|Machine love: Gavin Russom
RA's William Rauscher gets nerdy with DFA's synth maestro about building guitar sequencers, the power of magic and improvising.
A lifelong artist, musician and onetime stage magician, Gavin Russom has remained fervently attuned to the enigmas of the analog man-machine, having repaired and built synths from a young age. As a studio tech for DFA they called him the Wizard because of his mastery of modular mysteries. But it's perhaps a not altogether ill-fitting moniker for someone with a strong interest in magic who sports a Cali-cult leader appearance.
The pulse, sizzle and raw electric charge of Russom's self-designed instruments are on grand display in Days of Mars, his previous album with Delia Gonzalez that dove into expansive Tangerine Dream/Klaus Schulze-style kraut-cosmic dreamscapes, as well as his new self-titled solo release as Black Meteoric Star, which finds Russom focusing his energies on the bristling energy of early Detroit techno and acid house. We caught up with Russom in his Berlin studio to find out more about his work, his gear and the magic of both.
Can you describe your current set-up?
I kind of define each project that I do by what equipment I use. For Black Meteoric Star I use an EX-800, a Korg early-80s hybrid digital-analog synth, it's a poly-800 without the keyboard, basically, and I built that into a rack case with a Moebius, a hardware sequencer made a few years ago by Future-Retro.
Basically it's a very, very expanded version of a Roland-style step sequencer, like you'd find on an MC 202, where you assign a note to each step in a sixteen-step sequence. This one is just a lot more elaborate, you can chain a lot of sequences together, edit stuff on the fly. It's actually an incredible tool and it also takes MIDI inputs and then has all kinds of outputs. So when I'm doing Black Meteoric Star I'm using MIDI to trigger the EX-800, I use the 707 for all the beats and then I have a sequential circuits six-track which is also a hybrid keyboard from the early '80s.
How does the hybrid aspect work?
It's different for different companies. Here it's both digital oscillators with analog filters and such. Also they're polyphonic, so rather than editing sounds with a set of knobs, there's usually some sort of parametric editing, where there's a number assigned to each function, to filter cut-off for example, and you just edit those. You have memory, polyphony, those functions that come with digital, but you have a fat analog filter sound. One of the reasons I got into building my own gear was being able to take really complex sounds and then tweak them with analog filters.
Do you have a usual work flow for a new track?
I work in a really live way whether I'm editing a mix in Logic or playing on a keyboard or writing sequences. I like to have as much sound going as possible in real time so that I can edit parameters by ear and move things around. I generally do a lot of live takes when I record and have the recording running, so when weird things happen I can record them.
You can kind of catch the analog, you have a net for it.
Exactly. When you're working with analog gear, it's so unpredictable, one time you turn it on and then you can never get the sound again. So that's one of the cool things about digital recording. I did the Black Meteoric Star tracks with a tape deck, but in general I use Logic to record and for remixes. Logic 8 is pretty fast, I can cut and paste stuff while the track is playing, and sometimes something falls into a weird place, it's out of sync, and I can keep it. I think in terms of the way I approach writing things, it's the feedback aspect, that's why I got attracted especially to modular synths in the first place, because they kind of play themselves, I try to get into a transparent relationship with what I'm working on, get a feeling for what it's trying to be.
One of the benefits is that you don't have complete control over analog gear. You're riding it, a bit.
Totally, I really like that a lot. I came from playing in bands to getting into improvisation when I was a teenager, doing weird tape music at home, and that's still the way I relate to making music, when something has its own momentum and its own energy and I can interact with it, it has a life of its own.
What about recreating that live?
"World Eater," for instance, I don't know how I did it, so I can't play it live. I had cascading filters, but I don't know how I patched it. The way that sounds affect each other and are interdependent is actually quite weird.
Sometimes it's quite frustrating, "How the hell did I do this?"
When I went back to the Black Meteoric Star songs and redid them for live sets, I had to let go of the idea of making it sound like the record. But that's the life of the box I use. This box was kind of a major thing for me, how to set up a controlling network where the sounds are interdependent on each other. What one sound does controls what another sound is doing. You know like in "Anthem" the bassline is also triggering the filter parameters for the arpeggio. It's not something you recognized immediately, but it has a certain effect whether you recognize it or not. One sound controls another, that's really interesting to me.
You're giving the machine a certain kind of life.
Building a guitar sequencer
You've built custom gear for some DFA guys, like James Murphy and Bjorn from Black Dice.
