New Age Swing with Joe Benjamin & a Mighty Handful
by Jennifer Khedaroo
May 27, 2015 | 8227 views | 0 0 comments | 30 30 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Joe Benjamin and a Mighty Handful wants a new generation to fall in love with meaningful swing music. But this isn’t the type of swing music that your grandparents listen to. The musical marriage of swing and pop rock targets a younger audience, especially through lyrics regarding social situations that we’ve all been through. Fresh off a European tour, this quirky new age swing band can be a huge hit in years to come.

I spoke to band leader, Joe Benjamin, about his interest in swing, how the band creates music and those sensational lyrics.

The band will be performing at the Way Station at 683 Washington Ave in Prospect Heights on May 29.

So how did you get involved into new age swing? Did you listen to a lot of swing music growing up? My parents never really taught me any of this stuff. It was kind of up to me to find out about it. I remember when I was ten years old, on Christmas Eve, my parents gave my sister a CD by Robbie Williams. He was a pop artist who was bing in Europe and actually did a swing album but my sister didn’t like it all. She threw it away but I listened to it and it became this big moment in my life. I completely fell in love with this kind of music and the CD. I’ve been playing piano since I was three years old so I started playing it on the piano. It was love at first hear.

I was absolutely attracted to the music, it sparked something in me that nothing else have sparked. Starting then, I wanted to learn more about it and I started listening to Frank Sinatra and Michael Buble a few years later.

Were you involved in bands in Germany or did you pursue the music when you moved to New York?

I started in Germany, where I started singing in big bands at the age of 14. I did a few big bang gigs. When I was 16, I wrote my first musical theater which was successful for about a year in Germany. All the national publications picked up on it because I was so young and I didn’t go to school for a couple of months. Basically I did this musical by myself and it was this crazy thing that I did. Once that was done, I was in another musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and I finished school and went to New York. There, I really serious started pursuing it.

So how did the band come together? I moved here in 2009. It was always my goal to move to New York and I thought to myself, ‘Okay, I’ve made it this far and I’ve got what I wanted so I need a new goal.’ I wanted something to work for so my new goal was to get a traditional big band with 18 instruments. In November 2010, I started performing for three years with another band but it was mediocre, not really successful.

It was a time when I was just learning how to lead a band and I needed to see how to deal with musicians and how to conduct a score. I terminated that band and sat down for a year and half to just write music as much as I could. In February of 2013, I got 11 people together. Some of them were from my old band and others were recommendations. In the past two years, so much has happened. The band is great. We definitely love each other and we’d do anything for one another.

Do you guys come up with the music altogether? Because that is a lot of people and opinions.

True. It’s not me as the performer with some back up band. We are like a large rock band almost. I write all the music myself and when I’m done with the composition, I sit together with my friend Martin Seiler. He’s my closest collaborator. He sits down with me and helps me arrange each song for the band. He’s the one who tends to put it all down on paper and writes down what each instrument has to play. The rest of the band is then involved in rehearsals. They give ideas or tips on how we can perform better.

Do you think there have been any challenges in getting people to listen to music beyond pop and electronic?

Absolutely. We just came back from tour in Europe last week. The tour was successful, more than we thought it would be. Eighteen-year-olds, 25-year-olds, 35-year-olds all came to our shows.They actually sat down and listened. They were very curious about the music. In Europe, it’s not difficult to get through to people. Here in America, it’s very different. We live in an EDM age and if you look at the current pop trends that we are in, all the pop songs that are written and played on the radio are all built the same way. They all sound very similar. It’s definitely more difficult here. Once everybody comes to our shows, everybody loves it. They come back and compliment us. But getting them here is difficult.

Describe the relationship between your song lyrics and the music, it’s not a combination many people would expect. Walk me through the process of your songwriting. If you look at lyrics from stars like Beyonce or Rihanna, it’s very unpoetic. That stuff is a lot of shaking and boom-boom. Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, who was successful in America during the 70s, 80s and 90s, wrote lyrics that were deeply poetic but not very abstract. They were to the point and had nice meaning. Music is really important to tell a story and give a message.

Usually my songs are very funny and they remind people of musical theater because I have these anecdotes that I talk about. These are stories that happen to all of us. My song, “That Text” happens to all of us all of the time. We send the wrong text to the wrong person. The song that I am currently writing is about an Uber driver. I saw this guy twice. The first time, he was a horrible person and on the second ride, he picked me up again. It’s suppose to be funny and satirical with usually a deeper meaning behind it. It’s easy to understand. I’m not writing very abstract poetry. My music definitely jives on the lyrics.

What are your future plans?

We are just getting started. We have a music video coming out at the end of June for “That Text” which we just finished filming in Germany. We also have another single coming out in the summer. Our first full length album is coming out early next year. We hope to take tour Europe again with the album. Next year is going to be a very big year for us.
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