Born 1954, London. John Russell got hold of his first guitar in 1965 and began playing in and around London from 1971. His involvement with the Free Music scene came early, from 1972 onwards, and in such places as The Little Theatre Club, Ronnie Scotts, The Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Musicians’ Co-Op and the London Musician’s Collective. From 1974 his work extended into teaching, broadcasts (TV and radio) and touring (continuing) in the UK and abroad inluding Europe, Japan and South America.
Photo Andy Newcombe
In 1981, he founded QUAQUA, a large bank of improvisers put together in different combinations for specific projects and in 1987 helped set up Acta Records with John Butcher and Phil Durrant. In 1988 he founded MOPOMOSO, the UK’s longest running concert series featuring mainly improvised music.
Photo Andy Newcombe
Photo Peter Gnanushkin
As opportunities permit he has extended this approach to collaborate with creative practitioners from other disciplines, i.e. poetry, composition, theatre and performance art.
Apart from solo playing, current work includes duos with Phil Wachsmann, Phil Minton, Stale Liavik Solberg, Pascal Marzan, Stefan Keune and Thurston Moore, trios with Maggie Nicols and Mia Zabelka (Trio Blurb), Evan Parker and John Edwards, Henry Lowther and Satoko Fukuda, Matthieu Werchowski and Ute Voelker, Roger Turner and Michel Doneda, Matts Gustafsson and Raymon Strid (Birds)’ various projects with Japanese drummer Sabu Toyozumi and with Gunter Christmann’s Vario and his own Quaqua groups.
Which was the first and the last record you bought with your own money?
The first record I bought with my own money was ‘The Rock Machine Turns You On’. Although I did have one or two 78s and 45s kicking around. I didn’t have a record player until quite late and in fact I made the plinth for the deck in school wooodwork class and hooked it up to an old radio.
What were other early records you bought?
The first full price LP was ‘We’re only in it for the Money’ by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and I also remember owning ‘Ahead Rings Out’ by Blodwyn Pig and ‘Undead’ by Ten Years After. Basically I didn’t have much money and I spent a lot of time at a friend’s house listening to music there and checking stuff on the radio at home.
What do you remenber about your first guitar?
It was pretty horrible! A standard acoustic with steel strings and a very high action. I then got a Rosetta Lucky 7 with an Egmond pick up followed by a Hofner Galaxy. My first improvisation concerts were using a Grimshaw Les Paul. After that I went acoustic and for a long time used an Epiphone Zenith (1936) which I bought from Louis Gallo who had used it in dance bands beginning before the war. Louis was resposible for helping get Eddie Lang’s playing better known in the UK and I have some sheet music of his with a picture of him holding that guitar. It eventually suffered too much wear and tear and I moved to my present set up. Which is ..............
What gear do you use?
My main set up is a Schertler Unico with integral volume pedal and I use a Schertler Dyn G contact mic mixed with a Shure SM 81 uni-directional condeser mic. The guitar is a Radiotone from 1936. If I’m travelling under my own steam (e.g train) then I sometimes take an AER Alpha rather than the Schertler which is a bit heavy. If flying then I need two seats (one for me and one for the guitar) so the promoter has to provide the amplification. For the electric I have an Epiphone Broadway with a Vox Wah wah pedal, Nano Muff, Boss Heavy Metal 3 fuzz and a Boss Noise reducer. I usually stipulate a Fender Twin Reverb for the amp. I have a couple of practice amps here; a Fender 15er and a Lunchbox. At home I also have a 1933 Epiphone Masterbilt Blackstone, a Korean Fender Telecaster, a 1950s acoustic lap steel, an electric mandolin, a cheap nylon strung guitar, an Aria solid body and a ukelele as well as a number of broken guitars and parts that need sorting out.
Which work of your own are you most surprised by, and why?
There are those times when the music seems to come from a different place. It kind of creeps up on you from another angle and you think. Where the ... did that come from? I remember talking to the head of psychology at Kassel university and I asked him if they recognised transcendental feelings. He said that yes they did but the only thing they could say was that if somebody felt like that, and became conscious of it, the feeling disappeared. Very like music that!
What do you need from music?
