Dave Segal Interrogates Bruce Russell of the Dead C
Kyle T. Webster
The Dead C are largely unknown in the U.S. (and throughout most of the world). I could say you sound like the Velvet Underground's most scabrous feedback blown up and improvised into mantras of morbid malevolence, crossed with the early Fall's relentless repetition and ramshackle production values. But that may be oversimplification. How do you describe your sound to people who've never heard the Dead C?
You really can't do this easily. I think your reference points are good enough, if you are talking to a well-schooled music fan. I try to explain that we look and sound like a rock band making the most cacophonous racket you can imagine—but really we're something else. Our music is pretty well 100-percent improvised using rock instrumentation, but it's almost completely unmusical, certainly devoid of melody. If you imagine rock music is like landscape painting, our work is extreme abstraction.
This is the first Dead C U.S. tour in six years. Why now? The American economy is in shambles, fuel prices are astronomical, the music biz is crumbling—and then there's Sarah Palin's voice. I have to admire such badass, flying-in-the-face-of-sanity gumption.
Well, we've been waiting for a presidential election to coincide with a major market correction, and America just got lucky!
Do you think your music would sound much different if you didn't live in New Zealand? Alternatively, do you feel that New Zealand's relative isolation has helped you to develop your sound? From what I've read and heard, there seemed to be no precedents in New Zealand for what you were doing in the '80s.
Living here enabled our approach to mature in relative isolation. In the '80s (pre-internet), New Zealand was culturally at quite a time lag from the metropolitan countries, and our cultural sphere is small and free of many market pressures. At the same time, there was one great indie label here at that time (Flying Nun) with which we were associated, and this gave us the chance to get good international exposure early on. The rest is history... We remain pretty marginal here, so I guess we've had the luxury of just keeping doing exactly what we want. In fact, there were not so many precedents for what we were doing anywhere at the time. We took bits from other artists and just upped the ante a bit. Our early work sounds quite sensible now, but at the time it really caused a bit of a stink.
By necessity or choice, the Dead C have chosen to forge an astringent, unpolished sound. What is it about low fidelity that appeals to you? If you had a benefactor give you a huge budget to hire a name producer in a deluxe studio, would you accept it or would the very idea repulse you?
If anyone still has any money, they should use it to help people in genuine need. We certainly would not record in a "proper" studio; we got offered a free session last week, but declined with thanks. If absolutely forced, we'd take the money anyway and do precisely what we've always done. We have no objection to being paid. It's just that more and more artists now realize that using cheap and available recording technology is not a limitation; it's a massive opportunity. Why would you not record for nothing if you can?
One of the main things I hear in the Dead C's music is a kind of post-industrial-disaster aura that reminds me of the Eraserhead soundtrack. Was that film influential to the Dead C? It also might not be a stretch to note that Metal Machine Music inspired you. I might as well ask about your formative aesthetic experiences (not just musical), while we're on the topic.
I wouldn't say Eraserhead was a decisive influence, but it was part of our cultural landscape when we were young. We developed an aesthetic based on all creative cultural forms, not just music but film, literature, and of course the so-called fine arts. We were "post-punk" kids, I guess, in terms of musical influences in our youth. When you mention the words "post-industrial-disaster aura," what you really mean is that finally our work is "of its time." That's why we're touring the U.S. at this particular moment: because the cracks are visible.
I admit I haven't heard everything the Dead C have done, but what I have heard conjures in my mind infinite gradations of gray (again, like Eraserhead). Why this aversion to the brighter colors in the sonic kaleidoscope? </devil's advocate>
Black and white is a binary opposition, which is capable of infinite variations of meaning. Sometimes constraints can be creative, and limiting your palette frees you to concentrate on essentials of creative expression. I think in your analogy the "brighter colors" would be melody and harmony—and I think there are plenty of clever people working those angles; we're trying to come at the same problems from a less explored direction. You make the point about black-and-white movies; I love them, and what do you miss? After 10 minutes you can't tell the colors aren't there. Your mind supplies them. We want to encourage our audience to bring something to the experience. We can't do all the work for you.
Your back catalog is dauntingly large. Where would you advise the Dead C novice to start, and why those choices?
If you look at the work that is currently available, it's not so much! Of the stuff you can easily buy, I suggest you start with the 1992 album Harsh 70s Reality, because it shows us working out our "mature style" (it was our third proper album)—there are songs in there as well as free elements. If you don't like that one, save your time and give up! Don't write to me and complain, anyway.
Similarly, what can the Dead C virgin expect from your live show?
We're remarkably old and quite unglamorous—you must be prepared! We are quite open in our performance style, we shamble about, stop for drinks, scratch ourselves. We're working on stage to make a spontaneous work of art, rather than "performing," and the crowd is secondary to that. They're very welcome, but we're doing it for ourselves; the performance is secondary. Iggy pretty much raised the bar out of sight for rock performance; why would we bother trying to compete? I'd sooner watch him any day.
