Welcome to the most sonically fluid age in history; a gazillion sounds can be yours for the asking. The digital era has brought with it the triumph of the software simulacrum — sounds that once required a day's labor from lab-coated crews at Abbey Road can now be dialed up in seconds. But after the novelty wears off, you notice a distinct thinness to the sound. Perhaps it's the sheer reliability of digital audio: Like a holographic dog, it always behaves. It rarely barks and never bites. Small wonder, then, that we're seeing a renaissance of the creaky, old analog synths that first made electronic music possible. Using oscillators tuned or de-tuned with actual knobs, their very unpredictability gives them that rarest of qualities: character.
None have taken up the analog torch more than the New Orleans-based BÊNNÍ. On the back of his new LP from Goner Records, I & II, he proclaims, "No softsynths were used in the making of this album."
As if we needed to be told. One listen to the thick warble and woof of his instrumental excursions is all you need. The minimalist arrangements, usually featuring the chugging rhythms of drum machine and synth bass, with a sprinkling of ethereal sounds over the top, help showcase the richness of the analog textures.
Being a synth geek myself, I naturally quizzed him on his gear. "Everything was a Roland Juno 106, a Roland RS 09 String Synthesizer, and a Roland MC-505 groove box," he says. All were mainstays of the '80s and '90s. And, as it turns out, he owes his love of all things Roland to a fortuitous discovery in the Bluff City. "I was recording with the band Natural Child," he remembers. "We were at High/Low Studio, and they had a Juno 106 there that we were messing around with. I was like, 'Oh, I really like this!' I found a cheap one in Mississippi, later, so I bought it."
The composer is a fixture on the New Orleans indie scene, playing a pivotal role in several respected bands there. "I'm usually a drummer. But with Wizzard Sleeve and the Gary Wrong Group, I did drums and keyboards. Like I did the bass lines with the keyboards and played the drums. That was my little gimmick with that band. Now, I'm trying to maybe incorporate some live percussion into my solo thing, eventually."
In keeping with this dexterity, BÊNNÍ will be playing drums with the Heavy Lids on an upcoming European tour, while also showcasing his solo keyboard works as an opener.
But despite his work as a drummer, keyboards have always been his first love. "I've been playing keys since I was five. I had a digital keyboard at my house when I was a kid. I took maybe one year of lessons when I was in fourth grade. But I play by ear pretty much."
Perhaps this background explains the spare minimalism of his record, distinguishing it from the famous retro-synth sounds of the Netflix original series, Stranger Things, created by Austin's S U R V I V E. In contrast, BÊNNÍ's work is marked by a distinctly DIY aesthetic. "I recorded it all on a Tascam Portastudio 07. A little four track. One of the cassette ones from the '90s."
Having recorded direct to cassette, it was appropriate that BÊNNÍ's first release (now side one of his new record) was on a cassette-only label, Chicago's AVRCRC. It was mixed by that hero of DIY analog audio, Mr. Quintron, who writes, "The thing to me that has always kinda set the Memphis/New Orleans punk scenes apart from other places is that music and musicianship always outweighs high concept or the typical sneering 'f*ck you' attitude of other places. BÊNNÍ is a Musician with a capital M, and it's no accident that within a year of his coming to New Orleans (from less than an hour up the Gulf), he began to influence the local landscape as much as any of us who had been here and doing it for decades."
Now, thanks to Goner, BÊNNÍ is bringing that same ear for creative homespun sounds up the river.