Two years ago, the N.Y.C.-based Benevento-Russo Duo were touring the country in organist Marco Benevento’s mom’s Outback, at times unable to fit drummer Joe Russo’s bass drum pedals in the car. Their first-ever show at the Music Farm, in the spring of 2005, drew about 20 people. By that summer, their collaborations with bands like The Slip and bassist Mike Gordon of Phish had earned them a reputation, and they packed the Music Farm for a Halloween jungle boogie, at one point inviting swarms of costumed revelers onto the stage.
Fresh off a summer tour as a four-piece with Phish’s Gordon and guitarist Trey Anastasio, they’re back to their roots as a duo, touring on their recently released studio effort Play Pause Stop. They’ve billed it as songs “you can sing along with even though there are no words,” speaking to the dramatic wall of sound they create with just two instruments. All of the Duo’s songs are instrumental, and many are building, epic pieces that sound more like an orchestra than two guys jamming. But there’s no strings attached — just keys and skins.
Russo took a moment to catch up with the City Paper last week, calling from their van on the way to a gig in St. Louis. Joe was energetic, laughing, and talking fast, so we put him on the hot seat. Here are the prime cuts:
On being a New York city gig drummer two years ago to being a rock star:
Honestly, it’s really the same. We’ve had some great opportunities and have definitely been part of some really interesting things, but we’re still sitting in the van driving to St. Louis to play a club, you know? The best thing about it now is we’re able to make a living and keep doing what we want to do without the stress like it’s been for so long, you know, about worrying how you’re going to pay the rent and shit. We’ve got a crew of four great guys that we take out with us now, just to make it where Marco and I really only have to focus on the music. That’s just a really good place to be, and I’m thankful for that.
On Trey Anastasio’s comment to
Rolling Stonethat the keys to surviving tour are, “Don’t freebase cocaine all the time” and “Get five hours of sleep every third night”:
The man is full of wisdom. That’s fucking classic. Holy shit, that’s true. We’re doing good, except for the long drives. We’ve mellowed out in our somewhat older middle age. The partying has been kind of kept to a minimum, which has been interesting. It’s just very different for us.
On the onstage dance party at last Halloween’s show:
It was a good time, for sure. We weren’t sure what to expect coming in, the prior time having been so light, and it ended up being really fun. It’s kind of turning into a tradition. We were psyched to get invited back.
On putting down his drumsticks during a song to make out with a
Star Trekhottie at the aforementioned Halloween show:
Yes, yes. The Vulcan.
On writing songs for
Play Pause Stop:
The song “Powder” is kind of a stacked thing, just putting it into ProTools and layering a bunch of different shit. “Memphis” was written pretty much as is. “Echo Park” had a couple different things I was stacking. They were all written on guitar.
On his knighthood:
My buddy Jake was booking the Knitting Factory in N.Y., where Marco and I started playing, and he made up this whole “Sir Joe Russo” story years ago. I used to go drink with him at the Wetlands all the time, and then last year for my birthday he put up a website unbeknownst to me and I started getting calls from everybody, like, “What the fuck is this Sir Joe Russo thing?” I’m like I have no idea. It was Jake, all Jake. [www.sirjoerusso.com]
On his favorite drummers:
Bonham, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, get a little Al Foster in there, and I’ll go with Ringo.
On winning awards for their sweet new album:
That’d be neat, I guess. Yeah, that’d be really fucking cool. That’s the thing. We keep getting hit with these really great things that we never even thought of beforehand. Right on.