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14th September 2010
Fun Lovin' Criminals returned in early 2010 with the release of new album 'Classic Fantastic', their first for five years following a recording hiatus due to litigation troubles with their ex-manager. And their sixth full length studio offering is, once again, characterised by their unique, cross-genre fusion of styles, combining elements of funk, hip-hop, rock, metal, blues, jazz and reggae, all delivered through a heavy dose of groove and pertaining to refined cool through frontman Huey Morgan's laid-back vocal style. On tour in support of this new release, drummer Frank Benbini, who's been with the band since summer 2003, spent some time chatting to Metal Discovery in his dressing room at the Engine Shed in Lincoln a short while before their headline set at the venue later in the evening...
METAL DISCOVERY: This is the first time you’ve played in Lincoln then, I presume?
FRANK BENBINI: I think it is. We’ve not played here before but it’s a good venue though, apparently.
(Frank Benbini on progressing as a musician)
"If you want to try and push the barrier a bit you need some kid off the estate saying “you don’t do that like that”. They’re the people I like to listen to for feedback."
Frank Benbini in his dressing room at The Engine Shed, Lincoln, 14th September 2010
Photograph copyright © 2010 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview & Photography by Mark Holmes
MD: Yeah, it is. It only opened four years ago. So you’ve got a new album this year, ‘Classic Fantastic’, which is actually fantastic, I would say. Five years since ‘Livin’ in the City’…I gather you had problems with your ex-manager?
FB: Yeah.
MD: And that’s why it took so long to come out?
FB: Yeah, that’s right. We had a lawsuit where he took us to court for unfair dismissal, which was bullshit. Yeah, so that cost us a lot of money. You can imagine when something like that’s going on…obviously you need to find a new manager and we just wasn’t really in that frame of mind to be artistic or creative because, obviously, we had a big grey cloud over the band at that time. It was a bit of a trying time, to be honest, but once we’d seen the light at the end of the tunnel we were itching and me and Fast, first, we started going in the studio early on and creating some beats, listening to old records, and trying to get back into the vibe. So we started and, then, before we know, they started coming thick and fast. That’s how we work, you see, we get a body of instrumentation, build up the layers, and then go to Huey and give him a vibe and he’ll write his guitar in around it, and write lyrics. I write lyrics to choruses; I’m like the melody guy.
MD: You’re responsible for all the hooklines then?
FB: I try to, yeah.
MD: I read on some press sheet that you and Fast recorded ‘Purple Rain’ in the five years you had off as a reggae album?
FB: Yeah, that’s right. I’m a huge Prince fan. I don’t hide that – I credit him on all my albums.
MD: He’s someone who has a cross-genre approach in his music as well.
FB: Yeah, across the board. It was one of those things where we love reggae, and we have a reggae remix outfit called Radio Riddler. We’ve remixed a lot of people…Lily Allen, Coldplay…you know, we’ve done a lot of remixes for a lot of people. So we thought, what can we do? He went – “Why don’t we do the soundtrack to ‘Purple Rain’?” I was like – “That won’t work, that won’t happen, it just won’t work”. He was like – “Well, let’s give it a go”, and he did the first one, ‘Purple Rain’, he got the beats ready and sent it to me, and I was like – “Fuck! It sounds great!” Then I got a lot of my hometown players, brass sections, people from The Specials playing on there. I sang all the songs but then it was like – “Let’s get some guest artists on it”. So I started to approach different people and one person I approached was Sinéad O'Connor. She hasn’t sung a Prince song since ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ which was an international number one so I didn’t think she’d go for it. But she did, and did a version of ‘I Would Die 4 U’. Amazing. Then we’ve got Plan B, he’s doing one, Madness are doing one, the singer from UB40’s doing one. So, yeah, that’s a great little project we’ve got going.
MD: Sounds incredible. Will definitely have to hear that.
FB: It’ll be out next year.
MD: ‘Classic Fantastic’ is generally a very upbeat, happy sounding album. Did that result from a kind of optimistic mindset you had after the legal hassles?
FB: Well, definitely because, like I said, it was in a holding pattern waiting to get created. The two records that came before – ‘Livin’ in the City’ and ‘Welcome to Poppy’s’ – still there was a little bit of the World Trade Centre in those records, so they might’ve been perceived to sound a bit down…a bit deep is probably a better word. Obviously time’s gone on since the World Trade, and our old manager, and different things like that, but when it came to writing this, something in my mind, I said – “Can we make this a little more upbeat, a little bit party…let’s imagine there’s a crowd in front of us”…which is hard to do because you can really wrap yourself up a little bit with being in a room on your own, doing late nights, getting stoned, and you kind of forget how it’s going to transpose when we’re on stage. You know what I mean?
MD: Yeah, so you had the live performance in mind when composing the music…
FB: Yeah, exactly. A lot of the time I’d start with the drums and go in the room and I’d imagine this crowd in front of me. My younger brother always tells me if it’s good or not. If I see my brother nodding his head then "right, this is good."
MD: So he’s like your filter for what is bad and good?
FB: I always think you should never listen to anyone older than you when it comes to music. You’ve always got to listen to the young kids, you know.
MD: Apart from the older guys who’ve been doing it for years.
FB: The old guys that have been doing it for years, though, seem to always do the same thing for years. You know what I mean?
MD: Yeah, you’re right in that sense.
FB: If you want to try and push the barrier a bit you need some kid off the estate saying “you don’t do that like that”. They’re the people I like to listen to for feedback.
