Joe Russo Talks Becoming a Father, Busy Projects, and The Grateful Dead

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Rock On Philly: Are you getting a chance to relax a little bit before this next run of shows?

Joe Russo: Yeah man, I’m just Christmas shopping right now. It’s like every year, I’m gonna get this done early. And, then, I never do. But, I guess technically this is early because it’s not Christmas Eve.

ROP: Yeah actually if it makes you feel any better as soon as we’re done chatting I’m running out to start and finish my Christmas shopping. So, I wanted to say congratulations, I heard you and your wife are expecting your first child!

JR: Thanks! Yeah we’re really excited. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, but we are so excited. That’s certainly going to be taking precedent next year.

ROP: And, you said the due date is sometime in May?

JR: Yeah it’s towards the end of May, so I’ll definitely be taking off a good chunk before and after. June will most likely be totally off. Probably April through June totally off. But we’ve got a couple things percolating after that.

ROP: Cool, well congratulations again. So, between all the different projects, the success of JRAD, whether foreseen or unforeseen, not to mention your first TV appearance, have you had a better calendar year than 2015? How would it compare to years past?

JR: You know, this one is kind of hard to beat. I’ve been really, really lucky to have all the opportunities I’ve had leading up to this year. Obviously, the Furthur thing completely changed my life. None of this stuff would be there without that. I always respect that and I am always thankful for that. But, yeah, I think the biggest thing this year is finding out we’re having a kid, so that’s gonna top it off for me. But career-wise, it’s been an amazing year. We’re really fortunate this JRAD thing became what it is. As I’ve said a million times in interviews, there’s no way in hell this was the plan. We’re just really so thankful that we get to do this, and we’re thankful that we all get to make music together and people are all coming to hear it. It’s just a very fortunate place to be. It allows us to focus on all of our other stuff, too. We’re just very, very lucky. But yes, definitely unforeseen, that’s for sure. We’re just so lucky and thankful it caught on.

Tom Hamilton, Joe Russo, Dave Dreiwitz of JRAD – All Good Festival 2015

ROP: I know you’ve said that in spite of all the success of JRAD, you and the rest of the guys still consider it a “side project” that allows everyone to focus on their main projects.

What would you say is your main project right now?

JR: Well, that’s a good question. It’s strange, ya know, a lot of times there’s a band that’s doing really well and then everyone has their side projects that no one really comes to, but we’re like the opposite. You know, I don’t know. I don’t know if I have a main project. I guess the thing that’s a little bit more behind the scenes is I’ll get hired out a lot for recording sessions and stuff like that. I’m not necessarily looking to tour a lot so a lot of those opportunities that come across my plate I’m not too keen on. I’ve just done that for so long and my family dynamic is changing. I’m trying to be home a little bit more, and that’s what’s great about this Dead thing is that we’re playing enough to play and I get to go on the road with that but it doesn’t take me away from home too much. So I mean I guess for this year that [JRAD] has been my main project. There’s probably like twenty little offshoots of everything that has nothing to do with the Grateful Dead on the side but… you know, we’ll see. I think I had a couple plans on doing some stuff next year that might be changed now with the baby. So I’m just playing it all by ear. Simon Poshford and I have been speaking about doing a duo project for some time. We did some recording this year and I’d still like to see that get off the ground next year for sure because that’s always really fun. But yeah, it’s weird. I’m in this weird space right now we’re I’m kind of just letting the chips fall, ya know?

ROP: I’m glad you mentioned that, the Shpongle thing. Can you talk a bit about how that’s come about? I think that collaboration surprises a lot of people.

JR: Well a lot of the things I do that aren’t jam band related or Grateful Dead songbook related seem like a far out thing even though that stuff is the stuff that I didn’t do for most of my career. Most of my career was spent playing music that didn’t sound like the Grateful Dead. So, it’s always really great to maintain those other worlds. Joining Shpongle was actually a result of being in Simon’s other project, Younger Brother, with Benji Vaughn. They had come over to play the states and they didn’t have their European band and they were friends with Marc Brownstein (Disco Biscuits, Conspirator, Electron) and he had kinda tapped me to do the gig out here with Younger Brother. Tommy Hamilton was in that group, too. I became fast friends with Simon and I was kind of in that band for a while. That lineup ended up recording an album together in London in 2009, titled Vaccine. Then I went out to do this festival in Hungary with Younger Brother and Simon was also planning on doing his Shpongle live thing. He asked me to do that also so I kind of left Younger Brother and focused a little more on Shpongle. Since then, I’ve played about fifteen or twenty shows with those guys over the last several years, all around the globe. We don’t do the live thing that often. But it’s awesome. It’s a hard gig, but it’s really fun. Traditionally, it’s like a two and a half hour straight show, and there’s no Garcia ballads there. I’m like, dude can we just go on tour so I can get in shape? Because after like two days of rehearsal and a gig I’m just destroying my body playing that stuff and it’s awesome. It’s really fun. But it is strangely a bit closer to what I grew up playing, drumming style-wise, to what I’m doing in some of the other stuff now. But it’s all little pieces of the same pie.

ROP: Over the last five to ten years and really coming to a head the last couple years, there’s been a growing popularity among fans of going to see these side projects, and collaborations and super-groups and what have you. Do you think that’s true?

