Ahead of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead’s upcoming show in Chicago this week, the band’s drummer and namesake gave a lengthy interview posted today on ChicagoNow.com in which the bandleader opens up to Kelley Lauginiger about his struggles with shoulder pain over the recent years, his recently released solo album, phér•bŏney, and more.
“The biggest challenge I’ve been facing lately is that I kinda thought my career was over for the past two years,” Russo says, speaking on a pain in his shoulder that first appeared in late April 2017 during a show in Colorado. Russo first tried ignoring the injury, then downplaying it to his JRAD bandmates when an MRI told doctors that the drummer had, in his words, “a completely eviscerated labrum and just chaos in my shoulder, basically. I had the onset of osteoarthritis; torn this, torn that.”
Since then, Russo began wearing a sling most of the time, using his shoulder only for drumming, which caused another condition, Adhesive Capsulitis (also known as frozen shoulder), with which Russo played gigs for nearly two years. He even tried changing up his playing style and getting a new drum kit more suited to his issue, but the reality was that Russo planned to have shoulder surgery in October 2019 and then take off nine months from performing. But there was no promise that he’d be the same drummer he was before the operation.
“I decided after agreeing to the surgery, that I would do anything in my power over the course of the next year to avoid getting it,” Russo says, noting that his first attempt was an intense bout of “torture-like” physical therapy to break up the adhesion.
Then, however, Russo turned to Phish. Trying to reach drummer Jon Fishman through his old collaborator Mike Gordon (Russo wanted advice on drumming after shoulder surgery, having heard that Fishman had previously underwent a procedure), Gordon also recommended a book by John Sarno.
“I learned he was an NYU physician who theorized that most surgeries of this kind are bogus, and that there is usually another condition that is mentally-based that could be causing all this pain,” Russo explains. “So I went down that path. I got his book, The Divided Mind, and realized there was a lot of stuff brought on by stress, childhood trauma, anger, and various things. To be honest, it made me realize I never dealt with my mom dying when I was eighteen, and I had to work through a lot of those issues. It basically told you to take the time to go back into your life and reflect on things that you don’t want to think about. So, for me, I’d sit at my drums and do that; just considering repressed stuff. I dealt with my shit. After three days, I sat down at my drums and started just playing. I was like, ‘Fuck this. I’m not going to be afraid of playing my instrument. I’m not going to be afraid of the pain.’ So I just started playing, I guess. I started stretching my arm, then playing, then stretching, then playing. I got more mobility and stuff started to actually work again.”
Russo goes on to speak about the power of the mind and how his first completely pain-free show came in November 2018. “While we were playing, I was just crying I was so happy, because I was FREE FROM THIS THING,” he remembers. “The guys in the band were welling up, seeing me feel like myself again. And that was so beautiful too, because they were so supportive of me during this few years, and I saw them struggling too, to deal with it and deal with me; this miserable fuck in excruciating pain all the time, just trying to feel better. It was such a great moment for all of us to just end the year that way. It was so triumphant to end the year like that and even get to have that moment at all, that it made me happy this all happened. If you can believe that.”
The drummer also says that the health revelation and his practicing of Transcendental Meditation (he credits Dr. Dog’s Eric Slick for turning him onto the practice) both lead to his creating and surprise-releasing phér•bŏney back in May. The nonsense title even came to him during a TM session (it’s pronounced “Fair Bonnie”).
Speaking of the album, Russo has shared the video for the lead track of phér•bŏney, “phér•bŏney love theme,” featuring comedian/actor Will Hines. Watch below.
Russo ends the interview by expressing his gratefulness at being able to play with his JRAD bandmates and have success and happiness in the music industry, despite the pitfalls and unexpected roadblocks like his shoulder pain: “None of us has had an easy go, you know? We’re the same guys who were sleeping on dog-piss-covered rugs just a few years ago on tour. I think about the time I considered selling blood in Madison, Wisconsin. Those were real things! So when I get to look over at Tommy [Hamilton], who lived on my couch for two years and be like, ‘Hey dude, this is great, we’re playing ‘Terrapin’!’ it really makes it all the more special. There’s something more going on for us than what’s on paper. I hope that comes through for us to the crowd when we’re smiling and laughing on stage. It’s not just something ‘we have to do.’ Those are real smiles and laughs. We want to create new information; a new story with this music. We want to surprise each other as much as you.”
Russo and Almost Dead have several dates schedule this summer, including July 11 at Chicago’s Huntington Bank Pavilion. Check out their full schedule here, and read Russo’s full interview on ChicagoNow.com.