Saddling up, with Tom Benz
“Have you ever read ‘The catcher in the Rye’? I really love the idea that the whole existence has a simple purpose, in terms of being satisfied by the simple and beautiful things in life.”Tom Benz
Frankfurt-based Tom Benz considers himself an old-fashioned guy with old-fashioned values. He appreciates authenticity and, true to the German stereotype, he likes… no… he expects punctuality. He tells us, “I like it if someone is right on time, and this is what I really try to accomplish too”. In contrast to the laid-back bluegrass, folk, and country songs he produces, he confesses to being triggered by impatience, with a little devil sitting on one shoulder… and an angel on the other trying to balance things out.
However, his focus on the passing of time has ensured the hours he’s dedicated to music have been fruitful. Tom is a prolific collaborator, having produced over fifty tracks with his Americana Blues virtual BandLab band, Them Damn Ol’ Hillbillies, his real-life Traditional Irish Folk/ Bluegrass band The Stringband Ramblers, and countless other collaborations.
Tom takes an interest in all things vintage, with a particular love for 1930s-50s; design, literature, clothes, furniture, history, and lifestyle. He finds comfort in the ‘simple and beautiful things in life’, like working outdoors in the forest or garden when he’s not crooning in front of his microphone. But above all things, he’s a hard-working family man with a great appreciation for his friends, sharing a few beers whilst jamming on the porch of his 1950’s traditional half-timbered house.
Tom is a multi-instrumentalist, often observed propping up his Double Bass, mouthing his Harmonica, or slapping a pair of spoons. Though he is likely best known for his ‘smooth as the wind’, Jonny Cash-esque baritone vocals which conjure images of campfires, whiskey swiggin’ Cowboys, and weathered wooden buildings with swinging saloon doors. We spoke to Tom about his love of music, here’s what he said…
“You can certainly also say that I am an Epicurean. The older I get the more it became so.”Tom Benz
Thanks for your time Tom! First off… I love that hat and coat combo… is it a Stetson?
Of course, it’s a Stetson – what else? And I love this vintage retro jacket – a real cowboy needs to have this kind of Pendelton Western Wear!! It’s a matter of lifestyle.
I can’t argue with that… it’s a good look! Do you want to give us a bit of background? Tell us a bit more about yourself, Tom.
I was raised in the south of Germany. A child of the Lake Constance. My family always was related to sports and outside activities. I really can’t remember a season that wasn’t characterized by the big lake. Maybe this is the reason why I’m grounded and an optimist at the same time. Most of the time I see great opportunities instead of difficult obstacles.
Music was never an issue at home – I’m not saying this negatively. Because music was somehow always there if I think about it. I was raised with two brothers and a sister – we all used to sit in our kitchen, the radio was playing all the time, and to recall this gives me back a warm and cozy feeling. Happy times! So I grew up, we moved and there, in the new city in the middle of Germany, the exciting part of my youth began. It was in the very late 70s and I was immediately drawn into the subculture. And that has not let me go until today. Somehow we still live like that. Maybe (or better for sure) just a little more sedate. Today I’m a proud father of a son (26) and a sweet little daughter (6), and a loving husband. Besides the fact that I still have to go to work to pay the bills, music was never meant to become a ticket to fame, but I love it more and more each day. No, not true – but true most of the time.
Is there a particular point in time that you identify as when you became really interested in music?
One of my mates was a drummer, and he played in a band as well. I thought, ‘wow this is what I really would like to play’. So I learned it and had my first band. I was around 14, and two years later I was more interested in girls, parties, and rock-n-roll (but without playing drums anymore). I came back to music around 2013, learned to play the ukulele, and started singing. The reason was, that they forced me to sing along while playing easy ukulele songs – just to have a melody coming along with a 2 or 3 chord song. And from that time on, I’m a singer! We made up a band and played in little clubs, pubs, bars, open airs, barnyards… I learned to play the double bass, the harp and I’m still engaged to somehow master more than four strings.
You’re typically known for the Americana, Bluegrass, and country-style tracks. What is it about those styles that appeal to you, and who do you consider as your main musical influences?
Well, most of the time people say that I’m in the genre of American & sometimes Irish folk, traditional country, or bluegrass-a-like tunes. And they are right But of course, there are exceptions to this rule.
