Arthur Russell interivew (Blow Up, January 2007)

[Last updated: 25.01.2007]
This is a photo of Arthur Russell standing in a corn fieldThe following interview between Daniela Cascella and Tim Lawrence was conducted on 25 January 2007. It will appear in an article Cascella is writing for Blow Up (Italy). Tim Lawrence is completing a biography of Arthur Russell for Duke University Press, due to be published in 2008.

Daniela Cascella: Setting out on a new project always implies a great deal of research in which a number of ideas/feelings/expectations are met and some more are added as the research progresses. What was your starting point when you decided to work on the Arthur Russell biography?

Tim Lawrence: There were several starting points. New York was probably the first. I studied, lived and danced in New York during the middle of the 1990s and my first book, Love Saves the Day: A History of New York Dance Culture, 1970-79, was in many respects a shadow-history of the city's black gay underground. Originally the book was supposed to run to the end of the 1990s, but I ended up becoming so absorbed with the seventies that I never even made it to the eighties, and as I approached the end of that project it became clear that everyone wanted me to go straight ahead and write the eighties sequel. But I wanted to hang around New York for a while, and I also didn't want to become a train, so writing about Arthur came me a chance to move tangentially and explore other aspects of the city's musical and social history.

Another starting point was Arthur Russell's dance music. I have clear memories of the first time I heard the Larry Levan mix of "Is It All Over My Face?", one of Arthur's most commercially successful tracks, but that record faded into insignificance when I heard "Go Bang", which remains my favourite dance record. I hadn't really had a chance to write much about Arthur in Love Saves the Day because he only released "Kiss Me Again" during the 1970s, but I did ask a number of interviewees about him, and one of them, Steve D'Acquisto, a pioneering New York DJ, had told me about Arthur's amazing body of work, his poetry, his friendship with Ginsberg, his relationship with John Hammond, and so on. I was naturally intrigued: I was very interested in Arthur's dance music, and started to realise that there were many other sides to his musical career, as well. I spoke Steve D'Acquisto about Arthur in 1998 or something ⎯ several years before Love Saves the Day was published ⎯ and I remember making a note to myself that I needed to find out more about Arthur. It was one of those instinctive, visceral experiences.

The third key starting point was Ned Sublette, one of Arthur's old friends from the Kitchen. I met Ned at the EMP Conference in Seattle, an annual music conference that brings together academics and journalists. During the conference Ned gave a stunning paper about the unrecognised influence of Cuban music on North American popular music culture. Then, at the last night party, I got talking with him and after a while he asked me what I wrote about. I replied that I was doing research into dance, at which point he said, "Boom, boom, boom!" before adding: "That's not dance music! This is dance music!" Then he started to sing, Is it all over my face? I had conducted hundreds of interviews during the research for Love Saves the Day and was keen to carry on writing projects about lost and hidden histories, which can often only be retrieved through interviewing people. The conversation with Ned revealed what was really obvious: that Arthur might have passed on, but plenty of his friends were alive and wanted to talk about him. Ned bubbled with a zeal that reminded me of my first interview with David Mancuso, the legendary founder of the Loft, which ended up reorienting the direction of Love Saves the Day, which was supposed to be a book about the eighties and nineties but ended up focusing on the seventies. It was striking: black gay disco hadn't received the recognition it deserved and nor had Arthur Russell. Just as David Mancuso had wasted no time in putting me in touch with a whole bunch of people who were also ready to talk, so Ned took down my email and sent me contact information for Peter Gordon and Peter Zummo, two of Arthur's closest collaborators. Soon after ⎯ in June 2003 ⎯ I interviewed Peter Gordon in London. Again, just like my first interview with David, it was a fascinating, exhausting, confusing and emotionally draining experience. At the end of our four-hour conversation I knew that someone had to write about Arthur's life, and that it looked like it was going to have to be me, because nobody else had done this work in the ten years that had passed since Arthur died. Six months later Audika and Soul Jazz released their compilations, after which the Wire, the New Yorker and the New York Times ran big features on Arthur, so a kind of belated recognition did arrive, but by then I was deep into the research process and decided that it was still important to write the biography ⎯ to write something that would be more detailed and perhaps more enduring than a magazine article.

