Interview with Benchmarks vocalist/guitarist Todd Farrell Jr. | By Tim Anderl
Nashville-based rock band Benchmarks released Our Undivided Attention on March 24 via SofaBurn Records. It is an album that represents the culmination of years of evolution for a band who are finally coming into their own. Vocalist and guitarist Todd Farrell Jr.—who also pulls double duty as the lead guitarist for Two Cow Garage—and his cohorts make the music they want to make: it’s a little bit punk, a little bit rock, but 100 percent creative catharsis. Simply, the album delivers 43 solid minutes of utterly sincere, hook-laden tunes that were mixed by Jay Maas—who has worked with the likes of Defeater, Transit, Polar Bear Club, and Make Do And Mend—and produced by the band themselves.
Farrell takes some time to chat about the record just before Benchmarks and Two Cow Garage begin a few strings of tour dates, exploring the realities of balancing two bands, coming into one’s own, and the pitfalls of working in the music industry.
When did Benchmarks become something that you decided you wanted to pursue?
The story of how it came to be is really strange. I was working in a recording studio in Nashville. I’ve always been a guitar player and songwriter, but I’d never sang before. So, in off-hours at the studio, I recorded a five-song EP, and it was in that Lucero cowpunk kind of vibe, I guess. I just recorded it and put it on Bandcamp, not really thinking anything of it, and it got more buzz than I thought that it should or would, I guess.
So, I got a bunch of college buddies together and put a band together that we called Todd Farrell Jr. And The Dirty Birds. We took that pretty seriously, but it was also a fun songwriting tool for us and a chance to play. We all still had day jobs. Music was still a pipe dream.
We released a record and started opening for a lot of bands that we really admired and respected. After that, I also joined a Columbus, Ohio, band called Two Cow Garage. They’ve been around a long time.
Beach Slang was in town earlier this year and couldn’t say enough good things about Two Cow Garage…
We’ve talked to [frontman] James [Alex] a few times about doing a Beach Slang/Two Cow tour, but it’s never quite worked out. I’d still love for that to happen. Beach Slang played in Nashville a while ago, and I’d never actually met him. But Micah [Schnabel] from Two Cow has opened for him at a few shows, and he wears a lot of Micah’s girlfriend Vanessa [Jean Speckman]’s art. So, since we are in that same circle, I introduced myself, and he was like, “Micah and Vanessa are what I aspire to be and I love your band.” Here I was paying money to see his band.
So, you joined Two Cow after opening up for them?
The story of me joining Two Cow is a weird story too. We had opened for them. I drove to Chattanooga to see them play, because I thought that they’d never tour the South and it might be my only chance to see them play. Met the dudes, drove back. Then, I was doing a hired gun kind of thing playing with a Nashville singer-songwriter, and we were touring to SXSW three years ago and were hitting all the same cities at Two Cow. So, I would play my gig and then go see them play. Finally, we were at SXSW hanging out, and I was totally over my other gig and [bassist] Shane [Sweeney] was drunk one night and said, “Do you want to join the band or what?”
The Dirty Birds had opened for them at the Basement in Nashville, and we became friends there. I sat in with them and played guitar on a song at a show in Little Rock. It just kind of worked and has been awesome ever since. They were always a band that I looked up to, so it is cool to get to play these songs.
Do you have a background in audio engineering? Do you have an educational background in music?
Myself—and the rest of Benchmarks, really—went to Belmont University in Nashville, and we all studied some form of audio engineering, music business, production, and things like that. All degrees that don’t do anything for you in the real world, but we did have a lot of fun doing it. So yeah, even this record, we engineered it, we produced it, we recorded every note; we were behind the board during the whole thing. We finally got so tired that we needed someone to fix it. That’s when we got Jay Maas from Defeater to help. We are all audio dudes. I have a little bit of music theory training from high school, but not enough that I would say that I know what I’m doing.
Was Jay on your radar beforehand? What did he lend to the process?
We cold-called him. I’m a big fan of Make Do And Mend and a lot of other bands that he’s touched. Jack [Whitis], our other guitar player that did a lot of the audio work for this record, said, “We aren’t going to be able to mix this ourselves. Let’s cold-call a bunch of people whose records we really like.” Jay got back to us and said he was in and interested. That was really cool. He brought out the rockness of the band, which was great because that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted it to be a big, loud rock record.
You mentioned earlier that you started out alt-country. Was it difficult to find the right musical identity?
I think, at first, I was just listening to a lot of Lucero and Drive By Truckers at the time and decided I wanted to make a record like that. That became what it was, so we had to go in that direction. Ultimately, we decided that it would be better to shed the things that we were doing for fun and be a little more true to what we really sound like. We love punk rock and songwriters, and I used to be in death metal bands and Jack used to be in a ska band, so we had a lot going on. So, we figured, “Let’s just forget trying to fit into a box, and let’s just make music.” That’s what Benchmarks is.
Is it freeing when you quit worrying about fitting into a genre and just start to follow your passion?
Yeah. Like I said, there was a stigma—it is becoming less and less so. People evolve. But there has always been a stigma. I’ve always been not metal enough or not punk enough, you know what I mean? So, I was like, “Fuck it. I’m just going to play music, and if it sounds good to people, that’s awesome. If not, then that’s OK too.” I just want to make music that I would listen to.
