Tonight, LCD Soundsystem will kick off a 20-date residency at Brooklyn Steel. The string of concerts will run through December 21, marking the band’s first live performances in three years, since they toured behind their 2017 reunion album American Dream. An official lineup for the residency was never detailed, but one longtime member will be notably absent from the stage: Gavilán Rayna Russom, the transdisciplinary artist who joined LCD in 2008 after working at DFA Records for several years.
Russom had been a member of LCD during a few of the group’s pivotal phases. She contributed to the band’s 2010 album, This Is Happening and performed at the subsequent “farewell” shows. She returned to her post behind the keyboards and synthesizers throughout the band’s 2015 reunion cycle, and embarked on a massive tour with LCD in 2018. But when frontman James Murphy approached her about this year’s residency, she declined the offer, ultimately choosing to leave the group entirely.
Russom’s decision to remove herself from LCD Soundsystem follows a number of personal and professional shifts in her life. In 2017, she came out as transgender. The decision to discuss her transition publicly followed a period of self-care after extensively touring and recording with LCD. Two years later, Russom issued her debut solo LP The Envoy, a textured soundscape inspired by Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. The album included a collaboration with Throbbing Gristle’s Cosey Fanni Tutti and brass arrangements from Arthur Russell collaborator Peter Zummo. Just days before the March 2020 lockdown, Russom launched her own record label Voluminous Arts, which focuses on “boundary pushing art” and music “that isn’t genre-based” as she told Pitchfork recently over the phone. The label, which just issued a new release by EAR, as well as Russom’s latest LP as Black Meteoric Star, embraces artists “who understand the political dimensions of their music.”
Not long after unveiling Voluminous Arts, Russom contracted a severe case of COVID-19. “Largely why I didn’t go to the hospital is because my local hospital is Elmhurst [in Queens, New York], and, at the time there were refrigerator trucks of dead bodies outside,” she said. “There were no beds…. At that point going to the hospital seemed worse than dying on my couch.” Russom says that she still experiences persistent post-COVID symptoms, such as migraines and disorientation, which factored into her hesitance to perform live. “It definitely left its traces on me,” she said. “That experience of considering my own mortality… actually lying on my couch and being like, ‘If this is it, did I do OK? Have I cleaned up the big messes that I’ve made?’ I think put me in a place of wanting to be even more intentional about what I do.”
Pitchfork spoke to Russom about her decision to leave LCD Soundsystem, the state of her label and music, and the desire to carve out a space for her true creative identity.
My connection to LCD and DFA grew out of a period in the early 2000s where I was looking for work. I had this skill of analog synthesizer design and construction, as well as vintage synthesizer repair, and James was the only person who was interested in hiring me to do that work.
When James invited me to join the band, that was at the very end of 2008 as he was just starting to make This Is Happening. First of all, it was based around this idea that that was going to be the last album and the last tour. So there was a provisional status already built in. It was a difficult decision for me at the time, because I had just made Black Meteoric Star, was touring, living in Berlin. I did decide to go on tour with LCD and to join the band at that time, and I ended up contributing a little bit to the album, but I didn’t realize the way it would take over the way my identity—especially my creative identity—was perceived in the public eye.
DFA and LCD… they’re nice folks and James is a great artist and it’s a great label, but it’s actually quite different than what I’m interested in creatively. I’d always felt like I was kind of negotiating. I hadn’t really understood how much I had been contextualized and pigeonholed within a world that is not super amenable to who I am and what I create.
For example, I had to experience getting booked for multiple DJ gigs where I would show up and do the thing that I’ve been doing since I started DJing when I was 14, that I’ve worked really hard on, and people would be really mad at me. I’d be playing my own music and promoters would come and be like, “You can’t play that here,” because they hadn’t done the research. They were expecting it to sound like LCD Soundsystem. They actually had no idea who I was as an artist. So I began to think really deeply about those connections. And I did leave DFA formally and legally in 2014, basically because of that.
And then LCD reformed, and I was in a similar place where I had a lot going on and I kind of needed the money. I think in 2015, my approach was like, “let me just really own that. I’m part of this. Let me try to really be in this band because I am connected to it.” What I found was that, especially with coming out around that time, that situation actually worsened.
