In an era when even my 106-year-old great aunt has e-mail, it's not unusual to forge bonds with people you've never met. But I have a friend who died before I even knew who he was or how important his life was to me. His name is Arthur Russell.
Arthur was a composer, producer, and cellist who brought together strains of pop, disco, classical, and experimental music on a variety of now highly sought-after releases, including the singles "Is It All Over My Face" by Loose Joints (1980) and "Go Bang #5" by Dinosaur L (1982), and his influential 1986 LP World of Echo. He passed away in 1992, but I didn't make his acquaintance until a year later when I was introduced to his music at a memorial concert in New York.
In the course of researching an article about Russell's posthumous 1994 CD Another Thought, I became completely smitten with his story, his philosophy, and particularly his music. "At one moment he would do something very avant garde, and the next he'd say, 'What I really want is to sound like ABBA,'" Russell's collaborator David Byrne once observed. The more I delved into his oeuvre, the closer I felt to this overlooked innovator. Our relationship has only deepened over time.
So I have little doubt it was Arthur's spirit that steered my hand toward a particular CD recently when I was purging unsolicited review materials from my office. As I aimed the four-track Storm EP by an act called Mount Florida straight at the discard bin, I noticed one of the song titles was "Another Thought." Coincidence? Sure enough, there it was on the sleeve notes: "Words, Arthur Russell."
"I don't know if we did it justice," says Twitch (a.k.a. Keith McIvor), one half of Mount Florida. "It's such a great song." For their version, Twitch and partner M.P. Lancaster created a new backing track, then the Glasgow duo gave guest singer Madeline Macdonald a lyric sheet and nothing else. "I wouldn't let her hear the Arthur Russell one," Twitch insists. "None of our music pays any reference to his, and she'd never heard the song. So it's kind of a collaboration, but it's not. I love his words. What he writes is really magical.
"I don't know if I have any heroes, but if I do, Arthur Russell is one of them," he adds. The longtime house and techno DJ also discovered Russell through his underground disco hits (and misses). "Then I bought the Another Thought CD and went, 'This is really different,' but I loved it. Since then I've tracked down almost everything he's done. It's so very sad he died."
No doubt Arthur would approve of Mount Florida's new Arrived Phoenix (on Matador), a dub-infused masterpiece so woozy, fluid, and all over the map it makes Lee "Scratch" Perry sound straitlaced. Flashes of unnerving electro ("Bombast"), garage rock ("Postal"), and a 10-and-a-half-minute opus that intertwines computer manipulations of an improvisation by defunct indie outfit Ganger with haunting cello and violin lines ("Celebration") figure in the program, which builds to an almost unbearable level of excitement before tapering off. "That is very reminiscent of how I DJ," reveals Twitch. "Rather than being on a level, I tend to take things way up, then bring it down really gently—or very suddenly."
Twitch gets to indulge his broad tastes in music (he also names Coil, Alice Coltrane, and Sun Ra as favorites) every week at his Sunday club Optimo. "We started it three years ago," he recalls. "I was bored just playing seamless techno-house all night and thought, 'Damn it, I'm going to start something where I can play whatever I want: disco, house, dub, punk rock, Nina Simone—anything!'" They started off with audiences of 50 and 60 patrons. "Then, after a year and a half, we literally went from having 80 people one night to 300 the next week, and it's been like that ever since. Suddenly, people got it. It's totally rejuvenated my love of DJing. I've played in some outrageous clubs in my time, but this is the maddest thing I've ever done."
It's also reaffirmed my faith that Arthur Russell's work on Earth isn't finished. "At Optimo, we tend to subvert the usual over-hyping [done] by clubs here when they have big-name guest DJs," Twitch wrote in an e-mail a few days after our interview. "One week we plastered the city with posters advertising our latest attraction. The posters simply said, 'Optimo presents the Spirit of Arthur Russell,' and we played all the music we had by him.
"To this day I still get the occasional person raving about that night and how fine a guest Arthur was! It was a bit naughty, but if it made one person curious enough to search out his music, then it was worthwhile."