The Core: Marco Benevento and Joe Russo

Mike Greenhaus on September 17, 2021
The Core: Marco Benevento and Joe Russo

After playing together as The Duo for the first time in almost four years at Relix’s New York City studio space, the keyboardist and drummer look back on a year full of pauses and stops—and a lifetime of musical mind-reading. This piece originally appeared in our June issue, which is available in the Relix Marketplace.


A Really Scary Year

MARCO BENEVENTO: Last March, things were really scary. We have a house here in Woodstock, two kids, goats and peacocks—there’s money that needs to be made for us to survive. The lucky part of our situation is that we had just put out our record, Let It Slide in September [2019], and we toured like crazy from then until February. We even went to Japan.

But, in the beginning of March [2020], I said to [bassist Karina Rykman], “I really need at least two months off.” As much as I love playing music, every musician knows that being on the road isn’t easy. When you do it that much, it takes a toll on you.

So—being grassrootsy and growing up on the side of things where you just hustle—I said, “We’ll figure something out.” My manager Kevin Calabro and I would get on the phone every week and come up with ideas for what we could do to make a little dough. We used Bandcamp, and I made and sold tapes of our shows. I also started messing around with Final Cut Pro, throwing cameras up around my studio and making videos, and I started teaching lessons on Zoom through Marc Brownstein’s Lively. It didn’t matter if I was only making like $500; we just hustled.

Last summer, I did some private backyard gigs. I just learned a bunch of tunes for people’s little parties, and I would weave between all of these different covers. It was entertaining and creative, and also a little weird. But it was a nice outlet.

I also played a few shows at The Pines, a really cool restaurant in Mount Tremper, N.Y.; they would have people like Amy Helm and Jesse Murphy come play in an open field and I’d keep my Casio in the van just in case someone asked me to jam. And I played for a little money and free beer at the Colony Café in Woodstock, N.Y.

It got to the point where I was so busy [last year] that I said to myself: “Wait, this is supposed to be my off-ish time.” And then we got the PPP loan, and I started getting unemployment and said, “I gotta get back to all these demos that I have because I have this amazing studio. I should just tune out the world and work on these songs because, before I know it, I’m going to have to meet somebody in an airport to go here or there.”

So for the last six months, I’ve been going pretty hard on my eighth record. I was considering having DB [drummer Dave Butler] and Karina play on some of them, but then, during one of my Lively lessons, I told one of my students, “I should just put out a record where I’m playing all the instruments.” And that’s what I am gonna do. It might not have the amazing sounds that Matt Chamberlain, Andrew Barr or Karina put on my records but it’s gonna sound unique and weird, and I’m fully embracing that. I’m pretty close to being done with it. These are all newer songs that haven’t really been played yet—a couple of singing songs and a couple of instrumentals. I was actually writing with DB and Karina yesterday and said to myself: “I really need to send them some of these new tunes before our next get-together.” So, currently, things are going pretty good. It’s nice to be out of the winter—the sun is out and we’re hanging out down by our pond with our kids and catching turtles and frogs.

Though, in terms of actually seeing music, it’s been slim pickings. However, we did have Larry Campbell play a Zoom party for my wife’s dad’s birthday. He got tested and came over and played our living room.

JOE RUSSO: Not to be a bummer, but the past year hasn’t been so great. There are so many facets to this thing. The first few months were pretty crippling for us, just like for everybody. My wife and I had just bought a house in New Jersey and made plans to move in September 2020. And then when everything happened in March, we left Brooklyn and pretty much lived with her parents for six months because we weren’t ready to move into our house. I was freaking out, thinking, “I just bought a house, I basically lost my job and I’m living with my in-laws.” But, once the dust and the extreme fear settled, I realized, “Thank God we got this house, and we have some space. We’ll figure out the rest.” So something very scary became something that I’m very thankful for and, in the end, couldn’t have been better.

I’ve also had a hard time being inspired during all of this. I had a great talk with [drummer] Mark Guiliana a few weeks ago; he and I were discussing how there are certain people who are live musicians. And, while I love recording, those live, onstage collaborations have been my backbone, musically, ever since I was a kid. It was hard losing that camaraderie—the collaboration and conversation that only happens onstage. It’s hard to fill that void by yourself. So I struggled.

At the same time, spending all this time with my family has been the most incredible thing. Seeing our daughters every moment is something that wouldn’t have happened. I’m always gonna be thankful for that and there’s gonna be a positive residual effect that comes from being forced to stop; it’s given me a new perspective on the things that are truly important, how much I truly need to be doing versus how much I thought I needed to be doing. I hope that I take this attitude as far as I can before we all get jaded again or start complaining about the stupid shit that I know I’ve certainly been guilty of complaining about in the past.

Already, we’ve had to navigate this world of show cancellations and ticketing issues that made me freak out in the beginning. And now, I’ve realized, “This is just part of the deal—let’s just get through it.” JRAD [Joe Russo’s Almost Dead], unfortunately, had to scrap our Pacific Northwest shows and Red Rocks and it’s like, “We’ll get back there and it will be awesome.” And I’m totally cool with that perspective informing our decisions.

I did do some awesome stuff; I sent some tracks to Eric Johnson for The Fruit Bats record, but this has all shined a light on how desperately I need to be playing in real-time with other people—both in the studio and especially live. I started thinking back on all these shows I was doing at New York’s Nublu last year. They were just the most soul[1]filling things because they were reminiscent of most of my life in New York City—wrapping yourself in the middle of the audience and improvising from scratch with like-minded individuals. It’s about having a shared experience with the crowd and band members. It started echoing in my head just how much I missed playing with JRAD and how much I missed all these amazing opportunities. I started hurting and missing that real primal version of what I get to do. And I’m so thankful that there’s seemingly a light at the end of the tunnel.

The Duo Plays The Duo

MB: Playing The Duo shows [for The Relix Twitch Channel and FANS in March], I had a moment when I said, “Oh, wait, I’m a musician.” Before that, I’d just been taking care of these animals and taking care of the kids. I’d just been playing tennis and hanging out with my parents, and then I went and played with Joe and thought, “No wonder things are so confusing right now.”

We were slightly nervous about the taping because, normally, you get a day together to run stuff down. But we didn’t do that this time. It was just like, “Practice on your own dude!” So I spent a lot of nights in my studio, practicing Duo songs and thinking, “Damn, some of these are hard.” I actually even wrote down some notes that I sent Russo and he was like, “Whoa, you’re preparing way more than me, but you get to play all the notes.”

We decided to make it just piano and drums so that it would be more of its own thing—“The Duo Plays The Duo.” It was us covering ourselves. But we didn’t just stick with one side of The Duo. We went out there and also did some more recognizable melodies; Joe even came over to the piano and played the strings with his drumsticks. That’s what I really liked about that FANS show and, potentially, what could happen again with Joe. We played over an hour and a half of music and there’s still over an hour of songs that we’ve written or worked on—or even new songs—that we didn’t get to.

JR: It’s great reapproaching The Duo while being so far removed from it. Marco and I get to be these two older gentlemen now, compared to what we were when we started. And reinterpreting the whole spectrum of our short career together—it’s fun to be able to step back and then approach it with fresh ears, eyes and intentions.  

We started as a completely improvised organ and drums concept. And then it grew into these post-rock compositions. But when we come back, we do almost jazz interpretations of the rock stuff. And, honestly, we both had such an amazing time with that treatment. It’s just where we are right now. It felt very comfortable and filled with joy. I’d like to see us do more shows like that. When we did the reunion a bunch of years back, lugging out all that gear and trying to teach ourselves how to play all those crazy things that we played in our late 20s was a little stressful. And it was just the opposite at The Relix Studio because we just sat down and played and had fun. So things have really come full circle.

Never-Ending Fun and Memories

JR: [“Sunny’s Song”] was the tune that cracked the seal. I’d originally written it for my make-believe rock band that I was gonna start and then Marco just started playing it and, all of the sudden, we went fully in that direction. So it was so fun to take the song that changed us into this rock thing and change it back.

The only time that we played the Jazz Standard [the defunct club that was located in the space where The Relix Studio now lives] was for the JVC Jazz Festival and it was one of the first times, if not the first time, I used my sampler, which became an integral part of our sound with “Sunny’s Song,” “Becky” and all the more rock-oriented songs on Best Reason to Buy the Sun. I remember Marco saying how funny it was that the show was part of a jazz festival because we were on this precipice of ignoring the jazzier side of our lives and taking this new path. I plugged in this sampler full of chaotic sounds—all this shit that, at the time, felt very scary or odd to us because we were kids and we were making this transition from improv, jazzy dudes to more concise songwriters. It was so meta. 

MB: Hanging out with Joe is like hanging out with a cousin you’ve known forever, a brother. We just have so many memories of starting a career in music together—coming from the Knitting Factory and growing from an instrumental jazz thing to these heavy rock and pop[1]rock songs to playing with Trey [Anastasio] and Mike [Gordon] and touring around, which was awesome. When we get together, one word will take us back to The High Sierra Music Festival. And we still crack each other up. It’s never-ending fun and memories—hugs all around. We’re pretty tight.

And, musically speaking, there were a lot of nights [with The Duo] that were full of musical mind-reading. One time, we played this total free-form jazz thing at Bowery Ballroom. I remember looking to my right and seeing Ivan Neville—who was in town playing a gig—and his jaw was just dropped. I just thought, “This is what I want my fellow musician friends to see—the communication that Joe and I can have.” Playing with Joe—and playing those songs—also reminds me of that era of my life in 2004-2005, when we were writing a lot of the songs for Best Reason to Buy the Sun and Play Pause Stop. Musicians grow in weird ways—a lot of it was just what was happening during that time. We even covered a White Stripes song. We were really working hard as musicians to make something that we liked, that we felt was relevant and that reminded us of the bands that we liked, like Arcade Fire, The Shins, My Morning Jacket, Wilco and Radiohead. The music from that mid[1]2000s time period around when Garden State came out was really emotional—The Shins’ lyrics and melodies, James Mercer’s songwriting was just so moving. We totally tried to mimic the epic, stadium style of Arcade Fire with “Play Pause Stop.”

Living Through The Duo

JR: Playing with Marco—in a small room, revisiting this material we haven’t touched in a long time with a piano[1]and-drums treatment that we haven’t done for an even longer time—was a total dream. It was overwhelming in the best way to see one of my oldest and best friends in the world and to walk down that path again with one of my deepest musical collaborators. And just being in New York City again—it felt very vibrant, it was a beautiful day. It just filled me with so much joy. Marco and I ate lunch outside at this place that’s across the street from where he picked me up when an ex-girlfriend threw me out of her apartment because I was touring too much back in 2000-2001. That was the moment that started my career in New York. We were laughing our asses off—20 years ago, he picked me up with all my bags in his mom’s Subaru and here we are returning to play all these tunes during a global pandemic.

When we decided to do another stream around The Duo show, my first thought was to do my Pirata project, but Dave Harrington recently moved to LA. So we decided to do Hola!, with Scott Metzger, Avi Bortnick and Andy Hess, which also felt appropriate since we were doing the gig in New York. The first incarnation of that project played at Nublu—Avi put it together, though the four of us had tossed around the idea of years.

A lot of the material is Avi’s stuff, and it was really fun for me to play music like that again—I had left that pocket[1]based instrumental zone for a while. The Duo didn’t really play music like that and then, obviously, I got more into the Grateful Dead stuff and the Dave Harrington-Jonathan Goldberger free[1]jazz, death-rock stuff.

All the guys were of that mind and then we all started bringing in some more tunes. Scott brought in some Wolf! material, and I had a random tune that I wrote that we ended up doing at Brooklyn Bowl and for the livestream. And, after that last show, I’ve started to think, “Maybe I’ll start bringing in some music for this thing.” It’s just fun and easy. And getting to play with Scott—or any of the guys from JRAD—in a band that isn’t JRAD is always awesome because what makes JRAD so awesome is all of the stuff that we did together before JRAD. There are all these tangible through lines. And, of course, Andy is one of the greatest bass players I’ve ever played with.

So The Duo and Hola! streams erased a lot of the sadness and hard feelings from this last year and made me feel more optimistic than I have been in a long time. Recently, we’ve also announced some JRAD shows that, finally, fall into a safe zone for the band and the crew and the fans. We’ve been pretty reticent to do anything this whole time. While people were doing drive-ins and stuff, we were like, “Man, you know, it’s just not for us.” Now we’ve been able to find a way to do this that manages to check all the boxes that need to be checked.

MB: The Duo were really picking up steam for a while; we got a Pitchfork review and broke through into this other world playing ACL and Sasquatch! We were evolving and growing. But now, when we revisit those songs, they almost seem old or dated. It’s like, “This isn’t something I would sit down and write at the piano.” It was such a snapshot of a point in time. We spent so much time together that we were able to capture lightning in a bottle and make a couple of good records that people still love.

When Kevin reissued The Duo’s records on vinyl, it’s like, “No one’s forgotten about us, even though we’ve only played six shows in the last 10 years.” It’s cute—we are playing songs that were written about our girlfriends dumping us, like, “This is a song where she left me in Memphis.” My wife Katie and I had a rough start in The Duo because I was gone all the time and for all of these other reasons. When we play this song, it’s like, “I wrote this when we were arguing, and I didn’t know if it was gonna work out.” It’s cheesy, but now I think, “I made it to the other side. We lived through The Duo. And we’re doing pretty good!” So I like revisiting these songs, even if its scaled down to just a piano and Joe on drums— all the notes are still there, the energy is there, the vibe is there, the musical mind-reading is there.