Driving through Northern Iowa, in a 2001 Cadillac Deville packed full with guitars, a drum kit, and various equipment, Connor Wilson and Matthew Gearhart stumbled upon a farm with a small cabin. With the permission of the farm owner, Ann Marie, the boys unloaded their equipment and filmed the “Cost of Living” music video with a red, handheld cam-corder.
The blurry effect of the cam-corder mixed with the Grant Wood aesthetic of the Northern Iowa farmland created the perfect backdrop for the second track off their debut album, Grounded in Blue Skies. I found myself laughing whimsically, as the video transitioned from scenes of green hills to hay bails to corn fields. If you pay close enough attention, you can see Ann Marie staring in one of the shots, perplexed by two strangers dancing and jamming across her farm.
For Connor Wilson (21) and Matthew Gearhart (18), founding members of The Benefits, music is a distraction, it is living, and it gives you hope. With these principles, and a surplus of talent, the two found their way together through collaborating with other artists. “We found ourselves working on projects for some other people,” Wilson explains. “That turned into several songs. And then an album.”
Their varying musical backgrounds and contrasting styles are part of why they work so well together. Wilson has been involved with music since four, learning the saxophone and developing a love for jazz in middle school. In high school and college, he transitioned to guitar, bass, and drums, taking particular interest in the production side of music. Gearhart, on the other hand, didn’t begin playing guitar until his sophomore year of high school. But he grew up immersed in music thanks to his older brother, who frequently blasted the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and the Grateful Dead. Gearhart contributes lyrics and riffs so perfectly intertwined from growing up with such substantial influences.
Together, the pair has managed to create an album that sounds like summer in Iowa: rolling hills, farmland, and driving down two-way highways with the windows down. They’re a blend of folk and rock and roll, reminiscent of the Beatles in each of their songs, including the shaggy hair.
This is most notably apparent with the whispering and saxophone in the opening of “Despise.” The track has a similar resonance of the psychedelic tracks throughout Magical Mystery Tour and Sargent Pepper. Throughout that song, the band’s goal was to build a song that flows. The key changes and the riffs that blend into one another demonstrate how they succeeded. In “Hope You’re Doing Alright,” the melodic phrases and sun-soaked echoes contribute to create a very Bob Dylan-esque sound. Tracks like “Losing It,” “554,” and “Bounce” that are very guitar-heavy have musings of Hendrix.
The last song on the album is the title track, a unique positioning to pair with a unique sound in comparison to the rest of the album. This, of course, was intentionally done. “We liked that it wasn’t a hit,” the band says. “We recorded it in one take and decided to keep it.”
The lyricism in Grounded in Blue Skies is another testament to the amount of potential The Benefits possess, reminding me of modern lyric-focused bands like the Lumineers and The Head and The Heart. Particularly in the opening tracks, “Sunshine” and “Cost of Living,” the story-telling ability of the pair is transparent and beautiful. “We enjoy music that is really thought through,” Gearhart explains. Music with intention. “And doesn’t sound like too much of the same thing.” Maintaining a cohesive album with varying sounds can be a challenge, but their subtle lyricism keeps it together.
Wilson notes that “the songwriting process morphs the song. We spend nearly 10-times as long mixing as we do actually recording.” This meticulous attention to detail enables me to compare these young Iowans to some of the greatest musicians of all time. For The Benefits, the album is more than a collection of songs. “There’s a strung-through sound that holds the album together,” Wilson says. “It’s all these little momentary adrenaline rushes.”
The Benefits are currently working on their second album, while transitioning Grounded in Blue Skies to the live performance. Tuesday nights at Gabe’s in Iowa City is where you can find them live, as they’ve added a third member, Kaden Fields, on drums. Together, they “really just want to make good music that we can look back on and be proud of.” This may seem like a simple goal, but there is nothing simple about what these boys are writing, mixing, and creating from their attic.