An Arc of Crystal Clarity
Rob chats with Gavin Russom and Viva Ruiz of the Crystal Ark
By Rob Cohen, 5:10PM, Thu. Jan. 10, 2013
Gavin Russom has been part of New York's underground dance scene as a artist on DFA records for years. Last year his music was taken to the next level through collaboration with new partner Viva Ruiz. The Crystal Ark was born. In anticipation of their DJ set this Saturday we spoke via Skype of telenovelas, Kraftwerk, and the body's connection to dance.
Austin Chronicle: How did you two meet?
Gavin Russom: We met in Berlin, Germany where I had been living for five years. I recognized Viva from New York but we didn't know each other.
Viva Ruiz: We actually lived a just few blocks from each other for years and years.
GR: We just met briefly, and we got along. I thought she was cool. A couple months later we both ended up performing at the same festival in Paris. That seemed like a synchronicity. We started communicating online, and I began coming back to New York quite a bit in 2009. Then I moved back.
VR: New York was not done with Gavin Russom.
AC: Was there anything specific that bonded you together? Anything that stands out that said, "I have to work with this person?"
VR: The first time we met in Berlin, I didn't know Gavin was a performer. When we met again in Paris he was performing. We were both there with our different musical collectives, performing on different floors. He was a solo musician in this huge piece, and uh the look was on point [laughs]. He was a wearing a beautiful cape and mask, and [to Gavin] I think I saw you from the beginning as a very Phantom of the Opera personality, which of course, I would be very attracted to. It's still the thing I'm very drawn to. He's very in-between worlds.
GR: I think what initially attracted me to Viva was just her energy. I felt like meeting somebody that things clicked. As I started to get to get to know her, it was almost like checking off boxes on a list. She was a filmmaker and made these telenovelas that were this kind of art and entertainment mixed together. She sang on this dark house-music track about a witch in Spanish, that was great. She was a dancer, as well. When I played her the music, she got it immediately and really liked it.
AC: Speaking of Spanish, me encanta que cantas en español. Can you tell me a little more about your cultural backgrounds and how it influences your music?
VR: In Gavin's first invitation to me, he specifically asked me to sing in Spanish – which is part of what made it so tasty from the beginning, because those are my roots. My connection, my ancestry has been a really strong thread in all of my work. Like Gavin said, I made these telenovelas that were very queer and real New York, that were in Spanish. I liked being true to the form. It was not a thing where I'm being ironic, I just love novelas and I just always wanted to make them. I am a first-generation American. My parents came here from Ecuador. They dated at Coney Island. I spent a lot of my childhood in Ecuador, and I try to go back there as much as I can. The culture I grew up in is Ecuadorian, but in New York City, so what that makes in me is, you know, I don't know what I am! It's like this mutant Frankenstien-y experience that I enjoy. I really love being able to speak from a crossroads. I feel like there is so much against the immigrant right now. I feel like anywhere I can, my job is to exalt the immigrant. My connection to my ancestry is very important. I am a Latina, and for me it's a very political thing to be clear about that. It's not something that's in the background. I have a lot of pride, because there has been so much weird much nationalism lately – so bizarre. This is a nation of immigrants, so that whole thing is a paradox to me. My cultural background is very important to me. Our first single, the "We Came To" single, is us glorifying the people who come here to work. It's a very simple thing. People are here to work, not to be imperials, but to survive, thrive, and have the same things that were offered to immigrants through time. Right now, I feel like it's a big thing for me to say I am Latina, and a woman. Boom!
GR: I am like a very mixed, white American, and I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, which for the size of it, is a very diverse place. I'm not really sure how much influence my cultural background has on what I do, but I did grow up in a family where we were very conscious of our ancestry. We talked a lot about and experienced a lot about the different places that some of my ancestors came from, particularly on the German and Italian side, because they were the most recent immigrants. My mother grew up in the Middle East, so that was always an influence, as well. In terms of music, there are a lot of musicians in my family going back generations. My great-grandfather was a Christian folk hymn composer. I grew up with so many influences. Ethnically, I'm very mixed – all kinds of European people whose musical traditions are pretty lost in terms of how they translated into any kind of New World presence. My parents raised me in a way of having a very open mind to a lot of different influences and not drawing a lot of lines between things. I think that comes across in my music.
AC: What was the first electronic music that really spoke to you?
VR: For me, it was very clearly Kraftwerk. I grew up in Jamaica, New York, Queens, one of the birthplaces of Hip-hop. I was very much of the streets. The place where electronic music met the 'hood was very interesting to me. I remember when I first heard Kraftwerk, I just could not believe it [laughs]. I got to know them as the soundtrack to a lot of breakdancing and the Hip-hop story in Queens. It was just earth-shattering to me how it felt of the streets, like our music. We saw them recently at the Museum of Modern Art. They were doing a full album concert a day. We were at the Trans Europe Express show, and Afrika Bambaataa was at the show. It was the last day of mixing the record, and Gavin had a copy with him right off the presses, and we were standing between Kraftwerk and Afrika Bambaataa, and it was one of those really psychedelic moments [laughs] where all these worlds are intersecting. I really love when things like that happen. This intersection, this crossroads things, for me, is where I live. I really love sitting at those intersections and just hanging out and seeing what happens to each community, each flavor when they pass each other. Kraftwerk is very magical to me. Their presence. They really hit this ancient and futuristic note at the same time that transcended where they were from or what their experience was like in Germany, it just was directly mainlined into the hood somehow, into the ghetto. That's a very rare thing that something can speak so clearly to something so far away from where it came from.
