Seven or More Questions with Jason Russo
by Ben Malkin
ANIJ: You explore the universe. We've discovered a single moment in time can be a universe in itself… full of powerful forces… most people aren't aware of that now… to ever notice them.
PICARD: I wish I could spare a few centuries to learn.
ANIJ: It took us centuries to learn that it doesn't have to take centuries to learn.
- from the Star Trek TNG film Insurrection
Top 10 Things Things You Should Know about Jason Russo's Music
- Jason Sebastian Russo grew up playing bass in Mercury Rev when Mercury Rev was nuts.
- Jason Sebastian Russo started the psychedelic rock band Hopewell (named after his hometown) in High School, and Hopewell is still around today, some twenty years on.
- Then, for a Pt. 3, as if he weren't busy enough, he gets a call to record with some buddies in England, and puts together the first Common Prayer album. Neil Halstead from Slowdive helped put it out.
- Jason worked with Max Lichtenstein under the name Camphor, on much of the musical soundtrack to the movie Jesus' Son.
- Jason and his brother Justin are part of that epic rock brother mythology (from the Kinks to Radiohead, Oasis to the Jesus & Mary Chain), both having played together in Hopewell and Mercury Rev for the majority of their musical adolescence.
- This is someone who's been getting better year after year for some twenty years now... and he was pretty great to begin with.
- His craft is song, but his love affair is sound.
- He has recorded with Hopewell with famed producers Dave Fridmann and Bill Racine, and was part of Mercury Rev during their Deserter's Songs period, which was NME album of the year in 1997.
- Common Prayer songs are timeless in the way The Band is timeless. Which isn't to say Russo or Common Prayer sound anything like The Band (they don't). But in the way when Music From The Big Pink came out and everyone instantly knew it was a classic, that's what Common Prayer's new album is like. Not that it's out yet. But by the time this article comes out it will be.
- The first Common Prayer album wasn't too shabby, but this new one is a straight-up masterpiece. The arrangements and the undeniable spiritual nature of the tunes (both in subject matter and sonic intricacy) somehow surpass the obvious psychedelic and approach something resembling a celebration of time passing, and a joy in not being able to hold onto anything... not fighting it, embracing it... No need to dress it up as much, the psychedelias all in the songwriting & melodies now.
PSF: Let's talk about the sacred in the mundane. A few years ago promoting the first Common Prayer album, There is a Mountain, in an interview/performance session on WNYC's Sound Check, John Schaefer (the host) asked you what's different about Common Prayer than your other band, Hopewell:
"Common Prayer's just concerned with more personal things I would say. Hopewell definitely focuses on the transcendental, and Common Prayer sticks around the house. The sanctity of the mundane"
Ironically, this more personal project may have touched a more universal nerve. Like Anij above, saying "You explore the universe. We've discovered a single moment in time can be a universe in itself..." With what on this album seems fairly traditional instrumentation, through sheer songwriting craft and arrangement, it seems you've tapped into something more eternal than all the effects and insane rock to the heavens you ascribed to in your other projects. Are you aware of this Star Trek/Buddhist/upstate New York nature spirituality coursing through this new project? Common Prayer staying around the house I think really hit a new aspect of places to explore. With Hopewell, there's an element of the sound as being the focus, with Common Prayer, it's the songwriting. The sound seems not as out there but it's deceiving because the songwriting is out there, or rather, out there in here.
JR: I think it's safe to say that the two bands are trying to arrive at the same place by going in opposite directions. One going out, one going in. After enough interstellar travel, you start to notice that the pattern is self-replicating. The more you zoom out to take in the data, the more the picture keep resolving to be the same basic shape. As above so below. Perhaps it's just a matter of scale.
And yeah, songwriting is the focus in Common Prayer. Though on this new record, we couldn't help but dive into some sonic wormholes. The technology is just so tempting. There's a lot of sequenced found sounds in there – NYC buses hissing, subway dings, sticks snapping, fountains. I think there's even a champagne cork popping as a snare drum. We tried to use every day sounds to build the record.
PSF: The last time I interviewed you (some eleven or twelve years ago), as part of a question about Hopewell, I asked you "Do you see this as the permanent line-up or, will that also evolve (ala a Rev or Lips)?" and you answered: "I would love to keep the line up the same but as an old friend once said 'it's like keeping puppies in a basket.' My goals for Hopewell are to make the best music we can until it no longer works. I will personally not stop making music, maybe just not always under the name of Hopewell. Once it becomes a small room where nothing lives, it should end."
JR: Funny, Hopewell is still making records, albeit a little slower than usual, and it's been the same line up for 10 years now!
