Outside of the NYC avant-garde and disco circles, Arthur Russell’s music remained relatively obscure during his lifetime. It wasn’t until several years after his tragic passing in 1992 due to an AIDS-related illness, that a series of biographies, reissues and compilations helped bolster his reputation and the cellist’s music finally found a much larger audience.
From new wave to Koan-inspired country ballads, musique concrete to mutant disco, when the reel started rolling, with every bow stroke Russell seemed to erase the boundaries that lay between genres. Co-writer and confidant Allen Ginsberg called his music ‘Buddhist Bubblegum’ and author Dave Toop, during Matt Wolf’s Wild Combination: A Portrait Of Arthur Russell documentary, puzzled, “How could someone work in all these different ways? Not many people allow themselves the full extent of their complexity.”
At the time, Arthur Russell was operating at the outer edges of modern music. But he also had a habit of ‘grokking’ in all he heard, as he attempted to draw on all his disparate interests, both musical and spiritual. Despite his experimental nature, Russell also had his eye on the mainstream. Heard today, his music sounds as bold as it does contemporary. Considering all this, it’s no surprise given his own output and style, that multi-instrumentalist PETER BRODERICK heard something of himself in Arthur’s World Of Echo years later.
Adding a contemporary layer to the fantasy aura of Arthur’s music, Peter Broderick & Friends Play Arthur Russell came about after Broderick, a fellow musician and composer, was invited to perform a set of Arthur’s songs at Aarhus Festival by former Efterklang band mate, Rasmus Stolberg. This was the first move in a chain of events that led to Broderick working alongside Russell’s family and Tom Lee, Russell’s partner and muse.
Ahead of a special performance of PETER BRODERICK AND FRIENDS PLAY ARTHUR RUSSELL at 24 Kitchen Street on 22nd August, David Weir caught up with the multi-instrumentalist to uncover the mystique surrounding the artists back catalogue.
Tom Lee appears to be such a conscientious and ardent custodian of Arthur’s music. It sounds like a real mutual appreciation developed between the pair of you. How has it felt working with and getting to know him?
Yeh, I mean when Tom reached out to me I was really quite humbled and blown away. I was well aware of who he was because I’d ingested all I could of Arthur’s work including the documentary film and book written about him. Tom is of course a prominent character in Arthur’s story. I realised quite quickly that he just still really loves Arthur and his work, and he’s curious about how Arthur’s legacy lives on. It was a very simple thing of just saying,“Hey, I hope you enjoyed playing Arthur’s songs. It’s great to see someone out there doing that,” and then we ended up meeting a couple of months later, in Maine, where he lives now. He started introducing me to some of Arthur’s family, like his niece and nephew, and Arthur’s sister Kate. So all of a sudden I found myself meeting all of the family and then Tom started sharing with me more songs that haven’t been released yet. It all just snowballed from there. That’s just the start of it.
And working with Arthur’s family and using Tom’s artwork on the recording – did this all come about naturally as well?
Pretty much. I had another friend in Portland, Maine who I wanted to record music with. I thought I’d just extend an invitation to Arthur’s niece and nephew (Rachel and Beau) because I know they’re both musicians and they were both just really happy and eager to join in as well.
I went with Tom over to Kate’s for dinner and somehow we ended up talking about the song You Are My Love. It’s amazing because some of Arthur’s songs that haven’t been released yet, they might be well known within the family. They might have circulated on a mixed tape. This was one song the family knew particularly well.
They started telling me about how Rachel used to sing-along to that song a lot and they had made a recording of it. They played me this recording of Rachel literally just singing over the top of Arthur’s song. So that stuck in my mind. Then when I went to record the track, I thought I should ask her if she wants to sing on my recording. So that’s how that came about. It’s the last song on this record, a little tender love song, which hasn’t been officially released yet. When I first heard the original it was just piano and voice. I was floored because I’d never heard Arthur just playing the piano and singing.
With having Tom onboard and members of the family, does it feel like it’s helping to strengthen Arthur’s legacy as well?
It feels meaningful for all the connections I made during the process, of getting more intimate in the Arthur Russell world. I just wanted to acknowledge all those connections. That’s one thing about this whole project, because when I go out and play these songs, it’s really a very joyous experience. You have this huge repertoire of music by this amazing musician, who’s not around anymore. You don’t get to hear the songs live for the most part. So people are thrilled. It’s just about sharing this thing that we mutually really like.
Can you tell me more about how you got access to the archive?
First, Tom just sent me a few songs. I noticed straight away that the sound quality was really bad; you had to really strain to hear the song. I thought maybe that was perhaps why some songs were never released. So I fixed it up with my recording software and I got it sounding quite a lot better. I was hesitant, but I decided to send it back to Tom. It’s a bit like someone gives you a gift and then you wrap it up better and give it back to them. Something about it felt a little like it could be perceived as disrespectful. Luckily he was onboard and he told me he was enjoying the song more than ever now. He mentioned there’s actually quite a lot of work like this that needs to be done on Arthur’s archives and he put me in touch with Steve Knutson at Audika Records.
So how did it feel deep diving into all his unreleased recordings?
The sheer amount of material, I just got lost in it honestly. Steve would give me a piece of paper and say, “I want you to find this song, this take of this song within this hour long reel, and then get that to sound good again.” There was a list of things he wanted me to get right. But in the midst of looking for those things I would find like ten other songs! Of course I was curious so I’d listen to all of it. Certain songs had been missed or marked as unsalvageable and I’d be like, ‘What about this song? This is amazing!’
Do you feel that as you listened more it gave you a better understanding of Arthur’s creative process?