Musical influences? There are so many to name! Maybe I’ve Irish roots – I always loved The Pogues and as well the traditional Irish bands like The Dubliners or many others. Traditional country music artists of the 30s to the mid/late 50s, legends like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash… but as well bands and musicians like all the well-known Rockabilly legends. From today’s point of view, I’m most influenced by Indie Folk, Bluegrass-ish tunes. My musical bandwidth (music I hear and really like) is maybe a little bit limited but there are still tunes I really like and they are HipHop, Rock, Metal… you name it!! The first LP I bought as a young lad was London Calling (The Clash) even though I was not really influenced by them, I saw Frank Zappa and Led Zeppelin in the late 80s live on stage.
Tell us about the instruments you play, and some of the musicians you’ve been collaborating with.
Primarily I play the double bass, occasionally harmonica (harp), spoons (always great fun) & Bodhran. I’m not an acoustic guitar player but it’s my side project to improve my skills there. As well, I try to master my great little cigarbox slide (cigarbob) – manufactured by my friend Bob. But my main instrument is my voice, I guess. I’ve done a lot of collaborations with awesome people like Michelle Saint-Georges, Bob, Miami73 (Fred), Ron Swansong, and collaborations with Brian Emerton, besides our band projects with Nerse and many others. As well as some forks and vocal covers based on instrumental versions from songs I love.
What is it that motivates you to create, and where do you draw your inspiration from?
You maybe know that I’m on Bandlab – here is my forge, my studio, and one of my virtual stages. Here is where I met Brian, and the rest is history! We both, together with other amazing artists like Nerse and Tom Callahan, have created not only a band (Them Damned Ol’ Hillbillies) but around 50+ songs as well. Brian creates always the song (the backbone) as a music writer who knows how to play and uses his guitars. He inspired me and still inspires me the most. My lyrics are written down stories of pictures that are coming from his guitar directly to my mind. In addition to this and in any case: the music I hear is the music I love. This means – to speak in pictures – they initiate something in me which gives me ideas on how to do my own stuff. If I hear a song I love (and there are many) there is always an idea of how would I do it.
Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process, and perhaps a few key lessons you’ve learned whilst making music – how has your approach developed over time?
There is a short answer: for God’s sake, do it only if you are really convinced about it. From a singer-songwriter perspective (and I never write my lyrics without a song – no drawer of ready song lyrics): try to trust the picture that a new song creates in your mind and try to follow this path. It is always worth being as detailed as you can – this refers to quality. I’m not sure if I can match my own criteria here, but I always try it. An American sales guy once told me: ‘getting things done & doing it right. And don ́t cut corners, buddy!‘
How do you fill your time when you’re not making music? What gets you out of bed in the morning?
In addition to buying breakfast rolls for my 2 ladies at home, you mean? Of course a good cup of coffee and the newspaper. I like to get up early to have the first morning coffee when it is quiet in the house. This is since years my very first duty to start the day. I work for an IT Consulting Company – this pays my bills. I run the business for three of our locations in Germany – Hamburg, Frankfurt & Munich. I’m located near Frankfurt – right in the middle. I love my job but I can say as well that it is a challenging one. It’s a people business, and I really like to interact with people 😉
Are you working on anything new at the moment that you’d like to mention?
Actually, our band (Them Damned Ol’ Hillbillies) has kind of a creative break, and due to this, I’m trying to establish and expand my social media channels – primarily Youtube. My plan is to take some of those covers I’ve done on BandLab and put them into an EP and release it on Spotify. But with regards to the band: I will take some time to rework our video material and try to be focused as well on the band’s YouTube channel. And last but not least – there are some preparations going on with regards to a show I planning to host. You see, there is always work to do.
Ok, let’s get to some more of your music – what shall we listen to, and maybe you can tell us about the tracks?
Cowpoke – inspired and based on Colter Walls exceptional word. The video is not ready yet but the goal was to get the mood and feel of the song together. There is no special connection besides the fact that I really love Colter’s way to sing and perform. And I like the simple message of this song. It fits to how I see things (sometimes).
Down In The Willow Garden – back to the roots you can say. Best of both worlds – Irish roots and Appalachian mountain music vibes. I always loved this song – eerie lyrics and a wonderful melody. The release date was around Halloween – a good fit!
Seven Nation Army – A Bluegrass Tribute (Vocal cover). The original is great but I’m always looking for something special (from my point of view) and this instrumental version is gorgeous. I can really sign the lyrics and I can absolutely agree to the baseline message – leave this circus and go back to basics! A kind of simple life where you do what you can do in order to be ok with yourself and with the higher power you might feel related to. It’s all about returning back to your core and trying to stay there (somehow). I don’t know many people who made it but it’s still worth a try.
Well, that brings us to an end, unless there’s anything else you’d like to add?
You guys do a really great job and it’s a great honor for me that you took your time to go through my confused thoughts.