Joe Russo Can’t Be Stopped

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By: Andrew Bruss

Joe Russo by Rod Snyder
Drummer Joe Russo‘s stature on the concert circuit saw a drastic rise during the summer of 2006, a season that opened up a whole new world to him. But for every door that opened, it seemed as though two more closed in its place. By the end of the year, Russo and Marco Benevento (keys, organ, piano) slowed their longtime collaboration, the Benevento/Russo Duo, to a crawl, playing only sporadic shows.

Following a tour that featured Mike Gordon of Phish fame adding some bass to their jam-heavy, freak-jazz, drums ‘n’ keys combo, Gordo and Trey Anastasio hit the road for a summer tour with The Duo filling out the musical gaps once held by Jon Fishman and Page McConnell. Billed as GRAB, The Duo went from playing nightclubs to following Phil Lesh & Friends, night after night, with members of Phish providing national exposure they’d never expected.

Fast forward to December of 2008. The Duo are back on the road and playing a few gigs leading up to a late-night New Year’s gig with Surprise Me Mr. Davis in Manhattan. In a Dunkin Donuts across the street from Boston’s Paradise Rock Club, Joe Russo talked about The Duo’s hiatus over a cup of coffee, getting right to the point of a topic he’d spent countless hours thinking about.

“This is all in a very positive context [because] obviously [touring with Trey and Mike] was an extraordinary experience for us. But, at the same time, we were slowly gaining steam in the way we wanted to and in control of the music we were making,” says Russo. “It was very word of mouth. We always had a diverse crowd – hippie kids, indie kids, middle aged jazz heads – and we liked the mix. We were happy with the mix of groups we had coming to see us, but it felt like after that [GRAB] tour the flood gates opened for one side of it and the other side got lost.”

Gordon, Russo & Fishman by Jessica Piccirilli
Given the privilege Russo described in having had the chance to play with Anastasio and Gordon, he wasn’t looking to send off the message he was unhappy with the experience, but it was clear that things played out less than desirably. “Obviously [GRAB] brought more attention on a certain scope. But at the same time – not to discount the experience – we released a record at the same time as the tour and all people cared about was the tour. The record got swept under the carpet,” observes Russo. “I think we lost a lot of our identity on that tour.”

The exposure The Duo received as half of GRAB brought them a specific brand of notoriety that refused to view them outside of the Phish context, and a decision was made that the only way to get back on the track they’d envisioned for themselves was to “go away” for a chunk of time.

“Honestly, we didn’t like where it was at the end of 2006. We were both very burnt. We’d gone from having a gradual rise in what we were doing, then we had this peak that we almost didn’t want. It was hard to get away from, and at the time, it didn’t feel like a smart decision. We felt like we had to go away for a couple of years and reboot,” says Russo. “I don’t care who comes to see our band; if you like our music, that’s great. But the first time someone yelled a Phish song at us when we were playing as The Duo, I got really fucking pissed. I was like, ‘That’s it, all we are now is this [band] that has to do with Phish.'”

Joe Russo by Jay Blakesberg
During a phone interview, Benevento, explained the hiatus, “We were going really strong together for about five years, so I think it’s sort of natural that we split apart for a second and did our thing. It’s really inspiring. It helps us learn as musicians to work on other outlets.”

During their respective breaks from The Duo, Benevento started a family and began playing as the Marco Benevento Trio, while Russo started playing with Tom Hamilton, frontman for electro/jam/pop ensemble Brothers Past. Featuring a rotating lineup with Hamilton and Russo as its core, they called themselves American Babies and hit the circuit with folksier rock tunes that went easy on the jams and heavier on the lyrics in ways Russo previously experienced. Both Hamilton and Russo were burnt out from their primary projects, and American Babies was their breath of fresh air. When asked about Russo’s time with American Babies, Tom Hamilton says, “With The Duo, I feel like Joe possibly… there’s pressure on him because it’s his project. It’s his baby. But with the [American] Babies, it might have been easier on him because he got to do other things he wanted to do. He’s a guy who’s been in instrumental bands his entire career, and I think being in a band where there were songs with words that he could sing too, getting him into singing [was good for him because] it’s something he always wanted to do.”

In addition to American Babies and Bustle in Your Hedgerow, Russo has been busy exploring all kinds of different terrain with acts as varied as Ween side-project Gene Ween Band, Simon Posford‘s psytrance outfit Younger Brother (new album due this spring), A Big Yes… and a small no, and his very own Joe Russo Quartet featuring bass master Todd Sickafoose, pianist Erik Deutsch and guitarist Jonathan Goldberger. To say the guy wears many hats is an understatement, he’s so busy in so many different projects if you blink, you’re gonna miss something.

