Let’s start at the stage floor where shimmying, shiny, leather shoes are fringed by the hem of sharply cut pastel trousers. Keep moving up and you’ll find a slight paunch hiding beneath a pink, double-breasted suit. Lank curls tickle the jacket’s padded shoulders and then there’s that truly majestic handlebar moustache. Nimble fingers dance over bass guitar strings or glide across synthesiser keys as sweat beads on a gleaming, bald, head. The stage lights turn the owner into a human disco ball. This is Donny Benét live.
Sydney multi-instrumentalist Ben Waples started building Donny Benét in the early 2010s after the disbandment of his loop-based jazz trio Triosk. The persona is that of a stylish and experienced romantic, one that lacks traditional good looks but always gets the girl. An ’80s Italian uncle who only books a table with a white cloth and silver cutlery. Think red pasta sauce and even redder Ferraris.
You could be forgiven for writing off Benét as a novelty act based on his aesthetic references. But his shows are a red-hot display of live dance music, with tight rhythm, bass slaps and indulgent sax solos that have earned him a cult following (that, it recently emerged, includes R&B titan The Weeknd). He straddles a delicate line between irony and sincerity, humour and dedicated musicianship.
Benét continues to toe this line on his new album ‘Mr. Experience’, out today. “I think it’s difficult to use humour in a clever way. I’m a very cynical person, so I’m not interested in writing a slapstick song,” Benét tells NME over Zoom.
“I’ve got to then really confuse people by making sure that the music’s really good. I’m an accomplished musician… I can come up with a shitty ’80s track in two seconds. I’m not [interested] in making a carbon-copy, kind of pastiche version of ’80s music.”
Benét’s music is enamoured with late-’70s and ’80s blue-eyed soul and Italo disco. Vintage gear is the backbone of his post-disco sound, and his Sydney home studio, the fabled “Donnyland Studios”, is packed with instruments from the era. There are iconic keyboard synthesisers everywhere, including a Prophet-5 (as famously heard on Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin’), Oberheim OB-8, Roland Jupiter-6, Roland Fantom X7, drum machines as well as a live kit given to Benét by his brother (who also plays in his band). There are also many, many bass guitars – the instrument Benét calls his bread and butter.
His ease with the multiple instruments and gear in the studio at Donnyland let him lay down the instrumental, Roxy Music-referencing ‘Mr. Experience’ track, ‘Waterfall (Love Scene)’, in an hour. Benét isn’t a traditionally strong singer, and relies heavily on charm. But he’s someone who has swapped a steamy shower curtain for red velvet stage drapes and still doesn’t give a damn who’s listening, and you can’t help but root for his audacity.
Tasked with promoting ‘Mr. Experience’ with Australia in lockdown, Benét has taken to Instagram Live to reach his fans. Removed from the sweat and lights of a nightclub, Benét’s performances feel intimate and vulnerable. He says discovering Lou Reed, while playing in Jack Ladder’s band, gave him the confidence to sing on his own songs.
“[Not being the best singer] was part of the initial charm of [Donny Benét]. That’s what I like about Lou Reed: he’s definitely not a good singer, pitch-wise, but then there’s a quality about his voice and there’s the phrasing and there’s the delivery, the confidence,” says Benét.
Benét comes from a family of musicians, has a Masters Of Music from Sydney Conservatorium, and frequently draws from music featuring lush arrangements. But he’s also influenced by experimental and lo-fi pop acts such as John Maus, Ariel Pink and YouTube iconoclast Tonetta. Similarly, he came up in a Sydney scene of high-concept pop artists such as Kirin J. Callinan and Sarah Blasko. ‘Mr. Experience’ was envisioned as a soundtrack to an ’80s dinner party and features song titles like ‘Second Dinner’ and ‘Negroni Summer’.
While the Donny Benét persona is highly choreographed, it’s still rooted in Waples’ upbringing. His mum’s Italian, and dad a musician and teacher, both identities that chafed against the conservative population of Burrawang where he grew up. Their home, in the tiny town in the southern highlands of New South Wales, was on the three-shop main street opposite the pub.
“My mum’s Calabrian, so she’s got darker skin. So the [punters] called her an Aboriginal. And then my dad was a teetotaller, so they called him a poofter,” Benét recalls. “I had about 12 years of growing up with these dickheads, they’d come over and piss on our house and try and get my dad to fight them.
