Interview w/ Joe Russo – the Benevento/Russo Duo
(The below interview is compiled from two interviews - the first last August before a Bustle In A Hedgerow show for Brooklyn Vegan. The second, last week leading up to the Duo's KFNY shows)
Monday August 28th, 2006
Rocks Off Boat Cruise – The Temptress
FB: The Duo’s roots are in improv and jamming yet on Play Pause Stop you seem to focus more on melody and song writing. What caused you and Marco to go in this direction?
J: It kind of started with our first album Best Reasons To Buy the Sun. When Marco and I started playing it was mostly improv…it was never intended to be a band; it was a Thursday night session we were doing at the Knitting Factory. It was all improv – we didn’t have any songs or anything. As we started to go on the road I was like I don’t know if I can do this every night.
fun as a session thing but I for one was more into rock music and lyrics and
songwriting so we slowly started incorporating that kind of stuff. The first
tune I brought in was a song called “Sunny Song”. That was the song I was
writing for the “pretend band” I was about to start for when the duo broke up.
It was to be a rock band…so there were supposed to be guitar and vocals. I
showed it to Marco and we ended up playing it with the duo. That was kind of
like the first thing. We started kind of writing more in that idea – more rock
song forms with a stronger melody and not all the noodle-y business and then
that just progressed into this album.
On Best Reasons it was kind of like the switch point between the improve stuff and the songwriting. Darts (first album) is mostly improv and Best Reasons is the shift of those two worlds. What happened on Best Reasons the songs are in the range of some of the songs of Play Pause Stop and we could see people dig it. After that we weren’t afraid to do it (write more focused songs) so I think when we went out to do Play Pause Stop we were just so confident in this way and people and get into it…so we were like just fuck it - we are more confident and mature as songwriters and players.
feel really good about what’s happening over the last year between Best Reasons and this record as well as
FB: Did you approach the songwriting for Play Pause Stop differently than Best Reasons?
A lot of the stuff on Play Pause Stop
was independent writing sessions – I would work on something at home and Marco
would work on something at home – and then we would bring it together to flush
out each others ideas. We’d sort of fill in the blanks for the other…it was
kind of an interesting way to approach the songwriting. We never really had any
sort of plans for our songwriting. In the period before Play Pause Stop it just started coming out of us…luckily at the
FB: I know you guys brought in Matt Chamberlain and Tom Biller to co-produce the new album. Collectively their prior experience includes working with David Bowie, Shakira, Kanye West, and Fiona Apple. How has working with them been and in what way have they influenced your new album?
J: It was incredible working with them. Originally we were looking to get Jon Brion involved. We knew we wanted Matt and Jon to produce it. Jon wasn’t available. Matt said he had this guy Tom Biller who engineered for Jon all the time…Matt said he gets the sounds!
FB: Jon also worked with Fiona as well
J: Right….Tom works with Jon a lot and Matt works with Jon…so they are like a trifecta of badasses.
FB: Can you think of a specific song on the album where you can see that they took your ideas to another level?
J: Sonically, all of them….a song like “Play Pause Stop” where if you listen to us play it live (where it had this trashy drum sound) and then on the record…they put the gravy on it. We had the tunes and those guys just made it sound cool. It was great. Our job was to play the music and their job was to do their thing and we didn’t get in each others way and it worked out as a really cool group.
FB: You mentioned you are a big fan of rock and lyrics…do you ever envision a time where the duo add words or vocals?
J: It’s possible…I mean it’s probably going to be the general progression – but we are not pushing it. If it happens it happens. Like already as simple as the shouting on “Play Pause Stop” it’s a start. Who knows where it will go. If it comes naturally we’ll do it. It’s definitely not off the scope.
FB: This summer has been a busy time touring for the Duo having already completed the first leg in support of Play Pause Stop (including a set at Lollapalooza). How has your tour experience been so far – including playing such an event as Lollapalooza?