DC: How has the project developed? How is the book structured? What is your main focus?

TL: It's strange to think that I've now been working on this project for more than three-and-a-half years. Initially I thought that it would be a lot more straightforward writing about one life (Arthur's life) as opposed to an entire scene (the rise and fall of ⎯ for want of a better term ⎯ disco). That, though, hasn't proved to be the case, largely because Arthur's life and outlook was definitively panoramic. He lived in three major locations ⎯ Oskaloosa, San Francisco and New York ⎯ so that's three geographical areas that I needed to come to terms with ⎯ and he was also engaged in making music for some thirty years, so there were three decades to take in as well. In addition Arthur played just about every kind of music available ⎯ art/compositional/orchestral music, folk music, Indian classical music, pop/rock, new wave, disco/disco-not-disco/dance, voice-cello solo songs and (again, for want of a better term) twisted techno-pop ⎯ so there was a huge amount of material that had to be considered. I already had a pretty detailed knowledge of the whole dance terrain, having researched Love Saves the Day, but had to get up to speed on the whole classical/post-classical field, some aspects of which were new to me, as well as do extra reading around new wave. All of this, of course, was just background context to the real topic at hand, Arthur's life, which was a complicated tangle of dreams, projects, hopes, disappointments, relationships and collaborations. I ended up carrying out extensive archival research and have also interviewed some seventy people, so it's turned out to be a major research project. That's as it should be because Arthur was a major figure whose work has been vastly underappreciated.

DC: Which episodes in Arthur's life struck you the most?

TL: Just about everything in Arthur's life is interesting and I'm trying to cover it all. When I started to research Arthur's period growing up in Oskaloosa, I was intrigued by that whole episode ⎯ the story of this strange kid growing up in a conventional Midwestern town, and the rebellion that inevitably ensued. For a while I couldn't get enough of that whole period, but when I started to dig deep into his San Francisco phase I became intrigued by his time on the Buddhist commune, his studies at the Ali Akbar College, his parallel studies at the San Francisco Conservatory, his early relationship with Ginsberg, his other friendships, and so on. But when I finally got stuck into researching New York I have to say that that whole episode, which ran from 1973 to his death in 1992, blew these earlier periods away. It was simply the most extraordinarily dynamic period of music history, with 1970 to the mid-eighties a particularly rich period during which time compositional/post-classical music and rock were turned on their head, while dance, hip hop and electro also germinated. Arthur was at the centre of it all and in the book I argue that, above all other musicians, he came to embody this extraordinarily creative and important period. So in the end it was his work and engagements in New York that seemed to be particularly crucial, even if this period was in many respects shaped by his experiences in Oskaloosa and San Francisco.

DC: I’d like to find out more about Arthur's time as Music Director at the Kitchen as this episode is so rarely talked about. Who did he invite to play and what sort of projects got underway while he was there?

TL: Arthur was Music Director for only one year. During that time he generally asked similarly-minded experimental downtown composers to appear ⎯ composers who were exploring minimalism (the early works of La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass) and post-minimalism (works, such as Russell's "Instrumentals", that drew on the principles of minimalism but contained more notes, more complex structures, more instruments etc). The real surprise package of Arthur's year as Music Director, however, was programming of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers to play an acoustic set for four consecutive nights. On one level the move was strange. Arthur, for example, had shown little interest in rock while growing up and he purposefully steered clear of rock gigs when he was in San Francisco. But shortly after arriving in New York he went to hear the Modern Lovers, who are considered by many to have been a proto-punk band, and at the end of the gig he approached the band's bass player, Ernie Brooks, and exchanged phone numbers. Russell realised that bands such as the Modern Lovers were also generating a form of minimal music, and to their credit they were also doing this in the realm of popular music, which, unlike the art music scene, was able to survive on its commercial own legs, free of funding applications and subsidising bodies. So he invited the Modern Lovers to appear at the Kitchen and this became a real turning point in the history of downtown music. Up until that point the Kitchen had been a venue that focused exclusively on experimental compositional music, with popular forms such as rock nowhere to be seen, but within a few years the whole of the downtown music scene in New York was teeming with musicians who wanted to explore the intersection of "new music" (as minimalism and post minimalism were dubbed in the late seventies) and rock. The Modern Lovers performance at the Kitchen was therefore a defining moment in the history of downtown music.

