(images taken from Ray Russell's website)
Ray Russell has done a lot. From working with people as varied as John Barry, Bill Fay, Lulu, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Heaven 17, and Scott Walker, releasing solo albums that run the gamut from funky free rock improvisations (Secret Asylum, Rites and Rituals) to tributes to Gil Evans (Goodbye Svengali), not to mention being part of forgotten early '70's greats Mouse and The Running Man, it's obvious this guy has something going for him.
I was able to interview Mr. Russell via Skype a few weeks ago. We discussed a big chunk of his career, which I was able to transcribe after the jump. Check it out!
When you were starting to get into free improvisation, did the work of people like Derek Bailey and AMM have an influence on you, or would you say you were more or less trying to bring a free jazz aesthetic to rock music?
One of the major influences was probably John Coltrane... and there was Archie Shepp, and maybe Sonny Sharrock... I thought they were a bit warmer in a way than some of the European free jazz, as it were, or just free improvisation. I don't know, I think they were warmer, a bit more soulful.
I feel like, as opposed to the other English improvisation at the time, there is a more direct jazz influence in your work.
Well, that's it. The other thing could have been free improvisation, without being anything in particular... I always felt like the stuff Archie Shepp was doing, or Albert Ayler, was really jazz oriented and still had a kind of root there.
Your album Rites and Rituals. It seems like that recording weighs on the line between improvisation and composed pieces.
Yeah, some of it was composed. I always feel that one should, really. At the time, I felt that we shouldn't just play a four bar line and use it as an excuse to improvise. There had to be a compositional element that really said, "This is why you are improvising like that."
That's what I think is so interesting about that record. It has these pieces, goes between them, and is dynamic. To me, a lot of free music can be very interesting, but not dynamic... That could be something that's missing from many freely improvised records for me, and it's really great that it's on Rites and Rituals.
That was another thing about the more European stuff, it really wasn't based in anything. They would just start and play, which is commendable in itself, but I always felt you should have a composition to make the mood of the piece.
Many people mention you as the first person in England with a pedal board set up. I wanted to know what encouraged you to go on those sonic explorations.
Sonic explorations... well, I was always interested in finding sounds and creating moods. The first thing I had, really, was just a slide, funnily enough. I used to make silly things with the slide and just the overdrive on the amp, which was only because the amp was pretty knackered. It broke up so much it became something else.
Then it just went into things like an analog delay line, using it for looping like a lot of people do, but trying to use it in a different way. I've experimented with that stuff ever since, to be honest. I've always been interested in changing the sound of the guitar and seeing what it can do.
How were you able to come across all these pedals? It seems like most people weren't using that many when you started.
There were very few people around, there were a few people in England making them... but the first thing on the scene was really the fuzz pedal. I was kind of interested in that, but it just broke the guitar sound up so much, it could really just become a different thing.
Then there were some digital delays Electro-Harmonix were making, some very wacky stuff... sort of unreliable and so wacky that those became something else too. I think that's the problem now [with effects pedals], it's just so reliable and clinical in a way, nothing ever goes wrong... you never get a sort of "happy accident."
I wanted to ask you about Bill Fay's album, The Time of the Last Persecution. That's one of my favorite records, and I wanted to know how you came to produce that with him.
We played quite a bit together, and it's a kind of an interesting amalgam already... we came into the scene and we were already doing the free jazz thing and then there was that framework... chord changes, an actual sequence... but it just seemed to work out, you know?
We just seemed to hit it off, and played some gigs, as Bill did, he used to do gigs... and the chemistry just worked. Everyone seems to like it as well. I did think, a couple times, "Is this right?", but it was. The message of his kinda music and now just seem to coincide... even though he had a different way.
When it came to Persecution, that was just really a day, well, two days in the end. We just went in and played. It was a primitive set up and some was just two-track, really.
Were you improvising a lot when you were making that record?
Oh yeah. No two takes were the same. I mean, he would play the tune, but the improvisation... we had a kind of guideline where it would happen but it would just develop and that would be it. The whole album's like that, really.
What kind of guitar you were playing on that record?
That was a Burns Split Sound. You've probably seen them, but they have these kind of settings on them... one setting, that's kind of funny now, was called the "Wild Dog," which was a real top end, but if you wanted to get a different quality of sound, it would be real choppy, and you could change it very easily, which was good. It was very advanced for its time, the pickups were very diverse.
