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Published: 2017/02/21
by Mike Greenhaus

Organ and Drums: A Conversation with Marco Benevento and Joe Russo (From The Archives: June 2005)

With the Benevento/Russo Duo set to return this Saturday, February 25 at Brooklyn Bowl​ for Freaks Ball XVII, we revisit this conversation from June 2005…

Benevento Russo Duo, Pontaic Grill, Philadelphia, PA, 1/29/04- photo by Jake Krolick

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 [2002]. 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.

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