Interview: Black Meteoric Star

By , Jan 1 2009

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This autumn, Gavin Russom – producer, musician, synth technician, sculptor and general polymath – will unveil Black Meteoric Star, his new acid house project for DFA Records.

A channel for his interest in “dance music and dance culture”, Black Meteoric Star is a significant departure from the melancholic, mellifluous Days of Mars LP that Gavin recorded with Delia Gonzalez, and instead pays dark-hued homage to the raw, rythmic psychedelia of the late 80s Chicago underground.

Russom recently moved from New York to Berlin, and the latter’s vibrant, 24-hour techno scene has undoubtedly informed Black Meteoric Star as well; but, as he explains in this up-front and in-depth interview, there are more mysterious influences at work – from Pawnee Indian medicine to Britney Spears. Read on, and while you’re at it download our exclusive DFA mix to hear an as yet unreleased Black Meteoric Star track.

Hello Gavin. What’s been interesting you of late?

“Shaker hymns and chants, Opium Den, decorative sword handles, Huichol beadwork, The 1958 Gibson ES-150 my father handed down to me on my last birthday, dissonant counterpoint, ‘Piece of Me’ by Britney Spears, Ireland. I spend a lot of time here in Berlin with a fashion and cultural theory professor who always has interesting information about the relationship between ritual behavior and contemporary cultural production.  Although I tend to approach things more phenomenologically it’s an interesting field to learn about.”

Please tell us a little bit about your Black Meteoric Star project, and how it differs from your previous work.

“Black Meteoric Star is a channel for my interest in dance music and dance culture. It’s also a way to experiment with pitch and rhythm relationships using a limited set of tools.  The tracks are done in single live takes.”

“The major difference between Black Meteoric Star and any of the earlier projects I’ve done is that it’s the first time I’ve made the choice to apply the compositional techniques and instruments I’ve used in more “serious” music towards the end of basically making intense and enjoyable dance music. It is also a solo project whereas much of my earlier work in music has been collaborative in one way or another.”

How do you plan to disseminate Black Meteoric Star’s music?

“The Black Meteoric Star tracks will come out on a series of three 12″s on DFA this year.”

Would you describe Black Meteoric Star as conceptual work?

“Yes. I think of the three 12”s as a story-book.  Each track is like an episode in a narrative.  The theme is a journey through night. I’m designing a set of posters that will accompany the first three 12”s. These continue the storybook idea.  I think of them as synaesthetic illustrations. What I mean by that is that the tracks conjure up certain images for me and the posters depict some of those.”

Were there any direct inspirations or influences on the project?

“I was definitely inspired to make dance music by what I was hearing DJ’s like Nd Baumecker, Eric D. Clark and Diana Dart play in Berlin clubs. My choice to use a minimal set of composing tools was very inspired by early Acid House on the TRAX label, primarily tracks by  DJ Pierre and Jack Frost (Adonis).

“Most of the way the music sounds is dictated by the instruments I used, including some I built myself. The melodies, themes and rhythms are more inspired by the experience of moving through inner and outer environments.  I’m trying to render the sensations I have as psychological states and physical spaces interact.

Do you plan to perform this music live?

“Yes, although I’m still sorting out the details.  The major question is whether “DJ” or “Musician” is the relevant idiom, but it’s an interesting question and one I’m willing to play with a bit.”

‘Days of Mars’, ‘Black Meteoric Star’ – you seem to have a penchant for space/astral imagery; is that so, and if so where do you think it stems from?

“It’s funny that ‘space’ is the most common reference point for the above.  I suppose it’s a natural response to music that uses electronics and doesn’t give you a lot of hard facts to hold on to.

“The Days of Mars is the title of a memoir written during World War II that Delia was reading while we were writing the record. The ‘Mars’ in the title refers to the god of war. It seemed like an apt title considering the political circumstances in the USA.

“’Black Meteoric Star’ is one of the objects found in a Pawnee Indian Medicine Bundle.  This is something I was researching over 10 years ago and when the name popped back in my mind it seemed to ‘rhyme’ with the music I was making.

“If space is a relevant theme for me it’s more along the lines of Native American cosmology; something dark, unknowable and powerful, from which things are seemingly created and into which things seemingly disappear. I’d say I have a much stronger relationship to the concept of ‘Night’.”

Your interest in sculpture and music suggest imply that physical space, and the manipulation of it (real or imagined), is of interest to you. Is that the case? Is there a sculptural aspect to your music?

“Yes, that is the case.  In both visual art and music I’m interested in the idea that reality is actually an extremely flexible construct.

