ABOVE: THE CRYSTAL ARK’S VIVA RUIZ (LEFT) AND GAVIN RUSSOM. IMAGE COURTESY OF VERONICA IBARRA
If you’ve had even a passing interest in the Brooklyn music scene over the past decade or so, you’ve probably heard the name Gavin Russom thrown around in conjunction with DFA Records or as the synth player for the now defunct Williamsburg godheads LCD Soundsystem. Instrumental to the sound of DFA, Russom is also an engineer who has developed synthesizers and effects for bands ranging from The Black Lips and Holy Ghost to his solo project, Black Meteoric Star.
For the past couple years, however, Russom’s attention has turned toward his new project with performance artist, dancer, and vocalist (among other things) Viva Ruiz. Calling themselves The Crystal Ark, the two mix Latin rhythms with genres as diverse as Krautrock, techno, and disco.
When Interview met up with the Russom and Ruiz at a Williamsburg restaurant, the two were almost giddy at having completed their first record. They occasionally finished each other’s sentences, exuding a deep friendship and mutual admiration that was apparent from the get-go. During our the chat, we talk about their first meeting, what inspires them creatively, and their Usher homage “Rhodes,” which you can hear—along with the rest of the album, in our exclusive full stream—below.
NATHAN REESE: So how did you guys meet for the first time?
GAVIN RUSSOM: We met by chance in Berlin.
VIVA RUIZ: I was traveling with this performance theater group called The Big Art Group. They’re based here in New York. I was lip-synching this character—
RUSSOM: —and I recognized her from New York. We have tons of mutual friends.
RUIZ: Yeah, I had no idea what Gavin did. And then we met again a month later in Paris. The group was performing at a museum thing, and Gavin was performing on a different level [of the museum].
RUSSOM: That was actually the first Black Meteoric Star show. That was early 2008.
REESE: So how did you actually start working together?
RUSSOM: [to Ruiz] Did I ask you about writing lyrics, or dancing for Black Meteoric Star first? I can’t remember which it was—I was shy about it.
RUIZ: It was music first. I had just started making music again with a friend of mine here in New York, the artist Desi Santiago—this brilliant Puerto Rican artist. We have a performance group called ESCANDALO where we get to live out our Latino-Goth-house music fantasies. He designed all the masks at the Metropolitan [Museum of Art] McQueen thing, works in robotics now, a major up-and-coming artist.
RUSSOM: The music that became the first Crystal Ark single, I just made it. It was also this point where I was beginning to understand that this was my job: I go in the studio and I make tracks. I had those two tracks, the ones that became “The City Never Sleeps” and “The Tangible Presence of the Miraculous.” I could hear it in my head—an English/Spanish vocal of a certain kind. And I was like, that woman I met seemed cool. So I connected the dots with the Escandalo thing. But I was still living in Berlin, and you were still living in New York.
RUIZ: It was months later. He [emailed] and was like “Hey, I’m working on a new project, and I’m feeling some Spanish vocals.” So I was like, “Let’s play.”
REESE: What’s the creative dynamic like between you two when you’re working on a song?
RUIZ: [to Russom] I feel like you lead. The songs, by the end, are a different thing than they are at the beginning, but you’re pretty much directing that. The slow jam on the record [“Rhodes”]—that came out of you. All those things start with broad strokes, and a lot of that stays the same.
REESE: I was actually going to ask about that track. It’s not really a dance song. Is that sort of new ground for you?
RUIZ: Well, horizontal dancing. [laughs]
RUSSOM: I think that one of the goals was to make an album. Something that had a story, that had different neighborhoods, and as a whole that would be interesting. Not just a bunch of songs that were all good. “Rhodes” was the last song that was written. I just wanted to make a slow song. The way that I arrived at the BPM that was something like “Love In This Club” by Usher. I beat-mapped it and it was 69 beats per minute, so that was the starting point. And then I just sat at the Rhodes piano and just did two takes, and was like, we’re going to edit it and make a song out of it. But then after listening to it and living with it for a while, it just made sense as-is, so I didn’t end up editing it at all and used the whole two improvised takes layered over each other. We [also] really got in a Fleetwood Mac groove. While traveling for a show, we were watching a Fleetwood Mac music video, and we were like, it could be this—that the aesthetic qualities of the music dictate what it is, rather than it being “dance music.”
