Described as the band’s “tech wizard,” Gavin Rayna Russom has been a touring member of LCD Soundsystem since 2010, and she helped produce some the band’s previous records as well. As the final North American leg of a two-and-a-half-year tour comes into view, LCD has begun to acquire almost a U2-like level of pan-galactic fame, winning a Grammy for “Tonite” (off 2017’s American Dream) and selling out almost every show worldwide. Russom made her transition public last summer, and she’s continued to develop her synth-based solo career in whatever passes for downtime. (She goes by Rayna in social interactions, she says, but continues to use her birth name to maintain a connection to her older work.)
Russom spoke to SF Weekly about music as a visual form, the conditions under which she initially joined LCD Soundsystem, and what the future holds for a band that famously broke up at the peak of its game only to re-form six years later. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
I saw that you went to the José Clemente Orozco murals at the Instituto Cultural Cabañas in Guadalajara for the third time, what is it about that site that draws you back?
This time, I was like, “I want to look into the history of this more now, because I wondered if there’s stuff I don’t know.” Orozco is one of a group of artists that really drew me visually. I think it really had to do with the connection to graffiti, and not so much that they were murals but that the graphic style really connected to graffiti that I was seeing going up, especially around the schools that I went to. There was a visual power to them that I really responded to.
Orozco’s incredibly good at representing complex visual critiques, so that’s the stuff that started to unfold and as I mentioned in my Instagram post. … One of the amazing blessings and privileges of travelling and being a touring musician was to play in Guadalajara in 2010 with LCD, and it’s kind of like, “I want to get out of this hotel room. What is there to see?” And I discovered that there’s three large-scale Orozco murals there. On that visit, I saw all of them, and on subsequent visits when I went to DJ there, I went to see the Man in Flames, the easiest one to get to.
Music is not, strictly speaking, a visual medium. But because of the tonal quality of synths, they have more of an association in my mind with colors than even string instruments, which are often described metaphorically in terms of color. Is there an attachment in your mind?
One million percent. Even to the degree that I’m surprised to hear you say that music isn’t visual — to undermine the notion that these creative disciplines are at all segregated from each other, absolutely. It’s a technical term: tone color. I think one of the remarkable things about synths is the ability to work tonally throughout the frequency spectrum in very complex and hands-on ways, where with a string instrument, in traditional Western classical music, you’re still shaping tones — but there’s a restricted idea of what tones are acceptable and not acceptable. Even in avant-garde music with stringed instruments or brass instruments, you’re pushing the spectrum tonally, you don’t have nearly the access to the tonal spectrum that you do with synthesizers.
I had a very strong visual relationship to music — synesthesia, I guess — but also for whatever reason, my approach to the creative arts in general was about creating expressive wholes rather than being really good at a specific discipline. When I encountered synthesizers, it was like I can paint and sculpt with sound. I can be in there with my hand, shifting these blocks and colors of sound — particularly moving them into each other and seeing what happens when this sort of block or color or texture drops into another one. Which is the opposite of traditional ideas of mixing — as I discovered much, much later. When a certain sonic texture would encounter another one, this would happen at the point where they would meet and the resultant spectral acoustic experience would be tremendously rich, and richer than either of those things would be on their own.
You’ve expressed frustration with musical instruments. Is it that orchestral instruments are finite and limited in their capacities, or are you bored with the sort of Eurocentric repertoire?
There are a lot of factors at play there. Some of them have to do with my own misunderstandings about instruments and musical conventions, and some of them have to do with those — there was a tremendous urgency for me around creative expression, because it was literally the only tool that I had to both experience and express a sense of what being in the world could mean for me. Literally, until my mid-30s, it was the only way I had to feel OK at all. My social interactions with people were always fraught: I was a drug addict, alcoholic, I was very clear internally about my transfeminine identity, but I had no tools to support and express that in a meaningful way in the world. “Safe” is a weird word: safe in terms of not getting murdered but also in terms of safe on a more complex level in terms of being able to go through my own evolution without that being rewritten by other people. Really, until my mid-30s, music was the only way that I had to do that so any resistance that I encountered in finding my way was incredibly frustrating to me. To some degree, I put far too much pressure on the creative arts — and for the last 10 years, my life has been finding additional ways to find healing and connection. For most of my life all the pressure was on the art.
After this segment of the tour, you’re playing solo at Moogfest in Durham, N.C.
