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'There Is No Done': Gavin Rayna Russom On The Dialogue Between Creation And Identity

Gavin Rayna Russom, performing with LCD Soundsystem on July 12, 2017 in Ottawa, Canada.
Mark Horton
Getty Images
Gavin Rayna Russom, performing with LCD Soundsystem on July 12, 2017 in Ottawa, Canada.

There are times one can sense deep changes before you can see them. When, in a July interview, the synthesizer player and composer Gavin Russom revealed that she was transitioning from life as a man to one as a woman, Gavin Rayna, she says it did not come as a total shock to the people who knew Gavin Russom well.

"'Oh yeah, that makes sense, totally, psyched,'" is how she voiced their reactions to me, as we sat in the café at Manhattan's Rubin Museum of Art in early October.

It was the first time I'd seen Gavin Rayna since she went public about the transitioning, encouraged by a break in the touring schedule of LCD Soundsystem, in which Gavin has played since 2010 and whose record label home, DFA, she has been associated with almost since its founding.

How am I going to transition in front of crowds of thousands of people every night? How am I going to go through this thing that's unbelievably awkward, intimate, personal, that I don't want to do? Can I snap my fingers and be done? And there is no done, of course.

Since the turn of the century, Gavin has created art-kosmiche soundscapes with one-time partner Delia Gonzales, solo hardware techno tracks as Black Meteoric Star, and more glamorous, conscious disco as part of Crystal Ark. This has been in addition to building synths for DFA, playing live with James Murphy and with various downtown veterans reinterpreting the music of Arthur Russell, occasionally throwing the (great) techno party C//TY CLUB with Lauren Flax, all the while holding down a modestly powerful fine-art practice. Taken together, it all amounts to one the more adventurous art-music careers in 21st century New York, and a body of work that, amidst the monumental changes in her life, Gavin Rayna has been reviewing by reissuing old recordings and posting on her SoundCloud page tracks previously available only on vinyl.

I professed that Gavin Rayna going public about her transitioning did not come as a surprise to me, and that I'd been trying to not only unpack why that might be, but how her lifelong engagement with her gender un-specificity manifested itself in her art — or didn't. What was it in her music, her history and her philosophical outlook that made who she was make sense? And what the experience of coming out and transitioning now — on a world tour with LCD Soundsystem, behind a No. 1 album — could possibly be like? It was a long, spirited conversation, and has been edited for length and clarity.

Piotr Orlov: Talk about how your ongoing exploration of your gender identity influenced you as a creator.

Gavin Rayna Russom: One thing that I can track as a thread through my experience is that, from a very early age, exploring music became almost my entire mechanism for being. It was an abstract place where things about me that did not connect with the world at large made sense, a way I could connect to other people via playing in bands with them, or DJ'ing, or going to dance parties. It was a way that the body and the mind connected, through the medium of sound.

It was also a place for me to explore flexibility in all kinds of different ways. Over time, it's become less of a coping mechanism and more of a creative act. As I went through life, there were ways that music was not capable of accomplishing things that I wanted it to in a sustainable way. It was limited. For me, expanding into a spiritual life was directly connected to music.

Was engineering part of that? It's a stereotype, but many people think it's boys who want to solder together synthesizers — not girls.

One thing that's interesting for me about being a trans person — that I am still discovering whether [or not] I share with other trans-feminine people — is that it allows me to develop a perspective on femininity that is not necessarily framed in the experience of being socialized as a woman, and reflect on notions of femininity both traditional and personal. I became interested in building and designing synthesizers because it was the instrument I intuitively felt made sense for me to compose music.

One of the experiences that led to that was ... when I was a kid, there were these really popular skater shorts called Jams, and as an insecure teen, I heard other people thought they were cool and I was like, 'Mom, I have to get these shorts.' My mom grew up overseas, she's an old-fashioned person in a lot of ways, made her own clothes well into my childhood. She said, 'Let's make them instead.' Which for her was a totally natural thing. So to some degree, making things made sense to me. I was raised with that idea, that sort of value, of being able to do things yourself.

It's a very odd thing, the difference between knowing something and accepting something. The space between is much bigger than it seems.

It's important to add that my mother was also a software developer throughout the '70s, '80s and early-'90s, working to help interface computer system with languages and building database architecture for spell and grammar checkers. As a software lexicographer, she mapped languages as systems which could be translated into programming language, which to me is about as close to being an electronic music composer and theorist as you can get without actually being that. I spent many hours with her in the experimental computer lab at Brown University, where she worked, as well as picking up printouts and dropping off punch cards with her at the Brown mainframe computer. There is absolutely a thread that connects all of these things, the sewing, my [do-it-yourself], building-electronics upbringing, and using technology to render and interact with complex systems of meaning making. And I would say that there is a very powerful connection to both traditional and feminist concept of womanhood there.

