Interview: Sam Russo on New Album, ‘Back To The Party’

Five years on from 2015’s Greyhound Dreams, Sam Russo is adding a new record to the world. Back to the Party is out now on Red Scare.

The album is centered by his ruckus invoking acoustic guitar playing.  Winding around his writing, there are layers of instrumentation from strings to percussion and electric reverb. There’s a walk through Russo’s world from the opening strings and electric build of “Purple Snow,” into a hard strum of his acoustic. The words, “Do you remember, I shook you awake, stone drunk in the purple snow?”

That kind of imagery, in song, is an open invitation to run through Russo’s neighborhood one chord, one note, one voiced “Hold on” at a time. 

Russo fills in the blanks on his life since the last album.

“A lot has changed,” he says. “But, day to day, my life is pretty similar to when I put out Greyhound Dreams—I still work a lot, still live in the same place, still play a bunch of shows and tour as much as I can, still skate early in the mornings when it’s sunny, still play football with the same team.”

Such a bedrock foundation for interesting journey, Russo is masterfully articulate and exceptionally capable of setting these activities to song. Like tiny lights in a night sky, his daily routines move closer to his audience, then further away. He works with his guitar and his words to capture scenes on wax, the way a child might capture fireflies in a mason jar and light up the mind of listeners.

A great deal of Russo’s life involves community and his connection to friends. Back to the Party plays like a celebration to tiny moments.

“[I] still get together with friends for D&D at the weekends and still always get a booth by the bar. Still got love for the streets. Still do most things the long way ’round and still love making music, writing, singing, reading, and hanging out! I still also wear all the same clothes. I should get some new clothes. Maybe khakis.”

What about writing Back to the Party? The title seems like a statement. After a slow simmer, Russo is back with a carefully crafted and nuanced 33 minutes, a musically rich stew, the kind of deep meal for the soul you gather good people around a table to enjoy.

Russo explains the time and the care he folded into creating this latest work.

“I’m not one to rush or write filler, so I just took my time and grafted slow and steady. I wrote about 20 songs and trimmed down to ten that I loved. I experimented a lot too—I wrote in way I wouldn’t normally; I collaborated a bit, and I took advice from friends. Writing as Sam Russo is usually isolated and kind of lonely, so I was keen to see if showing people what I was working on would have a positive effect on my writing and for the most part it did!”

One of those people was Red Scare Industries “label guy” and bassist/singer of The Lawrence Arms, Brendan Kelly. Russo explains the impact Kelley had on the process.

“Brendan [Kelly] had a big influence on this record. He’s a friend I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d have and I spent the best part of a week at his house in Chicago after the Elway/Ramona tour talking about the songs and what they’re about. He made me feel comfortable doing what I do and is always so full of encouragement and the hard earned, life-affirming wisdom of a master storyteller!”

In the studio, Russo was prepared to record. He had an excellent team of old and new friends to collaborate and create alongside.

“Five days at Half-Ton studio in Cambridge,” he says. “I was lucky enough to have J.G. Harding, one of my best friends, produce and master, and I had Sam Inglis engineering—we became fast friends, and he ended up playing the pedal steel on ‘Tears.’ Recording Back to the Party was really cathartic—it felt like a torrent of pent-up shit just being uncorked for a solid week, it was great.”

Setting the temperature of the room, as well as the temperature outside, Russo develops a lasting picture of the scene.

“It was during the heatwave, so I’ll always associate recording those songs with being blissfully hot and lucky enough to be spending ten hours a day tucked away from the world playing and singing with two people I bloody love. It was tough, and we had a really tight schedule, but I loved it. Chris Stockings plays guitar on the album too, and he’s a total riot in the studio—so full of ideas and energy; he brought a ton of fun with him, and I think you can hear it in the songs he played on. This record is drenched in sweat, and you should be able to hear me smiling at times.”

Some of his favorite songs don’t open the record; they’re the closers. Russo walks through his thoughts on the last two tracks and explains how they got to the finished page, and on the album.

“I really like “Corporeal Gloom,” and I’m really proud of “The Basement.” Both songs felt unfinished for ages, sand I had to work really hard to get them to sound the way I could hear them in my head—when they clicked it just felt great. I finished them both at around the same time and just put down the guitar and had this really cool realization that I’d finally finished writing the album.

“That was a great moment. Both songs are about friendship, which is a subject I find hard to sing about sometimes, so I was really pleased with myself when I finished them and had somehow managed not to make them soppy or sentimental, but still said everything I wanted to say.”

The moments of doubt, turning his life and friendships into art, Russo goes on to explain the album’s third track.

“The same goes for ‘Always Lost,’ actually. It was hard work turning that story and that friendship into an upbeat, three-minute singalong, and for a really long time, I thought I wasn’t going to pull it off, but I gradually found ways to do it my way, and I feel like the song does exactly what I wanted it to.”

Russo is interested in people interpreting his work for themselves, but he has a strong point to make with Back to the Party about life’s everyday vignettes, the personal times. This work takes the listener on a journey.

“The main theme of the record is the things you share with the people you navigate life with,” he concludes. “I like writing with something overarching in mind—it’s never deliberate, but it normally starts forming really early on, and I tend to just go with it.

“Thematically, friendship was cropping up a lot in my early demos, and while there’s a few songs that deviate slightly from a straight theme, for the most part, Back To the Party is about the journey you go on with your friends from 15 to 35. How you stay close to people you had sleepovers with when you were kids when you’re in your 30s, and life is almost unrecognizable, and everyone’s off on different paths. It’s not nostalgic, but there’s glances over the shoulder for sure. The title says it all really—depending on how you interpret it.”

Get the album here. 

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