Next month, the modern day king of disco himself – Donny Benét – returns to Europe for a string of sold out headline shows in support of most recent album Mr Experience and new EP Le Piano. Jack Parker called up The Don to talk instrumental music, his rabid fans and the infectious elephant in the room.
Hey Donny. The last time we spoke was two years ago, just as the pandemic was in full swing. How have the last 24 months been for you? Good! I’ve been keeping busy. A lot of waiting around to tour again, and in Australia we had some pretty intense lockdowns. I used the time well; I did a lot of composing, I had time with family – it could have been worse!
Your new EP Le Piano is fully instrumental. What drove you to taking this approach? So firstly, I wanted to properly tour Mr Experience. It was a great album which I worked so hard on and I was really looking forward to playing it live. I didn’t want to kill it straight away by putting out another album with vocals. I’ve written instrumentals before, for example Waterfall on Mr Experience as well as an older track called Beneath the Sheets. This was a good chance for me to put out something which wouldn’t detract from Mr Experience while also posing me a fun challenge.
So will this become more common in the future? Are you ‘done’ with singing I don’t know. Years ago an old friend – who was a vinyl DJ – helped me come up with music specifically for DJ sets, for example a song like Beneath the Sheets. I wanted to do this almost for a Japanese record collecting audience as a while back we also did a 7” for a label in Japan. I listen to a lot of Japanese instrumental music or European jazz on the road, so I thought it would be nice to do something like that; something which I’d like to listen to myself. Finding lyrics has been tough the last couple of years. You don’t wanna write “during COVID” and make songs about feeling trapped or being free.
I remember Chromeo did a whole EP about it, one of the songs was called Chlorox Wipe. At the time it was fun but I think looking back now it’s a bit cringey. Yeah, it follows you around and you don’t need to address it. Two years is a short time in the grand scale of things. In my time during 2020 and 2021 I got Le Piano done, I spent time with my family and I worked on some other stuff. It’s nice to look back on those things.
Do you think you’d have ever released this if the last two years didn’t go the way they did? Yes, I would definitely have done that. I wanted to get it out of my system! I enjoyed writing Waterfall and even just the music I listened to on tour was great. I think I would have wanted to take a break from lyrics and do something that required a different discipline in composition. You can take your time developing ideas, just like with Japanese music. You can have a repetitive figure or idea and slowly develop it.
The last time we talked we discussed the concept around The Don’s character. I assume Le Piano doesn’t slot into this narrative? No, it reminds me more of when I was enjoying Japanese music so much. There’s also a French album by a guy whose name I always forget. It’s, uh…let me check, I have Spotify open. His name is…oh gosh, this is annoying. Here we go! His name is Alec Mansion. He only has one album out but the last song is an instrumental with piano and it’s great. There’s also this old Italo disco song called Walkman which influenced Inspector Norse, which in turn influenced Le Piano. I hope it sounds European and Japanese at the same time.
It does! It has that beach vibe. Yeah, also City Pop. There’s a few albums I always come back to, and I wanted to do something in the vein of music which could be pleasing to listen to in any context.
So how does it set you up for the next full studio album? I used my time during the pandemic really well. It’s the longest I’ve ever had to write; before that, Mr Experience was written during a number of tours. I’d come home for a few weeks, get settled and start writing, and then I would have to leave again. This time I bit the bullet. I’d always wanted to use live drums, and my younger brother – who plays in my band – is a drummer. We all play each other’s instruments, and so I taught myself to drum better and record it. By 2021 it was a new vehicle for me to compose with. In the past I’d start with a drum machine, and this time round I wasn’t even playing much bass. I mainly played keys, so a lot of the new music will have keys and live drums. Going down that road is a different sound for me, but it’s a nice development.
Are collaborations with other (Australian) artists also something you’d look to explore? That’s kind of the idea. I signed a publishing deal last year involving a lot of co-writes, but I found out soon enough that co-writing over Zoom isn’t really my thing. I got too distracted while being at home as I have a young family. I’d do some writing, then do my own thing. In the future I might go out and write with people face to face. For the moment, though, I like working by myself. We’ll see!
The oft-postponed European tour is finally happening this spring. What can fans expect from these shows? I went to the United States in March and it was insane. The first show in Boston was beautiful; I was taken aback by the audience. The next night I went to New York and the audience just wouldn’t let me play because they kept cheering. It was very emotional. Going back to Europe will be a very similar thing; I have such a nice relationship with Europe. On one hand it will be a big step for me to go back, but on the other hand it will feel like picking up where we left off. I felt energized and reconnected after the US tour and I expect this to be much the same.
I guess it’ll also be nice to get away from Australia after spending so much time there the last two plus years. Which cities are you looking forward to revisiting again? Oh, everywhere! The tour starts in Scandinavia, and then we go to Slovakia which is something of a hotspot for me. Then there’s Germany, and after that the UK for which I’m a bit scared because of all the Brexit stuff. It’s a real pain in the ass for touring musicians. The final week of the tour is the gold plated one, with Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris. Those are the biggest shows, and Amsterdam even sold out in three or four days back when we announced it in 2019. That will be special. The thing with Europe is that it’s all so different. There are cities where you know the crowd will go wild and cities where it will be different. After all this time away it will be a shock to the system. I had COVID just last week so I’m less stressed now about being in Europe.
Speaking of fans, how does it feel to still have so many – I dare say – rabid followers after such a long period of being able to do fairly little? You even have a Dutch fan page on Facebook, for example. I’m extremely lucky. The fans I have around the world are beautiful, and I say this with no pretense. They’re loyal and supportive; when I was in America every stage manager would say that my audience is the nicest audience they’ve ever seen. I’m not surprised, because even during the pandemic they were so supporting me by buying merch or watching the Mr Experience live stream we did. I was so bummed about that record coming out and us not being able to gig. I wanted to show fans what the album could be, so when I go to Europe it’s going to be even better than that.
How does it feel knowing that some of these fans are mainly in it for the ‘novelty’ factor? As long as they’re enjoying it! Music is there to be enjoyed; it takes you on a trip. I like comedy movies and I also like thrillers; some may come along for the novelty and then realise the musicianship and secondary meanings in the song are pretty good. I think different countries have different reactions. I always find that in America people have a great musical upbringing. I went to SXSW one year and had to take the bus, and on it people were listening to James Brown. They have great exposure to that kind of music, but of course every culture is different. Without naming any country in specific, I will say that some countries probably come more for the novelty while others come for the musicianship. Some come for both – take what you will. Le Piano is out now.