Interview: Russo

We have a series of firsts here. Next month audiovisual artist Ari Russo, who records expansive electronic music under his last name, will release the first record on Luke Wyatt’s Valcrond Video imprint not by the label boss himself. In another first Truants caught up with Russo for his first interview to coincide with this project. In a lengthy chat we discussed slumbrous inspiration, the wonder of VHS and how he’s waiting for his favourite drink to kick his ass.

Hey Ari, how are you? What have you been up to lately? “I’m doing good. this is all pretty exciting stuff with the album. I’ve been working with, in parallel with it, this live video-processing thing. Luke Wyatt [aka Torn Hawk], the guy whose label the record is coming out on, I’ve been doing live video for his music sets, cause he does a lot of video stuff but it’s difficult to make that happen if he’s focusing on music. So I wrote some software that’s sort of a live audio-visualiser and I’ve been using that and ramping that up too. So there’s all this exciting stuff going on, outside of work. Work is going pretty good too. I’m doing good.” 

Good! Can you tell me a bit about yourself? “I’m originally from New Jersey, I’ve been living in New York for 15 years or something. I’m a computer programmer for a living, and I’m trying to get that merged with my interest in music. I grew up playing in a lot of bands, rock bands, noise rock stuff, and then when I was in college I started doing electronic music. It kind of got pushed aside for more practical stuff for a while – I never really stopped doing music, but now I’m trying to bring all these things together, and make music more of a central point again. This is actually my first interview for this, so I’m not quite an oiled machine yet.”

That’s okay, we’ll be gentle. So how did you meet Luke? “Just [through] mutual friends, I was roommates with a girl that he used to date a couple years ago, and we kinda hit it off. We’re both from New Jersey, I don’t know. There’s a lot of stuff, we have similar tastes, so he and I just hit it off, and we’re always talking. We’re both the kind of people that always spit out ideas, it was just a matter of time before we found something to work on together. Last year when I was writing and recording all the stuff for Wild Metals, he was starting to think about getting his label [going]. His label had previously been mostly his stuff, like a kind of quote-unquote vanity label, he had started thinking about it, I had been playing him stuff, it started to make sense that he would put it out – so that’s how that came about.”

You’ve actually prefaced my next question – I was going to ask how do you feel about the fact that yours is the first release on Valcrond Video that’s not by him. “How do I feel about that, it’s good. Some people might feel pressure because of that but I guess I’m the kind of person – I like a degree of pressure. I believe in the album, and what I do generally, and I kind of like that aspect of it, to be honest. I haven’t put out much music recently, and even when I was putting out music it was all like DIY CD-Rs and stuff, so I can’t really imagine another situation. I’m pretty happy about that, how it’s worked out.”

A lot of his music – he’s put stuff out on L.I.E.S. and they have a particular aesthetic – a lot of it is quite scuzzy and “lo-fi”, but what i noticed about your record is that it’s remarkably pristine. I’m not going to say polished, but it sounds clean,  if that makes any sense. “It’s interesting, cause some of my older music isn’t quite like that, that’s just what I was inspired to do. And it’s interesting because… I mean comparing it to his, I agree that it’s very different sounding, the use of the word scuzzy is funny. I think there is sort of like, that thing to his music that’s very different, but there’s a philosophic similarity about our music, too. I think it’s interesting that they can be so different and yet, before the record was finished, I would play something for [someone] and they’d be like “oh you’ve gotta meet Luke Wyatt!” They didn’t i knew him. Weird stuff like that. There is some kind of similar thing, but it’s very abstract. I think it’s funny to think about, now that we’re working together, it’s interesting to play that off people and hear how they react to it.”

It’s a really stirring record, and you’ve got a couple of different styles, but it’s tied together quite well. Can you talk about how you put it together, and how you distilled it down to those four tracks? “That’s an interesting question. that one might be hard to explain, it’s one of those artistic, “how did this really happen” things. My process, there are some intellectual aspects to it, technologically, but when it comes down to that kind of thing I’ll just keep sculpting it, and it just starts to hum at a certain point and it’s like, “this is right”. Something will speak to me and say “these are the songs”. I have other material too that I was working on that’s pretty solid, but for some reason those four songs, it’s like it reached a certain point and there was a magic wand that came out of thin air and blessed it – those songs are the ones that should be on the record. I don’t know. it just sounded right to me. I’m trying to think of it in more practical terms – I try and keep a balance of tempo, it felt very balanced, those four songs, in some way. You know it’s very dense, and I considered putting more ambient stuff on it, but it didn’t work when I tried it. For some reason those four songs just sounded like they needed to be together.”

