The Swarm

December 21, 2012

The Daily Swarm Interview: The Crystal Ark...

Piotr Orlov

Two events that took place over the past eighteen months offered proof as to why sitting down with Crystal Ark magi Gavin Russom and Viva Ruiz to discuss musical matters of lysergic origin, spiritual value, and universal consciousness would bear ample fruit. A June 2011 live show at a Brooklyn disco that featured dancers, video synthesists and a progressive cross-section of NYC DJs was part disco rave, part art happening, and pure creative levitation:

The spectactle created such an impression even Genesis P-Orridge could afterwards be heard gushing at their “hyperdelic” wonder. Then this past September, the pair could be spotted quietly exiting a small Williamsburg screening room after a program featuring audio interviews with psilocybin gurus Terrence McKenna and Ram Dass, the type of event that attracted true pilgrims of alternative journeys, not dabblers. A conversation began to take shape.

The late-October release of Crystal Ark’s great self-titled debut album on DFA, served up a myriad of opportunities for Russom and Ruiz to discuss their ample résumés. He: long-time DFA/LCD Soundsystem wizard, instrument-making time-lord, disco-techno traveler, fine artist of some renown. She: dancer, artist, filmmaker, top-notch motherfucking downtown New York priestess! (Experience fine profiles of their day-jobs here, here, here, and here) Yet the terrestrial press-release nature of their physical stations seemed less engaging than how the pair could wax on the great unsaid in the Big Apple dance-scene’s fundamentals; on the collision of art, spirituality and hallucinogenics; and the true meaning of the 2012 prophecy. Which is what this conversation set out to do. The skeptics are asked to exit now…

The Daily Swarm: You’ve both previously said that New York is a major inspiration for The Crystal Ark. What about New York, besides its musical history, inspires you? In a place as hectic and dirty and urban and bustling as this, where is the spiritual nourishment?

Gavin Russom: For me, when you said that, the first thing that came to mind really strongly is a book by an academic named Joseph Murphy called Santeria: African Spirits in America It particularly talks about New York, focused on Murphy’s experience as an academic and his interest in this spiritual path. There’s a chapter where he talks about the botánicas, which are shops that most New Yorkers or people who live in big cities are familiar with. What starts to frame his idea is that the botánica is like a portal into the jungle –an inner penetration of the jungle into the very urban, cement, manmade world of New York. When I read that, it just clicked something in my mind about what I experience in lots of cities, but that seems to have the volume turned up really high on it in New York: that, in a very modern, finance- and trade-based environment, there’s this other inner penetrating the life here. I feel like music is what he describes the botánica as being. It’s another portal.

The Daily Swarm: Was that something you also experienced living in Berlin, or do creative energies permeate differently there?

Gavin Russom: Definitely; it was just on a differently frequency. But one of the reasons I was drawn to Berlin is that the natural world has a particularly strong presence there.

Viva Ruiz: It’s overgrown – it goes past the boundaries. There’s something un-manicured there, and it feels right that way. The nature’s really creeping – like, we saw a fox in the middle of the city; to me, that’s really shocking. It’s so great that in Berlin the wildness is on the surface; I think it’s partly because people aren’t under surveillance as much as they are in the States.

Gavin: Another big part of my experience in Berlin is that there’s a spiritual energy to it too: I feel spirits around me there in a strong way, and I feel like that in New York. Those two cities are connected to each other. Growing up in Providence, I felt the same thing. It was overgrown, run-down; there was a very strong sense of a past and a present existing at the same time, and there were a lot of ghosts. Growing up in New York, I can’t imagine how you could miss them.

Viva Ruiz: I grew up here in Queens. My experience with the spiritual in New York comes from people’s history being so new. My family is from Ecuador – I’m first generation. There’s a lot of ancestor worship that’s more a part of a lot of Latin American cultures: ghosts and church, it’s such a part of every day life

The Daily Swarm: Like pictures of ancestors on the wall?

Viva Ruiz: Yeah, and talking to them. In New York you have such a huge immigrant population: people live here with their histories, from lands rich with spirit and music and tradition that have more to do with nature than American traditions. These cultures tend to be not just more religious but mystical; they also involve a suspension of disbelief. Believing that there are spirits everywhere, that’s a basic and not a stretch – just how it is. And these cultures are so tied into music and dance: ritual, ceremony, and spirit. I grew up around a lot of Haitian people in Queens, in pockets where you don’t ever have to speak English. I found a lot of that connection to history and physicality in music in house parties we’d have, where everybody comes and everybody dances, the music is really loud, and everybody knows that’s part of life. If you can’t sleep because somebody’s having a party next door, that’s nothing you complain about – that’s just your New York neighborhood. Also for me, growing up very Catholic, being in the ritual of church was important – even though I wouldn’t call myself technically a Catholic anymore. That put in me a real respect and need for ritual, because it connects you to a different place, another realm, and music is a part of it. The best parts of church were the music parts.

