5 questions with RUSSELL E.L. BUTLER

Erica Synths launches artist feature series 5 questions with... Self-explanatory - we speak to breakthrough artists, pioneering musicians, creatives from different backgrounds and places and ask them 5 questions (that might or might not trigger a necessity for a few more and open up in-depth conversations).

Russell E.L. Butler was the first performer coming from overseas to play at the Erica Synths Garage series more than 5 years ago, becoming an obvious choice for the first instalment of 5 questions with...

Russell E.L. Butler is a non-binary experimental artist and DJ based in Brooklyn, NY. Originally from Bermuda, Russell has developed a process of improvisation that draws from a rich cultural history rooted in their island and the Black, queer diaspora. 2022 has seen Russell touring USA and Europe showcasing both their live and DJ sets of stripped-down machine techno that evolves rapidly with each successive release.

Guarionex Rodriguez Jr.

Eliza Aboltina speaks with Russell while they are in NYC, just before leaving for another stretch of gigs overseas. At the time of their conversation Russell is spending time reading Audre Lorde's book Zami: A New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography, Art Taylor's Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews book on jazz musicians as well as Mark Fell's Structure and Synthesis: The Anatomy of Practice.

When asked what they listen to these days, the answer is simple:

I'm really into pretty sounds. Luscious pad sounds. Working in modular synthesis for so long, a lot of the sounds are monophonic... And not only in terms of the voicing but many of the sounds don't end up having as much of a spatial element or harmonic relationships. And there's just something about harmonic relationships that evoke intense emotional response that is really interesting to me.

- Process of improvisation plays a central role within your creativity. How & what else?

- RB: I think ultimately what interests me within music, both as a listener and a person who makes music is exploration. An experience that I had when I was younger was often hearing something that I hadn't heard before - new input that I would want to identify, whether it was an instrument or an artist. At this point, especially as a recording, mix or mastering engineer I am and always have been fascinated by people's creative impulses - music, art, any kind of medium. And as a motivation of exploration, improvisation is one of those tools of getting there, especially in a process of having been making music for a very long time.

I'm still always learning and discovering new things, but there is a point at which you have to be very self motivated and disciplined in order to commit to that process. It could be just working with the same piece of gear over and over again: you know how that piece of gear sounds, what it can do, how to program it, you know every single parameter in it... But then another challenge arises, which is what are you going to do with any of that information? And so that's where another layer of exploring comes in. With all of these things that I think that I know, how can I continuously show myself that I can still learn? That's kind of where I start whenever I turn up, turn on instruments in the studio or open the recording software to do a mix down or master somebody's work. The starting point for me is the question of what am I discovering? What am I learning? What am I hearing? A lot of questions come out of that. And then eventually there's a point at which you have to say to yourself - this thing is done. Because you can continuously explore, keep on peeling back layer, after layer after layer... But if I'm trying to make something that is going to add to my artistic body of work and communicate ideas that I'm interested in at the time, then there has to be a stopping point, as well.

I think that's a thing within improvisation - at first, you're seeing what you can do and then it becomes noise, but not in an interesting way. It becomes background. So in order to add dimension or dynamics, creating a constraint is something that can help. A common question that I see with folks who are just starting out producing is when do you know that a track is finished? And the answer to that is you decide that it is. And it kind of sucks and almost sounds dismissive, right? I make stuff that I think sounds good, that I really like, that I want to hear. And I like listening to my stuff well after it's done and released. I love revisiting old work even years after. It's a very important part of my process as well.

- That's interesting, as opposed to having often hear artists state that when a body of work is done, they feel like they have moved past and left it behind with no looking back.

- RB: What is interesting to me is that things continue to change. Just by the act of showing a work to someone else - it changes. There is never going to be a complete experience of what you intended someone to understand or experience from your work. We're all subjective people, we all think differently. Our capacities to look at or hear things are all different. The best that we can hope for is that somebody gets at the very least a positive if not interesting experience and that it doesn't piss them off or offend them.

Each time listening to a piece of work is different - making something new changes how the old thing sits. I've committed myself to a life of creative work, whether it's through making visual art or through making music or whatever other way creativity comes out. And I'm very specific about my language here, I don't want to say music, I don't want to say art, those things don't have a monopoly on being creative. I'm committed to a life perspective. Not as much as I'm committed to being a worker within a creative industry. This is how I live my life, each time I make something it's like taking a picture of something that's happened in my life, and sharing it with other people. So when I'm looking back on my work it's like going through a photo album.


Tim Sweeney

- Looking at creativity and expression as a whole instead of compartmentalizing different outputs…

RB: The difference between being focused on I'm going to be a really good painter versus I'm going to see how painting informs how I live my life. Being a good painter is hopefully gonna get you some really good paintings, but figuring out your life through a medium is going to give you a deeper and richer understanding of living. Which is what the painting exists in, in the first place. I can't be entirely idealistic and be like Oh, art isn't just about making commodities. That's absolutely a part of it. That's literally how I make my living. I'm pretty anti capitalist but I have to acknowledge the ways in which I have to do things to survive. One of those is through my physical labor, or through the things that I create. But something else happens in the creative process - a whole other set of worlds open up that is, if not exactly outside of the same paradigm, it's still very much informed by the fact that we're in a late capitalist hellscape… but it provides another way of looking at things and experiencing life. That isn't compliant with what this really shitty violent system is constantly telling us that we're supposed to be.

