LCD Soundsystem's return has been categorized by transformation.
Not only in terms of bandleader James Murphy's much mulled-over decision to reform the legendary band, but in synth and percussion player Gavin Rayna Russom's decision to come out as a transgender woman while the group is at the height of public visibility. An official member of the band since 2010's then-apparent swansong, This Is Happening, Rayna is an accomplished artist in her own right. She's released a handful of darkly propulsive electronica under a few monikers and DJ'd prolifically, both in her home of New York City and abroad.
In anticipation of her show with LCD Soundsystem at CotA and a solo gig DJ'ing at Empire Control Room on Halloween, Strange Inquiry spoke with Gavin Rayna as she hustled through the audibly crowded streets of New Orleans. Throughout our conversation, we discussed her first memories of the Internet, practicing self-care on tour, her vision of the American Dream, and more.
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Do512: What's your very first memory of the Internet?
Gavin Rayna: Woah, that's such a good question. My father was a professor, and my mom worked in the experimental computer lab at Brown University. So when I was a kid, we had a computer terminal in my dad's little study in our house, which looked like it was from the movie 2001. It was like a curved Eero Saarinen device where the keyboard and the screen were all merged into one modern form. I would call on my rotary phone - a giant brown mainframe computer, and then I would put the little phone receiver down on a little modem that was shaped like an old-fashioned rotary phone headset. They were all the same size, and it had two little suction cups that helped with the listening thing and the talking thing. I'd have to dial up a number and wait to hear the little (makes high pitched siren sound) and then I'd put that down and the terminal would come up. It was like, single color display and there were a couple of games that I could play. I was into basic programs. These games that were so, so totally early computer. There was a Star Wars game that was all just made of ASCII characters. These TIE fighters would be coming and far away they'd be a zero with two dashes and a parenthesis and then they'd get closer and get more complex. Everything would be loading up via dial-up from a giant mainframe computer with magnetic tape. There was another game that was like, gladiators fighting that was text-based and you'd type in what move you were going to do and then wait like 10 minutes to find out what happened. That's my first memory of super early online experiences.
A little later, there was, (I think about my cousin all the time because he was a big part of my musical life) and we had this friend named Paul Hect who would, for whatever reason be this kind of big figure because he had this advanced computer when we were 11-years-old. He was on Bulletin Board, which was a precursor to the Internet. So I have these memories of going upstairs and getting on the Commodore 64 and getting onto precursors to chat rooms. We'd learn about Dungeon and Dragons stuff, or electronic music stuff or text chat exchange with other people.
It'd be great to sit a 12-year-old down at one of those old-school computers and watch how impatient they'd be with it.
Gavin Rayna: It's unbelievable. It's almost like the opposite of how people think about online experiences now. That it's so immediate and fast. It was so much slower than real life. (laughs)
It kind of forced you to become more technically proficient at it though?
Gavin Rayna: It's interesting because one of the themes that often comes up when I talk about my music and why I got into synthesizers was this thing of like, wanting to have this experience of interaction with technology in terms of sound. To be in this sort of relationship with the machine, rather than just having an idea and making it do what I wanted it to do. I think it definitely did foster that kind of feeling, of interacting with something and needing to. There was no visual interface -- but, on some kind of middle ground between my intuition and technological perspective on the world. Also, you know, I was a little kid and I'd have to go to the mainframe and drop off punch cards and pick up printouts and shit. Seeing that thing was a pretty cool experience; a computer that takes up a whole building.
Photo Credit: Mark Hornton / Getty Images, Via NPR
As someone who's been tinkering with synths for as long as you have, do they still surprise you? Do they feel boundless?
Gavin Rayna: Yeah, it's interesting. I think 'boundless' is maybe a relevant word, but also a little bit of a funny word because I think I really thrive on its limitations when I'm composing. I think that was the thing about synths that gelled for me, is they were this perfect combination of infinite flexibility, but a lot of limitations, too. Honestly, I've been working with synthesizers for upwards of fifteen years and before that, I was doing a lot of like, proto-synthesis. They totally continue to be full of more territory. In a lot of ways, I feel like I'm just scratching the surface.
Right. It's like if you learn to play guitar really well, you're probably not going to start playing a guitar that has 38 strings next year. But with synths, the parameters seem to be changing still.
Gavin Rayna: I think so, and again I think it's one of the baseline things about synthesizers. As a kid I loved Hendrix, and that music made such an impression on me and there was a period of time when I wanted to be amazing at the guitar. But when I started to get around people who also liked Hendrix, I was like, "I think we like different things about Hendrix." That kind of show-off technical mastery stuff was a bit like, "I'm not into that." First of all, I couldn't do it, I couldn't play in that way. But also, I just didn't think it was that cool.
What's your favorite non-musical sound effect?
Gavin Rayna: For me, I guess everything that makes sound is music. People like Louis & Bebe Barron were merging incidental music soundtrack and like, the sound of a door opening on a spaceship -- that stuff that merged together on Forbidden Planet that shit just blew my mind. The entire movie is like one long composition. That shit is like, deep, deep, deep into my soul now. I'm really into nature, too, so I'm into thunderstorms... Volcanoes? I just watched a documentary on them, so I have volcanoes on the brain.
