Big band: members of the B3nson Family clown around.
the spirit of collective creativity with the B3nson Recording
almost sunset and one half of the B3nson family members are
standing in a hole. Like intrepid mountaineers, they do this
simply because it is there.
Earlier in the week, Tim Koch had ridden his bike to the Altamont
home of bandmates Jen O’Connor and Eric Krans, who live in
a 19th-century farmhouse and are gradually bringing agriculture
back to their land. He asked if they needed any work done,
and O’Connor set him to digging holes where they would later
plant trees. The voluntary labor yielded two holes, a couple
feet deep and a few feet around.
What family members could not fit in the first hole have now
squeezed into the second. With membership in excess of a dozen,
this is not an easy task. It’s a couple days after Halloween
and the whole family are in Altamont for a picnic, but the
fact that everyone is wearing silly hats—constable, musketeer,
swami, colonist—has nothing to do with the holiday. According
to B3nson family values, these sorts of things go without
saying. And so it follows, when a rubber ball is retrieved
from the tall grass and then hurled from one hole to the other,
an impromptu game of dodgeball breaks out. A family that plays
together stays together, right?
B3nson is many things. It is a house: 3 Benson St., to be
precise. It is a group of friends, many of whom have lived
at said address (although none currently do). It is a collective
containing some of Albany’s most innovative musicians, including
Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned, the Hoborchestra, Scientific
Maps, We Are Jeneric, Beware! The Other Head of Science, Desperately
Obvious, Barons in the Attic, My Friend Peter, Littlefoot,
and Swamp Baby. It is a record company devoted to helping
its friends make music. But above all, it is the idea that
music is only as important as the friends you make it with,
and that the more friends you have to share your music with,
the better it will be.
The picnic is this idea in practice. When Richard Nolan, the
guitarist, keyboardist and self-declared nimblest member of
Beware! The Other Head of Science, is finally beaned to end
the game, the holes are evacuated, but only for a moment.
The fray disperses into its sea of friends, who are busy tending
the bonfire, giving each other haircuts, and embroidering
T-shirts with the pattern of another friend’s chest hair.
They retrieve guitars, banjos, trombone, tuba, trumpet, French
horn, saxophone, accordion and violin, then return to do what
they do best. They fill one hole, surround it, and belt out
a number the Hobo Banned had learned only a couple weeks before.
A triumphant refrain, learned on the spot for a Jewish wedding,
“Hava Nagila” is the song the family members sing.
In 2002, Koch, Alex Muro and Dan Pardee first met as UAlbany
freshmen. By 2004, the friends’ musical aspirations led them
to form a post-hardcore band called Proost! Like the mythical
first show that every great band will speak sheepishly of,
Proost! performed only once, at a dive bar in the so-called
student ghetto. By then, the trio had been listening to a
steady diet of Neutral Milk Hotel, the Microphones and Ramona
Cordova, and the idea had been planted to start a ragtag workingman’s-folk
outfit. As Proost! performed three songs that would later
find their way to the catalog of Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo
Banned, the latter were officially birthed.
The house where they lived (3 Benson) became a hub of musical
activity. “We invented a game called ‘pass-the-guitar,’” says
Muro, while admitting he’s sure guitars had been passed in
other places at prior times. “It had pretty strict rules because
there were a lot of musicians around. It was a good way to
hear everyone, though, so you had to play one full song and
then pass it.” Not everyone followed these rules, but over
time the gatherings produced a large body of material and
a broad roster of players. Horns and percussion worked their
way into the mix, and over time side projects sprouted off
of the Hobo locus.
had the idea at the time,” says Muro, “but not until much
later did we start the collective and record company.” Multi-instrumentalist
Donna Baird, who splits time among many bands in the collective,
soon moved into the house and is now credited with coining
the “B3nson” moniker. While travels abroad, college graduation
and post-collegiate plans have dispersed the group from its
Benson Street roots, Sgt. Dunbar’s musical credo to “give
more than you take away” has become a philosophy for the whole
collective to live by. The house was passed to second-wave
family members Peter Mollica and Seth Tillinghast, and plans
to become a collective became official.
collective] worked out this way because everyone was friends
first,” says Muro, who, after graduation, used the rest of
his student loan money to buy a small digital recording console.
