Listen and you’ll see: Emma Warren on Arthur Russell

Arthur Russell had a recording habit that drove his engineers mad.

He liked to record over old tapes, allowing something of what had gone before to seep through into the new song. This production tick was nothing compared to his other signature habit: an absolute inability to finish anything.

Arthur Russell was a visionary who bridged the worlds of classical music and disco, a trained cellist who hung out with Philip Glass and Allan Ginsberg and a Buddhist who loved Indian music, but more than anything else, he was a perfectionist.

When Russell died in 1994, he left over a thousand tapes of songs, 40 of which were different mixes of just one track. He would record and re-record songs over and over again, inviting different musicians to contribute or re-recording the drums, and in a pre-hard-drive era, this was both extreme and extremely unusual.

He worked on That’s Us/Wild Combination constantly between 1986 and 1990, and you can’t help feel that if he hadn’t died aged 40, he’d still be working on it.

The joy of listening to this dreamy, reverb-drenched song, which first appeared on 2004’s Calling Out Of Context is that we’re hearing a snapshot of the piece, one captured moment when it sounded like this, rather than like that. To Russell, songs were living things that needed shifting, shaping and adapting each time his view of the world changed, which was all the time. He was working like electronic producers work now, thirty years before the relevant technology existed: starting a song and adding to it, changing it, altering the space around the instruments, so the songs shifted like the sky, cloudy one day, clear the next. This version of That’s Us/Wild Combination –  the released version – simply captures the song at one honest moment, rather than at a perfect moment, or a more pedestrian deadline moment.

Russell did things that the rest of the world adopted decades later. He liked to take his music out onto the streets of New York in order to really hear how they sounded. He would pound the sidewalks, listening to his songs on silver headphones (you can see these hanging around his neck in many of the photographs taken at the time, appearing almost as often as his cello) way before this became a normal way for musicians to absorb and assess a piece they’d made.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s he confused and appalled his classical peers by bringing heavy dance music drums into their world, and annoyed and baffled his DJ friends by making dense, multi-layered, experimental tunes that stretched way beyond the parameters of the dancefloor. Fortunately, he had friends who were willing to rip the song away and remix it when Russell wasn’t looking, a method that worked for his production partners Francois Kervorkian, as well as Larry Levan who remixed Is It All Over My Face? into a juggernaut hit. By the time he made That’s Us/Wild Combination, he’d left disco behind but took the lessons of deconstruction and groove into this expansive, telescopic love song.

Russell was also the ultimate independent: schedules, release dates and deadlines meant nothing, even when these were on his own label, Sleeping Bag records which he founded with Will Scolov and Juggy Gales before ditching it (or being ditched, depending who you believe) when the constraints of the business became too much.

Sound changed with Arthur Russell  – even if the rest of the world only noticed two decades later.

Emma Warren has been writing about music since she contributed to the first issue of influential music mag Jockey Slut. She went on to work on staff at THE FACE and wrote for publications including Q, The Guardian, The Observer and The FT (albeit only once). She now makes radio documentaries for the BBC; hosts lectures for the Red Bull Music Academy, Rough Trade and The ICA; and is the lead mentor at LIVE.

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