Richard Russell: In The Court Of The Creative King

Richard Russell: In The Court Of The Creative King
 Credit: Andrew Cotterill www.andrewcotterillphotography.com

Credit: Andrew Cotterill www.andrewcotterillphotography.com

This article originally appeared in issue Q382.

Richard Russell progressed from hawking rave 12 inchers around Soho for XL Records to running the label, turning The Prodigy and Adele into international stars. He produced Gil Scott-Heron and Bobby Womack’s last albums, but, writes Tom Doyle, it was Russell’s own brush with mortality that prompted his first solo excursion, co-starring Damon Albarn, Giggs, Brian Eno and others…

In a quiet west London street, behind a six-foot-high wooden gate that electrically glides open, through the front door of a modern detached house and up a flight of stairs lies The Copper House studio, the creative headquarters of Richard Russell. Today Q is retracing the steps taken in recent months by the likes of Damon Albarn, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Green Gartside and Sampha to contribute their parts to Everything Is Recorded, the new multi-artist project helmed by the former raver-turned-millionaire boss of XL Records-turned-record producer (for the likes of Albarn, Gil Scott-Heron and Bobby Womack).

This Wednesday afternoon, Russell is sitting in front of an iMac computer, surrounded by beatboxes and vintage synths, tinkering on a track based around a sample from his formative guiding light Malcolm McLaren’s 1982 single Buffalo Gals, manipulating and contorting it into new shapes. The studio is where the North London-born 46-year-old is clearly happiest these days, after years helping to steer the careers of XL artists Adele, The White Stripes and The Prodigy.

Since the turn of this decade, he’s focused more or less entirely on making music, rather than A&Ring and promoting it. Pressing pause on the track, Russell admits to Q it had gotten to the point where he was beginning to feel like just another record business man.
“I mean, obviously, there was creativity in that,” he stresses. “I was facilitating the making of a lot of things. But I was also kind of repressing stuff that I wanted to be doing. It’s very dangerous to lose your creative outlet. That’s a powerful thing, because you are making something from nothing. Something exists which didn’t before, and I think that makes you feel good.”

There’s definitely a feel-good energy which emanates from Russell and vibes up his collaborators. Conversations with him tend to freewheel from one topic to another. He is sharp and perceptive and enthusiastic about virtually anything. “He has a really unique perspective on things,” Sampha will tell Q later. “No subject is too small for him to be able to open it up and find the layers. His passion drives everything.”

Downstairs in The Copper House’s kitchen-cum-lounge, one wall is filled with shelves groaning with vinyl, another entirely with a huge black-and-white photo collage of Russell’s collaborators working in the studio on Everything Is Recorded. Above the sink hangs an ethos-stating sign declaring the space to be Residence La Revolution. Atop a nearby couch the images of Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk sit either side of fabled ‘30s blues figure Robert Johnson in a visual cut-and-paste Russell did in Photoshop and then had oil-painted. “This,” he says, gesturing to the picture, “is the foundations for me of so much.”

Richard Russell is buzzing with the completion of the brilliant and similarly modernist cut-up approach to soul and dub that is Everything Is Recorded. Not least because it was a serious health scare which galvanised him into making the record.
“No question,” he nods, as he moves an incense burner belching out smoke onto a nearby shelf and parks himself down on the sofa. “The illness is part of the journey into doing this.”

 Credit: Andrew Cotterill www.andrewcotterillphotography.com

Credit: Andrew Cotterill www.andrewcotterillphotography.com

In the summer of 2013, Richard Russell took his five-year-old daughter to a west end performance of Tim Minchin’s musical Matilda. At some point in the evening, he noticed he was having trouble walking. He managed to get home, went to bed and woke up the next morning, realising that something was badly wrong.
“I got up and everything was scrambled,” he says, curiously calmly, as if looking at himself from the outside. “I was just talking nonsense. Then…yeah…it was quite rapid.”

Admitted to hospital, Russell was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare, apparently random and potentially lethal autoimmune disorder which attacks the nervous system.
“It’s like getting hit by a bus in terms of very, very dramatic decline,” he says. “And if you’re lucky, a gradual recovery. Most of the decline is in the first week or two, to wherever you’re going. A percentage of people who get it then die because their breathing stops.”

