-confidence.

“There’ll be days and days when the big thing I have to do is like take a bath and do my laundry,” Benson says of his off-work time. “But if I get into it, once I really start working on something, I’ll just go for days and it’s really super-intense, and I don’t know, I’ll like realize I fucked up and forgot to call my girl or something and that’s when I kinda snap out of it. As it is, I don’t really like to go out.”

Benson is — in his looping, near-halting, self-aware way — describing the state of calm and focus that settle over him when he’s manning these boards, either working on his own music or the host of other production projects he has going at any given time.

When you compare that to the suave besuited image who lowered his dreamboat gaze at readers from the pages of February’s Billboard Magazine, the impending major label push for Alternative, which is out this week, and the wave of buzz that’s been building around him in England (where, lets face it, Detroit acts are made to be sold back to the Yanks), it’s hard to connect the dots.

But Benson is obviously, finally, comfortable about the prospect of being a face: “For the longest time I couldn’t think about myself like that. I dreamed about being a rock star. I sang into my hairbrush in front of the mirror. I fucking wanted it, man. But then when it happened it was different. I didn’t want to be perceived as an asshole or something.

“I was always the opposite,” he continues. “My schtick was to be the ordinary guy. Which I don’t think I am really, actually, but I strive for it.”

It’s no wonder he’s every critic’s favorite underdog story. It’s no wonder fans who’ve taken the bait wait with bated breath at news of a new release. It’s no wonder his ambivalence toward his impending potential pop stardom is tempered with a hard-won pragmatism.

It’s no wonder Benson’s always the Next Big Cute Band Alert As Featured On Liz Phair’s Ipod or whatever.

Brendan Benson was born an only child at Royal Oak’s Beaumont Hospital in 1970, but, as he remembers it, a couple of days later, his family pulled up stakes and moved to Louisiana where his dad had found work as a welder. The family lived together in a blue-collar New Orleans suburb (or, as Benson described it in his song “I’m Blessed,” “a Louisiana hell”) called Harvey.

Of his pop and his earliest musical recollections, he says, “There’s old photos of him with me in one hand and a saxophone in the other hand. He was never serious, but he’d break out the sax and jam with friends or whatever.”

The house was full of classic rock like T. Rex and the Beatles and, most pivotally, David Bowie. “I remember hearing David Bowie, like Diamond Dogs, and just being so fascinated by the persona, the whole package. That you could transform yourself like that.”

His parents split up when Benson was a kid and he and his mother returned to Royal Oak while dad followed work to Florida. Benson attended Shrine of the Little Flower Catholic School and, later, Royal Oak Kimball High School. But despite the distance, his father’s enthusiasm for music continued to influence young Brendan. He was that kid — the one whose parents actually knew what they were talking about when it came to music. Pretty much every school has one.

“I would go and visit him every summer, and I’d get there and he’d be like, ‘Listen to this!’ And he’d put on Adam & the Ants or whatever he’d gotten into and it would blow my mind,” Benson says, the enthusiasm in his voice rising.

One day, his friend Andy Kemp slipped him a tape with the Exploited on one side and Minor Threat on the other. It’s funny how a little thing can lead to choices that will affect a lifetime. And this tape was a life-changer for Benson.

“I distinctly remember sitting on the steps outside school one morning — I was at Shrine (Catholic School) — smoking cigarettes and debating whether to go in to school or just blow it off and listen to the tape all day,” he says, laughing. “So I chose to skip.”

After that, punk rock ruled Benson’s imagination and he was soon co-hosting shows in his aunt’s basement for local and touring punk bands such as the Skraps and ALD.

“My aunt worked at a restaurant at night and she just let us use her basement — I don’t know what she was thinking,” he says, chuckling. “But I just idolized all those guys.”

Most appealing to the teenaged Benson was the D.C.-based straight-edgy DIY label Dischord.

“I guess that might seem weird to some people who hear my music, but I had all that shit. I’m not exactly sure how that influenced me, but when you look at who came out of that scene — Dave Grohl was in Scream, of course, Eli Janney and Girls Against Boys — maybe I’m just evolving in parallel with those kind of people who are from the same generation or something.”

