“Lots of other things in my life had changed, so it made sense to give that an external gesture that matched it,” Gavin Russom told BYT in the fall of 2011. “It was a good way to get a really fresh start on what was a new decade and a new chapter in my creative life. And I think it was also about bringing a more essential version of myself to the surface.”
Russom was touching on the fact that he had recently left Berlin and returned to New York City, where he would become a full-fledged member of LCD Soundsystem and begin a creative partnership with dancer and filmmaker Viva Ruiz, something that was inspired by travel in South America and the cultural melting pot that is his on-again 0ff-again hometown. More to the point, however, he was answering the question of why he decided to get a haircut. And, tenuous though it may seem, this offers a window into how to process and wrestle with Russom’s music: If he puts this much thought into a trip to the barbershop, try to imagine how much went into the fifty-four minutes that make up The Crystal Ark’s debut LP, and keep that in the back of your mind as you traverse its varied and sprawling landscape.
The album was still being written and recorded at the time we spoke, but Russom had already released three excellent singles under the Crystal Ark moniker: “The Tangible Presence of the Miraculous” and “The City Never Sleeps”, throbbing songs that flowed naturally from the repetitious and hypnotic synth odysseys that had defined his work as Black Meteor Shower and with Delia Gonzalez; and “Touch”, a more physical song, aswirl with live instrumentation and more engaged with lineage of pop structure. Although none of these songs would make the LP, it was “Touch” that gave the greatest indication of where Russom was heading with the Crystal Ark, a product of Russom’s changing vision for the project and its expansion to include not just collaboration with Ruiz, but also Tyler Pope (!!! / LCD Soundsystem), Jaiko Suzuki (Electroputas), Matt Thornley (LCD Soundsystem), artist Sokhna Heathyre Mabin, and percussionist Alberto Lopez.
That troupe returns to the District tomorrow to open for former labelmates Hot Chip at the 9:30 Club. The Crystal Ark also has a pair of NYC appearances ahead: First, a DJ set at Roseland Ballroom tonight alongside Tanlines and Hot Chip, and then a performance at the Apple store in SoHo on Friday. In anticipation, we checked in with Russom to discuss the making of his band’s self-titled debut, The Crystal Ark’s live show, and his recent Bunkerweltanschauung installation at MoMA PS1.
You’ve said Crystal Ark “gives voice to experiential reality of urban life today, especially in New York City.” What about New York City do you think is manifested in this project’s music?
Intensity, complexity, diversity, sexuality. New York is a cultural crossroads like no other place in the world.
The Crystal Ark used its record release party to raise money for Hurricane Sandy relief. Were you in the city for the storm? How did it affect you?
I was not in NYC for the storm. Viva and I were in Berlin together. My place was fine. Although I wasn’t affected personally, tens of thousands of people lost their homes, and even months later, people were still without heat, water, and electricity. The response on the part of the federal, state, and city governments was inadequate, to say the least, because the people most affected by the storm were poor or working class. Adidas approached Viva about the possibility of doing a benefit based around the video she directed for “We Came To”, which also premiered that night, and she brought in New York Cares as the charity that the proceeds would go to. I was and still am very grateful to have been able to do something to help out.
Songs on The Crystal Ark have a loose quality; repetition feels less foregrounded in favor of live instrumentation and pop songcraft, and everything sounds like it was recorded in a one take. What was the writing and recording process like? Where does a Crystal Ark song start?
I made the instrumentals leaving room for Viva to sing. I usually started with a beat and then built on that, building a song around the beat, adding electronic sequences and keyboard takes. I gave the songs to Viva and she started writing lyrics and melodies, and creating parts for Jaiko and Sokhna to sing as well, which we recorded over a few different sessions. I also gave the tracks to Alberto, who is based in LA, and he sent me several tracks of percussion for each one. I edited those back in, building around Viva’s vocals and using them to create a more propulsive and dynamic feeling to the music. Tyler and Eliza recorded over scratch bass lines that I wrote with takes of live bass. Then Viva, Matt [Thornley] and I spent a month at the DFA studio mixing all the songs and doing final edits and arrangements.
Did working with live instrumentation – keyboards, bass, brass – change your approach to songwriting?
It was more the other way around. I wanted to take a different approach to songwriting, to make an album of songs like pop songs. And that inspired me to bring in some more live instrumentation.
Do you think the character of Crystal Ark’s music changes when you perform it? Are there qualities that can’t be captured in a studio?
Yes, absolutely, and that’s the process we are in now, moving from focusing on making the record to performing the music live. I don’t see a lot of common ground between recorded and live music. They are very different experiences, and both have their wonderful qualities. Being physically present with a bunch of people and creating music for them, and for ourselves, is just qualitatively different from making a record of some music for people to listen to wherever and whenever they want. Neither one is better, but they are really different. I think that’s true of all music, but maybe more in focus with The Crystal Ark since that difference is something I’m very aware of and interested in working with. A lot of what I end up doing in the studio is figuring out ways to give a recording life and depth knowing that it will exist without the physical presence of the people creating it.
Was there any concern that in drawing on the sounds of Latin America that you could be viewed as interloper? Did you give thought to how you would try to channel the spirit of the music without being overly reverential to it?
I make music based on my personal experiences, and also work with and hold space for people who have different experiences and backgrounds. When I say that the music was originally inspired by my experiences in Brazil, I mean something deeper and more spiritual than a direct appropriation of the music I heard while I was there. It’s something that’s ultimately impossible to put into words.
The group, however, definitely has what you might call Latin American influences. A big part of that comes from my main collaborator, Viva, who grew up between New York City and Ecuador, where her family is from. I first asked her to work with me because I liked the work of hers that I knew, much of it having to do with what happens at cultural borders, and because I wanted to work with someone who could sing in Spanish. As our collaboration has deepened, the project has become a shared vision based on who each of us is and what we want to make. Alberto, who is Colombian and who I’ve known since high school, brings his extensive study of folkloric Afro-Latin drumming traditions to the sound of the group.
In terms of channeling the spirit of a truly other culture than my own’s music, I’m not sure if that’s possible. I’ve successfully channeled my own spirits, and the people I’m working with in this project have successfully channeled theirs.
What’s the story behind your cover art for The Crystal Ark?
Viva and I were talking about “The City Never Sleeps” being like a panther prowling through a city. And I wanted to make a picture of that as a symbol for the band. Then I got a strong spiritual message about the difference between the Lion and the Tiger, which is that the Lion lives in a pack and learns to share, while the Tiger keeps everything for himself, and as a result, when he gets too old to kill and eat his prey, he dies alone in the jungle of starvation. I wanted to incorporate the idea of community as represented by the Lion pack, so I made the cat a Lion with a shining mane, included the moon and sun – classic symbols of divine masculinity and femininity – to create a visualization of those energies being in balance. And the city is the city that never sleeps and holds all the secrets.
How was it that you came to record “Tusk” for Just Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac? What were you hoping to achieve with your reimagination of it?
We were asked by the curators of the project, they picked “Tusk” for us, and it seemed like a perfect fit. We are raging Fleetwood Mac fans, so we said yes. I don’t generally like cover versions of songs at all, so I wanted to make a cover version that a person like me would like, something that took the mood and basics of the song but didn’t grab any of the obvious details that make their version of the song what it is.
Is it odd knowing that for some people, their first – and perhaps only – exposure to the Crystal Ark could be on a Fleetwood Mac covers record sold in Starbucks?
I suppose so. I never thought about it that way. One of my goals with the project is to make subversive music, so that seems like a great way to get it into people’s ears that might not hear it otherwise.
What the inspiration between your Bunkerweltanschauung installation at MoMA PS1?
My main inspiration was a feeling of rage and helplessness at the current state of our society. The planet is being decimated, the rights of under-privileged groups such as women, immigrants, the elderly, and people of transgendered experience, as well as the basic human rights of all people, are under attack. Inexplicable profiteering and constant surveillance have become the unquestioned norm. And I do not know what to do about these things. The world feels like it is in utter crisis — an emergency situation. One tool I do have is creativity, my own and also creativity as a force that binds people together and allows them to put forth new ideas and conversations. So that was the main idea behind the installation, to create this scenario: The world is inhospitable and a group of radicals takes over an abandoned bunker to begin creating a new world.
I was inspired by the bunker too, the idea of it as this monstrous piece of architecture created so the people who started a war that has gotten out of their control can hide from it. Taken out of context and aligned with other liminal spaces – spaces where things change and become something else, like the womb, the grave, a cocoon, or even a nightclub – the bunker seemed like a powerful symbol to make as the central focus of an exhibition. I chose people whose work I felt carried seeds of truth, healing, and transformation to participate in the exhibition and created what I hoped would be an inspiring and radical environment for them to present their works in; an environment that was particularly tuned to support many voices rather than a single voice.
Right now, we are focusing on creating the live show. From that, I hope and imagine some new music might come up. Viva and I have talked a lot about what future Crystal Ark songs and records might be like. I think of this first LP as the tip of the iceberg.
“Heavenly Body” appeared without much explanation on your Soundcloud recently. Where did it come from? The last time we talked, you had just released the “Night Sky” single. How much closer are we to a Gavin Russom solo record?
“Heavenly Body” is a track I made to play out as part of my DJ set. Sometimes I can’t find tracks that feel or sound like what I want to DJ, so I just make them. There are some frighteningly talented house music DJ’s around in New York right now and if we play together, or even if I know one of them might be in the crowd when I’m playing, I want to have something that they definitely won’t have heard before, but also moves everyone in the club. That’s where that track comes out of. How much closer are we to a Gavin Russom solo record? Closer.