Gavin Russom: I agree. My experience growing up was of seeing a lot of religions. In my neighborhood there were – I don’t know, I want to call them Moonies – there were Hari Krishna’s, Muslims, black Muslims, Catholics, Protestants. To come from a middle-class academic background – my father’s side was Episcopal, so he grew up going to church, but he’s an academic, and was a hippie, so he sort of moved away from that – my perspective taught me that “it’s something that people do.” In my family, I feel like the spirituality I grew up with was connected to nature and ancestors, but not in a way that was about community, but about our family. It’s a way that I’ve only now started to think of as spirituality. So religion was something near but distant, but also something that I was interested in.

The Daily Swarm: Viva, you said, “music was the best part of church.” It made me think on the lack of separation between church’n’club in New York house music culture, not just vocally invoking gospel but also the recognition of the dance-floor as a sacred place. This is actually something that many cultures have been acting upon for a long time. Gavin you went to Bahia in Brazil in 2008, and you’ve said it was a strong experience for you, and began informing your music. Besides being a musical hotbed, Bahia is a central mixing point of European, African and indigenous cultures; and one aspect of life where all these elements mix is in the Candomblé ceremonies . Can you talk a little bit about music, the club/performance space, and the rituals around spirituality that you try to bring into that space?

Viva Ruiz: The women that sing with me – Jaiko [Suzuki] and Sokhna [Heathyre Mabin] – they’re both these incredible healer women. Sokhna is a kundalini teacher, an herbalist and a doula who’ll just bust-out in Sanskrit. Jaiko studies kinesiology and had a non-romantic date with the guy who represents Japan in the International Council of Shamen this weekend. We are organically this group of really like-minded folks. The ladies and I are consciously in ritual; the movement that we are doing is intentional. What we’re doing is praying for the space that we’re in, praying for everybody around us, calling ourselves into presence, calling everybody into their bodies, and intentionally playing with that. Letting a joyful thing happen, with a prayer for peace in the world [laughs]. That’s what we’re doing there. Everybody’s a dancer, and we have been in the practice of dancing to connect to spirit our whole lives. That’s the language that we’re using. Whatever it looks like to people, that’s less the point than where we’re coming from.

The Daily Swarm: Gavin, can you talk about that from a musical point of view of The Crystal Ark?

Gavin Russom: The way I compose is extremely intuitive – it’s very much based on channeling, for whatever I feel like wants to move through me musically. It’s pretty much always been the case. For a long time, there was a dichotomy. A large portion of my life has been spent pursuing things that were of intuitive interest to me largely alone, without any realization that other people also pursued them. There has been this thing that I do where I don’t really know what it is, and then there’s music.

Music was this thing everybody else does when they’re learning how to do something. I grew up taking cello lessons: I go there, I learn how to read music, there’s a technique, and so on. Even when I studied composition at Bard for a few years – even though it was “out there” and based on intuition and so post-post-post that it was a lot better if you have no idea what you’re doing than if you do – still, that was “studying music.” Meanwhile, this thing that I do is still just something that I do: exploring some sounds and putting them together in time. The fact that those things have grown together has been my process. It’s only been a recent thing – the last ten years, more so the last five years – to connect those the two.

There was a period of time when I was really struggling with mental health and life – I think that it peaked in 1993 – and its been a slow journey back from there. Things I learned started to inform the things I would do intuitively. Basically I became a lot more comfortable with letting things happen. That’s one part of it.

Also, I frame my creative behavior around the metaphor of sacrifice. For me, making music, performing music, particularly performing music live is basically the experience of ritual sacrifice, but with no victims. An offering. In contemporary society, since we don’t have those rituals, that energy gets acted out in different ways; the prison system, celebrity gossip, tragic celebrity stories – I think that’s where it gets channeled into. Part of the energy of simply using the creative act itself as a simulacrum of offering also channels energy away from a self-destructive cultural tendency. The influential seed of my Brazil trip was seeing music as part of something much larger in so many situations. There wasn’t this idea that music exists on its own. It had a clear function that wasn’t commercial – it was medicinal, and participatory; people there were using their bodies, and that proved very relevant. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum there; it exists in a context, and has a cultural purpose. That made sense to me, because I had trouble understanding how it could be any other way.

