First and foremost is the fact that "Eyes on the Horizon" has an über-groovy vibe, like a late-night cocktail bar in the swanky part of town. Some of this is the '70s soul sound that envelops the song, keyed by the subtle snap of the wood-block and the fat, viscous bass line.
The first lines are soaked in paranoia as Brendan Benson sings of a man following him and the hidden listening device eavesdropping on him. It's all leading to a fateful conclusion that dovetails nicely with the track's shadowy, foreboding quality. The chorus, with its titular admonition, seems to suggest a tipping point, perhaps related to the song's vaguely romantic air.
We caught up with the sometime Raconteur during a solo tour stop with his band in Annapolis, Md., just after a rare matinee show.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: It seems like a song about paranoia.
BRENDAN BENSON: Yeah, I think so too.
Are songs such that their meanings reveal themselves to you over time?
Very much so. Generally I don't realize even what the impetus is for the song, or what I'm even talking about. They're just words coming out of me. That one's kind of interesting because what inspired the song was on a solo tour driving through the UK in a van, and I noticed this field of yellow flowers, and it was really pretty, and I asked the driver what the flowers were and he told me they were called rape. And I thought that was great—fields of rape. That's beautiful. I love that. It's lyrical. So that got me going, but the rest of the song sort of takes a turn. I don't know where the paranoia thing comes in. I don't consider myself a particularly paranoid person, but apparently I am. I think it was also kind of an Elvis Costello nod. I love Elvis Costello and think I'm always trying to write another Elvis Costello song. At least in my mind that was sort of like that, like "Watching the Detectives." Just strange and creepy.
I definitely can feel that. Well, there's that great story about him playing with Clover on that first album, and saying, "Let's do 'Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes,'" and the band looks at each other kind of puzzled until one of them goes, "The Byrds tune," and they all nod their understanding, and Elvis quips, "Thank god they'd never heard of The Velvet Underground or they would've ruined 'Waiting for the End of the World.'" He always kind of transforms what he does, so maybe "Eyes on the Horizon" is Elvis doing an Alex Chilton tune, because it's kind of got a Memphis soul vibe in it.
That's fair enough, sure. Another thing about that song—I'll come clean, I totally ripped off the drum pattern from the Rundgren song, "I Saw The Light" or something. I had an acoustic demo of it, and I kept hearing that, the toms, and I listened to that song, the Rundgren song and was like that's perfect. A lot of times being a solo artist and also kind of, I moonlight as an engineer. I go to town on my demos. I really polish them up a lot. And so being that kind of person, sometimes I'm trying to do it all, so sometimes it helps to get a little inspiration. Like I know the drum pattern, I know, I can sort of hear it, but I'd like to reference something else, which was this Rundgren song.
One of the most distinctive, yet subtle musical choices you make is the use of wood blocks. It's fantastic. Was that something that was in your mind?
Yeah, totally. I wasn't fully aware of it at the time when I demoed it. I did a demo of it which I probably love more than the album track. I was experimenting, trying stuff. I remember when we did the song "for real," for the record. I remember going back to the demo. It's funny because I said, the most important thing of the song is the percussion, the wood block. I couldn't remember it so I had to go back and figure out what I did. I don't think we ever truly recreated it. We didn't quite get it, but it alludes to it. Then my feelings were confirmed by David Sardi who mixed the record. I remember him saying to me, "You know what carries the track is the fucking wood blocks." Like, "Yes! Yes! You understand. You get it totally." I think he brought it up in the mix and tried to get it in there.
It almost has the same effect as a hurdy-gurdy.
Yeah, totally, exactly. It's so funny. Recorded music—there's these subtle things. It's the smallest things that make a difference—like the kick drum pattern, things that you don't notice typically as a listener. You don't care what the wood block's doin , but it's in there. It's speaking to you and you might not even know it.
It's always there, but it's at the edge of your awareness. You know something is working on you.
