Donny Benét is sick of Zoom. Calling in from his Sydney home studio, the session bassist turned nu-disco sensation, who shares his new album Mr. Experience this Friday, is reflecting on the ramifications of releasing a record when the world is neck deep in crisis mode.
“People are pretty starved for new material at the moment, so in a bizarre kind of way, it’s a good time for everything,” he confesses. “There’s been lots of Zoom things. I’m getting a bit of Zoom fatigue, but I think everybody else is too.”
The roll-out of Mr. Experience, like so many other records released amidst a global pandemic, hasn’t exactly gone to plan for Benét . A culmination of three years of relentless international touring and studio toil, Mr. Experience is the most realised and polished release from Donny Benét to date, and for his efforts to fizzle so fast is disheartening for the Don.
“It’s not ideal,” he admits. “There’s been a huge build up to this album with all the touring I’ve done in the last few years, but there’s nothing you can really do about it.”
Considering the size of his international following, it’s an understatement to say that no touring is a blow to Benét : the scale of his concerts abroad needs to be seen to be believed. However, it’s clear that Benét certainly isn’t a one-trick-pony, and when talk turns to the embrace of social media, Benét’s brevity speaks volumes.
“I’ve been doing a weekly show of my own called The D Zone to keep connected to my audience and keep in the forefront with the new album,” he says, hinting at the online fanbase he’s steadily built over the past decade. “I think it’s a goodwill to stay connected to my audience, and hopefully they’ll give something back by supporting the album or coming to shows when we can do that kind of stuff later on.”
Don’s no stranger to the digital domain. Online, he’s somewhat of a phenomenon, with viral videos like ‘Konichiwa’ and ‘Santorini’ seeing him adopt a tongue-in-cheek persona and embrace pastiches of Japanese city-pop and Italo disco with a hazy lo-fi visual aesthetic for good measure. Although there’s potential for the act to be seen as mimetic when scrutinised through a post-modern lens, it’s important to distinguish that Donny Benét is not a meme artist: rather, he’s a talented artist performing as a cunning character, and he’s a lot more self-aware than you’d initially assume.
“Your image is part of the package you offer now beside your music,” Benét explains, noting that what he’s doing certainly isn’t groundbreaking my any means. “Artists have always been about creating a bit of a mystique and putting out an image or perception that you want to see. It’s nothing that new, but these days you have to be pretty on top of it. It can be overwhelming sometimes, but it can work really well for you.
“A lot of people have a stage name or change the way it is to make a character out of themselves - I’ve had the nickname Donny for years. One of the things I always think is that you love watching James Bond movies, but you know Sean Connery is not actually a secret agent. It’s the strength of your conviction and how you present it in the way you’re doing.”
It’s this ethos that underpins the fabric of Mr. Experience, which sees Benét abandon the ironic lyricism of his earlier efforts in favour of a fully realised concept record to soundtrack an ‘80s dinner party. Benét explains that the idea was inspired by cultural touchstones like Robert Palmer and Bryan Ferry, with tracks like ‘Second Dinner’ and ‘Negroni Summer’ helping to detail the Don’s lust for culinary delights - a passion that feeds into the way he makes music himself.
“I love eating food, as you can tell,” he says with a chuckle. “I love making food and being Italian, so it is an important thing to me. The cool thing about food is that you don’t need many ingredients to make something delicious, and music is the same - if you put the love and time and care into it, you can create something palatable to a lot of people.”
When it comes to putting music together, however, Donny Benét certainly isn’t in any shortage of ingredients. He’s an avid collector of used and vintage equipment, and his D Zone streams, broadcast live from his home studio, reveal that he’s also a man of fine tastes in the gear department.
“I’ve got all the classics, like an Oberheim OB-8, Prophet-5, Minimoog, Yamaha DX-7, Fender Rhodes, a Linndrum… All the big toys from from 1980 - 84 when that kind of gear was in its heyday. They’re just really fantastic sounding instruments.”
Despite enjoying a mainstream revival of sorts, Benét is still conscious that his beloved synthesisers and drum machines are seen by many as being redundant and archaic when set to the test against the latest VSTs or emulators. It’s a cliché he’s firmly opposed to, particularly when discussing the experience of toying with a synthesiser as someone who mightn’t necessarily be a technically proficient keyboardist.
“Synths can sometimes get a bad wrap,” Benét notes. “I think a lot of people think they’re quite daggy, but you can shape so many different sounds with them and be very expressive with them, just as much as any acoustic instrument. I think it’s all in your approach to it and how you get the most out of it.
“I’m definitely not as good on keyboards as I am on bass, so it can be very humbling. But you don’t have to be a genius. As long as you’re playing in time and have a bit of a musical bone in you then there’s no reason why you can’t make something great.”
Although he’s modest about his musical prowess, it doesn’t take a Berklee graduate to understand Benét’s talent on bass. He’s been one of Australia’s leading session bassists for the better part of two decades, performing with Sydney jazz royalty and becoming a mainstay on the live circuit. Like most bassists, Benét’s inspiration to play came from the usual suspects, with his list of primary influences comprising a who’s-who of funk and soul, yet there’s one influence that looms larger than the rest: Chic’s Bernard Edwards, whose style Benét channels directly on the disco-tinged title track of Mr. Experience.
“Back in 1997 when I first started playing bass there was a show called Rock School, and it had all these guests like Bootsy Collins and Larry Graham, and there was an episode with Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers where he was playing with a light touch and using very short notes,” Benét says. “It was one of those early influences that I probably didn’t realise, and whenever I pick up a StingRay, that’s always a touchstone that informs my playing. It’s a similar thing when you approach RnB with the James Jamerson sixteenth note thing - it’s always there.”
Benét reflects on his days as a jazz cat with a certain fondness, yet it’s apparent he’s more than complacent with where he is now. His stories recall the age-old adage of a heady jazz artist playing a hundred chords to three people: nowadays, he holds down a steady groove and commands his audience with tasteful flourishes and gyrating hip movements, all while clad in a salmon pink dinner suit.
“Just like any musician, the more experienced and older you become, the more economic you become with your playing with what you’re saying” Benét explains. "When I was 21, I was probably playing a million notes a minute and had more chops than a butchers shop, but now I can find the same amount of joy playing one or two notes in a bar.
“On a whole, the more you mature and the less you have to say, the less amount of notes you need. Plus, I’ve done that all before! I just wanted to be careful to not repeat myself. That’s an important thing to do as an artist. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel with each album, but you do want to shed some baggage from your former and take on some new ideas.”
To some music purists, it’d be easy to see Donny Benét’s career evolution as a textbook example of selling out - trading pedigree for pastiche and adopting the persona of an entertainer in hope of achieving success, instead of lingering in the shadows and comping chords as an anonymous player. This, however, would be a thin-veiled jab at the talent of one of Australia’s most unique artists. But does it bother him?
“Not really,” says Benét. “Music is there for people to enjoy and get some joy and happiness out of. In my past musical life I’ve played some of the most serious and highbrow forms of music where you play for nobody making all these serious statements. I’m pretty confident in the music I create and perform and if it felt bullshit I wouldn’t do it, and seeing audiences around the world enjoy it is pretty rewarding as well.
“At the end of the day, you can be serious and play all the serious music you want, but what’s the point if you’re not going to enjoy performing it all the time?”
Mr. Experience is out on Friday May 22 via Dot Dash Recordings.