Joe Russo’s Almost Dead: Saints of Circumstance

Peter Shapiro with Dean Budnick on September 18, 2017

The following excerpt originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Relix where publisher Peter Shapiro and editor-in-chief Dean Budnick sat down with Joe Russo to talk all things Joe Russo’s Almost Dead as well as the drummer’s time with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh in Furthur. To read the full story, subscribe here.

Joe Russo’s Almost Dead debuted on Jan. 26, 2013. Russo drew together four of his longtime friends and bandmates— guitarists Tom Hamilton and Scott Metzger, keyboardist Marco Benevento and bassist Dave Dreiwitz—from various projects on something of a whim for an evening of Dead covers. At the time, Russo had been performing alongside Phil Lesh and Bob Weir as part of Furthur since 2009.

As Russo remembers, JRAD’s debut was fortuitous: “There’s an amazing group of music fans known as the NYC Freaks who, for as long as I’ve been a working guy in New York City, have been supportive of musicians. They have this party every year called the Freaks Ball, and we always try to do something for it. That year [2013], it was going to be a two-nighter. The first night was going to be Bustle in Your Hedgerow, our goofy instrumental Zeppelin band that I’ve been doing with Marco and Scott and Dreiwitz.”

For the second night of the Freaks Ball, Russo was supposed to play with The Dean Ween Group, alongside Metzger, Dreiwitz and Mickey Melchiondo. But, shortly before the show, Melchiondo pulled the plug on that and put Russo in, what he calls, “scramble mode.”

“[Peter] Costello, who was working at the Bowl at the time and was deeply ingrained in the Freaks List, called and was like, ‘Would you ever do a Dead thing?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not. I’m in Furthur—I think that’s weird.’ I also didn’t know if that would be cool, if I would get in trouble at work. We threw around a couple more ideas and nothing was really sticking and then, he said, ‘What if you guys did “Bustle Plays The Dead?’’’ because we had done a thing called ‘Bustle Plays Other Shit’ one time and we did all of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and an Allman Brothers’ tune and all this other stuff. It was really fun. He was like, ‘Why don’t you do something like that?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, is that the Dead? The words are so important to this thing.’ With Led Zeppelin, a lot of it’s about Gollum, so we could just get away with playing the sweet melodies.

“Then he said, ‘We could get Tommy. I know Tommy loves the Dead.’ I was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ He asked me what I wanted to call it and I always thought it would be funny to call a band Almost Dead. It’s stupid, it’s a joke because it’s not going to sound like the Dead. He wanted to put my name on it so maybe we’d get a couple people who maybe knew me. Maybe. I was the drummer in that band, where I had a role to play but I wasn’t a household name. When we realized that [the acronym] was JRAD, I thought that was kind of cool.

I called the guys and everybody was into it. So we rehearsed twice and it was super loose and pretty wastey and we decided we were going to do it. I thought, ‘It’s for a party—nobody is going to know about it.’ One of my big fears was somebody from Furthur telling me that it wasn’t cool—I didn’t want to ruffle those feathers, but Costello convinced me nobody was going to give a shit, in the best way possible.”

Since that low-key party, JRAD has grown into one of Russo’s primary focuses. They’ve expanded their repertoire to include a range of covers—from musicals to indie-rock—and even debuted an original song at their 100th show, “Keeping It Simple,” which Russo had intended for Furthur. And after years on the club circuit playing original material, the drummer has learned that sometimes he’s stumbled into his most successful projects.

“Marco and I were going to play some Zeppelin tunes for [former Wetlands talent buyer and Rocks Off founder] Jake Szufnarowski’s 30th birthday on the boat [Rocks Off Concert Cruise] and we said, ‘Hey, let’s have Boom Boom Metzger come play with us,’” he recalls of Bustle’s unexpected birth.

“Then Scott introduced us to Dave from Ween. And Dave’s like, ‘I hear you’re in that Zeppelin thing—that’s the coolest.’ So we brought him in. All of these things were certainly not preconceived.”

Was there a live show that you attended when you were younger where it all came together for you? For me, it was Madonna with the Beastie Boys at Madison Square Garden.

