So anyway, I was stabbed," Brendan Benson says, sitting smoking on the veranda of his east London hotel. The Detroit scene made famous by his friend Jack White, and latterly their joint million-selling group The Raconteurs, may be one of carefree garage bands and wannabe bluesmen. But the reality of a city so broke you can still see the ashy, empty lots razed in its 1967 race riot finally walked through Benson's carelessly open door, one winter's day.
Benson, a Detroit resident on and off for 20 years, lived in a ghost street; a beautiful, old house with empty homes either side, and fortress-like bars on its windows. "Inside, it seemed cosy and safe. But I made the mistake of sometimes leaving the door open. I chased this one guy out of the house and down the street, in the middle of winter. I had a robe on, slippers, slipping and sliding on the ice. Finally, I caught up with this guy who was three times my size, and screamed at him: 'What's in the bag?' I knew he'd taken something. I saw something come up, and it was like he'd punched me in the arm. And sure enough, he'd stabbed me with – like a shiv!" He laughs disbelievingly.
The rangy, sharp-featured 38-year-old stretching his legs in the sun as he talks and orders another white wine doesn't seem like a man you'd back in such a prison-yard showdown. Nor was Detroit finished with him yet. "The final straw was when I was 50 yards from my house, pumping gas. I'm watching the numbers on the pump, and the next thing I know, I'm falling to the ground, without any concept of why – the eeriest, worst thing, such a gross feeling. I came to, and some guy's rifling through my pockets. I'd been hit on the head and robbed. I was semi-conscious when I drove to the hospital." He retreated to his mum's, head in bloody bandages, before moving to Nashville. Estate agents suggested up-and-coming neighbourhoods. "I said, show me one that's up-and-come."
He still thinks about the last attack – a spanner thrown at his head, from which, if he'd stumbled home instead of to the hospital, he could have died. "When I pump gas, I have that eerie feeling. A flashback, I guess. It's traumatising. I couldn't believe somebody would do that in the middle of the day and leave me for dead, and no one would come to my aid. I'm angry about it. But I don't know who to be angry at. They're desperate people. And rightfully so. Detroit's mayors have been famously corrupt, like rock stars with big mansions and assorted weird women, while the city was left kerbside. Most people there are doomed at birth."
Benson's new album, My Old, Familiar Friend, is his first since those attacks and The Raconteurs' huge raising of his profile. Like his three previous solo records, it's full of lovingly crafted melodies redolent of the 1970s, with echoes of McCartney's Wings and Costello's Attractions. Half the lyrics, though, have an undertow of betrayal and paranoia; only partly a response to his Detroit wounds. "For some reason, I have this thing inside of me, that's distrustful," he considers. "We learn soon, at an early age, that good things don't last. I've gone into relationships thinking that. The one I'm in now is slowly curing me."
Benson's faith was bolstered in a happy childhood in Louisiana's otherwise all-black housing projects. Inside his home, his young parents played Stooges, Roxy Music, Wings and Bowie records, before divorcing "when I was 12, 10 – maybe younger". Outside, it was a different world. "My dad's impulsive, a childlike dreamer. We moved to Louisiana because he wanted to live in the South and be a redneck – he thought that was cool. I spent the first 12 years of my life in a tenement house, and I never had a white friend till I was 14. I think that's why I don't feel like a target, or an outsider, or a foreigner [in black neighbourhoods]. I feel like I belong. Musically, though, I might as well have been in Detroit. I was listening to Bowie, not The Meters. I wasn't too appreciative, but it seems to have had an impact. One of my favourite songs when I was a kid was "We Are the Dead", on Bowie's Diamond Dogs. I was into monsters, and I thought it was spooky and cool. Now, I hear the chord changes, and I realise it's sublime. And all of life's in Lennon and McCartney."
Does his own music have such heavy traces of 1970s craft because the era's sounds summon happier childhood times? "Maybe it's not so much that, any more. There's a big distinction between being a fan of music, and making it. It's frustrating and sad sometimes, listening to something so good and so beautiful, and thinking, 'I want to write a song like this'. But writing music's more like being seized or possessed, and being asked what a song's about afterwards is like remembering a dream. And sometimes, it's just a song. A notch on my belt."
Benson's solo career began on a major label, with One Mississippi (1996). Virgin dropped him soon afterwards. Shattered, he vanished for five years. "I was promised the world," he remembers. "They talked so big, it scared me. It was when Beck was getting huge. There was a suggestion this would happen to me, and I wasn't sure I wanted it. Then Virgin changed owners, and my new A&R guy, Tony Berg, kept saying, 'I don't know. I don't hear a single...' Man, he was the worst thing that ever happened to me. He gave me a complex. Anyone who claims to know where pop culture's headed – run away! It's all about passion and love for something, that's all. And if what you love doesn't catch on, them's the breaks.
"I went away from that depressed," he continues, of his lost years. "But I'd bought a little attic home studio with the advance, and it never sat idle." Lapalco (2002) and The Alternative to Love (2005) brought gradually growing success. By now, that studio had become Benson's sanctuary. "I never left," he says. "To a fault, to my detriment. I didn't feel anxiety there. But I knew all the while it wasn't healthy. It was the best excuse not to have to go out and live life. I don't have a home studio in Nashville."
The Raconteurs' first album, Broken Boy Soldiers (2006), was, though, recorded in Benson's Detroit attic. The band was built on his and Jack White's songs, not least debut single "Steady, As She Goes". Begun as a Benson demo, he asked White to complete it, and it was a No 4 UK hit that launched them commercially. At odds with both men's previous work, the band's swaggering hard rock trampled to global success, arguably outstripping White's original, odder band, The White Stripes. Last year's follow-up, Consolers of the Lonely, saw Benson leave the attic with them, for a Nashville studio. "Being in The Raconteurs has changed me a lot," he considers. "Not musically, necessarily. It re-socialised me. It got me re-enchanted, and out of my house, and showed me I could do it under the gun, in a big-time studio. I'm not so fragile. My talent is real. Now The Raconteurs have reached a much larger audience than I've ever reached. I still don't want to be famous. I'm just hoping to gain some of them, to keep going."
"Steady, As She Goes"'s theme of settling down has also proved prophetic. The 38-year-old Benson has put Detroit's battles behind him, for domestic bliss with that trusted girlfriend. The music he lived for in the studio at the heart of his home no longer rules him. "Music's all meaningless," he says simply. "I don't go around saying it much, because it's not very cool, or even pleasant to hear. But I think it's the sad truth. We make art to plug a void, to think that things make sense. That's why I do it. But in the last two years, I've discovered mundane things like doing the dishes, or mowing the lawn – a Zen-like, healing thing. And I really get off on that. Cutting my grass is just as fulfilling as writing a song. More, sometimes."
'My Old, Familiar Friend' is out on Echo/ Cooperative Music on 24 August
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies