The Core: Joe Russo

Mike Greenhaus on October 9, 2014

Joe Russo +1

I haven’t put anything out under my name since the last Duo record in 2006. I’ve played on a bunch of records over the course of the whole Furthur thing, but I haven’t been able to do a lot of my own stuff outside of it. I had a bunch of leftover ideas from the Duo days and, last year, I built a studio down the street from [my wife’s Brooklyn, N.Y., coffee shop] Vineapple and got back to writing. I’ve got a thousand little ideas that are hopefully turning into a collection of songs, so I reached out to Yellowbirds’ Josh Kaufman to see if he’d be interested in producing a record for me. During the process, I realized how much I miss that collaboration aspect. I miss having someone like Marco [Benevento] in the Duo or Tom Hamilton in American Babies to be a counterpoint and bounce ideas off. Josh and I are also working with some other singers at my studio, and I am recording an album for Matt Trowbridge of RANA.

Uno Russo

The beauty of these [solo] sessions is that I’m not writing for two people. When Marco and I worked on the Duo, we always thought, in the back of our minds, “We need to be able to pull this off with two people.” We did a lot with two people and were able to cover a lot of ground, but now, the concept is completely open. There’s gonna be string and horn sections, and then I’ll need to figure out a way to play it live with, hopefully, less than 12 people. [Laughter.] There’s some vocal stuff that I’ll sing and some songs others might sing, as well as some Duo-esque stuff. Marco and I will always write music like that but it’s definitely a wider extension from the Duo. I’m still petrified of lyric writing ‘cause even if you can sing, it doesn’t mean you can write lyrics. Josh is trying to massage me into the idea.

Circles Within Circles

Throughout the last 10 to 15 years, I’ve seen all these repeating things and all these people that keep coming back into my life—you see circles within circles. I actually got turned on to [indie singer- songwriter] Cass McCombs from my wife. Like with some of my favorite music, I wasn’t that into it at first, and then I started to love it. His bassist Jon Shaw plays with [my longtime collaborator] Scott Metzger in WOLF! and it came to light that Cass is a big Dead fan. I invited him to a Furthur show at Coney Island, and then Bob Weir did the Move Me Brightly show for Jerry Garcia’s 70th birthday. That was the first time that Cass and I played together, which was funny because we had a connection that had nothing to do with the Dead, but it turns out everything has a connection with the Dead. I was enamored with seeing him take charge of that situation. We started talking about doing some recording, so we booked a session in [the Brooklyn neighborhood] Greenpoint. As I walked in, I saw Mike Gordon, and I said, “Hey, dude, what the fuck are you doing here?” [Laughter.] And he’s like, “I’m on a session with Cass.” He was the last person I was expecting to see at this indie-rock session, but Cass is also a huge Phish fan, and Mike played Move Me Brightly, too. I hadn’t played with him in years, and I kept thinking, “I love Mike.” He’s so awesome and can play music outside of Phish in a way that’s just really incredible. I think he’s as good out of that band as he is in it. When I did a few shows with Cass, we’d throw in a little Dead tune or play a little Phish during soundcheck. The more and more cool people that come into your life, the more cool music you can make. I’ve just been really fortunate to get to be in the situations I’ve been in.

All Night Long

I just got back from Japan with Shpongle. We only do four or five shows a year, usually somewhere crazy like Belgium or a desert in Israel from 3 until 7 a.m. We sold out Red Rocks and we filmed that for a DVD, so hopefully that’ll come out in the next six months. Shpongle’s Raja Ram played flute for this English psychedelic-rock band called Quintessence, who opened for the Dead. He said they totally blew it. And then I told him, “Well, if it helps, all the Dead guys say they always blew the big ones.” It is still a circle.

A Jamband By Any Other Name

During the Duo days, Marco never fought the jamband label, but I did. He was cool; I was a dick. [Laughter.] But I’ve realized how immature and stupid I was and how much I thought I wanted this one thing that’s not even really a thing. At that time, and it could be my fault, but the word “jamband” felt like a misrepresentation of a lot of the music under that umbrella. But again, who fucking cares? I should’ve just not given a shit. It was more just being self-conscious and not adult enough to know that as long as you can play music, who gives a shit what you’re labeled? But we were also 20-something years old and I give myself a break. I’ve learned a lot—I’ve met all these super cool guys through the Dead. I’ve really realized how powerful that scene is and that music is.

