By Noah Dolinajec
When people say that the music industry is a tough go they aren’t kidding around. That’s especially the case for Christopher Benson, who heads a project by the name of Supercrow out of Southeast Portland, Oregon. After growing up in Pennsylvania, Benson made his way out west in order to be right in the middle of the emerging alternative rock scene.
He spent a handful of years as a sideman in Seattle’s rock scene and was eventually pushed out by the expanding economy of the city. Like many music towns, Seattle experienced a short bubble of time where emerging and experimental artists could call it home. Venues were abundant and living costs hadn’t yet pushed the humble population of musicians out. He stuck it out as long as he could before moving just a few hundred miles to the South in Portland, Oregon.
Regardless of his travels Benson wrote music along the way, without his peers knowing about it, and when he arrived in Portland he decided it was finally time to put his work into action. Hence the creation of Supercrow.
When I sat down with Christopher Benson at a coffee shop in Southeast Portland, one of the first things he asked me was where I found his group. Later on he would humorously admit that neither he nor anyone else involved with the group has any real marketing strategy. The funniest part of all is that I didn’t really know how to answer him. Sometimes I’ll find myself just searching the web in the furthest reaches of its corners. Lists of bands from obscure websites will pop up and I’ll just test them out…one by one…until I find something I like and then I do my research. After I came across the band and heard a few of the songs from the first record I knew it was gold.
So that’s pretty much what I told him. He was amused to say the least.
On the Captain EP there is a collection of harmonious instruments – like piano, guitar, violin/fiddle, and some quiet organ – that draws the listener in. But what really makes Supercrow special are Benson’s complicatedly simple lyrics expressed in such painstakingly off-beat but beautiful manner.
The second album – which is self-titled – encompasses a little more volume and a little more variety among the songs. The opening track “Backroom” has a lot of what the original album displayed. Slow and steady with rhythmically monotone vocals…it sounds contradictory until you hear for yourself. But later in the album he creates a cut called “Fast Truck” which uses more ambient sounds and reverb.
But enough about what I think. Like I said before I had a chance to sit down with the lead man of the group and talk with him for a bit –
PTM: When did you put Supercrow together as a ‘group’?
Christopher Benson: The short answer is September of 2012. However, I’ve been the only constant member of the band…we’ve cycled through two drummers, two bass players, one guitarist, and had keyboards for a second. It’s the classic “is it a band or is it one guy with a rotating cast” scenario. Everyone I’ve played with has been great and most have moved on because they…literally moved somewhere else. Or they ran into difficult life circumstances and had to peace out.
PTM: No doubt that Supercrow has a unique sound not similar to most music even that which might be grouped in the same genre, what was your musical influence growing up and as you developed as a musician? Musically, lyrically or just generally? Were there different influences for the first and second record?
CB: My biggest influences can be found right at the intersection of 70’s singer songwriters (Dylan, Young, Stevens) meets alt rock (Dinosaur Jr, Wilco) meets sonics from Daniel Lanois and middle period Pink Floyd. On the Captain EP, I pulled heavily from Spain, Karate and Bill Callahan. On the LP, the first half was very Lanois inspired, and the second half pulled from Replacements, Wilco and even a little Zeppelin.
PTM: You spent some considerable time developing your musical career in Seattle where you played alongside some pretty awesome groups, any really noteworthy groups you spent time with? What sort of position did you have when you were playing with them?
CB: I was in a community of folks who really valued originality and honest emotion in their music. I played on a bunch of local releases including some from Michael Vermillion, Karli Fairbanks and Rosie Thomas. Bands I was playing in shared stages with J. Tillman (Father John Misty), Damien Jurado, Deep Sea Diver, the Maldives, and Rosie Thomas to name a few. Most of the gigs were bass and upright bass, though I played some guitar and steel guitar here and there. My favorite from that period happened to also be my only consistent band which kind of drew on the same inspirations as Supercrow…The Beautiful Clarks. Ridiculously good musicians cycled through that band…I miss playing with those fellas. I firmly believe it was the best band in Seattle at the time, but was too disorganized to achieve any sort of success.
PTM: Now that you’re working on your third solo record how does it feel looking back on your time with other bands? What’s it like to be working on your own project now?
