Could a band without a vocalist be the best rock band in America?
Keyboardist Marco Benevento and drummer Joe Russo formed the Benevento/Russo Duo in 2002 in response to Russo being offered a Thursday night residency at the Knitting Factory, New York's still-iconic Downtown improv club. Although the two New-Jersey-raised players were still each well short of thirty, they'd been knocking around New York for several years already, playing countless gigs with all sorts of players. The motivation behind the Duo's formation was, to a great extent, an economic oneat $100 a show, it seemed to Russo that a duo formation was more advisable than any larger musical configuration.
What the Benevento/Russo actually was during this period wasn't terribly defined. They were an organ and drums duo, and they jammed a lot, filling out the skeletal forms of their compositions with undiscussed, blazing improvisation20-minute songs were not uncommon. These epic improvisational originals coexisted alongside covers of tunes by rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Nirvana or Radiohead, often just as improv-stuffed (as well as altered by new time signatures) as the aforementioned originals. The music was loud, peculiar and groovingas much free jazz as indie rock. What they played was, well, what they played: whatever the music was, it was uncalculated, devoid of preconceived intention.
Two self-published CDs in this musical vein gave the growing Thursday night Knitting Factory crowds something to take home after the gig, but a one-record contract with Ropeadope Records led to last year's Best Reason to Buy the Sun, something altogether new and unexpected from the band. Sure, the music grooved. Yes, there was plenty of improvisational playing from Benevento on his trademark Wurlitzer and Hammond, and from guests like saxophonist Skerik and vibes player Mike Dillon. But there were also songsglorious, concise, melodic gems like "Sunny's Song that stuck in the listener's mind. Best Reason was far and away one of the best recordings of the year, and it propelled the by now hard-touring Duo to a new level of popularity both in the jamband and jazz communities. 2006 saw the group appearing both at the Lollapalooza rock festival and on a big-venue tour with former Phish members Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon (where they did sets as the Duo and with Gordon and Anastasio).
No fan of Best Reason would fail to recognize the band on its new Reincarnate Music release Play Pause StopBenevento's Wurli and Hammond are as distinctive as ever, and no one could miss the melodic muscle and Hammond-pedal bass lines that are the band's signatures. But the music's even more streamlined; the songs on Play Pause Stop are more concise, structured and hook-laden than ever before and the romping bass lines that were such a significant part of Best Reason's tunes are often more functional and song-serving. Instrumental music doesn't get much better than this, but no one could mistake this stuff for jazzit's not even jazz-rock. It's rock music, pure and simplebut its sparkling textures, interlocking parts and technical acumen make it unlike any other rock music that's being created nowadays.
I saw the Benevento/Russo Duo play in October at Chicago's Park West, and they were very, very good. The crowd was an odd mix of hard-dancing young hippies and intermittently-attentive, beer-dazed fraternity brothers, but if the audience's attention occasionally waned, the band's performance didn'tthe relentlessly gleeful Benevento and the intense, unsmiling Russo faced each other with complete concentration as they worked through pretty much all of Play Pause Stop, a good section of Best Reason to Buy the Sun and a long, wandering free improvisation (Benevento waggishly making faces as he hit dissonant notes on his Wurlitzer). The music is completely audience-friendly, but the musicians play to each other. Everything sounded gloriousdespite the fact that a Duo fan from 2002 might not even recognize this as the same band.
Due to the group's relentless touring schedule, I interviewed Marco Benevento and Joe Russo in separate telephone conversations as their van hurtled across Arizona en route to Austin, Texas. This took some doggedness: phones faded and dropped out as they drove in and out of cell-phone coverage, so that the following interview is more than two separate interviews sewn togetherit's the collective sum of several sections of many abbreviated conversations, all originally separated in real time by the abrupt punctuation of cell phone failure.
The Duo didn't mind. Although Russo's a darker personality than the irrepressibly upbeat Benevento, they were both affable, engaged and forthcoming as they spoke about the new album, the group's gradual journey towards more disciplined, defined song structures, the way they share the music's melodic materials live and on record, and much more.
All About Jazz: You've just put out your great new CD Play Pause Stop. The previous CD, Best Reason to Buy the Sun, which came out in 2005, was very impressive, but I think this new one is even better. I think it continues a conscious, intentional trend towards simplicity and presentation of real songsthe arrangements exist to really put the songs across, as opposed to the songs existing to fuel improvisation or soloing. That doesn't really sum up everything happening here, but this is deeply memorable, melodic music that's also propulsive and interesting. You could have gone in a more groove or jam-themed direction and still packed them in live. So what's led to this direction?