Photo Credit: Gavin Rayna Russom
Who was the last person you met who you greatly respected, and how did it go?
Gavin Rayna: Meredith Monk, probably. We're also on tour with Big Freedia right now ... I just met Big Freedia like a week ago. I had met her before, in Austin actually, during Stargayzer Festival. That's been amazing. She's a very cool person. Very talented. I get very shy around her. (laughs)
Is she giving bounce lessons?
Gavin Rayna: They're really professional on the road! They show up, do their show, go home and then sleep. It's kind of amazing. She's very sweet. It's incredible to watch her multiple nights in a row, the way she's able to kind of like, work with the energy of her own performance, and the dancers, the crowd. She's a super talented person.
It must be energy overload.
Gavin Rayna: Yeah, it's amazing. It's really very skillful. I also got to meet Meredith Monk, whose work I've admired for a really long time. She's a person who makes incredible art that totally transcends boundaries. She makes music, she creates dance pieces, she makes sounds and usually, those things are integrated together into a performance. I had a crazy experience where I was watching one of her films, and I'd never seen her perform. I looked up on my phone when she was performing next, and I saw she was doing a workshop in a couple weeks. I watched a little bit more of the film and I was like, "I really want to see her perform." So I went a little deeper and found out she was performing that night in my neighborhood. I went from being on my couch and having this fantasy to being three feet away from her in the front row performing for like an hour and a half. Then I met somebody that night who was like, do the workshop, which I did and got to spend the weekend working with her. It was overwhelming, and post that I've done some other stuff with her and her work. Doing the workshop was lifechanging, honestly. Again, I was so shy around her, though. She was just sitting there eating lunch and I was trying so hard not to fan out.
LCD Soundsystem expel so much energy while performing. What's an important step in exercising self-care?
Gavin Rayna: I'm all about that. Right when I graduated Bard where I was studying composition, and I was in this experimental composition program, I had formed a friendship with this guy who was a piano player. He was much more in the classical performance tradition, of becoming very skilled at playing music other people had composed historically. We had this conversation shortly after graduating where he was like, "Oh, so you did this experimental music program, so I feel like maybe you're more interested in sound and that's not really music." Because to him, music was something that was a strict category of what it meant, and I was like, "Well actually, what I think I'm interested in is energy. I think that music and sound are really good ways to work with that in a direct way." It was a thing that just popped out of my mouth when I was like, 21-years-old, but it'd later become what I'm really about. I'm personally a sober alcoholic and drug-addict, and that's a big part of how I practice self-care. I think being on tour is a totally bizarre experience. I try to get enough sleep, eat as healthy as I can, and try to have daily routines. It's important for me to have things that provide structure in my day especially when tour can just be so weird. Every day is exactly the same, but at the same time totally extraordinary and unpredictable. I meditate and do yoga three times a week. I try to spend quality time with close friends outside of the context of being at a show or a club. I try to get out into nature once a week -- that's a really big thing for me. Also, I think it's an intense energetic experience, and it's helpful to find ways to clear that energy and reset either daily or weekly, so I try to do that stuff as well.
It seems like the more interesting people I meet, the theme that unites them is that they all meditate.
Gavin Rayna: It's pretty much the only way that I can deal with anything. You know, because I don't drink. It's the only way to take the edge off, and I'm shiiiiitty at it. I'm terrible at meditating. I've been meditating for a long time and I still haven't gotten much better at it. It still helps and it really does, over time, create this tiny little space between my thoughts and my words and actions and that is a priceless thing.
What's the best compliment you've received recently?
Gavin Rayna: I was DJ'ing at a dance/film event with, Monica Mirabile. It's a super simple thing but, before we started playing, she was like, "Do you know about the drink tickets? And I was like, 'I don't actually'. And she was like, "You probably don't drink, right?" And I was like, 'I don't'. Like, that's funny. She said, "Well, you've been in the game for a long time, and it seems like the kind of thing an intelligent person would do." And I was like, "Wow!"
Photo Credit: | Roger Ho
As part of the band that just released this amazing album, American Dream, can you describe what the American Dream means to you?
Gavin Rayna: It is my belief that most of the things that we're told about America and the 'American Dream' are lies. That the basic purpose of which is to cover up the fact that America is essentially a business venture carried out by small groups of white men with the express purpose of generating a huge amount of wealth and keeping it in their hands. And that most of the slogans and these concepts about the land of the free and stuff are just clever PR and that if one looks with anything like a clear eye at the history of America, it is very obvious that that is what's going on. There are things, particularly Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis and The American Slave Coast by Ned and Constance Sublette are two books that really helped me to clearly see and accept that fact. I think it is challenging to consider any concept of the American Dream, but what I hope for my dream, is that the fact that this horrific colonial project brought together many people of different backgrounds to the same place, (even though the intention of that was to exploit them in various different ways and to exploit the land for its resources), there is a way in which that can come to a productive end. That this economic project can yield and fade to be replaced by an experience in which after a period of reparations and reconstruction, perhaps a new conception of living together on the planet can be forged.
If someone was sitting down and writing the Gavin Rayna biography, what would the title of this chapter be?
Gavin Rayna: Radical Acceptance.
LCD Soundsystem is playing Austin on Halloween, will your dancing be impeded by your costume?
Gavin Rayna: Quite the contrary.
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