Continue reading for more on Joe Russo…

 
Joey is definitely part robot. That dude can play things that no normal human would even think of. But for all of his technical ability, he always breaks it down and plays the song. That’s the highest compliment I can give a drummer. He’s not playing some pre-rehearsed beat with hot, flashy fills. He’s playing a song, and we can all tell the difference.

Scott Metzger

 
Photo by: Jay Blakesberg

Joe Russo by Sam Friedman
Benevento added, “[Working on other projects is] really good for inspiration. Joe has been inspired by playing with Tommy and Scott Metzger in American Babies and he’s learning about music in a different way, doing other stuff and interacting with other folks. And it’s the same thing with me. I’m playing with different drummers and bass players, writing different music, going on tour and experimenting. The other day we went to rehearsal and talked about what we wanted to do with all of the song ideas that have been brewing. Anything Joe picked up from American Babies, he’s going to take that into our rehearsal space, just like I’m bringing in more experimental stuff, like the toys and samples and loops. We’re combining our inspirations [and] it definitely shows.”

As Russo sipped on his coffee, talking about the negative repercussions that came from being affiliated with Phish, Marc Friedman, bassist for The Slip and Mr. Davis, knocked on the glass window to let Joe know it was time for his sound check. Before he left, a post-performance interview was arranged. “I don’t want to end this on such a sour note,” he said.

From backstage, while Davis rocked a sold out house, Russo’s narrative took a strikingly more positive tone than our previous conversation.

“The vibe with me and Marco now is so on-the-same-page,” he says. “It took a while to get back there, but we’re so happy to be back there, [to where] it’s effortless and fun. We had a four-man crew for a band with two guys and so much bullshit. Now, it’s just me and Marco in the van, loading our own shit and enjoying it. No tour manager. We got rid of everything. We’re in control of what we want to do. We’ve got a booking agent who helps us out, but other than that we deal with all the dumb, day-to-day shit. But, we know it’s getting done. We are fully involved and happy to do it.”

The more Russo talked about where The Duo is today, the more apparent it became that their time off will effect where they take things in the future.

Russo & Benevento by Sam Friedman
“American Babies was like my away time,” Russo says. “It was a cleansing of the palette. I learned a lot from that gig. I’d always played a certain type of music a certain type of way. I would say years ago [my playing was] extremely bombastic, a little naive, and a little overwhelming at times. [What I discovered] playing with guys like Chris Hartford, Tommy and Aaron [Freeman] [aka Gene Ween] is that the ego gets removed from the drumming. You’re there to support the singer and the song, and I’ve found such a wonderful bliss through that. I feel whole now. I can go out with Marco and do this crazy thing, or I can play with Aaron or Tommy and I can sit there and play something so simple it makes a song beautiful.”

Scott Metzger (guitar) of American Babies, as well as RANA fame, spoke of Russo’s newfound sense of instrumental modesty.

“Besides that weird carnival freak, arms behind the back stretch that he does, what sets him apart from other drummers I’ve played with is the taste factor,” says Metzger. “Joey is definitely part robot. That dude can play things that no normal human would even think of. But for all of his technical ability, he always breaks it down and plays the song. That’s the highest compliment I can give a drummer. He’s not playing some pre-rehearsed beat with hot, flashy fills. He’s playing a song, and we can all tell the difference.”

The lessons learned by Russo range well beyond the stage, too.

Joe Russo by Josh Miller
“If I’m bitching that I have a bill to pay, I try to be thankful [about the fact] that I have a place to live. Just bringing it down to the simplest thing, and on top, I have this gravy of being able to play music for a living. It’s like I’m a complete asshole if I’m bitching about anything,” Russo says.

Looking forward, Russo says 2009 will see the return of the Benevento/Russo Duo in a big way. Both halves of The Duo have been working on material for a third album, and Russo said they’re hoping not to do any outside gigs in March and “just write for the whole month, and come back to this Duo thing with a new attitude.”

As for the change in attitude, the adjustments couldn’t be clearer.

“The last four years, I feel like I’ve grown up a lot in every way – personally, emotionally, spiritually and musically. I’ve tried to be more positive, which is something I need to credit Marco with. That guy always has a smile on his face, and it’s infectious if you want it to be. And for a long time I fought it, and now I’m in a place where it can be that easy. Everything is simple,” offers Russo reflectively. “As long as you’ve got your family, your health and the gift to play music – which I took very much for granted – I realize I’m the luckiest guy in the world, and I try to acknowledge that every day and not let any of the bullshit get in the way.”

Joe Russo will perform with his Quartet on 2/13 at NYC’s Sullivan Hall and with A Big Yes… and a small no on 2/20 at Union Hall. Also look for him on tour with Gene Ween Band starting this week. Complete Russo tour dates available here.

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