Though the aftershocks of his outsider acid house project, Black Meteoric Star, are still being felt, Gavin Russom has already moved on, adopting a brand new recording guise for 2010: The Crystal Ark.
The producer, synthesizer whizz and multi-disciplinary artist recently returned to New York after a stint living in Berlin. But the inspiration for The Crystal Ark came south of the equator, when he spent five weeks performing in, and travelling around, Brazil – absorbing the sounds of carioca funk, atabaque drumming, tropicalia and South American club styles. At the same time he was preoccupied with the work of Belgian rave supremos Praga Khan and Nikki Van Lierop, particularly their classic Phantasia 12″s ‘Inner Light’ and ‘Violet Skies’. The Crystal Ark finds Russom bringing these unlikely strains of party music together.
The first Crystal Ark 12″, ‘The City Never Sleeps’, dropped earlier this month on DFA Records, the label which has been Russom’s home ever since his earliest collaborations with Delia Gonzalez. It features spoken and sung vocals by Escandalo’s Viva Ruiz, while the single set to follow it, ‘The Tangible Presence of The Miraculous’, includes contributions from percussionist Alberto Lopez and additional vocals from Lizzy Yoder (Fischerspooner). These various personnel will also help make up the live incarnation of The Crystal Ark, set to debut later this year.
FACT caught up with Russom to talk about The Crystal Ark, as well as his role in the current line-up of LCD Soundsystem, the flavour of forthcoming new material from Delia & Gavin, and his views on contemporary dance music at large.
How are you? What’s been happening?
“Most recently I’ve been involved in re-experiencing New York after being away [in Berlin] for five years. The city has changed a lot so I’ve been learning my way around again, but also getting into deeper threads here, things that haven’t changed at all, like parks, museums and certain neighbourhoods.”
How has the move back to New York affected your work?
“My work and life in Berlin was really about introspection. Returning to New York has been all about getting involved with a community made up of some people from when I lived here before and some new people, and bringing to the table what I learned while in Berlin.”
Do you consider the Berlin period closed?
“Who knows about the future, but I have definitely left Berlin for now. I don’t live between the cities or have a suitcase there. New York is home.”
“It’s not as if I’m using specific Brazilian music styles on The Crystal Ark, I’m not Paul Simon.”
The Black Meteoric Star project found you foregrounding dancefloor percussion in your work, and The Crystal Ark tracks, though very different, are similarly “club-friendly”. Is the dancefloor impulse one you find yourself more and more inclined to indulge?
“I’ve always been interested in dance music, and have produced music geared toward dancing since early days. What’s really changed recently is that I used to make a kind of inner division between dance music which fits in the category of ‘fun’ and more ‘serious’ music. This wasn’t an intellectual distinction that I had and it didn’t apply to other people’s music, but it was a kind of creative block that I carried with me in my own work. This is probably most obvious in the simultaneous releases as Black Leotard Front, which was clearly dancefloor-oriented, and the material released under ‘Delia Gonzalez & Gavin Russom’, which I considered at the time – and still consider – extremely danceable, but which obviously has an attitude of being ‘serious’ music.
“During the time I was beginning Black Meteoric Star I was striving to integrate these two sensibilities into something that would be a more complex and cohesive whole. That opened up some new ideas about DJing, but also my productions – I began to get a hold of a music that worked on the dancefloor but also created a deep experience for the listener, and could be narrative. The narrative is really important to me to tie all these things together. That drive towards integrating seemingly different sensibilities is continuing for me and is becoming a primary motivating factor in my productions.”
“I wanted to make music that shared that, that made people excited to have bodies and to move and experience them.”
I gather that the inspiration for The Crystal Ark stems from time you spent performing in, and travelling around, Brazil. Can you elaborate?
“First off I think it’s important to say that when I say I was inspired by spending time in Brazil and the music I heard there, I mean that in a general way. I had a lot of deep experiences there which put me in a shifted perspective and allowed me to be creative in a way that perhaps wasn’t possible or at least perceivable before. And what I mean is that what happened when I came back was that I made these [Crystal Ark] tracks. It’s not as if I’m using specific Brazilian music styles on The Crystal Ark, I’m not Paul Simon. I listen and I let things get into my blood, let sounds get into my blood. And then when I make music those things go in there somehow, or they help me to do things I couldn’t do before.
“I was there [in Brazil] for five weeks and what stood out for me the most was the way people experience music there, and the way I was able to experience music as a result. Music is largely a body thing for me and my experience there echoed and reinforced that. When I came back I wanted to make music that shared that, that made people excited to have bodies and to move and experience them. I went there to perform a 3-hour set of Black Meteoric Star with Assume Vivid Astro Focus at the Bienial of Sao Paulo. I had been there once before and had been similarly inspired, in fact I had begun BMS after returning from my first trip there.
“This time I stayed as long as I could, traveling to Rio and to Salvador de Bahia and spending New Year’s Eve way out on the beach on an island in the North-East. I soaked up rhythms constantly. I went to a Candomble ceremony in the favelas, I went to clubs packed with people all dressed beautifully, once I wandered into the old center of Salvador and all of the Capoeira masters were playing Berimbau as their best students competed with each other. That music is incredibly hypnotic and, as I said above of music there in general, physical in a way that translates directly to the body. The music and the movements exist as one cohesive whole.”
How, practically-speaking, did The Crystal Ark’s concept affect your choice of equipment and technique?
“The most important choice was to expand my use of percussion. I discovered that I could use percussion in much the same way that I had used pulsing electronics in the past, to create complex rhythmic patterns that moved sculpturally over time. This was something I had been working on for a long time but when I came back to Berlin after the Brazil trip it fell into place. It wasn’t until I had finished the second Crystal Ark track and started to think about how I wanted to present the tracks that I realized that this was a closing of the circle, because one of the major themes that I was working on in the Delia and Gavin material was working on making electronic music that channeled the energy of African and Latin drumming and vocal music, specifically Bata ensembles. In other words I began by working on electronic music that sounded like percussion and then moved to using percussion to get some of the effects I was achieving electronically.
“I also reached a point in working on the tracks where I wanted them to go further, further than the somewhat cold sound of Black Meteoric Star could reach. That was where working with Viva came in. I wanted the music to have a voice that, again, would talk about physicality, body, movement, dance, sensuality. That was where the music really came into its own.”
“I discovered that I could use percussion in much the same way that I had used pulsing electronics in the past, to create complex rhythmic patterns that moved sculpturally over time.”
You’ve also said that [early 90s Belgian rave producers] Praga Khan and Nikki Van Lierop have influenced The Crystal Ark…
“I’ve played ‘Violet Skies’ in my DJ sets for some time because of the way it opens up a mystical space and focusses energy. I discovered those tracks almost immediately after arriving in Berlin in 2004 and related to the sensibility right off the bat. The Black Meteoric Star sound was also influenced by that type of European acid/rave sound. But with The Crystal Ark I really wanted to bring together two types of sound: an American (and I mean that in the sense of the Americas rather than specifically the USA) and a European. It was a way for me to reconcile my time in New York and my time in Berlin, to integrate those two experiences musically.”
Tell us about the artists who’ve contributed to The Crystal Ark recordings – Viva Ruiz, Lizzy Yoder, Alberto Lopez etc – and how you came to work with them.
“I met Viva in Berlin and after that she started popping up wherever I was. We had a lot of mutual friends from New York so it was surprising that we didn’t already know each other. She also used to work at the dance studio where I studied Dunham Technique and so I recognized her from there. Also Jon Galkin of DFA had sent me the first Escandalo track for a feedback request so all the threads were coming together. I felt very connected to her after our first meeting and I asked her to dance with her sometimes performing partner Jaiko Suzuki during the first Black Meteoric Star show in New York. When I made the tracks that became The Crystal Ark and decided I wanted to have a female singer, I thought of her immediately. She said yes, and it took off from there.
“Lizzy and I met each other just after I moved to New York the first time in 1997. We were introduced by our mutual friend Kelly Kuvo (of the Scissor Girls, Who Killed Pan? and zillions of other amazing projects) and we both became members of the huge band Sweet Thunder that Kelly put together at that time. After we split up she went on to work with Fischerspooner and I met Delia and started working intensively on our collaborative projects. I always admired the power of Lizzy’s voice in everything she has been involved with and she is also simply a wonderful person to be around. I wanted a particular vocal effect for the choruses of ‘The Tangible Presence of the Miraculous’ [the second Crystal Ark single, due out later this month] and I knew she would be the person that could do it.
“The Crystal Ark was a way for me to reconcile my time in New York and my time in Berlin, to integrate those two experiences musically.”
