bruce russell interview

Bruce Russell interview by Simon Johnson, originally slated for a fanzine which never got off the ground. Simon was gracious enough to pass it along to me as a -gulp- WWW exclusive. Thanks, Simon!

Q.1/ Corpus Hermeticum has been in operation for over 4 years now, what was your main impetus for starting the label in the first place?

My main impetus was actually to be able to release my own stuff. I originally intended only releasing titles, which I played on, with one group or another. However, I moved to Christchurch about a year later and found myself without adequate means of support for my family, so I started to work the label harder as a profit making thing, that was when I did the T.Moore/T.Surgal CD. But at the start I wanted to release "self indulgent" (so-called) albums like The Philosophik Mercury that was a big part of it. The idea of releasing a CD with only two tracks, both murky live recordings of an improvised unrelenting din, seemed a bit extreme for many other labels in 1994. I had offered it to Drag City, but they were over busy with other things at that point. I offered it to them because I admire the thorough and meticulous way in which they approach dealing with artists over money. They're an example to all other labels, including mine.

Q.2/ Are there any aesthetic parallels to be drawn between Corpus Hermeticum and Xpressway, the imprint you operated until 1993?

An obvious point in common would be my taste; in whatever form it takes at the moment in question. That's the clearest parallel, also the emphasis on the presentation of the releases. I've always tried to lean towards clean design and composition of artwork and professional printing presentation, in generally one or two ink colours. And of course the "no-fi" policy - no fidelity too low if it sounds good. The difference is that Hermescorp has certain arbitrary rules that differ from those which guided Xpressway, and which also constrain what I do, such as the profit motive, emphasis on "difficult listening", tendency towards pieces with long durations.

Q.3/ How did you network with such international luminaries as Thurston Moore, Alan licht, The Shadow Ring and Flying Saucer Attack?

Really I just met them one way or another, in person through mutual acquaintances, or by correspondence. Itís a small world in the kind of thing that we do, as "rock musicians" travelling outward in differing musical directions. Thatís the best description of the genre that I can come up with, actually. Sonic Youth did seek us out quite deliberately, The Dead C. I mean. They met Michael first, as a shopping guide, chaperoning them around thrift shops in Auckland. Mr FSA it turns out was a long-term and hopeless X/Way junkie, which gave us a good point of contact. I was, and still am, a great fan of the first FSA album too, so we had two things in common. Alan I met in New York, where he is delightfully ubiquitous and the Shad's and I go back a long way, to the time of their very first releases, having met via the post office.

Q.4/ How healthy is the Free noise/Improvisation scene in NZ and how are these artists perceived in Europe and the States?

The "scene" is pretty healthy I guess. There's lots more groups even then I have personally heard doing stuff that clearly references "both the noise and improvisatory traditions". Not that anyone is getting especially rich or even famous. It is very underground, in that only a very few fanzines even acknowledge it in print. Even The Dead C. are only intermittently reviewed in any national "music journals". This seems to be the exact opposite to the way we are regarded overseas, even really obscure artists here such as Omit, can generate a formidable presence in the media in America. Headway in Europe has been much slower, but has really taken off in the last four years or so. Hence our interview. My next one is for a Norwegian Fanzine, too.

Q.5/ Can you tell us about the Free Noise Manifesto that you have written?

I've really only written one manifesto, "What is free?", which was written in 1994. I really wanted to write a manifesto, is a literary genre that really appeals to me; there are such great models, the Communist Manifesto of course, but also various Dada manifestos by Tzara. We have only one political party in this country that still addresses issues and policies in a real manifesto. That is the MacGillicuddy Serious Party, who are Jacobite post-situationists who in the last election outdid themselves with a pop-up manifesto, to illustrate their policy of "the Great Leap Backward". Next time they should get Witcyst to do it for them. His publications are so excellent in their impenetrability. I have a fine collection, he trades readily.

Q.6/ Is Corpus Hermeticum a full-time occupation for you now?

Not at all, it is a big hobby. Even at my most under-employed I've more or less always had at least a part time job in addition. In any case, no one with children ever has a full-time occupation; they occupy that niche pretty well.

Q.7/ In addition to running the label, you play in the bands, The Dead C. A Handful of Dust and record as a solo artist. Your schedule must be very demanding?

Well, actually I only play music about six times a year on average, including rehearsals and recordings, sometimes as many as ten, perhaps. I am very busy, but I deliberately play as little as possible to keep it fresh and exciting every time I do it. Is that bogus or what?

Q. 8/ How was The Dead C. perceived in the early days given that you flew in the face of the very dominant and popular Flying Nun Scene?

A. We were not really taken seriously at for the first couple of years, then I suspect we were widely resented in some circles. There used to be a strong body of thought that held that we weren't the best people to be representing their country in musical endeavours. I hear that less now, but only because virtually everyone has gone back to ignoring us. Certainly in the press that is very true. We get a better hearing on student radio still, I suspect, despite techno and jungle and what the hey.

Q. 9/ The Dead Cís latest album, "Tusk" has received some glowing reviews in some noteworthy publications, namely The Wire and The Sunday Times. How important are reviews to you?

A. I still really enjoy reviews. Reviews of your own work give you a really good way of telling if a given writer or publication is any sort of reliable guide to music. Not that they have to like it, but they have to at least be able to say why they don't in some perceptive way, then they're worth reading. They don't mean jack shit to sales, however. Very few people seem to make daring leaps into new genres because of reviews.

Q. 10/ The music of A Handful of Dust seems to be steeped in contrast between the harsh blizzards of noise and strangely beautiful soundscapes. Is it fair to assume that contrast is at the heart of what you do?

A. Yes, I guess so. I don't over emphasise the difference between the two, myself. They're the classic yin and yang really; together those two categories make up a whole, which is my experience of music as a "communication" on whatever level.

Q. 11/ Given that much of your musical endeavours appear to have a philosophical slant, what areas unrelated to music have influenced your ideas?

A. The study of political philosophy and social anthropology, and the history of ideas in general. I'm of a philosophical bent, but not at all a religious one, though religious ideas interest me very much, as a student of human nature. I worked as an archivist for 6 years in for the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, based in the theological college. I fitted in remarkably well, I think in some way I was there as an example of their tolerance of "difference" in society. They were spooked much more by the Tibetan monks who visited one day.

Q.12/ Would you enlighten the uninitiated as to the merits that improvisation has over composition?

A. I'd hesitate to say merits. I think the main thing is for people to be aware that the two are completely different undertakings. They might sound indistinguishable at some moments, but I fervently believe that they are still quite different in kind. Too few people are attuned to this, and also to music that "breaks the rules" or rather points up that the accepted parameters of "music" are in fact rules adopted by convention and not immutable laws of nature. All music is equal in a sense; it's just that I personally find improvised music, of whatever stripe, interesting. I really donít think it's absolutely better than any other sort, but it generally is more honest as self-expression.

Q.13/ Finally, what is on the horizon for Bruce Russell and Corpus Hermeticum?

A. Well, I think my next release is a blend of the two solo LPs released by Kjetil D.Brandstall, and then a new Handful Of Dust CD recorded at shows over the last two years called Jerusalem, Street of Graves. After that I am signed up for a CD by RST, from Auckland, who've just got a disc out on Ecstatic Peace. Finally, this year I hope to put out a recording of Alastair Galbraith and Matt de Genero playing long piano wires and violin, which is very beautiful in a Theatre of Eternal Music kind of way.