Exclusive Interview with Jason Russo of Hopewell/ Mercury Rev
UPDATE January 2013 – Hopewell’s last album is Live Volume 1, a collection of recordings from Truck Festival America 2010 and a special performance at The Flaming Lips-curated 2009 New York edition of All Tomorrow’s Parties (with an expanded line-up and a Pink Floyd-meets-Jane’s Addiction vibe, shown in the below left photo by Rick Webb). Last year Bang Bang Boogaloo released Beyond Beyond is Beyond – a great 20-track compilation of contemporary psych artists including Hopewell, Citay, Woodsman, Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, Buffalo Killers, Outrageous Cherry and others that can be downloaded for free here. One of the standouts on Beyond Beyond is Beyond was Hopewell’s “Worried Mind” – from their latest studio album, Good, Good Desperation. The Future Heart caught up with Hopewell’s leadman Jason Russo at that time to ask about Live Volume 2, the Beyond Beyond comp, his experiences playing in Mercury Rev, what’s on Hopewell’s horizon. . . and, of course, our mutual “lost uncle”…
. . . John Lennon!
The Future Heart: Being for the benefit of readers unfamiliar with your place in the pantheon of cool music, let me start by recapping my understanding of your career: In 1993 Dave Fridmann decided he would no longer tour with Mercury Rev. You became his replacement, toured as Rev’s bassist through 2001, recorded various tracks with them in the late ’90s, played guitar on (2001 album) All Is Dream and rejoined them last year for the Deserter’s Songs full-album-live shows. At around the same time you joined Rev, you formed Hopewell and released a 1995 split single with Windy & Carl. Since then Hopewell has released five studio albums – plus Hopewell Live Volume 1 – and toured with friends/ peers such as The Dandy Warhols, Ride’s Mark Gardener and My Bloody Valentine. You’ve also recorded with other related artists (i.e. Harmony Rockets, Grand Mal, Grasshopper, and your brother’s band, The Silent league) and freelanced on film scores since the late ’90s. In 2009 you formed another band, Common Prayer, which is it bit poppier than Hopewell, but in a weird folk direction. Please correct me where I’m wrong, or add any other comments as you fancy.
Jason Russo: That’s pretty spot on – well done. Yes, I played guitar on All is Dream and a bunch of other stuff – sometimes credited, sometimes not! The Harmony Rockets – Rev’s bizarre side project- was the first proper release I ever appeared on.
My only tiny adjustment is the personally relevant point that I formed Hopewell the year before I started playing with Mercury Rev. In high school.
The Future Heart: The new Beyond Beyond is Beyond compilation is awesome. How did you get involved?
Jason Russo:Mike had us on his radio show to promote a few things in the past couple of years. Basically anyone who plays Yes on the radio is cool with me.
The Future Heart: Besides your own track, “Worried Mind” – definitely a highlight – which songs on the Beyond comp are your personal favorites?
Jason Russo:I love the Woodsman track, same for (but not limited to) Citay, Mondo Drag & the Main Street Gospel.
The Future Heart: Do you have any amusing stories about Woodsman, Citay or any of the other bands?
Jason Russo:When we played the release party with Woodsman my brother turned to me and said “they sound like you when you were young!”
The Future Heart: Mike Newman did a great job of collecting some of the better underground psych tracks of the last few years. For the sake of discussion, if you were asked to curate a second volume, who are some of the artists you would include?
Jason Russo:I am pretty ignorant of the current crop. Maybe we could create an open submissions form on the internet that goes directly to Damo Suzuki in Germany. I bet he’s got some interesting methods for making choices.
New York filmmaker Art Boonparn directed Hopewell’s video for “Island” – from Good Good Desperation
The Future Heart: The name Good, Good Desperation is one of my favorite recent album titles because it pinpoints the feeling our society is increasingly desperate but also that desperation is the closest thing humanity has to a surefire catalyst for change (so in that sense it can be very “good”). As a species we have a terrible track record of preventing forseeable problems and tend not to act until forced.
Of course, I’m probably over thinking this! Was the title a deliberate commentary on the direction of our culture, or something more personal?
Jason Russo:Often friends of mine will come to me and tell me about the shitty turns their lives have taken and I usually break out into a big smile and say “GREAT NEWS!” because, in retrospect, it was the shittiest times that led to me making the best decisions of my life. So in a sense, desperation is good. The feeling of desperation comes from resisting movement I think, it’s usually present when a major event is about to happen. So, yes, you are hitting the nail on the head!
“Our culture” and “direction” are useful terms to some extent but I am unsure about ideas like that these days. I grew up in a really religious household where we were taught that the world is going to hell, Satan was going to be released from his chains and we probably would have to live in the basement and eat the cat to survive. None of that has happened though, humanity is as fucked up as it always is and life keeps rolling. So, I am wary of discussion about where we are heading as a species. Our album title, while it can apply to the macro view, is most definitely more concerned with personal desperation.
