Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Matt Wolf Interview
Director Matt Wolf recently finished his "portrait" of Arthur Russell, screening this weekend. I wrote about the film and a weekend of tribute concerts here. If you don't know about Mr. Russell, do catch up.
How many people interviewed Arthur during his lifetime?
It was really limited. David Toop interviewed him for the Face. I’m not one to be exhaustive with research. There was never any video recording of Arthur speaking. He wasn’t interviewed much. There’s this audio cassette correspondence to his parents about this scheme to sell flutes from India. He needs the capital to buy the flutes. Arthur came up with these business ventures which were circuitous ways to ask for money for studio time. Arthur had great ideas ahead of the time, but wasn’t able to monetize.
For as often as he evokes the ocean, did Arthur ever go overseas?
I believe he was in London to meet with Geoff Travis. Past that, I don’t think he did. His parents are very worldly. I don’t believe Arthur was very worldly himself, in thought but not in deed.
How did you become aware his music?
I found out about it through the reissues in 2003-4, Calling out of Context and World of Arthur Russell. A friend described Arthur to me mythologically as this gay disco auteur who wore farmer plaid shirts and would ride the Staten Island ferry back and forth listening to various mixes of his own cassettes, that image was immediately intriguing to me and I bought the music right away and became obsessively involved in listening to it.
I came from a more experimental film background and my idea initially was to expressionistically render different scenes or situations that I thought might be related to the iconography of Arthur’s music. the places he traversed through his life. Upon having that idea, I wrote to Tom Lee. Months late Tom contacted me and when I met with him I was really inspired by him. As you see in the film, he is very emotionally available, open and generous and his connection to Arthur is still very much alive and real. It’s something in-between being in the world of that. how weird it would be if some kid makes a movie about your life and one day you are watching the story of your relatively humble life unfolding through someone’s interpretation…A subject of a kind of renaissance. How weird that must be for Tom. He’s filled with a lot of joy, but there’s also something uncanny and strange about it.
It’s got to be bittersweet.
I think Arthur had such a self-defeating streak that may have provided obstacles to a film being made or a book being written or albums even being released. I think Tom and the parents are really pleased with the way his work has been re-contextualized and re-appreciated.
Why has it experienced a renaissance?
I feel like Arthur’s music is very prescient, it speaks to a Zeitgeist. Being in that moment it’s difficult to reflect on that. it seems that at this particular moment, so many people of my generation, the larger culture are interested in this time period. The time period of the 70s and 80s was so fertile, so productive, and so radicalized that it may have been difficult to understand it at that moment. It’s compelling and intriguing to reflect back on it. at the same time, Arthur’s music is mistaken as contemporary all the time for the way that it sounds for its ease in hybridizing different genres and ignoring and rejecting distinctions between different kind of musical codes and rules and expectations. That kind of spirit is more acceptable now.
The positivity, the optimism and effervescence in his music is a refreshing antidote to 90s cynicism, what I call Class of 2000 ennui. He sings about birthday parties and swimming and treehouses, being in love and being lonely, very simple and childlike, buoyant ways. And that’s refreshing.
On one hand, there’s this real physicality, distinct pleasures, then this disembodiment a body-less music, an immaterial entity.
The experience of understanding his music after his death, Calling out of Context, that experience of sound in this free-from oceanic scape. Arthur being this figure that can exist beyond his life. The metaphor of calling out of context, the idea of sound and water and disembodiment.
Why Wild Combination as the title?
I’m very bad at naming things. I was more comfortable picking “A Portrait of Arthur Russell.” I wanted to avert expectations for some sort of definitive biography. The film would’ve remained something (that just) dug deeper into musical lore with more interviews technical explanations. There’s definitely ellipses and things left out of the film that instead makes space for more expressionistic and visual material or more emotional material with the family, the parents and Tom. I’m more into the film to avoid those expectations. “Wild Combination” was the song that Arthur wanted to be his big hit. He imagined people would cover that song, that it would have the biggest legacy. I just think the title is a good metaphor for Arthur’s practice between disco and the avant-garde.
Did you find it hard to bring the different worlds together? To touch on them all?
