Barely recognised during his own career, Arthur Russell’s music has enjoyed an influential second life.
From car adverts to art house cinema, Fabric to Optimo the producer can be found in some unexpected places. It would be trite and deeply offensive to say simply that Arthur Russell lives on through his music, yet his output has that indefinable sense of soul, which, once located, does not retreat.
Drawn together through their connection with Arthur Russell, a group of New York based musicians began playing impromptu shows in 2008. Naming themselves Arthur’s Landing, the loose knit collective found that one show led to a tour, and one studio session led to a record contract. “We didn’t have to go out and find people – they found us,” explains Glasgow born guitarist Steven Hall. “All the jobs we’ve gotten – even the record deal – came from people finding us. Hearing about what we were doing.”
Taken tragically young, Arthur Russell left a sprawling, complex discography. However the emphasis on the actual recordings often misses a large aspect of his musical career. “We really love performing the music live as it gives us a chance to improvise. That’s a big part of Arthur’s work which people often miss, particularly if they’ve only heard the recordings,” explains the guitarist. “The performances were pretty dynamic, in terms of what was happening in them was pretty fluid. Also the idea of having fun was a very big deal for him – as well as what we do – Arthur wanted to keep everything loose in the studio, like they were all having a party. That’s why Arthur liked to record on a full moon, so everyone could feed on the energy with things going a little crazy. Having a good time onstage, playing together, emphasised the idea of people being relaxed. The idea is that if you have fun then the audience has fun.”
Classically trained, Arthur Russell was attracted to the avant garde. Inspired by John Cage and the idea of chance, the young musician soon fell under the spell of the poet Allen Ginsberg after a chance meeting in New York. Working with Steven Hall, Arthur Russell helped back up the poet and was encouraged to come out of his shell on-stage. “Arthur and I used to play back up for Allen. When he would play around the New York area particularly Arthur and I used to be his back up band. That was fun because Allen was always really wild and he taught us to be yourself, basically, and we relaxed. A lot of our own performance stuff came from Allen, making us very relaxed.”
Continually moving between instruments, styles and genres Arthur Russell never once slowed down. The producer had a famous work rate, leaving behind an enormous pile of notepads and magnetic tape. With this in mind, Arthur’s Landing initially faced a struggle to find a singular sense of direction. “We did get requests for certain songs. It’s kind of a case-by-case basis because everyone has songs that they really like. I only wrote two songs with Arthur, so for me those songs are very special” Hall explains. “As a process it has been kind of interesting, as at certain points it got very heavy because the band itself started out as a lot of fun but when we got a record deal we had to make an album and choose certain songs. It became very heavy because you had these old friends who had a very certain idea about what the songs should be. They were used to having their own way, so it got really heavy some times. People had their own ideas about what they wanted to do.”
Mixed by Brennan Green, the result has the same ineffable quality that ran through Arthur Russell’s own music. Using archive equipment, Arthur’s Landing recall the avant-disco experiments of Dinosaur L or Loose Joints. “Basically, most of the songs were recorded live then we turned them over to Brennan. But mostly what you hear is live and that’s the feeling we were going for” the guitarist says. “Also, we recorded everything with real drums playing live, to get an analogue feel which is like a retro trend in the studios of New York. To have everything analogue. To have a warm sound. That part was something we were really pleased about.”
The results are spectacular. Arthur’s Landing feels like a time-piece, a long lost session from those Full Moon jams. A sense of reverence pervades the album, but never at the expense of having fun. Already working on the second volume, the collective are in talks with Bob Blank to produce their follow up album. With a compilation of remixes in the works, Arthur’s Landing have often been overwhelmed by the good will they have been shown. Yet the question remains as to why it has taken thirty years for Arthur Russell’s music to be treated in such a fashion. “Every time Arthur became known he would move to another field. He would become restless,” explains Steven Hall. “He was so confident in his own talent in a way that he felt any field he entered he could conquer. In some ways he was really the most ambitious guy I ever met. It’s funny because in other ways he was really quite shy. In some ways his own personality prevented him becoming famous. He was kind of shy but he could be very aggressive at the same time.”
It seems that Arthur Russell harboured ambitions to become a reclusive producer, rather than a star in his own right. “I think why he wasn’t so successful immediately is that he didn’t stick to one field. If he stuck to dance music then he could have become this big star. He could have been this massive producer. I think what he eventually wanted to be was like George Clinton, where he would be the producer of several bands. He wanted to do work in different styles, like with this cast of many characters.”
Passing away virtually unrecognised, Arthur Russell’s output remained in the hands of a select few. Now appreciated in a much wider sense, the New York producer’s work inspires an intense loyalty. “We knew all this thirty years ago. Our own friends used to say: ‘we don’t get it’. I had friends tell me ‘oh if you work with Arthur you won’t make any money – he’s like way out there’. But I loved what he was doing!”
“To me it wasn’t like a question there was something which was so fascinating about him. You only meet a few people in your life who you might consider a genius. One definition of genius is someone who is so driven that they can’t stop working because that’s all they focus on. All Arthur thought about was where he was next recording, what the song was going to be. He always had a notepad in his hand because he was always writing something. That’s why he left so much stuff which was unfinished, because he was generating so much stuff the whole time. I’ve never seen anyone work like that in my whole life.”
‘Arthur’s Landing’ is out now.