Alive & Well: Joe Russo Discusses The Duo, GRAB, JRAD & Becoming A Dad
Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Oteil Burbridge, Joel Cummins, Scott Sharrard, Marco Benevento, Kyle Hollingsworth, Tim Reynolds and many more. (A full archive of The Art of the Sit-In is here.)
Words by: Chad Berndtson
The one and only Sir Joe Russo … world-class drummer, relentless innovator, keeper of what feels like 100 different projects, each interesting in its own special way.
Joe’s one of those people for whom a catch-up chat would be of perennial interest — his schedule shifts all the time, and every other week comes a new and interesting piece of news, such as his involvement in one of the best-looking Last Waltz tribute shows yet in this 40th anniversary year, or his involvement in the new Bob Weir album of cowboy tunes, or his involvement with an extra-tasty looking Phil Lesh & Friends installment at Lock’n later this month, or his involvement with his old buddy Marco Benevento, with whom he’s been tearing up stages as part of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, but with whom he’ll finally return, this January, as the Benevento/Russo Duo — the group that vaulted Joe into the jam scene vanguard.
He’s a new dad, with a new studio, and a newly comfortable work schedule now that JRAD is keeping to limited dates, and, for the first time since his pre-Furthur days, he isn’t attached to any one musical project soaking up most of his time. Here’s Joe on what’s what, and to come:
JAMBASE: So how is fatherhood treating you?
JOE RUSSO: Great! There are little pockets of each day where I actually feel human! [laughs] Being home for these months has been truly amazing. I’m keeping my tour dates as thin as possible right now, to be home as much as I can. The four night run we just did over July 4 weekend was probably the first time I’d really touched a drum set in months! Things have been crazy, but amazing. My goal is to come up with the best scenario where I’m still working and staying active, but closer to home. Definitely not on the road as much. Very much, happily focused on family right now.
JAMBASE: This seems like a newly creative period for you where you’re playing a number of local and in some cases one-off gigs, and keeping Almost Dead going as it makes sense it seems, but not committing to any one band as the full time thing. Is that accurate?
JR: Yeah, it’s really cool. Almost Dead is the tour gig: I can go out and play some big shows with that and then come home and do tons of other stuff. It’s been really great getting back to playing a lot locally, with some of my favorite people in the world. Chris Harford and The Band Of Changes, A BIG YES and a small no & Dan Iead have all been heavier in my gig rotation. Then there are some newer lineups like Hola! with Avi Bortnick, Andy Hess and [Scott] Metzger, and then all the cool stuff I’ve gotten to do with Dave Harrington. I feel he and I are cut from the same cloth. We’ve only played a handful of times, but there’s always this unspoken confidence in our improvisations that feels effortless. Other than that, the biggest focus I have right now is my new studio.
JAMBASE: Some of these pop-up projects have names, including HAWAiii, Icy Bridge and Shitty Rainbows. How do you prioritize what’s getting attention right now?
JR: HAWAiii, it’s funny, we have yet to play a gig. We were supposed to make our debut at Brooklyn Bowl opening for Greyboy All-Stars, in May, but my daughter was born the day before so obviously, I canceled.
JAMBASE: That’s right …
JR: When we conceived that band (now also with Dan Iead on guitar and pedal steel) in January 2015, we thought it was going to be the easiest thing in the world to get together. We were going to track at my place, pop out a record and do gigs.
Sadly, there’s barely been a week where all three of us are home at the same time. Eric (Deutsch) is so busy and Jon (Shaw) is killing it with the likes of Shakey Graves and Sharon Van Etten. My Icy Bridge concept was really fun and easy, as it was all improv. I had a weekly gig at Threes Brewing in Gowanus for a couple months and it was incredibly rejuvenating. Basically I would bring in this monstrosity mash-up of electronics and acoustic instruments, looping gear, synths, etc. and was joined by another improviser each time and then a guest band would “headline” after. I’d really like to get back to that! Just need to find a way to do it was a less ridiculous amount of equipment.
Then there is Shitty Rainbows, which is Kevin Kendrick and myself along with our newest member, Jonathan Goldberger (Jim Black, Red Baraat) on guitar. That group actually has some compositions and some demos recorded, but then everything was put on hold in February when a sewage pipe burst in the basement that housed my project studio!