Not in a behind the scenes way, but yes. A lot of people from the world of disco died but the people who are still alive have at times a jaded perspective because it’s been mythologized, oversaturated. There was alot of drugs, a lot of people died. People’s memories are not as rose-tinted. The avant-garde scene tends to archive itself. There was difficulty and differences in constructing stories. In terms of telling a story it seemed like a logical progression. The film may suggest in a way that’s impossible in the story…it’s inevitable he did the avant-garde and then he did disco and then he did World of Echo , when in fact he was doing all of these things simultaneously. That was a particular challenge in the film to relay the simultaneity.
There wasn’t a linear progression of Arthur’s musical interest. It was all concurrent. That was the biggest representational challenge in the film. Who knows if people really understand it as something that was a progression of interests, I don’t think it matters. By understanding all those things you get a fuller picture.
The avant guys seems to never know about these other parts, or appreciate it. I bought my copy of Tower of Meaning from a NY composer who knew of that disco work, but didn’t rank it.
But Philip Glass said: “That was obvious to us. We were composers who were pursuing an audience for our work, we were performers. We evolved this classical tradition in ways that were akin to modern rock’n’roll." Glass was a trailblazer collaborating with David Bowie and other pop musicians. From his point of view, it was a logical extension of the way composers of this new classical tradition were working.
But they never quite made pop songs.
Arthur pushed that a little more aggressively. Philip Glass has a signature style and sound and he has been able to bring that into different contexts. That’s amazing. Arthur wasn’t like that.
Do you think those failures made Arthur branch into different things? That if he had gotten commissions, might he have stuck to that?
I think a lot of it was career prowess in that he was pursuing things that would hit, or that would work. He was producing disco records that worked (so) he kept producing disco records. He made an avant-garde composition, “Instrumentals,” which has an immediate relationship to pop music but was still in the vein of Kitchen composers. And he got the Robert Wilson opportunity. That opportunity was a failure. But what if he had a long-standing collaboration with Robert Wilson, he could’ve been composing for international operas and vanguard theatre directors. These were all his interests, but he was also following opportunities. Unfortunately none of them worked out.
ABBA was his big thing. Ernie called it “transcendent pop music.” ABBA and Fleetwood Mac. When I heard that I listened to them differently. Thinking about the transcendence in F-Mac and ABBA. It’s so emotionally transporting. It inspires me. I think it’s a value we should have about all art. Something that has that transcendent possibility, that could reach everybody. It’s not academic it’s not just intuitive. Both structure and emotional ends. It really inspired me, that value for everything.
It’s alright to like ABBA.
Arthur was really obsessed with ABBA. Among many other things.
What was something you learned about Arthur from the project?
I didn’t know anything about him. My perspective is different. Tim Lawrence (who is working on a book about Arthur Russell) knows everything that ever happened to Arthur. He really unearthed a lot of information. For me I don’t go into a project, my first significant project. I don’t research and then produce. The production is a sustained form of research. I didn’t know anything when I started except my own personal connection and relationship with his music. the experience of the interviews, all the people I met, that’s what I learned most.
With the dearth of info, did that help?
I wanted to avoid the traps of music documentaries. I’m not a huge fan. I don’t read books about music. I’m not a fiend for fandom stuff. I went into it wanting to make an experimental film, the lack of material was a productive constraint. It enabled me to think outside the box about how to bring the material to life. It made the process more interesting.
I’m curious about Tim’s book, though I’m trying to think of something more boring than reading about disco.
Tim’s an academic. Part of me desires that encyclopedic knowledge. I don’t pursue it. For me, I’m more interested in developing a personal lexicon, an archive of experiences. Arthur was one of those really intense experiences I had just connecting to something culturally and artistically. It was more my desire to trust that connection and develop it. Because I felt there was so much emotional resonance in the actual material. The main reason I really focused on Tom and the parents is that I felt that it resonated most intensely with them.
There’s this intimacy.
Knowing he’s producing all the time it feels like this directness, not stream-of-consciousness but the diaristic, going home and writing songs. Everyday re-recording them. you feel this proximity to his self. That was particularly useful. I wouldn’t look for the dairies of Arthur Russell, the music is them.