Russell’s condition deteriorated to the point where he was left completely paralysed, even facially. “The thought of it is terrifying, isn’t it?” he rightly points out. “It’s very disturbing for people having to look at you. But on the inside, it was actually quite peaceful. It kind of quieted all the mental noise. I was quite detached from it all.”

Much harder he says was working his way back to fitness, a process helped by his friend Geoff Barrow of Portishead gifting him a small synth. Russell’s doctors told him it was perfect for recovering the use of his hands. It was the beginning of the process of making Everything Is Recorded, with the life-changing, perspective-altering experience informing many of its themes.

A spoken word sample which reappears at various points throughout the album features US preacher TD Jakes intoning, “There are moments in our lives that we feel completely alone. We feel as though no one knows what we’re going through.” This obviously chimed strongly with Russell? “Yeah, there were moments at night,” he offers, “in the small hours of the morning in the hospital, where I felt that acute aloneness.”

On the upside – and Russell is always focusing on the upside – it also gave him a moment of pause and a time to reflect. “I basically got a bit of a review of, like, everything,” he states with a grin, meaning his entire life up until that point. “What struck me was that each moment is really important. When someone wins an Oscar, that moment in their life might not actually be any more important than the moment they got a funny text from their friend. That means a lot, these small things.”

Hence, Everything Is Recorded, a project name and album title which refers both to our synaptic memories and the modern day, everyday archives people are digitally compiling for themselves. It’s also a reference to the fact that during the multi-musician Friday night jam sessions that went into its making, where Brian Eno might be improvising elbow-to-elbow with Sampha and fka Twigs producer Tic, the microphones were permanently on.
“I kind of felt like I was able to be a connector,” says Russell. “That made me think, Oh well, maybe that’s something I’ve always been doing.”

 Credit: Andrew Cotterill www.andrewcotterillphotography.com

Credit: Andrew Cotterill www.andrewcotterillphotography.com

Back in 1986, Richard Russell was 15, a Jewish kid from a lower middle-class family living in Edgware, north London, whose parents thought he was bright enough to become a doctor or a lawyer. Russell had other ideas, and would regularly take the tube to Soho and the Groove Records shop on Greek Street to buy import hip hop records.

When he talks about these teenage memories today, it’s clear that this is where – as much as Russell’s love of the music – his passion for vinyl records and the companies that produced them was born. “Shrink-wrapped US import vinyl,” he marvels. “Really, all on independent labels – Wild Pitch, Tommy Boy, Tuff City. They were as magical for me as the artists and the producers. I think most of what I’ve done since then has been strands of that.”

As a younger kid, Russell had become entranced first by The Beatles and then by Malcolm McLaren’s adoption of hip hop with Buffalo Gals. “Made by an English person,” Russell stresses, in spotlighting the inspiration McLaren provided for him. “He was from fucking Edgware. He actually went to the same school as my sister.”

Russell formed what he describes as an “inept sound system” called Housequake, promoting club nights, selling mix tapes at Camden market, furtively carrying his records in washing bags to the Swiss Cottage flat where he fronted a show on pirate station Obsession. When rave hit the UK in 1988, like most of his generation, he was swept up into it.

But as a DJ, Russell was never really attracted to the drug side of the rave experience. One rare occasion when he dabbled pretty much put him off for life. He was in a club in New York, spotted a blue speckled pill on the floor, picked it up and swallowed it.
“It was a hallucinogenic and it went on forever,” he remembers, erupting with laughter. “It was a very stupid thing to do. And I’m not sure what the effects of that would’ve been long term. Maybe some useful ones, maybe some less so.”

By 1991 Russell was gainfully employed by a tiny dance label, XL Recordings, taking their 12-inch releases around to DJs and shops. Three decades before, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell had done the same, driving around and selling boxes of reggae seven-inches out of the back of his car. For Russell, having to flog bootfuls of vinyl gave him similarly invaluable frontline experience.
“I used to go all round the country,” he says. “That experience, it’s the coal face, isn’t it? It’s as real as it gets, and you soon know if you’ve got something that isn’t happening.”