You have played on many different recordings, from Scott Walker to Phil Collins, so when you go in to play with new people, do they have different expectations of you, because of all these things you've been a part of?
That's a very good question... people do. What happens there is most people I work with know me, and I work out where they are at, and maybe try something out or take it to a different place, see if they are into it and figure out how far you are going to go with it.
Basically, all that pop stuff is playing for the song. The song is what's there, and you try and enhance that and make it as good as you can, or as different as you can.
Do you find people in the pop realm are fans of your work with the more free element, or do they know you from other pop records you've played on?
It all depends, it all depends. Some people have got more of a sense of history about it, and they're into it. I've also been on a pop session, where for kind of a novelty value, they said.. "Go into that thing you do" "What thing's that?" "Well that thing where you kinda play free"... and I'm thinking, because of Bill and stuff like that "Well I know what they've been listening to."
They just want it to work for them, but it doesn't always work. Sometimes I'll get a bit scared and think, "Ah! This has gone a bit too far..."
It must be a challenge to work in all these different realms.
It's a challenge, it's always a challenge. It varies. Sometimes they have to bring you back a bit, and something else comes out, which is good. Invariably, I've never really had a kind of failure in a way, something's always worked for somebody... you kind of just have to be resourceful.
Or find those "happy accidents."
"Happy accidents"... (laughs) it's better when you just kinda stumble around in the dark and find the light...
With Scott Walker... I was watching the documentary on him, and he seemed to have this really specific work ethic, where he wouldn't let the players hear the melody. Was it like that when you were playing on Climate of Hunter?
When we were doing that... I seemed to remember that we had a lot of power cuts. We were at a place called IBC, which is in central London. It was a very old building, it actually had a fireplace in the studio. It was quite ornamental, it had been converted.
We did do a lot of takes and he wasn't big on singing the tune, you know?
Yeah, yeah. Was that difficult if you don't know how the tune goes and you're...
Well yeah, it can be if you're playing all over it. I mean, it's not like you could just take bits then, snip bits and take them off, you know?
Yeah, it was nothing like a Pro Tools or something...
Right, it wasn't a Pro Tools, it was just there (laughs). I think he liked the idea of us kind of defining how the track would go, so we would do our thing and he would either get excited about it or say, "Oh, let's do another one."
But the trick was, for him, he really wouldn't give you too much of a clue. I think a lot of the time he really didn't know what he wanted, he wanted to just try different things out. We were doing experiments and he was paying us to do them (laughs).
It seems like it would be such a process working with him, trying to find the melody, and figure everything out...
That's right, it was that, but he would edit. He was quite savy really, and his engineer would just slice up the multitrack and he would come out with that, yeah. [Walker] seemed to be happy in the end.
It's a great album, I was listening to it yesterday! The guitar playing on the song "Track 3" is really great.
Yeah, I enjoyed it! I thought it was good, it's fun, you know, just to do that... I heard it about a month ago or something, I hadn't heard it for a while, but yeah it was good. I hadn't heard it for years, but I enjoyed it!
I'm working on bits of an album, what I'm really trying to do is get a little tour together. That's coming on, but it's difficult, you know? I'm really interested in some online sessions too. I want to put the word out on that, I did that a couple times and I really enjoyed it. It was fun!
I wanted to ask you one last question: What is the record that you've played on that you feel most proud of? With your music and as a session guitarist?
With me, I would have to talk about the different eras, and for the beginning, Rites and Rituals would be a popular one. In the sort of second era, it would be the one I did with Gil Evans, called Take Me To The Sun. In the pop world, I would probably say, funnily enough, Tina Turner.
But about Rites and Rituals, it seemed like everything was right about that record. I remember everything was great about it. It was very organic, and it flowed very natural, as it were... The other stuff I felt the same about, you know, just come out of it feeling good.
Which Tina Turner record did you play on?
"Let's Stay Together." If you draw up the lines to the pins, I'd say you could draw from that... The other trouble is, now I've thought all that, but I haven't mentioned the record with Bill [Fay]. So that's difficult, you know what I mean? I say that, but there's always something else! I'll say Tina Turner, but of course, keeping in mind the stuff with Bill.