“Alberto Lopez is a high school friend of mine. We hit it off immediately on the first day of school. He introduced me to Fania back then and although we have been in and out of contact he is one of my favorite people in the world. We played in a ska band together in High School called the Cherry Clan so we had some experience working together. We reconnected several years ago and when I was out in LA working with James Murphy on the new LCD album: I was able to spend some time watching him work in the studio on some productions for his LA-based Belu Music label. I played him the roughs of The Crystal Ark and he was enthusiastic and wanted to get involved. That worked because I had already been planning to ask him to work with us doing percussion but had assumed he would be too busy. He’s played with Celia Cruz, Ruben Blades, most of the greats and is a great producer and engineer as well. I feel very lucky to be working with him again.
“Matt Thornley started working at DFA just about the time I left for Berlin. Before that he worked as a studio engineer in the UK. During the time I was away he became an expert at the inner workings of the DFA studio. When we went in to track the vocals on ‘The City Never Sleeps’, most of the gear had been shipped out to LA for work on the LCD album. We worked really bare bones and had a great time. He started out as the studio engineer but has become more of a member of the band and will play live with us.”
Can you explain the origins of the name, The Crystal Ark?
“It’s really something that just came to me when I started to work with Viva. I had this word ‘ark’ with me for a long time. Lee Perry uses it and Sun Ra uses it and I always enjoyed the way it connected these two visionaries. I always had it in my mind, I wanted that word to appear in the name of something I do, but I could never figure out what other words to use. Just ‘The Ark’ sounded kind of disappointing. In the time I was researching the stage look for Black Meteoric Star I was looking South and Central American mummies and burial paraphernalia and I came across the well-known crystal skulls of the Mayans. When I returned to New York after a long time away, in March of 2009, and started to work with Viva on the tracks, these two things just kind of fell together and that phrase came out.”
Can you tell us about the Delia & Gavin ‘Track 5’ that’s forthcoming on DFA 12″?
“‘Track 5’ was originally the last track on The Days of Mars. It came out of a studio jam that we did with Tim Goldsworthy during the sessions that produced the album and the ‘El Monte’ 12″. The original cut of Days of Mars was ‘Rise’ and ’13 Moons’ as they appear on the released version, and then the alternate version of ‘Relevee’ that appears on the single, and ‘Track 5’. In final edits we decided it didn’t fit on the record, conceptually, and we cut ‘Black Spring’ which fit perfectly. The major problem with ‘Track 5’ in terms of our releasing it then was that it was almost entirely machine-driven whereas most of the material on Days was played by hand. So we did a later session in Berlin and played back into the machine-made track with great results. It’s a departure from the sound on Days of Mars in certain ways, but it retains a very similar feel. It serves as a counterpart to ‘El Monte’, which was the first single we released.
“My experience during the acid party moved me deeply and although I left it knowing I could never touch the drug again, I also carried with me this new sense about DJing, about working with recorded music, and about creating improvisational narratives with it.”
You’ve been DJing more and more recently, right? What would you say has precipitated that?
“I started DJing as a teenager, throwing high school parties and making beats for my cousin to rap over. It was something I’ve always done on the side and have always enjoyed and experimented with. In 2007 I got asked to DJ at a friend’s party in Berlin. It was an 8 hour long event and liquid LSD was supplied. Because of the length of my set I needed to bring a lot of records and so I ended up bringing things from many different genres. Since ‘Psychedelic Music’ is an interest of mine I decided to explore, in sound, what that meant and what it could mean. Having taken a fair quantity of the drug myself I was open to a whole new approach to DJing, one that integrated all of my musical interests into a new cohesive whole, that again, had a narrative.
“I had already been exposed to, and admired, this style of DJing – primarily through David Mancuso, historically, and through some current masters of the school like Twitch and Wilkes of Optimo, and Traxx. My experience during the acid party moved me deeply and although I left it knowing I could never touch the drug again, I also carried with me this new sense about DJing, about working with recorded music, and about creating improvisational narratives with it. In the gap between working on the last Delia and Gavin projects and starting new Black Meteoric Star material, DJing became a way for me to dream and think in sound, and also to keep working. Now that I’m finished with BMS and working on the beginnings of The Crystal Ark (as well as other things), it fills the same role. Plus I like dancing, both as a spectator and a participant. It uplifts my spirit.”
“James Murphy asked me to become a member of LCD Soundsystem and to develop some synthesizer rigs for performing the material on the new album live. That’s been a great journey and experience already.”
Any other projects on the horizon that you can tell us about?
“One reason I returned to New York was because James Murphy asked me to become a member of LCD Soundsystem and to develop some synthesizer rigs for performing the material on the new album live. That’s been a great journey and experience already. I’m very slowly working on a solo album, and I’m doing a lot of remixes. I just finished one I’m very excited about for Midnight Magic that will come out on Permanent Vacation.”