If there’s any way that music is different from sound, it’s that in any musical composition there’s a beginning and an end: that delineates a sacred space in time, rather than in a physical space. So, in the compositional act, music opens a space in which some kind of meaning becomes inscribed. That meaning is different based on who you are, what you bring to it, what you want to say, what your true intention is, the particular moment in time, what moves through it that moment, and who the people involved are.

It’s something I try to talk about onstage when we’re performing. Despite the fact that we’re all aware of any number of going-out rituals, the fact of the matter is that what is happening at a show is that a group of people are gathered together at a very specific moment in time that will never be repeated again; and even if the exact circumstances were repeated again, that moment would not be. There’s a great deal of energy there – a very powerful, specific occasion.

Viva Ruiz: It’s challenging as a performer, breaking through the audience-performer thing. I feel like there’s something cool and interesting that we all engage in, creating an experience together – “You are not isolated.” That’s the challenge: being in conversation while we’re doing this thing.

The Daily Swarm: I keep thinking back to the first full live-band, multimedia show you did in New York, at Bed-Stuy’s Sugar Hill Disco in June of 2011, where even though it was a debut, all of that energy you are mentioning was very much in the room.

Viva Ruiz: That was a very special show. My dad had just died days before that, so I was in the zone. We were in “the between place,” for sure. That was the power of music for me: I was so happy to go into rehearsals, I was tripping, but totally sober. We were levitating that night, I feel. [laughs]. It’s remarkable that the people we’re involved with – the two of us, and everybody else that night – were all on the same page.

Gavin Russom: Another part of the spiritual aspect of music is the idea of healing. I think I realized – with a great deal of shock actually, some place in 2005, maybe, between Days of Mars and Black Meteoric Star – that my interest in music started largely as a way to heal myself, but in a very unconscious way. Going into the bedroom and playing around, making some sounds and recording, was a way of healing myself. It may not have been the most effective way, but it was what happened. It was the tools that I had. That became a natural way to approach music making; to an extent, that is still what I need from my musical experience. I think also that coded into the music is some of the information that helps to create some kind of, for lack of a better phrase, productive dynamic in the room. We want to break down that thing between us being onstage and you watching it. There are rules: we are the people performing, and we’re not all going to “jam” – but it isn’t just a spectacle to be passively observed: you’ve got to participate.

Viva Ruiz: You are participating, even when you think you’re not.

Gavin Russom: It’s inherent in the experience.

The Daily Swarm: So the psychedelic, ceremonial group-mind aspects of The Crystal Ark are very much conscious?

Gavin Russom: When I talk about healing, it’s all in the same world. When I was a kid, I tried to figure out how to make music that made me feel like I was on psychedelic drugs, and I feel like I’ve gotten kind of good at it. If there’s any skill that I have, that’s it. And I feel like that sensibility is something that Viva and I share.

The Daily Swarm: Another thing that was really interesting about your Sugar Hill show was the fact that Ghe2o Goth1k was on the bill, which brought together a couple of scenes in New York that are separated by race, class, age and gender.

Viva Ruiz: I can’t remember if Venus [X of Ghe2o Goth1k] and I had worked together by then. I do know that I loved her so much already. I’m a big fan of Venus and $hane and all these kids in New York – new generations coming up right now making these new scenes. I think it’s very natural for us to broach that divide. It’s easy to loop in people that are doing interesting things outside of the usual places. What’s cool about New York right now is I feel like the nightlife and the club scene is opening up, and in places that don’t look like nightclubs, because the cops are everywhere basically [laughter].

The Daily Swarm: Opening up in which way: musically? The audience?

Viva Ruiz: Yeah, and even just location. Everything comes around again: you hear about parties that used to be in lofts. There was a period of time when it was all bottle service, to cater to the elite – that is dead. Who do you know that would go to that right now? There are exciting parties that straddle art and music – artists that are not represented, making stuff and dancing. There is something in the primordial ooze again in New York that’s exciting and undefined. It starts to get defined, and then it breaks apart again. Maybe it’s in the whole spirit of Occupy. And to collaborate with these people is a very natural impulse, to be connected and to be in community with people expressing themselves. Black and Latino youth doing great things out there in music; a lot of young women are taking bold steps right now. Wherever I see that, I am going to shine a light.