It’s been great…we’ve been touring like crazy for the last two years. Things
are definitely starting to get better. Lollapalooza was really incredible.
We are really just starting to go out and tour behind the record…like we are going out in a couple of days to the rest of the tour – the real chunk of the tour. So we are just excited. We aren’t sure how its going to be but it seems like we are playing (to bigger audiences)….it seems like a lot of people have picked up the record as they knew what we are doing and the crowd chanting (along with the music)…so we are excited to finish out the year and see where it goes.
FB: This summer you toured with Phish members Mike Gordon and Trey Anastasio. Describe your experiences with that project.
J: It was cool – it was such a grand scale. Marco and I went from playing 500 person rooms to 20,000 rooms in Trey band. Marco, Mike, and I were hired as Trey’s band. The original concept for the tour was the Duo, then the Duo with Mike, then Trey’s band…then Phil (Lesh from Grateful Dead) signed on and wanted to do a co-bill with Trey. It just seemed more cost-effective and made more sense for us to be Trey’s Band. We only had four rehearsals before the tour started.
FB: So the tour was basically your rehearsal….
J: Pretty much! But the experience overall was incredible. Playing these rooms I used to go see huge rock concerts at and like looking up and saying (to myself) “holy shit”….though the surprising thing was that I really didn’t feel that different after the initial “oh!” it was more like we were just on stage playing music but there just happened to be a shit load more people there.
J: Oh….*laughs*…that was a rough show. That was the worst one of the tour.
FB: Really? In what regards?
J: I dunno….*laughs again*…it just sucked….for me. I just felt like that was our worst show. Something just wasn’t clicking. A couple days after though I felt like the band started clicking. When we got to Vermont and played that show…and from that point on through the rest of the tour it was just killing. It felt really good and sounded really good.
FB: Was that the best show of the tour?
FB: In addition to the song Dragonfly that the four of you co-wrote for Trey’s upcoming Bar 17 album, can we expect any more collaborations from the four of you in the future?
J: I don’t know…probably. Nothing’s set but we all had a really good time playing with each other. I don’t know in what way – if we would tour again or what – but I’m sure all four of us will be onstage again. It would be nice to do a little songwriting or whatever
Out of the two names the fans bestowed upon you guys – G.R.A.B. (Gordon, Russo,
Benevento) or Mike and the Italians – did you have a preference?
J: Mike and the Italians had a great shirt! *laughs* It was pretty fuckin’ funny. It was definitely a mouthful saying “Trey Anastasio featuring Mike Gordon and the Benevento/Russo Duo” so anything works.
It was kind of neat just going on as four musicians and having the fans call you whatever the hell they wanted.
FB: Is it true that you went in the studio to record one song together but left with four?
J: We originally went in to do two songs – “Goodbye Head” and “Host Across the Potomac”. We did those two then just started playing around…that is where “Dragonfly” was kind of built. We were jamming out and Trey started singing this weird thing. Then me Mike and Marco did this female background vocals…it was kind of like a jerky kind of thing and we ended up using it as a song. So we did that and “Mud City” which trey was just riffing on…kind of like this Stones-ish rock thing….we probably recorded about an albums-worth of material (that won’t be on Bar 17).
FB: Do you think that will ever see the light of day?
J: I don’t know…maybe in some form or another. But that was the first time we really met Trey and got to play with him. It was just really natural. Once we got the business part done – cause we were hired to play on those two tunes – we just played all night – it was really fun.
FB: Side projects - In addition to the Duo and GRAB/MIKE and Italians, you also play in a group with Marco, Dave Dreiwitz of Ween, and Scott Metzger of Rana/Particle called Bustle In A Hedgrow and another one called American Babies with Tom Hamilton – where you are opening up for the Duo at the Bowery on October 27. Any other collaborations and / or related Duo-side-project albums in the works?