With a do-it-yourself aesthetic that fit their means of production,
and a small army with which to tackle the logistical ends
of making music, booking gigs, designing posters and publicizing
events, the collective became an increasingly self-sufficient
a lot easier to get stuff done with everybody than it is on
your own,” says Krans, who plays bass in the Hobo Banned and
performs with O’Connor as We Are Jeneric. With such a wide
support system, the collective are fairly prolific, releasing
several albums per year on the label. While the prevailing
logic of the industry would compel a group of this clout to
find higher commercial avenues, this would counteract what
B3nson are trying to establish.
thing is a lot more about being friends with everybody and
hanging out than it is about . . . well, I don’t really know
what else there is,” Muro says. The collective’s membership
has grown quite a bit in recent years, with preexisting friendships
sparking new musical projects, and compatible musical ideas
forming the basis for friendship. Indeed, it is a matter of
“scene” that seems most important to the B3nson family. “The
fact that nobody from Albany has really ‘made it’ in an interesting
way in a long time,” Muro continues, “kind of makes it seem
like there’s no momentum here,” but this assertion is only
true when viewed through an increasingly antiquated lens.
Nick Matulis, of Swamp Baby and Knotworking, represents a
different facet of the family. Having grown up in the area
and experienced the Albany music scene in the years prior
to the B3nson collective, he sees the musical experiment in
a larger context. “There are a lot of people who start here
and, when they feel they’re really ready to make their charge,
they move to [New York City]. I know a lot of actors who have
done that too. When they started to believe in themselves,
they abandoned.” It’s a sentiment that virtually precludes
the possibility of this group moving to the city. Although
a band like Sgt. Dunbar often will draw better crowds in New
York, such a move would undermine the rootedness that anchors
so much of what the collective does.
Krans adds that “people think ‘where there’s a music scene,
that’s where music happens,’ but, ultimately what this collective
is trying to prove is that it’s actually the encouragement
of the music community that creates the music scene.”
are the scene,” says O’Connor. “We are the ones that attend
each other’s shows and that’s why it’s sort of happening.”
Matt Ferguson, of Beware! and Desperately Obvious (whose sound
is markedly different from that of the Hobo Banned), points
to a sense of competition as something that has prevented
great bands from lasting in the area. “A lot of them aren’t
around anymore because there hasn’t been the support system.”
York used to have an advantage,” Matulis says, “because of
the sheer quantity of people.” With the Internet age, though,
ideas are exchanged at the click of a mouse, a fact that severely
diminishes the value of artistic hubs, and so small artistic
locales have been steadily reinvigorated all over the country.
“So, if we don’t have a million people on a single block here,
we can put 20 people in a living room and have the same effect.
There’s still that energy transfer and frenetic discovery.”
While this potentially divisive factor hasn’t yet become an
issue, the collective has accounted for what might happen
if a major record label does begin courting a particular member.
more of a confederacy than a union,” says Krans. “We’re not
going to fight over a secession.”
became a collective because we were so excited about each
other’s music,” says O’Connor. “We’d be just as excited for
somebody to leave as we were to have them come in.”
On Nov. 21, the B3nson family will celebrate their latest
release in grand form with a party at Valentine’s. A B3nson
Family Funsgiving is a compilation of music produced by
the collective, and on a crisp night in October, Sgt. Dunbar
and the Hobo Banned are busy rehearsing.
The eight core members of the band are crammed into their
small basement rehearsal space on Myrtle Avenue, where styrofoam
pads the walls and all manner of musical apparatus litters
the floor. A computer sits perched on a mirror-encrusted bar,
ready to record at a moment’s notice, but on this night the
band members are working on new material. Upstairs, collective
members and friends mill about. Some play Tetris on an original
Nintendo while others mix tracks for the upcoming compilation.
Still others wander downstairs to watch the band rehearse
and so made the space especially cozy.
Muro is concerned that, during a horn interlude, the players
are losing track of the tempo. From the stairs, Matulis, who
is only watching, suggests that everyone simply stomp along.
It is in moments like these that the B3nson family truly live
up to their collective identity. In their midst, there are
no spectators. The idea is eventually rejected, as it is decided
by trial that stomping while playing tuba and French horn
is next to impossible. Yet, the spirit of experimentation
is alive. Muro’s brother Adam, who plays woodwinds and banjo,
begins to keep time on an antique typewriter, situated on
the bar. The band accompany him through the problematic passage,
but with the approaching chorus, a new problem presents itself.
Adam has to return to his banjo without quitting the percussion.
At a moment’s notice, and with the same disregard for the
line between performer and audience that B3nson bands deliver
onstage, Adam turns to this fly-on-the-wall writer for a pair
of hands to lend his typewriter. Without thinking, I oblige.
According to B3nson family values, these sorts of things go
Back to 2008 Local Music Guide