Play Pause Stop, the latest disc by the Benevento/Russo Duo, is as much of an anomaly as the band that created it. Yes, it is a rock album, but there is no guitarist, no bassist, and you can sing along even though there are no words.
“The things we wanted to do on the last record we actually achieved on this new one,” says drummer Joe Russo. “We’re more confident in our instrumental rock songwriting than ever before.”
The Benevento/Russo Duo formed in 2002 when Russo was offered a Thursday night residency at New York City’s Knitting Factory. The gig paid $100. Simple economics led Russo to conclude that a duo would be twice as nice as a quartet. He enlisted childhood chum Marco Benevento and the two performed as an organ and drum combo for $50 each. With hardly any written material at first, the band made a virtue out of necessity by converting loose sketches into 20-minute improvisations. From the very beginning, the group proved that they could also handle instrumental revisions of Led Zeppelin or Radiohead songs with equal skill and audacity. They were an indie-rock band that jammed. They were a jazz-combo that rocked.
Once more and more fans began showing up regularly and more rabidly, the pair slowly realized they had stumbled onto something much bigger, and much more rewarding, than a weekly engagement and a $50 paycheck. “And it all happened by accident,” says Benevento. “We didn’t say, ïLet’s start an organ and drum duo.’ Our fans kind of turned us into a band.”
After self-releasing a pair of albums, the Duo signed a one-year contract with Ropeadope Records in 2005 and dropped Best Reason To Buy The Sun. Generating rave reviews (Paste Magazine rightfully called it “one of the most exciting break-out discs” of the year), the album introduced the group to a rapidly growing national audience. A heavy year of touring followed, during which the Duo played everywhere from sweaty dives and smoky bars to Bonnaroo and SXSW.
“We were a road band for sure,” reflects Benevento, adding that the group’s overnight/four-year success has been a “gradualƒbut kind of quickƒprocess.”
In February of 2006, the Duo flew to LA to begin work on the follow-up to Best Reason to Buy the Sun. While that album featured multiple guest appearances, this time the pair wanted to prove that they didn’t need any outside help, “We were happy to have the people that we had on the last record,” says Russo, “but this one we wanted to just be the two of us. We’ve found a way for us to fill things out sonically where we don’t need anybody else.”
Far from its initiation, when the Duo was conceptualized for economy, these days the band remains a twosome out of pure artistic desire. “Limiting yourself leads to new discovery,” says Benevento. As an example, he offers that the title track of Play Pause Stop was an exercise in stringing chords together from one single note. The restriction resulted in an incredibly creative and entertaining powerhouse of a song. Much like the idea of the Duo itself.
Russo began to program some of Benevento’s parts into his drum pads, and Benevento learned how to play foot bass. Time on the road, both on and off stage, has led to a group intuition and collective consciousness. Now that they know how to seamlessly complement each other and custom compose for the Duo, Russo remarks that their unique format has been far more liberating than limiting. “That’s my favorite thing about this,” he says. “I don’t feel like there’s a melodic or a rhythmic leader, Marco can bang out these rhythms, and we can go back and forth melodically.”
Play Pause Stop is the culmination of all these newly mastered techniques. Whereas the band once relied on improvisation as it worked through the mechanics of being two musicians emulating more, the band is now focused on its songwriting craft and composing concise rock instrumentals.
“The new album is grittier than the previous one,” says Benevento. “I went to Berklee College of Music and I was way into jazz, so I wanted to get my chops together,” he says of the band’s jazz odyssey beginnings. “But my roots are in rock and it’s really challenging to write a rock song in a duo setting. That’s what we’re into right now.”
On the album, Benevento employs a wide array of instruments (including Mellotrons, a Wurlitzer, and circuit-benders) while Russo occasionally trades his drums for a guitar. Contextually, too, the album feels like a rock album, with meaningful songs despite the fact that there are no lyrics.
“When I write songs,” says Russo, “it’s usually through love or heartbreak, just like everybody else.” Two songs on the disc (“Memphis” and “Powder”) are about breaking up with his girlfriend, while two others (“Soba” and “Something For Rockets”) were inspired by recent tourmates Something For Rockets.
The title track (named because the symbols for “Play, Pause, Stop” resemble the word “DUO”) opens with percussive slaps before Benevento starts laying down the melodic groundwork for what, a minute later, becomes nothing less than a rock anthem. But just when the song reaches an apex, it purposefully disintegrates into a quagmire of knob-turning and electronic goo, before slamming back into it full force.
“Best Reason to Buy the Sun,” titled after the band’s previous album, presents a more concise composition without sacrificing any of the classic Benevento/Russo characteristics, boom-boom drums, organic riffs, transcendent hooks.
Play Pause Stop was co-produced by drum notable Matt Chamberlain (David Bowie, Shakira) and Grammy-winning engineer Tom Biller (Kanye West, Fiona Apple). The disc will drop July 11 on the band’s own Butter Problems label, distributed by Sony/BMG.
The Duo will follow premium festival slots (including Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits) and summer amphitheater appearances with a lengthy cross-country trek that will close out 2006.
“Emotionally, it feels really good right now,” says Russo. “If the Duo were to ever end, I’d be crushed to not have this sound happen. Other bands are great, but I can’t imagine not going out and doing this. I can’t do it with anybody else.”
“And it all happened by accident,” laughs Benevento.
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