J: I’ve got a bunch of shit going on right now. I’ve got American Babies; I’ve got a band called Boy Daughter with Matt Durant from Rana which is fucking killing! It’s really cool. It’s like Pop – they are Matt’s song – he’s such a brilliant song writer. So we are working on an EP right now. I’m also doing some playing with Chris Hartford and his Band of Changes. It’s kind of like from the Ween-camp….great singer/songwriter. We are actually opening (for the Duo) on the Midwest part of the Fall tour. Its going to be myself, Scott (Metzger), Dave (Dreiwitz) and Chris. Great rock songs.
I’m also going to be doing some studio work with a band called the Big Yes and A Small No. It’s my friend Kevin Kendrick’s band who used to be in my band Fat Mama. When I’m not with the duo I like to do some pop and country shit. It’s fun to get all over the place. Marco gets his chance to go out with Bobby Previte and Charlie Hunter…Skerik…and gets his crazy jazz thing on. It’s nice that we can get away and do all that shit and come back.
FB: You mention country – was “Memphis” (on Play Pause Stop) your idea on the album? To me that is a great “last track” of an album.
J: Yes…that came out really great. I was really surprised. That was a cool little tune but it just flushed out really well. *laughs* I wrote that song in Memphis when my girlfriend called me and told me she was moving out on me….and that was the first night I started drinking Makers Mark (his drink of choice). I got fucking trashed and wrote that song. We started doing it live and said fuck it – let’s put it on the album.
FB: It gives Play Pause Stop great closure for the album.
J: Yeah, it feels good. It just lets you breathe out and get out of the record.
FB: Following the completion of the Play Pause Stop tour, what can we expect from the Duo?
J: The side projects will always be there – American Babies being my biggest side project. But we’ll probably record again in February (2007). It seems like we are on this trend of touring from spring to winter – stopping in winter – and writing and recording in February.
FB: A couple non-duo related questions: 1. what have you been listening to lately?
J: I’ve been watching a lot of “Lost” – I did two whole seasons in two days!
FB: That’s a lot of TV
J: Yeah I know…its disgusting!!! *laughs* I don’t know really…what have I been listening to? We listen to a lot of satellite radio…
FB: Been listening to Jam On?
J: A bit….I listen to the comedy station a lot. But I still listen to Wilco a shit load…Radiohead…Shins. Some great smaller bands like Sam Champion, Apollo Sunshine…stuff like that…Rufus Wainwright…sometimes I’m a bit whatever. I need to listen to more music again.
FB: *laughs* well…
*we both laugh*
J: I definitely need to add it to my links to check out daily.
FB: One last question: you’ve got to tell me who is responsible for sirjoerusso.com.
J: *laughs* It was actually the man whose birthday it is tonight (the reason for the show) - Jake Szufnarowski who used to work for the Wetlands back in the day…and then Rock’s Off Concert Promotions.
Years ago, when I was like 20 or 21, he would always put me on bills for whatever, cause he was trying to help me out….all of a sudden he started putting Sir Joe Russo on the flyers. I told him what the fuck is this shit! and that he can’t do that…it makes me look like a prick! He said fuck you! And if I wanted to play he was putting it up like that…so I said whatever. He just built a whole story up. For my birthday last December he put up this website unbeknownst to me….I started getting all these “what the fuck” emails…so I checked it out and cracked my ass up!
FB: Thank you so much Joe.
FB: When we last left off we were at the Bustle In a Hedgrow show in August. What have you been up to since then?
J: Shit uh, we’ve been doing a bunch of touring through the Fall…I’m trying to remember now…
FB: You had the second leg of the tour with American Baby…how did that turn out for you?
That was really fun. It was cool. I remember we had a really good night at the
Recher Theater in
Towson, Maryland. We did a multi camera shoot for hopefully a DVD that we are going to put out eventually. The Recher Theatre was a better show for us (…than Bowery show) so it all worked out well. We finished off that tour and took some time at the end of the year and did a couple of gigs in December. We were kinda spent and decided to take some time off after the first of the year. Actually tomorrow Thursday will be the first time for us to perform together as the Duo this year.
