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August 4, 2005
To hear Hopewell founder Jason Russo tell it, Hopewell And The Birds Of Appetite is the sound of a band fighting for its life. In that way, it's a lot like Mercury Rev's Deserters' Songs, a brilliant work of emotionally draining psychedelia that Russo helped create. When he was 19, the boy from the Catskills mountain town of Hopewell Junction in New York state joined the legendary psych-rock outfit and toured the world, witnessing all the legendary dissension and excess that almost tore Mercury Rev apart. Not that he was an innocent bystander or anything.

"The stories are all true," said Jason Russo, who played with Mercury Rev for seven years and two records, including Deserter's Songs. "I was just a kid and I think all those guys were around the age I'm at now, and I was just as crazy as they were. It was a lot of fun."

Around the time Deserters' Songs was recorded, things calmed down. Mercury Rev, which once enlisted Russo's brother Justin too, was throwing all of its self-destructive energy into its music, resulting in some of the most potent and magical work of the band's career. But Jason, in his mid- to late- 20s by this time, had to move on. In 2001, Hopewell, the band he'd formed in high school, was starting to cause a stir in Europe with its release, The Curved Glass. Praised by critics as a psychedelic rock maelstrom that could be dreamy one moment and tumultuous the next, The Curved Glass was the product of obsessive editing that Russo says, " ... turned out much weirder in the end," even though they'd thought they'd cut some of stranger sounding stuff.

Hopewell And The Birds Of Appetite is, according to Russo, a more visceral experience that channels the discontent that was threatening to bring down the band. In particular, "Trumpets For A Lung" and "Calcutta" rage with noisy guitars and bleating horns. "Hopewell, up until a couple of years ago, had the same sort of inner turmoil Mercury Rev had - all the infighting, the personnel turnover and those same creative clashes," said Russo. "Just like they did, we managed to put all that craziness from our lifestyles into the music. We put all that energy and personality into the songs."

With a lineup that included percussionist Jay Bradley Green, Rich Meyer on bass and piano, and guitarist Rene Bo, Hopewell was at a crossroads. The wild lifestyles they'd been leading were affecting the quality of the music. It was time to choose which was more important - the band or the craziness. "As a band, we were deciding whether we were going to be no more or if we were going to go out and make this music," said Russo, who did lose one member of Hopewell to The Silent League - his keyboardist and brother, Justin. "Maybe you could say that about the last record too, I don't know. But you look at the title of this one and it refers to how everyone's individual appetites were pulling us apart."

Those appetites were voracious. "Well, a rock band is a rock band, and sometimes the lifestyle is fun, and sometimes it's dark and dangerous," ruminated Russo. "We've learned to put the music first and the lifestyle second, but it's always a fight. Eventually, those things started competing and, at the beginning, those things worked well together. But it got harder and harder to make the music we wanted."

"In the early days, our lifestyles and music were so enmeshed. We were kids from a small town and we figured we could do whatever we wanted. We were psyched about putting anything out there. We were living these lives that we thought were what rock 'n roll was all about and we'd play whatever we liked. I don't know if there's a genre for us; I guess you could put us under psychedelia, which seems to be where people put anything they don't understand. I think we grew organically. We didn't have a lot of money, so we'd play whatever we found. If we found old keyboards in our parents' closets, we'd play them. Anything could make the record."

That sense of adventure still drives Hopewell. Before recording Hopewell And The Birds Of Appetite, which was released on June 28th, Russo and company engaged in a scavenger hunt of field recordings. Afterward, they sorted through the tapes to find what the record needed. "We're always taping and recording things," said Russo. "The last record we had a fish motif, so we had a lot of underwater sounds and whales. This time, it was a bird theme. We're still giddy about that stuff. It's fun to throw everything at the canvas and see what sticks. Where I'm from, in the mountains, you can hear things like birds chirping and frog sounds. It's surreal to be out in nature. It can be a real symphony and otherworldly when you're quiet and just sitting there."

Now living in Brooklyn, Russo, who moved from the Catskills to New York City following September 11th, 2001, also compiled a library of city sounds for Hopewell And The Birds Of Appetite. "We'd record some tamborines and then we'd go to somebody's apartment and tape there, and then we'd record somebody's pet. Dave Fridmann (engineer for the likes of Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips), who produced the record, really was good at making it all sound cohesive."

Hopewell can take some credit for that as well. "We definitely focused more on the songwriting this time," said Russo. "In the early days, we were concerned with the sound of the songs. And we're still giddy about the sounds you can make. But this time, we were focused on making the bones of the songs strong enough to support different motifs and sounds we wanted to hang on them. We wanted to write songs that wouldn't be dateable, you know. A lot of times people are content to be experimental for the sake of being experimental. We wanted to be more expressive."

Nowhere is that more apparent than in "Synthetic Symphony." The lush piano, the full-bodied strings and thunderous kettledrums create a sound as epic as The Verve's Urban Hymns. It's followed by the rushing instrumental title track, a turbulent mix of tornadic drums, twinkling ivories, dancing guitars, hoary tape manipulation and the hellish moaning of strings and backing vocals. Then comes the anthemic "The Notbirds", with its racing guitars and eerie organ turning Neil Young's On The Beach into psychedelic warfare.

It's not as spacey as early Pink Floyd and those "bones" Russo talked about make Hopewell And The Birds Of Appetite seem more grounded than past efforts. It's a circus of sound parading by with steely cages of barely restrained, roaring rock arrangements that don't buckle under the weight of all those ephemeral sounds and expansive atmospherics that serve as Hopewell's calling cards. "We decided to stop self-editing and try to create a more visceral recording, taking those symphonic elements in The Curved Glass and evening them out," said Russo. "There's a more visceral rock energy."

Which, in turn, has made Russo appreciate the experience of playing live. "Our live show has become pretty interesting," he said. "It used to be that I preferred the studio and the live show was more of a chore. Now it's the light of my life."

There's still that tendency to be trippy and playful, though. In a sense, Hopewell is a descendant of Pink Floyd, the 13th Floor Elevators and the Flying Burrito Brothers, while tapping into the contemporary, life-affirming magic of The Flaming Lips and Russo's former band, Mercury Rev.

"There's definitely a lineage," said Russo. "From early Pink Floyd to Can, it'll always be there and one of the reasons is, there's a need for it. There will always be people who will listen to experimental music. It's a genre that doesn't go away. There's a buzz in (New York City) about the psych-folk scene right now, but two to three years ago it was the psychedelic garage rock of Roky Erickson that was making a comeback. It's is always going to be there, and it's always going to be resurfacing."

But Hopewell doesn't stare for long into that rearview mirror. "We grew up listening to Pink Floyd and all that, but we're not into any retro trend," said Russo. "These things are cyclical. In New York, there's a lot of post-punk stuff going on and that's all well and good. I love indie rock. But we'd like to make something new and something that'll last."

And now that all the inner rancor and backstage chaos is behind them, it seems Hopewell will too.

SEE ALSO: www.hopewell.tv

--
Peter Lindblad
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he'll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.

See other articles by Peter Lindblad.

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