An interview with Ambient Electronic Musician Chris Russell
Chris Russell’s otherworldly creations often call to mind abstract sci-fi visuals, and the surreal soundscapes of Destiny, his third solo album for the Spotted Peccary label, keeps the dream alive. It feels to me like time falls away as the album’s glistening tones move toward terrifying horizons, rising and falling and rising again on the broad swells of a sizzling sonic sea.
“Russell’s mastery of expansive ambient electronic soundworlds is on full display within the music of Destiny, and the album’s subtle but all-encompassing spaces give rise to an immersive and thought-provoking listening experience that breathes and evolves with nuance and depth. Through the use of delays, granular filters, and long reverbs, Russell explores slow-flowing spaces with an artistic and cinematic flair, painting a world where delicate veils of sound are frozen in slow-motion breezes, where seething pools of shimmering electrons glisten in sonic starlight, and where distant drones and faraway textures approach and recede into mysterious swirling mists.”From the Spotted Peccary press release
An ambient music artist who has been recording since 1999, Chris Russell finds his inspiration from both the simplicity of nature and the vast infinity of the universe. When he is using the studio as his instrument, he plays synthesizers (both software and hardware types), bass guitar, and various indigenous instruments to produce fantastically strange textures and abstract paintings of sound. In addition to his solo work, Chris has also contributed multiple tracks to compilation albums. On his bandcamp page there are currently 48 titles of recordings that Chris has created himself, or created in collaboration with other artists, or in some way contributed to compilations, all in the deep listening / atmospheric / cinematic and ambient electronic music genres.
Chris works with various natural (and otherwise) recordings he makes of interesting sounds which he collects and then processes electronically for us to enjoy, adding his unique effects and treatments. His newest album, Destiny, will be available March 27, 2020 from Spotted Peccary Music in CD format and in 24-BIT AUDIOPHILE, CD QUALITY LOSSLESS, MP3 and streaming formats.
I first came upon his album Echo (SPM 3502) last year and it made a big impression on me. The sound is mysterious and hard to describe, I hear dark clouds that reveal hints of large musical objects hidden in gigantic reverberating spaces. Sometimes there are melodic accents, usually there are strange buzzings, whistling things swirling about in the air above, all sorts of unusual but pleasant noises, and always nothing shocking or difficult to listen to or that would otherwise upset the sleepy neighborhood. There are almost no beats and certainly no drums, just wide open magic ear adventures. The whole album is like a strange and wonderful journey through a series of caves, hence the name Echo. Overall this is a great listen if you like mysterious textures! Echo has lots of strange and wonderful electronic audio events that you can crawl right into and get in there and really pay attention to all the fantastic details, or you can allow it to be something to listen to without being pulled away from your chosen thoughts. For me it’s all about odd things to hear in your headphones, which is what I am always looking for.
I interviewed Chris in early March of this year (2020), combining some telephone conversations with follow-up email and texting back and forth to prepare for the celebrated release of Destiny as well as explore some of his notions about the strange world of ambient electronic music.
Your newest album, Destiny, has just been released on Spotted Peccary Music, first of all, Congratulations! You work in a very specialized area of sonic arts. How do you find a way to create something that sounds so completely new on each album?
I usually work on more than one project at once, this time I balanced creating the peaceful music of Destiny with the recently released darker album Presence (2019 Exosphere). I hope it speaks to the spiritual visionaries out there. Creating this new album was very therapeutic, calming and relaxing. I had listeners who enjoy Yoga and Meditation in mind while creating it. Destiny took a lot of creative restraint from me, I kept it on a path of free flowing ambient, not too dark, not too strange, no hard left turns in the music. I am glad I challenged myself that way on this album. I feel it has paid off well for the listener.
Some say that the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis was the inventor of the granular synthesis technique. Xenakis created granular sounds using analog tone generators and tape splicing. Granular synthesis is based on the same principle as sampling, but the samples are not played back conventionally. The samples are split into small pieces called grains. Multiple grains may be layered on top of each other and played at different speeds, phases, volume, and frequency, among other parameters, creating a cloud of sound that is possible to manipulate by varying the waveform, envelope, duration, spatial position, and density of the grains. Many different sounds can be produced.
