Deep Inside... The Crystal Ark

When rave music and acid house go tasty and vibrant

On the occasion of The Crystal Ark's debut album release, Gavin Russom thoroughly explains the changes in the nature of the project, the importance of energy, and how to record a record around the world.

Gavin Russom is a man whose life, and therefore his music, is always changing. In 2010 he shed his skin (almost literally; he cut off his hair and beard, threw out the dark clothes, and switched to white suits, hats, and a clean-shaven look) and took the helm of The Crystal Ark, the project he shares with Viva Ruiz. Musically speaking, the adventure consisted of blending Afro-Latin and classic European rave music; the first outings were a series of singles on DFA, released between 2010 and last summer. From then on, and as they started to give their incendiary live shows (dancers included), the project became a proper band, with, among others, two singers, percussionist Alberto Lopez, and bassists Tyler Pope (LCD Soundsystem, !!!) and Eliza Douglas.

This change of character is one of the big keys to “The Crystal Ark”, the band's debut full-length. An LP on which the band start from the initial premises, then develop them from a much more panoramic viewpoint, in both formal and stylistic terms. Along the way, Russom went from being a synthesizer wizard to the director of a group in which live instrumentation and uncontrolled humanity have become of major importance. Now that the album is out, we wanted to talk to Russom about the energy that drives him, the rediscovery of his influences, and the peculiar recording process behind the record.

"Putting people in touch with their bodies is definitely one purpose of the album"

The starting point for the Crystal Ark was, in a way, to blend the spirit of Afro-Latin music with the power of European rave music. Is this idea still valid for the new album?

That idea is definitely still in there, but it’s expanded. On the album, the idea was to draw from many styles of music, and present many sides of my musical aesthetic to create something beyond genre and specific to its own message.

You've always said the purpose of The Crystal Ark's music is to make people dance. But the album is not so focused on the dance floor, at least in the traditional sense. What would you say is the purpose of the record as a whole?

I believe I said that one of the early purposes of The Crystal Ark’s music was to make a music that worked with the body, which would make people excited about being in their body and the possibilities of that. Dancing is a part of that, but it’s also a bigger idea about feeling things and being present, being alive and celebrating life. Putting people in touch with their bodies is definitely one purpose of the album. In a larger sense, the purpose of the album is to put some music which is unique, true, inspiring and current into the world, so that it can hopefully touch people, allow them to enjoy and experience their lives in a different way and to deepen the possibilities of being alive. Since music by its nature gives meaning to time and experience, I would like the album to give the time one spends listening to it a very deep and powerful meaning. To this end, the album is composed of highly stimulating sounds. It creates a space in which seemingly disparate sounds exist together without dissolving into a neutralizing unity. In fact the sounds emphasize each other because of their differences. It musically puts forth an idea about how energy could interact with other energy in a creative and productive way, an authentic way that honours nature and the natural in human beings, which is also a reflection of the divine in human beings. In a time when most of the old models and structures that culture has been built on are falling away, ceasing to function, or becoming overbearing due to a resistance to their own irrelevance, what feels like important work for me to do is to use creativity as a way to propose and imagine new structures. This extends to my collaboration with Viva on this project, and the way we work together. The lyrics that she has written and sings on the record give another perspective, her own, on these same issues.

Although this changes the music of The Crystal Ark, it still exudes this kind of ritualistic power. Where do you think this force comes from? Do you consider yourself a mystical person?

I think it mostly comes from the fact that what draws me to music is its power and ability to create ritual time and space. And that’s something that Viva shares with me, so it becomes even more pronounced in our collaboration. When I make music I try to open up to what energy wants to move through me, rather than impose a rigid or specific intellectual idea, so it comes from that too. Mystic is a funny word, but I am certainly interested in the healing and consciousness-transforming power of music.

I understand New York City has also been a big influence. In what sense? What other kind of extra-musical experiences have inspired the album?

The Crystal Ark music started to come through at a time when I was re-discovering New York after living in Berlin for 5 years. And the album grew out of my moving back here permanently. Everything about the city fed into the music; all the music I hear on the street and in stores, the people talking, the way people look, the subway, the energetic feeling of the city. The effect of so many different kinds of people from so many different places all moving among one another. And Viva is from New York, so of course there’s a whole bunch of influence of the city that comes through her. One of the things that drew us together was a mutual desire to celebrate New York.

