It’s been a long ride for Joe Russo and Marco Benevento. The two schoolyard friends, after years apart, formed their Benevento/Russo Duo basically as a fun way to earn some cash. But in the years since those initial gigs, their hard work has transcended them into an almost cult like status among their ever growing fanbase. Their debut album, Best Reason To Buy The Sun, earned them much critical acclaim and building off that momentum, they are already in the studio in Los Angeles finishing up their sophomore effort, tentatively titled, Play, Pause, Stop. It will be a new release, but it looks to include a collection of songs that have been thoroughly road tested and given the seal of approval from their many fans.
Glide’s Joe Adler caught up with drummer Joe Russo backstage after one of their sold out New Year’s run shows to discuss both the history and future of this powerhouse duo.
What were your early influences that first got you into music?
I wanted to be the drummer for Kiss. I don’t know if it was the make-up or rock. That lasted for a few years. Then I heard other things…Zeppelin, legendary. I went through my standard drummer Rush phase, then I got hip to the 70s Miles shit and started going through the jazz. Grew up in Jersey, love the “Jovi.” Love really bad music, as you heard backstage, Mr. Big. But yeah, I was inspired to play drums because Kiss had hot girls, wore cool make-up and had fire.
What bands did you play in early on?
Fat Mama, but that was the good one. There was one before it called Lady Rain, who Constantine from American Idol was the singer for. It was the gayest band of all time. Really lame and he was the singer. That was when I was still living in Jersey. Then I moved to Boulder, Colorado when I was eighteen. I was still super Jersey cheese, like wrestling shoes and all of that shit. Then I met these cats that needed a drummer. And they total developed the whole thing - or at least started the whole process - hipping me to all of the downtown avant-garde shit; John Zorn, Bobby Previte, and again the 70s Miles thing. They were my transition to jazz through rock jazz. So I got just completely enthralled with Jack DeJohnette, Al Foster, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams through a heavy metal jazz format. So that’s like the biggest band in my heart and starting me out, that band pushed me to what we’re doing now.
How did the Duo eventually come about?
My buddy Jake was booking the Knitting Factory and he gave me three nights a week there when he first stared booking because he couldn’t fill the schedule. So I had one band with my friend Scott Metzger and Matt Kohut, an instrumental rock thing. I had a free jazz jam. Then I called Marco and was like, “Dude, the gig only pays $100 bucks, why don’t you come down and we’ll do just a drum and organ thing?” Because that’s what it used to be, just drums and organ. I said, “we’ll make $50 bucks each, which is fucking huge!” So we did that. It started as a month residency and developed into a 10-month residency at the Knitting Factory. So that’s where it all started. That’s when I got knighted.
Nice. So Sir Joe, talk about some of those early shows with the Duo that developed out of the Knitting Factory.
It’s weird. There was a transition, because, when we were at the Knit it was kind of a joke. I mean, it was great, but it was all improv, in the moment, whatever. There was no concept really other than us playing together, and we realized early on that we had this connection where he would go somewhere and I’d be right there with him and vice versa. We slowly started building on that. It was cheesy because we were kind of like a cover band for a while. We would play Radiohead tunes and Zeppelin tunes. We would play “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” and all that shit. So it was kind of a joke never intended to be a band.
So after the residency we started to go on the road a little bit and it got more serious. I actually hated the band for a long time. We grew up together but we didn’t know each other and we didn’t know musically what the vibe was. So there were a lot of nights were I was like, “Fuck this, I don’t need this shit.” And I’m sure Marco had that same vibe. It just wasn’t there yet. So through four years of touring it developed into this thing we both love. So that’s the short/long story of the history I guess. So it was a joke, basically, that turned into something. Which I think is the best thing about it. We never had any goals with this thing, it happened so organically. We played this music and people started liking it. Our music grew and our fans grew. It just became this fun thing and the best job of all time.
So what was the crowd response like in the beginning?
It was weird. It was all dudes; still trying to work out of that! We used to be more of a free jazz band, we would do really out shit all the time. So the initial crowd response was upon the musicianship of what we were doing, but not the music that we were playing. We weren’t playing songs that I would listen to. But the interplay is, I think, the biggest thing with me and Marco. Still, even though the music has changed, the vibe, the interplay is still the biggest thing that happens with us. That’s what makes us happy and it seems to make the crowd happy. But yeah, in the beginning it was a lot of musicians coming down which helped out really. We had Eric Krasno come down and play with us. We had Stanton Moore and all of these cats who were like, “These guys are bad dudes.” And that kind of helped our hype and started developing the buzz. So it’s weird because it feels like two different bands, where we started from and where we are now as far as the music and the crowd.
When did the compositional writing start?