Granular synthesis was used on this album. Destiny has no field recordings, it is all synthesizers. Destiny was finished over a year ago and I am currently still having fun exploring the sounds created within that zone.
You do it so well, why do you do what you do?
One reason I make Ambient music is to peer behind the veil, as an attempt to explore other realities. I love to go out at night stargazing, staring into the black void on a dark night far away from the light pollution of the city. My music is all about the vast expanse, other dimensions, paranormal, sci-fi themes. Sometimes I imagine that this music is what aliens would like to listen to, riding in their UFOs!
Why don’t we go way back to the beginning? Tell us a little bit about your journey as a composer so far.
I was born in the Peoria, Illinois area and currently live in LaSalle, Illinois with my wife Megan and our two cats Leo and Lulu. I started off with computer based music tools, as the technology evolves I get new plugins, that is what I dive into, I like to keep it all on my personal cutting edge. All my music is DIY (do it yourself), I have had no classes, I watched no YouTube tutorials, I had no training. It’s all just what I have figured out for myself. I started in the early days with two boomboxes, keyboards and a drum machine, I would bounce recorded tracks back and forth to add layers, one box playing and the other recording. Then in 1999, I got a PC with Sound Forge, and another program called Acid, which I currently still use today.
I do not have a background in technical training, I spent about ten years playing and exploring electronic music in my bedroom, not being too serious. My first music released to the public was on mp3.com and then later Myspace Music. MySpace got me in touch with other ambient musicians and helped me get my first record deal on AtmoWorks. My first ambient electronic album I released was titled Aralu.
What do you have on your personal entertainment playlist now, for when you are just getting through your day?
I am currently listening to Lisa Bella Donna, Tame Impala, Lord Huron, Fleet Foxes, Mint Julep, Rush and Led Zeppelin. Music runs in my family My dad’s father Paul was a big band leader. My mother Mary Ann was a piano teacher and my son Gavin is a skilled guitar player who is currently in college for music and performance arts.
The only ambient music I usually listen to is mostly my own, along with Steve Roach, Aphex Twin, Max Corbacho, Alio Die and the late Darshan Ambient. As technology evolves so does the ambient electronic genre.
How on earth do you get your ideas?
Nature is a big inspiration for the art I create. I love to go hiking, going into nature, recharging my creative battery. I feel like I am trying to bring the energy from the forest back into the studio. Inspiration is all around. You have to slow down and observe. I paint a picture in the mind’s eye with sounds, all my tracks usually are, multiple takes stacked together with no composition or planning, for me my music is a mixed media collage that comes to life.
My Dad was a big believer in spiritualism, UFOs, Cryptids and Government Conspiracies, I have seen and experienced things most people have no grasp on. That all influences my deeper dive into creating soundscapes. I feel this is music for the future, I like to think I’m making it for a coming golden age.
With some of the themes on Destiny and Echo I was thinking of it like a Stanley Kubrick film soundtrack.
I just have to ask you some more about Echo, which really made a big impression on me. How did the album come about?
Echo was a big gamble, it seemed too odd and experimental and I was expecting Spotted Peccary to turn it down when I submitted it. But I was thrilled when they decided to put it out. I don’t always know how listeners will respond to what I create. That’s one of the reasons I like to try new things. I just did my first live ambient music concert in November of 2019 in an old clock factory with Kevin Kramer that was recorded and to be released later this year. That performance was my first in a decade.
Kevin Kramer teaches private lessons at the Westclox Music Studios, and creates music with his band, Ahymnsa and is an Illinois Valley music institution.
What are some of your most recent projects?
My most recent release was an EP called Gnostic, in December of 2019 and was made up of recently found lost pieces from the Illuminoid album. The albums Illuminoid and Gnostic have a strong influence of spiritual mysticism.