Benson says elements of the straight-edge stuff appealed to him since he wasn’t particularly into drugs.

“I’d do drugs when, like, my friends would do them occasionally, but I never really got into that. I knew my dad had done drugs and stuff — he was a real adventurer, into like low-level shady deals and traveling across the country hopping trains and stuff like that. He did everything. Maybe it was a reaction to that or something.”

Regardless, music was in Benson’s blood. And because Benson the musician was born into this underground punk scene, he and buddy Kemp started a band by the time they were 15.

“Andy would write the lyrics and I’d write the music. [It was] more like Fugazi or something. I don’t know. Damn. I haven’t thought about that in forever.”

You get the sense in conversation that Benson really doesn’t think about his past much.

In 1994, after knocking around as a waiter and unlikely doorman at a short-lived Detroit nightclub, and playing in even shorter-lived bands like Smart Bomb, Dog Born and Pony Down, he moved to California — first L.A., then Berkeley, then L.A. again. After all, there was nothing in Detroit in 1995 that an aspiring pop-rock songwriter could look to for inspiration. But Benson’s main motivation for getting out of town, he says, was much simpler.

“I was following a girl, of course,” he says, grinning. “And, of course we broke up.” Among the belongings he took with him was a demo tape of songs he’d been working on — the beginnings of what would become the Wellfed Boy EP and his debut album, One Mississippi.

After settling on the West Coast, Benson fell into a growing power-pop scene spearheaded by Jellyfish, which boasted the songwriting, producing and guitar talents of Jason Falkner. Falkner would help Benson shape his debut album for its shot at the big time.

At the same time, his demo tapes were being circulated among labels and they were, miraculously, getting a great response. In the mid- to late ’90s, major record companies were still willing to take a chance on acts that fit somewhere in the alternative rock radio universe, and in the wake of bands like the Gin Blossoms, Benson seemed like a good bet. A label bidding war for Benson ensued.

“There were three or four labels interested and it just escalated to these ridiculous levels and I ended up signing to Virgin, because they seemed like the best deal,” Benson says.

When it came time to lay tracks for One Mississippi — a pitch-perfect blend of shimmering Beatles-esque pop, disarming autobiography and a home-brewed whiff of the psychedelic and surreal (“Insects Rule” details a swarm of insects taking over the world), Benson called on his acquaintance Falkner as a second ear.

“I wasn’t even really a fan of Jellyfish or anything,” he says of the Falkner-fronted band. “To be honest, I’m not really into that whole ‘power-pop’ scene or whatever.”

But the two songwriters connected on a musical level — Benson did admire Falkner’s work — and, moreover, trusted his ear.

“It was never a collaboration in the true sense of the word,” Benson says of the partnership that would extend from 1996 right up to the release of Benson’s subsequent minor-label debut, 2002’s Lapalco.

“He came in after the songs were written and sort of tweaked them when necessary. He’s also a great arranger — among other things — so he lent a hand with that too.”

But the arrangement wasn’t all sugary pop. “It was never easy for us to work together, I think, because ultimately the respect for one another was felt mostly by me.

“Jason was the better arranger and I’m satisfied with the way most of those songs turned out. When it’s down to me, I always think they could be better,” Benson says.

But it’s clear to Benson in retrospect that Virgin didn’t have a plan for developing the relatively green songsmith.

“They weren’t like, ‘Let’s just put him on the road and forget about him,’ which would have been perfect,” Benson says. “Then I could have learned how to tour to make mistakes and grow.”

Instead, Benson says, they threw him out there as the Next Big Thing in the alt-rock singer-songwriter arena. Major labels were still trying to milk the alternative rock revolution and beating the bushes for artists like Benson who might sell a bunch of records to the demographic du jour. But those days were quickly fading and it didn’t help that Benson was an utter rookie, a punk rock kid who let himself get swept up in the mythology of the Major Label Deal.

Upon its 1996 release, One Mississippi became one of those “critically-adored” nonsellers (though Virgin believed in Benson, running the album through the usual break-a-record drills). And Benson forged a deep bond with fans who discovered the album.

