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Richard Russell: no rules

The producer and music industry mogul built an empire with his label XL Recordings, but his new project Everything Is Recorded is a more personal celebration of artistic expression

Richard Russell describes The Copper House, his personal recording studio, as a “sacred” place. He built the studio roughly four years ago, moving his lifetime of accumulated gear into a west London townhouse located about five minutes away from the offices of XL Recordings, the independent label he’s headed up since the early 1990s. “I’ve always had this idea of a house which was just a studio,” Russell beams, sitting on a sofa in the lounge room at the front of the building. “I wanted it to feel as comfortable as a house, somewhere where people could feel completely relaxed, somewhere that was completely dedicated to creativity.”

Recently, Russell has been turning that vision into a reality. The Copper House has been host to a revolving cast of musicians and creatives, with Russell inviting artists into the space to jam, produce, and share ideas with one another. Photos of some of the artists who’ve stopped by line the walls: legendary musicians like Brian Eno share space with relative newcomers like Sampha and a slew of as-yet-unheard young talents.

The project, Russell says, is still ongoing, with a series of EPs and an album planned, but right now he’s reached a place where he’s able to share some of the music that he’s been making. Close But Not Quite, the first EP from Everything Is Recorded, brings together an unexpected mixture of musicians over its five tracks. In terms of vocalists, there’s Sampha and Giggs representing everything that’s vital in UK music right now on “Close But Not Quite” and “Early This Morning”, while Obongjayar brings his singular vision to “Washed Up On The Shore”. Elsewhere, the EP introduces the world to Infinite (a soul singer, actor, and son of Ghostface Killah from Staten Island) and his collaborator Mela Murder (a singer and dancer who’s worked most heavily with Major Lazer). Other contributing artists include multi-instrumentalist, composer, and Bad Seeds member Warren Ellis, and Green Gartside of cult pop group Scritti Politti.

As head of XL Recordings, Russell has helped bring acts like The Prodigy, M.I.A., and Adele into the public consciousness. The label has given these artists something that the majors don’t offer and that other indies can’t: a mixture of artistic freedom and financial support. XL rarely sign new artists, but when they do, they do it for the long-term. It’s impossible to imagine anywhere else investing in the careers of Arca or Powell, two unique artists from experimental music backgrounds who’ve recently released albums with the label. These decisions have paid off personally – The Sunday Times Rich List once put Russell’s estimated worth at £75 million.

Still, his spirit was always more creative than commercial. His own career as an artist stretches back to the rave era, when his hardcore duo Kicks Like A Mule scored a small hit with “The Bouncer”. Before that, he was a hip hop DJ, growing up in the north London suburb Edgware and taking the Tube into the city to buy records that he’d spin on pirate radio station Obsession and on his own sound system, Housequake. He credits his musical tastes to listening to “a combination of The Beatles, pop music, hip hop, and rare groove” growing up, and describes his love of sampling and electronic music production as a “logical progression” of being involved in the acid house and rave scenes.

Russell didn’t release too much music of his own throughout the latter half of the 1990s and most of the 2000s, but in recent years it seems like he’s caught the bug again. In 2010 he produced the late Gil Scott-Heron’s comeback album I’m New Here, and soon he was working behind-the-boards on records by Bobby Womack, Damon Albarn, and Ibeyi. Everything Is Recorded can be seen as a way of bringing his life’s obsessions together: his own background in sound system music, his fascination with electronic production, and his curatorial skills as a label head. But mostly it’s an insight into his obsession with music, creativity, and the people who defy rules and conventions in order to make art.

“There are always going to be people who think there are rules and people who don’t think there are rules,” Russell says. “I don’t think Arca thinks there are any rules. And I don’t think Aphex Twin thought there were any rules. The Detroit pioneers made their own set of rules. I don’t think it’s really changed. I feel like there’s always a thread of originality that runs through things. There are always pioneering people and leaders that aren’t afraid of doing things their way. That’s the stuff that affects change.”

What was the start of this project?

Richard Russell: At the end of the first Ibeyi album, we got to the point where it felt done, but there was also an energy to keep going. I thought it might just be good to just stay in that kind of mindframe for a bit. We got into these big, sprawling sessions where we had really fascinating groups of people coming through. They were like jam sessions for people who wouldn’t normally participate in jam sessions. I’d done a lot of stuff with DRC Music – I’d been to the Congo and Ethiopia and done a bunch of different shows with them, and that was very inspirational because a lot of musicians don’t have access to that type of experience, especially in electronic music. You can get a bit computer-based – and I like that kind of music, but to get in a room is a bit of a leap for everyone. You’re out of your comfort zone.

I’ve spoken to a lot of producers who’ve gone from making music in their bedroom to suddenly getting a call to go work with someone like Kanye, where they’re in a big studio with 15 other people hanging around.