The Gnostic EP is a collection of newly found and recently finished unreleased music from the Illuminoid sessions. The sounds have an ethereal and very strange choral presence, as if they were sampled from field recordings made in dark ancient cathedrals lit by flickering candles in the wee hours. These tracks date back to 2011 and were misplaced, they were thought to have been lost forever, but now they have been polished and brought into his current catalog.
To me what I hear in some of your music is all about spirits, without any of the old fashioned or possibly corny “haunted house” type sound. Spiritualism is the belief in the real existence of immaterial entities such as angels and ghosts, with séances conducted by famous professional mediums. One of my ancestors was a practicing Spiritualist in the Galveston and New Orleans area back in the late 19th century, so I have a personal perspective on this phenomenon from the past.
I was baptized and raised a Catholic and now I feel like I have an even deeper spiritual level, I do not follow religious dogma, my church is the forest, nature. On the album Echo the last track “Abandoned” contains a recording I made walking through an abandoned house, recording the sounds of my footsteps on the creaking old boards, with the insects and birds in the background, and the sounds of nature reclaiming the old house. This track was a homage to my love of Urban Exploring. In the studio I took the sound of walking and everything and made the track by putting atmospheres around it.
I look at your catalog of albums, your discography and I have to ask you about your incredible production pace, how do you get so much done?
Steve Roach inspired me to always work on 3 or 4 albums at once. Because of that by the time an album gets released I have already moved on down the road to newer music. And have to go back to listen to and get reacquainted with the album close to release.
So… how about the future?
I love collaborating, I wish to do it more, I always pick up new things working with other people. I believe a good collaboration is going somewhere you couldn’t get to yourself. I just recently finished a collaborative album with Philip Wilkerson, that is a follow up to our 2014 release Vague Traces.
Destiny on a personal level is my ten year celebration of releasing my own music, and is a celebration of taking the creative path less traveled that can be both challenging and rewarding.
On Spotted Peccary Music, I feel like my albums are being heard by more listeners, Spotted Peccary are very supportive of my work and helping me grow my audience. I look forward to a long and fruitful relationship with them.
Chris, it is always a pleasure to talk with you, and I very much enjoy listening to your music. Long may you hum and buzz and click and whirrrrrr!
Ambient Electronic Soundscapes from Spotted Peccary Music (SPM 3503)
Slow sustained transforming textures, mystical hissing, sounds of gigantic spaces, things happening in a strange world, never too crowded, there is always lots of room for what goes on. At the heart of each track you’ll find trillions of tiny bits of sound, or grains, and the craft involves manipulating each grain’s duration, pitch and so on, for awesome visualizations in your mind’s eye. It’s not often that you can come across such sonic particles of dust or sand that are being energetically lifted to great heights by a strong and turbulent wind, and then it all calms and you find yourself on a sunrise-gold beach. That is your privilege, listening to Destiny, as you gaze out at this shimmering flower on the horizon, huge over the sea.
If you visit the bandcamp page of Chris Russell, you will find 48 titles on various labels, such as Spotted Peccary, Relaxed Machinery, Disturbed Earth, VoidMusic, earthMantra, Ambient Online, and aatma. Most of these projects are solo albums but a great many are collaborative adventures as well as single track contributions to anthologies. His first ambient electronic album was released in 2009 and titled Aralu, which was made possible through his MySpace account. MySpace got him in touch with other ambient musicians and helped him get that first record deal on AtmoWorks. Lots of things have happened in those cerebral repositories and vaults leading up to his release of Destiny.
What you will hear is always changing, sometimes a strong dry wind blows over the desert that raises and carries along clouds of glittering sand or dust often so dense as to obscure the sun and momentarily reduce visibility almost to zero, then your perceptions are released to see a strange new world through over a billion pure eyes of light. Sometimes the sound is soft and cold, with white snow blowing above the ground like a thick fog blanket of tremendous height, the wind carrying the bitter snow past the singing frozen river, the stiff trees held with cold frost that melts into a dawn chorus of melodic electronic neobirdsongs drifting in, casting a rosy hue across the morning sky and golden fingers of sunlight that light up the scene.
