Lead singer, guitarist, songwriter for Planets in the Ocean.
Disclaimer: I have been doing this a while so even the condensed version is a bit long winded. Stick with it and you might find a pretty interesting story!
One of my favorite bands Sloan has a song that goes… "I am writing young and gifted in my autobiography, I figured who would know better than me." I always loved that line. So here goes.
Raised up in Mount Vernon WA, my folks split when I was 12, so I sort of did a lot of back and forth between there and Spokane WA where my mom relocated. Too poor to ask the parents for instruments, I got a paper route to fund my first guitar, a Kramer Striker. I started my first band at 15, we won a talent show. At 18 I graduated High School and had no idea what I was going to do next. As a pizza delivery driver I was lucky and got spotted in a temporary band of older dudes that I was singing with in the Spokane clubs. A hot new band The Widows Party wanted me to try out (Myles Kennedy was the lead guitarist in the band). I was stoked. I joined them and we started gigging around Spokane. Myles soon decided to leave the group as he wanted to be the singer not just the guitarist, but they wanted me to sing so we pressed on. To this day that makes me giggle a little.
We moved to Seattle WA in 1991 to pursue the big dreams. Did pretty good, opening for Sweetwater, & My Sisters Machine. Our first show at Offramp was cut short though, as they needed to make room for a new band from Chicago on the bill, but they gave us free tickets to see this new big act... Smashing Pumpkins. My band loved the show, sadly I wasn't 21 so I couldn't go.
That band broke up a year later when Joel our guitarist left us to play with the Cornell siblings in Inflatable Soule, and I soon found my way into singing for a band called Mean Tangerine, and again was playing packed houses opening for The War Babies, Lazy Susan, and Green Apple Quick Step. Layne Staley became a friend and he loved our demo. He forced KISW to play it on his birthday. That was the first time I ever heard myself on the radio. Our guitarist David got sick and then spent a lot of time in the hospital. While we awaited his return Soundgarden played a benefit show, I got to be Chris Cornell's stage hand. Thank goodness David made it back to health. Yet even with all that momentum the band fell apart.
We started a new band called Thistle and released our first 7” vinyl record. We got some press; people were digging us. We had built a better draw in Portland, so we moved there, but I hated living in Portland, I was so home sick for Seattle, so I moved back. They stayed without me.
The next band I formed was called Nevada Bachelors. Within a year we were opening for Goodness on NYE at the Showbox, things were really happening. Sadly my grandmother passed away but she left me some money, so I poured every dime of it into making an album. The day we were to release it, Conrad Uno of Pop Llama records called and said don’t release it. He wanted us on his label. So, we signed with Pop Llama. That was my first record deal. It came with more perks. Great press, more hype, a bigger draw, we played shows with You AM I, Fountains Of Wayne, Death Cab for Cutie, Pedro the Lion, Harvey Danger, and Western State Hurricanes. The Posies were coming home from Europe and offered us a 6-week opening slot on their US tour! We all gave notices to our jobs. However, the Posies broke up on the flight home from Europe and cancelled the tour. We had to beg for our jobs back. Our drummer left the group shortly after. It was feeling a bit like the end, but then Jason Finn from the Presidents of the USA joined the band. He brought a new life into the group, he even funded our second album and again Pop Llama released it. Life was grand. Yet, as most of my bands had done before, we hit another rough patch, all the members had side projects. Mike our guitarist was going on a National tour with Harvey Danger, Ben the bassist wanted to move to California to be near his girlfriend, and we lost momentum and fell apart.
I did the solo thing for a while. Back in them days you could make a good chunk of change playing solo. I released a solo CD, I opened for Chris Ballew, and Nelly Furtado, I played Lounges, pizza bars, and coffee houses, any solo show I could get, but being a solo acoustic artist felt limited.
Soon I started my next group Dear John Letters. Our first show was opening for the Posies at the crocodile, so we started off on the right foot. We signed to Seattle’s Roam Records and spent 22 weeks on the NW TOP 20 Local charts with our first album. In 2002 We were the 12th ranked album of the year on KEXP, and I am not talking about local charts, I am talking the whole top 90.3 top artists of the year. It got the attention of a bigger label in LA called Foodchain records. We signed with them and released a record that went into the National College charts. We topped out at #34 on the CMJ charts, with air play on over 200 stations Nationwide. I thought this meant we had done it. We had tour support; we had a tour manager booking our National tour, we would be huge! Sadly, I was wrong. Our Tour Manager was in a horrible van accident with one of her bands The Exploding Hearts. Several of them passed away. She told us from the hospital she was quitting the business. The tour never happened. The band was thrust into a very strange emotional state, our lead guitarist Johnny Sangster was making a lot more money producing than playing in our band. He finally decided to quit, and that was likely the straw that broke the camel’s back, we soon we threw in the towel.