Richard Russell: Well, you’re going to grow as a musician from doing that. I’ve had a kind of gradual experience myself of becoming more and more comfortable making music in a room. I am quite electronic and sample-based in what I do, so I gradually found ways of doing that around people and realising you’ve got to be open in doing that – and that it doesn’t matter if things don’t come out great. If you’re working with vocalists, they’re quite exposed and quite vulnerable, so I think for producers and musicians to make themselves exposed and vulnerable in the process helps everything.

These sessions got very big and very long, and we obviously recorded everything. I was good at chopping up bits and making beats out of some of those sessions, and that led to different things with different vocalists and finding a bit of a thread emerging. There was a real mix of people who were quite new and people who were really seasoned doing, and when you’re in a room doing this, it’s just what you do in the moment.

“The bits where the recording’s not being done are very important. That might be where ideas emerge” – Richard Russell

Given everything was recorded, how did you begin the task of editing those sessions down?

Richard Russell: The process was about making a lot of mess and doing a lot of tidying. It’s quite schizophrenic to do both of those things, but I can do both of those things. I enjoy the creative process, but actually I like editing and I like the solitary patience of doing that too. Although you obviously go slightly mad at times.

It’s unique, this space, because you can do a big session with a lot of people in it, but it’s also a place you can do small, solitary stuff and it doesn’t feel sprawling. In big studios you don’t really want to be sitting there on your own because it feels like there’s all this space going to waste, but here, there’s normally stuff going on. We’ve had people working on artwork down here. (Motioning to a small, tranquil-looking garden area outside) Can you see the outdoor part? That’s quite unusual for a studio. The bits where the recording’s not being done are very important. That might be where ideas emerge that you can then go inside and execute.

Let’s talk about some of the collaborators you’ve worked with on the new EP. Your track with Giggs, ‘Early This Morning’, references your previous work with Gil Scott-Heron. Why did you want to go back to that?

Richard Russell: I first met Giggs during the same time period that I was working with Gil, so he’d heard that back then and was into it. That’s really a sonic thing. I felt that hearing two baritones in the same place might be really powerful, because they’ve both got those incredibly deep, powerful voices. The beat is pretty much ‘Me and the Devil’. Giggs is incredibly instinctive about what he does, and he does things that he feels a vibe for. He was into it and and so we recorded it in a night here, went back to it and had a tweak here and there, and it just came out right.

How did you discover Obongjayar?

Richard Russell: He lives in east London now, but he’s from Norwich. He lived in Nigeria up until recently. Theo, who manages my production stuff, sent me his Soundcloud and said, ‘You should hear his voice, it’s pretty amazing.’ I just liked his voice and we got on. ‘Washed Up on the Shore’ is with Warren Ellis, who’s Nick Cave’s collaborator, so all that droney string stuff is Warren Ellis playing strings through pedals. It worked really well, that combination, and I’ve done other stuff with Obongjayar with different musicians. It’s an amazing process, because you get a different unit for each song. It’s almost like casting, where you try it out, see how people get on, and see what the image is like.

“I’m drawn to things that transcend the individual. We need things that are communal” – Richard Russell

How did you develop those sort of curatorial skills, getting a sense of who you’d think would work well together?

Richard Russell: It’s just feelings, you know? Feelings about what might work, and then just trying it. I wanted it to be done here (in this studio), I didn’t want things to be sent back and forth. I wanted everyone to have that experience in the room to spark off each other and see what that led to. Music is an incredible communication tool. My feeling was that if you connect musically, that cuts across everything. A lot of the time, people work with people who are similar to them because of their social groups, so I thought we could have a broad spectrum of people around and mix that up.

You’ve also got Sampha on the EP. For me, he represents that something that’s key for XL, which is believing in someone for the long term. Because he’s just had a huge moment with his debut album this year, but I first heard him in 2010 or 2011, I think.

Richard Russell: I’m glad that people have recognised that patient approach that we’ve taken, because it’s not right for everyone to just barrel into something. He’s been collaborating and building up to the point where he’s comfortable being out there on his own, and it’s been beautiful for everyone to see that and realise what a great talent he is. He was in those early jam sessions and he’s just such a great presence – and a great player. He’s got an amazing touch.

A very distinctive touch as well.

Richard Russell: Very distinctive. He’s a strong presence, vocally and instrumentally. That song came out of that Curtis Mayfield song ‘The Makings of You’. There’s this line in it, ‘These words I’ve tried to recite / They’re close, but not quite,’ I just thought that was very Sampha. I played him that and he was into it, so we made the song around that sample. We also did some stuff with him and Syd together, him and Ibeyi, him and Ibeyi and Wiki and Kamasi Washington all in one song – he’s a naturally collaborative person, given his talent level. He has a great deal of humility and doesn’t want to be the centre of attention all the time. And with that level of ability, if you want to be the centre of attention, that’s fair enough! But he’s quite unique in that regard.