Strangely, I have more of a “where it all begins” with this Dead-world thing that always jumps out—the first gig at the Fox Theater [in Oakland, Calif.] with Furthur [on 9/18/09]. I had no idea what the hell was going on and I was totally freaking out because I didn’t know any of the music. There’s the line “once in a while, you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right,” [from “Scarlet Begonias”] and the lights went on across the whole place. I kept thinking, “What the hell is going on? Where am I? Why am I on stage with these guys playing this music? This is the last thing in the world I ever expected.” That line just punched me in the face so hard. The hairs on my arm are sticking up right now because it was such a huge moment.

How afraid were you to go into this complicated world of the Dead? I still get a small knot in my stomach when I’m walking to the Bowl. Although, once I’m there, I feel more relaxed. What was it like on your opening night?

I was petrified. I think I went to pee maybe 15 times before we got onstage. The thought in my mind that kept haunting me was, “Every single person in this room knows this music better than I do, and I am totally faking it right now.” There was just so much information running through my head—I had no idea what was what.

Thank god, Jay [Lane] was there [on percussion] because I could look to him and be like, “Is this what we’re doing now?” He was an amazing help and shepherd through that time because I was just neck-deep in this stuff. I had no idea what was happening. I had all of these notes everywhere and was jumping into this catalog that was so beloved by so many people. I felt like a complete outsider that night.

I walked off after that first set, and I was really low on myself. I was like, “I’m sucking. I’m not really feeling confident.” I go to Bob, who I really didn’t know very well at the time, and I was like, “I’m sorry. I’m feeling really tense out there. Any tips?” Then he pauses and says, “Eat some mushrooms?”

That’s when the pressure just fell out of my body. I was like, “Everything’s fine. My boss just told me to eat some mushrooms, so I guess everything’s going to be cool. This is a different thing.”

From that moment forward, I was slowly trying to make as much sense out of this world as I could, as an outsider, essentially. And discovering this songbook became this amazing journey that I absolutely love—that I couldn’t live without at this point. All of this is hilarious because, if somebody told me this when I was 18, I would have thought it was insane. I did not listen to the Grateful Dead.

How were you first approached about the Furthur gig?

I got this random call from Matt Busch, Bob Weir’s manager, in the summer of 2009, with the offer to come play a couple of shows with Bob and Phil. I had no connection to the Dead world. I thought it was supposed to be some kind of benefit show. That eventually turned into what became this audition process for Furthur. At one point, they sent me like 10 songs and I was like, “Oh, my God, I have learned 10 songs— that’s crazy.” [Laughs.]

Then, as time went on, more songs kept coming to me. When there were maybe 60 songs, I was like, “What the hell is going on?” My now-wife said, “I think it’s an audition.” And I’m like, “For what?” I had no idea what they had in mind.

So I was studying my ass off as much as you can for that amount of stuff in that time frame. Then, we were told that this is going to be a band, and we’re going to do X amount of shows a year, and the first shows are going to be in September. So over the next couple of weeks, we did these 10 rehearsal shows at the Throckmorton Theatre— a really small place. Then, every morning, I woke up with 10 more songs in my inbox to be played that night. This happened for 10 days straight so, by the end of this, I had 160 songs in my brain.

Did you know Phil from the 2006 summer tour? [Russo toured in a project with Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon and Marco Benevento— which came to be known as G.R.A.B.—while they shared a bill with Phil & Friends.]

The first time I played with Phil was at the Jammy Awards, where we did the Duo with Gordon, Les [Claypool] and Phil. And then the next time I played with Phil—until I was in a band with Phil—was at Bonnaroo, where we did G.R.A.B. for the first time during a late-night, secret SuperJam. Phil came out and we played “Casey Jones” and “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad.” Again, truth be told, I kind of knew those songs, but I remember I was like, “How does this end?” I had no idea. When we did that tour, we would say hello throughout the thing, but Phil and I never sat down or hung or played or anything. So three years later, out of the blue, I got this call from Matt Busch, but it was due to Phil saying, “I want to try Joey out.”

At first, you had Jay as a wingman, which is key, but he went back to Primus [in March 2010]. What do you remember about your first gig without him?

I’ve always played on my own. I haven’t been in a lot of double-drummer situations, and I love having the freedom of being able to act on an impulse at any moment, musically. It was very freeing to get that moment back. I felt like, “I can be me now.” So over the next few months, I started taking a couple of liberties and seeing what yielded positive or negative looks from Bob or Phil. I started finding my own place within the music and becoming more comfortable with the music as well. The first show was at the Furthur Festival in California [on May 28, 2010]. We ended up doing a bunch of albums. That was the first time we did the whole “Terrapin Station” suite. It felt a little bit like my coming-out party.