My interests were to experience the synthesizer in terms of a body, and a desire to not just experience the surface of that body but understand it internally, develop an intimacy and a relationship with it that was not strictly about control, but about understanding and dialogue. With my own history and the history of electronic music, the thing that's always been important to me is that there isn't that hierarchical relationship between composer and engineer, actually those things are in dialogue, in flux. That was always interesting and very intuitive to me, and not a conscious process at work. Even outside of any feminist context, there's people like David Tudor, who was always a very big influence on me, who said, "The score is the circuit" — these things are in interaction.

/ Gavin Rayna Russom
Gavin Rayna Russom

That may be so, but is there a difference how you approached the task of composition when you were younger and less explorative of your gender identity? How did it work before and how does it work now?

When I graduated from high school, I kind of stumbled upon improvising music. A really big part of my whole journey was my relationship with my cousin, Mike Kelley (who is the musician Kelley Polar), and his older sister, who is Blevin Blectum; we grew up a block away from each other in Providence. Mike was my best friend, and the three of us did a lot of stuff together. We went to public school our whole lives and the last couple of years we went to an arts high school outside of Boston.

I can track that as one of the moments when I began to be aware that there was something going on for me gender-wise. I knew about it since I was a kid, but because childhood tends to be a place where abstraction allows a certain fluidity of identity, I didn't understand how different it was to some other children's experiences until much later. Going to a boarding school, to an arts high school, away from my family, in a very permissive environment around sexuality and identity was, most of the time, a terrifying thing that I rebelled against, but, in the end, something I began to take advantage of.

Concurrent with that was a set of conversations with my cousin, out of which came the idea to form this improvisational band. I started to get interested in drones, started to discover music of other cultures. Because he studied classical music in a way that I didn't, he was hip to a lot more exploratory ideas about 20th century western classical composition. I grew up with jazz — my dad is a real jazz and blues guy — so I was interested in improvisation, and became more interested in jazz because it was filtering into hip-hop culture in the early '90s. So we formed this band in which we decided we would improvise, and it was a mind-opening experience, realizing that anything could actually happen if we did not have a pre-determined idea. That's sort of the point at which my whole compositional aesthetic got formed. I became really interested in shaping sound, using feedback for sculpting sound, moving it around — music as something to interact with rather than control. But the thing that was challenging after a few of these amazing sessions, where we would produce really interesting music just by interacting with each other — it kind of all started to sound the same. That was one of my main concerns: How do you continue to create music that retains this exploratory, sort of magical thing, but continue to move it forward? That's been one of the key things I've worked with until now.

/ Gavin Rayna Russom
Gavin Rayna Russom

At Bard, where I studied composition with Benjamin Boretz, was another time during which I had been in a permissive environment, and started to open up to think, 'I'm a woman, this is what is going on for me.' I would talk to people about that. I think the really defining experience of being at Bard is that I got exposed not just to this male-dominated tradition of classical composers, but also — because of Ben Boretz's relationship with Elaine Barkin and Susan McClary — to other feminist composers and theorists. At the time, he was making a big effort to break open that tradition. When I was studying with him, he produced a piece called "music / consciousness / gender" — that was what he was working on when I was studying with him. He also introduced me to Meredith Monk's music, which was a major turning point.

And then ... I moved to New York without any idea of what I was going to do. To some degree, I still had this punk-rock teen approach to life, even though I had a degree ... I was really interested in these ideas that I had encountered. not only in studying with Ben, but, having minored in religion, ideas about spirituality. I felt there were a lot of points of connection between that and composition. Then I started going to all kinds of different night clubs, the bigger clubs on the West Side at the time, smaller underground parties, house parties, punk rock shows; I played in a few different bands that sat somewhere in that world of stuff, mostly with women.

It was interesting going through and reissuing all the music I made during this period, because at the time I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I knew I didn't want to make music connected to a lot of these previous existing frameworks of how you should make music, music that's self-identifying. I wanted to use this narrative to break out of even my own ideas of what I should be doing. I was sitting in front of a tape recorder all day, trying to make something happen.

So it was a powerful experience to go back and listen and realize, 'wow, this is really interesting music.' And for me it's pretty clear to see all the different threads that I've explored afterwards – they're in there, in one way or another.

