bruce russell: popwatch magazine

In 1993, Bruce Russell closed down Xpressway. It had accomplished its primary tasks: the careers of Peter Jefferies, Alastair Galbraith, and the Terminals had been salvaged, the profile of creative music from NZ's South Island had been raised a hundredfold, and Russell's own band, The Dead C., were among those benefitting from the overseas licensing deals he'd pioneered between Xpressway and record labels in the north hemisphere. It was time, he thought, to stop running a record label and to get on with other priorities - not least of a family nature, but also involving his own career, his writing, and his personal sound project, A Handful of Dust. In 1994 he instituted a new imprint, Corpus Hermeticum, to further the proliferation of his own music. 

But things change. 

When I spoke with Bruce on February 22, 1994, he'd moved 200 miles from Port Chalmers to Lyttelton. He was looking for a job, remodeling a new home, contemplating a pending U.S. tour with The Dead C., and Corpus Hermeticum was negotiating to release CDs by American guitarists Alan Licht and Thurston Moore, This interview took place in the Corpus Hermeticum office (a room overlooking Lyttelton harbor) and in Bruce's backyard, and it was fueled by some very strong French-pressed coffee. 

We were periodically interrupted by child-care responsibilities and by the carpenter's request that we help him install a new kitchen counter. 

PW: How does Corpus Hermeticum differ from Xpressway? 

BR: The major difference between Corpus Hermeticum and Xpressway is that Hermescorp is a one-man band and it's directed at returning a profit, whereas Xpressway was a collective in the sense that it was group of people operating with a common purpose. While the musicians were returned what money they were owed from their efforts, the major impulse was to get as much music as possible out to people's ears and decisions weren't made on the basis of what would return the best profit for an investment. I guess the major or reason for turning this around for me is that my personal circumstances have changed and I've got a family and I have to do something to make some money, particularly at the moment when I'm without other gainful employment, it's important that I get some money somehow. I have these talents and it just seems insane not to use them in a financially rewarding way.

That said, the other major difference I guess is that Hermescorp is predominately a CD label. One thing we learned from Xpressway that we really didn't expect is, for the kind of music we like to make, compact disc is actually the best way to reproduce it. Things that are recorded in a lo-fi way, when they're put onto CD the kind of proverbial cleanness, and some would say thinness, of the digitized sound isn't really a problem.

The second thing abbut the CD is that, unlike vinyl records, it's possible to capture recordings that have a really wide dynamic range and can go instantaneously from the very soft to the very loud and back again without any technical problems. 

Hermescorp has to date released three CDs. The first, The Philosophick Mercury, collected A Handful of Dust's two 1993 live performances, for which Russell was accompanied by Alastair Galbraith and Peter Stapleton. The second, Musica Humana, collected the various AHOD vinyl offerings released from 1990 to 1993. The most recent, Last Glass, is the recording debut of the improvisational ensemble Pieters/Russell/Stapleton. All three come, not in jewel boxes, but in square manila envelopes, and the first two include issues of Logopandocy, The Journal of Vain Erudition, a publication edited by Russell. 

PW: Is there a Corpus Hermeticum aesthetic? 

BR: Oh, yeah, definitely. Musically, my intention is to document free noise music in the sense that things that are improvised to as much of an extent as possible and that are in a conventional sense non-musical. There's lots of music which doesn't fit that category that I enjoy, but I won't be releasing any of that on Hermescorp. 

PW: Will all Hermescorp CDs be issued in a brown envelope?

BR: Absolutely, yeah, and indeed everyone I've approached about releasing material on Corpus Hermeticum is very enthusiastic about the nutty packaging. It's a must. I didn't want to use jewel boxes, I find them ugly and impractical for shipping. They're heavy and they're breakable and I also find them quite unfriendly for the CDs in that it's easier to damage a CD in a jewel box than virtually any other physical object that the CD will ever come in contact with barring a malfunctioning player. So jewel boxes were out. For independent reasons I wanted to do some kind of a publication, just because I had all this stuff that I had no real forum for publishing, so the idea came of doing the CDs with the publication. I originally intended to have them in a plastic outer bag, but the unavailability of such a bag in this country forced me to change my plans. Then my wife Kate came up with the extremely sensible idea of a brown manila envelope overprinted with a design, which we both felt would look really great. That has indeed proved to be the case and it's now become a bit of a trademark. 

PW: Will each Hermescorp CD come with an issue of Logopandocy? 