DC: What is known about Arthur’s live performances as opposed to his recorded music?

TL: Arthur was virtually addicted to recording music ⎯ he is infamous for his obsessional editing and reluctance to commit to a final version ⎯ but he also loved playing live. Arthur was driven by the process of creation ⎯ musician friends such as Peter Zummo talk of Arthur displaying an "uncommon energy" ⎯ and he was intrigued by the infinite number of directions any piece of music could take. Live performances took on a heightened quality because they represented a pure exploration of one way any piece of music could be played, and never suggested that the music could only be played in that way. The ephemerality of the live setting appealed to Arthur but it made no claims to being definitive or permanent, and therefore always left open the possibility of future performances and interpretations, all of which could feed into the infinite quality of not only music but also existence. Music's liberating potential could get lost in the studio, especially when record companies wanted him to deliver on a contract and provide them with a final version of a song, and during the 1980s Arthur started to explore ways of using the studio to express his approach to music. Editing didn't offer an effective solution because record labels would still want him to provide a final version, and the editing work that went into that version would always be hidden from the consumer. But re-recording different versions of the same record offered a better way out for Arthur, and so he started to record multiple versions of songs like "Let's Go Swimming" in order to hint at the infinite directions that were latent in any piece of music. From the late 1970s onwards he was helped along this path by the dance scene, which enabled him to work with a series of cutting-edge remixers. But there were always limits to this approach inasmuch as it was hard for independent artists such as Arthur to get his music published, and so the live setting remained a privileged space.

As for the live performances themselves, this has been a difficult area to trace, although I think I've managed to get a pretty good handle of what Arthur got up to. With regard to your question about his disco performances, he occasionally delivered live versions of his twelve-inch recordings and would do mini-tours of the club circuit in order to promote his dance records when they came out, but these performances were relatively rare and often involved the club's DJ putting on an instrumental version of the record so that Russell's vocalists ⎯ who were often stand-ins for the original vocalists ⎯ could sing live against the track. Overall, though, Russell was more focused on playing live at experimental venues such as the Kitchen and the Experimental Intermedia Foundation, where he presented works such as "Instrumentals", the material that would go on to appear on the 24 > 24 album and the voice-cello compositions that appeared on albums such as World of Echo. In addition he also played for friends such as Peter Gordon and Peter Zummo when were asked to put on gigs at the Kitchen and other downtown spaces. The Kitchen and the Experimental Intermedia Foundation were the most important venues or Arthur's live performances, and by the 1980s it had become clear that he preferred to play at the latter venue, the Kitchen having become more professionalized and institutionalised.

Like many of his peers at the Kitchen, Arthur was interested playing in front of an audience, something that ⎯ surprisingly ⎯ was really quite radical at the time. During the second half of the twentieth century, post-classical composers had developed increasingly difficult (serial) compositions that, at least in uptown New York, barely attracted an audience. Serial composers weren't bothered by this because they were much more concerned with their music's avant-garde experimental status and its "correct" interpretation of late capitalism as being an alienating historical epoch. If music was to give an honest assessment of the inequalities of late capitalism it also had to be alienating because anything that was sweeter would simply plaster over the system's divisive cracks. But Russell, like composers such as Philip Glass, believed that a large part of music's value lay in its reception, its ability to move people, and so the idea of connecting with an audience became a central concern. Indeed Arthur was ahead of most of his composer friends at the Kitchen and the Experimental Intermedia Foundation in his appreciation of pop music's unrivalled ability to connect with an audience. Whereas there was general disdain for pop in these circles, Arthur respected its ability to connect with an audience, and so he started to engage with pop, folk and new wave music in order to reach his own public, and this took him even deeper into the realm of live performance. As with many things, Arthur was way ahead of the game in all of this.

