Joe Russo is an accomplished musician with a stellar reputation for being an always-active, virtuoso drummer. He first emerged as one half of the Benevento/Russo Duo, the group he formed with longtime friend, keyboardist Marco Benevento. Later he and Benevento would form a super-group of sorts with Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon of Phish. Soon after, he would tour as part of Furthur, the Grateful Dead-vehicle led by Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. And, of course, we cannot forget his hugely-successful Joe Russo’s Almost Dead—a Grateful Dead revival band he formed alongside Benevento, guitarists Scott Metzger and Tom Hamilton, and Ween bassist Dave Dreiwitz. The one thing Russo hadn’t done yet was release a solo recording of his own. But all that changed last year with the release of phér•bŏney, first as a digital-only release, and now as a limited edition vinyl available beginning February 7.
Recently AQ spoke with Russo about the organic process of making phér•bŏney, his thoughts on music and the art of creation, as well as the pleasant surprise that Almost Dead has been.
So, I have to first ask: What does phér•bŏney mean?
(Laughs) So, you know, basically leading up to having my first kid and while I was making this record… I was doing transcendental meditation every day and found myself just overly creative. Everything was going incredibly well, all this music sort of flowing out of me, and during one of these meditations, I kind of fell deep in this well, and these letters kept flashing my head. It was P-H-E-R-B-O-N-E-Y, but there was a sound that keep going ‘phér•bŏney, phér•bŏney, phér•bŏney.’ And it was just like a kind of psychedelic thing. I came out of my meditation and I looked up and I’m like, ‘What the hell is this? This must mean something!’ I was looking up and I realized it doesn’t mean shit, [but] I always remembered it, you know? Then we had our first kid, and I kind of fell out of my practice of TM. Then I got back into it again as she got a little bit older, and that’s when I was getting back to finishing up this record. As I was meditating, the creative process was just so much easier and I remembered, you know, that thing. I’d written it down and I just always remembered this ‘phér・bŏney’ thing. So, as I was recording what became the title track, the “phér・bŏney love theme,” and I just started meditating again—you know, I’d probably been like a month back into it, and like I said, the juices were flowing. I just sat down and made this song, this one day. I was like, ‘Goddamn it. Meditation. Phér・bŏney.’ So, I just decided to call that the “phér・bŏney love theme.” Then I just called the record that, because it just felt like it had so much of an influence on the kind of cracking of my own little shell here and coming out and recording this music and writing this music. I felt like I owed a lot of it to that process of meditation and that term kind of found a meaning for me in that world. So I was like, you know, I’m just going to give a little respect to the process and the sign of it all, call the record that… and no one knows how to pronounce it (laughs).
It sounds like the word itself became a mantra for you within your transcendental meditation.
Essentially, yeah. It tied it all together. Definitely.
Was it a surreal experience recording your first official solo LP after 20 years of writing and recording in different capacities with so many different people?
You know, I think it was a natural progression. I had gotten a small studio space years ago and just kind of tried to teach myself how to record without any really lofty goals. And as I was learning that skill, the songs started to develop, so I think at a certain point I was kinda just like, ‘Shit, I think I have a record.’ You know, when I was about three-quarters of the way through, I was like, ‘Okay, cool. This momentum is happening,’ and I had been lusting to put something out. The last thing that I put out under my name as a principal was with Marco, which was in 2006, the Play, Pause, Stop record. Once that band dissolved, I wasn’t writing a lot. And then the Further thing with the Grateful Dead guys came, and just like that, you blink your eyes and 10 years later—between that and the Almost Dead thing—my world was just so consumed by touring, and also working on other people’s records, which is amazing, you know? Between the Cass McCombs and Craig Finn and Kevin Morby, and just being a higher part of their worlds…. I was certainly eager to get my identity back, for sure. That was very important to me. You know, my life—from being very young—was always…. I felt like I always had a stamp on my thing in my musical world. And then for a long time, I was just performing with others, so when I started seeing this record developing into what it became, it certainly kept the juices flowing and I started looking at it as an album as I was finishing it. I was so psyched in the people I got to work on it with, they were incredible, and it really helped me to bring it to fruition.