“PM Entertainment”, the main synth going through it, it’s got this really lulling feel to it – it reminds me of Scarface and films like that. Is that the sort of vibe you were going for? “I wasn’t overtly going for that, but I can see what you’re talking about. Other people have mentioned Michael Mann. I think the drums are pretty different from that stuff.” It’s very much the melody.” I mean I can see what people are saying. It wasn’t something that I was consciously trying to do, I don’t really approach it that way. I just kind of start sculpting it and it just goes somewhere – originally that track was mostly drums, and that synth just happened over time.”

It’s always funny to learn how these things happened, when as a listener you hear something and you make a decision about what it is and then that’s just not how it happened at all. “Zishethe” – is that a reference to Zishe the Strongman? “No. I don’t even know what that is.” Oh really! “I assume it’s some literary reference. I mean it sounds familiar. One night while I was working on the song I woke up, I had a dream with that word in it, and that word was very present in the dream. I don’t remember the details, but I woke up and wrote it on a notepad that I had next to my bed exactly how it’s spelled and that became the title of the song. It was a week where I was particularly engrossed in writing the track.” I have the craziest dreams so anything about dreams and how they impact on our daily life is really cool to me. When I googled it, because i thought it might be a word that meant something, i  got all these references to Zishe the Strongman, it’s this sort of inspirational thing for children about this Polish strong guy, and it’s based on a real strongman from a circus or something like that.  “That’s kind of cool.”

Stream: Russo – Zishethe (Valcrond Video)

That track went up on XLR8R today, that’s pretty cool. How do you feel about that? “It’s great to have it up there – I’m happy that people are listening to my music more now. It was a tough decision as to which track to put up, you know we have the vinyl coming out so we couldn’t just do the whole thing. I’m thrilled to have more people listening.” Musically, you don’t have that much out there. “Interestingly, I have a lot of backlog of unreleased music that hopefully I’ll start putting out there, even if just online.” I was listening to the stuff on your Soundcloud from 2003 and 2005, it’s quite timeless. It’s very ambient and you could probably release that today and it could sound like it was made this week I think. “Thanks! Yeah, I have probably and entire LP worth from 2005, and maybe another LP of stuff between then and 2011 or something. There’s a lot of stuff where I was just preoccupied with other things. I never stopped – I was working on music very intensely, but it never ramped up to the point where I was like, here’s the release. It just was disorganised a little bit, but working very intensely on it. So I have this huge backlog of stuff that now looking back I could say, well this should be an album, and now that “Wild Metals” is coming out and I can introduce myself with that, it takes a little pressure off and I feel like I’m going to figure out a way to release that other stuff.”

Stream: Ari Russo – 2 [CDr, 2003]

And at the same time are you working on new music as well? “I am. I’m also working on a live set, which might become part of the same process, working on the live set and new music. My goal is to start playing some live shows in a couple months. Hopefully that’ll work out. I don’t want to say too much before it actually comes together! But I’m optimistic about it.” What do you imagine your live set will be like or do you have any idea yet? “Probably some kind of improvisation based on these tracks, and some older ones, and some new stuff. But live improvisation using samplers and synthesisers and drum machines.  Hopefully not too much equipment to carry round!”

Another thing I was going to ask about the record – is it just me or are there live drums there – an actual drum kit? “There’s everything possible. I didn’t sit down at a drum set and sample that, but there are single drum samples that I made of my playing, and there’s all kinds, there’s me hitting sticks together, just little guitar percussion things, I did a lot of different things in the process of making the album. There’s also analogue drums, there’s old digital drum machines. It runs the gamut. I think that’s part of why the tracks sound so different from each other, because my process is so chaotic, each track that I start I approach in a completely different way. I don’t have a formula. There is a formula maybe to the composition of the tracks, but not what instruments I’m using. So it’s the whole kitchen sink. I use anything that I can possibly think of that’s not going to take up too much time, and throw that at the wall and see if it sticks.”

What’s your setup in terms of where you do your recording, and what’s the space like? “These days, for this album I have a little studio set up in my house, I’ve been collecting synths since the late 90s – the price of synths is getting a little unreasonable, I was lucky to get some cool stuff. I have a little modular setup too, and just some random drum machines, and a little bit of studio outboard gears.” Is it all soundproofed or do you have to stop recording after 8 at night? “It’s not too bad, I live in a particular place where the neighbours are relaxed, I don’t really push it because they’re nice people. It’s not too much of a concern. And I work on headphones sometimes – I’ll just work wherever. I’ll be on a bus or whatever and I’ll just find different places. I mean that might affect the way the tracks sound different to you. The “PM Entertainment” track, I was in Los Angeles for a couple weeks last year and I did that all there.”