To begin this tripped light fantastic the album opens with “Invitation“ (10:02), evoking an opening transformative soundscape, setting the stage for what is to come next, electronic textures without melodies. With electronics everything is possible and the journey begins well.
Two roads diverge in a modern wood, the sky opens up above, inner space beckons below, we shall take “The Path Less Traveled“ (6:56) looking for a long time at the path going one way, then taking the other path, traveling through a landscape with slow textures and strange sounds unfolding in large reverberating chambers. I hear a subtly scary cinematic soundtrack, dark and lonely in places, perhaps a cathedral organ has been held on one note for all eternity and we are just discovering it now, things are happening in darkness and they might be dangerous, but this is clearly figurative, the interpretation of sound is noted for being complex and (like the road fork itself) potentially divergent.
As these supernatural electronic paths take us on its course we are put up against the surreal world of fate. Fate is the supposed force, principle, or power that predetermines events. No matter how much we attempt to look past fate, it will never flee. “Destiny“ (7:07) the title track, has a slow sustained feeling with sweeping tones and textures in a dark cave. I hear some kind of an unfolding process, building and uncoiling, huge purring creatures down below, lots of open area above, things circling way up there, off in the distance but possibly getting closer, drifting around and around but invisible.
The 17th century French fabulist and poet Jean de La Fontaine once said that “A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it” which speaks of a mysterious inevitable circular return to what one was actually dodging. “Life Cycles“ (6:15) has a glowing, awakening pattern, with layers of sustained electronic chimes, building slowly. The song title makes me think there will be an overall circular motion but perhaps the sound just gains more altitude. Life is like that, things happen but sometimes the life cycles are imperceptible because we are too close, perhaps when seen from a distance the circular directions become more obvious.
These are the sounds of enlightenment, hidden knowledge, and healing. “Soul Nexus“ (9:52) brings to my mind a connected group or series of windstorms in which large quantities of sand are blown about in the air in varying proximity to the ground. The word nexus comes from the Latin nectere, to bind. Nexus can also mean the central and most important point or place. The sounds are sometimes fading, revealing sustained sheets of grains upon which textures slowly play and evolve, voices coming from the ocean, reverberations coming from hidden caves.
A granularly synthesized sonic event is designed to start and end microscopically in the invisible light of sound, “Density of Light“ (6:36) helps to break us through the darkness, bringing rays of sound, representing the well lit universe, building and layering, getting closer and bigger. Some strange noises emerge from above, then they fade back away, then visit again, like souls calling out. I think that this music is like some kind of magical dust in the wind, eventually returning to a drifting spring equinox of passion.
“Awoken“ (8:37) is the past tense of a word referring to the process of awakening, it has already happened, but for me somehow the dreamstate continues with hissing and reverberating tones and textures, hidden immense spaces echoing in the darkness, and towards the end there is lightening, as if the sun were beginning to dawn again.
Chris Russell has an adventurous approach to his unique art, he has many years of experience starting with his bass and keyboard playing in various touring rock bands such as Syntax Error, followed by about ten years of exploring electronic music in his bedroom, not being too serious. Working alone, painting new pictures with sound, diving deep and figuring out everything for himself, with no technical classes or training, no YouTube tutorials, for all those years he was just making mixed media collages come to life alone in his Sanctum Sanctorum until he had enough of a vocabulary developed to bring his music to our ears, and to occasionally reach out to other musicians to create collaboratively.
This new album has a very therapeutic feeling, calming and relaxing. It is designed to speak to the spiritual visionary’s out there. Listeners who enjoy Yoga and Meditation will enjoy the consistent mysterious and adventurous soundscapes that are never punctured by disruptive surprises or haunted in a sustained way by gloomy darkness. I hear granular ephemeral flurries which bring the times that mark the beginning of twilight before sunrise as clearly and accessibly as ever, I even dare to dream of an adaptive and profound mental and cultural sonic landscape that space aliens would like to listen to, riding in their UFOs. Listen and peer behind the veil, exploring other realities.
