When you search his name on the internet, you’ll be surprised to find a website claiming that he was knighted by Prince Charles some years back because he’d given the royal such inspiring drum lessons. He himself will be the first to tell you that he’s just an “internet knight,” and that SirJoeRusso.com is a loving hoax perpetuated by an old friend and promoter. But make no mistake: for many listeners out there, he is among a high, holy few, a musician with direct ties to founding members of the Grateful Dead.
While many know him primarily from Grateful Dead legacy acts—Furthur, Phil Lesh and Friends, and currently Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD)—the drummer’s musical vision extends far beyond the jam world. He’s toured and recorded with contemporary singer-songwriters like Cass McCombs and Kevin Morby, storytelling punk raconteurs like Craig Finn, and throwback rock outfits like Grace Potter. His duo with Marco Benevento blew apart our notions of piano rock. Russo’s playing is remarkable because he prioritizes flow, musicality, and quiet innovation. His touch and groove are lithe and open to whatever (Black-Throated) winds blow across the bandstand.
Russo embraced his role in the “jam” community fully in 2013, when he formed Almost Dead, and the group is arguably the most interesting and innovative Grateful Dead legacy act working today. Their shared improvisational language picks up where the Dead seemed to be heading in the mid ’70s (their tightest and most inspired years), maybe even more so than Dead & Company.
Driven by a multifaceted creativity, Russo has learned to embrace a healthy apathy that allows him to release hang-ups about virtuosity and image. He articulates that aesthetic vision in a colorful new solo album, phér•bŏney [pronounced “FAIR-bonny”]. Released on vinyl earlier this year, it’s something of an inspirational survey. Some tracks breathe a lightness that calls to mind calypso suffused indie-rock. Others sound like they could come from a spy film soundtrack, or a chillwave track produced by Ennio Morricone.
In our candid conversation, Russo revealed that he’s only wound up where he is today—as a drummer, father, composer, and defender of modern psychedelia—because he embraced the zags in his road, even when the safer path seemed like a zig.
MD: You played in the band Furthur with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, both founding members of the Grateful Dead. Deadheads would probably say that’s about as close as you can get to being ordained. How did that happen?
Joe: I don’t think there’s any officially ordained anything, but I think Phil brought me in—my theory—because he’s always been great at tapping people outside the Grateful Dead universe instead of going for people already kneeling at their altar. I think that’s such a badass move, to bring people into this cherished thing that he and his friends created, and have them take a spin without a license.
The Benevento/Russo Duo had just done all this stuff with Mike and Trey from Phish—all these dream venues. But it just didn’t feel good. I really didn’t enjoy that tour, so I came home pretty despondent. Marco and I were on a different page, and that band folded, so I was back to doing these pickup and restaurant gigs. I had to have a serious conversation with myself. I felt I’d had a great run and maybe it was time to make peace with the fact that that was my professional music career. I remember having a very calm, peaceful feeling.
Then about a week later I get a call from Bob Weir’s manager—Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead, a band I had never listened to and vocally hated (or thought I did). I was just like, “Absolutely, I’ll come out and play whatever weird gig you’re talking about,” probably something I wouldn’t have said yes to years earlier. At the time I thought I had the Beck gig, then didn’t get it. That was my first Oh, no moment. In the end thank God I didn’t get that gig or move to L.A. I can sit here and pinpoint the moments that, at the time, were sheer despair and are now the Thank God moments. It’s unreal.
That gig with Weir turned into Furthur. My years with them and the Grateful Dead songbook are something that I never thought was going to be in my life.
A goofy party one night, begrudgingly playing the Dead, turned into this JRAD thing, which is seven years old now. The response we got from that first gig, we really appreciated it, but it was just the same stuff we’d been doing for the last twenty years; it just happened to be on top of these Dead songs. Of course that’s the magical thing: It’s like a new spin on a joke you’ve heard a million times—a different punch line you didn’t see coming. That’s a thing we supply.
MD: Do you feel pigeonholed by the success you’ve found in the jam-band world?
Joe: If I’ve gained some sort of D-grade celebrity from being a Grateful Dead drummer guy, I have no problem with that. In the ’90s, “jam band” was a controversial term, and one that I didn’t like then, but I’m totally fine with it now because I’m definitely in a jam band now. [laughs]
MD: It sounds like the path that’s led to JRAD, to fatherhood, to your aesthetic beliefs, has been a long and winding one. Did you imagine you’d set the jam world on fire? Or did you think you’d have a more “conventional” drumming career?
Joe: I had planned to go to Berklee. I was going to have mad chops, get drum shoes [laughs], and go be a fusion-y dude. Then I went to visit my friends in Boulder, Colorado. My mom had died a year and a half before, so things got… different.