Did you ever directly express to Bob or Phil, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing this…” Or was it just something that happened on-the-fly?

When it comes to music, I prepare a lot in every sense, but onstage, it’s absolutely in the moment. So there were definitely times where I would follow my instincts and I was not necessarily met with a positive facial reaction from one or both of my bandmates. But that’s the beauty of trying stuff—sometimes, you don’t stick the landing. I feel like that’s the cornerstone of this band [JRAD], especially. I learned so much in those years with Furthur about that because I was also playing with people I didn’t know.

I had the luxury of growing up and playing at Wetlands and the Knitting Factory and improvising in a way that had nothing to do with this holy grail of music. It had nothing to do with these musicians that I most likely would never have played with, if not for being in Furthur. So it was interesting to try to adapt to a style of improvisation that wasn’t super familiar to me. I was more accustomed to the Knitting Factory style of “Let’s go crazy at any time,” John Zorn freak-outs.

With Furthur, at first, we were mostly improvising within a blues or country aesthetic, but then I did start seeing things where I was like, “These guys are crazy like this too.” There was a level of complete chaos within it. That started to become more apparent and more exciting.

Let’s talk about communication and the language of leading a band, especially as it relates to this music. The tempo is really important. Jerry used to be the leader that Bobby and Phil would look to, even though he didn’t want to lead. They followed him for the tempo, but then after he was gone, it wasn’t always so easy.

There were many times where, at the same moment, Bob would be telling me to slow down and Phil would be telling me to speed up. It was a little stressful. There was a learning curve, and it was learning how to interact with these two amazing, larger-than-life people. I didn’t want to let down either of these guys, but they were asking me for different things at the same time.

So what did you do?

I would play at the same tempo, but I would make an “I’m psyched face” at Phil, and a sleepy face at Bob, so I acknowledged what they both wanted. I had to have this discussion with both of them, and they were both so cool. They both knew I was in a bit of a hard scenario, but it helped for me to acknowledge, “I hear both of you guys,” and then decide when to really go full bore in one direction or another. There were times when Bob was singing a song and he wanted to play it slow, so I was going to play it slow. Then if we were in some crazy jam and Phil wanted me to go fucking nuts, I’d go fucking nuts. It’s just like getting to know anybody. You learn when and where to really put your efforts into making someone happier.

Now that it’s your band, you’re kind of like Bobby and Phil. You’re driving what you want it to be tempowise, speed-wise, all of those things. I’ve watched a bunch of the shows next to you and seen the nonverbal communication that’s going on. There’s a lot of communication in the eyes.

There’s tons. When we did that party at Brooklyn Bowl—for what I thought was this onetime thing—I just wanted to play these songs how I’d always wanted to play them in Furthur and not worry about someone telling me maybe, yes or no. The thing about playing with guys that you’ve been playing with forever is that it becomes really easy. The stuff that we can do with this unspoken language onstage is much like the Dead playing together for a long time. I’m finally back playing with these guys I grew up playing with, so I can shoot Marco a smile and he knows what we’re about to do, or he could do something. Tommy, honestly, reads my mind better than anybody onstage. I’ll just look at him and it’s amazing the stuff that can happen in that realm. I would say 98 percent of it is just because we’ve all played together for so long. These are my buddies. These are the guys I spent time with in the van and in the Subaru station wagon, for years. 

When it comes to questions of tempo, does everyone sort of defer to you because it’s your band?

My name’s on this thing just because we had to put the name on the thing the first day, but we’re really a band of bandleaders. It’s weird because we all have such a deep history. I’ve been in Tommy’s band [American Babies], where he’s the bandleader. I’ve played with Wolf!, where Scott’s the “bandleader.” Marco and I had our thing. I’ve played in Dave’s Crescent Moon. Each of us has fulfilled a bandleader role with other members in the band. This one just happened to come out of Furthur in a sense, where I was already doing this stuff. I put it together and had maybe a slight head start on the knowledge of this world at that time. At this point, we’re a band. I do handle the mechanics of everything, but when we’re playing onstage, once it goes, it goes. Everybody throws it around and we follow each other. But I’ll make my ideas known. I feel like there should be someone to do that in some sense, even if it’s a small, helpful direction because sometimes people are just too respectful of each other.

To read the rest of the story, pick up the October_November issue of Relix by subscribing here.