- What does creating an uncompromising existence or art mean to you?

RB: To be uncompromising to who it is that I am in relation to my identity as a worker. I'm simultaneously obliged - to acknowledge that there are ways in which I have to engage in the system which are uncomfortable to me. But at the same time, there's still a limitation to what it is that I'm willing to do. Because ultimately I'm invested in living what I would define as a decent life. There's a point at which, once I compromise enough, I won't really recognize myself for what it is that I want. Or what it is that I've tried to build or who it is that I am at my core. To be uncompromising in that way is to have an intact sense of self. At the same time, I'm not super concrete, I'm always shifting and changing and somewhat flexible, but there are just some things, particularly around being an art worker, that after many years of experience, various degrees of exploitation I try to maintain as much of a sense of who it is that I am as I can.


Manny De La Cruz

- The very first time we met was my first day working at Erica Synths - more than 5 years ago. What paths has music led you through in this time?

RB: I appreciate that you included that - I actually didn't know that. So funny. We caught each other at a turning point in our lives. That year was the first year that I was really trying to do DJing professionally. And not super successfully - I was really struggling for a lot of different reasons. But now I'm actually making a living off of doing this, in a way that is allowing me to have the time and space to think more than just three or four weeks into the future.

I'm very cautious because, especially within the creative industry, the direction of the wind could change and suddenly, I wouldn't be making money. It's very fragile in that kind of a way. I try to maintain being grateful without assuming that it's just gonna keep on happening forever. But it has made a very real material change in my life which is very positive. It has made significant improvements in my mental and physical health, and the general sense of direction in my life. Obviously, the pandemic interrupted that to an extent. I moved to New York five months before lockdown. And I really gave up - I had just started to do this professionally. It felt like nobody cared about me. That's kind of the energy that Emotional Bangers Only carry. I've committed myself to a creative life. So no matter whether or not there's an industry to support me I'm going to keep on doing this. It came from a place of asking what would you make if nobody's listening? What would you make if you didn't think anybody would care? And this work did really well, I was very lucky for that. Both of those releases resonated with a lot of people.

So a lot has happened in the time period of the last 5 years - I left California, got divorced. Now I am in a deep, intentional relationship, arguably for the first time in my life. I have really great support from my friends and my family. I am traveling a lot to make money. And I'm still not at the spot where I'm a fucking superstar and living on my own. I'm still working some shit out. But what I'm really wealthy with right now is my time. Which money is no replacement for.

What would you make if nobody's listening? What would you make if you didn't think anybody would care?

- Emotional Bangers Only. What is this record about?

RB: Some artists who really liked the record and considered it to be some of my best work ever, have asked if I am ever gonna continue the series... I hope not because it came from a place where my life was fucked up (laughing - ed.). There is, however, the malaise that depression is pretty constant so maybe... The album that I'm working on now is definitely pulling from the same aesthetic and conceptual space. But it's a lot more stripped down - less movement, less sounds. It's still in the realm of dance music, but it's more focused and very specific. Emo Bangers were jams from long days in a studio, whereas what I am working on right now are songs.

- How would you describe the emotional place this new material is coming from?

RB: I would say it's definitely a response to the current point we are in. Some of this I haven't even fully articulated yet because it's been a very different process than what I have done previously. Even articulating what the emotional space is for this is different. But what I could talk about are a few interesting points that I'm trying to work out through this music.

There's a time period in New York in particular 1992 to 1997 where a lot of the very iconic records, producers and DJs were really shaping and crafting the sound that we know as house music now, particularly deep house. That period of time is at the tail end of the AIDS epidemic, when some of the most iconic DJs that people still talk about died - Ron Hardy, Larry Levan. There's this color, almost like a patina that makes you hear that people are working through some really traumatic shit, both in the songs and in the ways that they're DJing. Whole generations of black, brown and queer, trans people were lost because of willful neglect from governments. And while people are figuring out how the fuck to deal with this, their daily lives are still constantly under attack, whether it's the deepening of the military industrial complex, US imperialism, the deepening of the carceral state, the criminalization of nightlife in New York. A lot of the real estate that's in Times Square is built resulting in kicking out all the porn theaters, trans and gay cruising clubs. Many of the very important house and techno music nightclubs were in Midtown, which is a fucking theme park now.

A lot of the things that we are experiencing currently, in terms of wealth disparity, rent and utility prices going up - these folks were dealing with those same kinds of circumstances. I'm pulling from that framework and trying to learn from what they experienced, then utilize that and put it in the tunes, put it in the DNA, put it in the conversations that I have with other people, so that we can figure out where the fuck to go next. I'm working some shit out and arriving at a point of admitting, that I don't really know how to deal with how fucking traumatic this pandemic was for me and so many of my peers. How can I speak to that and - especially working in nightlife, to not contribute to the perspective of doors of the club shut, it's another world and let's forget about all the bullshit outside. The outside world is in here with us. If we don't acknowledge that people are in pain, we're harming them more. You can hear it in how people play too. There's more emotional range than just banging it out.


- If you would have to choose one of your works to put in a time capsule for future generations to find, which one would it be?

Stay in tune with what Russell is creating via their Instagram and SoundCloud and watch their performance at Erica Synths Garage!

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