You’ve also remixed a track for Carlos Giffoni’s forthcoming No Fun Acid 12″, This Is No Fun Acid. Do you feel a natural affiliation with Giffoni? Though his approach his different, he like you seems interested in channelling the familiar sonic and ritual energies of familiar dance music forms into new shapes and narratives…
“For me things start with energy and move towards a focus that might be interpreted as a musical idiom or genre. For example when I’m working in a way that eventually results in a dancefloor-friendly track it’s because that’s the path that particular track has taken me on. With ‘The City Never Sleeps’ I started by doing a live take on a 606 through parallel sets of EQs. That was the original idea that the track grew out of. It wasn’t particularly dancefloor-friendly despite being made on a drum machine but that’s where the energy was coming from at that moment. Then I had the idea to add each layer one by one and it grew into the instrumental track, then Viva came on board and the vocal element was added, and the structure of the track changed again from there.
“But there isn’t really a moment where I say, ‘I want to make a track like this’ or ‘I want this to be this kind of music’. It’s more like there’s a mass of energy that gets first channeled into certain machines or instruments, then into certain sounds. It’s not as if I’m trying to dismantle dance music to be something more energetic or experimental, I’m more anchoring something which has an extremely chaotic and intense energy by using certain musical devices, and not anchoring it so much that it becomes completely defined by those devices but rather that there is a tension between the raw energy and the structure. My sense from listening to Carlos’ work is that he is perhaps working from almost the opposite direction: inhabiting the structures and systems of dance music and dismantling them from inside to push them towards noise and chaos.”
There’s a sense that electronic dance music is no longer plausibly ‘futurist’ – the idea that every successive techno or house record is a giant leap forward for sound/music is no longer a credible one – though many still cling to it – if indeed it ever was. For me it seems that many of the most interesting records in the electronic music realm right now are those that enter into conceptual dialogue with dance music past (your own work, the aforementioned No Fun Acid etc). Do you agree?
“I wonder about this. Is this just a function of the fact that there is so much more dance music being produced and released then there was at the time when, as you say, each new record was a giant leap forward? Undoubtedly a lot of the newer technology that exists for making dance music is focussed more on imitation than it is on invention, but there are still lots of new tools that could be used. For example, I was speaking to Paul Schreiber (of Synthesis Technology/MOTM) the other day and he was describing two new synth modules he’s designed. Both are completely radical and unlike anything out there. There’s lots of stuff out there but I rarely hear it on records.
“I don’t personally believe that the genres and sub-genres and sub-sub-genres we have today are helping much in terms of the issue you mention. We have Omar-S, Gemmy, Traxx, Levon Vincent…All those guys have recently put things out that I consider pretty radical, things that come out of specific genres but then blow the defining characteristics of those genres to pieces.
“I can’t think of a moment where dance music was not in a conceptual dialogue with the past.”
“In my own work I’m really coming from the approach of sound and its energy, its ability to channel energy. Dance music is an obvious choice, an obvious idiom to work in to, as I’ve said, anchor some of this energy into a usable form. Because there’s already all these ideas floating around in the dance music scene about what music can do for you. I think music is way more powerful than people realize, that’s my experience of music, that it is incredibly powerful and can do a lot for a person.When I make music that is primarily what I want to share. I use references, again, as a way of anchoring this energy and translating it into form where it becomes communication. I can’t think of a moment where dance music was not in a conceptual dialogue with the past, as all music is because of the fact that it is continually evolving and changing and growing from where it is to where it is going to be. The first wave of Detroit techno is obviously in dialogue with the music of artists like Kraftwerk, OMD and also with Motown and late 70s funk and soul, just as those musics were in a conceptual dialogue with rock, blues and jazz before them. I consider continuing that dialogue to be part of my responsibility as a composer and producer, to participate in the evolution of music as a whole.
“But maybe this is more what the question is about…I think that part of the way the modernist impulse has been interpreted historically has to do with massive movements, inventions or individuals that have been so radical that they have changed everything, destroying what came before and creating an entirely new thing in its place. I think this is largely a historical fiction that is based around marketplace necessity rather than creative development. The futurists themselves, perhaps the most modernist of the modernists, were guided by an impulse to destroy current ideas about art so that it could return to a more authentic place which they saw manifested in so called primitive cultures. So were the Abstract Expressionists. I suspect that creativity that has engaged the past has always been more interesting and that this is all the more noticeable now because of how easy it is, technologically, to create in a vacuum.”