Now/It's: An Interview with Bennett Littlejohn (Bent Denim)

In the three years that I've spent writing, rambling, and opining on the Internet as a career, there have been many a stimulating conversation with artists, people, and individuals of all sorts. Those conversations are almost always incredibly fulfilling, in the way that connecting with a relative stranger in a short period of time can be. Sometimes, these conversations are with relative unknowns, and others, with recognizable names, or in this particular instance, with a member from one of my all time favorite Nashville bands, (one half of) Bent Denim - Bennett Littlejohn. Being someone who will readily admit to being painfully aware of their own scruples, Bent Denim's music speaks to me in a manner of which settles an (occasionally) neurotic mind. Often described as "creepy" or "wonderfully weird"  - which is amusing - Bent Denim's music is earnest both in its nature and in execution. No bombastic flourishes. No wax poetic. There only is a quiet (and tasteful) conviction of experience through the lens of Littlejohn and/or Dennis Sager, which is on full display in the group's second (and exceptional) LP effort, Town & Country, which releases May 11th. It's somewhere between breakup record and surrealist navel gazing, with flavors of Nashville and New Orleans throughout. An absolutely fantastic record. And just to throw out a little teaser - the outro on "My Mother Knew" is absolutely top of the line. Anyway, enough of the rambling lede....

Now/It's met with Bennett Littlejohn at Dino's, in East Nashville.

Bennett - We can play video poker.

N/I - Or sheep abduction?

Bennett - Yeah [laughs]. I was at the gym the other night, and there was a biking game. You bike around…..

N/I - I think I’ve seen those. They’re on a course, right?

Bennett - Right.

N/I - And you corral stuff?

Bennett - Yeah! It was amazing!

N/I - I’ve played solitaire on a Stairmaster. I never realized that was a thing until years of going to this particular gym.

Bennett - That’s so wild.

N/I - Just kind of mindlessly exercising through distraction. I suppose it’s one of the more constructive means of exercise, or spend time, but still….. What an odd reality to be in.

Bennett - For real.

N/I - It’s strange, but at the same time, I’m a big proponent of healthy living, so if you have to play solitaire or corral creatures, more power to you.

Bennett - When I think of solitaire, it makes me think of my grandma. And I don’t think my grandma could do a Stairmaster….

N/I - It is funny, I’m notorious for tripping and slipping on Stairmasters. And there was one time I happened to be playing solitaire with a loose shoelace or something, and it got caught as the steps went down - it was basically every person’s worst nightmare while riding an escalator - and that turned out to not be my finest moment at the gym.

Bennett - I would imagine so [laughs].... So are we going?

N/I - Yeah. We’re recording. I think it’s nice to just naturally start with something off the cuff.

Bennett - Absolutely.

N/I - But other times, you have to pull teeth to get things moving. So this is my way to circumvent the latter scenario. It’s an interesting way to learn about human nature, honestly. I’ve learned far more through these interviews than I have through any anthropology class.

Bennett - I’m sure. I figure when people see [the recorder], they’ll stiffen up.

N/I - Totally. Which is natural. So most of the time, I’ll try and get to the interview location early and set it up, that way they might not actually notice it. But in the past - from working for other publications - when you come out with a notebook full of questions and go through the whole “thanks so much for meeting with me” spiel, and then whether you explicitly state that the interview is starting or not, you can see this invisible wall go up. It’s a defense mechanism, which is natural, especially when some stranger is asking you potentially personal questions, but at the same time, that’s where I can tell that the same canned answer I read in every other interview is going to reveal itself. And I can’t get upset about that, because at the end of the day, I feel like my role is to serve the interviewee in hopes that the people that read my site will go out and listen to Town & Country, in this particular instance.

Bennett - Of course.

N/I - Anyway, there’s your unsolicited Journalism 101 lesson for the day.

Bennett - [Laughs] Sure.

N/I - So it seems like you and I have circled one another for quite some time.

Bennett - I’d say so. There’s basically one degree of separation.

N/I - And every once in a while, they’ll overlap. But all that to be said, I was thrilled to see that [Bent Denim] has a new album coming out. I guess my first question would be - how long a time coming was/is Town & Country? Because the last EP you put out dropped sometime around last year?