MD: Definitely, yeah. There seems to be a very 70s kind of vibe to a lot of the music on the album; you seem to look back at a lot of the 70s stylings, like ‘Jimi Choo’ with a Led Zeppelin kind of riff. A lot of 70s funk and groove as well like with the title track, and ‘Rewind’ seems to be a bit Gilmour-esque with the guitar solo…a kind of Floyd ambience in that track too…
FB: Well, Fast is the biggest Floyd fan. It’s funny, though, because that song actually, when we were in the studio, it’s the first time I’ve told anybody this…any reporters…me and Fast actually wrote that song when we were singing a track…we were singing a Prince song over it. The very, very initial recording of that is me singing a song called ‘Darling Nikki’ which is one of my favourite Prince songs. It’s off ‘Purple Rain’ and they were the lyrics, that’s why in the chorus you can hear the words “Slow down Nikki, slow down Nikki”. We were like – “That’s a fucking great song”. Then Huey put that solo down which he did in one take.
MD: Really?! Wow!
FB: Yeah, one take. This is why people are like “no way”, but you know those little Marshall things that buskers get?
MD: Oh yeah, yeah.
FB: Well, one of them lying on its back and we drained the battery down so it nearly ran out, turned it all up, put a little mike on this little battery pack, and that’s the guitar solo.
MD: You’re joking! They’re like 1 watt or something those little Marshall things.
FB: Yeah, like no watt.
MD: Fucking hell! You just imagine this big Marshall stack or something!
FB: [laughs] No! Obviously we ran it through a couple of plug-ins and Pro Tools and it sounds fucking amazing.
MD: Yeah, the whole thing reminded me of a scaled down ‘Comfortably Numb’ or something when the solo kicks in at the end.
FB: Yeah, I’ll tell ‘em that. They’ll love that. But you’re right with the 70s feel. The last track called ‘Get Your Coat’ is a real Barry White, 70s R&B kind of vibe. Between the three of us, if you were to look at our record collection, it’s very black, it’s very 60s with either blues or black musicians, or funk, or disco. You flick through one moment and it’s Led Zeppelin, then it’s Queen, then it’s Barry White, Jimi and that. Then, me and Fast, have a love for everything rhythm. So I think with all Criminals music, you put it on and it’s definitely got that head nod factor and that’s something that we pride ourselves on.
MD: Definitely, absolutely. Everyone in the reviews I’ve read seems to mention the pristine, clean sound with the production. How was the production side of things this time around for the band?
FB: It’s the same. The production was pretty much me and Fast.
MD: Did you consciously try to get a cleaner, crisper sound for the songs? Did you have more time to spend on it?
FB: We had a little bit more time to spend on it but, also, having great studios like Dean Street in London and, also, the guy who’s been with the band from the start, Tim Latham. He’s a Grammy Award winning mixer and he definitely helped. To say you are a producer can mean so many things. Some of the greatest producers have never picked a fucking instrument up in their life. They just make great drinks, and they’ll make the band feel really relaxed, and they’ll make ‘em laugh. That can be one producer…Rick Rubin. Rick’s like that…make you feel at ease and show you video clips. He doesn’t necessarily know where to put mikes or know how to get it; he just has an idea and everybody works with him. That’s one producer. Then you get other producers that will send half the band home and replay everything that sells. You know, you’ve got all different producers. Then you’ve got people that you get in to mix your album and, to me, even they are producers because, while they’re mixing, if they say “I’m gonna make it sound like that”, they’re producing a different sound. So, with us, Tim Latham is definitely part of our production as well. Tim’s really good and, if you’re really good at mixing, to me, you also deserve a bit of a production credit. He can get the drum sound of mine…the day I produce that particular sound on a mixing console, you know, I produced it and I knew how I wanted it to sound, then it comes to the mixing and he will totally change it. Well, to me, he’s now produced that sound we’ve ended up with. You know what I’m trying to say?
MD: Yeah, absolutely.
FB: To me, he’s part of the production; the final product that you’ve done. You hear our stuff before and it sounds great but you hear it after Tim’s mixed it and it sounds fucking great. So we’ve kind of done it ourselves and people have said to us, you know, managers we’ve had have said “maybe you should try and work with a producer”. Well, we think we know how we sound best, so…
MD: Absolutely. You have Paul Kaye on the album as Mike Strutter on the track ‘Conversations With Our Attorney’. How did that collaboration come about and did you give him free reign to script his own words?
FB: Yeah. Paul’s a friend of ours. I approached him when we were in MTV doing an interview and he was there, and I walked over to him and was like – “How you doing Paul? Big fan, blah, blah, blah…”, and he was like – “Yeah, cool man”. He plays in a band and stuff like that so we hung out and built a friendship up over the last few years. When it came to this we were like – “Oh, it’d be really funny if you could do a skit”, and he was like – “Yeahhh, definitely…I’ve got your number so I’ll ring you a few times. Don’t answer it and I’ll leave you a bunch of messages”. I said – “Alright, cool”, so he did it, we took the files, put them in Pro Tools, turned ‘em up a bit, cleaned ‘em up a bit. So yeah, we didn’t write any of that for him. He totally did that himself. Fucking hilarious actually!
MD: Yeah, keeps a good sense of humour to the album. And whose idea was it to have the Stephen Hawking sound bite? “Fun Lovin’ Criminals are the shit” is it, he says?
FB: Yeah. I think that may have been Huey. Huey or Fast. I was like – “I don’t know about that”, but then it was funny.
MD: You can’t get better commendation than from Stephen Hawking can you really, with all his theories and whatever!
FB: No, no, that’s right! [laughs]
MD: You released the album on Kilohertz which I gather is your own label…
FB: That’s our own label, yeah.
MD: Did you regard being signed to a label as redundant in the current climate what with record sales plummeting throughout the industry now?
FB: Yeah, there’s no point. Take the middle man out and do it yourself, then you’ve got a hundred per cent coming back to you.
MD: Have you set the label up just to release your own stuff or do you plan on signing any bands?
FB: No, it’s just a company we invented so we could put our own music out direct to the fans.