But who is going to let a little band break up slow them down? Not me, I was already working on new solo material for another solo album. Not so fast, Foodchain records informed me they owned the rights to my songs for the next year and half as they had an option in the contract. The good news was, I now could send them all my demos and if it all worked out right, I could get picked up for the next record and be fronted twice the money the band got but as a solo artist. So, I started writing demos. I was determined to make a solo album on a National level and tour. The last day of my contract the owner of Foodchain records called me. Sorry Robb, we have decided not to pick up your option. The demo’s are good, but they are not really what we are looking for at this time. I was free, but I was devastated. I had been nominated three years in a row as one of Seattle’s best songwriters by the Seattle Weekly, although I lost the award to Brandi Carlile and a few other notables each year. Something good had to be coming. Richard at Roam Records offered to help me out with another local release. I put out my next solo album The Tree Mind with the help of many local artists I had played with. It received a few great reviews and to this day has some very solid songs on it.
At the time I had been playing some shows with this hot shot Keyboard player Ty Bailie. My former drummer Cassady Laton was also ready to start something new, so we conjured up a Trio called Dept. Of Energy. Roam records was there for us all the way. We released 3 CD’s locally and built up a really-nice local draw. It was different than all the other stuff. It had a uniqueness due to Ty playing both the bass lines and the synth parts at the same time. We caught the eye of the bookers for Seattle’s Bumbershoot festival, he loved us. One of our last shows at was a sold-out Sky Church show at bumbershoot before Ty let us know he was moving to LA to pursue his dreams. It worked out well for him well, as he is now the keyboard player for Katy Perry.
Feeling a bit defeated and needing a break from it all, I befriended the beer tender Jake Uitti down the street from my house at the 3rd place pub. He told me he was a poet. I told him I was a songwriter and had often written people’s poems into songs. That night he sent me a few of his poems. They were fantastic. A few days later I sent him my version of a song called “Angel” his poem. He loved it. We started a side project; I turned his words into songs… over 120 of them. The Glass Notes put out our first record on Roam records. That was the last record Roam ever released. Richard the owner saw the writing on the wall, the business had changed. The Glass Notes recruited lead guitar player Tim DiJulio for the second album that we self-funded. That was the first time since 1997 that I didn’t have the support of a record label. The band was rather short lived, Jake had big dreams of writing novels and for big publications, which he does to this day. The good news is that we still co-write songs from time to time, and I have taken Tim DiJulio along my musical road ever since.
My last official solo record was in 2013. I was wanting to start a band called Shelk. I did a fundraiser and got the support of my fans to make and release the record. Tim and I toured as a duo down the west coast. We finished the shows in LA with Ty joining us on Keys. The album did pretty-well, KEXP gave it a song of the day nod and the reviews were excellent. Shortly after Tim and I were offered some paid shows in Germany for a friend’s wedding, an 8 day fully funded trip. This really helped Tim and I bond and decide what the next step was. We started Stereo Embers shortly after.
Stereo Embers has been yet another amazing ride so far. This band lasted over 8 years. One of our first shows was sharing the stage with the Presidents. At one point, Tim’s close friend Mike McCready got really hyped up about us. He offered us a release on his record label (vinyl 7”) and he started wearing our Stereo Embers shirts at his Pearl Jam shows and even wore it on the Stephen Colbert show. We put out 3 EP’s on CD, (all sold out) and the one vinyl. We played lots of packed houses around the Northwest including opening New Years Eve for Ayron Jones!
Somewhere along the way I added a page to my website, advertising that I could (for a reasonable fee) write and record peoples poetry/lyrics into a song of their style choice. I am now a hired gun songwriter, helping lyricists and poets make their dream of music come true!
After Stereo Embers called it a day I started to ponder my next move. A friend asked me to play a show, but I didn't have a band. He suggested the side project I had done long distance as a trio during the pandemic. It just so happened that it was 3/4 of Stereo Embers under the name Planets in the Ocean. I wanted to work on my guitar skills, challenge myself. I knew it might look kind of strange to move on as a different band with most of the same members but I also knew the sound I was shooting for was very different. Embers was a cowriting group, I wanted to take the songwriting to a different place. I asked the Cass and Gwon to play the show, they reluctantly said okay, no promises. The show was amazing. We had 10 new songs in just over a month. We recorded some singles and that was that, we all knew we were a band. A trio with a much more indie rock sound than our last group that was more inspired by classic rock in nature. I hope that Stereo Embers will still play shows someday, but for now PITO is my platform!
So, what does the future hold? I guess a lot more of the same. Today I am a lifer. No matter where I go, or what I am doing, music will be a big part of the adventure. That being said, I have been in a collective of songwriters who write and record from home then play it on YouTube each Friday. Check it out here!
Onward and upward! Lets do this! That is my story and I am sticking to it.
Thanks for reading my story - Robb Benson.