Bruce Bodeen has for years been a kind of music industry gadfly for all things pop. He owns the Colorado-based power-pop online retailer and boutique label Not Lame Records. Bodeen was an early and avid evangelist for Benson.

“When [One Mississippi] came out,” Bodeen says, “there was a lot of press, retail programs with aggressive pricing and the folks at the label seemed behind it. But it just fell flat. It sold about as well as a total new face could sell. And it was still not enough.”

In Bodeen’s assessment — grounded in a logic major labels weren’t forced to understand before the advent of online distribution and modest, sustainable indie successes — “it points to why major labels are fighting a model that does work for the development of talent. Surely, [the response to One Mississippi] was meritous of doing another record, but since it did not sell a million, he was cast off. A definition of success should have been a more modest, reachable figure that would have put Brendan’s career on an ascending path and his label’s music asset inventory (artist catalog) increasing in long-term value to the shareholders.”

Benson, of course, agrees. Further, he had to face the fact that his boosters at the label had moved on, essentially leaving him stranded with a contract to a corporation that didn’t know or care about his music. Benson’s woes were compounded by the fact that despite Virgin dropping a major chunk of its roster the year after One Mississippi came out, he and handful of other so-called “baby bands” had their contracts renewed. Benson rotted on the major-label vine until finally getting out of the deal in 1999.

It was a huge wake-up call, one that left Benson reeling for years, in fact.

By 1997, Benson had had enough of California — or perhaps California had had enough of Benson. While in the middle stages of a struggle to extricate himself from his contract with Virgin, Benson decided to head back home and, essentially, lick his wounds — a prospect he wasn’t looking forward to after lingering around the fringes of the L.A. singer-songwriter scene that included his would-be peers Falkner and Jon Brion.

“When I was in California, I think I really started to notice what a scene really was, what it could be. So I was that much more not looking forward to coming back,” he says.

But as he contemplated his Detroit return, reports from home were more positive. He didn’t know it, but he was returning at exactly the right time for someone who needed to regroup and root in a growing DIY scene.

“Suffice to say that I didn’t think there was anything going on. I’d talk to friends every so often and I’d hear that there were bands playing and it sounded intriguing. I remember hearing about Aces High and the Doll Rods and I remember thinking, ‘Maybe something’s happening back home.’”

When he arrived back home in 1998 he was pleasantly surprised “that the music was way more happening than I thought. I was excited about it. There were so many cool bands, and this was even before there was so much attention, before Detroit became ‘garage rock.’”

Benson’s first hometown gig was at the inaugural Hamtramck Blowout. To those who had followed his trajectory through the major label galaxy and subsequent crash landing on Earth, it was a chance to catch the homecoming of someone they’d written off as a “former Detroiter.” Benson reluctantly agreed to play the show, but once onstage he hammed it up (though nervously), running through such future set standards as “Good To Me” and swiping the state trooper shades off The Go’s Johnny Krautner, as if to take the piss out of any “rock star” accusations.

He also purchased the Victorian (which houses his Grand Studio) he lives in with cash left over from his Virgin deal. “Everyone was moving to Woodbridge, but that was a bit out of my league,” he says.

Joints like the Magic Stick’s Garden Bowl and the semi-regular Living Room session hosted by Ko Shih, then the Sunday night bartender, gave Benson inspiration to start playing again without pressure.

“Music was starting to mean something again to me,” he says. “After living in California, I was getting way too caught up in business stuff. I had no friends and the friends I had were my manager and my A&R guy. So coming back where people were just putting on shows like that and somebody like Jack [White] or the Greenhornes would play, or seeing Punk Rock Tim [Vulgar] do an acoustic set, I was like, ‘Fucking hell, man! Why did I leave?’”

Benson was inspired by the aspiring White and he found a way to collaborate with the kid after finally meeting him at a Gold Dollar show.

