Drummer’s Choice: Joe Russo on ‘phér•bŏney’ and “Letting JRAD be JRAD”

Mike Greenhaus on September 5, 2019
Drummer’s Choice: Joe Russo on  ‘phér•bŏney’ and “Letting JRAD be JRAD”

photo by Dino Perrucci

This article originally appears in the July/August 2019 issue of Relix as an accompaniment to our feature Q&A with Craig Finn, Joe Russo and Josh Kaufman.

Between runs with JRAD and side work with everyone from jazz cats to electronic music pioneers, Joe Russo dropped his first solo album and most comprehensive set of original songs since his Duo days.

Your solo record, phér•bŏney, runs the gamut, from indie-pop to jazzy instrumentals and African-inspired guitar heroics, yet feels like a cohesive statement. Did you always plan to make such an eclectic album?

Nothing was really preconceived. I got a small studio in Brooklyn Heights a number of years ago, and it had a very small recording rig and I was just excited to learn how to record. There was a lot of trial and error. I’d sit down at the piano—or with a guitar or drums—and would record the best I could. And, over the course of a year, these little ideas started turning themselves into songs. So about two years ago, I went up to my friend Dan Goodwin’s place with [Arcade Fire saxophonist and longtime Antibalas member] Stuart Bogie and [Bob Weir collaborator] Josh Kaufman to make an album. And, when we got out there, these sketches weren’t quite enough—I had these little blips of ideas but nothing was really, truly conceptualized. So I went back to Brooklyn and realized that I needed to bring some more finished items to the table if I was going to make a proper record. I was working on my own anyway and just stayed the course. It ended up being all over the place [stylistically], but I am lucky that I have the type of career where I can play with this hodgepodge of people. And, this record came into focus as a good representation of a few different dialects that I enjoy.

I wasn’t writing with any intention. At one point, I was going to make a fully instrumental record and a fully vocal indie record—I have another batch of instrumental stuff done that I will release in the not too distant future. I just realized that I liked the way this stuff worked together and that I didn’t need to separate my music into different genres. That’s something that is going to, hopefully, stay with me for the rest of my career—making a lot more records. No matter what I write, and how it sounds, it can all live in the same world.

When did you decide to surprise-release the album?

It has been done for about a year. I considered doing the label thing, but it overwhelmed me so I put it out on the internet. It had been hanging over my head and I needed to get it out so I could work on something else. I put it out on my daughter’s birthday, May 20, and it felt great. I had been putting so much pressure on myself leading up to it, so I just hit the button to put it out there.

Though you recorded most of the parts on phér•bŏney yourself, a few friends appear on select tracks. You mentioned Josh and Stuart, but when did you bring Robbie Mangano in on guitar?

He helped me tighten the record tremendously by playing his creations. He would come to the studio and painstakingly try to replicate the ideas I had for my guitar parts from these crappy demos for songs like “Perfectabilitarians.” We connected through Chris Harford and, way back in the day, when I was playing with Fat Mama, he was part of the Zappa school playing with Project Object.

How did you choose the sole cover on the record, Jobim’s “The Waters of March?”

That’s the song I want to hear on my deathbed—it’s just glorious and gorgeous and perfect and beautiful, and I had no intentions of covering it. I had been listening to it a lot and just wanted to learn its chords. I sat down and did this gentle, sweet vocal treatment over it, and I started messing around with these tuners that made the voice really messed up. I fell in love with it because it was so disturbing in one sense but the words are still so beautiful. And I only ended up doing half of the song because I slowed it down so much from the original that I could only do the first two verses. For some reason, that song just spoke to me and I made this demo of it, and that’s actually all it is. I get a special feeling from that song that I don’t from anything else.

You are best known as a drummer, but you play a variety of instruments on this record and, at times, even place the percussion in the background.

Any of the songs I wrote for the Duo were written on guitar and I wrote about 50 percent of this record on guitar. I didn’t want it to be “a drumming record;” I just wanted to be a musician putting out songs. I feel so lucky to get to do everything I get to do. I get to play like a maniac with JRAD, then, express a different part of myself with [Dave] Harrington, explore these more subtle parts with Craig Finn and do this completely unabashed marathon stuff with Shpongle. So I didn’t need to listen to myself play drums. I listen to music that has a certain aesthetic and wanted to compile a bunch of songs that didn’t have anything to do with the drums or that aspect of my career.

JRAD has one original song, which was first conceived for Furthur. Do you plan to bring any of your new solo material to JRAD or present it live in another setting?

Originally, the plan was to do a big performance, but the last couple of years have been pretty insane. About a year ago, I was told I had to have shoulder reconstructive surgery, which was going to happen this October. That’s why JRAD put all of our dates out in one shot last year—we were planning to take about eight months off starting in October. And then the tide turned in a really great way for me. My arm is getting better, I have all this time off and we found out we’re having another kid in August. So it felt like a little too much to try to put a whole new band together. But one day, I hope to put together a live presentation.

[In terms of playing these songs with JRAD], it will always remain a church and state situation. The Dead thing is great at being the Dead thing, Marco [Benevento]’s band is great at being Marco’s band, Ghost Light is great at being Ghost Light. We’re all very lucky to be able to express ourselves in so many different ways. And while JRAD is, by far, the “biggest project that we do,” it’s still just a part of us and, ostensibly, a side project, which is kind of glorious because it transcends anything we do outside of it. And a lot of that has to do with that amazing songbook. But the thing that keeps me so happy is not having to be one type of person or one type of musician. The goal for the rest of my time is to keep on doing these different projects that can inform each other, while still letting JRAD be JRAD.

This article originally appears in the July/August 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.