FB: I had this question for later on but I’ll get it out of the way now…anything special in store for the two acoustic shows on Thursday?
J: I guess, we just want to put it all out there…. basically since our inception we were touring like crazy so we haven’t even really touched any of the material in quite some time. In the past two weeks we have been rehearsing and we are reworking some tunes to work in that format, some covers and stuff. And then we’re going to get back to doing a lot of what we do.
FB: I’m sure playing like that at the Knitting Factory is cool getting back to your roots.
J: Yeah, that will be fun…we were just staying the other day that things have been getting so crazy and kind of blown up it just started losing charm for us and it became a huge scene or something. We just wanted to get back to the simplicity of it and playing music which is why we are really looking forward to the show on Thursday.
FB: Do you find that playing in these other bands helps alleviate getting bored or finding yourself in a rut? Does it allow you to keep things fresh?
J: Yeah, that was another big thing, we had been touring so much that we didn’t have much time to write and you start feeling like “man, ….” So it was nice to be able to branch out and it definitely reinvigorated the excitement to play. It definitely brings more stuff to the table when we get back together. I just started last week just starting to write new material and it’s been nice that we’ve gone off and done other things and separated ourselves so much from “the Duo” but now we are so excited to come back and bring a new life and a new sound. We always try to reinvent ourselves and now is a new stage to do that. And incorporate new things that we’ve done and learned over the past 6 months.
FB: Are you going to be playing new material? Possibly in the jams?
J: We’re working on one thing with guitar but it’s not totally completed so we probably won’t play that. But yeah, the biggest thing is just some reworkings of some of the stuff we’ve done. Our concept is we’re covering our band!
FB: What inspired the change?
J: Well I think when we first started practicing for the acoustic thing we were like lets just play the same songs but quieter but then we were like that would be boring. So we took the approach of doing jazz as well as rock. What would it sound like if a jazz band covered duo material. We are covering our own songs but as different people.
FB: Is it difficult to change your style amongst all these other bands…Fat mama etc.
J: Yeah I think that there are so many things that you would like to be able to do…you find different avenues to express yourself…I can express things with the duo or ken with American Baby. You allow yourself different opportunities to get the things out that you can’t get out in other opportunities. Like playing very simple and quietly with the babies….
FB: Yeah must be different than playing straight ahead and pounding right in your face like you do with the duo
J: Hahaha, yeah totally. I’m a bit out of shape though now b/c that’s part of the deal!
FB: How was Kevin Kendricks Birthday Party?
J: It was great. He’s been working on some great material and he is an exceptional musician. For his 30th birthday he wanted to reunite old band, Fat Mama. So that was the whole inspiration for the actual birthday party. So were like let’s get the whole band out here and play Kevin’s jams. It was really nice for everybody to be back together and celebrate Kevin’s birthday. That actually inspired the thing we are doing on Sunday…we are going to play the old material with all the members of Fat Mama. [That will close out the Green Apple Music Festival].
FB: Is this performance at Green Apple going to lead to other shows like this or is it a one off performance?
J: It’s a one off. You know we weren’t even going to be at the show. But they kept asking us and we were like ok. It’s just so hard to get 7 people together who all have their own things together. Right now, we’re just trying to get everyone to the gig and have a good time and go from there. We have so much history, we learned so much together when we were younger and it’s cool to get back together when we are now wiser, hahaha.
FB: Anything else up...you said you and Marco are getting some new material together. Will we see a new album in 2007?
J: Uh…I hope so. Marco is a new father as he just had a child. So we definitely flow with him…he has a lot going on. We aren’t putting too much pressure on it right now…we’ll just see what happens. We have no definite plans for it right now. We’ll do another one but we’re not trying to set up a strict schedule right now.
FB: Thanks again, Joe.