REESE: Viva, where does your lyrical inspiration come from?
RUIZ: When I first head the tracks, I heard most of them at the same time. It was like a city with all these different places. It was also the first time there were a bunch of tracks at once. It was surprising and amazing! To me, it was like watching a movie, and I was just doing free association with them, and all these pictures were coming to me, and those ended up the lyrics.
RUSSOM: With the album tracks, they had been spilling through from LCD [Soundsystem]. Like, [when we were touring], it was incredibly busy and stressful, but I realized I had all this down time. If I got up at eight in the morning, I had hours before I had to do anything. So I accumulated this big bunch of songs. For me, the songs are about something, but it’s much more abstract. So Viva would listen to them, and be like this song feels like it wants to be about this.
REESE: You’ve created a lot of your own instruments and effects over the years. How did that play into the sound of the record?
RUSSOM: By the time I did Black Meteoric Star, [my music] was so based around my own designs. That was the whole thing about that project: It stripped everything down to the core thing. So, the way the Crystal Ark tracks grew, it was almost as if that Gavin was one of a few different guys in the band that were all me. One was the guy who played my home-built synth boxes, and then another guy was programming the MPC or playing lead synth parts. Also, a lot the gear I’ve built is just really good for production, so I used those, but it was good to have them as part of a larger picture.
REESE: Your music has a lot of these really repetitious, almost Krautrock elements. How do audiences usually react to the more drawn-out parts of your songs?
RUIZ: In New York, people dance. There’s a lot of making out. [laughs]
RUSSOM: And more! I’m sure people have gotten pregnant at our shows…
REESE: Is that a good thing, when you see someone making out in the audience?
RUSSOM: Oh yeah, it’s the best thing!
RUIZ: [to Russom] That reminds me. I came to see you in New York at Santos [Party House]. We had just started talking about collaborating. You did this thing for a long time on guitar. It was really subtle, and I loved it. I don’t know anybody who does this thing that you do, and it made me really interested in collaborating. It’s a thing I know from being a dancer, of getting into that zone, into that other place where you’re in your dream phase or something. I’ve danced for years, and there is a thing about dancing in front of people, where I create a world and just feel it. Just feeling the beat. I want to share it with people, but it’s just me and God and everybody’s invited. When I saw you do that performance, I saw that you were open, but it was your trip… It went on for so long!
RUSSOM: I believe you said: “That guy does not give a fuck!” [laughs]
REESE: That’s very different than a lot of electronic music now, which seems to change every few seconds to keep people engaged.
RUSSOM: And I think I’ve gotten better at it, composing music that leads people somehow in that way. In a sense, I feel like it’s a responsibility of someone who makes culture to heal that short attention-span thing. Which I don’t say in a value way, because I don’t think there’s a real problem with it. But to have that as your only experience is a little bit conducive to, like, insanity. So I think that’s part of my job, to create an experience where time is allowed to move in other ways. Because so much of how time moves is dictated by everything changing all the time.
REESE: I wanted to talk about the Latin influences on the record. Gavin, you’ve said you were inspired by a trip to Brazil?
RUSSOM: I feel like I have to sort of caveat that thing every time it comes up. I actually like to talk about it, because I think identifying the way I was inspired is really important. It wasn’t my first time there, but it was my first long time there. I just heard music in a very natural way everywhere I went, like you do in any other city. Out of cars, on the radio, in cars. But because it was a different place, it had its own particulars. And so that was kind of the level at which it inspired me, just hearing all these things. And the fact that there was almost always this physical component. There was these Capoeira masters in the square playing berimbau. And in clubs, it wasn’t people talking each other’s ears off—people were dancing. When I went back, I wasn’t like, “I want to make some tracks that sounded like the music I heard.” It had just gotten in there and inspired me. And then, for me in particular, Batá drumming has always been a major inspiration, because of the way the rhythms work and the way the drums and vocals interact harmonically. Even on the really early synth stuff.
RUIZ: And then I’m Latina—that’s just me.
RUSSOM: A large part was that! Like, “The City Never Sleeps”—it had that kind of rhythmic feeling bit, but somehow this Latin feeling got turned up. It was an energy that just came by working together.
RUIZ: That’s kind of my flavor. We’re bringing our worlds together, and that is my world.
THE CRYSTAL ARK IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, VISIT DFA’S WEBSITE.