Marco Benevento: I think it was just a natural progression of our musical lives. When we were in New York from 1999 through 2002, the music we played was very groove-oriented, and there were also a lot of jazz odysseyslong, exploratory, improvisational stories. We were doing a lot of that in the Knitting Factory, and we would just play organ and drums and do lots of soloingplay a little melody but then just go into the solo section and just make shit up and go with that for a while. We're talking about two years of doing that. So I think that over time, we just wanted to trim the fat and kind of get into some tasty melodies and just have a little song. The first song where we did that was "Sunny's Song, and originally it felt really weird to play it, because we'd play "Scratchitti for fourteen minutes, or we'd play "Darts for eleven minutes with an improv section in five, all this long exploratory stuff. We'd play [Nirvana's] "Smells Like Teen Spirit in seven and trip it out, and so on. Then we'd do "Sunny's Song, which is this three-minute thing, and it was a little bit awkward, because we'd just played a three-minute song, and it was over. People were like, "Oh, rightclap. That was the song. I thought, "Oh, godit's going to be difficult to get into this. But a lot of people liked it, and I liked it too. At the time, we were listening to Radiohead, Wilco, The Shins, Broken Social Scene, and going back to our rock roots and listening to Zeppelin and this awesome band from L.A called I Am a Robot, so I think just listening to different stuff on the road had an influence on us.
Joe Russo: That's the music we wanted to make. We did the improv thing for a long time, which is still something we still love to do. But in terms of choosing direction, it was just a natural move. We didn't really think it out too much. We just started writing more in that vein, and as time went on, it's kind of matured into what we we're doing. And the groove shit is not really us. The music we're listening to is more hook-oriented rock music, so it just naturally came out when we were both writing. It just flowed naturally.
MB: After playing that other stuff for many years, we were ready to just try something else. It wasn't a conscious decision: "We need to change our sound. It didn't get talked about, really. Joe and I are very good at not talking about what needs to happen; it just kind of happens. There's a lot of mind-reading, a lot of vibe-reading. It's a sensitive thing; you don't want to force anything. So we recorded Best Reason and got way into the songs, and with this one, Play Pause Stop, I think that just increased. This time, we got way into playing almost guitar-esque kinds of songs. I actually started writing "Something For Rockets in A-flat, and we were on tour with Something For Rockets, this great bandthat's where we got the name for the song. And I was trying to teach it to them: "I kind of have this song idea. It's A-flat to B-flat minor, And they were just like, "Oh, fucking keyboard keys.
So I thought, "Why don't I just arrange it in A? Or D, or E? I'll just write in simple guitar keys. So I just moved it up to a better key. And Joe kind of strayed away from the drum pad a little bit more on this album, which was what he wanted to do, and that was kind of cool. Best Reason was filled with lots of complex and somewhat nerdy drum-machine-sounding rhythms. So now I see Joe playing air guitar when he listens to Play Pause Stopand there's no real guitar in the band.
AAJ: There also aren't any guest musicians on this oneno Skerik, no Mike Dillon, no Smokey Hormel, all of whom played on Best Reason to Buy the Sun.
MB: Right. We wanted to make our own album. We felt pretty solid just being the Duo. The other reason we had those guys on Best Reason was that they would play that stuff with us every time we would do a show together. We were around them a lot at that time, so we thought, "It's not complete without them. We should fly them in and record them.
JR: On the first one, we were still so new, and maybe not as confident in what we were doing, so it was kind of a safety net to have other people with us. But after the last year of us touring a lot and maturing as musicians and people, and just really getting into what we were doing, we just felt more confident. This has developed into a band. Best Reason was kind of the crossing point of us becoming a band, of developing our own sound. So on this one we were just confident and ready to say, "Okay, this is us. We don't need any guests to make this one happen.
AAJ: Well, this one does give more of an accurate impression of what the listener's going to get if he buys a ticket to see the band play.
JR: Definitely. And like Marco says, we were playing with Skerik and Mike a lot at that time, and a lot of those songs were written during that time we were playing with those guys, so it did seem natural to have them on it. This time, we'd been doing such an amount of just duo that we'd covered all the bases on our own.
AAJ: Well, I love their contributions to that record, but I do enjoy that everything on this newer one is just you two.
MB: Yeah. We spent the majority of January right before we recorded this albumwhich was in Februaryjust down in my basement working on arrangements of tunes and finishing unfinished tunes. So a lot of the songs were really fresh and we went into the studio really excited to see how they were going to turn out.