JR: Yeah I definitely see some aspects of that. I think with the rise of festival culture getting so big, and the Bonnaroo guys always do a great job with the Super Jam type ideas — bringing them to a greater audience. But back in the day there was always stuff going on like Wetlands and that concept of a Super Jam — bringing in all these different characters — was a pretty steady one back then. So, it feels like it’s always been happening but right now maybe it’s a bit more magnified. I agree there’s a lot more coming on. I think you see big collaborations like the band The Arcs, stuff like that and these super-groupy type things. I think it’s always been there but, yeah, maybe it’s just a little bit more prevalent in the festival type culture now that that’s become so big.

Joe Russo, Dave Dreiwitz, Scott Metzger – Bustle in Your Hedgerow – Live from the Lot – Ardmore Music Hall – 2015

ROP: Do you think fans have almost become more accepting, or, do you think there’s less band versus band loyalty, like they almost expect the collaboration and they want their favorite artists to play with new people?

JR: Right, right. Yeah, that’s a good question. You know, I think it’s kind of dipping into the iTunes kind of vibe. People don’t necessarily always buy records, and are buying these singular works — I think maybe the society of music is a little ADD to begin with. I think there are blurred lines. There’s good stuff and bad stuff to it. I think everybody is just so open to a little bit of everything now and maybe it’s acceptable to have the cross pollination of scenes or musicians. I’m not quite sure, but it certainly feels like something that’s been there for a long time but is more widely noticed now.

ROP: I’m paraphrasing, but you said there are some good things and some bad things about where the music and recording industries are now as far as where the consumer is concerned.

Do you mind elaborating a bit about those good and bad things?

JR: Well, you know, I’m picturing myself in my bedroom, as a kid, looking at an album and learning all the lyrics and studying the art and reading the liner notes and getting every aspect of a singular album. That was really cool and important and such a big part of all of our formations around my age group and older. Where as now, it’s all like little sound bits. You get a song, or you get a playlist, and there’s something that’s taken some romance out of it with that aspect. But, on the other side, our ability to hear so much new music instantly is incredible. And then for artists to get their music out there is incredible. So, it’s just kind of the way culture is in general right now-kind of ADD, and we have the opportunity to kind of have everything we want, which we’re lucky for, but it’s also a bit dangerous. It takes away that purity that we had when it was like, you’d save up your money and go to the record store and buy a sweet tape and sit in your room and freak out for the next two weeks. I’m literally picturing myself playing guitar in the mirror while I’m listening to a record. That was like the best [expletive] ever. And it’s not that that doesn’t happen anymore. I’m sure it does. But it’s obviously different than what it was when I was growing up. I only have my history with that idea, though, so maybe kids are still getting that feeling. And it’s cool that there is starting to be a little bit of that resurgence with everybody putting their stuff out on vinyl and getting back to the idea that artwork is really important, and liner notes are really cool, and holding something physical in your hand is a really important part of the exchange of music. I don’t know. Hopefully, you’ll see the pendulum swing a little bit back towards that.

Marco Benevento of JRAD

ROP: A lot of people would probably associate you as more of a live musician, but you’re talking a lot about the recorded music and your love of that.

I know you don’t have to actually make this decision, but if someone said you were only allowed to play music in a studio for the rest of your life or, play live for the rest of your life–what would you do?

JR: Oh man. [laughs] That is a rough one. I mean… that is… it’s an impossible decision I would not be able to make because both are their own thing. God. No… yeah. Absolutely impossible. I don’t think I could answer that. I think there’s something so pure about playing live music. The stuff that happens when you’re playing live music, especially the music I’m involved with, has an improvisational aspect to it that you can’t replace, for sure. But there’s also the idea of sitting in a studio, and building sounds, and working with those amazing machines, and the incredible microphones, and everything that comes along with that, like the artistic process, and not having to make sure the person in the front row is having a good time. You’re just sitting there, creating this piece. It’s like you’re painting. It’s not for anyone else yet. It’s for you. I think there’s something special about that. I think that would be impossible to choose. I don’t know. Maybe, live? I don’t know! It’s such a good question. I really don’t know. I love both sides so much but I mean if we’re breaking it down to absolute simple one or the other, I guess it’d be playing live.

Scott Metzger of JRAD

ROP: One of the things that’s pretty cool about JRAD is that you guys haven’t really toured in the traditional sense. You tend to do just one-offs or maybe a couple shows here and there but there’s generally a lot of time between each show.

In light of that, how do you guys come up with a set list? Do you talk about it in the days and weeks leading up or is it something that happens maybe that day?

JR: I write all the set lists. At this point, the guys are so familiar with the material. You know, in the early days [laughs] which I guess was earlier this year… I gotta hand it to all the guys. They’ve learned a ridiculous amount of material in the last year. They have really become able to own that stuff on stage. So I used to send out the sets a little bit earlier. I think our biggest run ever was something like four shows with like a month in between. So, we’re definitely kind of casual about it. I definitely like to think about the set list, though. I like to continue that idea of not repeating tunes on a run and stuff like that. I try to make interesting song combinations that maybe hadn’t been done by the Dead, or throw in some songs that have nothing to do with the Dead. I think that’ll continue going forward more and more to keep it fresh. A lot of times it’s like, well here’s this [song] and then we have to get to this [song] and well… we’ll figure it out. These guys are such great musicians and such great listeners and our history goes back to making up music with each other for years and and years and years which has nothing to do with The Grateful Dead. So it’s like, in between the songs we get to just be us anyway. I think that’s the thing that keeps it special for us, because we have these amazing songs to play and in between we’re like, well we could be anywhere so we’re just making it all up right now.

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