Bennett - Right. It was just about this time last year. A lot of the songs have been in the Bent Denim canon - I think one song’s been around for two years - but for the most part, it’s all new after Diamond Jubilee. But we kind of work differently than a lot of bands, because Dennis [Sager] and I are always recording. So at a certain point, we realized that we had twenty songs that were pretty good. Then we just decided that we should put twelve together and make something.

N/I - And you guys wound up putting thirteen on there, right?

Bennett - Right, thirteen.

N/I - So if you’re recording all the time, you have twenty songs or so ready to go, what’s the deliberation process? Especially with the two of you not always being in the same place at the same time?

Bennett - Right. A lot of it’s congruence, and finding a central theme in all of it - but it’s mainly the things that stick out the most. What will typically happen is Dennis will send me a keyboard part, or I’ll just send him a sketch, and it’s just whatever sticks out. Because a lot of things will get sent between us, but never go above one loop. It’s kind of just that. Whatever winds up becoming a full song. Because there are a lot of verses that just stay verses.

N/I - Sure. I understand that. I figure the more projects you record, the more seamlessly that process becomes. So if you have a sketch of an idea, do you allow Dennis to listen to it and arrive at his own unique idea, and then say what your thought is? Or do you offer your thoughts from the onset?

Bennett - No vision at all. I literally email it to him and then don’t say anything. Which is cool, because sometimes I’ll feel the need to sing on it, and other times I won’t, so it’s just whatever gets sent to him.

N/I - Cool. I’m a proponent of being “in the moment,” not to sound too cliche.

Bennett - Absolutely.

N/I - I took a yoga class earlier today, and that was definitely something the yogi zeroed in on, or influence everyone with. So with music, to learn that a song that sounds so great live was done with a certain type of pretense can be deflating, but to hear things are more of natural fruition from both you and Dennis is exciting.

Bennett - I think for us, a lot of it is tone. Certain sounds that are unconventional to get, and that’s what inspires the song more than a lyric, or “Here’s this verse chorus that I have,” it’s more like “I have this guitar sound that I found that’s almost something I shouldn’t do, and I like it.”

N/I - Cool. So how do you stumble upon those sounds? Are you just very well versed in guitar tech?

Bennett - Well, it’s kind of interesting. My mom is an antique dealer, so I spent a lot of my childhood going to flea markets and estate sales and all of that. So I found a lot of weird gear through going to stuff with her and flea markets and stuff. Using all of that vintage stuff isn’t necessarily normal. Or it’s at least a little more esoteric.

N/I - So you basically have to engross yourself with whatever the instrument is to fully comprehend it’s tonal capabilities.

Bennett - Absolutely. It’s just interesting, because it’s so easy to plug into a computer and record something. And that’s good, because if the song’s good, then it’s good, but it doesn’t have any personality.

N/I - And again, the way that you and Dennis operate is that you arrive upon these things as opposed to searching for it. It’s something that is totally foreign to me, in what little bit of music that I’ve ever made, I just have my singular idea and leave it in the hands of someone else, because I don’t necessarily have the clarity of being able to arrive at something the way you guys do. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you guys have unique and enviable capabilities.

Bennett - Well that’s a nice thought.

N/I - So I don’t actually think I know how long Bent Denim has been together, or in operation.

Bennett - So I guess it’s been since 2013? Bent Denim was never supposed to be a band, which is kind of interesting. I was recording music in my dorm room freshman year, and I would send some stuff to Dennis to sing on. He would sing and that got sent to my brother, who lived in New Orleans. Dennis also lived in and is still in New Orleans, currently. They were at some kind of weird party…. Like a Southern Louisiana sand dune farm house, and my brother played it in the car while they were partying, and our manager, Connor, was there and heard it. I didn’t really know him, but he messaged me and said “This is really good, I want to be a part of this project. Let me manage your band.” So for me, it was making songs in my dorm room, fulfilling myself emotionally in that way.

N/I - I understand that.

Bennett - And he was like “I’m going to try to do the whole music thing with you, because this is better than what I’m hearing in New Orleans with bands I was trying to manage.” So that kind of came together, and [Connor] got the ball rolling for all of that.