“I was struggling, I still am. I mean, fuck I think about things so much. I beat myself up about how hard it is to write a song from the heart,” he says. “Luckily, other people don’t think so, but having worked with Jason Falkner and Jon Brion — not to say anything negative about them — but it’s kind of this school of music that is sort of cerebral. Maybe too much so. Not enough heart. Jack was like the antithesis of that. Just the raw emotion.”

For a brief period in 1998, Benson was one-fourth of a combo some folks called the Bricks, featuring himself, White, drummer Ben Blackwell and bassist Kevin Peyok.

“I just moved back, and I was stoked that I had friends and people to play with on the scene,” Benson says. “That was pretty sweet. A lot of those songs went on White Stripes records.”

One Bricks song was a Benson live fave, “Good To Me,” which ended up as a White Stripes B-side.

In the next few years, Benson was not only gaining confidence in his own songs, but in his abilities as a producer, manning the boards for Blanche, the Rioteers, the Mood Elevator and others, thus establishing his parallel, or backup career.

“There was a point at which I said, ‘OK, I guess that’s it. I’m going to focus on producing other people’s music.’ I’ve always really respected the people who make a living away from the spotlight, who aren’t necessarily famous, but who do this great work, people like Tchad Blake and others.”

But it wasn’t time for Benson to retreat behind the boards just yet. Between One Mississippi’s quiet retreat from record store shelves and 2001, he had gathered a collection of tunes strong enough to shop to labels thanks to Virgin Records.

Virgin had flown him and his studio to a house in the Hollywood Hills to record demos. They rejected the results, which were essentially Lapalco.

Bodeen’s Not Lame was one label shopped.

“The demos were great, very impressive and striking and assertive return to form,” Bodeen says. “Knowing Not Lame was going to be too small of a label, I did make an offer with the caveat that I think he deserved to wait until a bigger, better deal would come along. And, thankfully, it did.”

The label that eventually chanced Benson was a tiny Brooklyn indie, StarTime International. StarTime and its proprietor, Isaac Green, had released exactly one EP, by Brooklynites the French Kicks, when Benson’s demo landed on their doorstep.

“I sent out demos to people and didn’t even put contact information on them,” Benson says, laughing.

“He saw the French Kicks at the Gold Dollar and he’d been dropped by Virgin,” Green says. “And he sent me the record. He wrote a note saying, ‘I saw the French Kicks and my record needs a home.’ It was that cryptic. Then he e-mailed me to see if I had gotten it, and I said, ‘Do you play?’ and he said, ‘I used to have a band, but I don’t anymore.’ I thought, ‘Oh, this is good, it’s a good demo and I’ll make a record that no one will ever, ever hear.’”

That was in March of 2001. By April, Green had started listening to the demo obsessively and soon signed Benson. In February 2002, StarTime released Lapalco.

Green convinced Benson to get a touring band together, and in early 2002, Brendan Benson and the Wellfed Boys made their Detroit debut at the Lager House. The Wellfed Boys was Benson, Chris Plum on lead guitar, Zach Shipps on bass and Matt Alijan on drums.

The Lager House that Friday night was insanely packed, and no one was going anywhere. Benson appeared to be having an unabashed good time — playing at eye-level in front of an adoring throng of hometown well-wishers.

StarTime had provided Benson with two boxes of Lapalco CDs that sold out quickly. Benson’s message for Green the next day speaks volumes about the show:

“Isaac, it’s Brendan. … It was a lot of fun. … We’re gonna need a bigger boat. … I sold all the CDs I brought. … I only brought two boxes and I sold ’em all! Sign me up for more of these things!”

Indeed, Benson and Green were entertaining visitors from the continent who promptly put Benson back in the wine-and-dine grinder, wooing him for Lapalco’s European rights.

“What was interesting was when the European labels were flying over, the record hadn’t even come out yet,” Green says. “They were buying extraordinarily expensive meals and offering to pay like tens of thousands of dollars.”

Eventually, V2 Records — ironically the corporate sequel to Benson’s original major-label home Virgin, and home of Detroiters the White Stripes and Blanche — got the rights to Lapalco in the UK.

