Features I by I 25.10.12

“Total immersion, permanent revolution.” Gavin Russom on life after LCD and the return of The Crystal Ark

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Gavin Russom interviewed


Post-LCD Soundsystem, Gavin Russom has returned to The Crystal Ark.

The Crystal Ark began when the multifaceted producer asked artist Viva Ruiz to write and sing Spanish lyrics over a pair of hypnotic Afro-Latin instrumentals. In 2010, the duo released their first singles, ‘The City Never Sleeps’ and ‘The Tangible Presence of the Miraculous,’ synthesizing South American and European (primarily Belgian rave) club styles.

Since then, Russom and Ruiz assembled a touring band and produced their debut album, a self-titled effort due out October 30 on DFA Records. We spoke with Russom via email about New York, the end of LCD Soundsystem, and his goals for The Crystal Ark.


“I’m honestly having a real love affair with New York these days.”


The last time you spoke to FACT, you were still re-acclimatising to New York after five years in Berlin. How has the city changed?

“Well I know I’ve changed a lot, and I live in a different neighborhood so that makes the city seem different, but one thing that I’ve really noticed is how much talent and energy there is around. I feel much more of a sense of community. I remember feeling very isolated for much of the early 2000s. Places where I felt like I fit in at all were few and far between and now I see and hear so much that I relate to around.

“The younger people I see making things and being out there seem much less restricted by scenes or genres and are more into carving out something that feels real for them. That’s the nice news. At the same time the city is way more controlled by affluence than anything else. There are buildings and shops that I never would’ve imagined when I lived here before. Huge parts of the nightlife landscape are bottle service nightmares with horrendous ’90s revival music and ironic dancing of a type that feels very out of sync with the true creative spirit of New York, which I also definitely feel, see and hear loud and clear all around, but in different places.

“And in the end all these contradictions existing together is one thing that I love about New York. There’s a good feeling in the air. Post 9/11 it felt really hopeless here, and post-re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 it felt really hopeless here. That’s when I left. Things got quiet and sad for a while. Occupy Wall St has been an incredible vital force in making New York feel alive and important as a cultural and social center. That spread out to so many corners of life here and in the rest of the country as well.”


“The final LCD Soundsystem concert at MSG was like the biggest high school play ever. It felt much more like a theatre piece than a rock concert.”


Do you see yourself staying there for the time being?

“Yeah it feels like home. I’m honestly having a real love affair with New York these days.”

Press materials says that the band’s sound “reflects the physicality, diversity, sexuality and intensity of New York City itself.” Do you think the dance music of New York, in general, still reflects those values?

“Absolutely, although not everything made in the city does, so ‘in general’ becomes a funny blanket term in this context. I think it’s hard to say anything ‘in general’ about New York because there are always so many different things happening at the same time. But there is for sure much music happening here that reflects those values, and channels a very wild, complex, restless and nasty (in a good way) energy which is one of the frequencies of New York that I find most appealing and most unique to here.”

It’s been more than a year since LCD Soundsystem’s final performances. Can you describe that experience?

“Those final shows were really special, intense and magic. I have to say especially the Terminal 5 shows leading up to MSG. The level of intuitive playing together that we got to after a year of that intense touring, combined with the energy projected by audiences who knew they were seeing something they would never see again created a very powerful feeling. Mounting something like a live version of ’45:33′ was the kind of epic experience that speaks to me in music. That was a major high point for me, working with that long time-scale and seamless transitions.

“The final concert at MSG was like the biggest high school play ever. It felt much more like a theatre piece than a rock concert. And I mean that in a good way. The feeling in that – very large – room was one of excitement and possibility. And that’s what I took away from the experience, a real feeling that great things are possible in this life that we are given. And I’m really grateful to James and everyone else involved for transmitting that feeling to me and joining with me in experiencing it.”

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Perhaps due to the documentary, those shows already have a historic air to them. Any thoughts on the film?

“I honestly watched the film the first time through with nothing more than a childish excitement at seeing myself on screen. After seeing it a couple times it’s still hard to detach and look at it objectively. I think its great that James had an opportunity to share some of the things that are important to him about the band, and about his outlook in general, in such a public and far reaching way, and I imagine that for people who weren’t able to be at the concert it is a pretty good window into what that experience was like. For me its mostly an external reference that the whole thing actually did happen, since there are times when it seems like a strange dream I had.”