N/I - Sure. So Connor was in New Orleans as well?

Bennett - He was. He was in college with my brother and with Dennis.

N/I - It’s interesting to hear how serendipitous how everything came to exist. In a weird way, isn’t that the proverbial “dream” of the non-fame aspiring musician? Not to make it a blanket statement, but ideally, if you just want to make music, there has to be some sort of a uniquely fortuitous force that comes to exist.

Bennett - And I’m so lucky, because I never had to do anything. All I had to do was record in my room, and Connor sought out labels, and publicists, and shows. I didn’t have to do anything. I’m extremely lucky.

N/I - So have you since then become more involved in that process?

Bennett - Not really.

N/I - Still pretty laissez faire?

Bennett - Absolutely. And our new record has gotten some ridiculous looks, which is super cool.

N/I - Very much so. I’ve seen some of the early press stuff, and that one on Stereogum - whoever that writer is really goes to bat for you guys.

Bennett - Yeah. Chris DeVille. He’s the man.

N/I - It was really great to read. So what is that like? From your unique perspective of making the music with no intention of doing any of the other stuff, but still see it resonate with people you might not have considered it resonating with, how is that?

Bennett - It’s really wonderful, because I’m not creating anything for anyone. Dennis and I are creating it for ourselves, and that’s really cool, because I guess it’s genuine in that way, but it’s fucking…. It’s really cool. That being said, I don’t look at it too much.

N/I - That’s fair. Therein lies the crux of the entire problem.

Bennett - Right. But there are weird YouTube channels that upload videos, so we have fans on YouTube, which I didn’t know was a thing.

N/I - The Internet has certainly broken down the final barriers of a quiet project reaching any corner of the world. It was interesting in researching Bent Denim - and I’ll admit it, I’m a big fan - to see just how much it moves others to create within their own capabilities. So I’m glad to hear it’s the same for you. So let’s shift toward Town & Country - you were saying that you write the songs and arrive at themes afterwards, what themes did you guys stumble upon?

Bennett - I went through a breakup right as I was writing Town & Country, so that’s a lot of it. A lot of it’s the good of that relationship, too.

N/I - That’s good. I was going to ask, how do you approach that? Some people can be vindictive while others are cryptic, and others are nostalgic. But sometimes none of those approaches can be as diminutive as originally hoped.

Bennett - I think the one narrative that we’ve gotten is that we’re creepy [laughs].

N/I - [Laughs] Creepy?

Bennett - We’ve seen that in a couple things. But in reality, we’re just being earnest. Not really worrying about one thing or another.

N/I - Do you think the earnestness of it - because not everyone is as willing to be upfront about things - do you think that’s what translates into “creepiness?”

Bennett - Probably [laughs]. We’ve also been getting “weird,” or “weird, wonderful band,” which is cool.

N/I - Sure. Alliteration always sounds good.

Bennett - But we had a song on our last record called “Caitlin,” and that was more or less about our old publicist, and that’s definitely creepy.

N/I - That’s fair. I think I may have skimmed over that the other day. But to call a band or a song “creepy” or “weird” as a means of praise is a very roundabout way to do so, but at the end of the day, if they like it, they like it.

Bennett - It’s interesting.

N/I - And again, neither you nor Dennis place all that much weight in those sorts of write ups in general. It’s interesting in my experience talking to people about their music, and when they do place great weight in those things, they can get really hung up. It is, at its core, well intentioned, but because they say it’s “weird” or it’s “creepy,” they can get hung up on that stuff.


Bennett - People can get hung up on those things to the point of which it becomes so wild to watch.

N/I - It’s got to be the absolute worst. But still, as long as you’re doing what you want, and you’re happy with it, everything else becomes non sequitur.

Bennett - People on the Internet are so wild, you know?

N/I - Absolutely. So my website - it’s not the biggest website ever, not by any means - but there are people who read it regularly and interact with it, or me. The first interview I published in 2018 was with Karl Dean….

Bennett - The old mayor?