CB: I definitely see the other side of the coin. It takes a certain skill set to lead a band…people management I guess. I’ve never been that good at that but I’ve learned a lot over the last three years. I can honestly say I think playing an instrument in my band would be kind of fun…I pick the kinds of musicians I can trust to make their own parts and bring their ideas to the table…I’ve never really understood the mentality that one person is making all the calls sonically…collaboration is insanely important and makes the music so much better.
PTM: The 2015 self-titled release was recorded and mixed in a pretty grassroots manner right? Tell me about it: What was the idea with doing all the work yourself? Do you record/mix for other bands in Portland? If so, who? Tell us a bit about your hobby as a producer.
CB: I’m pretty interested in how things sound…I build tube amps for a living! I’ve geeked out on recording and recording gear for many years and that’s led to working as a recording engineer and producer for friends when I have time. Most recently I recorded and co-produced a full length record for Bombay Beach, who is a new band but includes members from Portland staples Modern Kin, Kelli Schaefer and The Beauty. I recorded a full length for Fort Union. Both those records are coming out soon and they are killer! I also recorded and produced a jump blues band called Ripe Red Apple, which is a husband and wife combo, Gonzo and Gaia. Gonzo plays guitar in Supercrow, and Gaia sang harmonies on the LP. They are the sweetest, oddest couple. I also recorded the Supercrow records with help from various folks…we tracked a little at Fluff and Gravy studios, and my recording mentor Tim Harmon helped us get some sounds as well. My recording philosophy leans heavily on live performance…all the bands I’ve recorded other than the first Supercrow EP which I played everything on were recorded as full bands playing together in the same room. It imparts some great energy, and is really only possible if the bands are good to begin with. The last project I did was mixing and mastering the debut record of a local band called Big Feelings last week…I don’t know how they recorded it but it sounds pretty sweet. I use a combination of tape machines, analog hardware and digital recording mediums depending on the sound we’re after.
PTM: Coming from Seattle, where a rising cost of living has driven out smaller authentic artists, how do you feel about the Portland music scene? How much has it changed since you first arrived? Do you ever feel ‘cramped’ as a folk/rock artists in Portland? If the Portland creative bubble breaks like Seattle, where is the next West Coast spot for people?
CB: It’s been really sad to see venues go out of business, or get pressured into conforming to not allowing bands to play loud or late. There has been a huge shift over the last four years in the Portland music scene….we’ve gone from “can’t believe our luck” optimism to “why even bother trying?” Rent and living expenses have shot up so much…I’m so lucky we bought a house when we did. That being said, some very cool things are happening…things like house shows and shows in unconventional locations, and I hope we see more of that. I think musicians are always going to have it somewhat tough anywhere they go…but Portland decided to be San Francisco. I’ve been trying to guess where the artists will flee to…Centralia?
PTM: Tell us a bit about the current record under construction. What’s the influence? When is likely to available? Any other info you’d like the world to know.
CB: I’m really sick of producing my own stuff so I asked (local singer songwriter) Kevin Lee Florence to produce it. I trust his ears and taste without reservation and his own record that came out last year sounds amazing and features Garth Hudson from The Band, and also my old drummer in The Beautiful Clarks who is also Sufjan Steven’s drummer…the great James MacAlister. So far it’s sounding like a Grateful Dead or The Band record sonically.…lots of harmonies, acoustic guitar, organ, and spanky electrics guitars. My old guitar player in The Beautiful Clarks, Dan Phelps, who is a musical phenomenon played some drums on it…..he’s wearing the producer’s hat as well. I definitely think it has the best songs I’ve ever written on it, and can’t wait until it’s done. We’re shooting for an April Release, and the working title is “Morning Hours”, which comes from a song that’ll be on the record about insomnia and the loneliness of staying up all night.
PTM: Aside from Supercrow and mixing other group’s music what do you do?
CB: I spend most of my time trying running a guitar amplifier business. I run it out of my shop at home in Sellwood, and it’s growing to the point where I’m going to have to find a commercial space soon. I do recording engineering and some session work for guitar, bass and steel. I also play gigs with other folks who need temporary players, but I try not to commit to anything beyond Supercrow. I also hang out with wife and two boys who are my favorite people.
Photos via Christopher Benson