ONE TRACK MIND: William Benton from Cat Casual and the Holy Midnight talks about “Sending”

With Sending, Cat Casual and the Holy Midnight, the vehicle for multi-instrumentalist William Benton, showcases their melancholic saunter, a broken kind of sultry part and parcel to bad decision making. It’s an interesting juxtaposition between music and lyrical content for sure, and one that Benton put into stark contrast against both his shared narrative and the various whoops and hollers made by guest vocalist Will Oldham. There is a kind of wry malaise here, not quite angry, but certainly bent out of shape, a shimmering and dreamy landscape punctuated by Benton’s sparse guitar work and baroque vocals. Backwards bass lines and assorted ambient noises compromise the sonic backdrop, filling in a lot of space between the notes in a shifty, moving landscape of whisky spins and somber walks home. You can listen below and read all about how Benton assembled his work. And you can check him out this Thursday at Kaiju with Stuyedeyed.

Never Nervous: How do you compose? Does it vary from band to band? Is it different working with the Holy Midnight and the Ordinary Bones?

William Benton: I usually write one of two ways: a song either starts with a vocal idea- either a line, lyric, or melody that invokes some kind of concept or emotional region that I want to go into, OR the same but with a sequence of chords, a riff, or a bass groove that I build upon that eventually gets me thinking about something lyrically. I think I got all of the riffage and counting out of my system many years ago while in Lucky Pineapple, so I have been mostly inspired by very, very simple songs that allow more room for space, ambiance, ideas, and such.

And looseness! Mistakes. “The Freedom to Fail”, as I call it and what was nearly the name of a record. As for using the different backing bands, everybody has their own methods, comfort zones, strengths and weaknesses- myself included. So it’s always different and songs always change. In The Ordinary Bones, Bobby Ross plays a Moog Liberation and has such a great ear and mind for melodies and loves complex pop music and heavy metal- and it seems like I keep the poor guy just out of his comfort zone a lot by asking him to add mood, “sounds of fog”, “make it cinematic”, “it goes grainy here”, “slightly detune” this or that….and he’s so great at it! I hope he learns that out of this experience. That said, these songs are 90% about achieving a feeling and a mood rather than any sort of technical execution. This is Cassavetes, not Spielberg.

NN: Specifically, how did Sending come together? What is the central riff in the track and how did everyone work around that idea?

WB: The track “Sending” started with the loop at the center of it, which was me playing bass along to a drumbeat off of an app that replicates the Rhythm King drum machine that is on all of those great Eno, Sly Stone, and JJ Cale songs. I just found a tone that I liked, fucked it up a little bit- which I think I was thinking a bit about how Sleaford Mods work in this area- and when I was still not that excited about it, reversed the whole loop and there it was. I could work with that because it was just ‘off’ enough to compliment the dark humor I was feeling in it.

No one else really had any input. I had wanted Tim Pinkerton to drum on it, but he couldn’t get over to the studio that day, so I decided to do that myself; my one and only drum performance on a recording and the looseness ended up suiting it, actually. So, I did the bass and drum machine/app on the loop, the guitar solo in one take, live drums in one take, and vocals in one take. And listening to it now….I really don’t care for the singing on it but it was exactly what I wanted at the time and Brian (engineer, keyboardist on the track) was into it. I wanted it to be the opening track and this was supposed to be your introduction to this brood of odd tunes. It was supposed to be a little absurd. I had Brian Sweeney do the little mellotron bit and I told him the melody- I think- but I definitely had the idea of ripping off an idea from David Bowie’s Drive-In Saturday, where the lovely little mellotron melody detunes at the end of the phrase- sorta’ disorienting the listener.

AND! I thought I would have no trouble getting someone to play some hairy sax on this but no one was available and I think it was Jim Marlowe that suggested Jackie Royce play bassoon. She did and it was a lot more interesting than whatever would have happened on the sax and led to her being in the Ordinary Bones. So there were a lot of happy accidents in there.

NN: Talk us through the lyrical content of the song? Did the music inform the lyrics or vice versa? What is the primary message and how do you hope it’s received?

WB: I thought the riff was ineptly sexy and groovy, like a midlife crisis kind of ass-shaker but with something very, very wrong. So, lyrically, the singer yearns for someone he cannot have or understand. In fact, he may not even really feel for this person at all, but isn’t done trying to figure that out. But she is. That reminds me that we listened to Grinderman’s Get It On as a bit of a reference track for how the vocals should sit in the mix and how the vibe might should be as a record opener.

NN: When you write “the singer,” do you usually compose lyrics for an abstracted self?

WB: The singer? Surely. He or she is a composite of experience and imagination, channeling- or informed by- the secret self. For Cat Casual anyways.

NN: One thing I’ve noticed in your evolution as a guitarist is an increased restraint that eschews traditional playing and allows plenty of space between the notes. Was that an intentional decision or does it reflect a change in your compositional work, like maybe the songs just call for less now?

WB: Yeah, I’ve been rebelling against the guitar for some time now. Again, I think it was Lucky Pineapple that made me a worse guitarist, but got me closer to what I like to do on it. I write a lot on guitar, but once a song is brought to the band, I immediately start to think about how I can get rid of it. That is often why I describe my role on the guitar as using it for color. Or that I’m a “feral guitarist”, “Anti-guitarist.” Even the solo on this I didn’t want to think about too much and, once the sound was what I wanted, did one go at it and didn’t want to mess with it any more. Now, if everyone in the room said “That was shit”, I would have. But I really like the quote by Orson Welles about how the problem with movies are “They come in cans. If it comes in a can, it can’t be very fresh.” So….when recording a song…we’re canning it. And I want it to be as fresh as possible.

NN: How did you land on a backwards effect for the primary bass riff? Is that reproducible in a live setting?

WB: The backwardness was just a method to make the loop more interesting. The Holy Midnight plays the song using the loop through the PA with a live band outro with the solo. The Ordinary Bones play the whole song live as a sort of spacey, jazzy groove. Very delicately.

NN: What is the ambient noise at the beginning of the track? Tell us what went into that.

WB: There are two ambient noises put together there. The first is from the end of the final track on the album, a song called “Francesca”, and it ends on a looped guitar that was done very much live. Then you hear a strange blast of digi-sounds which is a sample I lifted years ago from a malfunctioning Tigger toy I found at a Goodwill.

NN: How was it to work with Bonnie “Prince” Billy? Did he click into what you were doing? Was his vocal parts always part of the plan, or a nice bonus during post-production?

WB: Working with Will is always a treat. I had sang with him some here and there and- because he is so generous with his time and talents- he does a lot of proper duets. And he really loves to sing. That said, I thought it’d be more fun and interesting to have him do something that wasn’t a duet and the idea came for him to do that chain gang-esque humming and yelping. I’m a big fan of his yells, hoots, whoops, and hollers, and wanted to use them. And the possibility existed that he might come in and not be into it! He is pretty damn good about telling you if he doesn’t like something or isn’t interesting. But we had a lot of fun with that and he was immediately on-board with the ideas. Hes very professional in that way but also has great ideas. I had a rough little demo on a portable Tascam 8-track and let him hear it once and then just let him lay down a few tracks of what he wanted to do based upon that.