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oRSo
an interview with Phil Spirito by LD Beghtol

Almost no-one has heard his band oRSo's wondrous new record - it's fiendishly hard to find. Recently, he was forced to cancel his North America tour due to a lack of funds. Then he broke up with his girlfriend - who's still in his band. He's back at his day job now. And, in the middle of a freezing Chicago winter, his apartment has no heat...

So why is this man still alive?

"Everyone should have something crazy to believe in," confides oRSo frontman, Phil Spirito, "and I'm absolutely nuts. But I really believe in that little bit of hope you have only after you've gone through so many obstacles that you think; 'I can't make it another day without going to the nuthouse' Then - somehow," he continues, "you get that little bit of hope. I guess it just makes you think more positively about things. Just when you can't even do it anymore - then you're like: 'But I gotta!'"
Spirito - aka Grampa Binto, ex-bassist for the celebrated Brooklyn-based cult stars Rex and sometime member of various Perishable Records acts such as Him, Loftus and Out in Worship - knows a thing or two about bad times (see above). But despite the tragedies that circle around his fuzzy little head like a flock of vultures ready to devour the carnage, his almost absurdly positive world view keeps him going. Somehow.
"Earlier today," he explains, in his sexy, well-worn voice, "I was really bummed out - I came home and my heat was off. I love this apartment," he adds, "but it seems like a really good example of how I live my life: My heat is off, and I just don't give a shit."
"And why should I? There's no point to anything, of course..." Spirito states, matter-of-factly. "But there's always that hope - That's what you live for, right? That little bit of hope that you're gonna have a nice little human interaction with someone, like a good handshake. Or you'll make something good, like a song or a yummy meal." Thankfully, this bearish, banjo-playing young man can say all this without sounding like some smarmy, new-agey self-help book.
He adds pragmatically, "Anyway, my bad day made me sing awfully pretty tonight."
It's this lyrical streak of Zen - shot through often inscrutable narratives about ghost horses, glass eyes and other such waking dreams - that make oRSo's new album, Long Time By, so beguiling.
Spirito's gorgeously fragmentary lullabies are set to the ad hoc strains of banjo, harmonium, spare strings and all manner of low-end bangs and crashes provided by his oRSo protegées, multi-instrumentalists, Gillian Lisée - the ex - and Ben Massarella (of Red Red Meat).
"For oRSo," Spirito offers, "I pick people I like and then nurture the parts I need out of them." Both Lisée and Masserella serve Spirito's songs and his vision with a deft touch. And with what seems like utter delight - even on the more heartbreaking numbers.
"I'd had bands before Rex, but they never got anywhere. They never convinced me, you know?" he muses. "Rex sort of taught me the way to be convinced."
Long Time By more than convinces. There's a subtle ensemble feeling that binds oRSo like a bright silver cord. Its near-psychedelic, rustic minimalism recalls Tom Waits, but without the jokey theatricality. And its pastoral beauty is almost as unexpected as its undertones of violence, loss and dislocation. "It's all part of my cryptic nature," he says, with nary a hint of false modesty. "My stories are not linear. And they're not the happiest stories. But again, it's that little bit of hope... That's why they're like lullabies - to lessen the tragedy a little. I want to tell a story that's sad, but at the end I want you to feel like the character's going to go on. I think that's what life is all about - that bit of getting by."
Still, despite generally excellent critical notices, oRSo's fine second album is in virtual limbo. And Spirito is more than a little cross about that - he's left feeling lost in a crass world where slickness is valued more than passion, and success is the triumph of niche-marketing over substance and sensibility.
"So much of the music I hear today bums me out because it's so fucking boring," he declares. "It is completely lacking in - well, anything... It has no feeling, no emotion. I don't know why it exists. Since punk rock, every asshole in the US thought they could be in a rock band - not because the were driven by their desire to play music, but rather because they wanted to be cool, they wanted money or fame or chicks or guys...," he pauses to catch his breath. "So now - 20 years later - you have a whole industry driven by people who aren't that creative."
In an era where string ensembles fly their punk credentials like battles standards, Spirito proudly touts his non-punk status: "I came up a totally different way. And I am ass-tired of people looking at me all funny, like I don't know shit and I'm not cool," he growls. "It's sooooo annoying. And it's so hard to do this music and constantly have to be thinking about selling it, and be wondering why I even make records, you know? But you know why I do it? Because it's me - it's just me," he says. "And it sure is fun saying 'Hey, you fucks - you punks! Look at what I've done. I've made something beautiful.'"
"That's what I want right now - I want things to be really pretty," he states. "But then I have to add that one note, that something that makes it a bit more... me. I have all these things in my head I'd like to do. Never before in my life have I been so confident of my own creativity... But what is the real Phil? What is the Grampa Binto?" he asks, reflexively.
Good question. Because that's mutated wildly since Spirito began to pursue his own vision through oRSo. He says with a laugh: "I used to be a screecher. Gillian would tease me that I sang like Ethel Merman - really forcing my voice." He explains that he was under the influence of Captain Beefheart and the American experimental composer Harry Parch, both of whom had distinctive, if not traditionally pretty, voices. "I've always done that sort of stuff - big shifts in volume, that kind of weird inflection." He adds, philosophically, "I guess it was a compensation for being a tiny guy."
FYI: Spirito is 5'4" in his bare feet.
He continues, "Now my songs and my mood and life now have directed me to a gentler way of singing. I'm trying to sing softer and softer these days. I'm trying to bring out the natural sound of my voice. I still like to rock out," he says, though not especially convincingly, "but these days it's mostly sitting down."
Don't take this as a sign of surrender to advancing age - Spirito is just 35. Rather, it's merely a slight change in battle plans: "I want to have a show where there's a million rocking chairs in the club. Doesn't that sound great? A whole audience listening to oRSo, sitting in rocking chairs?" His enthusiasm grows as he reveals his ulterior motive,"You'd be lulled gently to sleep - into a very disturbed sleep..."
"But," he adds, with a sigh, "it's so hard to find good rocking chairs these days."

CWAS #7 - Spring 2001

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