N/I - Right. The old mayor. He’s running for governor, and with it being a midterm year, I thought it’d be good to talk to somebody running for election. Interview goes well, not necessarily my best interview ever, because I had never interviewed a politician before, and was punching above my weight class throughout, but I publish it. Then I put a little money behind it to gain some visibility on Facebook, and lo and behold, all these people I’ve never seen before glom onto the comments saying “Wow so great! We need someone like him,” and the complete opposite of “Notice how he didn’t say anything about guns!” And it was like, “Well, I didn’t ask him anything about guns.” It was a bunch of random people being so vicious towards each other.

Bennett - That’s really ridiculous and funny.

N/I - The general Internet of things is interesting. People seem undeterred and unfettered in ways we would have never imagined years ago. But back to Town & Country…..

Bennett - Sure.

N/I - What’s the story behind Town & Country in general? Why choose that for the name? I know there’s the Town & Country car dealership, and I’ve seen the Instagram posts with all the Town & Country bought vehicles.

Bennett - And I can’t wait to lose more and more followers. I’m trying to do one every day until the album comes out.

N/I - I love that.

Bennett - Every day, Connor will send me a new photo of one, because he drives more than I do.

N/I - He just goes around finding them?

Bennett - I guess. I was driving home one day, and the truck in front of me had that on it, “Town & Country,” and I was like “That’s it.” Literally, it was on the back of a car, and I didn’t even think about it being a car dealership or anything. I like the idea of Town & Country, because Nashville is sort of in that spot. I really love urban decay in the South - I think kudzu is so beautiful….

N/I - I do too. I went down to Montgomery, Alabama in 2013, and a friend of mine was not from the South, and to my knowledge had never necessarily been to the deep South of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, etc. So we get down to Montgomery, and going for thirty minutes, going through all of these disparate and decrepit neighborhoods and communities in desperate need of any sort of attention, and my friend blurts out “Are people even born here anymore?” And that always stuck with me in terms of the symbolism of urban decay in the South - it pulls you every which way, in terms of emotion.

Bennett - Absolutely.

N/I - There’s a story there, or at least there was, and then there’s obviously not going to be one in the future.

Bennett - Totally. And there are pockets of Nashville that are still like that, where it is literally town and country. This is this thing that’s really beautiful, but it’s a car dealership, too. It’s a strand of words that I like.

N/I - Just the car dealership itself serves a unique standing in that whole scenario. I remember the Town & Country commercials growing up, and they were not of high production value. It was this guy who was one of the last bastions of the “classic” American dream - growing up in the boondocks, moving to the city and then builds up this thing, being a country boy taking on the city. So there’s a definite poetic application to Town & Country as it applies to Nashville.

Bennett - And it’s a great minivan.

N/I - A truly great vehicle.

Bennett - Highly underrated car.

N/I - No transmission troubles or anything like that.

Bennett - My friend Andrew, who plays in Hovvdy and Lomelda, he had a Facebook status the other day that said “Next time you go on tour, go on tour in a minivan.” And he’s right, because it’s bucket seats, and stow n’ go seating.

N/I - Definitely. As someone who has never toured before and doesn’t really have any intention of touring, I would imagine that if you were to do it on a budget, if a minivan accommodates however many people are on the road with you, it’s a no brainer.

Bennett - Everyone can tour pretty comfortably.

N/I - So with touring and the band’s geographic standing, where do you typically meet to kick off runs?

Bennett - It’s kind of all different. We used to meet in New Orleans a lot, when my brother used to play drums for us - he’s like the best drummer I ever played with. He doesn’t really play drums anymore. So we’re in this weird area where we don’t really know what we’re doing when it comes to playing live.

N/I - Well I had seen you guys at The Basement, and were trying songs without drums for the first time.

Bennett - Exactly. So it’s interesting. When Dennis and I first started, we’d have a drum machine. Something like a Boss SP-33 and just trigger beats. And that’s cool, too. It’s so fun to be self-sufficient where two people jump in a car, even into a sedan, and just tour. But we’re still figuring that out. Some of the songs don’t speak for themselves as a two-piece, and some of them do. So you have to be selective.

N/I - I would imagine so, and if you have fans come out with songs that they want to hear, but you can’t necessarily do those songs justice as a two-piece, I can understand the dilemma as far as deciding how to go about it.

Bennett - And there’s also a certain amount of not really caring. Like if the person enjoys the music, whatever. If they don’t, fuck ‘em.