What sort of catalysts were inspiring you while you wrote Our Undivided Attention?
In the political climate we are in, I wish I’d written the next record now, but at the time that this one was being written—we are all 28- or 29-year-old dudes having to make a choice between hanging in there with our day jobs or going for it and trying to be a band. Half of us are married. We are trying to wrestle that divide between trying to be adults and work in the world as you think you are supposed to or to try to do something risky and extraordinary and creative, while probably falling on your face while doing it. It is about trying to juggle all those things. It isn’t a concept record by any means—there are a lot of things covered—but that’s the general sense of everything.
You engineered the last Two Cow record, right?
Yeah. Two Cow and Benchmarks are very different bands. Two Cow is the kind of band you put mics on and you let it be what it is. It is a very raw, loud, and in-your-face situation. Having the luxury of Micah and Shane be songwriters at the caliber that they are lets me sit back and make the noise part of it sound good.
With Benchmarks, I didn’t want to be in that driver’s seat as much. I wanted all my creative energies to be going into the songs and playing them. I wanted someone else in the room to make the other decisions. And I was probably burned out on making three records last year.
I think Two Cow and Benchmarks are different forces of nature. One you have to do one way, and one the other in order to capture that spark for both of them.
Was there any time when Jay had to tell you to take a backseat while he made some decisions?
We’ve actually never been in the same room together. We just sent files back and forth. We’ve never officially met face-to-face. That made it even weirder. But he mixed the record and put everything where it should be. It was nice to let go and let him do his thing.
Is it a weird balancing act with two bands—one in which you are the primary songwriter—deciding which band is the priority?
That’s the million dollar question. Both are very fun for me. Benchmarks is my vision and my creation, and that’s my art. In Two Cow, I get to be a musician; I get to make a music soundscape. They are very different situations, and I love doing both of them. It is nice to flex my guitar muscles with Two Cow and flex my songwriting with Benchmarks. I don’t know how to not be busy, so I’ll probably just do this forever.
You’ve been diagnosed with ADD, right? How do you moderate that to make it work for you?
I make a lot of lists. I try to accomplish the list. It can be as simple as taking the trash out, or it can be sitting down and practicing guitar for a half-hour, which is something I just started doing recently. If I don’t have specific small goals each day, then I am not going to get anything done. I’m just going to want to turn the amp on and dick around on guitar, then I’m going to go to work and be on the internet the whole time I’m there, then I’ll come home and play with the dog, and before I know it, 12 hours have gone by and all I want to do is play video games or something. It is nice to set the day out in front of me before I get cracking.
Is it weird to have a day job that is unrelated to music?
It is, but I used to work in music. I used to work for a digital music distribution company down on Music Row, and doing that almost made me hate music. Now, I work in a warehouse for the election commission in Nashville, and it is very menial, kind of boring—terrible for a guy with a brain that can’t sit still like mine. But it is refreshing to work in a job unrelated to music, because it makes music all the more wonderful while I’m doing it. The music city day job thing made me want to hate music forever. I’m glad that isn’t the case anymore. I think that when you are doing something you love in an environment you hate that you are going to end up hating the thing you love.
How does your wife feel about all your musical pursuits?
She’s super supportive. We met while I was doing this, so she gets it from the front. She’s bummed out while I’m on the road, but she also understands that I’m going to work. She’s been amazing.
Does it feel like going to work when you are on the road?
I wouldn’t call it a nine to five, because I love being on the road—seeing new places, eating new food, playing to different crowds—but it is hard. Being in a touring band kind of sucks. You aren’t sleeping well, you are always waiting to get to the next town, but those 45 minutes where it is fun is what keeps you doing it. Hopefully you come home in a better financial situation than you left in, and that’s how you keep going.
When people go to a concert, they are often going as a special occasion and want the band to party with them. It isn’t sustainable for the band to be in party mode all the time, though, right?
Yeah, at every show, there is that one dude who you haven’t seen in a year who is like, “Do a shot with me!” The guy in the last town said that too. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t like drinking on the road. It starts off as boredom drinking, because you are waiting around for something to happen and you are always at a bar. Then, you are drinking at the show, because it is a social thing and you are running into people and meeting people. Then, you are drinking because people bought you drinks. By the end of the night, you’ve had eight beers or more. I drink more with my wife at home when I’m cooking dinner than I do when I’m on tour.
I know guys that get hammered every night, they get up, they make it to the van to play the next show the next night. I can’t do that. Maybe once a tour, I’ll get nice and drunk, but I can’t do more than that.
So… You aren’t Mastodon?
Nope, and I’m not Zakk Wylde either. People like Keith Richards, though? Sometimes I think being healthy is great, but everybody’s body is different. I guess, do what works for you. I’m 29 and in pretty good health, and I can’t do what Keith Richards does in a day.
Are you touring in support of this record?
We are doing the northern Midwest, up to Minneapolis, in June. Sofa Burn is in Cincinnati or Kentucky, which is close to Dayton, so maybe we’ll stop in there. Last time I played in Dayton was at Blind Bob’s. We had a great time there. We played Columbus the night before. It was a weekend run. Good English opened up. I don’t know them personally, but they were a great band, and I was bummed later to see the situation they had going on. We had a great time though.
Purchase Our Undivided Attention here: Physical