Way back in 2008, Benji Hughes released a genuinely weird and supremely pleasurable record called A Love Extreme. It was, in all the best ways, an oddity. Released by New West, primarily known for Americana and alt-country, Hughes’ record was pure pop — crunchy guitars, big drums, monster hooks, his thick, narcotized voice booming. In his review of the record for Esquire, Chuck Klosterman cited Cody Chesnutt, Ryan Adams, Julian Casablancas, Joe Pernice, Leonard Cohen, Jarvis Cocker, Chet Baker, and other seemingly unrelated artists, and here’s the thing: listening to A Love Extreme, his review made perfect sense.
It was the kind of record you shared. Songs like “Tight Tee Shirt” and “I Went With Some Friends to See the Flaming Lips” were too joyful, too effervescent not to. It was also exquisitely sad; songs like “You Stood Me Up” and “Even If” were crushing. Then, Benji disappeared. Okay, he didn’t really. He showed up on records by Jeff Bridges, Meshell Ndegeocello, Eleni Mandell, and Alice Cooper. But as social media rose to prominence, and artists began to telegraph their every move, Benji seemed to vanish into cult record obscurity.
“I do need to work on my social media,” Hughes chuckles over the phone, discussing Songs in the Key of Animals, his new record and debut for beloved indie institution Merge Records. A reworked version of one of three records Hughes uploaded to his website in December 2014, the album is a low key winner. “I spent a few months going back in on that record, really dialing it in more,” Hughes says.
“I love having time to look back at things…that’s why I’ve made four records over the last couple years,” Hughes says of the long wait between albums. “It seems like a long time to go between records, but I like to spend time and have different tracks to work on, different vibes, so you don’t just get bogged down on one thing. You can step away from something for a few months and come back with a really fresh perspective.”
Songs in the Key of Animals isn’t as sprawling as A Love Extreme, a concise 12-song set split between a funky side A and a gently grooving side B. “I really wanted it to reflect the two sides of a vinyl record,” Hughes says. But he’s sacrificed none of his charm for the sake of streamlining. The record is wonderfully strange, finding Hughes rhapsodizing with a chorus of lady singers about shoes, crooning over bloodcurdling screams and synth pop on “Shark Attack,” and shaking ass on “Sugartree.” And he’s still tender, too: “Fall Me In Love” ought to wind up a wedding DJ standard, and the instrumental “Song For Nancy” evokes an acute wistfulness, tearjerking without a single word.
“I wanted to make a record that I wanted to hear,” Hughes says. “Some of those songs, you can hear the fun coming out of them. It was a really good time.”
Performed mostly by Hughes himself, save for backing singers and helping hands from Ndegeocello, Keefus Ciancia, and a few other pals, the record doesn’t sound like the work of a sterile one-man-band. It’s loose and swings, feels genuinely funky.
“My approach isn’t intellectualized,” Hughes says. “I just attempt to make things sound as cool as possible to me. Vibey. I like to fuss over things and make them sound sweet, but [ultimately] it’s about how it feels and sounds…You can get your drum machine out and get it dead on, play it perfect with a metronome, but you know what it’s going to sound like? It’s gonna sound like a metronome. Who dances to a metronome?”
So, Benji’s back, even if it only sort of seemed like he ever left in the first place. He’s not too concerned about it, just looking forward to getting out on the road, entertaining people. “I’ve just been so focused on music, I didn’t really think to much about my public persona,” Hughes says. “The truth is, I really don’t have much of one. I don’t know who would ever want to be famous anyway.” words/ j woodbury
Benji Hughes :: Freaky Feedback Blues