The next year, as part of duo Kicks Like A Mule, Russell released The Bouncer, a novelty rave hit whose “your name’s not down, you’re not coming in” catchphrase took it to number seven in the charts, beaming him onto Top Of The Pops. But, subsequently signed to and dropped by major label London Records without releasing an album, he hit a cul-de-sac.

He realises now that there was something missing in his creative approach, particularly when he compared himself to Liam Howlett, leader of The Prodigy. “At that time I didn’t have that type of artistic direction that Liam had,” he reasons. “I saw that Liam had it and I saw I didn’t have it.”

In 1994, when XL’s two founders both quit, Russell found himself, at 23, the boss of a record label. Was that unnerving? “I mean, it fucking should’ve been,” he laughs. “But I think I probably was a bit game. We used to sell a lot of records. Some of those twelves used to sell 200,000 copies.”

The Prodigy turned out to be XL’s first stars, particularly when Russell, “on a mad mission to spread rave to the world”, helped take their 1997 album The Fat Of The Land to number one in America. Three years later, he diversified the label’s musical policy, signing The White Stripes. But it was his discovery in 2006 of Adele performing in west London club Cherry Jam that utterly transformed the company’s fortunes, and his own.

Russell insists that XL weren’t taken aback or even stretched by the sky-scraping success of Adele’s 21 in 2011, with its 20 million-plus sales. “Y’know, it’s a bit like driving a fast car,” he reckons with a smile. “You’ve got to concentrate.”

 Credit: Andrew Cotterill www.andrewcotterillphotography.com

Credit: Andrew Cotterill www.andrewcotterillphotography.com

It was Liam Howlett who first reawoke Richard Russell’s own musical ambitions, alerting him to the Reason music software that allows the user to pile up racks of virtual drum machines and synths. He began experimenting with creating tracks, which led in 2006 to him approaching missing-in-action US soul singer Gil Scott-Heron with a view to making a record together.

Scott-Heron hadn’t made an album of original material in 16 years and was at the time lost in a fug of drug addiction. Slowly, with Russell flying back and forth to New York, they pieced together 2010’s beautifully atmospheric I’m New Here. “Everyone’s got their addictions,” Russell diplomatically offers when talking about the sometimes difficult process of making the record. “Not to say it was always an easy experience, but I had a life-changing experience with Gil.”

Russell had invited Damon Albarn to play piano on I’m New Here, and the latter subsequently asked him to co-produce an album he was planning to make with another similarly lost soul legend, Bobby Womack. Today Russell reflects on the fact that in both cases, with Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here and Womack’s The Bravest Man In The Universe, he unwittingly helped to create their final albums. “I think my sadness at losing both of them was tempered by the fact that this wasn’t Amy Winehouse dying with a full life ahead of her,” he says. “It’s a different thing.”

Russell went on to produce the reflective atmospheres of Albarn’s 2014 solo album Everyday Robots. “We see eye-to-eye on certain things,” he tellingly says of their relationship. “He has a sort of incredibly powerful energy that makes stuff happen. [Laughs] Mind you, I think I find him easier than he finds me. I think he thinks I’m quite argumentative.”

Which, of course, is saying something when we’re talking about the notoriously challenging Albarn? “Yeah,” Russell grins. “He got really fucked off with me recently about not liking The Smiths. He was saying, ‘You are denying your true nature as a Pisces to like The Smiths. It’s no good just listening to rap records.’ I’m probably the slowest person ever to appreciate The Smiths. And maybe I didn’t realise that until he started berating me.”

Albarn’s studio is only streets away from here in west London, as is the music-cum-art workspace of Brian Eno. Russell drew on this local hive of creative activity when he started making Everything Is Recorded, sending texts to various people on Thursdays and inviting them to exploratory jams at The Copper House on Friday nights. He directs Q’s attention to the wall-sized photo collage of the sessions, as proof of how loose and relaxed everyone involved was. “You’ve got a lot of naturalness to these pictures,” he says. “You can tell no one was self conscious.”