I got a lot of insight. For instance, there’s one particular recording that is popping into my head and it sounds like Arthur’s in a studio. I’m guessing it was when he went to record with John Hammond in California, back in the late 70s. The tape starts rolling and the engineer says, “The Dogs Outside Are Barking Take One”. Arthur plays the song but he stops halfway through and he says “Oh, sorry. I’ve messed up those words let me try again here,” and then you hear the voice come on, “The Dogs Outside Are Barking Take Two!” It just felt really cold and annoyed almost. You hear Arthur as well, super insecure. My heart really went out to him in that situation. He’s got the opportunity to record but probably feels a little bit lost, alone or misunderstood.
Then there’s also a lot of home-recorded stuff where he might be playing a version of a song for, like, 30 minutes, just playing it over and over again. He’s just practicing trying to get the right version and it’s incredibly interesting, once you start to hear all the different ways in which he might vary a take, what he’s trying to emphasise in the music. It’s like you’re in the person’s head a bit.
Obviously there have been a lot of comparisons between the pair of you vocally, but there also seems to be a lot of similarities in lyrics, structures and your open approach to genres as well. Author David Toop describes Arthur’s music as having a sense of ‘oceanic formlessness’ and I think that could also be applied to some of your more minimalist or neo-classical work. Would you say you feel a musical affinity with Russell in the way you approach compositions?
Absolutely and the deeper I got into the thing, honestly it became quite surreal. Affinity is definitely the word. You look at something and you see yourself in it. When I look at Arthur’s work and I listen to it, it’s like being reaffirmed that this big part of me also exists elsewhere. It feels like I’m not alone with that. It’s great, but I don’t try to emulate it in any way. People started telling me that I reminded them of Russell before I’d ever heard him.
Another person with archive access was scholar Matthew Marble, who became increasingly interested by the practice of Esoteric Buddhism on Russell’s musical philosophy. He scored out a lot of Russell’s work, covered his experimental practices and drew ties with the work of John Cage. I know you’re heavily influenced by Cage and experimented with chance-based operations on Partners. I was wondering how they might have both influenced you experimentally in your approach? And also whether you feel spiritually is fed into the work?
Absolutely. I think that with Arthur and Cage, their sort of more esoteric spiritual practices are inextricably linked to the work. They have this very ‘non-Western’ or at least ‘beyond Western’ approach. They’re of the Western world in regards to their upbringing, but it seems the world opened up to them when they discovered this ‘other way’.
I think that’s true for myself as well. Growing up in small town America, as I did, what I was told about the world, my whole paradigm was vastly different to how I see the world now. Once I started to sort of get a bigger picture, it really started to influence the work that I do a lot as well. I mean how would it be if you got heavily into Esoteric Buddhism, but you just still really wanted to play those darn country songs. What would you do?
Do you know Laraaji? His music is a spiritual practice in and of itself; he’s consciously doing something like some kind of ritual with the music. I don’t know if that’s any different from people who play music and ‘don’t’ consciously do that. On some level, if you’re performing music it is a ritual and it isn’t a ritual. But there is something to be said about consciously bringing that attention to it music serving this or that purpose.
Although it sounds a little grandiose, Marble wrote he believed Arthur’s true intention was to save the world with his music?
It does sound quite lofty, but I can relate to that as a musician. When you’re working on something, you’re not trying to just make something that sounds nice. The impact of this thing is life-changing and world-changing. If people could just get this nugget of this thing that you’re getting at – if you can just manage to get it across and get it to resonate with everybody. It can feel so substantial. I’m sure on some level he must have felt this huge importance of his work as he worked on it, otherwise he wouldn’t have been so obsessive about it. He was obviously trying to get at something.
Then there’s the ‘monk-like’ diligence with which he applied himself as well…
That’s one thing that I grapple with because he was notorious for doing lots of different versions of a song and not being able to call one finished, definitive or ready for the record. I started to wonder at one point, ‘How much of this was he not able to put out because he was such a perfectionist or was he just genuinely more interested in the process of working and not as fixated on the result?’ That to me seems like the most ideal of the two options, right? He actually just liked working. I’m sure there’s a bit of both probably but if he was into that thing of just the process itself, I find that super admirable. Especially in today’s world where we’re quite materialistic and we want results, we want definite versions of things. Whereas music and songs are more like living things, they’re constantly changing over time. Any artist who’s good at playing their songs over a long period of time will change them over time. To keep it interesting for them and also for the song, to leave it open and maybe ten years later you will discover, ‘Oh if I throw that one chord in here, it actually makes the song better, it doesn’t matter if it wasn’t on the original version.’ We just close ourselves off from that when we call a song finished.
Could you tell me more about the upcoming Brian O’Doherty-inspired One Hear Now project and tour?
I got asked to make music to accompany some murals for a gallery in Ireland and the whole project has turned into something I got quite carried away with. The murals are quite geometric looking, big lines and shapes and bright colours. So I took one look at them and thought, ‘these could be turned into a score. This shape is this note and that colour is that instrument,’ so I made a very Cage-like system and once I had kind of figured out the system, the music more or less just composed itself. I was still doing things in a process to make it something that I wanted to hear, in a sense. It’s a very robotic composition but I kind of fell in love with it during the process.
Lastly, do you have any future projects lined up with Erased Tapes?
Yeh, I don’t have any details yet, but I’m currently trying to wrap up a new album of ‘guitar songs’. It’s been quite a while since I just wrote songs on the guitar. I spent the last several years doing more compositional stuff and commissioned work. That’s going to be the next project and I think it should be ready for next year. So that’s what I’m currently working towards. That would be something I’d be looking to share and ‘open all the doors for’ per se.
Peter Broderick And Friends Plays Arthur Russell takes place at 24 Kitchen Street on Thursday 22nd August. Buy tickets here.