BR: No. Originally I was thinking that. I was really only envisioning releasing my own music on Hermescorp and consequently I was thinking that I would do an issue of Logopandocy with every CD. However, since my plans have expanded somewhat to include releasing music by other artists, and given that my expanded release schedule time does not really permit me to write and edit sufficient issues of the journal, I'm really restricting it to A Handful of Dust releases and others by request. For instance, I'm currently negotiating with Alan Licht to release a CD of his music on Hermescorp. He specifcally requested that it be issued with an issue of Logopandory because he wanted to do some writing which could be published in it, and I'm only too happy to do that with people whose interests coincide with mine in some sense. 

PW: What are your intentions in publishing Logopandocy? 

BR: I want to bewilder people. The connections behveen what Iwrite about and the music are pretty tangential in some ways, but I think that there is a definite cohesion at the aesthetic level, if not at the actual intellectual level, in terms of the content of the writing. But certainly I like the idea of really garbled incomprehensible noise coming alongside something that's actually well thought-out and fairly tightly argued, if equally incomprehensible to the unitiated reader. 

And hopefully everyone will get something out of it because one thing I'm really interested in is nonfiction from the aesthetic point of view. I am intrigued by reading nonfiction and evaluating it by fictional criteria; some of the best novels that I've read recently, the best stories, have been historical slash history-of-ideas writing. A book like Sabbatai Sevi, the Mystical Messiah by Gershom Scholem is just the most fabulous book I've ever read and tells you more about the human condition than a thousand novels. So one of the ways I hope people will read Logopandocy is, even if they're not specifically interested in the ideas, they read the pieces of writing as literary texts, you know, prose poetry, call it what you will. Certainly I enjoy the richness of language and "logopandocy" means a readiness to admit words of all kinds, so it's about language, about words, about the richness of the English language and the bizarre uses to which it can be put.

PW: I know one person who read the first issue and said that he was perplexed and didn't know whether it was meant to be serious or a joke. 

BR: Perceptive man! Yeah, both, definitely. It's like the music. Some people, I think wise and insightful people, listen to A Handful of Dust or The Dead C., and if they're in the right mood they'll just crack up, because what we're doing is in one way really quite funny. Some of the writing, some of the rums of phrase and some of the propositions advanced, are intended as rather a kind of a- what's the word? -an in-joke. But then again, I'm very serious about much of it as well. But I think it's unhealthy to separate the humor totally out of any aspect of life except maybe the genuinely tragic, which we shouldn't regard as humorous. 

PW: I understand that you have written a novel? 

BR: Drag City intends to publish it and it's called Victory Over the Sun. I wrote it 1987 to 1989, and it doesn't have anything to do with music at all, music isn't mentioned. I guess living in Dunedin is the nearest thing you could say it was about. It's a historical novel set in the future and it's a piece of experimental fiction. There is a plot, a fairly laughable plot, but the story is told from a number of contradictory viewpoints that are kind of cut in with one another throughout, so it's choppy and changing at some stages; almost paragraph by paragraph there are different viewpoints, different ways of telling the story. 

Bruce Russell is currently pursuing three musical endeavors. He has been a member of The Dead C. with Michael Morley and Robbie Yeats since 1987; he plays mostly improvised music with or without accompanists under the name A Handful of Dust; and he's recently recorded with Kim Pieters and Peter Stapleton, both ex-members of Dadamah. 

PW:You've done several albums and singles under the name A Handful of Dust on which you're the sole constant member. Now you've just done a CD as part of Pieters/Russell/Stapleton. What makes something A Handful of Dust and why isn't this new disc A Handful of Dust? 

BR: In A Handful of Dust I'm pretty much the dictator. It's my project and, while I don't want to belittle the contribution of Alastair in particular and the other people whote been involved, if there's one musical endeavor that I regard as being properly domain it's that one, and I invite other people to participate on the basis that I've come up with in advance. With the Pieters/Russell/Stapleton thing, it was pretty much more a genuine collective improvisation where Iwasn't really telling them what to do.We were recording their way, at their place, on their machinery, so it was actually multi-track recording, not just stereo recording (like A Handful of Dust). It was not done in the spirit of A Handful of Dust in that I wasn't really saying that had to happen next. I don't know what A Handful of Dust sounds like so it's difficult to say that it doesn't sound like A Handful of Dust, but to me, for whatever unjustifiable reason, it doesn't sound like A Handful of Dust, It sounds like something different partly because it's got bass guitar. I am known for my antipathy to the bass guitar and I managed to conquer that. If it had been A Handful of Dust recording I would have said to Kim, "You can't play that thing in here, it's only got four strings." But because we were operating more on an equal footing, I didn't crack the whip. 