Nothing. I would never ask. It has given me so much. An old friend (poet Libby Houston) once said that the Arts are like a magnifier and what you put in you get back ten times over. So be careful what you put in!
What quality do you admire most in a musician?
Three things. Good listener, good technique and a generous nature. The definitions of those things can vary!!
Do you prefer play alone or in a group? What is the difference for you?
I like to think I’m a sociable sort of person so playing with other people is great fun but when playing solo I also get to meet some good people. I think the main point is that we share this music as we discover it, whether we are playing solo or in a group. In fact I think there are four main playing situations and I try to be involved in all four. Solo, one off events, short term projects and long term groups. The boundaries can move so I might have a one off concert that contains someone from a long term group etc.
What are the challenges and benefits of today's digital music scene?
I must say I have no idea! The challenge is always the same. To find some music to play and the benefits are that it is possible to find some music to play. I mean for me I am a guitar player and the physicality is important. It is also to do with the internalisation and understanding of materials. I guess that is possible with digital means although a lot of the digital ethos seems to deny the body. I like a bit of steam punk with big clumsy handles Ha! Ha! There are all sorts of things to do with the production and broadcasting of musical artifact but that’s quite different from producing music in ‘real’ time in a ‘real’ place. Improvisation always comes down to playing and listening. The rest can be a bit of a distraction and can lead to people leaving the music all together.
Depict the sound you're still looking for.
I’m not looking for a sound. It’s looking for me and I am continually learning to recognise it when it comes. but I do like the idea of clarity and transparency.
Which do you translate into music from other disciplines such as theater, painting, architecture, ballet...?
For me everything I experience, think or feel has some relevance to music. It is a total involvement. Intellectually, emotionally and physically. Analogies with other practices can be useful but you have to be careful and realise they are only analogies and that there is a spefific nature to music.
What is some valuable advice that someone has given to you in the past?
I like Schoenberg on intrinsic and extrinsic worth. Go for the intrinsic value of something not it’s extrinsic value. i.e stay true to real values. If you are doing music then stick to musical values.
Tell me one musical work which has provoked a change in your music?
ICP 005 recorded 3rd March 1970 has always stuck with me as it has an immediacy to it. I think this is something to do with Misha Mengelberg’s editing where he just cut the tape when he got bored. There are so many though that it feel’s not really fair to pick one.
What projects are you working on now and what does the future hold?
Mopomoso continues and takes a lot of time and effort see. http://www.mopomoso.com Other than that I’m busy in so many different things from solo to my large Quaqua projects. Coming up in October I will be in Amsterdam palying an acoustic first half with Evan Parker and John Edwards and an electric second half with Evan and Han Bennink before going to Hannover the next day to work with Gunter Christmann in a 25th anniversary event for his Vario project. Every August, and this year is no exception, I have my three day Fete Quaqua event in London which is always fun. In terms of recording there is a 4 CD boxed set of last year’s Mopomoso tour in the pipeline, a quartet with John Edwards, Steve Beresford and Stale Liavik Solberg and two duos - one with Sabu Toyozumi and one with Phil Minton.
- 1973, Life amid the artefacts, Emanem 5014. Otherways & Free Space.
- 1974/5, Teatime, Incus 15.
- 1974/1975, Teatime, Emanem 5009. Re-issue of Incus 15 with additional JR duo track with Dave Solomon.
- 1978, Home cooking, Incus 31.
- 1979, Artless sky, CAW 001. With Roger Turner and Toshinori Kondo.
- 1980, Forward of short leg, Dossier ST 7529. With various Jon Rose groups, Requiem, Impetus IMP LP 18405. Quiet violence.
- 1980, Vario II, Moers Music 01084.
- 1981, The fairly young bean, Emanem 4036. With Maarten Altena/Terry Day.
- 1983/1985, Vario, Moers Music 02048.
- 1987, Conceits, Acta 1.
- 1988, Wild Pathway Favourites, Ladder rung002.
- 1989, News from the shed, Acta 4.
- 1989, News from the shed, Emanem 4121. Re-issue of Acta 4 with additional material.
- 1990, Cultural baggage, Acta 5.
- 1991, The Place 1991, Emanem 4056. Chris Burn Ensemble.