When this offer came up again [to perform at LCD Soundsystem’s Brooklyn Steel residency], I had considered it. And when I looked at the reality of this time, I was just like, “I’m just not able to do this.” My work has grown to a point where I’m not able to put it aside for a couple of years and go on tour with LCD, or double up. A lot of times I’d be on tour with LCD and making my own music in the bus between 7 and noon. It just reached a natural point based on some concerns I’ve had for a really long time.
Absolutely. The entire experience is pretty amicable, It’s not about people or personalities. At some point James reached out to me about this new set of shows. I asked for a little time to think about it, and we sat down and had a nice coffee and I basically said that I couldn’t do it, but that I was super grateful.
James is a person who’s really supported me and my work, and I think having me be in the band was part of that. You’d have to ask him, but my sense is that James has been a fan of mine since we met. I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for the fact that he saw me, was a fan, and wanted to support me. Of course I brought a lot to it in ways that are obvious, in terms of writing credits or presence on stage.
I’ve had some experiences with that. Tyler Pope was doing a lot of bass stuff in the Crystal Ark, being this studio engineer when we did the album. And Nancy [Whang] and I toured as the Ladies of LCD Soundsystem. Those were great experiences on an interpersonal level, but I will say that same issue continued to be present. In the beginning, I think the Ladies of LCD Soundsystem shows were really amazing because they had a really different quality than playing an LCD show. And then it sort of shifted to like, “Well, we can’t go see LCD Soundsystem play, but we can go see that.”
Of course, people always request songs. And I don’t mean it in a mean way, because people are fans, and that’s really beautiful, but people wanted to take a lot of pictures, and by a certain point, people didn’t like what I was playing. I brew up an ecstatic state on the dancefloor. If that’s not your thing, you’re going to not have a good time. So if your thing is, “I want to hear ‘Tribulations’ and some disco edits,” there’s a lot of people that do that—I’m just not one of them.
Absolutely. Having a period of introspection and being able to slow down was pretty massive for me. On a more personal level, in July of 2019, I started to have some burnout symptoms. I was like, “I need to take some time off the road.” So even before I had heard the word “COVID,” I was already like, “February, March, April of 2020, I’m not going to tour.” And then by mid-February, I was like, “You know what, I need to take a year off the road. I need to recalibrate, be in New York, get connected with the things that are really important to me.” So by the time the quarantine stuff started to hit in March, it was oddly synced up with where I was, which is a real blessing. Most people I know were losing a year of gigs, and I wasn’t in that position.
Voluminous Arts is really two streams coming together. One of those threads is this thing that I tried to start in 1993 called Sole Productions, which was like a fantasy I had of having a distribution network for experimental music, especially tapes. I was making tapes, trading them, making covers. Sole Productions was this idea of formalizing that and creating a hub where cassettes would be exchanged. I was 19 and pretty depressed, and I just wasn’t able to get it going, but there was this seed idea of this distribution network. So it’s not a total coincidence that the first official release on Voluminous Arts is Secret Passage, which kind of talks about that time in my life, and there’s a picture of me on the cover from that time.
Voluminous Arts isn’t so much a place where an academic theoretical approach meets underground music. It’s more a place where light can be shone on the fact that people in underground circles are actually thinking really deeply about what they’re doing, and part of why people are doing it themselves is because they’re critical or questioning of the structures that generate music.
I’m kind of always working on music. I have a solo EP that’s done that I’m going to put out on Voluminous Arts next year, which I’m pretty excited about. It’s a four-song EP and it’s kind of the achievement of a production goal I’ve had for a long time of creating these really dense slabs of sound that are also a kind of a deconstructed dance music… like this physical embodied sense of big glaciers of sound crushing against each other. And, at some point, this text I wrote, Passageways and Portals, which is an in-depth land acknowledgment on the site of the East Side Rail Tunnel that I made Secret Passage about, that’s going to be a physical book [published by Voluminous Arts].
I am kind of taking a break from touring and stuff, mostly just because it’s a really weird time and I don’t feel super comfortable being out on the road. I’m not sure I currently have the capacity for it, which is hard to say, because of course I want to get booked and I love playing music for people and want to share my music in a room in a physical space.
Also, you know, I’m a 47-year-old woman who started going out when she was 14…. Basically, I’ve been going to clubs for 33 years. So it’s a little easier for me to be like, “Do I need to do this?”… It feels hard to be in those spaces and there’s a deeply unresolved grief that I think we’re all working through, and I think I’m particularly sensitive to that.