My understanding is that these songs first began to take shape when you were experimenting with different concepts in your studio space in Brooklyn. Were you trying to capture anything in particular in terms of a motif during that period or were you just sort of messing around?
No, nothing really. Something that informs me, which I’m really thankful about, is all the different worlds that I do exist in. Like I’ll say, playing with someone like Cass or Craig–or going back to the Duo world, or my more improvisational jazz roots, and then playing with the Shpongle Live Band, and then playing with the Dead guys, and all that stuff…. You know, I’m so informed by all of that stuff. So, I didn’t really have any motif other than, if I sit down on an instrument and start playing something and it appeals to me and sounds nice to my ear or inspires me, I would just start recording it—you know, whatever it was without really having any sort of true concept, or anything. But I will say I did struggle in the early part of thinking about, if I were to make a record, what would it be? What should it sound like? What should my genre be? Should it be instrumental? Should it be minimalist? Should it be vocal? Should it be pop-y? I just struggled with that for a little while, and then realized, ‘Well, whatever I make and whatever I record, that’s what I’m going to sound like.’ And that’s something I’m psyched about [with] this record, that finally I was just like, ‘Don’t fight whatever is coming out of me and trying to put it in sort of a neat box.’ It’s like, all of this sounds like me. Every song on the record sounds like me, because it’s from me! And that was a really comforting thing to get behind. That took me a minute, but now I’m completely elated to feel that way where it’s like, ‘Yeah, I don’t have to be anything. Whatever’s going to come out is exactly how I sound right now.’ You know, like there’s a bunch of tunes I’ve been working on since the record, and they’re all over the shop, and that’s kind of something I’m really excited about: not having to hold myself to any sort of a specific genre, sound, or style, and just express whatever feels like being expressed at the time.
That’s awesome, Joe. The album has a very ethereal vibe, almost like the soundscapes to a film score. Did you enjoy approaching these songs like a composer would, as opposed to the virtuoso drummer that you are?
I definitely was way more into featuring everything other than drumming. I wasn’t at all interested in making like a ‘drummer’s record.’ You know, like I’m very lucky to get to do what I do in live settings and improvised settings and, you know, live that part of my musical life on stage. I don’t necessarily think I need to listen to myself play really fast or make crazy drumbeats. If it suits the tune, then sure. But I was certainly way more interested in composition; lending different melodies and textures and really trying to make a record that I would be interested in listening to. I’m not interested in listening to a record where there’s some dudes just drumming, you know? That certainly took a back seat. And even when we were mixing the record with Dan Goodwin, he was like, ‘Man, these drums are real low in the mix!’ I was like, ‘That’s cool.’ He was like, ‘We could make them a little bit louder.’ I was like, ‘No, no, no!’ It really was a concerted effort. Kind of like what we were saying before about like not having to be tied to any specific genre. I appreciate that I get to be a drummer—I’m a professional drummer and I’m the luckiest guy in the world, but I certainly don’t want to just live in that one place forever. As much as I want to play with so many different people, I myself want to express myself in different ways. So yeah, I definitely came at it from more of a composer [role] with drums just being another part of the musical palette.
The album was released digitally last year, but next month the album we made available in the physical form the first time. Now that you’ve had some time to reflect on the music, were there any takeaways or surprises for you that you perhaps didn’t initially notice, but now having time to live with the album, have sort of presented themselves to you?
Yeah, I mean the whole thing was terrifying, putting out my own thing after so long. You know, I think it’s probably akin to someone getting a divorce and getting back to the dating world or someone going back to college. It was a little scary. You feel like you’re exposing yourself in a way that I hadn’t in a while, or ever. With the vocal tunes and lyrics—that’s always been terrifying for me, you know? Like, me playing a drum set… that’s a safe space, you know? Getting words on a page and trying to deliver them in a way that is comprehensible…. It was a process, and one I started to feel far more comfortable with. I think overall, I’m just really proud of the record. I think it’s a really beautiful first foray into something that I think we’ll all be doing for a very long time. And again, just trying to find that other way of expression. And getting whatever is in me out that’s not in a live setting, you know? I dig it. It’s cool….