Women of color are underrepresented, so any time I get a chance I will call attention to them, because I know what that feels like personally. I started making these Spanish soap-opera videos, and Venus was in one. Something hit a nerve with people in a lot of the feedback that I got. There’s something important about seeing yourself represented in the media, and women and people of color still are so not seen. In 2012! Honey Redmond [aka Honey Dijon], an incredible DJ and a friend of mine, she posted where DJ Magazine listed the top 100 DJs and there’s not even one woman on that list – and, like, two black people. [Ed.: actually one – Carl Cox] So we’re not in a post-racial, feminist world. For scenes like Ghe20 G0th1k, for crews like House of Ladosha, of which I’m a big fan, it’s whoever of us has the opportunity to be listened to, to talk about them. I feel like we’re here making music, but also to make a dent.

Gavin Russom: Yeah, to just change the volume of things. The mix is a little out of balance. At this point, I have to look at it as a continuation of colonialism, because my experience is that there are two New Yorks – and probably many more, but if we’re just talking about nightlife… Maybe it’s because now we’re in this cultural moment where what was largely thought of as a European scene – disco or electronic dance music – is looked at as mainstream entertainment. Yet both of those things came out of a very ecstatic, very diverse, very community-oriented scene in New York, as well as other places. I go out and find that still exists: young people of all kinds, ages, diverse backgrounds, diverse genders, diverse gender roles, expressing themselves in a natural way that is beautiful and contemporary, real, meaningful, spiritual, political. I see that happening, and I experience that. It’s part of my life; it’s part of what I experience. And I see that not just in nightlife, but in daily aspects of life in New York – the way that people live and exist on the street and express themselves. That is happening. At the same time – and it’s largely through my connection to DFA, places I might get booked to DJ, or end up at because somebody I know is playing – I find a scene that, at first, seemed innocent or ignorant of that. Now, I start to think is even a little hostile towards that idea; as a result, that scene is dry, uninteresting, and marginally offensive.

I do think we’re undergoing a massive shift. That’s happening to everybody, to every person, and that’s what’s really beautiful about it. I am very welcoming of that shift, and very joyous to be participating in it. But it changes things and it’s a moment in which change is needed.

The Daily Swarm: Why do you think that is? You already mentioned Occupy. What else is pushing this change along, and where do you see its manifestations?

Viva Ruiz: I think people are poor. The bubble popped – and the people who were under perception that we were a rich society saw otherwise. I live in Williamsburg: all those years after the crash, there were three new condos on my block, then the condos went empty, then there were homeless shelters on certain floors of the condo buildings. The whole thing is bizarre.

Also, I love hip-hop. I grew up in Jamaica, Queens, so my whole right leg is made up of hip-hop [laughs]. But the lyrics always being about money worship and status, and cars – I feel like that perception is being blown up by somebody like Frank Ocean. So for hip-hop to take a turn and branch out that way, for the lyrics to be about something else is an incredible thing, since it’s such a powerful genre of music that everybody listens to. There’s a popping of some perception that wealth is “it” in life, or that New York is made of money.

It’s heartening, especially for those of us who weren’t rolling in money anyway. I remember Justin Bond saying, when the bubble popped, “Aaaaand? We’ve always been struggling. So, now, it’ll get more exciting for us. We know how to live on quarters.” That was a few years ago, and things are opening up. It’s just sad the brainwashing that continues to happen in people, to acquire and acquire and acquire. It’s not a real dream anymore, it’s not the American Dream; it’s a false-hood.

The Daily Swarm: Do you think that the increased realization among the young is part of the so-called 2012 moment? The particular date on a calendar is in front of us, but that social reckoning seems to already be under way.

Gavin Russom: Having followed the idea of 2012 for a while, one of the first things I came across was a late-night radio broadcast around ’97: it was an explanation not from the Mayan tradition, but from the Native American tradition. It describes the process as the tearing away of the illusion and the lie. The illusion is that anyone else can tell you what you need, and the lie is that you are able to judge others as better or worse than yourself. I feel like those are the things that motivate the highly achievement- and motivation-based versions of capitalism. Advertising is based around somebody telling you what you need. That’s how it works. You see something in a magazine, you feel bad about yourself, you think, “If I had this thing, I’d feel batter.” Those things are very different if each person has inside of themselves the ability to determine what they need. It’s a very different kind of world, which I think is emerging through things like Occupy, which is individuals working things out as a collective, and has no larger rubric. I feel like a lot of the things that have allowed or motivated white colonial culture to continue are all falling apart. Those things are no longer working.