I’d never really taken a big trip outside of New Jersey, so when I got there, I was like, What is this place? We saw Medeski Martin & Wood at the Fox theater—I had no idea who that was. It was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. I stayed out there for two weeks, came home, and ten days later moved to Boulder.
Within the first few months I was there, there was a band with a really shitty name who needed a drummer—this turned out to be my college-time band Fat Mama. That changed the course, and I’m so happy that it did. The stuff I learned from those guys…they ripped me apart for how cheesy I was! They were just the coolest kids in the world. Listening to all the ’70s Miles stuff, and [John] Zorn. Saying to me, “What do you mean you don’t know who Joey Baron is!?” I’d be like: “But…Dave Weckl.” They’d say, “No! Joey Baron.” [laughs] They changed my life with their musicality and influence.
MD: I saw you perform with Cass McCombs at the Bowery Ballroom in 2013 on his Big Wheel & Others tour. On a bunch of songs that night, you perched a set of bongos on your floor tom and played them with your right hand while keeping a groove on the snare and hats with your left. I’m pretty sure it’s the coolest use of bongos I’ve ever seen. Do you actively practice extended techniques or look for places to work them into the music you perform?
Joe: I’m so psyched you were there! Cass is currently and will always be one of my favorite artists. I feel very lucky having gotten to play with him.
Somehow I’ve developed a very lazy and comfortable mentality about not worrying too much. If something’s laying around, I put it on top of something else and play it. When we’re playing a gig and a cymbal falls over and lands on my rack tom, my response is, “Awesome! New information!”
If I come into a situation where I didn’t record the music and there’s a certain aesthetic that grabs my ear, I’ll try to find a way to adapt the parts to accommodate that. Mother of invention–type stuff.
MD: Much of your career involves learning lots of new material. What’s your process for that?
Joe: If I have the luxury of time, I listen to it like it’s my favorite band. If you listen to something a lot, it often becomes your favorite band anyway.
Furthur came at me with so much material that it really informed my shorthand. I print out the lyrics. That’s step one. Then I take the lyrics and use shorthand—bold means crash, underline means whatever…I learn the lyrics and then learn the song form over the lyrics. I never write a chart or anything. Or I write out a song I know from my life that sounds or feels close to whatever I’m learning. For “Black-Throated Wind,” I wrote “Son of a Preacher Man,” and that helped me get there.
I had to learn one hundred songs in ten days with Furthur. Every morning I’d wake up with ten songs in my inbox—just the names of the songs. So I’d take the studio version, and live versions from the ’70s, ’80s, and the most recent Dead tour—because all the forms had changed—and try to mold it into one thing. Now that’s how I learn anything with a “proper” song structure. You’ve got to know the song, and what the song is about.
MD: How do you go about getting work as a sideman?
Joe: I wish I could put myself in the running for more gigs. I can only speak for my own career, and it’s been one based on relationships. I know if I’m in a bandleader capacity, I don’t care as much how someone plays if the hang is great and the person is cool. Ninety-eight percent of being in a band is hanging out, not playing.
Be cool. Be professional. I don’t think there are many scenarios where someone would hire outside their network of people they already know or have gone out for some fun dinners with. I’m not going to see someone who wows me then say, “I need that person!” I’ll just say, “They sound great!” Then I’ll go play with my homies.
Russo on His Gear
It’s not lost on me how lucky I am to get to play these instruments and have support from Ludwig, Promark, Evans, and Istanbul Agop. My JRAD kit—a Ludwig Legacy Mahogany in Avocado Strata from about two years ago—is really the only kit I play on a regular basis that has a [specific] setup. It’s one instrument: a 14×20 kick, with 8×12, 14×14, and 16×18 toms. I have a 7×10 concert tom over my kick, a proper 10″ tom to my left, and a 6×8 concert tom to the left of that. I vary the heads because it’s supposed to be less of a linear instrument and more sonically confused. I got into using the Evans Strata heads on my 8″, 10″, and 18″ toms and G2s on my 10″, 12″, and 14″ toms. It makes the kit feel more chaotic. The juxtaposition between those two timbres makes it a traditional instrument turned against itself.
Ludwig is invested in the future. The gear they’re making is really amazing, and they’re putting a lot of thought into it. My go-to desert island snare is a Copperphonic. It’s the everything drum.
I. Love. Concert. Toms. They can be melodic, they can punctuate, they can be funny. I think it was my fascination with Neil Peart and lusting for giant drumsets in my youth that started my obsession with them.