One of the things that have been important to me about the process of working on The Crystal Ark album has been rediscovering and integrating influences from a time when I was much younger. Not only the music I listened to, but also my approach to the world and my feeling of being deeply connected to the spiritual in nature and in the city, and how those two things can interact and support each other.

The global approach seems a lot more organic in the project’s first two singles. Do you agree? Where does this change of approach come from?

Organic is a funny word and I’m not sure how to take it in this context. I started using a lot more musical tools on the LP than I had on the previous singles: samplers, live instruments like bass, guitar… that expanded the sound a lot. Viva expanded from writing for herself to also writing for the two additional singers, Jaiko and Sokhna, and the interaction of their 3 voices gives a different sound to the LP. New York became my permanent home as I started working on the LP, while the earlier singles were mostly done in Berlin, and the energy here, the sounds here, opened things up for me in terms of the sounds I could imagine and wanted to work with, and brought back a lot of memories, specifically musical memories of songs and sounds that were important to me when I lived here before. So much of the experience of The Crystal Ark has been about opening up to all kinds of influences that maybe at one time I thought couldn’t exist together. So I think one can hear the effects in the album, an evolution from the singles, of my being able to hold more types of energy together musically without them wiping each other out.

"We’re going to produce a new live show specifically to represent and perform this album"

It also sounds a lot more like the product of a band. Since you started touring, you've become a full band. Has this influenced the way you conceived of the album?

The album was mostly conceived around this idea of having a band, and mixing electronic music with more “live” music, especially percussion, bass and voices. That grew out of how the earlier songs like “ The City Never Sleeps” changed when we started to prepare to play them live. The group as it is on the album grew pretty naturally, out of Viva and I both bringing in people we wanted to work with, and what they brought in flavouring the mixture.

In terms of production, did you record it as a band, or was it only you and Viva in the studio? Has the recording changed a lot in comparison with some of your other solo or collaborative projects?

It was recorded, I think, in a pretty unique way. I laid down all the tracks as instrumentals and then gave them to Viva, and she started writing lyrics and vocal melodies. I also gave the tracks to Alberto Lopez and he laid down percussion (mostly Bataa) tracks, which I edited back in and moved around to fit the song structure. Tyler and Eliza tracked live bass over the bass lines I had written on synths and brought in their own stylistic variations. We did a little bit of studio work together, but mostly the instrumental part of the record was done all over the world; I was writing in my hotel rooms on tour with LCD, we all went to Berlin for the summer to track Tyler’s bass parts and lots more… Then Viva and I put the lyrics she had written into place, I also added some where it fit, and then we went into the studio with her and the other two vocalists and tracked all the vocals. Some of the music changed when we did that, so mixing was a whole other process with Matt, Viva and I working together in the DFA studio for a month to come out with the songs as they are. There were parts of it that were like other things I’ve done, some of the foundations were familiar, and then other parts were new.

I'm curious about the lyrical component of the project. Is it just Viva’s thing, or do you like to discuss the themes together? Was there a specific reason you were searching for vocals in Spanish?

Mostly Viva writes the lyrics. For what we’ve done so far together, I make the music and play it for her when I feel like it’s ready, and then she gets a feeling for what each song wants to say in words. This part of the process is really incredible, like archaeology somehow. We talk about those ideas, sometimes I’ll write a line or two… And then she brings what she’s written in, like a story. Like finding the heart of the music and putting it into words, or digging up what the music inspired in her and making that into language.

Originally the idea of working with a vocalist who could sing in both English and Spanish was an intuitive one. When I make music, I try to hear what it wants to be, what it’s telling me it needs, and this music was telling me it wanted a female vocalist who sang in Spanish and English, and had a kind of Jade4U-like delivery: powerful, feminine, inspired, mystical. When I got to know Viva and her other work, she was obviously the perfect person, exactly what I was looking for, so the project became a collaboration between us based on this idea. It was very natural to imagine vocals in Spanish, since for most of my life I’ve lived in American cities which have a large Spanish-speaking population. New York is of course well known in this regard, and on any given day I not only hear English, Spanish and Spanglish spoken by native New Yorkers, but often many other languages. People born of families who emigrated from Spanish-speaking former colonies to New York have so profoundly influenced the culture of this city, and thus the country as a whole, and probably the world, that it’s impossible for me as someone who lives here to separate out where all the influences come from, I just experience all of it as the sound and energy of the city. In retrospect, of course, the decision to have Spanish and English lyrics made perfect sense, not just because of the above but also because there is all of this controversy here about “undocumented” immigrants and how everyone here should be forced to speak English. And using both languages in the music is a way of representing, honouring and reaching out to the real America and the real Americans, which includes anyone who lives here, documented or not, no matter where they come from.