PSF: What happened between the making of the first and the second Common Prayer album. Can you tell me about the new line-up, both live and on this new record, and how a rotating cast of characters informs your lyrics and music? This sense of eternal transition, it seems a rather permanent state of affairs for anyone/almost everyone who stays in this music game long enough (life for that matter). One truth: everything falls apart. Puppies in a basket indeed, whether they go on to form their own bands or become doctors.
JR: Oh man, so much happened. The puppies never stay in the basket. Which is fine I think- you're right, it mirrors life itself. People stick around for a reason or a season. The skeleton crew that assembled this record is myself, (producer/drummer) Jeff Mercel and (producer) Damon Whittemore. Jeff and I were the rhythm section for Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs tour. So, it was like a reunion in a way. Many many many good friends lent their abilities – the list of people who played on this record is a largish paragraph. I just kept inviting people down into my basement lair to record. It was a fun way to make a record.
PSF: The most radical evolution in your songwriting so far as I can tell is the development of more and more sophisticated, long loping melodies the way McCartney will sing an extremely long melody over verses. Your new song "Joyful Trench" unfurls over a long stretch of time, 'Eleanor Rigby'-like, with the melody developing over the entire verse. it's not a short melody. It's a really long, sophisticated classy melody: when you write the long loping melody, where does it come from? Does it come fully formed? How do you think in melody?
JR: Huh, I never thought of that. It is a long melody. I'm not sure why that is. It just spools out. If I have words in place, the melody becomes obvious. It's much harder to fit words into an already-existing melody. That song was based on a hand clap loop that I recorded at a friend's show at Pete's Candy Store (Brooklyn club). Then I just started rapping over it.
PSF: Again, in the last interview I did with you, in answer to the fill in the blank question 'If I could live in a song it would be _________,' you answered "Blue Skies."
JR: That's a beautiful song. My buddy Ken sang it to me at my birthday party the other day. The Willie Nelson Startdust version is the best.
PSF: Does this free and easy joyful tunes of spacious ease flow out of you naturally? Is there anything conscious about this?
JR: Yeah, those songs are always floating around in my head. They didn't feel right in Hopewell- I think that's why Common Prayer happened.
PSF: In answer to another question from that same interview I did with you: 'What is the one thing about you that people would least expect?' you answered 'I can't leave my house with out cleaning it.' This is interesting in respect to Common Prayer being your band, according to that WNYC interview, that sticks around the house, and subsequently your finding the sanctity in the mundane. Common Prayer music is really joyful, which, I don't know if I'd quite describe Hopewell's music as. It's like searching for the transcendental with Hopewell was full of strife. And at home, you feel relaxed, with spacious ease. I know I may be reading a bit into all this but, wax poetic on the free and easy nature of Common Prayer? My favorite song on the new album, "As Above," exemplifies this perfectly.
JR: Yeah, CP is meant to be free and easy. It's amazing though – as soon as it becomes the focus in my life, when it's no longer an escape hatch from other projects, the free & easy vibes get challenged. Go figure.
PSF: Do you think of this as a philosophy? Or does Common Prayer just allow you to be more relaxed, nothing left to prove, free and easy, not searching for anything, just comfortable with everything? How do you make music that conveys this? It's not easy- there's something refreshing about joyful music.
JR: It works in opposition to other things. It's a reaction to my uptight past. Being in all those bands was kind of stressful in the end. It's hard to undo all that history.
PSF: You've said 'I say a prayer to everything going.' Is this a matter of not holding on, being open to & finding wonder in the new, to keep moving?
JR: At some point, I realized that what my parents call God, I call "everything going how everything goes" - so, prayer.
PSF: Let's talk about surviving as a musician or an artist or a songwriter or whatever you want to call it after all these years. Your songs 'I say a prayer to everyone.' What type of person does it take? What's the price? What's the payoff?
JR: Huh, that's a big question. I wonder if I have survived the music biz? The price is considerable. The pay off is the good people I've met and the adventures I've had.
PSF: There is an age. A wisdom. A resignation that is somehow freeing. That you survived and are still doing it. The new albums more subtle but sinks in deeper. More sophisticated/classy. Resigned. The new album even better, more self-assured than the first. Hard to believe since the first was such a good album. This ones more subtle but better, a subtle evolution that doesn't jump out as much at first but is the grower that in the end is better. Very very memorable melodies. There's a new confidence here. This is someone who's been doing it and doing it well for some twenty years now. But, somehow under this new guise, you found yourself or at least a new side of yourself. I look at Hopewell's Birds of Appetite version of "Synthetic Symphony"- there are similarities in the approach, but there's not the calm. It seems like Common Prayer has nothing left to prove.