The Flying Hearts, a pop/rock band that Arthur co-founded with Ernie Brooks, was an important channel for his interest in reaching an audience and playing live, and for a while it really looked like they were going to break through. After the band split up, Ernie joined the Necessaries, a new wave outfit, and Arthur ended up playing with that group for a while. But it was the Necessaries that also revealed a more conflicted side to Arthur's approach to playing in a group that played live because it with that band that Arthur ended up jumping out of the tour bus en route to a gig in Washington DC. The moment revealed the way in which Arthur found it difficult to stick with groups that were ambitious and wanted to break through on a commercial level. Success required a form of commitment and discipline that Arthur struggled to maintain: he loved the freeing aspect of playing live, but the more restrictive, laborious and repetitive aspects of that engagement were less appealing. And so, aside from his own gigs, he gravitated towards playing with a shifting group of creative, open-minded musicians. The group included Ernie Brooks and Steven Hall, who played in a shifting array of folk and pop-oriented groups with Arthur, and Mustafa Ahmed (percussion), Elodie Lauten (keyboards) and Peter Zummo (trombone), who formed a group called the Singing Tractors ⎯ the name referred to Arthur's Midwestern Cornbelt roots ⎯ and played in a range of venues, some of them quite prestigious.

DC: Could you tell me more about the way he composed / wrote songs? He seems to develop a number of core themes, such as water. Could you tell me more about this?

TL: It's worth noting that Arthur's interest in songs was unusual as relatively few composers regarded the format as a serious form of composition. But from his time in San Francisco onwards, Arthur was interested in writing songs, and when he found himself living in the heart of New York's downtown experimental scene, he continued to pursue this form ⎯ because it meant so much to him musically and emotionally.

It's difficult to write about Arthur's approach to songwriting without mentioning Allen Ginsberg. Arthur met the Beatnik poet in San Francisco and they remained close for the rest of Arthur's life. They connected around a mutual interest in Buddhism, poetry and music, and Ginsberg often complimented Arthur on his lyrics, which, like his own, were grounded in the real, and the delicate beauty that could lie within apparently mundane objects and situations. Inspired by the world in which he lived, Arthur's his songs contrasted sharply with the the romanticised version of existence that could be found in pop/rock's idealisation of heterosexual relationships, punk/post punk's idealisation of outsiderness, and dance music's idealisation of the dance floor as a utopia. So Arthur didn't write songs about undying love, but instead wrote songs about giving permission to an ex-lover to fall in love with someone else, or the experience of hiding a birthday present from a lover, or falling in love with a stranger on the dance floor. For Arthur, the real wasn't mundane. It was rich with nuance.

A number of themes recurr in Arthur's songs. Relationships are often central, and sex also became an important focus ("Is It All Over My Face?", "Pop Your Funk", "Go Bang" and "Wax the Van" all refer variously to masturbation and anal sex, while "Kiss Me Again" is largely a song about an S/M relationship). Arthur was also interested in articulating a childlike expression of spontaneous innocence, so "Schoolbell/Treehouse" and "Calling All Kids" were a part of that, while "Let's Go Swimming" was partly about seizing the moment. The Buddhist-oriented theme of light recurred in a few songs, such as "In the Light of the Miracle", and water, as you say, was an important theme. "Let's Go Swimming" was an expression of that theme, and so was the extraordinary "Platform on he Ocean". Arthur grew up in a land-locked state, and a number of his compositions and songs suggest a solid, earthy Americana, but from an early age he went on family holidays to the lakes of Minnesotta and ended up treating water as if it was an exotic substance. When he lived in San Francisco he spent more time in the mountains than by the sea, but when he moved to New York he would regularly go on walks to the abandoned piers ⎯ his favourite place for listening to music.

If you would like to be kept informed about the publication of Tim Lawrence's biography of Arthur Russell, please email Tim at