Andrew Benon is a Daryl Hall man. "John Oates was just this weird little guy with a mustache, singing backup," laughs the lean, angular Benon. It's the day after his CD-release party for Rock and Roll Moves, the thirtysomething web designer's first album, and he's talking with me about the group that sparked his own boyhood interest in pop music. Something about Hall & Oates's "Kiss on My List" triggered a love of '80s Top-40 hits that would outlast his high school taste for Minor Threat and his undergrad appreciation for Radiohead.
The seven songs on Rock and Roll Moves are a reworking of dawn-of-MTV -era synthesizer rock, a form high on posture and studio artifice. With the drums reduced to one-dimensional echoes and the guitar banished to the background, the rubber-band bass lines and electric keyboard jams take over. And if you're willing, the tunes will transport you to a nocturnal land of clubs, smoke machines, and unnecessary sunglasses-wearing. Think "Eyes Without a Face" and "Method of Modern Love"—the perfect tracks for your Miami Vice season finale party.
The disc can feel overly familiar at times. Beyond the fact that this particular genre, in its heyday, made me want to go hide out in the Deb shop, it can be hard to find the blooming of an original idea. From Benon's clipped falsetto parts and EuroBowie-accented choruses, the voice is a borrowed one, and the sense of having been here before saps the vitality out of saxophone solos and spoken-word bridges. One surprise, then, is the song "Farmingtown." Lyrics about the decline of small Midwestern farming communities might be predictable territory for Springsteen, but they're unexpected in the after-hours party of a Duran Duran number.
"It's a true story about my distant cousin in South Dakota," explains Benon, who was raised in Alexandria, Minnesota. "He grew up on a family farm, but eventually he has to decide whether to stay or not. Now he's a beef farmer. He doesn't know I wrote about him."
I ask Benon if he's thought of working in alt-country instead. "Then I'd just have the one song," he points out.
"This is the style I'm most passionate about," he says emphatically. "I tried to do Radiohead, Jeff Buckley, early-'90s music—but I never felt like I was true to the music I liked."
Benon's development as a songwriter has been somewhat circuitous. "After college I got a job writing music for video games. I wrote all the music for this game called Chex Quest—it came free in 7 million boxes of Chex cereal. That was 10 years ago, but kids still create games that continue the Chex Quest story. Some kid actually took my songs and did jazz interpretations of them, and posted them online."
But after his company switched directions, Benon spent less time on music. That changed about four years ago, when his daughter was born (twins would follow a few years later). "I got interested in writing songs, and I read a bunch of books about it, like How to Write Pop Lyrics, and that sort of thing." Benon deconstructed the hits he'd grown up with, taking the songs apart and figuring out the intelligence behind their composition.
"Now I'm indulging my own guilty pleasures—Michael Jackson, Bowie, Prince," he says.
Later that night, I look up Chex Quest on Google. The results are astonishing. Chex Rek: Beyond the Quest, Ultimate Chex Quest, Newmaps: A Chest Quest Mod, New Chex Quest Missions—the environment is more densely populated than I would ever have imagined. Scores of boys are using their free time to write games that continue the story of the Chex Warrior and his struggle to send the Flemoids back to their home dimension. The original work was a giveaway game, a sanitized version of Doom—a disposable novelty item. But in becoming part of thousands of childhoods, it became the seed of a microculture, and more than just a memory of kitsch.
And that is Benon's story, as well. It's the story of the appropriation of a piece of culture by a talented fan, who imitates and modifies and splices until something has been created that is end-to-end referential, yet, in its own fan-fic way, entirely new. Be it a cereal-armor-wearing superhero or a funky synth solo, an old pleasure, in the hands of the right tinkerer, finds a second life.