After five years of touring and recording with art-rock band Mercury Rev at the height of its popularity, Jason Russo decided it was time to say goodbye to international stardom.
Well, not exactly. Russo actually quit Mercury Rev because his own band, Hopewell, was making big wakes in Europe and the U.K.
"So it was like, 'I'm going to sing in my own band,'" recalls Russo. "'Thanks for all the help!'"
Hopewell went on to record Hopewell & the Birds of Appetite, a 2005 album helmed by Flaming Lips producer (and former Mercury Rev member) David Friddman. It's an album that's rarely mentioned in the press without the phrase "space rock opera" appended to it. It's also, says Russo, "the sound of a band breaking up, and putting itself back together again, and at the same time making a record."
"We had gone through this period of success — touring Europe, playing the Reading Festival and doing all the Peel Sessions — and, you know, that didn't actually pan out the way everyone thought it was going to," says Russo. "It was a combination of a lot of attention and then, all of a sudden, no attention, which kind of made the band implode."
Although band members were fleeing, says Russo, "like rats from a sinking ship," Hopewell has since stabilized and found rapturous critical acclaim from the likes of Entertainment Weekly, New Musical Express and the Village Voice. The band also just released Good Good Desperation, one of the best albums so far this year.
Meanwhile, near-constant touring in the states has earned the band a solid grassroots following — this, despite the fact that what's popular overseas remains, in Russo's words, more "Hopewellian."
Growing up in the cloistered environs of upstate New York's Hopewell Junction, Russo was weaned on college radio, classic rock and the Catholic church, all of which would find their way into his music. The son of a former Trappist monk, he was kicked out of his parents' house because he "wouldn't go to church — and a bunch of other things."
"Yeah, I'm still working it out — on record, essentially," he says of his Catholic origins. "It looms large in the Hopewell mythology, that's for sure."
Russo moved in with John deVries, frontman for the post-punk outfit Agitpop, who was friends with another area band called Mercury Rev. Russo joined at 19.
Compared to his former bandmates, Russo has always been more up front about his influences. He says he'd be honored if someone (other than his label) compared Good Good Desperation to psych-rock classics like Pink Floyd's Meddle or Can's Tago Mago.
At the same time, Russo's vocal range and cadence more often recall PiL and Jane's Addiction, whose "Of Course" he's been known to cover. But he's a much better singer than either John Lydon or Perry Farrell, and the pairing with bassist Rich Meyer's more polished vocal harmonies creates a musical tension that's very much Hopewell's own.
"It's funny because he worked really hard not to make it different," says Russo. "He goes out of his way sometimes to sound more nasal — like I do, I guess. He's one of the members of the band that was trained to play music. I'm not in that category."
Lyrically, Russo has a gift for creating images that can be both beautiful ("She carried the piano up the stairs / Key by key") and disturbing ("Born into a shitstorm / Of hellfire and brimstone / He was stretched on a pyre / Of thorny black wires / Snatched from a manger / By perfect strangers / And delivered unto you / Thrust right into you.")
The latter lyric graces the new album's "10,000 Black Masses (pt. 1)," a 5-1/2-minute opus that opens with a Brooklyn car horn, closes with avant-garde piano à la Keith Tippett or Ran Blake, and features, somewhere in the middle, a frantic monologue sampled from an Elizabeth Clare Prophet mass (cue copyright infringement lawsuit).
"It's a bizarre chant where this guy is sort of speaking in tongues but listing all the things that are sinful in modern rock. He lists all kind of amazing bands like David BOO-ie and Cindy LOW-per — he mispronounces everything and he speaks rapid-fire, so it's kind of hard to understand."
Now that Good Good Desperation is out, Hopewell is back on the road, bringing its angular but strangely melodic offerings to the downtrodden masses. It hasn't been an altogether smooth ride, but it has its moments, like when someone recognizes Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo as the inspiration for their song, "Over the Mountain."
"On this tour, I've actually taken to telling people that if they can guess what that is, they get a record. And last night was the first night somebody got it. And now you got it, so I guess I owe you a record." (I opt for Birds of Appetite on "translucent golden vinyl," which the band is hoping won't melt in the van.)
"So that means you made it to at least the second-to-last song," says Russo with wonderment. "Right on, man!"Purchase the CD: