Q&A: DFA's Gavin Russom on His New Project the Crystal Ark, Who Are Playing P.S.1's Warm Up Tomorrow
Only recently has it been revealed that the DFA's secret weapon is the studio and gear whiz Gavin Russom. He was responsible for Black Dice's weird guitar FX suitcase that defined the band's sound during their tenure there. He keeps the label's studio gear in shape. He's toured the world with his boss, James Murphy, as a member of LCD Soundsystem. A few years back, he graced the label with tantric synth workouts with (now-former) partner Delia Gonzalez and sensuous disco singles as Black Leotard Front. 2009 saw the release of his solo acid project, Black Meteoric Star. Now Russom is presenting his newest endeavor, the Crystal Ark. Part kraut pulse, part South American percussion trance, part Berlin banging techno, the project's first single, "The City Never Sleeps," is minimal mesmerism at its finest. In anticipation of the Ark's live premiere at P.S.1 this Saturday as part of the DFA-curated party, we asked Russom about traveling in Brazil, whether New York City in fact sleeps at night now, and how his mom helped come up with the band name.
What is the name The Crystal Ark in reference to?
Both Black Meteoric Star and the music I made with Delia had fairly rigid boundaries, rules that dictated a lot of what the music would sound like. I wanted to do something that would be more loose, and that would integrate elements of those two (which were polar opposites in some fairly intentional and obvious ways). I cut two long instrumental tracks that I liked and that defined a clear direction for me. But I also knew they weren't finished. I had met Viva Ruiz in 2008 in Berlin and thought of her writing some lyrics to be sung in Spanish. I asked her and she said yes and I returned to New York to cut the vocals.
The name is something that just came to me after I started working with Viva. I had this idea rolling around in my head for years about doing something called The ______ Ark. It was somewhat inspired by the way both Lee Perry and Sun Ra integrated the word into their practice and public images. The "Crystal" part just hit me. My mom talked about "crystal moments" a lot, where everything becomes cinematic and perfect. But the more I think about it I think it's not really a band name at all, it's actually a definition of what this thing is: it's a big ship that's made of charged material. And when people like Viva, or me or Alberto Lopez or Lizzy Yoder or any of the other bunches of people that are involved get into it, we go somewhere we've never been before.
I've read that the project stems in part from your travels through Brazil and I wondered if there was a particular instance that solidified the concept.
My experiences in Brazil were basically nonstop; there was music around all the time. And wherever there was music there was a physical response. I saw Capoeira masters in the town square in Salvador, sharp dressed kids at Clube Gloria and Vegas in Sao Paulo, Caboclo ceremonies in several Terreiros, and many, many more things. I related to this because I look at music as something with a function, something that is part of a greater whole that affects the body. There wasn't one specific event that triggered it--that's not really how inspiration works for me most of the time. I say the music was inspired by my travels there because I came home and the first thing I did was start to make this music.
How has it been to come back to New York after five years in Berlin?
I keep thinking that the first Crystal Ark single, "The City Never Sleeps," was inspired by your return to NYC. But considering how many times I've tried and failed to find decent eats here after midnight, perhaps you were thinking of another city?
The Crystal Ark is certainly "about" my coming back to New York in many ways, just as BMS is "about" me discovering Berlin. You can hear it in the sound. That song in particular is more about cities in general, though, and how despite their concrete surface they are still permeated and interpenetrated by natural forces. And that this is especially noticeable in the night time. It's a theme for me, the journey through the city at night. Probably because it's something I spend a lot of time doing. New York is a particularly nice place to explore at night.
When you first started working for DFA as their tech guy, did you ever think that you'd wind up playing live with LCD Soundsystem?
The first thing I did when I started working with DFA doing electronics was develop tools for LCD to use live. For years, James had been talking about having me play as part of the band in some capacity--so yes, it was a pretty obvious development.
You also are about to release the last track your and former partner Delia Gonzalez recorded, "Track 5." Was it bittersweet to return to that music? I recall it getting lambasted upon its release but a few years on, people seem to be re-considering it.
Sometimes it takes a while for people to understand things.
One of the things that always struck me about The Days of Mars (made with Gonzalez) is that, unlike earlier synth records, which always seemed to be about one dude holed up with a mountain of gear, there was a man-woman dynamic at its center. It was collaborative.
Collaboration for me is about people bringing who they are to the table and figuring out a way for that to co-exist and create something bigger than the sum of the parts. I think it works a lot like what happens when you add sound waves together. Most collaborations I have been in, the borders start to become very blurry after awhile. My work with Delia involved a very deep level of being in tune with each other, because it was part of a lifestyle that was basically a 24 hour a day performance. After that I very much wanted to get back to myself. That was a challenge. Black Meteoric Star was like acting out the fantasy I had about being a rock star when I was 11: doing everything myself, in my bedroom. It was something I had always wanted to do. Coming through that experience allowed me to approach collaboration in a new way, and the Crystal Ark is definitely a product of that. I'm creating these tracks, making a structure, and then bringing people in to add something to it, which then changes the whole.