“Much of the work I’ve done in terms of compositional technique and instrument design has been to create a way for myself to make music as if I was building something.  I think of sounds and phrases as blocks and am interested in how they change when set next to other blocks.  How the edges start to blur.”

Your interest in vintage synthesizers, instrument-building and sculpting suggest that you’re particularly drawn to tactile means of artistic production. Is that fair to say?

“Yes. I have a very hands-on approach and think of sound as a physical entity that I am interacting with as I compose.”

When and how did you first start building instruments?

“It’s always been an interest.  My mother used to get furious because I’d figured out how to make a trumpet from some pieces of the coffee maker and they were never there when she wanted to make coffee.

“I started experimenting with feedback and tape machines in 1991 or so because I wanted to make music that I could live inside. I began building instruments using analog synth technology in 2000 because it was the logical next step to develop more precision control over the sounds I was getting from feedback and tape delay.”

Are repetition and drone ideas or practices which fundamentally interest you?

“Yes.  I’m also very interested in the relationship between the two, for example how the pitch of a drone can seemingly change when played in time with a repetitive pattern.”

Do you have any Delia & Gavin records planned for the near future?

“There will be a new D&G single released on DFA this year.”

Whatever happened to Black Leotard Front?

“Wouldn’t we all like to know.”

Tell us about your performance work with Assume Vivid Astro Focus…

“For the ‘Super’ festival in Paris (April 5th, 2008) they designed a set for me to debut some Black Meteoric Star tracks as well as some other new solo material.  There were giant balloons, day-glo dancers, lasers and video projections, and I was given an elaborate, almost shamanic, cape and hood to wear for the performance.  We are talking about re-staging that in Berlin and also, since it seems to work, collaborating on some future projects.”

What prompted your move to Berlin?

“I enjoyed visiting, especially seeing the parks and the architecture.  After living in NYC for 8 years I was ready for a change. The winter is so long and harsh here I can’t even put it into words.  But it is a great time to be focused and make things. When the weather is nice it’s like a beautiful secret garden. There are a lot of interesting people and things here but you’ve got to dig.”

Is the 24-hour party culture of Berlin something which you’re interested in, repelled by or indifferent to?

“I’ve definitely ‘done my time’  there.  It has its appealing and its repulsive sides but the FACT that it exists and is unlike anything else in another city is worth a lot to me.  I was at Bar 25 on Sunday at 3 in the afternoon and it was full of people lounging in the sun by the river, dancing to techno and recovering from or desperately holding onto their weekend.  That’s pretty special.”

Do you miss New York?

“Yes, but I missed it when I lived there too.”

What does acid house mean to you?

“Too much for one interview, but here’s a few things:

“I first got introduced to it by Noah Hayslip, the coolest kid in my hometown of Providence, RI.  He pointed me to a late night house and early techno radio show. That was 1988 or so. The first track I remember by name was ‘The Groove’ by Liddell Townsell.  I couldn’t believe how intense and powerful it was with such minimal elements.

“Being basically a total shut-in with no social framework for that music, I enlisted my cousin Mike [better known as Kelley Polar] to do an acid house project with me. He had a drum machine and a 4-track but we really didn’t know how to do it. We didn’t get much further than making loops of Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream on cassette decks, trying to sync them to the drum machine by hand, recording each other saying potent phrases over the telephone and making hand stenciled ‘Acid Barons’ T-shirts.”

“Later I became very interested in the thematic elements of early Detroit and Chicago electronic music and the cultural environments that surrounded the Warehouse. Of particular interest was the way that a piece of music technology (specifically the Roland TB-303) generated an entire musical aesthetic because of its characteristics and its limitations. The post-apocalyptic vision of a new society, armed with electronic technology, emerging from the post industrial wasteland resonated with my own political ideals, my experiences growing up in Providence and my interest in the post-WWI European avant-garde who had similar ideas.

“Of course I always come back to the fact that it’s simply interesting and powerful psychedelic music.”

So much dance music is listened to away from the dancefloor – be it at home, in the car, on an iPod, wherever – as such, the dancefloor is more of a construct, a kind of imagined space. As someone making “dance” music, Is this an idea which you can relate to?

“Projecting a ‘fantasy environment’ is important to me when I make dance music.  It’s something I do half-consciously, imagining the place where the music would fit ideally or what people would be wearing etc.  Like, ‘What is the world that this belongs in?’ It’s quite sad that the dance floor is disappearing from the cultural landscape.  It’s a very important place.”

Is the dancefloor somewhere you feel comfortable?

“Yes, but regarding the other people on the dancefloor; that’s a different story.”

Kiran Sande

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