“We, as a band, had been steeping ourselves in Fleetwood Mac for a long while before the idea came up for the tribute album.”

How did the Fleetwood Mac cover [on Just Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac] come about?

“In practical terms, Gelya Robb and Randall Poster of Search Party invited us to do it and ‘Tusk’ was their curatorial decision which I thought was brilliant. The interesting thing was that we, as a band, had been steeping ourselves in Fleetwood Mac for a long while before the idea came up for the tribute album. Viva and I had watched endless Fleetwood Mac live videos as research for the live show and entertainment, we had covered ‘The Chain’ acoustically as part of our month long recording residency in Berlin last summer, Matt Thornley and I had discussed their production techniques, their songs kept soundtracking our travel when we’d go out to play shows. I started closing my DJ sets with ‘Come a Little Bit Closer’… It was in the air, so when we were invited it felt like part of this long ‘chain’ of Fleetwood Mac synchronicity.”

Was there something special about ‘Tusk’ for you?

“It just made sense in so many ways. Like I said it wasn’t our choice but it was a better fit than anything we would have chosen. I didn’t know the song or even the album that well at the time. It became special, though as I started to rewrite it as a Crystal Ark song. The way it evolves linearly rather than in a standard song structure, the obsessive quality of the lyrics. The dark vibe and the way it contrasts with what on the surface feels like a triumphant anthem… All this stuff made me relate to it a lot and made doing the cover version both natural and challenging. I definitely wanted to make something that was different than the original.”

The recording process for that song is 70s excess at its finest.

“Hell yeah, one of the things I love about Fleetwood Mac is that they were really able to take it there.”

“I wanted to musically give people permission to experience the wild and natural in themselves as the reflection of the divine.”

What was the writing and recording process of ‘We Came To’ like? It sounds very tightly constructed, but there are times when it seems like a hypnotic jam session.

“The ‘versions’ that were released as the single were done after we mixed the album version of the song. Viva, Matt and I made those quick and rough ‘house’ and ‘dub’ mixes in a very intuitive way, cutting up the tracks we had recorded for the album version, stripping them down, sampling the vocal tracks from the album version and re-playing them on samplers live for the house mix. Stuff like that. Maybe that’s where that part song part jam feel comes from, because we were working from the album version which is very structured and kind of riffing on parts of it we liked.

“The album version I recorded mostly at home, half in Berlin and half in New York. I got Tyler to re-play the bassline I had recorded on a DX-7 with live bass while we were on tour with LCD in Australia, and he added a whole other feel to it. That was the beginning of him being in the band. I sent the track to Alberto and he tracked both Afro-Cuban and Colombian traditional drums over it which I edited in. We did a vocal recording session where Viva tracked the vocals she had written and we both wrote parts for Jaiko and Sokhna, the other two singers, and in that session Matt also brought in his studio expertise which shaped the sound. I also added in a vocal chant in a part where there needed to be a kind of repetitive build. A lot of different pieces all came together on that one, over what was actually over a very long time of the song being around.”

What were you trying to accomplish with this album? Either sonically or personally.

“These are some of the things I wanted to achieve:

“To shape the sound of The Crystal Ark into something that drew on all of the different kinds of music I enjoyed but wasn’t a fusion of them. I wanted to try to integrate many different aspects of my musical experience. A lot of that came from working with Viva because we had so much musical history in common and the things we didn’t have in common really complemented and informed each other. I feel like my earlier projects were about stripping things down and this project has been more about opening them up.

“I feel like my earlier projects were about stripping things down and this project has been more about opening them up.”

“To create a real album, rather than a collection of tracks. I wanted to make something that told a story in a different way than Black Meteoric Star had, and in particular I wanted to make some ‘album length’ songs. I also wanted to make something that might appeal to a wide range of people who might not share the same interests on a surface level. And I wanted to make a record that retained the sound and hypnotic quality of the work I’m known for but applied it to a songwriting style and creative idiom that worked like pop music, and also included some other types of sounds.

“To continue working with Viva based on the way we had collaborated on the first few 12” releases. Originally those were going to be the only Crystal Ark records, a two 12” series. But as we worked it felt like just the beginning. What she brought to the sound and to the project was something I wanted more of and doing an album seemed like the natural next step. As the band formed that also extended to the rest of the people involved too. It was a good combination and I wanted to see what would happen if we kept going.

“To musically give people permission to experience the wild and natural in themselves as the reflection of the divine.”

