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Interviews

Russell Mills: Paintings In Sound

By Published: November 3, 2005
RM: Music and sound have always been central in my life since my earliest recollections. Both my father and elder brother played in bands, my father in a kind of jazz combo and my brother in an Elvis-inspired rock and roll band, and music was always playing in the house. When at school I had percussion tutoring and played drums in a band that attempted to do cover versions of impossibly difficult tracks by Hendrix and Captain Beefheart—my two favourite artists then as now. Punk exploded when I was at the Royal College of Art in London and I found myself right at the centre of it. I went to see bands three or four times a week. There was a symbiotic shift in cultural values at the time, which corresponded exactly with my own thoughts and aspirations. I found the whole period liberating. One of my favourite bands to emerge from Punk was Wire.

Over a short period I got to know them personally and through our discussions we began conceiving of ways to subvert the usual concert experience by considering a whole event as being in real time and open to deliberate change. We created several site specific recording installations, performances and evolving interventions, which combined sound with performance and sculptural objects. The first was in 1980 called Kluba Cupol. Through these works I became increasingly interested in what has become known as installation and in the potential it offers to work in three-dimensional space with elements that use and affect all the senses—sound, vision, smell, touch and taste. Installation, like all the arts, allows me to experiment with situations that would not be feasible or desirable in our everyday. These are not obliged to reality and yet can and do relate to the real. They are conceived to lift people's emotional antennae, to produce or suggest other possible futures.

AAJ: How do you look back at Ember Glance, the installation you did with David Sylvian?

RM: This was a hugely ambitious installation, which allowed me to experiment with a vast artillery of lighting and sound technologies. Thankfully the Japanese commissioners of the work were totally supportive of our ideas and were incredibly generous financially in enabling us to realize such a large piece. I learnt a lot from it and am still immensely proud of it.

AAJ: Both Strange Familiar and Pearl and Umbra are very intricate records. Was it a challenge to make all those influences, sounds and textures fit together? Most of the pieces on both records merge truly diverse musical ideas in a very unexpected and surprising way. What was your philosophy when you approached these ostensibly disparate ideas?

RM: In my visual work, in the way I think and in my approach to making music, I tend towards a process which could be described as a kind of epigenetics—working in layers, conceptually and physically. In one sense this is like considering every work as an archaeological dig into the unknown. Fragments are found at different levels of investigation; alone they are mysterious, possibly unidentifiable and maybe they mean very little. Other shards of evidence are unearthed and a correspondence between these disparate parts unfolds, a story begins to suggest itself.

It's my job to make some kind of sense out of these strange juxtapositions. Another approach I take is to set up processes of action over which I have no real control. Using known elements, individual sound samples say, I will deliberately throw opposites together to see what the results might be. I need to be surprised by the work and this tactic always reveals interesting and fruitful possibilities. Also my subjective taste enters into this creative process.

AAJ: Please describe how you chose your collaborators on both of your albums and how have their contributions helped shape the music.

RM: Most of those who have contributed to the Undark albums are musicians who I have worked with or for in one way or another. I have either done covers for them or created sets for them. Some I've met through other musicians, some are friends who happen to play instruments or have an ability to make interesting sounds. They are not necessarily professional musicians, many of them being students I've taught or friends I've studied with. In this process of exchange, friendships and mutual respect have grown. Some others I have actively sought out because I particularly like the way they play or sing or I like the way they approach sound.

AAJ: Is there a philosophy you adhere to when making music? To me your main instrument seems to be the recording studio.

RM: There's no particular philosophy beyond a vain attempt to emulate the aspiration expressed by the poet Robert Frost—"No surprising the writer, no surprising the reader.

AAJ: Have you considered extending the skills you used in making those albums to create soundtrack work?


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