Big Boss Man

Playing with Furthur has made me chill the fuck out. It’s made me not give a shit as much, and not in a bad way. If a section doesn’t go the way you think it’s gonna go, it is almost like, “Who cares?” I actually wrote Marco an email apology about two years into Furthur saying, “Dude, I’m sorry I was so stressed. I’m sorry I was such a stickler.” When things wouldn’t go the way they were supposed to go onstage with the Duo, I would be a total dick sometimes. So I wrote him, “I’m really sorry, I’ve learned a lot from these guys.” Also, getting a scowl from one of my two bosses every now and again—or both of them— reminded me, “Wow, that feels like shit.” So I think I’ve just learned to ease back, let the moment dictate, take time with it and not be so serious.

Deadhead Boot Camp

The first couple Furthur years were really stressful. My first shows, I was learning all these blues-swing tunes and worrying, “How does this one end?” Thank God I had Jay Lane there because he knew all the material and helped me get through that first year. The Dead have one of the biggest songbooks in history, and the songs still change every night. I realized that if they had that loose attitude and people love their music so much, maybe it’s at least partially about the attitude, not only about the music. That’s a big lesson. That made me think back on the Duo stuff. We started as this insane, completely improv thing, and we tightened it up and started working on songs and had all these parts that had to happen. That was a weird thing, too. So it is nice to kind of pull back again and make shit up. The Furthur gig is so cool ‘cause I literally can pull from any bit of my past and make it work. And there’s forgiveness—if you want to go somewhere, you can. Bob and Phil are so open to interpretation and allow other people to come in and handle their baby and maybe make a couple of moves here and there. Furthur became a really comfortable gig after I learned the material and felt like we all understood each other. There was a level of trust and a level of mutual respect, and it made it really, really fun.

Vocal Supporter

Phil has me singing with his band now, and it’s been a really cool challenge. When I joined Furthur, Bob asked if I could sing and I said no because I didn’t know these songs and I just wanted to learn my parts. But one night at Terrapin Crossroads a couple of months ago, Jackie Greene and Anders Osborne woke up sick. Tommy [Hamilton] came out to help and Phil was trying to figure out how to do this song in a two-part harmony, and I was like, “I think I know the part.” We tried it and he said, “What the fuck? Where did this come from?” I was like, “Oh, shit. What did I do?”

Play Pause Stop

I don’t know [when the Duo] will tour again. There’s definitely been an Andrew Barr email in the last couple years suggesting a Slip and Duo tour. But between our things and The Barr Brothers, it would be a little tough to pull off. Everybody forgets that there’s gotta be at least a couple of practices before these gigs. I’m sure before we die, the Duo will play together, and I’d like to see it happen sooner rather than later, but I think it’s easier for me to say than Marco because he’s been putting so much time into his trio. It sounds great, and he’s the one that kept it going. Unless we have new material, I don’t see the point. I’d love to write with him, and I’d love to play with him again—he’s the best musician I’ve ever played with, or at least the best musician for me. I do miss that, and I think, eventually, we’ll do something, but [it’s] very far from a reality now. And I want to be Andrew Barr when I grow up.

Freaks And Geeks

I was nervous when we first did Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. We originally put it together for the Freaks Ball [an annual show organized by the longstanding music Listserv NYC-Freaks] in 2013. They’ve had a huge influence on the successes I’ve had, and they have been a support system for a ton of musicians. That does not go unappreciated. I thought it would be cool to do since it was a party, and I am always in for the Freaks Ball if I am in town. We focused mostly on the earlier, exploratory stuff, and we started getting really excited to experience this music the way I hear it in my head and we were not afraid to just completely overdo it. At that point, I had been doing the Furthur thing for four years, and I was really excited to speak the language with someone else. When we walked off the stage, we all agreed that we had a blast, but we weren’t sure how the show went. When we started hearing the feedback, we were like, “Maybe that was cool?”

[Relix publisher] Pete Shapiro booked us at the Capitol Theatre in December, and my inbox exploded with offers after the show. The beauty of the thing is it’s a no- pressure gig because everybody has a million things going on. It is exciting for me to play this music I have fallen deeply in love with in a different context with Marco, Tom, Scott and Dave Dreiwitz [of Ween]. A lot of people didn’t know who I was before Furthur, so I hope this band makes people realize Scott is a badass guitarist, and being that I’m not playing with Marco in the Duo, it’s really great to still play music with him—again with no pressure. From the day I got the Furthur gig, I’ve dreamed of sharing that experience with my friends. It was the most life- changing, fortunate thing that’s ever happened to my career.