The cast involved in Everything Is Recorded further expanded to include Mark Ronson, Giggs, Ibeyi, Syd, Warren Ellis and Kamasi Washington. When working one-to-one with Sampha on album highlight Close But Not Quite, Russell encouraged the singer to spin the track’s Curtis Mayfield sample (from 1970’s The Makings Of You) into a riff on the Mercury winner’s shyness and sometime difficulties in communicating. “It’s probably one of my favourite ways to write, just freestyle,” says Sampha. “I felt comfortable enough to do that in front of him.”

For Russell, making the record was an all-consuming pursuit. “I mean, I’m engaged with it when I’m asleep,” he confesses, wide-eyed. “I’m waking up at three and four in the morning with ideas, let alone during the hours you’re actually doing it. It’s all the time.”

 Credit: Andrew Cotterill www.andrewcotterillphotography.com

Credit: Andrew Cotterill www.andrewcotterillphotography.com

Three weeks later, Q arrives for our second visit to the studio to find Richard Russell outside The Copper House, painting the covers of dozens of white label test pressings of Everything Is Recorded in a vivid shade of yellow. It’s quite a sight: a record producer and hugely successful label boss down on his knees, getting busy with a paintbrush. Clearly, his love of the handmade, personalised vinyl experience has never died.

“To me, finishing it is not mixing it,” he says, wandering back indoors and upstairs to the studio. “Finishing is making it. Even if it’s just cutting a dub plate and then making a nice sleeve and giving it to someone. Or doing 100 test pressings, handpainting a bunch of sleeves, screen printing some inserts. To me, it’s finished when I’ve done that. I believe that having that in mind helps the work. The idea of that physical thing, it kind of keeps you going on a few dark nights as well.”

Nowadays, Russell has taken a back seat with the day-to-day running of XL (leaving its operations to MD Ben Beardsworth). In recent years the company has also become an artists’ services distribution/manufacturing haven for both Radiohead and Frank Ocean. “They’re putting out this very small number of records and maintaining the kind of spirit of it,” Russell says. “I look at the records that came out in 2017 – Arca, Ibeyi, King Krule, Nines. It’s exactly what it’s meant to be doing.”

He has a shruggy, laidback attitude when it comes to the current troubles of the music industry. “It just looks to me like it’s always changing,” he reasons. “But it always has been changing. Wasn’t there a stage when it was all sheet music? Then when people started talking about doing recorded music, everyone was like, ‘Oh we’ll never be able to make a living’.”

But sales are massively down. Surely that can’t be denied? “In one way they are, in other ways they’re not,” he argues. “Artists get big cheques from streaming now. They didn’t used to cos there weren’t enough people streaming. There’ve always been certain revolutions and it’s got messy and then something else comes along.”

In terms of Russell’s own health, four years on from his illness, some physical after-effects remain. “I’ve got a lot of nerve damage to my feet and my hands don’t work the same as they used to,” he explains, although with typical breeziness. “I’m quite friendly with that though. I don’t have a problem with it.”

Richard Russell, it seems, remains permanently sunny side up. Ultimately, he’s thankful for the freedom he’s always enjoyed on whatever path he’s pursued. It’s something he and Damon Albarn were talking about recently.

“It’s funny,” he says. “We worked out we both were on Top Of The Pops for the first time around the same time in the early ’90s. He wasn’t free at that time. People were trying to push him around and he had to really fight for his creative freedom. But, with the rave thing, we were very free…
“Then,” he adds, with no little delight, “I actually thought, Fucking hell, I’ve been free all the way.”

He turns back to his computer to let Q hear how his Buffalo Gals-sampling track-in-progress is coming along. Pushing the play button, he explains that he’s actually cut the sample out and developed the arrangement without it. An enormous-sounding dubby track topped with spooked Theremin parts begins to pump out of the speakers.

Russell seems lost in thought, then changes his mind and unmutes the Malcolm McLaren sample. “It is good,” he decides, before once again confirming this fact to himself. “It’s good.”

It is very good. And so Richard Russell’s journey into sound goes on.