We had a couple tunes that Marco played in more of a jazz vein, MMW-ish. Then we were about to record our first album and I think on a personal level we got tighter and started listening to music that we both liked. Marco was more of the jazz guy when we started and I was more of the rock guy and we kind of found this middle ground to where we were like, “Oh dude, that’s awesome. This band’s awesome, this band’s awesome!” So we started to emulate the people we loved, which I guess a lot of people do, and not pulling it off to completion. So we just started writing. I would write tunes that I never intended to be for the Duo. I was writing rock songs, songs that were supposed to have vocals on them. I would play them for Marco when we were just hanging out and he was like, “Oh sweet!” And they would turn into Duo songs.
It kind of turned into this songwriting team with everybody being on the same page. So maybe eight months prior to going into the album we started writing these tunes that were more of a rock format. Cutting out all of the extended shit and just writing rocks songs without vocals basically, because we can’t sing. So that was the first step; then we got in the studio and it got chopped down even more. We were in with Joey Warren, the drummer for Beck, he was our producer. His role that I wanted, was what he came in and did…he came and was like, “Ok, that’s bullshit. That’s nonsense. That’s filler. Here’s the song.” And he helped us chop it down, we all did it together. After that album, that was what we sounded like. So now, everything we’ve written since then has been in the format of writing songs. Shorter. When you listen to your favorite song it isn’t an eighteen-minute jazz odyssey. It’s a fucking song you can sing along to, a song that makes you feel good. Whatever it is, it has things that stand out to you. So we try to take more of a format of being almost a backing band to no one. And it’s been great. The shit we’ve written since the album is way better than the album, which we’re very proud of.
Then again I still see the first album as a starting ground for us. I feel like that’s the first thing we really did, that album. All the shit before was us learning each other, us learning whatever the hell, us being on the road. So that album happened and it made us confident in, “Oh yeah, we can play these types of songs and it’s gonna work out.” And with our confidence in that, it feels like the crowd’s confidence has come with us. Where everybody’s like, “Cool, you guys are doing this and we like it.” And we’re like, “Sweet!” So we still take that approach. I don’t even know where that question started… That’s where it ended!
So you were talking before about Eric Krasno and Stanton Moore. Who are some of the other guests you guys have had sit-in?
Oh man, we’ve had a lot. It’s kinda hard to remember actually. We did a lot of stuff with Robert Walter’s band. I played with Robert Walter for about two years which was great. So Robert would play, Chimi would play. Mike Fratantuno from Black Eyed Peas, who’s the bass player. He would come and sit in. God who else? Aaron the drummer from Brazilian Girls, Warren Haynes, Scott Metzger. In the beginning we were more accepting to the sit-in, but we don’t do it a lot now because we’ve developed a sound finally, we have songs. Back when we were having open improv things we’d have a lot more people come down. Karl Denson came down. It was a lot of the funk players who came down because we were on the funky edge. And then Mike Gordon came down and played piano with us. He played the Wurlitzer before he played bass which was sweet.
Was that before the Headcount show?
Yes. Mike was putting his own band together, we met through that. Andy [Hurwitz] from Ropeadope, whose our label told Mike, “Go check out Joe…blah blah blah...” This was before the Duo was doing anything. Mike and I got together and I played at his apartment; but Mike’s tour coincided with a tour I was on with Robert Walter. But we had a great time and then the Headcount thing happened. But he sat in before the Headcount. I played with Mike at his apartment, he came down and played piano with us and then the Headcount thing happened. I think that was the first time Marco had met Mike. That night at Tribeca when Mike played keyboards. And Marco’s dad said, “Who’s the old woman playing keyboard?” And he said, “That’s Mike Gordon. You used to drive me to his concerts.”
So were you guys pretty big Phish fans?
Marco made his own Phish t-shirts. I was into Phish in high school. I went to a lot of shows, not a lot. I went to New Year’s ‘95. I think they were amazing. They were an important band for me in terms of going from…they are like a gateway drug. They throw everything out there. They are, and people can argue this point, the original jam band in the sense of bringing every influence into the music. So I got more into Latin music from listening to Phish. I got more into jazz listening to Phish. I probably went to fifteen shows, something like that. It was good, it was like a party. Climactic. Epic. That was great but that was twelve years ago. So it’s made Marco and I laugh at each other on stage with Mike playing a Phish song. We’re looking across and like, “This is ridiculous, this is amazing!” They were a huge influence. Fishman was a big influence. So it’s strange. Not psychotically strange, or yeah, it is… I’ll say it.
So who are you guys talking about collaborating with in the future?