GR: You just said this thing, and I just wanna trace back for a second to the cultural ancestry thing because I never really thought about this before, but just when you said Kraftwerk, I was like people often use Krautrock as this referential term for music I make and I dunno I am a quarter German, and I feel like another reference point that people use a lot is Italo, which I really like. I really respond to Italian disco of the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties even, and I'm also a quarter Italian. I've literally never thought about that or made that connection until now, but you know, maybe I do have some cultural influence that I never realized.
AC: We're having a breakthrough here!
GR: Yeah! [Everyone laughs]
VR: Wait, I just had a breakthrough! Hold on a second. I think what I'm remembering too about that Kraftwerk show. For me, what it makes in me, it brings out the dancer in me, that's what I do to Kraftwerk's music. That was how I was first affected by electronic music. That's how everyone around me was. It was dance music, so for me, the experience is very physical. It's not very contemplative. My first response to it was very visceral. And that's how I feel about Gavin's music. It's very bloody.
AC: That's a great way to put it. I was just thinking how Kraftwerk's thing is "We Are the Robots" whereas your music is very human. You celebrate the body, skin, limbs.
VR: We're very much about the liberation of the body.
GR: For me, electronic music, like breakdancing music was definitely a very early experience I had. Newcleus' "Jam On It," that kind of sound. Electro, I guess, that I remember hearing as a kid and thinking, "What the fuck is this?" Another major light-bulb moment was hearing a lot of acid house on underground radio stations in Providence and hearing that stuff in the middle of the night. How bizarre and dark and from another world it was and also very physical. The simplicity and rawness of it. The thing that stands out to me, I remember hearing "As Acid Turns" by Lidell Townsell when I was 13 or 14 years old, and he's just saying "Flail" repeatedly, and he rhymes it with his name "Flail, Lidell" over and over
GR: and it has this crazy acid pattern going in the background. I know that was a major moment for me. If I think about electronic music that was the moment. There were acid house parties and raves, but I was 13. I wish I was cool enough to have found that stuff and gone, so it was something I heard on the radio and in my bedroom and danced around to by myself. I think another thing that drew me to that stuff unconsciously was how homemade it was. There is that thing, especially with that music, somebody can make that alone in their room and tap into this very deep, weird, introspective stuff, and then it gets taken out and played in a club. That is something that really grabbed me as an awkward kid who fantasized about going to a big club.
VR: I love that, like an alchemy. I think you're right, that it can have an origin that some people can see as sterile or passive but then then there's an alchemy that on a dance floor something else comes through.
GR: Yeah, with that sort of early electronic music it's this thing that can be very, very private and then go very very public without any steps in between. Something about that is really appealing.
AC: Is there anything recent tickling your fancy in electronic music?
VR:For some reason It usually takes me a while to hear what's cutting, what's breaking. I really, really love this band House of Ladosha from Brooklyn. I don't know how you would even categorize it. They have a root in Hip-hop but it's also dance music. It's really queer, really hard, really fucking hot. It's just like dirty, dirty Hip-hop. I love it. And um… god, I have to say, I didn't realize what Grimes was doing. [laughs] I've heard the name so much lately, and I finally listened to a track called "Genesis." I was really blown away. I really love what she's making and that she produces it and plays so many parts in the making of her work.
GR: I love all this house music that is coming out of South Africa right now. I think that's really amazing, new electronic music. I was introduced to it by some people who were performing on the A-train on my way home. They were dancing to this DJ Kent track, and it just didn't sound like anything else I had ever heard before, and that led me to this whole exploding scene of South African house music. The electronic mode of production allows people to, especially in the last couple of years, to make music that is blending genres and dissolving boundaries. There are labels like Minimal Wave, City Tracks, and Nation Records that are putting out stuff that is in this really interesting territory of house, new-wave, and kind of dark wave with European and American elements mixed together. I love stuff that Man Recordings or ZZK records are putting out, that kind of mix, this European techno aesthetic with South American or North African rhythms and not in this way where it's about just combining styles, but it feels like really natural, organic, different things affecting each other. That's the kind of thing that's grabbing me right now.
AC: Let's talk your new album?
GR: The production techniques are pretty diverse on that record. The first couple of music projects that I was involved in were very heavily based, for the most part, on analog synths and drum machines. I was mostly attracted to those things because they were the things that I had access to, and because of their playability. That's how I got back to making music, by getting into production instruments that I could turn on and manipulate to make sound. There is something about analog synthesizers that has an effect on the body. Something about the richness and the deepness of the tones and the way those instruments produce sound. For this album in particular, I also started to really use samplers a lot more and really using the computer as a production tool. We used a lot of live instrumentation as well. Alberto Lopez and Tyler Pope do percussion and bass respectively. That was one of the big things we were going for, a richer sonic landscape. A wider range of sounds. The analog synthesizer sound is the core of the sound, but the thing I was interested in exploring was bringing in production techniques from other music that I like that doesn't use those instruments.
AC: So what's next for the Crystal Ark in 2013?
VR: I would like to play this record. I'd like to perform this record with Gavin and our performing family. Did you ever see The Apostle?
AC: I have not, no.
VR: It's amazing. The title character is this minister that goes around with a very impassioned, love message, not so much hellfire and brimstone. That is us. I just want to run around and spread the good news. I love what we made and want to share it. I just feel so inspired. Thirteen's my lucky number so I know it's going to be a good year.
GR: It has been already. I just really want to get the music and the message out there in any way. You know, really create a music experience that connects with people who respond to what we've made.