The new Dead C disc Secret Earth sounds like one of your most accessible releases yet, and "Waves" could be the most beautiful Dead C song to date. This is your "sellout" album, then, right? Which is why there are no photos of the band, no credits save for song titles and track durations, and a picture of what looks like untainted New Zealand nature. Perverse! You guys need a manager! Explain your strategy here.
Perverse is what we do, man. We always aim to confound expectations because most expectations are a lazy way of pretending that reality conforms to rules. Only the laws of physics apply. Other than that, reality doesn't know us at all; life is not fair, get with the program. You may see it as commercial; we see it as what we did on two weekend afternoons between beers. Which one of our albums features a recognizable picture of the band? But I'm glad you noticed the lack of words, the minimalism is deliberate... hell, the record has lyrics! What more do you want from us?
Some people think rock is a spent force, both as an agent for social change and as a source of formal innovation. (I think there's still life in the old beast, but innovations are—like kicks—getting harder to find.) Are we condemned to an eternity of wheel-reinventing and putting new hubcaps on said wheels?
Oh, I am totally one of those people. Rock as a "living tradition" is utterly broken. What we see now are zombies animated only by the spectral forces of the market, making marionette moves. I think that Disney's little puppets the Jonas Brothers are the epitome of rock right now—and the Kings of Leon are the same thing, only less honestly self-aware. That whole sector of the market (and it's not "cultural," it's economic) is now stuck in an eternal recurrence—always new, always the same. We represent an attempt to discover by experimental means what "true project has been lost" and what new project is capable of being resurrected from the ruins. So a Dead C performance is what Jim Shepard [of the Ohio band V-3] called "picking through the wreckage with a stick." I think that's the tagline for this tour.
Do you view drones as conduits to higher levels of consciousness, as catalysts for catharsis, or... something else?
What is this drone business that the internet media seems obsessed with? Anyone who thinks our music is comprised of drones is an aesthetic deaf-mute. We don't deal principally in "drones"—La Monte Young we ain't. No disrespect to him, but while some lazy-ass indie refugees may think "drone" is shorthand for some cool move they can pull to survive in the market, that's not us. And we don't do "space rock" either, thank you.
When a band have been around as long as the Dead C, the fumes of nostalgia can't help infiltrating both fans and band members, if you'll allow such a bold assumption. Do you think nostalgia is necessarily detrimental to musicians? Do you feel at all shackled by fans' expectations or by self-imposed notions of what the Dead C are "supposed" to sound like?
We're well aware of this, but we're insulated from it in that you can't see many of our fans from where we live. The horizon is largely clear. We can reliably pull about 50 people to a show in our "home range," so what they expect is not an issue—and those 50 people have a good idea of what we actually "do," so their expectations are quite realistic. If we wanted to exploit nostalgia, we would not have abandoned our formal repertoire 15 years ago. When we toured the U.S. in '95, we were doing a greatest-hits show out of respect for those good people who'd been buying our records and enabled us to have a career, but once it was over we vowed "never again." In fact, the next thing we did was Repent, our only 100-percent-live album, which was all howling, formless din. That was to draw a line in the sand and say, as Lasse Marhaug put it, "Nothing but sound from now on." We are grateful to everyone who has paid attention to our work, but we don't do it for them, and with respect, they can have no expectation we will do anything they might want. We do what we want. End of story.
Does being a music critic yourself impinge on your musical endeavors? Do you find it hard to create when you have to immerse yourself in other people's work? Or is it a boon to have a lot of other musicians' output from which to draw sustenance?
Yes and no. Actually, I don't immerse myself in other people's work. I write a little, but I'm selective. For the Wire I might have to listen to a dozen albums a year; that is never going to wear me out. I'm a professional writer and a theorist more than a "critic" in that sense. My work is critical, but only in the sense that I'm engaged in a Critique of Culture with a capital C —analyzing individual works by other artists doesn't occupy so much of my time, because you're right, it wouldn't help my own work at all!
A rabid Dead C fan I know praises your group for your humor. Perhaps it is too subtle for me, but I don't really hear it. School me, please, or tell me the superfan is tripping.
My wife wants me to call my autobiography Not the Funniest Man in the World! Actually, humor is an element in what we do; we are very ready to laugh at ourselves and to laugh at the world. It's a valid response to despair, man. Opening our last album [Future Artists] with "The AMM of Punk Rock" was funny and true. Calling any trio's career retrospective Vain, Erudite and Stupid has to be seen as amusingly self-deprecating, if I may say so myself. Anyone who doesn't get the joke will be perplexed by us from time to time.
Last and most importantly, what beer(s) do the Dead C's members champion?
We do drink New Zealand beer when possible—Monteith's, Mac's, Three Boys, Emerson's, Moa. Green Fern Organic is lovely, too, as the name suggests. I do enjoy a Corona from time to time, and Singha and Asahi Super Dry are very nice. If you're ever in Samoa, have a Vailima—they used to be a German colony and they learnt beer from the masters. We will drink American beer as well, as required, but our taste is toward the microbrewery spectrum. Mass-market U.S. beer is like your cheese—best not taken internally!
The Dead C play Wed Oct 15, Nectar, 9 pm, $10, 21+.