Charlotte singer/songwriter Benji Hughes has drawn some comparisons to Stephin Merritt, and while the hirsute Hughes looks nothing like him with his Billy Gibbons-like beard, his minimalist, often keyboard driven electro-pop ditties recall Merritt both in their brisk simplicity and insidious catchiness. Offbeat like Jonathan Richman if he were raised in rural Georgia, Hughes music bears traces of Muscle Shoals soul and southern rock, apparent in this song's outro, which boasts a guitar riff greasier than the kitchen ceiling at Popeye's. The subject of "Tight Tee Shirt" is petty self-explanatory, but the lyrics boast more depth and wry humor (he rhymes "candy" with "awesome candy") than you'd expect given the song's Beavis & Butthead approved title.
The provocatively clothed girl in question's a former paralegal who's vacillating between becoming doctor or horse trainer, while serving cotton candy at the circus. ("Selling people rotten candy," Hughes observes.) She packs heat for when the boys get fresh, and "if she isn't edible, she's as close as you can be." Scratchy, squiggly guitar licks percolate over a bouncy programmed beat abetted by handclaps straight out of the '70s. The multi-tracked vocal break ("the girl is so hot!") would've fit right in on Jackson Browne's '82 hit off Fast Times at Ridgemont High, "Somebody's Baby." The aforementioned lick, seemingly stolen from an Allman Brothers album, works its way through the outro and a false ending, before blowing up with a raging solo as the song closes. It's a fine example of Hughes' smirking sensibilities.
The Independent caught up with Hughes in Charlotte, "just chilling."
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Was there an inspiration? Where did the song originate?
BENJI HUGHES: It's a subject that's dear to me, tight T-shirts. If there has to be a shirt involved, it might as well be tight.
Was there a particular girl, or is it a composite?
I'm going to say a composite on this. There's several, or a lot of them.
Do you have something against cotton candy?
[Laughs.] Not really. But it's supposedly pretty bad for your teeth. I'm trying to be sort of responsible with it. I don't know, if cotton candy's unsafe, but it is pretty neat to look at.
OK, cotton candy or MDMA (featured in his song "I Went With Some Friends to see the Flaming Lips"): which is more hazardous?
[Laughs.] Well it depends on how much of it you're taking and for how long.
On a side note, is the Flaming Lips song based on actual experiences?
Yeah, that's pretty much a play-by-play there.
Where did the idea for that greasy guitar riff at the end come from? Was that always a part of your intent?
That would be something after I cut the track. We put that on there because I like harmony guitars. I guess that was something that came after. It definitely wasn't the first thing I wrote on the track. Then after we laid the track down, I was, "Hey, this would sound pretty sweet.
It's fun because it kind of goes against the tone of the rest of the track. Is that something you like to do, through expectations off and make things a little quirkier?
Maybe, I hadn't thought about it that much. It was cool to have that little harmony. Melodically that sounds rad, kind of nerdy. I just thought it sounded cool.
How did you know your musical partner Keefus Ciancia, and how did you hook up with him?
I met him on a songwriting session. We were working on this chick's record in L.A. right after I started working for this publishing company. It was probably 2001-02. We were working on a session, and that's where we met. We were both having a cigarette or something. We just hit it off, and that night went out and had some drinks and have been pals ever since.
What's the nature of your relationship? Are you guys big cut-ups or are you pretty serious when you're working?
I'm going to lean toward the cut-up side. [Laughs.] I mean, we get stuff done, but it's just because we happen to work well together. I don't know how. We definitely enjoy what we're doing.
How did you get started with the publishing house?
It was pretty much just a lot of luck. I had been in a band in the '90s, I was in a rock band, called Muscadine. We had a record deal, and I'd made a few contacts in the music industry and we just kind of got into different stuff. We didn't break up. We just started doing our own thing. Then I went and cut a bunch of songs by myself one day with guitar and piano, whatever—20 songs or whatever, and sent them to some people I knew in the industry. Then somehow a publisher I never met got a hold of it and really liked it, and gave me a call, and said I want to have you come out here. I flew out to meet him, and he said I want you to work for this company. I got lucky.
What was it like writing songs for other people?
I hadn't really done much of that—writing for other people. I really enjoyed it. I got to write with some really cool people. It was fun, met some rad people, wrote some pretty cool songs. It was a great experience
What was it like to work with Burt Bacharach and Alice Cooper (separately)?
I was a bit in awe to sit down to a piano with Burt Bacharach and have him say, "Play something" beside me. "Play this. Play what you're talking about." I'm like, "Ah, okay." It was a really out-there experience. Both of those guys were really nice guys and really down-to-earth people. You're definitely, "Wooahh." Like Alice Cooper, I had a tape of his I wasn't supposed to have. I was 12, listening to it in the dark, getting freaked out. Creepy like "Steven!" I don't know how much you listen to Alice Cooper, but he's got some really great stuff.
How did your interest in music happen?
I think everybody loves music pretty much, and I was no different in that regard. My parents were really into it. I'm glad my mom listened to stuff like the Cars and the Talking Heads, and a little more kind of more far out stuff than just straight up WRFX. That's the local station, the big old hairy fox. It's one of those station that plays Lynyrd Skynyrd every four songs. Growing up in the South, my father lived in rural area of Greenville, TN, but he liked a lot of that stuff too. Just everything. I like a lot of old country music. So my folks were always listening to music. I eventually found a guitar at my Aunt Maxi's house. It's one of those things where I was like, "I want to play one," and they were like, "You'll quit. I tried to play one in high school, and you're just going to quit." But I found an old plastic guitar in a closet, and I started messing with that. Then my dad saw I was kind of into it, and I got an electric guitar and amp on layaway—cheap, old-school stuff. Paid that off, got that and started learning how to play and just kept going and go way into it.
I sensed a bit of Muscle Shoals soul. Is that something you're into?
Oh yeah, I love that stuff.
Which Captain Morgan jingle was it that you did?
[Sings.] "Got a little Captain in you??" There are several of them out there, but that was mine. It played for a couple years.
Those are pretty good residuals I'd imagine.
Oh man, that was nice for a couple years, no doubt.
Are there any other commercial jingles we might know?
Probably not. Those things are just—I've gone out for a few of them. But I haven't really nailed much of them because, you know, they're so coveted, once you get one everyone wants one... the actual jingle itself you don't make as much as the guy that's singing it, depending on what kind of deal you get.
Tell me about beard and long hair. How long have you been growing it? Do you like upsetting people's expectations of your on stage? Does that play anything into it at all?
It's just my way. I've been kicking it for a long time. It's a classic look people have been doing it for years, even back before there were cameras. It never goes out of style, and I don't know how I would fashion my hair if I cut it all the time. So I got this thing, I know how it is, and it allows me to chill. I don't intentionally try to image out or anything. But it's cool. It's a trip that people are like, "Wow, you don't sound like ZZ Top that much."
Benji Hughes plays Local 506 Saturday, Oct. 24, at 10 p.m. with New Town Drunks. Tickets are $8.