It’s an interesting festival with a lot of potential. Essentially, I’m participating in an event at the Durham LGBTQ Center, I’m also screening a film, No More White Presidents, that has a soundtrack and a cameo appearance by the [Russom’s side project] Black Meteoric Star in it. This is my second time screening the film, and I’ll have a panel discussion afterward that includes some really interesting and also quite accomplished local folks that work in the territory between creativity and activism. Then I’m going to do a live synth performance, which is going to be a template for the next large-scale solo work that I’m going to do which I’m going to develop during a residency at National Sawdust in New York next year. They offered me a residency and tee opportunity o develop a large-scale work, and what I’ll bring to Moogfest is the initial sketch of that so that’s one big thing. Developing a large-scale work that takes the things I did with the film and bring them into physical space rather than something that’s projected on a wall although definitely a development from the film as well, the film’s quite specific and in a lot of ways it’s a dialogue between me and my Black Meteroric Star alias, so that’s kind of the main things.
Two-and-a half years is a very, very long time to be on tour. It’s an unusual thing, a testament to how much people like the band and the new record — but in any person’s life, two-and-a-half years on a very fast-moving, very full world tour is a lot of time. When you’re starting a transition at almost exactly the halfway point on the tour, at least publicly, you’re being let off in a very different place than I got picked up.
Regarding LCD, when you signed onto the tour in 2010 was the understanding always that it was going to end shortly thereafter?
There was a big Death From Above [LCD frontman James Murphy’s record label] party in October 2008, and my first Black Meteoric Rise show live before the records came out on DFA and it was a big DFA party. I’d been in Berlin for a while, and I hadn’t seen the folks in a while. When I was working for James in the studio and building stuff for LCD to work with, James was always like “We’re going to play ‘Beat Connection’ live, and it would be so awesome if you could come on stage and do the intro,” or “We’re going to do this cover.” There was already a precedent for sitting in with the band, but at this party he kind of came up on the stage and he was like, “I want you to think about something. I’m working on a new record, it’s going to be the last one, we’re going to go on tour, it’s going to be the last tour, and then I’m going to move on and LCD’s going to be done and I would love for you to come on this tour with us and work on the record.”
It was super-clear and it’s such a funny thing now because it’s not clear what the next step is. Essentially I think the band is back together, and whatever that means is going to be revealed — but that was in 2008, and I went to work on the record in 2009 in L.A. and New York a bit and on tour in 2010. From the beginning, it was very clear that this was a one-and-a-half-year contract and when it’s over, LCD is over— which was a total surprise to me when James invited me to his house for coffee in December 2015 and was like, “So, hey, you want to be back in the band again?” Now, of course, my whole relationship to touring with LCD is that it happens for a while and then it doesn’t happen anymore. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.
I’m sure after two-and-a-half years everybody needs a break, but are people open to another album? What is the overall tenor of LCD’s membership?
My sense is that everyone’s open to it, but I guess the best way to define it is that we really have been on tour for two-and-a-half years and everybody needs a minute. Everybody’s got families. Well, I don’t have a family, but my sense is that the band is back together and that’s about the most that I know.
Was there an oh-shit moment on this tour when you realized that not only was LCD back but it had gotten substantially bigger?
Two things I’ll tell you about that. One is from 2010-11. When I was a kid, the first thing I investigated that was alternative in any way was old music. At the time, in the ’80s, that was an unusual thing to seek out. And it wasn’t as easy as it is now. It took work to find interesting music of the past, so I grew up with the mindset of these iconic 1960s-’70s rock bands that everyone was very sad didn’t exist anymore, before every single band in the world got back together and toured. I grew up with that feeling of “Oh man, there were all these great bands, but people died and they broke up and times changed, and now yeah, there’s great music but it’s not like these great old days.” I always wondered, when I’m much older and multiple generations have passed, are there going to be kids looking at bands from the time that I was alive and doing stuff in the world, like “That was a great band, they’re still relevant and interesting”? Could it be U2? I don’t think so, but at some point in the 2011 tour, that it started happening: “I think the band that I play in is going to be one of these bands. If that concept even exists anymore, that people look back on and say, ‘This was really cool’ and rediscover it, maybe.” That was a moment when I was like “This is a big deal.”
There have been a lot of on-paper successes for LCD this year: Having a No. 1 album, getting a Grammy for “Tonite.” With a couple of exceptions, we’ve essentially sold out audiences every single time for two-and-a-half years, and we’ve been the headliner of many international festivals. On stage, I look out and as far as I can see there are people waving their hands and yelling and dancing, so maybe there’s not a moment but a cumulative effect of showing up for events that regularly and saying, “Wow, in every city in the world, there are a lot of people who want to watch this band play.”
LCD Soundsystem, with TV on the Radio, Friday-Sunday, April 27-29, at the Greek Theater, thegreekberkeley.com/events/lcd-soundsystem-4