N/I - And ideally, just the fact that they’re there, they’ll receive the music in whatever capacity it might be presented in.

Bennett - That is true. We’ve played some really great gigs and some really awful gigs, and that was one thing that was interesting for me, in playing Hovvdy’s release runs. In that moment, every show for them was a “good gig,” because they’re really hot right now. So that was interesting for me, because people really love their music and really love their songs, and all that, which was cool, but then I had to ask myself if I was doing the songs justice? Did I need to play them just like the record, because that’s what people know? But for us, it’s just “whatever.”

N/I - Sure. Play whatever version is most appealing.

Bennett - And that’s also probably the difference in being the musician who played on the record versus the songwriter.

N/I - I think that’s totally fair. For you, you write the song completely, and as long as it feels or somewhat resembles the way it was when you wrote it, you’re probably more satisfied with that as opposed to playing it out verbatim.

Bennett - Absolutely. And I’ve played really good solo Bent Denim shows where people listen the entire set. I played a show with that band, Rat Boys - I know Julia from maybe tenth grade of high school. She’s a friend of a friend.

N/I - Same school?

Bennett - No. She just went to some early college program with one of my friends. But I played a show with them, and the entire crowd was silent for the set, which is insane. One thing that’s funny, too is that I hung out with Julia in maybe eleventh grade - I remember, it was July Fourth - and we recorded two songs, and those songs ended up on their most recent record. Not the recordings I did, but the same songs.

N/I - The skeleton of them.

Bennett - Right. Which I thought was so cool.

N/I - That’s got to be - I’d imagine eleventh grade Bennett would have been ecstatic about.

Bennett - Totally. And they’re always on tour, which is something I can’t necessarily do.

N/I - Why is that?

Bennett - I just kind of have a job.

N/I - That’s fair. Does that become affecting at any point?

Bennett - It makes me value my time more, because I have to make time for it.

N/I - You definitely have to decide what’s the most effective use of time. I figure it might actually lend itself to the creative process, as well. At least in the sense of the potential stress of time management becoming stress as an emotion. I don’t know if it’s catharsis or a panic attack, but something comes out of it.

Bennett - [Laughs] A little bit of both.

[At this moment, Bennett’s order number is finally called out]

Bennett - I’m very excited.

N/I - Well you’re kind of a connoisseur of dive bars and meat threes, right?

Bennett - Oh yeah.

N/I - Where does that originate from? More of the flea markets and being around that?

Bennett - I’m sure. I’m trying to think - when I moved here, Bolton’s was my favorite restaurant. I used to go to the one on Eighth Avenue. But I think it’s - especially in Texas - there are just a bunch of dive-y restaurants. It’s just so much more genuine….

N/I - Than Chipotle.

Bennett - Right. Chipotle. And obviously, there are some really nice expensive restaurants in Nashville. Husk is my favorite restaurant but I’d much rather come here to support this or go to Duke’s.

N/I - Well there’s something to be said for that. Husk is great, but isn’t it originally from Charleston?

Bennett - That’s right.

N/I - From a 30,000 foot view, it is interesting to see which restaurants that are technically franchises….

Bennett - Stay genuine.

N/I - And in turn become “local spots.”

Bennett - But to answer your original question, I don’t know, really. I love fast food, I really do. One of the best meals of my life was Taco Bell after Bonnaroo last year.

N/I - Okay.

Bennett - Which is weird, but it was really hot and really fresh. I was really sober, too.

N/I - Well Taco Bell has really made strides in revamping their menu. I would have eaten it before any of the Cantina menu items came around, but I’m a sucker for their Quesoritos. I love those.

Bennett - They’re amazing.

N/I - So good.

Bennett - I think the argument in defense of it is that it’s good because it was made in a lab. There are so many things wrong with that, but there are also so many things that are right.

N/I - To sit and conceptualize it in a lab grants license to it. Whereas, if you had a friend who created a Quesorito on their own, you’d think they were high out of their minds.

Bennett - You’re either Taco Bell or the most stoned person of all time. I just love anything that’s kind of local.

N/I - Nothing wrong with that.

Bennett - The exception is probably local beer. Miller Lite forever.