“110 percent at least. A lot of it. All of it. We wouldn’t be sounding like we’re sounding without the Dirty Jerz,” says Benevento/Russo Duo’s Marco Benevento, the two arms and two feet behind an arsenal of keyboards. The prolific merger of two former middle-school-jazz-band mates came out of several sweaty nights of free-flowing improv cramped into the Knitting Factory’s Old Office performance space. From humble roots — a beat-up Hammond Organ and four-piece drum kit — the band has transformed into a bearded army of two, occasionally sharing the stage with everyone from former Phish members to the deranged sax player from Les Claypool’s Flying Frog Brigade, bringing brand-new, circuit-bending toys and electronic drum pads to every stop.
A year and a half after the release of their second album, the self-released and self-proclaimed commercially “unsuccessful” “Play, Pause, Stop,” the Duo are running on less steam than a short two summers ago when Trey Anastasio asked them to join him for a summer tour with Mike Gordon, hoping to put a fresh spin on some washed-up Phish. As casual and soft-spoken drummer Joe Russo put it, “Trey made it weird.”
Left with a low-selling album, a slightly grungy fan base of jam band wookies and a brand-new Baby Benevento to tongue the essential dressing room Maker’s Mark, the Duo decided to return to phase one: A flexible schedule of headlining and opening slots and an array of mish-moshing within the tight-knit NuJazz scene in New York — a collective of 20- and 30-somethings rooted in experimental jazz, hip-hop, rock and electronica including Bobby Previte, Charlie Hunter, Steve Bernstein and Stanton Moore.
“We’re recording one song a month and going back to the original ‘Don’t give a fuck. Just let it happen’ mentality,” Russo said.
On top of that, they’re just looking for new ears, new sounds and new gigs.
This past Saturday, the Duo played Webster Hall, opening for the Japanese quartet Cornelius. Benevento and Russo’s 30-minute supporting set featured the band’s “hit songs,” chiefly simple melodic chord structures with one or two odd ends (a nine-beat phrase here, a circuit-bent toy there) and Benevento’s trademark hair flops and hunched shoulder shrugs. Cornelius and its fans, with their clean clothes and Harajuku hair, are not the type expected at a Duo show. But they are now a source of bright-eyed and big-eared new listeners, and maybe suggest that the Duo is moving in Cornelius’ inventive direction.
“Cornelius is really putting on a show with these spectacle and LED light-filled visual stories,” Russo said praising the far-east rock stars. “Our music already has a cinematic quality to it, so it would be cool to explore some video elements.”
With the collapse of record labels, independent musicians like Benevento and Russo are now searching for alternative means of self-promotion and potential cures for industry flaws.
“It would be cool if live shows became an event again, but I think bands are just going to start focusing on recording more,” Russo quipped.
Benevento countered, “Nowadays you just need a video, maybe with some Black and White nipples, music to speak for itself and a publicist.”