Organ and Drums: A Conversation with Marco Benevento and Joe Russo
The Benevento-Russo Duo is perhaps the world’s smallest supergroup. Onetime Jr. High classmates, keyboardist Marco Benevento and drummer Joe Russo grew up playing music together in Franklin Lakes, NJ, a suburban town located in the shadow of New York City. After graduation, the pair went their separate ways, yet both soon became immersed within jam-nation’s close-knit fabric of bands. For his part, Benevento attended college in Vermont before joining the popular New England combo the Jazz Farmers. Perhaps the Wetlands latter-era’s de facto drummer, Russo migrated west to Colorado, anchoring the seminal electronica/jazz fusion group Fat Mama and, following that band’s breakup, jamming with musicians ranging from Robert Walter to Marc Brownstein. Since reuniting at New York’s Knitting Factory three years ago, Benevento and Russo have gradually built a new sound from their proven parts, emerging as one of the jam-scene’s most popular touring acts. Last year, the longtime friends hit the national radar, teaming with Mike Gordon for a series of high profile club dates and releasing their first studio album on Ropeadope records, Best Reason to Buy the Sun.
MG- After high school, you seemed to move in different directions. Musically, how did you become reacquainted?
MB: In July of 2001, I had a gig down at the Knitting Factory and I invited Joe to come and sit-in. A year later, in January 2002, Joe got a gig at the Knitting Factory for like only $100. After playing with me for the last six months, he was like, "why don't you just bring your organ down and we can make $50 each," and we ended up getting a weekly gig.
MG- Did you use your current face-to-face stage setup from the start?
JR: Yeah at our first gig the stage was on very small, so we were like, "well we might as well look at each otherwatch each other sweat." [laughs]
MG- After your initial Knitting Factory jam sessions, when did you decide to give The Duo a fulltime go?
JR: I guess the full, pretending we are a real band, thing happened when Marco got us a gig at the High Sierra Music Festival later that summer . We booked a tour, threw out a live CD and squeezed into Marco's Subaru station wagon to make it out to California . We still didn't have any grand ideas, but it was definitely our first trip. It was also great to gig out of New York, which was kind of funny for us at the time.
MG- What did The Duo’s earliest set lists look like?
JR: We had some originals—in fact we still play some of those originals like "Be Still." But for the most part, our originals were a lot different than they are today. We tended to write these longer, jazz-odyssey types of things. We would also definitely throw in ideas from our old bands. I'd pretend like I had an idea that the guitarist from Fat Mama [Jonathan Goldberger] came up with.
MB: We also played a couple of tunes I played with the Farmers, but those tunes faded away after a year or a year-and-a-half.
MG- Was it a conscious decision to move away from your, longer "jazz odysseys?"
MB: I think we're trying to make things more concise—-make things more song-oriented than improv-oriented. When we get together and arrange music, it's more about coming up with an instrumental rock song than a head which serves a gateway into a jam. Joe has been writing a bit on the guitar and I've been writing some on the piano. We've been putting different parts of songs together and seeing how they work.
JR: Yeah, we have a new tune called "Best Reason to Buy the Sun," which, oddly enough, isn't on the album, Best Reason to Buy the Sun. I guess we like to confuse people. [laughs]
MG- Best Reason to Buy the Sun was recorded in two separate sessions on opposite ends of the country. How did these recording sessions differ?
JR: Well, we did the whole album in LA and then we went off and did the Ropeadope tour. We had this new tune we were playing live and Andy was Ropeadope was like, we need to record this'. So we had a sort of thrown together session and did "9×9" and ended up doing an alternate version of "Sunny's Song" and a cover version of Elliot Smith's "Waltz #1." The latter two ended up only being on the Japanese release but "9×9" made it on the American release. Now, we are trying to write as much as possible. It's hard since we are on the road so much. But every time we write, it redefines our sound a bit more.
MB: To elaborate more on the LA session and that recording process —- Joe and I had been on the road testing out the tunes. We were really preparedwe had some pow-wows before we went to LA and we had notes on every tune and how we were going to record them. We had two days to record: three songs in one day, seven in the next and that was it. We knew we didn't have time and we knew we wanted to do a lot of layering. We wanted it to be representative of what we do livenot go crazy with overdubs. So, we were prepared when we went there. Our producer, Joey Waronker, was really helpful in guiding us into different musical fields.
MG- Have you seen a change in the crowd on your current tour?
JR: It's definitely becoming more diverse for us which is cool. We're definitely trying to crack into new places. We just played Spaceland in LA which is more of a rock-club. Some people who normally wouldn't see us came out. I think our music can hit a lot of different people and I think the new material draws people from different walks of life.
