(photos: Jordan Martich)
From now until the start of Noise Pop, we’ll be profiling some of our favorite artists playing the festival this year. Step into the dual realities of Oakland’s Dick Stusso before seeing him at Cafe du Nord.
From the cover image of his new record In Heaven, out March 2 on Hardly Art Records, it’s hard not to wonder if something has gone horribly wrong for ol’ Dick Stusso, Oakland’s stoic purveyor of country-fried gloom rock. The beaming face of Nic Russo, Dick Stusso’s foothold in reality, seems filled with joy, but the longer you look, that overzealous happiness sours into something unhinged.
This double-take asked of the audience has always been a part of the Dick Stusso persona, which Russo has been carefully crafting since 2014 – at first as a solitary exercise on SoundCloud, but later by putting out a double-EP cassette tape with local label Vacant Stare Records, Nashville Dreams/Sings the Blues, which sounds like an undiluted mixture of J.J. Cale and Guided By Voices.
“It was all very gratifying,” says Russo. “It felt like I’d won some sort of small lottery.” When his first release outside of obscurity was catapulted into the world in 2015, many took note — including Pitchfork, Impose, and this publication. Nashville Dreams simultaneously carried the swagger of a golden-era country star and a scathing self-derision.
As the child of a sax player with an extensive touring and session career, including stints with the Doobie Brothers, Russo is no stranger to the music industry. Though he took his recordings seriously, he’d never prepared to be so well-received. “I’d never fully planned on it,” Russo says. “A lot of the recordings are based upon no one ever hearing it.” While attention was what Dick Stusso so desperately craved, Russo felt surprised that his project paying tribute to Nashville — a place he’d never visited — gathered such steam. “Not having been there makes it easier to romanticize about it,” he says. “Even though, in the back of my mind, I know it’s like everywhere else.”
It happens to be in the security of unimportance that such compelling music was able to be made, an alter-ego crafted and a rich, sardonic story spun. The character of Dick Stusso, which Russo dons with a simple side-step away from his own personality, traverses the modern world Don Quixote-like, wishing that his arduous reminiscence of a country music universe lost long ago is enough to bring it back. He fails to comprehend that his dream of becoming a Nashville star was extinguished decades ago, but don’t think for a second that that will stop him. Stusso’s labor is one of need, growing out of personal boredom and languish.
The seeds for this project grew out of an expansive interest in home recording, which saw Russo left to his own devices and ideas. “I had a lot of time to get as weird or as not weird as I wanted,” he says. “There was a lot of me not thinking about whether I was working on a demo or a full thing. It is what it is.” His first single and music video from the forthcoming album are for a track titled “Modern Music,” and in it we’re offered this bit of depraved braggadocio: “Modern life is a palace built on endless suffering / I’m standing at the gates, pissing in the wind,” Russo croons as Stusso sips wine on a gray beach in a white linen suit, pensive. If this sentiment seems nihilistic, it’s because guileless pessimism is one guiding star of In Heaven. Signing to Hardly Art for a sophomore release was a dream come true for Russo, though that euphoria takes on a different tone for Stusso, who waxes pseudo-intellectually on mortality and the state of the human soul. It’s with tired eyes and little hesitation that Stusso surveys the world around him from a newfound vantage point.
About 75 percent of the way through the writing process for In Heaven, Russo’s home studio was robbed. Everything was taken, including the Tascam Portastudio on which he’d recorded the demos for his new album. The only thing left behind was a heavy old amp that, Russo jokes, he wishes they would have taken. “I’d had a couple of rough mixes that I’d sent around but basically nothing to work with after that,” he says. “It’s not like I had a ton of expensive stuff, but it was all of my stuff.”
Starting from scratch, in true Stusso fashion, he’d already booked dates to record with psych engineer Greg Ashley at his new studio home in Oakland. Though he was used to the nebulous ritual of recording at home, Russo used the studio time to his advantage. In Heaven is a slingshot towards finding comfort in the duress and dissatisfaction of the times we live in. “There’s trade-offs to working in the studio versus at home,” he says. “A lot of the new record sounds more focused maybe, and not so all-over-the-place. I feel like it’s more cohesive because I went into it thinking, ‘This is going to be an album.’”
Dick Stusso performs at Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco as part of the Noise Pop Festival, then tours multiple dates around SXSW on the release of his new record.