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Interview: Russ Carrick

Russ Carrick delivers a signature combination of bright power pop hooks and dingy alternative textures. Strongly influenced by 80s and 90s indie rock, the Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter has successfully implemented this formula into two albums, the most recent being Tense Present, which saw release back in early October. I caught up with Carrick to discuss his early musical roots, the processes behind his latest album, as well as how its concepts play a part in shaping future material.

ME: I see that the Tony Jones show became one of your new sources for music. Two things that stuck out to me were the fact that not only are you also a fan of The Damned, but Tony played your music as well. How did that come about?

Russ: Well, it’s pretty funny. Hanna Yando [publicist] goes way back with me, and I actually introduced her to The Damned. It was part of her musical awakening, you could probably say. So, we bonded over The Damned from way, way back. She knew that Tony was into them, then she made the connection and hooked us up. It was a real trip getting to be played alongside Dave Vanian and the boys. Tony really knows his bands; he was playing some awesome deep cuts.

ME: Talking about your music, aside from being a Damned head, I notice your music draws equally from college and indie rock of the 80s and 90s. Did those scenes also influence your music in a big way?

Russ: Oh, absolutely. I’ve made my bones in the college rock era and that’s where my heart belongs. I keep up with everything, and there’s always new stuff, but I always gravitate toward the stuff that evokes those great days – whether it’s REM, Echo and the Bunnymen, or even The Cult, in some ways. The 80s were really awesome because it was a time when it seemed like every band was going for a completely unique sound. If you think about the Cocteau Twins, there’s just no other band that sounds like them – even to this day! And, of course, my beloved XTC as well.

But what had been pointed out to me was that in the music that I play, the guitar sounds, quite in spite of myself, were much more 90s-oriented, and I think that’s because of the presence of distortion. I like some grit in my guitars, and I’d only noticed, when listening back to the 80s stuff, how clean the guitars were back then. So, I’m an 80s devotee with 90s guitar. It’s an interesting hybrid, but I think I make it work.

ME: If you can remember, what was your very first taste of music you could really resonate with, that would develop your musicianship over time?

Russ: Mom was a big Beatles fan, so I’ve got that in my blood from probably when I was in the womb (laughs). I’ve always been a Beatles guy rather than a Stones guy. The wonderful uniqueness that I’ve loved so much about the 80s was found right there in The Beatles – trying to create something completely new. Of course, they had the musicianship to make it something sublime. That’s probably where it all started, but, hell, I remember performing The Monkees for my babysitters back then. Any sort of psychedelic sound is in the mix for me. If it’s talking about where things really got real for me – and I know it sounds cliché – but when I first heard the opening lick of “Holidays in the Sun” by Sex Pistols, it was like some light turned on, the skies had opened up, or the world tilted on its axis. I don’t know, but I remember so distinctly being moved as to what it was. I’d never heard anything like it, and I wanted more!

I wish it wasn’t so cliché, but it’s pretty awesome. I mean, it’s Never Mind the Bullocks, man! Then I guess the sounds I was really around for were bands like XTC. It always comes back to Andy Partridge and XTC for me. And then, all those bands with all those unique sounds, like I’d talked about. Does that kind of give you an idea?

ME: Yeah, that’s perfect, and it veers into my next point. When it comes to songwriting, it seems certain influences come spontaneously for you, because, as you mentioned, the dirge came later on.

Russ: Totally! And it seems like in every decade, there’s the stuff it gets famous for, and then all the rest of the stuff that was going on. It’s pretty painful when people bring up the 80s, and all that comes to mind is Duran Duran or Kajagoogoo. Meanwhile, there was this whole other thing going on. And it’s also with the 90s. You hear the 90s and think Nirvana, Alice In Chains – that kind of dirgy sound – and I like how you said that; it truly is. But at the same time, there were bands like Face to Face, who didn’t hate melody or pretty sounding things. But definitely [in my music] the guitars were gritted up, and I’m grateful for that.

ME: Let’s talk about those ideas used to shape your new album, Tense Present. How did it all come together?

Russ: I envisioned it being part two of a three-part series. My first album was back a little ways, and that was me finding my way – Mixtape History. Then I was working up a new set of songs. It’s crazy. I got the idea for this series when I was in a sort of fever dream in Mexico (laughs)! I’d gotten bitten by a brown recluse spider, and got infected, so I was all messed up from that. But that influenced the concept for a series of albums that was past-focused, present-focused, and what will eventually be a future-focused album. It’s a strange origin, but that’s where the more cryptic ideas came along.

I wanted to do each album with sets of eight songs. When I’ve written eight that best fit this idea of mine, those would be the ones I’d run with.

ME: It seemed like the spider bite really kicked you into overdrive, and made you say to yourself, “Okay, now I’ve really got to do this!”

Russ: (Laughs)! It’s wild. I hope I don’t need another near-death experience next time to give me my ideas.

ME: I was listening to Tense Present with headphones, and I really like how the sound evens out. It’s rough in the outer edges, but with a clean center, so you have that balance.

Russ: I’m glad you spotted that, because that’s definitely deliberate on my part – the clean 80s guitar with the 90s distortion. I’d like to think that I’ve found a good sweet spot in mixing those two things together. I guess the fans will tell me if I’ve found that sweet spot or not.