And the notoriously performance-shy, would-be studio-geek Benson toured the UK hard, selling out midsized joints across the isles and playing the festival circuit — eventually capping the Lapalco tour at the massive Reading Festival where Meg White sat in on drums for the set-closing song, “Jet Lag.”

Green says Lapalco went on to sell 25,000 or 30,000 copies in Europe and a little less than that in the States. The sales were goosed by nearly universal praise heaped on the album, and by the song “Tiny Spark” getting licensed to Saturn for a TV ad and its appearance in the Ben Stiller-Jennifer Aniston flick, Along Came Polly. Oddly, Benson’s been no stranger to movies, with a One Mississippi song showing up on the Zero Effect soundtrack and a promo poster making the shot in a Jack Black movie. Add to the celebrity shout-outs a Vanity Fair spread on Liz Phair in which the former blow job queen throws props to Lapalco and you get the sense that Benson’s the worst-kept musical secret this side of Smokey Robinson’s facelift.

“It was an unbelievably great record and sold quadruple what the Virgin record sold,” Green says. “The thing about [Lapalco] is that it was the perfect radio record when radio wouldn’t play any of that.”

And the fans reacted in kind too; Lapalco affirmed Benson had a loyal cult following while appealling to other reaches of the rock spectrum. (The record did well enough that in 2003, StarTime reissued One Mississippi, with bonus tracks.)

“Brendan’s fans are very loyal,” Green says, “but also very diverse. Certain indie hipsters that love Animal Collective and German rock also love Brendan. And [with Brendan] you get older power-pop fans too. The fans feel a connection with him and his lyrics and they feel invested in his career.”

Benson’s flattered by the connection his music makes with some, but is typically puzzled. “Someone will say that a song like [One Mississippi’s] ‘Got No Secrets’ really spoke to them and they can relate, and I think they assume it’s autobiographical,” he says. “But oftentimes, I’ll just be like role-playing. There might be a small bit of autobiography, but it’s embellished. So I just say thanks. And I am grateful for that.”

Benson returned from the extensive touring in support of Lapalco in 2003. He headed straight back into the studio to unload the songs he’d had in progress. “I thought, ‘This is great. I’m so psyched. For the first time ever I’m just going to crank out a record.’”

And that’s exactly what he did. The songs on The Alternative To Love were, in fact, recorded and ready in February of last year.

“I did it all myself. I just didn’t want to slow down. If I had an idea, I just wanted to do it, so I played everything except for a couple songs that Matt [Alijan] played drums on. When I write, it just comes to me. I’ve had it happen where I’m driving to meet friends or going to a party and I’ll just turn around and head straight home and start recording.”

The songs that became The Alternative to Love came fast and furious, though the momentum was short-lived. Just as Benson had finished the record, V2 dropped him in the UK. But, in a bit of record label spin-the-bottle that echoes Wilco’s split with Reprise and subsequent re-signing to Nonesuch Records — both labels owned by the same parent company, Warner Brothers — Benson was soon re-signed to V2 worldwide.

“The people at V2 here [in the United States] are awesome,” Benson says of his new-old label. “And the people at V2 in the UK have been really cool about it. Like it’s no big deal.”

It’s fortunate too that the record is on a major rather than an indie since the former has the resources to hire a mixer to give The Alternative to Love a sheen and continuity that Lapalco lacked. Enter Tchad Blake, a Grammy winner who’s worked with Sheryl Crow, Crowded House, Paul McCartney, Tom Waits and others.

“I’ve always loved and respected his work and thought it would be a dream to have him work on my record,” Benson says. “And the next thing I knew, I was talking to Tchad Blake on the phone. I just said, ‘Do your thing.’”

“Spit It Out” kicks off The Alternative to Love, confirming everything a Benson fan hoped was true, at least musically. It’s irresistible and hooky as hell, torn between cool observation and biting contempt, never losing sight of a playful turn of phrase.

In fact, the record’s ample supply of ear-bending hooks is an evolutionary step in Benson’s ongoing quest to write songs that connect to a wider audience. “With this record, I made a conscious effort to try to write hooks. Actual hooks. Which is something I’ve never really done before, something I don’t think I’ve been very good at in the past.”