JR: Ah shucks, thanks man. That's all really nice to hear. Hahaha, it helps that I am signing some of these tunes in my lower register. My speaking voice.
PSF: How do you feel you've evolved as a songwriter? What made you consciously improve? What influences did you absorb?
JR: It's a normal evolution I think. Along the way people learn how to play their instruments – then they learn how to produce music, then they get TOO good at it and have to turn around and head back to shore.
PSF: There's somewhat of a similar trajectory to your collaborator, friend, label-head, producer Neil Halstead from Slowdive to Mojave 3.
JR: Yeah, he's a good example of that. My theory on how he manages it all is: surfing. It seems like surfing is almost as much the focus of his life as music. He's very very relaxed.
PSF: My top five Common Prayer songs: "As Above," "Everything & More," "Joyful Trench," "Us Vs. Them", "Boxers. " Any thoughts?
JR: Good choices!
PSF: Let's talk about the birth of some of these songs. Where did they come from? Did they come fully formed? Were the arrangement really thought out or just a natural extension of the tune? The dynamic breakdowns from verse to chorus are a master-stroke of rising soaring into the killer chorus. For any songwriter, it's telling you how to use some genius songwriting dynamics and the bridge in "As Above" for my money is the finest bridge this side of the Mississippi: it hits so hard, so psychedelic, totally heavy heavy chord change (key change?).
JR: The songs started with an acoustic guitar to a click track. And from a series of voice memo's on my phones. Then we layered everything. The kitchen sink etc. Then we played drums and bass over it. Then we brought in actual horns and woodwinds. I kept referencing my memory of the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour and the Beastie Boys Paul's Boutique. But I don't think we came anywhere near that.
PSF: What went into creating the bridge of 'As Above'? Best bridge of all time (and one of my top songs of all time period, too). This is the song where you outgrew your influences. Structurally, it's a masterpiece but its mastery is in how natural its changes feel, as natural as the seasons fading into each other. In this song, which wreaks of upstate NY and The Band, which screams instant classic, whose long loping melodies rise and soar into the organ drenched chorus, sparse verses, building, building, we rise into a chorus whose grand majestic call and response male to female call and response vocals. And then the bridge starts with that drop-on-a-dime shotgun vocal hanging in the air, and the choir or keys or whatever it is majesty. 100% psy•che•del•ic in the true sense of the adjective, Who needs drugs with bridges like these? Such a heavy post-chorus brilliant beauty... the most phenomenal church choir effect, for my money. Then, let's repeat the chorus forever 'cause it just feels so damn good. I guess this is the genius of The Band too- knowing when to play and when to drop out for highest emotional impact.
JR: Man – I agree – that is a fine fine bridge. A whole world unto itself and it's all Jeff. He also scores films, which I think is very evident here. I had a chord progression and he laid a crazy electronic symphony on it. Then I had our friend Karen sing the string line. Then we layered a violin and a trumpet etc., etc., etc. On and on and so forth. Mixing it was a bit hard.
PSF: And speaking of bridges, when the bridge or post-chorus in "Us Vs. Them" stretches out & lies back free and easy, luxurious, such descending piano beauty, such a sucker for good piano descent, as if the best part of the Stones' "Monkey Man" were done as long as it should be. By the way, have you seen the Ronnie Lane documentary? You should.
JR: I haven't. And yeah, I love that piano part too. Good ears.
PSF: "It was us vs. them/We had our knives out/Back to back/In our bed." "Everything & More" is most definitely my favorite track from There Is a Mountain and one of my favorite songs of all time: the whole song just screams instant classic in its ascension to heaven, rising rising, coming back to the beginning. And the melody lopes around and circles itself infinitely in joyful ecstasy.
JR: We started playing it again because my sister played it at her wedding and my brother told me that it was our best song. So, you and Justin have the same taste. Incidentally, we performed it with my Mom once at a festival. It was meant to be my take on the church songs we sang as kids.
PSF: 'We may never pass this way/A-a-a-gain/This could be the last time/My-yyy friend/We'll end up the beginning/Begin at the end/This could be the last time/My-yyy friend' It all builds towards that tension/release ending: an absolute Muppet rock-out end-of-the-movie where everyone triumphs, everyone realizes they are part of the whole. It's where Hopewell looked to the stars (and was literally the space ship which traversed the galaxies), So, let's talk about the birth of this song.
JR: MUPPETS! Maybe it's supposed to capture the feeling of getting out of church. Mass was a super long feeling and I just couldn't wait to get over to the Hopewell pharmacy to buy comic books. That final song at mass was such a celebration– 'cuz we got to leave!
Also see the Common Prayer website
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