That was a moment where a lot of those things started to link up. The feeling of permissiveness around self-identification on the gender spectrum, and also within the meanings of that; not only identifying as female, but also identifying in some non-predetermined idea of what female means. Discovering ways to musically do things that would feel contradictory, and getting those things to make sense. Even just working with types of dissonance, finding places where it would be difficult to define the difference between signal and noise. Getting it to mean something had a parallel to finding those places as an individual in the world.

So, fast forward to now. Have we heard new music that you've made in the period of transition?

I would say that one thing that's interesting is that it's all occurred within the context of being on tour with LCD. I'm not really a person who uses the laptop as a musical tool, and so when I am on tour ... I don't tend to produce music in the way that I do when I'm not.

/ Gavin Rayna Russom
Gavin Rayna Russom

The major thing that I have worked on within this period is Black Meteoric Star stuff, because that is all recorded live to cassette tapes. I think of BMS as my sketch-book in many ways ... things are done quick, there's no going back and editing anything. It's an easier project to approach when I am home for four days. Also a part of BMS is that — again, it's kind of me creating a permissive environment for myself — there are ways in that project that I can sort of dig into deeper creative depths of a certain type than when I'm doing other kinds of work.

I have to say that the experience of composing, since I've worked through the intense levels of denial around my gender identity, is remarkable. I'm very excited about the things that I'm working on and the directions they might take because ... it's a very odd thing, the difference between knowing something and accepting something [laughs]. The space between is much bigger than it seems.

It's also a powerful experience, because one part of that is that my expectations of how people would react were all based on an internalized trans-misogyny, and by and large people's responses have been so much more generous and interesting and complex than I could have ever imagined. I know that isn't true for everybody.

That speaks to the privilege of respect in the creative marketplace and peers who you're out on tour with, who've known you for almost 20 years. Hopefully these are people who would support you even more than most.

That encapsulates a lot of the very positive things that have been happening at this moment. I started working with James at DFA in the studio in 2001, maybe 2002. The first thing that he asked me to do was to try to create a beatbox that he could take on stage, because this new 12" that he had made — that used a Casio drum machine — was starting to get popular, and he thought he might have to play the songs live. That was "Losing My Edge." That was also a time when I was a lot more comfortable expressing where I sit on the gender spectrum. But that acceptance hadn't fully happened yet.

That experience, working through the intense layers of denial ... between awareness and acceptance, and the action of, like, "I'm going to tell people". And then the main action of ... I'm going to dress the way I want to dress, and also to get support.

A lot of those layers of denial I went through in that process were also artificial boundaries in my composition process too. They were places where I thought, "you can't have this kind of sound and this kind of sound in the same piece, because..." It's the same thing. I would think that, as an experimental musician and a relatively uncompromising composer, I would not have those hang-ups — "Are people going to think this is too techno?" — but they were there. So working through ideas about gender identity — especially those 12"s that came out around 2014, '15, '16, and Crystal Ark too — helped to dig to a point where I was less hung up on those things musically.

I think that it's these parallel authenticities — or interactive authenticities, probably — where because I am a little more authentic in the world, there is a greater degree of authenticity that I am able to get to compositionally.

You and I have spoken through the years about how club spaces have become less diverse — as LCD Soundsystem's audience has grown, it has, too. Talk a little bit about how this moment feels. You are beginning to completely embrace your own nature in a public space, while that public space grows more crowded but less diverse.

Maybe this shows my age, but for me it connects to YouTube. That's a tool I use a lot nowadays to hear music I don't own. Talking about Kelley and Bevin — they went to Oberlin and got to know Morgan Geist a long time ago. At some point, I heard Mike's second-hand description of how Morgan had described the band Suicide to him — like a time from the past, of sea voyages where somebody saw a lion and came back and explained it, and somebody painted it and it looked nothing like a lion. And just this description from Mike said to me, "This sounds like your thing, like what you would be into"; and I was like, "You're right, this sounds amazing."

But I couldn't find a Suicide record anywhere. It was some years before I actually heard Suicide. And what those years were spent doing was seeking out a community in which I could hear that music. Contrast that with today, when anything that anybody says to me, I can go online and hear easily.

I think something that is interesting that came out of that — and I don't think it was programmed into the idea of YouTube — was the monetization of everything. We no longer live in a world where people who exploit music for money look at something and say, "that's too weird, what is that?" Everything seems to actually be equally viable. Not that all things get equal commercial treatment, but that anything is equally viable to be picked up, mass marketed and exploited. There are weird aesthetics in the mainstream right now all the time, that very often are not connected to the tradition of thinking outside the box.