- 1991/1992, Concert moves, Random Acoustics RA 011. Butcher/Durrant/Russell.
- 1992, Ohrkiste, ITM Classics 950013. Radu Malfatti.
- 1994, Strakt, Discus 5CD. Brief track on Network CD.
- 1996, Birthdays, Emanem 4010. Duo with Roger Turner.
- 1996, London air lift FMP CD89. Quartet with Evan Parker, John Edwards, Mark Sanders.
- 1997, Navigations, Acta 12. Chris Burn's Ensemble.
- 1997, Interplay, FMR CD39 V0697. Hugh Davies, in trio with Russell/Turner.
- 1997, Improvisation: exhibit 'A', Avant BGS sampler. Solo track on cover CD of Avant, no. 3.
- 1997/8, Strings with Evan Parker, Emanem 4302.
- 1998, Refrain, MS 41. Schiano/Russell/Hallett/Turner/Penazzi.
- 1998, The scenic route, Emanem 4029. Butcher/Durrant/Russell.
- 1998, The duo recordings, The Field Recordings 7, FR7. Duo with Luc Houtkamp.
- 2000, Excerpts & offerings, Acta 14. Stefan Keune/John Russell duo.
- 2000, The All Angels concerts, Emanem 4209. Solo on compilation 2-CD.
- 2001, Deluxe improvisation series vol. 2, ASE_03/Deluxe improvisation series vol. 2. Quartet track
- with Stefan Keune on compilation CD.
- 2001, The second sky, Emanem 4058. Russell/Turner.
- 2001, Freedom of the city 2001: large groups, Emanem 4206. Strings with/without Evan Parker.
- 2001, Freedom of the city 2001: small groups, Emanem 4205.
- 2001, Horizontals white, Emanem 4080. Chris Burn Ensemble.
- 2001, Grain, DotDotDot Music 003. Short track on compilation CD.
- 2002, Freedom of the city 2002: small groups, Emanem 4210. Duo with Evan Parker on compilation CD.
- 2001/02, From next to last, Emanem 4071. Solo.
- 2002, Frequency of use, NURNICHTNUR BERSLTON 102 12 31. Stefan Keune/John Russell duo.
- 2002, Mopomoso solos 2002, Emanem 4100. Chris Burn/Lol Coxhill/John Edwards/Phil Minton/John Russell.
- 2003, Freedom of the city 2003: small groups, Emanem 4212.
- 2003, Three planets, Emanem 4106. Russell/Völker/Werchowski.
- 2004 & 2006, Analekta, Emanem 413.
- 2004, Freedom of the city 2004: small groups, Emanem 4214.
- 2005, Crossing the river, psi 06.02. Evan Parker Octet.
- 2005, More together than alone, Emanem 4136. Lol Coxhill.
- 2005/6, The Mercelis concert, Inaudible CD 006. John Russell/Jean Demey/Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg.
- 2006, 2006 Duos, Emanem 4137. Terry Day.
- 2006, Vario-44, Edition Explico 15. John Butcher/Roger Turner/John Russell/Thomas Lehn/Dorothea Schürch/Günter Christmann.
- 2007-2010, Translations, Emanem 5019. Pascal Marzan/John Russell.
- 2008, No room for doubt, Amirani AMRN020. Five rooms.
- 2008, Duet, Another timbre at27. Duo with Martine Altenburger.
- 2009, The cigar that talks, Collection PiedNu PN0110. Doneda/Russell/Turner.
- 2009, House full of floors, Tzadik TZ7632. Evan Parker/John Edwards/John Russell/Aleks Kolkowski.
- 2009, Hyste, psi 10.06. Solo.
- 2011, Kosai Yujyo, INaudible CD 008/improvising beings ib14. Sabu Toyozumi.
- 2011, Translations, Pascal Marzan / John Russell - Emanem 5019
- 2012, Birds, Mats Gustafsson, John Russell, Raymond Strid - dEN Records DEN008
- 2013, Trio Blurb : Maggie Nicols, John Russell, Mia Zabelka - Trio Blurb Extraplatte EX 821-2
- 2014, No Step. John Russell / Ståle Liavik Solberg - Hispid HSPD002
Photo Pat Lugo