You know, you’re always busy, but you had an especially busy 2019 with the release of the album, playing 40 live dates with Almost Dead, and you recorded an EP with Circles Around the Sun. About that last project, do you have any fond memories of being in the studio with the late Neal Casal?
Oh man. I mean, they’re all fond now. You know, at the time, they were just moments. They were just me and my buddy getting to do something we’ve talked about doing for years and, you know, something that we talked about doing a lot more of, which is a real bummer for everyone now. But, you know, we had plans to do a lot more of that. At the time, you never think anything like that’s gonna happen, so, you’re not maybe cherishing the moments or you can’t act in a way that is different than just like a casual day, but it was a great hang, and I loved anytime I got to be around Neal, whether we were playing or just hanging or just talking on the phone, or anything, was just a treat. He was just such a beautiful soul. I’ll certainly look back on that session fondly, but it certainly saddens me to know that we won’t get a chance to do that again.
Almost Dead will be heading back out on the road again this year, kicking off with three sold out nights at the Capitol Theatre in late February. When you started the group back in 2013, did you have any idea it would soar to the great heights that it has thus far? Did you really think you’d still be doing it now seven years later?
No way in hell! I mean, it wasn’t supposed to be a thing. It was supposed to be one night at Brooklyn Bowl because another band fell out of the billing and I did it begrudgingly. I thought that as soon as I was done playing with Furthur or Phil Lesh, I wasn’t playing the Grateful Dead catalog anymore. That was it, that era was done. It was amazing. It was a cool chapter. Now, let’s go on to the next thing. And you know, we did that one night and we just looked very casual. We just played the music the way we wanted to play it and then we did our second gig a year later. We really didn’t start doing anything more than a few shows here that I think until like 2015, maybe 2016, we were like, “Alright, I guess this is the thing.” I mean, it’s, it’s insane. I can’t believe it. We all can’t believe it. Every time we’re on stage we’re just the luckiest guys in the world. I think that’s why it’s successful, because we weren’t trying to do it, you know? We weren’t like, “Hey, you know, what we should do? We should all get together as this group of like minded musicians and we would make a really great Grateful Dead cover band!” It wasn’t in the cards and there was a zero interest from any of us to do that. But I think the natural behavior of the project is what makes it okay. You know? We’re cool with it because it wasn’t contrived. It wasn’t with any sort of intention. It was also, so far, I think the craze of every single person playing the Grateful Dead now.
If I had the choice now, there’s no way in hell I would’ve started this thing or even done that one time. You know, it was before the 50th of the Grateful Dead. It felt like the whole world was pretty over overblown with it. But you know, we’re just going to try to stay in our little niche of the world and I think we’re trying to fight against the tide of making it any bigger than it has to be. We’re very happy with where it is. We weren’t looking to have it be this big, and I think we’re actually actively trying to not let it get bigger because it’s like, you know, it’s fun playing the way we’ve been playing: going into a theater and having these incredible fans, listen to us interpret this incredible music is such a gift and one that is completely not lost on us. Nobody’s looking for the golden ring over here. We’re just so happy with what it is and to be honest we have turned down some pretty crazy things, because it’s just like… that’s not what this thing is. We’re just trying to have fun and that’s why we keep the show count low. That’s why we focus on our schedule being based on our families and our other projects. And if the five of us get together and get to play this music together, it’s just joyful and fun and like couldn’t be any easier. It’s just so fun now. It’s always been fun. Now it’s almost like a vacation from reality. We all get to get together and just laugh and play this music and put our hearts into it, but really just be ourselves still on stage, even within this songbook. And that’s why we’re so lucky, we get to speak our language with these incredible, incredible songs and we truly understand that we’re living at gift of life to be able to do that.