And ‘D’elusion’ features Infinite Coles, Mela Murder, and Green Gartside. How’d you discover Infinite and Mela?

Richard Russell: I took some of the material to New York because I thought it might be good to see what might emerge out there. The engineer I worked with out there is called Alex Epton, he used to be part of Spank Rock. He had come across Infinite and Mela – they’d been in doing another session – so he mentioned that they were just interesting people and interesting voices, and they came by and we recorded a bit of stuff. It worked great, so I just told them to come over. We just continued.

Infinite’s voice, to me, was very resonant of Chicago house music – Robert Owens, Frankie Knuckles, Jamie Principle, that kind of church-y, somewhat androgynous, gospel-y, really soulful, just kind of lonely feel to it. I didn’t want to make stuff that sounded like that, but referred to it and was influenced by it. I think people getting to hear him for the first time through this is cool – he’s a special talent.

Mela is a dancer, a writer, and a singer. She’s done stuff with Major Lazer. She’s also from Staten Island. They write and work together.

And Green is… he’s just Green.

Richard Russell: Well, Scritti Politti was just a massive thing for me. Green has this thing of turning fantasy into reality. Scritti started off as anarcho-squat punks in Wales, then he decided he wanted to be a pop/R&B star – and then became one! It’s kind of amazing. He was massively influenced by soul music and he was adopted by all sorts of people. Miles Davis covered one of his songs. He’s worked with Chaka Khan, he was an R&B star in America, he’s got interesting stories about Luther Vandross – but he’s also a Welsh bloke who likes the pub.

“I’m drawn to uncompromising people. I’m drawn to strong personalities. I’m drawn to people who have their way of doing things that they’re willing to put themselves on the line for. Because I’m like that” – Richard Russell

Your career began in the 1990s, which seemed like a very competitive decade – a lot of musicians were pitted against each other by the press. Nowadays I feel that people are a lot more happy to collaborate. I wanted to know what you think of that.

Richard Russell: I’m drawn to things that transcend the individual. We need things that are communal. It’s interesting about the 90s not being that collaborative. I’d never thought of that. I think that’s probably true. It doesn’t feel like Britpop was very collaborative, it was every man for himself. They were all pitted against each other and they were trying to be the most successful. That gave rise to music that a lot of which in retrospect doesn’t feel that important. We’ve seen it in rap in the last few years – that’s become super collaborative with everyone being on each other’s records and being much more open about that, and I suppose that’s why the form has been kept fresh. It makes so much sense to collaborate.

Is there a certain type of musician that you’re drawn to?

Richard Russell: I’m drawn to uncompromising people. I’m drawn to strong personalities. I’m drawn to people who have their way of doing things that they’re willing to put themselves on the line for. Because I’m like that. I’m into people who are open, and for this project that’s been essential, to be open enough and honest enough to be like, ‘This is what I’m doing. If a bunch of it doesn’t work that’s fine, we’re just gonna see where we get to.’

Are there any artists you regret not signing to XL?

Richard Russell: I’ve never had that experience. If they’ve had a great career, I’m happy for them. I’ve been involved in so many great things, it can be a bit greedy to look at like that. I’m definitely aware that I didn’t understand what Aphex Twin did initially, when he put stuff out on his own. He put out Analogue Bubblebath, and because it didn’t fit into my DJ sets at the time – actually, I remember so specifically relegating it to a shelf because I knew that I couldn’t play it – that afterwards, I was like, ‘That was a real oversight.’ But I think he was probably meant to be on Warp, right? I’m quite fatalistic in that regard. If you go about things in the right way, things that are meant to happen, happen.

If there was one piece advice you could give to a musician starting out today, what do you think to would be?

Richard Russell: You need more than one piece of advice. What you really need is some kind of source of advice. I think as a musician, it’s very useful and instructive to find, ‘What am I looking at? What is the guide for me? What are the role models?’ Because I think it’s all out there. Not that I’m saying to copy, not that I’m saying to repeat. Grace Jones talks about all the female artists in her wake, and she says, ‘If you want to copy me, do something that no one’s done before. That’s how to copy me. If you’re doing what I did, then you’re not doing what I did.’ You’ve got to be looking for sources of guidance. It might look like people get there on their own, but you need a bit of that.

What does being a producer mean to you?

Richard Russell: The making of things, and the satisfaction that comes from that – a process you try to make as enjoyable as possible, and at the end of it, you’ve got something. I love records, I love making records, and I’ve done it in all sorts of different forms. There are all sorts of different ways you can be a part of that. My life’s work is just making records.