MG- Your recent outing also took you to the Jammys. What was that experience like?
MB: We had never played with Les [Claypool] before—- which was cool. We didn't really rehearse, we just played with Les for a few minutes before we went onstage. It was cool—-we all hung out backstage in this little rehearsal room and ran through the tunes once.
MG- Did you know Phil Lesh was going to sit-in at the end of your set?
JR: Mike said, "I think Phil wants to play with us as well" and he came out on the last tune. It was cool to see those guys playing together again.
MG- Speaking of the Jammys, Joe, you are the only person to receive two New Groove Awards. Where is the bowl shaped trophy from your Fat Mama win?
JR: Um, I think it's in bathroom. [laughs]
MG- Are there any plans for a Fat Mama reunion?
JR: Yeah. I am trying to get all the guys together for a benefit this summer in New York. A friend of mine just had a child who actually is quite ill. I spoke to most of the guys about playing and everyone is really excited. We haven't played together in so long, it will be really fun to do it and that will be a really good reason. Hopefully sometime this summer we'll do it and, if not, definitely sometime in the near future. A lot of people are starting to bring the name up again —- which is kind of cool. Kevin [Kendrick] was a little ahead of his time and now I am starting to copy all his shit [laughs].
MG- How about a Jazz Farmers reunion?
MB: Um, no! I mean everyone is doing their own thing now. Compared to Fat Mama we were a little spec of sand among a huge beach. [laughs] We didn't really tour much. A tour for us was Pennsylvania, Boston and New Jersey. It was more just a fun thing—-the name came from our trumpeter [Grayson Farmer] who had a weekly gig in Boston. We all ran this open jazz session for two years. If the Jazz Farmers did a reunion show at the Knitting Factory, there would be like five people there. [laughs]
JR: You should come out to the Fat Mama reunionwe'll have all of about 25 people there.
MB: We'll just throw in Mike Gordon and we'll fill it up! [laughs]
MG- Speaking of Mike Gordon, on your recent "Trio" outing, you reportedly played a 45-minute version of "Foam."
JR: Um, it was actually 56 minutes.
MB: Actually 56 minutes, 36 secondgo to Bit Torrent [laughs]. Actually before we went onstage and played, we all agreed that would be the way to go. Compared to the others shows we've been playing with Mike, there weren't a lot of people there. Mike was like, "lets get em and go off and play a long improvised Foam' and see what happens." It was really fun. I think that's what we do best as the three of us—-improvise. We can kind of each do what we want and improvise around it. As compared to playing covers, I think it's the best way to go.
MG- What led to Mike’s initial involvement with the Duo?
JR: Well, he come up and played some piano once at Tribeca. But the first time we really played together was at BB Kings for the HeadCount benefit last June. I had met Mike a little earlier when he was putting his band together. We had talked about me possibly joining his band, but I was playing with Robert Walter, so it didn't really work out. But we kept in touch and when Marc Brownstein and Andy Bernstein called about the HeadCount thing, I was like, "shit, if you want people out, why don't I ask Mike if he wants to play with us as a Trio."
MG- How does the inclusion of Mike Gordon change The Duo’s dynamic?
JR: It's always nice throwing someone else in. It forces us to play differently and change our sound up. The original concept for the Trio was some Duo stuff, some Mike stuff and some covers. Sometimes it's a little bit safer but sometimes it's not. But, honestly, the thing Marco and I do together as The Duo still is my favorite. That's what we do—-that's the comfortable place and the fun place.
MB: I love you! [laughs]
MG- Phish rarely played "Foam" during its later years. Whose idea was it to bring "Foam" into your repertoire?
MB: I wanted to bring in "Foam."
JR: Yup. Marco learned it on Christmas while drunk
MB: I was like, well, I better learn it how I am going to perform it!
MG- Lately, The Duo has also been moonlighting as a Led Zeppelin cover band along with Scott Metzger and Dave Dreiwitz. Where did that idea initially spring from?
MB: For Jake Szufnarowski's birthday, he asked Joe and I to perform a set of Led Zeppelin on a boat with Scott Metzger. We kind of all threw it together and we loved it and Dave Dreiwitz joined in about six or eight months ago.
JR: Yeah, I was at the State Theater in New Orleans and ended up backstage. I introduced myself to Dave and he was like "oh, your boys with Scottyou guys do that Led Zeppelin thing." So we invited him down. We were all already influenced by the greatest rock band of all time.