“I saw that kind of toxic Australian male that like loves football, loves to go and sink piss all weekend and go home and make [their] wife get dinner ready. And that was the absolute last thing I wanted to do.”
Benét insists his project is about taking a fond look at the romantic, flamboyant side of his Italian heritage rather than romanticising stagnant modes of masculinity. He pulls up a vivid memory of visiting an Italian nursing home in western Sydney with his dad, encountering a character that informs the Benét persona.
“There’s a Christmas concert on and there’s this little Italian guy: a really short guy that drove like a rusted, red Alfa Romeo and had all these stickers on the back window. One of them said ‘Club Salami’. He was the accordion player and went from nursing home to nursing home putting on concerts,” remembers Benét. “He was very dolled-up and really putting it on for all the women at the nursing home.”
One conceivable flipside to the romantic Donny persona, though, is of a relentless skirt-chaser that still clicks his fingers at waiters. It’s an ironic look at an increasingly dated image of masculinity, that though well intentioned, still runs the risk of perpetuating and making light of misogyny.
Despite an artist’s best efforts, they aren’t always able to control the way their work is received and interpreted. Fellow Sydney musician Alex Cameron played the part of an unapologetic, vulgar misogynist on his records ‘Jumping The Shark’ and ‘Forced Witness’, to lampoon desperate and flailing hyper-masculine egos. But fearing the joke was merely reinforcing the toxic masculinity he was trying to send up, Cameron dropped the act on his last record ‘Miami Memory’.
Benét generally enjoys a mixed and inclusive crowd at his shows, but at one gig NME attended three years ago at the Gasometer Hotel in Melbourne, a contingent of rowdy young guys kept braying “Doooonnnnnyyy!” It had the tenor of lads egging on a mate trying to pick up on a boys’ night out. It felt like they’d missed the sensitivity and romance of the Benét project, instead focusing on the “porn star” moustache.
In our conversation, Benét emphatically disavows misogyny and toxic masculinity. But he also knows people can misunderstand the persona, with queasy results. He remembers a bit of promo going awry at the massive Down The Rabbit Hole festival in the Netherlands, where he has one of his biggest international audiences.
“A kind of B-grade TV comedian was presenting it with me and he gave me this big [bag] of beer tickets to give to people,” says Benét. “I was walking around and everyone’s going ‘Donny!’, getting photos, and I was giving people tickets. He’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, give them to pretty girls’. I’m like, ‘No man, I’ll fucking give it to whoever I want’. And then people come up for selfies and this guy in the background is going, ‘Grab the arse, grab the arse’. This guy’s viewing me as like this lothario, this guy licking his lips and salivating at all the young girls walking past.”
Benét points to the song ‘Love Online’ from his 2018 album ‘The Don’ as an example of his disdain for modern romance (or lack thereof) – but more importantly, the predatory behaviour of men on dating apps. “Can’t wait to upload this picture of me, all pumped up sweaty and raw / You’re the first one to click on it / I know you like it / Do you want more?” goes one line.
He’s playing a character in the song, but it isn’t one he identifies with. “To me, the whole concept of Tinder, with just dudes fucking jacked up, and like with the next photo they send a dick pic, it’s just fucking disgusting,” says Benét.
Comedy reflects the attitudes of the time it was made as much as any other art form, and is perhaps a clearer mirror than most. It can be shocking to look back on Kevin Bloody Wilson’s 1993 live recording, ‘Poofters’, for example.
“With that larrikinism and that piss-taking [Australians] have, our humour will kind of start from that Paul Hogan stuff,” says Benét of the Crocodile Dundee comedian. “There will be a skit [with] a girl in a bikini and she walks past and he throws his fishing line out and accidentally pulls it off and everyone laughs. That’s what entertainment was back then, and we’ve come a long way.”
Donny Benét is funny and tongue-in-cheek for sure, but the character also has a comedic mission: to lampoon outdated ideas of masculinity by caricaturing the flamboyance of its creator’s Italian-Australian heritage.
Its nuance turns on an extreme opposition, which Benét acknowledges is weird: “There is the romantic side of the Italian man that wants to woo and impress, and there’s also the misogynistic side that I don’t agree with at all.”
“With my family in particular, that was stamped out a lot because my mum’s brothers married Australians,” he muses. “So that kind of 1950s Italian man thing is gone, I haven’t grown up around any of that.
“If I did it was from my grandfather, and I certainly couldn’t understand a single word he was saying!”
Donny Benét’s new album ‘Mr. Experience’ is out now.