Viva Ruiz: It’s a very exciting time to be in New York – to be alive anywhere. We have privileges here, I am very aware, like clean water – for now. I want to be of service. We’re here to be of service in music, however. And we’re having fun.

The Daily Swarm: A few months ago, I saw both of you sneaking out at the end of a screening of Terence McKenna and Ram Dass lectures. So I must ask, have psychedelics contributed to your worldviews and pathways towards a creative space?

Viva Ruiz: I’ve taken my share, but I never got anywhere with that. Mine have always been, literally, accidental experiences in the Amazon with shamen. I have a dear friend whom I met in NYC when she was a visiting punk from Oakland but who had grown up in Ecuador, and eventually ended up going back and making it her home. Her and her brother Jonathon Miller Weisberger fell in love with the Ecuador and the peoples in the Amazon and both pretty naturally became activists, and cultural conservationists. I was invited one time out there for a tribal meeting of the Secoya peoples who use Ayahuasca as a central part of ceremony. The strange thing was that after being offered it in the end they did not have enough for me, but I had a sympathetic vision anyway. The next day, they explained to me that a neighboring tribe has the same rituals without ingesting anything: it’s all ceremony-induced, so I feel like that’s more my path. I feel like those ideas are very much a part of my life, but due to a lot of dream work.

Gavin Russom: I took LSD for the first time when I was 14, by myself. I did not know what it was, and had the experience where the volume was turned up on something that was already there. I certainly was not the same after that; I am not sure the volume ever got turned back down. That said, I have not done that much – I am not a Terrence McKenna-type person. The flipside is that those experiences always came with a lot of terror ,and a feeling that things could slip out of control very easily – that I could lose my mind. And there was a point at which psychedelics stopped doing anything for me. I’ve certainly had more powerful experiences and visions and communications in other ways.

There’s this thing that Ram Dass says: “Psychedelics are useful for certain kinds of people, because it allows them to see what the possibility is.” I remember coming up on a psychedelic mushroom trip one time, a moment when everything was feeling so alive and beautiful and full of patterns, and I heard a very strong voice say, “This is what things are always like, but you never have the time to notice it.” I think that’s true. Over the past five years of my life, I’ve been having the experience of life being more and more like that. I’m more aware of this constant beauty, richness, and intensity of life all the time. I’m always grateful that I had the experience of being slammed when I was a kid, out of nowhere, to have whatever programming you have in your mind shaken up. Take the puzzle and “whoooo” [makes a motion of throwing many pieces up in the air, laughs].

The Daily Swarm: You both espouse a pretty radicalized worldview. How do you reconcile your beliefs with folks on the other side of the divide – the non-believers – some of whom enable your creativity?

Viva Ruiz: What’s useful for me is to take my own medicine and see myself the same as everybody else, because it can be tempting to be righteous, and pretend to be better than people. Everybody’s playing their parts perfectly here. I know that when I play music, when I dance, part of my ritual is to be clear of my intention. It is sharing. I want to play with people, so there’s a celebration aspect. I’m encoding everything I make with some peace propaganda; whether or not people get it overtly is not my business.

Gavin Russom: I take the approach of healing in a very humble way – first off, healing myself. I am the same: a person who has personal, cultural and ancestral scars that need to be healed, and that if they’re not healed, cause me to do strange harmful things to myself and other people. There’s also that idea of openness. It becomes tricky, too, because there’s so many boxes that culture as a whole can put you in, that diminish or belittle what you do; to posit that it’s just some weird thing – as opposed to think it’s something that merits investigation.

But part of what I do is make a living. It’s all a daily practice, to stay within all of those borders, some of which are contradictory, maybe even mutually exclusive. It’s a day-to-day practice to look at myself as the person who is in need of healing and education, to be growing as a person in the world, and then presenting something to other people for their entertainment consideration. Because having a good time and being the conduit for other people having a good time is up there in terms of cultural values for me [laughs]. I don’t want to feed people candy all day long, but it’s a balance of a million different things, which I am trying to do my best to keep in balance.

The Daily Swarm: And so, any conclusions on what happens December 21st, 2012?

Viva Ruiz: I was really into the Greek definition of apocalypse. To uncover…

Gavin Russom: …The lifting of the veil.

Viva Ruiz: Well, if that’s what it means, then it’s accurate. I believe that.

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