JAMBASE: Oh no.
JR: Yeah. It took the next three months of frantically searching to find a new spot, so all these projects again, got put on hold. Luckily, even a sewage flood seems to have a silver lining as I’m now set up in the most amazing recording situation I could dream of. My friend Eric over at Empire Rehearsals (in downtown Brooklyn), reached out to me and showed me an incredible studio that had recently been vacated by producer Shane Stoneback.
JAMBASE: Oh, sure.
JR: I know Vampire Weekend did a lot of stuff in there and I believe M.I.A. and a whole slew of others having tracked in the room. The place is way too big for just me, so I saw this as an opportunity to partner up with Sam Cohen. Sam is a ridiculously talented musician and producer who was also in the midst of sorting out a better recording situation. I’ve always loved working with him any chance I got. Sam’s really making a name for himself as a producer and even got tapped by Danger Mouse to help make some records. Luckily I’ve had the chance to play on some of the stuff Sam is producing over there and I gotta say, that guy knows how to make a fucking record! I think he’s going to put out some really incredible stuff. What started as a total nightmare, my little studio quite literally getting shit on, has now become a dream.
So that’s where my focus is going to be going now. Now that we have the baby, I want to get back to recording and cranking out records. I’m going to be launching a new website in the next few months, and part of that is going to be a drum recording service where people can send me their tracks and I’ll put drums on them and send ‘em back. Actually, the last thing I did at my old studio was satellite tracking some drums for Cass McCombs’ new record, Mangy Love. It got me thinking, maybe I can start doing that in a more official capacity. As far as other recordings, there’s a lot coming out, including new records by Craig Finn, Chris Harford, A BIG YES and a small no and of course Bob Weir’s Blue Mountain.
JAMBASE: You mentioned the Weir record, which we’ve been hearing about for a bit now, and now has dates and a touring band behind it.
JR: I’m just so, so excited to be part of it. The stuff on there is just – it’s a really good record. Josh Kaufman did an outstanding job producing and getting beautiful tones along with my favorite engineer, Dan Goodwin. Josh Ritter did a really great job with the songwriting, it seems like that was a successful collaboration. I’m really proud of Bob for doing this record. It’s a great slice of where he is right now. His voice sounds so cool, it’s contemporary stuff written for the way Bob’s voice is now. He sounds so good. It was an honor for me, especially in a post-Furthur world, to perform with Bob on new material. This is going to be a big record!
JAMBASE: All sounds exciting. You mentioned Almost Dead earlier so want to touch on that a bit. I think, to a man, you guys have all talked about Almost Dead in similar terms: that it was first and foremost about your collaboration and how much fun and how invigorating that is, and that Grateful Dead music just happens to be the focus. You’ve also all been specific about its future: it’ll happen as long as it make sense, when it makes sense. Still the case it sounds like?
JR: Yeah. I’d really like to keep doing it as long as possible, in one way or another. After all the years I spent learning and performing this material with Furthur and after all of the personal and musical discoveries I’ve made through these songs, I feel like I’d be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t continue playing these songs in some format.
JAMBASE: You’ve been immersed in Grateful Dead music now for more than seven years. Is this music still telling you new things? Are you finding new things in it?
JR: Oh, I think so. You know, the cool thing about Almost Dead is that we’re after the cracks in between. The thing that becomes harder and harder about these shows is that we always want to try and connect dots in ways this music maybe hasn’t been connected before. That gets hard, because I don’t even want to tread on the same ground we’ve tread before, let alone what the Grateful Dead has already done. So we’re committed to improv now, and that’s what’s kind of taken on a life of its own.
For being a Grateful Dead cover band, which is what this is, I work harder than I do probably any other gig to create something completely different every night. If I’ve achieved doing at least one thing on stage I’ve never done before musically, that’s a good show. Every day that goes on, it gets harder and harder, so you’re forced to go for it hard committing to the moment, and trying to stay inspired. It’s a way different thing than when I was in Furthur. Back then, it was learning the songs and the structure. At this point, JRAD plays a little over 100 of the songs those guys played, and we focus on the nooks and crannies and things we can do in the spaces. We really try to put all of our hearts into the improv.