One of the things that's interesting about LCD's growing fame, framed in that context, is that James is a very uncompromising person, not only in the way that he writes lyrics, but also in the way that he produces music and works with sounds. It's very clear if you know and understand the music, yet for a lot of people, that is not important.

For which people?

For a lot of the fans, the people who are buying tickets to the shows. Something else is important to them. I don't know what it is, cause I don't think we have so much in common. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's nice to be part of a musical project that not only extends to the things I am interested in, but to things that people who I may not share a lot with, also find compelling or exciting.

Is there anything that you can do, from your LCD synth perch, to bring your perspective to the audience who may be there for a different reason?

I think so. One thing I hope is that people who see me as part of LCD will investigate my solo work; and my intention in my work over a long period of time is to actually code identity and history into the music. It's been there for me and it has worked for me. I do believe in these ideas about musical structure. Susan McClary talked about it and [Underground Resistance] talked about it. It goes into every place, you can see that. You can see that musical structure has the power to change things. So, that's there.

Going back to talk about the new Black Meteoric Star EP: The EP actually came out of a house party I played as BMS, opening for my friend's band L'amour Bleu, where I knew I wasn't going to be able to bring a lot of equipment. I brought the smallest set-up I could think of and I wrote three quick songs to play, because I knew I couldn't play set I had been doing. And it was a great party. Like parties I went to as a kid. And it was full of all kinds of different people, in a condemned house in Brooklyn and, you know, there I was in a space that I might say no longer exists; but it was there. The exact experience that sparked it for me, I was providing it for other people. I hope that it's always somewhere in my music, and not just in my music but in the way I approach things

There are other things I want to talk about: one is that trans visibility is really critical. Trans women are disproportionately murdered and victims of violence. The issues that currently and formerly incarcerated trans women face, that undocumented trans women face, are massive. Some people have done some amazing work to bring those things to light, and some things have changed. I think those changes are one of the only things that made me able to deal with what initially seemed almost impossible:

"How am I going to transition in front of crowds of thousands of people every night? How am I going to go through this thing that's unbelievably awkward, intimate, personal, that I don't want to do? Can I snap my fingers and be done?" And there is no done, of course. That's the thing.

Another thing is that those crowds at LCD shows are people who are unlikely to encounter transgender women on a daily basis, and that presents an opportunity. For me, especially in the initial phases of coming out, that desire, to make a hard cut, so strong, like I wanted it so bad — new name, new gender marker, new ID, new body, everything. That's what I wanted immediately, because the idea of working through any kind of a transition seemed unbearable. But when I started to get into an acceptance of that, I started to see that there's something really beautiful about seeing the process. And that is now this thing, in parallel with a No. 1 album by a band on a sold-out tour. So this process is happening. You can ignore it, you can get angry about it, or you can celebrate it. Do whatever you want, but it's happened.

So, there's an opportunity here too.

There's also a thing that I fear a little there too, because I think we are in the initial phase of having much wider trans visibility — several television shows, several public figures who are out, real big changes in almost all realms of activism in which trans inclusion and trans visibility is primary — and I think that within the trans experience and trans journey, there is potential for wider cultural change. Because that experience is so true and so real for the people that have it, and so at odds with the culture at large, it provides an opportunity to re-evaluate and dismantle a lot of cultural "norms." To the end of transformation, not to the end of the assimilation of a certain group of the trans population into the status quo — because the status quo is murder, rape, slavery, exploitation.

One more thing that is interesting is the idea of having a platform. That feels new to me about this current moment of LCD's popularity and my own place.

So, do you feel like you can affect the messages that come from this platform? Or do you think the platform exists, and the message is just you existing there?

That's actually what's going on: me trying to figure out what it means to have a platform: What are the ways that I want to use it? What are the ways that I have a responsibility to use it? And the learning curve is intense. My hope is that, at least for some people, my being there leads them to think differently about things, the assumptions they have, consciously or unconsciously. Beyond that, because LCD has a wide reach and that I am a part of the LCD story, and because people place value and interest on that, it might compel them to look more deeply at some things that I believe are important. My work as a composer, as a multi-media artist, as someone who looks at culture. So I hope it gets people interested in new ideas.

And also my experience with the people in the band has been so profound, just in terms of their acceptance and understanding, but also willingness to learn. As a group, there is something there. The level at which James and Nancy have been supportive of me is intense, deep and powerful. So I think that says something too; that it's not just about me, but that it's also this group of people who are respected and who people look up to, and who are doing something that speaks to a deeper ethics.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Piotr Orlov
Up North Updates
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