2 The Path Less Traveled
4 Life Cycles
5 Soul Nexus
6 Density of Light
Available March 27, 2020 from Spotted Peccary Music in CD format and in 24-BIT AUDIOPHILE, CD QUALITY LOSSLESS, MP3 and streaming formats. https://spottedpeccary.com/shop/destiny/
Artist website: https://voidmusic1.bandcamp.com/
Iannis Xenakis: https://iannis-xenakis.org
Spotted Peccary Album page: https://spottedpeccary.com/shop/destiny/
Spotted Peccary Artist Page: https://spottedpeccary.com/artists/chris-russell/
Release Date Title Label Notes
2009 Aralu Almo Works
2009 Merge Almo Works
7/11/2010 Frozen Relaxed Machinery
3/1/2011 Mechanical Slumber Relaxed Machinery sleepMODE (anthology)
8/8/2011 Home (album 1) Relaxed Machinery
8/8/2011 Home (album 2) Relaxed Machinery
5/12/2012 Bloom Relaxed Machinery
9/29/2012 The Approaching Armada Disturbed Earth
12/20/2012 Borealis Free Floating Music all|is|calm 2012 (anthology)
2/14/2013 Portal Relaxed Machinery
5/4/2013 Twilight Woods Relaxed Machinery Butterfly Effects – James Johnson Recycled (anthology)
5/18/2013 Aralu VoidMusic (re-release)
5/18/2013 Merge VoidMusic (re-release)
1/14/2014 to the far corners Cave Dwellers (Disturbed Earth-pixyblink-Antum7) Disturbed Earth Bubble Juice (anthology)
1/24/2014 Revive Relaxed Machinery reBOOT an rM sampler
2/7/2014 Cosmic Lushness Chris Russell and pixyblink MySpace.com
4/4/2014 Mystic Zones MySpace.com
7/18/2014 Illuminoid Relaxed Machinery
9/30/2014 Particles in Sunlight Free Floating Music Quiet Friends: a 30th anniversary tribute to Steve Roach’s Structures from Silence
11/11/2014 Vague Traces Phillip Wilkerson & Chris Russell Spotted Peccary
12/8/2014 Memory Palace Chris Russell and eyes cast down VoidMusic, Kalindi Music
1/23/2015 Far Past Phillip Wilkerson & Chris Russell Spotted Peccary 28 Spotted Peccary ambient sampler
2/7/2015 Still earthMantra
7/3/2015 Blur Relaxed Machinery
12/18/2015 Goloka earthMantra Orchid (anthology)
4/26/2016 Enki Ambient Online Ambient Online Compilation Vol 6
9/1/2016 Refraction Free Floating Music Reflection (anthology)
10/28/2016 Fallen Draconid Ambient Online Ambient Online Compilation Vol 7
12/17/2016 Spectra earthMantra
2016 Reflections In Transit Chris Russell With Mystified (deactivated)
3/24/2017 Labyrinth Spotted Peccary
5/26/2017 Another Dreary Day Ambient Online Ambient Online Compilation Vol 8 Part 1
10/27/2017 Helix Chris Russell
1/7/2018 to the east of evening (single) anotherAntidote
2/16/2018 Blurred Lines Chris Russell & Disturbed Earth Disturbed Earth
3/19/2018 Ventus earthMantra
4/30/2018 The Rift Ambient Online Ambient Online Compilation Vol 9 Part 1
6/10/2018 Memories of Akhenaten Chris Russell & Dawn Tuesday aatma 9/10/2018 Echo Spotted Peccary
11/30/2018 Spirit of Aten Chris Russell & Dawn Tuesday Unexplained Sounds Group USG anthology
12/7/2018 Moonrise Chris Russell & Erik Norman Chris Russell
3/20/2019 Umbriel Ambient Online
5/14/2019 Presence Exosphere
7/6/2019 Legend of the Moai aatma The Unity by various artists
7/13/2019 Coronium Ore Distorted Void The Black Orb (anthology)
10/18/2019 Föst jarguna and Friends Projekt Trapped Vol 3 (anthology)
12/7/2019 Gnostic Chris Russell
3/27/2020 Destiny Spotted Peccary