I'm pleased with it. I'd like to think that it's Volume One; I'd certainly like to do some more with them and I think they're keen to do more. Sometimes I have qualms, I think some things ought to be issued under my own name. I could have done the Sabattai Sevi record as a Bruce Russell record I guess, but I would imagine that when I do a Bruce Russell record it'll be solo guitar. 

Muzsikas is an Hungarian folk group whose music, besides being quite beautiful, attained considerable political significance as a means of protest during the time that Hungary was under Soviet domination. The Ex covered one of their songs and the Dog Faced Hermans have toured with them. Hermescorp catalogs allege that A Handful of Dust's single Three Dances in Honour of Sabbatai Sevi, the Apostate Messiah is inspired by Muzsikas. 

PW: In what way was the Sabbatai Sevi single influenced by Muzsikas? 

BR: Listening to some of that stuff that they did on the CD The Lost Jewish Music of Transylvania, the fiddle-dominated stuff with really galloping percussion, made me think that I'd really like to do something sort of like that, so that was what inspired me to do a violin record accompanied by percussion. Of course, the end result sounds nothing whatsoever like the inspiration! The other thing is the Balkan connection. The idea that they're dances, that's a joke of course, but in a way I think it does people good to think what, in terms of folk recordings, what constitutes a dance music-particularly since today dance music in popular parlance is such a debased term, and in my opinion, such a debased medium. I guess it was kind of a bit of a sling-off at the concept of dance music. I did a dance record!

PW:You've worked with The Dead C. now for eight years.

BR: Yes! 

PW: What's changed for the group in that time? 

BR: We've gotten better. 

PW: How so? 

BR: Well, it took us a couple years to come to grips with what it was that we were doing. From the start I think we had a kind of instinctive feeling about what we were trying to do but it was only, for me anyway, only after Eusa Kills that we really began to come to grips with the potential of what we were doing. Although we had always improvised within the framework of songs, we began to branch out and do things that weren't in any sense songs at all. Now we're in a situation where we don't all live in the same town. I think that will make a difference, but it might lead to increased longevity for the band given the discipline of playing together when we live in different towns. I think it's going to give us an impetus because it's too easy for us to sit back and think we don't really need to do anything, we've got two albums in the can, we don't really need to rehearse, there aren't any gigs in view, and suddenly six months have gone by and we haven't actually done anything. I think we'll possibly be more disciplined about doing things, particularly if these touring plans (to America) really work out. 

PW: Could you say a bit about the intent and the result of The Dead C. vs. Sebadoh record? 

BR: The intent was to make a hardcore record and the result was quite successful, I think, as an antidote to our albums which are becoming increasingly less related to rock music. Yet, as a band, we still have what Paul McKessar called early in our career, a tangential relationship to rock music. The idea of doing a record which focused on doing rock music seemed like a good idea. We'd been doing these little mini-sets where we would go "one-two-three-four" and then just blast for a minute and a half and then stop and do another one, I guess more to confound the audience. After you've played a fifteen-minute piece of space music people don't expect you to suddenly do that-we like to surprise people. 

PW: Can you say a bit about the album The Operation of the Sonne, your intentions in recording it and how you feel about it now? 

BR: It's good. We intended...well, with all these records it's not so much what we intend to do. I mean, The Dead C. vs. Sebadoh was unusual in that it was intentional, we intended to do a record like that. With Operation of the Sonne we had the A Side, the basis of the first side, recorded in mid-'92 and then in the beginning of'93 we did the gig where we recorded "Air" and I immediately felt that we ought to release this in its entirety. There was no real intention, but we quite liked the idea of doing another album that was very few long tracks. It was just the kind of thing we wanted to release at the time, and we intended with The White House, the new album that we're putting out through Matador, to do more of a rock record and we failed! 

PW: What did you do? 

BR: You mean what kind of record is it? 

PW: Yeah. 

BR: There's three songs: one of them is us being a reasonably convincing rock band of a sort. And then we tried on another one of the tracks, "Outside," to record a rock song version of what is essentially a rock song-but we failed. We did it for two minutes and then we did fifteen more minutes of complete utter nonsense, which is possibly the highlight of the record, but it is not rock music. So that is an example of us failing. 

We took what we can do live as a five- or six-minute sort of medium-paced rock song and we failed to record it as we intended. We recorded it as something else entirely, where it is two minutes quite a convincing rock song and fifteen minutes of utter nonsense. 

PW:You seem pretty pleased with the nonsense, though. 

BR: Totally, yes, we're a nonsense band.