I get the sense that although The Crystal Ark is a thing between Viva and you, it's also a kind of “open project” eager to welcome a variety of personalities. How many people make up The Crystal Ark nowadays, and to what extent do they influence the musical path of the project?

Yes, I think it is an interesting model. It is in essence a collaboration between Viva and I, since we write the songs together, and then others are invited into the group with us and they enrich the project with what they bring. There are 10 people who are in The Crystal Ark right now, and the bass players take turns, so the “band” is really 9 people (although I do hope to have both bass players on stage someday). That includes Alberto Cortes and Irene Discos, who dance in the group. Then there’s an extended family of people we work with, Bec Stupak and Johnny Woods, for example, who help with our video projections, or Lizzy Yoder, who did guest vocals on the Tangible Presence 12”, or Julio Monterrey, who often does our live sound and was one of the Horn players on “ Crossing” from the new LP. Viva and I are creating the project together, but in a way that is very inclusive, as you say. In terms of the LP, each of the members that played on it brought their own energy into the music, which added something special and unique and helped shape the sound.

To what extent do you think the live shows have influenced the final result?

I think the live shows have given us a sense of who we are as a large group on a deeper level. They’ve given me a sense of the possibilities of the group, which opened up the way I wrote the music on the LP, but I think the real influence will be seen in how the songs that were created in making this LP get translated into a live performance.

Your live show is a pretty intense experience. Will the live show for this album be very different from the ones you've been doing until now?

We’re going to produce a new live show specifically to represent and perform this album, taking into account everything we’ve learned from performing over the past two and a half years. It will be based around that show, but on a whole new level.

"I’m very slowly working on a solo record based around improvisation and poetry"

Two of the members of the band are, as you were, LCD Soundsystem members. How did you experience the final tour and that project’s ceasing of activities? In what ways has it been important in your life or your development as an artist?

The final tour was an amazing experience. I learned a ton of things from working with James on a day-to-day basis and got to know all of the people in the group really well. The experience of getting deep into the songs and continuing to try to play them better each night was really powerful. The crowds were, of course, very loving and giving everywhere we went. I knew it was going to end when I was brought on for the tour, so that wasn’t a surprise, but it was certainly an adjustment finishing that intensity of touring. I’m glad we got to throw the big party at MSG as a send-off. That felt important as a ritual. I think I learned a lot about song-writing by going so deep into the LCD songs to really play them right. And I became a much more proficient musician as a result of the constant practice. I got to see so many inspiring and beautiful places in the world, and make at least a musical connection with people everywhere. It was a real blessing.

What can we expect from The Crystal Ark once the album is released? Will there be a lot of touring?

There will be some more singles released from the album, and probably beginning in 2013 we’ll do touring. We also started something called The Crystal Ark Party Machine, which is based around a DJ set with live singing, choreography, synthesizer and energy work. It’s not a representation of the music on the LP as much as it is a way of bringing the energy of the group and the music into a club or party atmosphere in a direct way, playing music that’s inspired us, as well as jacked-up edits of our own tracks, and some special surprises. So we’ll have some touring with The Party Machine as well. Viva is about to finish a new video for “ We Came To” which will come out around the release of the album, and then, you know, Viva and I are artists and we love making stuff for The Crystal Ark, so there will be some magic happening here and there as well.

I've also read you're going to do some solo shows where you'll create music in real time. Can you expand a bit on this?

Yes, I’ve been doing this for a while, actually, but not very often. I’m very slowly working on a solo record based around improvisation and poetry, and these shows are somehow a part of that. Improvising has always been a part of my process and performance style, so these solo shows are like a window into that; I’ll improvise on a theme using some of my primary musical tools. It’s trance music basically, a ceremonial occasion of listening and focusing on how sound and time interact.

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