Istanbul Agop are the best. I’ve been with them for a very long time, and they continually put out stuff that’s super inspiring. It’s like, “Hell, yes! Thank you for making these dark, f*cked-up sounding instruments.” They clearly make classic, beautiful stuff, too. With JRAD I use 15″ Xist hats, the Traditional crashes—a 16″ on my left and 18″ on my right—and a 24″ Joey Waronker ride that is my go-to ride. It’s amazing. I’ve tried different rides, and it’s just always the guy. It’s so beautiful. It can do everything: wash, be loud, quiet…. If I had one cymbal that I had to bring with me to every gig, I’d bring that one.
Changing up gear is a constant in my life. I love being on an uncomfortable kit. Some of the most inspired playing I’ve done over the years has been on an unfamiliar kit. Maybe something that’s broken. Having everything set up perfectly is a thing you get over real quick when you’re in New York. You’re lucky if you even have a kit here. You have to rely on the moment. That can seriously crack open inspiration.
Morfbeats has changed my life. The joy and inspiration and new directions I’ve found by just sitting with one of their instruments can inform a whole day of playing.
I did some expansion-pack music for Red Dead Redemption with Stuart Bogie, and we just listened to [soundtrack composer] Ennio Morricone all the time; there’s all these cool weird textures and combinations of sounds. That’s what inspired this setup [pictured] here. We went into this other studio, and I brought in all this other stuff, but I never had it all set up in my studio. So this setup became soundtrack land.
MD: You recently released a beautiful solo album called phér•bŏney. Where did the name come from?
Joe: It’s super annoying that I called it that. [laughs] Eric Slick from Dr. Dog hipped me to transcendental meditation. It helped inform this creative direction and confidence I’d never felt before. During a meditation I had a super-intense loss of time and space, and there were these two words: P-H-E-R and B-O-N-E-Y in my brain. I wrote it down afterward but couldn’t find any information about what it meant. Like, nothing. But the sound lived in a nook in my brain.
I was in that practice and the creativity was oozing: “I can play the piano! Hmmm…that’s new…I can sing harmonies that I couldn’t before!” Just really beautiful things. As I was finishing the record, I wrote the title track, “phér•bŏney love theme,” in like ten minutes. All these parts just came together. I couldn’t help but think it was because of the mediation. I was going to call the project that, but I decided to call the album that, and of course the joke is no one knows how to pronounce it.
MD: You play most of the instruments on the recording—guitar, piano—and you even sing.
Joe: I wouldn’t say I’m a proficient multi-instrumentalist by any stretch, but I’m not afraid to pretend I can write on them. I know when I like the way something sounds, and it’ll probably take me a full day to get it out of my head. That’s been the process that I’ve fallen in love with: embracing my shittiness on other instruments and realizing it doesn’t matter.
Virtuosity was really important to me when I was a kid. I wanted to be a technically proficient drummer—that classic thing. The things I’ve learned about music are the complete opposite of that, though. Now approaching music, not just drums, has been a life-affirming thing. Coming in [my studio] and working something out on the piano has become the best part of my day, not just getting my, you know, “quadra-la-pa-looples” going. [laughs]
It’s gratifying to give up the idea that you’re supposed to be “good” at anything. Nobody needs to be “good” to make music really. It’s just not about that. It’s about someone having a feeling they want to communicate through one of these instruments and figuring out a way to do it the best they can. Once I gave myself that pass, man, the pressure came off. It’s nice to remember how simple it can be.
MD: It’s funny because listening to phér•bŏney, it sounds like you have so much different stuff together.
Joe: Don’t fall for the illusion! [laughs] For the longest time I was afraid to make music because I wasn’t a prolific piano player. But who cares. I wish I had the time to practice scales, understand music theory…. I wish I could have you tell me to play a piano chord and that I wouldn’t have to think about it. One day—ha ha.
MD: It seems like meditation really has made an impact on you. I mean, talk about loss of ego and self.
Joe: I’m forty-three. I’ve got two kids. I’m trying to be as aware and present as I can be. I think we’re all becoming forced to reidentify with the psychedelic nature of humanity.
My first night playing with Furthur, we were playing at the Fox Theater in Oakland. Going out onstage, I was just so nervous, thinking, Everyone here knows how these songs are supposed to go. I’m looking at my computer to remind myself which “blues ending” is going to happen. I go up to Weir after the first set, totally in my head, apologizing. His response: “Hmmm…I don’t know, maybe take some mushrooms?” I was just like…alright, cool, man. My boss just told me to take shrooms. I didn’t that night, but his saying that was almost the same thing.
Story by Keith Carne • Photos by Andrew Blackstein