Unsung: the second in an occasional series about the long-serving musicians, writers, artists, technicians, and other uncelebrated heroes of the entertainment world.
Sitting behind his Hammond organ and bank of keyboards, Benmont Tench has had a ringside seat to a big chunk of rock ’n’ roll history.
As a founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Tench has been an indispensable contributor to the catalog of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-ensconced band, recently fortified by the release of a solid new album, “Hypnotic Eye.” In addition, Tench has played on hundreds of records by dozens of other artists, many of which have sold in the millions, earned critical acclaim, and won Grammys.
A fraction of the list of those who have called upon the Florida native’s keyboard prowess includes Fiona Apple, Jackson Browne, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Eurythmics, John Fogerty, Amy Grant, Merle Haggard, Don Henley, Indigo Girls, Mick Jagger, Kid Rock, Jenny Lewis, and Aimee Mann. And that’s only the first half of the alphabet.
Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, who has recorded with Tench and regularly jams with him as part of the “Watkins Family Hour” residency at the LA club Largo, echoes the frequent praise heard of Tench’s skills.
“The restraint that he’s so known for is well-deserved,” says Watkins. “He’s incredible at picking his moments, and when he lets loose and really digs in and throws off the shackles of restraint, he is unstoppable in terms of rhythm and harmonics, his chord voicings are just mind-blowing.”
Personally, she adds, “He’s a lovely soul, incredibly generous both musically and socially.”
Those skills and that generosity were repaid by Tench’s friends — including Petty — who showed up to play on Tench’s superb debut album, “You Should Be So Lucky,” released earlier this year.
‘He’s incredible at picking his moments . . . his chord voicings are just mind-blowing.’ Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek on Benmont Tench
We chatted recently with Tench by phone from Seattle about “Hypnotic,” Heartbreakers, and hitting the Red Sox home field for a sold-out show Saturday.
Q. Are you excited for Fenway?
A. I can’t say how thrilled I am, I don’t have the words. It’s an honor. Boston and San Francisco were the first cities to say, “Oh we like what you’re doing, come over here and play!” So to play Fenway Park? I mean, come on!
Q. You mentioned on Twitter that you were nervous at the start of the tour. After a few shows are you still nervous?
A. I am, every single show, still. As soon as I get behind the Hammond and Tom starts the first song, I’m fine.
Q. Do you have anxiety dreams about forgetting how “Don’t Do Me Like That” goes?
A. Of course. I like winging things, and I like not knowing how things go and with the state of my memory — which has never been good, and is in constant decline — it’s really fun for me because it makes every show to a degree improvisational. If you see us play you see I never take my eyes off of Tom, except sometimes to check in with [drummer Steve] Ferrone or with [guitarist] Mike [Campbell], because I am watching like a hawk to make sure that I’m in sync with him and to try to figure out what the next chord is.
Q. Did reforming Mudcrutch, your original band with Tom and Mike, in 2008 help energize the band?
A. Doing the Mudcrutch thing did one really crucial thing for us, which was that it was recorded live on the floor for the most part, with a minimum of overdubs and without headphones, so you could hear the air in the room, so it was very free and loose. As a result of that, we recorded [2010’s] “Mojo” and “Hypnotic Eye” the same way with the Heartbreakers. It’s a very fun and natural way to record, because it’s like rehearsing in a living room, it’s like playing.
Q. “Hypnotic Eye” has a real urgency to it, and many of the songs sound like they could slip right in alongside some of your classic hits.
A. I think that they do fit in, and I think, as is usually the case with us, everything is stronger when we play it live than it is on the record. Mostly because you get to live with the material.
Q. “Hypnotic Eye” is also the first Heartbreakers record to reach No. 1.
A. How is it possible that we ever got to No. 1? (Laughs.) Especially with today’s musical style, which is different than what we do. I’m not putting down today’s musical style; there are artists that I really, really like. But there’s a lot that I don’t relate to, so I was really happy to see just some straight, guitar-driven rock ’n’ roll could have the strength to do that.
Q. And the new Jenny Lewis album which you play on hit No. 9. Not too shabby.
A. I know! And Tom’s on the [Eric] Clapton J.J. Cale [tribute] record so for a minute there Tom was No. 1 and No. 2 and I was on No. 1 and No. 9. It was a sweet week.
Q. In addition to legendary producer Glyn Johns, you rounded up an excellent supporting cast for “You Should Be So Lucky” — Tom, Ringo Starr, Ryan Adams, Gillian Welch. Do you look at the liner notes and think, “I should be so lucky”?
A. Well, yeah. Glyn and I really did put together the band based on musical ability. Because people had suggested to me before “You should do a record. I like your songs. Maybe you can get your famous friends to sing some of the songs.” I was like “I don’t want to do a famous friends record. I’m not the best singer, but I like the way I sing my songs. If I ever make a record that’s what I’ll do — but I don’t want to make a record.” So when Glyn and I decided we would do this, all I thought about was, who do I love playing with that isn’t the Heartbreakers? To have all those musicians on the record, I don’t care if anyone’s ever heard of them; what I care about is the way they play and the way they listen.
Q. A song that you played on, either by the Heartbreakers or another artist, comes on the radio: Do you turn it up or off?
A. I usually turn it up and check it out, and you know why? I have been so fortunate. The people that call me to play on records call me because they think that I will suit their music. And the people whose music I suit are by and large people that I’m a fan of. So if the new Ryan Adams single comes on the radio, I’m on that, but I turn it up not for me but because, hot damn, the new Ryan Adams single, I love Ryan Adams! And then it’s secondary, like, I’m on that?!
I’ve gotten to play with great people on great songs and I’ll tell you the secret that somehow people haven’t cottoned onto. [Producer] Jimmy Iovine started me on sessions back when we were recording “Damn the Torpedos” and “Hard Promises,” he brought me in on a Bob [Dylan] session and on some Stevie Nicks stuff, and that got me started, and so I was associated with all these really great records. Whoever hired me might’ve just heard “Refugee.” Well, I’m not the secret to “Refugee.” The secret to “Refugee” is the song. But if somebody really good calls me up to play on something because they like the way I played on “Refugee” then I wind up playing on another really good song. So I’m associated with that, and some people might think that I have something to do with that. No! I just had the luck to play on a cool song. People say, “Oh he must be good because that song is really good.” I don’t know if I’m any good, but I know the songs are good.
Q. I disagree with that.
A. I know, but, Sarah, I get to play on all this cool [expletive], it’s astounding! You pinch yourself every damn time.
MORE: On Tench’s session career.