ME: Between these albums, there’s definitely a concept forming. I notice in the songs “No Ceiling, No Floor” and “Sun’s Gotta Shine,” both people are in different scenarios facing some type of near-death, or out-of-body experience.

Russ: That’s wild! I’ve never put those two together, but now that you mention it, that’s fascinating – I can totally see it! This is always so great how other people find things in your music that you didn’t even know were there. So, thanks a lot for giving me that one, man; I’m going to hang onto that.

ME: That’s awesome, man. Hopefully you can use that idea and make a good succession with it.

Russ: I think so. I’m definitely evolving musically, as they say in the biz, and I’m working on getting better help, too. Hopefully album three will have better variety, polish and musicianship. But I’m pretty damn happy with Tense Present. Like all of us, I make songs that I’d want to hear – in the car, or standing on some type of cliff side somewhere. I figure that’s a pretty good way to do it, and so far, I haven’t made songs that I’d roll my eyes and grown at, so it seems like that formula’s working.

ME: In terms of lyrical content, you’d brought up something interesting in your press release: “The one thing you can say about my songs is that you will always feel like you’re being pushed forward, sometimes to a place that’s a little scary.” Did you feel like you had to revisit those dark, or generally trying times in your life?

Russ: I think, yes. In a way that’s typical, but then sort of not so typical. A lot of these lyrics are me referring to my mental bookcase, and pulling volumes out, looking at moments from the past. I’ve got a lot of songs in there that harken from the days of being a night creature in New Orleans, and songs from my psychedelic, trippy days. But I think the songs I’m most proud of are ones that aren’t nostalgic pieces, rather those serving as a kind of red alert to what I see going on all around us these days. I think songs like “No Denying It” on the last album, or “Dance Around the Rubble,” on this one, there’s a feeling of “What’s going on here, people? We should take a look at this!” There’s a scariness writing them. I don’t know if they come across as scary on the listener’s end, but they come from a place of deep concern; let’s put it that way.

ME: For production, you worked with talents ranging from Quinn Waters to Emerson Torrey. What was it like working with those guys?

Russ: They’re guys on two completely different ends of the musical spectrum; it’s hilarious. Emerson is an old veteran of the scene. He was in a band called The Rain Dogs, and another called The Schemers. He’s my lead guitar guy, as well as my guitarist in the studio. Quinn Waters on the other hand, from Philly, he is very young and brilliant. Sort of a savant. There’s not a software program, plugin, or piece of hardware that he doesn’t immediately commit to memory. He’s a walking encyclopedia of production knowledge. So, I use Emerson for the leads, and Quinn for rhythms, when it comes to guitar. I have no problem calling upon anybody more talented than I am to make my vision real. Pride is not at play in this for me. It’s really about getting what’s inside my head out and down on the CD.

I love being in the studio. It’s my happy place – getting to work with two guys who are really savvy when it comes to producing, but in different ways. It’s a real pleasure.

ME: I can definitely hear the progression. Your first album is testing the waters, while this one is refined naturally. It makes me think of the time I started out – I was terrible! But over time, I got to a point where I’ve gotten a decent handle on it. No matter how many projects you’ve been in, you still sense that progression regardless.

Russ: Absolutely! I think you hit the nail right on the head. With that first album, you’d ask yourself, “Can I do this? Is this real?” And by the time the second album comes along it’s like, “Yeah, I can do this now!” There’s a confidence – or, even better, comfort – that comes with putting down the things that are inside your head. You can deliver those. There’s a sort of liberation that happens once you hit that point, and I can tell you know that really well.

ME: Having finished the album, and based on how the fans, including myself, have been responding, are you surprised by its turnout?

Russ: No, and it’s so great to hear your reaction! I wish I could have one-on-ones with everybody who’s ever listened to it, so then I could see these connections that I didn’t know were even there. But I think all I’ve got to go on really is sales and, to be honest, the tunes I make aren’t really in sync with the current sound by any stretch of the imagination. And that’s never bothered me, you know? It certainly means I’m going to be less marketable than other acts (laughs), but that’s okay. It seems like I get a lot of attention from Latin America, of all places. There, college rock either never died, or they’re just getting to it. They’re really into early indie and alternative stuff, and they dig my music! So, it’s like, “Well, okay. At least somewhere on this planet I’m not completely out of step” (laughs)!

ME: Lastly, anything you’d like to say to the fans?

Russ: Send me your thoughts. All feedback is welcome, both critical and complimentary. Any interpretations you see in my lyrics, I want to know about those. And I’d say just a general thank you, for seeing that there’s a place for music without a traditional idea of soul, or the blues, but still has a lot of passion with it. Even though it’s evocative of a different era, it’s still trying to be something new, and hopefully it’s something you will appreciate.

Russ Carrick Socials:

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About Jake Kussmaul

I come from a family who is passionate about all things music. I learned to sing at an early age, and by 13, had my very own Fender Strat guitar. I tried my hardest at learning all that I could. Because I was born with cerebral palsy, I had to teach myself an adaptive playing style. I learned to write and record my own music, despite these difficulties. In college, I started making great use of my writing abilities by reviewing music, as well as copy editing. I guess it's best to stick with what you know, while welcoming a fair challenge at the same time.

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