JAMBASE: Hard to believe how much time has passed since those first Furthur shows. Do you talk with those guys a lot?
JR: Jeff [Chimenti] and I get to see each other from time to time. He subbed for Marco at our Joy Theater shows on New Orleans during Jazz Fest and it was a total blast. I believe he’ll be joining us again for our Complete Last Waltz concert at The Capitol Theater in November too. Had a few great hangs with Bob while tracking up in Woodstock for Blue Mountain and Phil and I did a long stretch together for a bulk of his residency at The Capitol Theatre. I’ll be playing with him for the first time in a while at Lockn’ at the end of August.
JAMBASE: It’s safe to say people are already licking their lips at that Lock’n’ lineup. Have you and Fish talked at all about what the double drum setup will look like for that Phil show?
JR: Not yet, but I’m sure that he and I can get on stage together and things will click. He’s such an amazing player and I’m really looking forward to making music with him. Jon is an inspiring guy. I’m really excited to see what happens!
JAMBASE: Lot of milestones in 2016, Joe, and it occurs to us that it’s been 10 years now since you were on the road with Marco, Mike Gordon and Trey Anastasio. Around that time you had some pretty direct things to say about the experience in retrospect, has your perspective changed, especially since you’ve known and played with those guys since?
JR: You know, I’m not even sure what my perspective was then. All I know is, If we were ever to do it again, I think it would be really great. Mike and Trey are both genius players and great guys. It’s been really awesome reconnecting with Trey in recent years. I’d love to do GRAB again, that was a really cool grouping of people and it’d be neat to revisit the concept. I’d be down for that.
JAMBASE: You jammed with Trey a bunch ahead of Fare Thee Well last year and he cited how helpful that work was to his preparation. What did you take away from that experience?
JR: Oh, it was awesome. That was the first time he and I really played together in many years, other than him sitting in with Furthur once or twice. I was honored that he asked me to help him prepare for such a huge gig. It was really great just being in a room with my old buddy, and that was such an odd situation to be in: working with Trey Anastasio on Grateful Dead songs. I mean, what the hell, right?
His commitment to learning that stuff was so deep. He had this huge, songbook to get under his fingers. I don’t think those guys all practiced a lot together as a band, but Trey practiced his ass off for those shows. We did a couple days me, Trey and his buddy Jeff on keys, then, later in the week, we brought in Dave (Dreiwitz) and Scott (Metzger) to give it a little more of a real world, jammed out scenario. It was pretty awesome. It’s funny to think what went down in that room, on a random day. This little hot, tiny room in the Broadway district. There was serious shit being played those days.
JAMBASE: I imagine it’s too much to hope that recordings of those sessions will ever see the light of day?
JR: You know, I don’t think they were recorded. It was just dudes jamming in a room. It was fucking killing, I’ll tell you that. [laughs]
JAMBASE: Guess some things were meant not to be recorded! Joe, while I have you, the question you and Marco always get. What’s next for The Duo?
JR: We’re playing on Jam Cruise and that’s it right now. I’m so excited to play these songs again. I’m so excited to play with Marco again. We’ve tossed some some ideas back and forth as far as making some new Duo recordings. Maybe a Postal Service-y type of situation, where I’ll track some stuff at my place and he’ll do some at his and we’ keep sending things back and forth till we have a record. We’re not putting any pressure on this. We’re going to get together and play a show and feel it out. Needless to say, I’m really excited. I miss that music so much.
JAMBASE: And last, a favorite sit-in story. What comes to mind?
JR: I think my favorite all time sit in was with The Levon Helm Band at Gathering Of The Vibes in 2011. I had met Levon a couple times previously, but I was floored when Larry Campbell brought me back to Levon’s trailer and I was met by Levon and his dog Muddy as Levon’s sweet voice said, “You wanna help us out today?” What an honor to be asked to play alongside of one of my greatest drumming heroes. He was one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. I was lucky enough to join Levon a few more times at The Barn before he passed and each and every one of those times was an absolute honor. I’ll always cherish those memories.