Bjorn [from Black Dice] came to me and asked, can you make a sequencer for guitar? First I didn't know if it was possible, then I realized that what we were talking about was quite a bit like the box I used with Delia and still use now. It ended up making a lot of sense.
That design combined with what I use is what I'm working on now to make a more professional box that will probably be commercially available, a small run for studios and stuff. It's basically a sequencer with filters and VCAs but normalized in a way that makes it a powerful tool, especially for the studio.
How does this work?
I'm having a hard time visualizing it.
Yeah, the normal idea of sequencer is that it's something that plays an instrument, so you imagine that a guitar sequencer is some totally weird thing where it has robot hands. But this is the cool thing about understanding how analog synths work: under the hood, the sequencer isn't exactly playing the synth. The keyboard's not playing it either, like a piano does with little hammers. When you hit a key on a synth, it sends a control voltage to an oscillator, which sets the pitch, it's also sending a gate signal to an envelope generator, which sends an envelope to a VCF and a VCA or two different EGs, and that processes that sound.
That's what clicked it for me. I realized that what a sequencer is usually doing is actually processing the sound in a time-based way rather than actually generating the sound. So it's not about having a sequencer play the guitar, but about processing the sound of a guitar in the way that a step-sequencer processes sound. I had already been dealing with that stuff, especially processing the keyboard parts that Delia and I played.
A lot of what you hear on Days of Mars is one or both of us playing a sequence live at the same time that the sequencer is processing it, so that there's a slipping in and out of sync with each other. At the end of "Black Spring" for example, there's this one sequence where what the downbeat is keeps changing, because it keeps shifting in and out of the programmed sequence.
So what I built Bjorn is basically a sequencer with an audio input rather than a link to a VCO. I started to use that and figure out things about routing filters in different ways that really opens up what you can do. If you're under the hood of an analog synth, what the VCO does is shaping the timbre of the sound over time.
Normally it's done in a very conventional way which is based on imitating acoustic instruments. You want a patch that sounds like a piano, you use zero attack, a certain amount of release. But what's cool about analog synths is that once you get out of that, there's really all kinds of ways that sounds can change over time, based on how you modify a filter.
A sequencer is just kind of sending the time clock of how the sound is changing over time. That could be over five minutes, how one sound is going to change, what's going to happen in that time. Even having two filters rather than one opens up a huge field of possibility in how you route those filters to each other.
I like this organic element, where it's kind of alive and I can interact with it.
What's definitely noticeable on Black Meteoric Star is that it does sound like you're not exactly sure what's going to happen next.
There's a biker element to it and that's totally my experience with it, just getting on this machine and turning up as fast as it goes, and hoping you don't die.
Does your set-up change a lot?
There's some things I use on everything, the sequential circuits six-track keyboard, especially for live playing, it's a really powerful keyboard, the programming is weird but once you get it, it's fast, it's capable of these insanely fat sounds. It's got six oscillators that you can stack up.
Yeah, Black Meteoric Star sounds pretty dense.
It's dense as hell, and it's not even multi-tracked. It's really stripped-down in terms of what's actually there, but because of how powerful those machines are, it sounds really layered, there's all this crazy harmonic activity. A lot of these little melodies that you hear in the repetitive sequences are not "there" in any real way, I didn't play them, they happen when two elements collide with each other.
What was your setup for Days of Mars?
We had a synth that I had built that we processed almost everything through, to achieve this kind of gated strobe-light effect. It's basically high and low pass filters, VCAs and envelope generators. It's the design that I've stripped down to what I use on absolutely everything now, a step-sequencer and filter box. It's just normalized in a slightly different way than most modular synths or anything that's commercial available.
Where do you get components?
Sometimes I hack stuff out of old synths, or build from scratch. I usually use Mauser electronics, it's a mail-order thing in the states. Here in Germany they have Konrad, which is like what Radio Shack used to be, where you can buy an insane amount of components.
I rarely do that much electronic stuff here. I hit a point right around when I moved here where I was at the limit of what I could do by myself, prototyping my own boards, getting my own components, and I had also kind of achieved what I had set out to do, which was this box that I use, and I just spent a long time using what I'd already built without much interest in building new tools.
Also on Days of Mars we used a lot of digital keyboards with sampled sounds or PCM sounds but then put through analog filters, producing a lot of weird harmonic excitation. For the live set up Delia played a digital keyboard and I played that sequential keyboard and everything would go through that box. Later on we used this box I've got now, but the original had very different filters on it.