The Future Heart: Very true. Something more specific – you’ve been a professional musician since you joined Mercury Rev at 19. There’s a lot of talk about how the “music industry” has shifted since then, but I’m more interested in how the realities of being a creative working person just trying to make ends meet have changed. 2012 is a great time to be a music fan. There’s access to a mind-numbing amount of artists (irregardless of their level of popularity or commercial potential), free streams and downloads galore, a variety of high quality purchase options for most releases, etc. That the Beyond comp compiles great music, all contemporary, and generally by artists that might slip under the radar of the people most likely to be interested in them – and is free – I think is yet another example the sheer abundance fans have today. But how does the current climate compare to other periods for you – from the perspective of somebody who has spent their entire adulthood as an independent musician?
Jason Russo:Yes, I recall – dimly – the ’90s and we were able to actually live off of CD sales. Crazy!
Digital technology is interesting in that it makes everything cheaper, so everything is cheaper, y’know? It’s cheaper to make the music, it’s cheaper to promote the music, it’s cheaper to listen to the music, to collect the music, to send the music to friends, to find out what your peers think about the music etc etc etc. So, our experience is just a little cheaper. I think the days of feeling like an Elliot Smith album IS YOUR VERY SOUL are over. For now.
We’ll see what’s next.
The medium used to make music or art is ultimately irrelevant. I’ll start drumming on the wall and singing if I’m alone in an empty room long enough.
The Future Heart: Following up on that, Hopewell seems like the type of band that is great at connecting with like-minded musicians and music lovers. How has the development of the internet changed networking for you?
Jason Russo:Well, it’s put it directly in our hands. Which is nice. And I guess the people we like to talk to are people who make music, love music and are passionate about it. You have to be to follow a band like Hopewell I think.
Also, I LOVE computers. I know that’s not a very popular view of artists but I don’t care. I will spend days cutting and pasting drum tracks and reversing random notes, synching delays to grids. So fun.
So, interacting with folks on the internet is a pleasure.
The Future Heart: You tweeted about The Flaming Lips “reunion” with (former Lip and Mercury Rev frontman) Jonathan Donahue last November when both bands were touring Australia. Just prior to that, me and some others tweeted at members of the two groups encouraging them to play together at Harvest Festival (where they were playing on the same stage on the same day). Jonathan wrote on Facebook his first and only post shortly after, “We are talkin’ bout performing ‘The Pink Album’ (In A Priest Driven Ambulance)…as a whole, live in concert, you know a look ahead to the past kinda thing…”
Were you personally at any of those “talks” and is there any new info you can share about Jonathan playing live with the Lips?
Jason Russo:Ha ha – no, I was not privy to an actual discussion of that. I just know what Jon posted on Facebook. I think it would be an awesome thing though. Those earlier Lips records – and Rev! – are some of my favorite recordings of all time and my experience of “reunions” has been totally positive.
It’s such a hilarious thing to play in Rev again after a decade apart. ALL of the in jokes just sat there waiting for us and they are STILL hilarious. We are the same people, we just look like we are wearing prosthetic aging makeup or something.
The Future Heart: I’ve noticed you’ve retweeted or favorited tweets of mine concerning John Lennon, The Plastic Ono Band or The Beatles. I’ve also read that Hopewell bonded around a love of obscure, weird classic rock. So, putting those two things together: which of John Lennon’s lesser-known songs do you think most deserves the acclaimed status of songs like “I Am The Walrus,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and “A Day in a Life”?
Jason Russo:Yeah, John Lennon was like the lost uncle around the house I grew up in. The first thing I loved about his post-Beatles output is the title: “The Plastic Ono Band” – So good! The combination of “plastic” with Yoko’s name is genius to me.
“Two Virgins” – reputedly made during John and Yoko’s first night together – is incredible, as are the subsequent few releases. What I loved so much about their collaboration is that I really think Yoko focussed John’s weird side really well. It wasn’t just rock music any more – it was art.
To answer your question – are there any lesser known Lennon songs?
I love “Real Love” and “I Found Out.” Glad you mentioned “Tomorrow Never Knows” – I have spent a decade trying to rewrite that song. It’s the height of space rock to my ears.
The Future Heart: A couple of years ago you were working on a collaborative covers project involving Ride’s Mark Gardener and Rollerskate Skinny. Is this still in the works?
Jason Russo:Yes – we have a 7″ and an EP built around an Eno cover we recorded with Mark coming out. We are very excited about it. We are huge Ride fans. We formed Hopewell in part to sound like Rollerskate Skinny’s Shoulder Voices and while our friendship with Ken hasn’t born actual audio fruit, it has been a source of inspiration for years now.
The Future Heart: Following up on that, Hopewell latest release is Live Volume 1. When do you expect Volume 2 to come out and are there any other Hopewell albums on the horizon?
Jason Russo:Ha ha – we have been meaning to mix part 2 – but it’s also kind of nice to just leave it half finished for some reason.
We are almost done with our “soundtrack to an imaginary film” project and we are very close to going into the studio to begin the official record #6.
Glad I stumbled on this. Never heard this band before but this is great stuff. Will check them out