The title song began as an acoustic demo for his recent Metarie EP. Here, Benson layers on a disco beat, handclaps, interjecting a deadpan hip-hop inflected “I’ll do it up, yo” to the end chorus.

“I didn’t really know when to stop on that song,” he says, smiling. “Like, ‘Well, what if I put a disco beat on there?’ and it was like a dare to myself.”

Elsewhere are pure McCartney moments, and Benson is rightfully not embarrassed: “One of my friends was saying that Paul’s stuff wasn’t powerful. That when he tried to sound bad-ass, it sounded forced. But I think he’s wrong, if you listen to the subtle changes and parts in ‘Band on the Run’ for example, they’re just so powerful.”

All said, The Alternative to Love is a record that’s more radio-ready than anything he’s produced in his radio-ready-in-a-better-radio-universe career. If this record doesn’t have Benson competing with the John Mayers of the world, to woo the hearts of every girl, women and sensitive boy-man, there really is no justice.

So with the full-throttle (and, one figures, strategically sound) support of his label behind his strongest record, Benson, it would seem, is finally in the catbird seat.

But he’s not sitting back yet. Besides working on the new Greenhornes record among his handful of production projects, he has the added second-hand buzz associated with making a not-so-secret record with his pal Jack White. Recorded in fits and bursts over the last year when White’s schedule allowed, the record, Benson says, came surprisingly easy.

“We’d never really collaborated seriously before. We’d gotten together to jam or try to write songs together, but it didn’t work out,” Benson says. Then he adds, laughing, “This record — though it sounds like Cat Stevens fronting Deep Purple or something — we both came to it with our own ideas. And we’d just throw them out there and work on ’em. I haven’t played it for many people, obviously, but the people that have heard it are really surprised. I don’t want to think in terms of comparisons, but one person we played it for said it made him feel the same way he felt when he heard Nirvana’s Nevermind for the first time. I don’t know exactly what that means, but it’s exciting.”

Make no mistake, though, Benson’s focus is firmly on his new record. A summer full of US, UK and European tours are in the offing and, for once, Benson has no ambivalence about it. This time around, with the right people around him, and a UK manager that keeps his career regulated, he feels good about being on a major label.

“I’ve actually started to enjoy touring,” Benson says. “These guys I’m playing with now are awesome.”

The latest incarnation of the Wellfed Boys features Alijan on drums, Fertita on guitar and backing vocals, and Twilight Singers’ bassist Michael Horrigan — a connection made through the Greenhornes. They’re the type of gents Benson says he actually enjoys spending time in a van with, cracking inevitable poop and fart jokes, killing time making movie references.

“We’ll pull into a town and someone will come up to me and start talking to me about stuff, like regular real-life conversation, and I’ll be like ‘I had a good crap the other day. Ask Dean over there, he’ll tell you. Hey, Dean!” Benson says, chuckling.

But the joie de rock extends to the record too. For someone who’s always tempered even his love songs with healthy doses of cynicism and dark hues, the Benson found on The Alternative To Love — such as the unflinchingly lovestruck Phil Spector-ish “The Pledge” — seems almost happy, as if he’s comfortable in his own skin.

Benson agrees: “In general, I feel more hopeful and more positive about making music and, in particular, about this record.”

Kicked around a handful of times by an industry known to reward fakes and strangle truth-tellers, Benson has come out on the other side with some necessary mileage; he’s learned the hard lessons. And now it’s do it yourself, for yourself first and foremost, and everything else will follow. That it took him 10 years slogging through legal, artistic and personal slop has made his focus that clearer.

It would seem that Brendan Benson has finally, unabashedly declared his intentions for his music career. The song “Biggest Fan,” from The Alternative to Love, says simply: “I want my piece/I want my slice/A beat-up punk rock paradise.”

From all evidence, it would seem he’s living it, that he’s no three-time loser.

“I realize now more than ever that there’s nothing else I could or should be doing,” he says. “I’d like to sell a shit-load of records for once.”


Appears at 11 p.m., Monday, March 21, at Young Soul Rebels Records (4152 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-2001).

Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to

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