Do you think it takes a lot of technical know-how to put this kind of gear together? Do you have background in that kind of design?
I was always really interested in electronics, but I started by building acoustic instruments. I was interested in things that could have a melody and a drone at the same time, some string but also reed-based instruments, also percussion instruments, like rattles. I was trying to create instruments that had their own life in a way.
Then I started experimenting with electronics, really having no idea what I was doing or how it worked at all. I had a lot of weird things blow up in my face. I just explored patching pedals together, mixer feedback, that kind of thing. When I first got into analog synths there wasn't a lot of information available, but once the internet got going that totally changed, suddenly there was a wealth of information.
Once that happened I taught myself some basics and then I worked with some other people. Mainly I worked with this guy called Jeff Blankensop, he works for a company called E.A.R.S. in New York. He's worked with Hawkwind, Pink Floyd and Vangelis. As for my own technical expertise, for me I needed to be able to do that to make the music I wanted to make, how I wanted to make it. Although I have a certain amount of technical knowledge about synths, how you use them, what's going on inside them, it's really the sound first. All the other stuff helps just to get there faster or to tell somebody what I'm doing.
You attended a unique music program at Bard, what was that like?
It actually doesn't exist anymore, it morphed into a couple other things. It was a really intense composition program, and what was radical about it was that it focused on playing and listening as the main activities, rather than studying compositional methodology. All the theory work was done by listening and discussing from there. Starting with sound.
It would begin with making something and then theory would come from that. Really a kind of post-Cage method. I was exposed to tons of stuff I probably wouldn't have heard otherwise. It's a bit strange because a lot of things that I do or know how to do musically, I don't really know how I know them, I can't explain them, I just know, without understanding how it works. It's in there on a deep level, it's a bit weird.
You learn how to respond intuitively.
And in a way open a kind of channel to the music-making activity. I studied cello when I was young, learning the classical method. It took me a long time to be able to approach music from the point of view of the sound first, with everything else being a tool to explain what you're doing to other people.
You used to repair synths for DFA.
That's how I met James [Murphy] and everyone else. Around the time I started building synths, I was 25 or something, I was at the point where you're like, "I have to start doing what I'm going to do." I quit my job and I had some money saved up so I spent time learning how to build synths, then I sent out a mass email to really a ton of people, saying "I build custom synths, I do vintage synth repairs, I'm available." James was the only person who wrote me back. I went over to their studio, it was incredible, they had really a ton of stuff they'd collected, all of it worked but was a little bit off. That was my main gig for a while, building stuff for them, getting everything up and running.
Is there a certain satisfaction that you get out of bringing something back to life again?
Totally. Actually if you're a musician, doing electronics for sound is incredibly frustrating. For me, I want to make the sound. I want the thing to make the sound, whatever I'm building or repairing. It's just agonizing to be working with the materials and some little tiny thing is wrong and you can't tell what it is. Especially with building but also with repairing, once the tone comes out, it sounds so great. There have been some remarkable moments. I haven't done too much building in a while. Now I mostly design stuff and get someone else to do the work.
You've a broad interest in magic practices and rituals, does that have a connection to building equipment at all?
Yes, in my own creative development, for sure. When I was a student I studied a lot about magic and ritual. Then when I moved to New York I got burned out really quickly on having an academic relationship to anything. I wanted to do and make things instead. The way that this came out was through these stage magic shows I was doing that had a ritual element, I was interested in connecting these things, understanding their history. I built all these props and machines for the shows, and that led directly into building synths. It was a seamless continuity for me. It wasn't until later that synths became this musical choice. In the beginning it was about harnessing electricity in this magical way.
Yeah, even though you might think that machines and technology are under our control, it's always fascinating that they're powered by electricity, a natural element that's completely unpredictable.
And the process involves going through that and having things fuck up and burst into flames, it really drove home that point that it's a really elemental force. I saw working with electronic music as a kind of channeling, working with this raw, natural force.
So that's the parallel with magic practices, that you're having to channel something, harness something.
For me the process of making music has always been like that, music is also this untamed force and composing music is like taking this big unmanageable energy and channeling it into something that expresses something, giving it a meaning and a purpose.
Published / Wednesday, 29 July 2009
Photo credits / Sidebar (B&W with Delia Gonzalez) - Greg Neate
All other photos - RA