We did a bit of collaboration on the last album with Skerik and Mike Dillon who are fucking brilliant. And Smokey Hormel. And that was amazing, but I think that even though we loved having them there, and they were amazing and made the songs better, that we’re still a young band. We need other people or something. I think on the next album we are going to be more confident in what we’re doing to where we can go make the album we want to make. I think we’ve grown a lot since the last album which has only been a year. But that’s how we’ve been doing it. We’ve been doing these huge leap increments where now we feel like we’ve moved on since Best Reason to Buy The Sun. Now we’ve got this next shit we wanna lay on people. So I think it is pretty much just going to be us.
Do you plan to record new songs or go in with established material?
We’ve written some tunes. There are about five tunes that we’ve been playing on the last 3-month tour that we’re super psyched about. So those are like the contenders or the winners I guess. And then after New Year’s, we have a whole month to develop the shit we’ve been working on. So we’ve only been off the road for about two weeks, since a long tour, and you can’t work out on the road. You can have ideas and fuck around at sound check but that lasts about fifteen minutes. So we’ve come together at Marco’s place. Marco’s been writing some great shit that we’ve been working on. I’ve got a couple of tunes I just wrote on the guitar. We’re gonna have to see what happens in the next month. We’re so psyched, we’ve got a great team working on this next album. We’ve got Matt Chamberlain, drummer from Critters Buggin, Fiona Apple and everybody. He’s the man. He’s the head producer. And it just keeps getting better. We just keep getting to work with these amazing people. I can’t wait to see what happens. Our plan is to go in with a certain amount of tunes and then just play and see what these guys can do with us. They do a collaborative effort between the ears and the hand because they’re just so brilliant. We’re psyched.
Aside from welcoming sit-ins, you’ve also been involved with a lot of side projects.
I have been whoring myself out!
What do you have on the horizon?
The only thing which is kind of a side project is with Marco, myself, Mike Dillon and Skerik. A band that was born at New Orleans Jazz Fest two years ago. We’ve done a couple shows since. Every time is amazing. Playing with people of that caliber is just inspirational. As people, as musicians, those are the guys you want to be around. Especially with me and Marco being younger cats, those are the guys we look up to. So being able to improvise and create music on the spot with those two guys is just magical. I think that’s the only gig thing we’re doing. I’ve had some Danja Boots gigs. Which is my country band with Scott Metzger. Songs of drinking, fighting and fucking. Scott’s great. Scott’s amazing, he’s fucking brilliant. That cat needs to be huge.
Marco just did some shows with Bobby Previte, which I am sure were amazing but I couldn’t go because it was during the fucking transit strike. But I do have some stuff with this cat Chris Harper down in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Brilliant, brilliant songwriter. That involves some of the guys from Ween. Mickey, Dean Ween and Dave Dreiwitz, great bass player Matt Kohut plays with us. That’s kind of my favorite thing that I do on the side. Maybe I can’t say favorite because I love all the other things. That ones so good because it’s songs. That’s how I grew up. A singer, playing behind a singer. And playing with guys from Ween! It’s one of my favorite bands. And we move around, we have our Zeppelin thing that we do sometimes with Metzger and Dave which is great. But I think the next six months are strictly Duo. We just ended a huge year of touring and whatever the hell. We are going to write and do the album and then tour. Get back into the van and do the touring shit. We’re not thinking of the side project thing. Those kind of pop up as they do.
What’s been your favorite live experience thus far? What really sticks out?
The first thing that comes to mind is Bonnaroo. That was fucking unreal. We started the show without Mike. Marco’s voice was cracking on the microphone because he was so scared. I had butterflies for the first time since I was twelve. Getting on stage in front of that many people, it was amazing. Then Mike came on and that was the first time we all really nailed it together. So that was a super huge experience. But I don’t know. We’ve had so many fun nights in the last year. Marco and I are just having a fucking blast. I can’t pinpoint, every night we are so psyched. Every night is fucking amazing. These people that know our songs out of nowhere; and that’s a new thing for us. People knowing our songs, we’ll do a subtle intro and people will freak out and it’s like, “Holy shit! People know our shit.”
I can’t really pinpoint anything because there are so many nights when we’re happy to be doing what we’re doing and so lucky and having the best fucking time. It’s come to this comfort point of, it doesn’t matter where we are, it’s me and Marco onstage and we’re just fucking playing and we’re smiling and drinking. It’s a joke, and I don’t mean that in the sense of a joke being not important. But it’s like “dude, this is fucking amazing.” We go out there and we’re just so psyched and to see the response that’s happened in the last year. I think every night in the last year except for maybe a couple has been the best playing.
Contributing writer Joe Adler is a musician based out of Burlington, Vermont. He performs regularly with his band The Joe Adler Acoustic Project.
Photos by Susan J. Weiand and Adam Foley