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Benevento/Russo Duo: Hero Rock, Mind-Reading and Constant Movement

By Published: November 27, 2006
AAJ: There are several Joe Russo compositions on the record. "Echo Park, I think, is my favorite song on the album. There's an almost eighties-new-wave texture to that one keyboard melody, but the song also has these neat, interlocking parts—Devo meets Bach, maybe. Any thoughts on this one, Joe?

JR: It was kind of funny—I was staying at Marco's house for a while. I didn't have my own apartment at the time. I was just sitting and playing guitar, and came up with the first riff, and it had this "Jessie's Girl kind of vibe [laughing]. And again, a lot of the stuff I write comes out of this random fucking around. So Marco was out of town and I was downstairs with his roommate, who was helping me with ProTools—I was just layering a bunch of stuff on it, including that synth-ey melody for the song, which was originally supposed to be the bass line. So Marco and I sat down with it, and he used that part as the melody. It was just random, ah, eighties-pop-style-cheese writing [laughing], or something like that. I think that is the cool part of where we're at now—not shying away from anything. Because it really does have that TV-teen-sitcom vibe; at first we were calling it "Not Another Teen Theme Song, and then it was "Echo Park 90210. Then we said, "Well, we don't want to make it too obvious, so we just called it "Echo Park. So that was a fun tune. We were just trying to mess around with different things to do. The album's cohesive, but at the same, it's kind of all over the place. We're just trying to explore as many areas as we can.

AAJ: "Memphis is another Joe Russo composition. It's a country-inflected tune with a perfect blend of minimal drums and minimal guitars—in its first section anyway, and the inclusion of guitar is something new. It's a really sweet arrangement worthy of a Brian Wilson, and the song feels like the ideal ending for the record. I love its little descending melody phrase.

JR: We were playing in Memphis and my girlfriend called me and told me she was moving out. That was the first night I drank Maker's Mark whiskey, which became a problem eventually. We went back to the place we were staying, and I was all depressed, and I just started playing guitar. That's what came out. So one day Marco and I sat down and played it—he'd heard me playing it for a while on my guitar—and I was playing guitar and he was playing piano, and we said, "Fuck it, man. Let's push this into our thing. That was the first time we put guitar into what we do. It ended up really growing on us and we came up with a solid arrangement. So we recorded it for the record, and I was so happy with the way it came out. I do love that it closes the album; it's a nice breath at the end.

AAJ: [Still to JR] I think a lot of your tunes have an undercurrent of sadness. The group's songs are pretty melodic, but in addition to that melodism, your songs "Memphis, "Sunny's Song and "Powder have a real element of melancholy to them. Do you think that's true?

JR: Well, Sunny's the same bitch that left me for "Memphis. Then "Powder is about another girl. They all do have a little bit of something. The only time I'm inspired to really write is through some sort of either happy or sad relationship. Which is kind of the basis of songwriting anyway—even though we don't have lyrics.

AAJ: Well, people were probably making emotional music before anyone ever wrote a lyric down.

JR: Yeah, exactly. It's cool to see that that's coming across, too. Because trying to convey emotion without lyrics is a little more difficult, so we're happy with how it is coming across—how we are able to convey that.

AAJ: So these are pretty concise songs with specific parts. How much do the songs change live night to night? How structured are your sets?

MB: They're pretty structured. My fiancée even told me, "I don't even know what's a good Duo show. You guys play a lot of the same songs. Of course the show was good; it was like every other show.

AAJ: Must have felt great to hear that.

Marco BeneventoMB: I know. She went on to see some shows on this tour, and she saw us go into different improvisations. She knows that there are good Duo shows, and we do do some improv. But for the most part, our shows are pretty dialed-in. We want people to hear us play the tunes that are on the new album live. But even though we play close to the same set every night, we're in a different place. So the people in San Diego didn't drive on to Tucson to hear us play there as well, and the people in Eugene, Oregon didn't drive down to San Francisco to see the show there. I mean, even if they do—we do have some people traveling with us—it's not as if that makes it boring. I think we get into sculpting a set, and figuring out what songs should go next.

We just did two nights at the Independent [in San Francisco] and we were thinking, "What should we do? Because we're pretty much playing the same shit. But we have some songs we haven't played since we were at the Knitting Factory, some old ones we can throw in there. The big surprises at the sets are the free-for-all improv in "Three Question Marks —that's always a surprise; who knows what's going to happen for that one. We also play this song "Impact by this band called Combustible Edison— we play it a lot faster and a lot more aggressively than they do, but that's a song with some real improvisation. "Scratchitti is also a song where who the hell knows what's going to happen. But we do have our sculpted set and then some tunes where we know something's going to happen—someone's going to do something that surprises the other person.

JR: A good amount of the songs are pretty true to the recordings. There are always going to be embellishments, and there's always room to play around, but most of the songs on the new record are pretty much performed as is. Except for one like "Hate Frame, which has a little more of an openness where we can mess around some. That one is kind of our go-nuts tune, and there aren't any rules there. I mean, there's a form, but once that form section is over, it's pretty haphazard. We will stretch sections of the songs. Like when we play "Play Pause Stop, we'll open up a little bit more and Marco will stretch that white-noise section. "Something for Rockets is more interactive live at its end, you know—that repeating line. There's a drum solo and a keyboard solo over that line now to give it a little live flavor.

MB: You know, we've got to play the album because we want to sell it—we want people to hear the tunes. Also, just as musicians in the band, we have a certain comfort zone in our music. This isn't a bad comfort zone; it's a good thing where we go up on stage and put on a show with our songs. It's like Led Zeppelin—you'd go see them and they'd do "The Ocean and "Whole Lotta Love, all the songs that you'd want to hear.

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