I love that kind of stuff. It's probably better that you don't analyze it right away. There's songs like "Midnight Ramlber" or "Gimme Shelter" that you've heard so many times, but when you start to analyze it you can find new interest in it. Like, "What the fuck is going on here? Why is this so cool?" As a songwriter, maybe you do that. Maybe most listeners wouldn't. It's super geeky, but I'm a geek and I'm the first to admit it.
One of the other things I thought was interesting lyrically about the song was this idea of putting your "Eyes on the Horizon," and I was trying to decide whether it was a positive, like keeping your eye on the prize, or whether it was a self-delusion, like trying to ignore everything that's going on around.
I couldn't tell you. I think I was just interested in that belief. For me, it's usually about how words sound. Eyes on the horizon has those "i"s in it. Eyes on the horizon. But also it's an interesting idea for a song because it's the seasickness thing. They say to avoid seasickness you keep your eyes on the horizon. That's a reason I thought it was cool. That song doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. It really doesn't. But it makes perfect sense lyrically or creatively. My wife would say, "I don't get that song." I think I totally understand why she doesn't get it. She wants to hear something she can relate to, some kind of story. But it's like Elvis Costello. A lot of people don't get him because they can't relate. It's weird shit.
Yeah, and a lot of it is elliptical.
Yeah, and I love that shit.
He dismisses Armed Forces as glib, but I love that album, even if some of it doesn't make perfect sense. I don't need to know what the "Quizzling Clinic" is, it's just great.
Exactly. Fuck yeah. Quizzling Clinic—it makes sense to me. There's this group of people drilling you.
Well, I might have to throw this away, but I wonder if there is any significance to the back-to-back images of religious persecution ("Thrown to the lions, or burned at the stake")?
Oh my God, yeah. I never thought of that. Shit.
Are you a closet Catholic?
I went to Catholic school actually, but I wasn't raised that way so much. But I did sort of experience that persecution, that guilt trip. I got it a little bit. My mom put me in Catholic school because I was screwing up. My grades were dropping. She thought that I needed some help or something. So she put me in a Catholic school, and—
You ended up a musician.
Yeah, it ended with me as a musician. But I'm happy for it because that stuff is pretty fascinating for me. I think I escaped it pretty unscathed. I got a little of the guilt complex, but not enough that I can't see it for what it is.
One of the things you alluded to is that you wrote 40 songs or so for this album while on the road. I've heard that it's awfully hard to write while on tour, so I was curious about that and how that worked for you.
It is hard to write on the road, and what I would do typically was, I'd have an idea. The inspiration is higher on the road I think. You're living in your own funk. You're grimy. So I'd get an idea and record it, just a sketch and then I would work on it later when I had the time. There's just not the time to write a song on the road. At least not always the time to write. So I'd normally do that—just have an idea I fleshed out later. And sometimes it worked out, and sometimes it didn't. Sometimes I could conjure up the same feelings I had, and sometimes I couldn't.
That's the hard thin revisiting notebooks. It's such of the moment.
What the fuck was I thinking? Totally.
I was curious about the solo auteur versus the spokes in the wheel of a band. Do you prefer not taking the lead—which is as I understand how [My Old, Familiar Friend producer] Gil Norton worked. Do you like better the collaboration?
Yeah, I think I do. I mean, I have fun playing by myself and all that. It's a different thing, though. Screwing around by myself at home where I have a studio set-up, that's one thing. But then playing with other people is just something else. It's more fulfilling and more gratifying and rewarding. And it's easier. I'm convinced it's the way it was meant to be done in rock music. It's a co-op, a group effort. It's a shared experience. I like it. It doesn't have to be a series of compromises. Sometimes if you write with people, you're just sort of settling on something. But I've found people to work with where I don't have to settle. It's full-on the whole time.
Brendan Benson plays Cat's Cradle Thursday, Dec. 10, at 9 p.m. Cory Chisel opens. Tickets are $15.