Benjamin produces modern soul and boogie by way of Cherries Records

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Benjamin (Cherries Records)

An white ’92 Buick Century pulls up to a diner in Queens, where it was once said, “murderers come with smiles.” The vehicle is empty save for a cassette sitting in the front seat. It’s a song inspired by an anarchist union organizer who once published articles in Yiddish for The Arbiter in 1911. Ben Pirani, the anarchist’s great nephew, is locked inside the Buick’s trunk. He sings about universal love, despite his wish to tire-iron the guy who dropped his hard-drive and lost the original version of the track: Benjamin’s “N- e-e-d Love.” According to this video, things have turned out for the best.

 

Ben Carey who produced the song, hops in with Chris Barrett (aka Classy Young Old Chris). They drive around collecting friends old and new, many of whom attended both Pirani and Carey’s weddings. It’s as if the song itself had been dispatched to give friends of Benjamin rides all over town. At the end of the video, the Buick’s trunk is jimmied opened with a screw driver, releasing red balloons into the sky, which if everything must be something else, could be mistaken for airborne cherries, drupes in space. Pirani sticks around for the guitar solo.

Benjamin’s Arriving LP evokes this afteroon gloam with dropped windows, its album cover a road-trip burst of color rendered by a Vietnam vet named Ronnie Joe. The second full-length release on the Ridgewood, Queens-based Cherries label, Arriving is a mix of modern soul, classy stepper’s outings, and boogie—with all instruments played and programmed by Carey and Pirani. I recently met up with Benjamin (two Minneapolis and Chicago transplants respectively) to discuss their roots, family, and a stolen ice cream cart.

Benjamin (Cherries Records)

One of the last times I saw you both was at Ben (Pirani’s) wedding celebration. The DJ played Gucci Crew’s “Dating Game” and Brian Jackson was present. You and Ben both coincidentally got married as the Benjamin album was being finished.

Carey: Each of our weddings were great collectives of people, many of which overlap. That sense of community is really central to what I want from music. That’s the feeling behind the “N-e-e-d Love” video as well.

Pirani: There were some illustrious attendees, from grammy winners to jazz funk legends to Queens, NY royalty. Then a guy like Brian Jackson co-signs your shit. A lot of artists have moments where they feel like impostors and that they will eventually be exposed. Brian playing flute on a tune of ours (“To Please You,” soon to be released) is the exact opposite of that. I got to be friends with Brian since we both have French wives. pretty incredible how that all worked out, almost cosmic, the sequence of events that had to occur for me to be friends with Brian.

Both of you grew up in musical families.

Pirani [to Carey]: You’re pretty church. I’m pretty church too. My mom was the church choir music director. I came from Penacostal church. This sort of dancing in the aisles and speaking in tongues kind of thing, which was terrifying. But they had a drum kit.

Carey: I grew up Congregational. My grandfather directed the choir in Watertown, South Dakota. My great grandfather was a traveling music teacher, a band leader in World War I. I still have my grandfather’s coronet.

Pirani: That horn is all over the album. We used to play straight up super melodic ‘60s soul, which is really our shared background. With the Benjamin material, one track would be straight up Philly, another track would be hardcore Detroit. We did a couple of Northern (soul) things just for fun.

At the time, you [Ben] were also teaching music to kids.

Carey: I worked at the Harlem Childrens’s Zone, managing an afterschool arts program. Trying to get young people to express themselves is good training for a producer in general. At the time, Cody Ranaldo and I had this huge shared space in Sunset Park, for pretty cheap. He co-produced the album.

Pirani: It’s funny that Lee Renaldo is old enough to have a son who’s co-producing my album. A lot of the equipment we have is hand-me-down stuff from them [Sonic Youth]. [Ben] plays all the horns on the album. Most everything is played.

It sounds like a full-on band.

Pirani: Everything is hardware. Whether you hear it on the album or not, I can pat myself on the back for not using a plug-in and for hitting the stupid buttons on the stupid machine and using technology long outdated.

Carey: On “Those Memories,” there is a bell tree sound that is the same sound they use on Antiques Roadshow. It’s a good show. Still cracks me up when I hear it.
My dad gave me his record collection when I was 13 years old. He had Parliament Mothership Connection. There was a skip on the record, on “Swing Down Sweet Chariot.” It almost made “Let Me Ride” right then. When you’re fourteen and fifteen and your friends are over and you’re like listen to this—it gives you some kind of power.