When it comes to videos, “Purple Earth”, I mentioned Scarface earlier but that one for me was more sci-fi, like Total Recall. What’s your approach to the visual side of things and how do you put it together? “There’s a lot of VHS material in there, old stuff, and for me I wasn’t necessarily trying to come up with a retro or a nostalgic ambience. I’ve been collecting VHS for a long time, since I was in high school, and it’s just a source of cheap material, and it’s kind of off the wall to me. A lot of YouTube videos have a particular context, where they’re tied into something that’s going on right now, I mean there’s a lot of weird YouTube stuff out there too. But with VHS it’s removed, it’s cheap material. I just buy the tapes for nothing or people are giving them away. I made the video cutting up from that, and was using material that seemed to harmonise with the music well, and that’s just how it came together. For some people they have a strong nostalgia and I can see why people would say that, but that’s really not part of the process.”

I was reading an interview with Luke where he said: “I think people misunderstand my video expression as existing in the context of this facile 1980s nostalgia movement, which by now is probably over for the kids anyway. I approach VHS as just a useful medium for generating compositions and mushing footage together; it’s like acrylic or oil paint, just different tools for different tasks.” Would that be the same for you? “I hadn’t read that interview. I would say the same thing. I’ve been collecting VHS forever. I mean there’s so much material out there, it’s like a whole other YouTube. We think of YouTube of being this enormous mass of video, but VHS, people were trading these tapes for business purposes, businesses [that] don’t even exist any more, entire industries [that] don’t even exist any more. And there’s all this material out there, and it’s readily available for people who want source material for stuff. So I don’t feel like I’ve exhausted it, [but] I’ll try other stuff. The other video stuff I’m doing is much different. I should mention too that my live set is also going to incorporate that audio-visualiser software that I wrote. That’s going to be a central component of it. Glad I mentioned that.”

In the same interview Luke talks about how he doesn’t try to recreate his records because there’s no point, they’re completely different experiences: “Accept live performance as a different beast and approach it as a parallel pursuit, rather than subservient to the recorded product. Do not try and create a simulacrum of your recordings in a live setting. Build an entirely different attack.” Is that the same kind of think you would be doing? “Those recordings are sort of concrete; I’ll have to answer that once my set is more concrete. It’s going to be a little different just that it’s not the same time as the recording session. So yes.”

On a side note, Office Fern is the name of your project? “I’ve used it for a few things – I have a Tumblr, I used that as an excuse to start digitising a lot of the VHS material I have. I just made a Tumblr where I have just few-second clips of a lot of the weird VHS stuff that I have. I use that name for that.” I love the name because, for me, it implies a sort of artificiality you get with office plants – they’re in such a sterile atmosphere they’re almost pointless. Is that what you were going for? “Yeah. I think the contrast of plants in that environment – plants are so insanely beautiful and to use them as that, and to keep them artificially living I’m trying to get at that. I also want to leave that open to interpretation.”

The artwork for Wild Metals kind of reminded me of the Jam City album. “I haven’t seen that one.” It’s like an office concourse and a motorbike has crashed into it and you can see all of these office plants around, but it’s almost like a jungle – it’s that corporate environment with a sort of simulacrum of nature rather than anything real. That’s what I took from it. “The one album cover I saw that after we had finished everything that reminded me of it was Joy and Pain by Maze, which is an R&B album, classic. I also listen to a lot of R&B and stuff, that’s maybe not as directly related to this style, but I kind of like that connection. The title track on that is classic. I felt good about that connection, there’s something nice from the past to tie it too.”

That’s pretty much all my music questions asked, but we like to finish on these questions: what would your drink of choice be? “Like an alcoholic drink?” Anything at all. “Orange juice. My alcoholic drink would be tequila on the rocks.” Oh wow, like you’d just sip it? “Yeah, I love to sip tequila. If you have a bad experience with it, it teaches you a lesson, maybe I haven’t had that experience yet.” And when was the last time you danced? “Probably some time on the weekend. There’s a lot of dance music shows these days that I’m going to.”

Russo – Wild Metals is out on Valcrond Video on June 16

Aidan Hanratty
Aidan Hanratty

Dublin ... @adnhnrt | @Bandcloud

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