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The key influences of the Crystal Ark project have been well documented. Are there other elements that influenced the making of the album?

“In terms of the album, the experience of moving back to New York was highly influential. The sounds, feelings, faces and energy of the city moved through me as I wrote in a very tangible way. Definitely working with James on the final LCD tour shaped my approach to writing the album, much of it was written on my laptop in hotel rooms or tour buses, and then re-recorded with hardware when I’d be home for a few days. And even though New York is a big influence, so is travel and having been in a lot of different places. I also deepened my spiritual life significantly in the time since I started The Crystal Ark and that left its mark on the sound. Viva brings a whole other world of influence: the Latin-inflected New York flavour for one, as well as her whole history as a performer, artist and musician. So working with her is a big influence on me too.”

“I also deepened my spiritual life significantly in the time since I started The Crystal Ark and that left its mark on the sound.”

What have you been listening to, be it new material or old (re)discoveries?

“I’ve been going through another period of just being in awe of Jamie Principle as a songwriter and producer. I’m a huge fan of Ashland Mines aka Total Freedom. The new Charles Manier album on Nation is an unbelievable and deep work of art as is Nancy Fortune’s Remain Human on the same label. Been deep into the South African house sound, artists like DJ Jagu, Moneoa, Minister… Just mind-blowing stuff. Playing with HJ Roedelius recently reminded me how great his early stuff is.”

I’ve seen the Crystal Ark live line-up listed at eight members, plus dancers and a video crew. How do you approach the challenge of a large, live collaboration like that?

“It takes a lot of work but all the people involved are great, talented and involved in lots of other interesting stuff outside of The Crystal Ark. That somehow makes it easy. We don’t even all live in the same place so we take times to get together, usually preparing for a show, to rehearse and hang out. Viva and I spend a fair amount of time planning the live shows and working with some really great people outside the band like Martin Keeehn, Machine Dazzle, Madeline Davy and Sarah Welsh Eliot who have made some of our stage wear, or Stanley Love who has done choreography for the show.

“In preparation for touring after the album comes out we’ll go into production for a couple of months to put a show together that brings those songs into full colour and movement. It’s been an interesting transition from doing Black Meteoric Star which was almost aggressively a solo project to working with a writing collaborator and then a big group, slowly realizing that not everyone is living inside my head…”

“The Crystal Ark live is total immersion, permanent revolution, coloursex, funk rally, three-legged sock hop, ancestor worship, tantric empowerment workshop, feminist revival tent, inner archaeology, firewalk…”

What’s the live experience of a Crystal Ark show?

“Total immersion, permanent revolution, coloursex, funk rally, three-legged sock hop, ancestor worship, tantric empowerment workshop, feminist revival tent, inner archaeology, firewalk…”

What were the best live performances where you feel it all came together?

“We played Pride in San Francisco this year. The combination was very powerful since not only was there a lot of important history that was tangible in the energy of the moment, but also many of the people gathered spoke both English and Spanish. People danced for their lives and the mix of people was electric. We also played an old supper club and discotheque in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, a party that Abracadabra promoter Seva Granik organized. Again the energy of the location brought something special, tons of friends and family were there, as well as lots of people who just wanted to have a great time and thought they’d have a good chance there. We also did a big outdoor festival in Portgual where people were going out of their minds. Those are probably the top three for me so far.”

What’s next for the Crystal Ark, and for you as a solo musician?

“We’re preparing the live show, both as the full band and also in the incarnation we call The Crystal Ark Party Machine. That show is more built around a DJ set with live singing and movement, and rather than play our songs we use music we like and jacked-up edits of the songs on the album to channel the energy and message of the band in a direct and ceremonial way. Viva is finishing a video for the album version of ‘We Came To’ which will be the second video she’s made for the band. I hope to have the full band touring in early 2013.

“Solo-wise I’ve been DJing a lot and deepening what I do there. I’m very slowly working on a solo album and lately I’ve been doing some live solo shows based around improvising and using some of the electronic tools I’ve created to do real-time sound landscapes. I’m also considering doing a second Black Meteoric Star record and live show. There are 4 unreleased Black Meteoric Star tracks that I made after I finished the first record and I’d like to add to those and put something out. But mostly I’m focussing on The Crystal Ark live show, figuring out how to unpack the music on the album and turn it into a fierce machine of a touring band, and I have a feeling that more new Crystal Ark music is going to flow through as a natural result of that process.”

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