My copy of the 45 “Music for My Mother,” the instrumental side, sometimes it would lock in on the guitar part and loop so it sounded like a repeated broken string. One of those RZA accidents.

Carey: My dad pushed me to have different experiences. He signed me up to play guitar with a gospel group when I was thirteen. The church was Camphor Memorial United Methodist off Dale in St. Paul.

Pirani: [Ben’s dad] got a fucking beautiful tenor voice. It’s like an Irish tenor. It’s the shape of your pallet that makes that sweet sound. I heard him sing at Ben’s wedding. Ben has it too.

Carey: I would just play along with the group. That’s how I learned. I’ve always had access to instruments. This record is the result of having these things around for that long. Eventually you have to produce something! It could’ve been anything. We made soul records. We made weirdo psyche records. It’s the result of the skip on the Parliament record. Digging for 45s, skating and listening to hip-hop were also major triggers.

Growing up in a theater environment probably helped too.

Carey: My mom did creative drama and ran a community theater when we lived in South Dakota. My past is centered around arts education. My dad’s still an actor. Becoming a part of the Soul music scene in the Midwest and then going to Savalas and Bumpshop [New York soul parties from the mid-aughts] was an extension of that same kind of creative community. People that have a shared background support each other because they have gone through the same process of discovery.

Pirani: Not long after my dad died (2003), I heard Terry Callier Occasional Rain LP, which I knew because “Ordinary Joe” was a big Northern Soul spin. My roommate at the time (Chris Carnahan, owner of Northern Lights record store) comes out into the living room, do you know who Lenny Pirani is? I said, ‘That’s my old man.’ He’s the first name on this LP! My old man was a jazz guy, a piano guy. Talk about a direct line backwards into something—I had no idea! He played piano on this album, which was a mind blower. It’s a Charles Stepney production, such a beautiful song. It’s one of the most incredible things that happened to me. I got to the hook of it: “I’ve seen a sparrow fly high, he’s just a little bit freer than I.” My old man was bogged down. I think he lost a lot of opportunities in his life because he was kind of a freak artist person. He was anxious. I had to sell it (the Callier record), which sucked. It was like the last valuable thing I had. I don’t think he told us about a lot of stuff, like I think he was into smack in his younger days.

How did this affect you as a songwriter?

Pirani: Some of the [Benjamin] lyrics are more earnest than I’m comfortable being. Falling in love was a huge part of that—you really humble yourself when you give yourself up to it. A lot of the stiff on the album is more personal than I would be in conversation. When someone listens to that, it’s just a good-ass dance song. It’s like me listening to Jackie Wilson “Whispers,” which becomes another story in my head.

Similar to how a song like “Talk to Me” could be interpreted differently, depending on the listener’s own history. The experience becomes more personal that way. For you, it was dealing with loss.

“Talk to Me” was inspired by a friend’s suicide. Kinda going back to “Hello”— you gotta be a good friend to have good friends. I skip this tune when I listen to the record now. I just did a couple takes by myself in the room. Kinda had to choke through it. We dedicated the album to Bob’s memory.

I like how “N-e-e-d Love” was in a sense co-written by your great uncle.

Pirani: I knew I had radicals in my family but discovered my great great uncle was Italian guy who was a union organizer after the Triangle fire. He wrote for The Arbiter in Yiddish. He has a book of poetry in Italian. He died in the ‘80s. He was quoted in a book about American anarchists. He knew Sacco and Vanzetti. I read this book—The Anarchists Voices. There was an interview with him on the anniversary of when Sacco and Manzetti were executed. He lays it out. I took the lyrics from the interview. It turned out to be a much more positive song than the tone of his quote.

What happened with the ice cream truck?

Carey: We were in the finishing stages of recording in Ridgewood, in small sweaty room for the summer. We were working with no ventilation. I went to the store. There’s an ice cream cart sitting there with ice cream inside of it but there’s nobody around

Did you have some ice cream before calling the cops?

Pirani: We had a little ice cream first.

Carey: Then called 311.

Pirani: The police eventually show up. They’re looking at the cart and looking inside, saying, “What do you expect us to do about it?”

Carey: We asked if anyone called about a missing ice cream cart. They said, “I don’t know—keep it! Eat the ice cream!” We thought about selling the ice cream—which would’ve been a good Benjamin video. The kids who stole it came back and grabbed ice cream. I ran after them being the educator, “You can take the ice cream! Just don’t make a mess!”

Pirani: I can’t believe they listened to you.

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