Personality Clash: Eris Drew x Russell E.L. Butler

Two club figures in conversation…

Eris Drew and Russell E.L. Butler are two deeply individual voices within club culture, exploring vastly different aspects of electronic production.

Yet there’s also a number of similarities there, too; both in terms of their approach – upfront, direct, and above all fun – and their ability to push back barriers placed in their way.

Eris Drew is fresh from the release of new album ‘Quivering In Time’, while Russell E.L. Butler’s schedule is set to criss-cross Europe once more this Autumn.

The two will link for a special one-off set for The Hydra at London’s Drumsheds on November 27th, part of a special line up that also includes Nina Kraviz & Paula Temple, Modeselektor & Special Request, Mala & Moritz Von Oswald, amongst others.

Tickets are on sale now, but ahead of this date Clash invited Eris Drew and Russell E.L. Butler to chew the fat in our regular Personality Clash series.

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Eris: Um, well, I don’t know. I could ask you the question I mentioned to you yesterday. I’m super excited to play with you in a few weeks.

Russell: Oh same I’m fucking tripping out.

Eris: Yeah, me too. I keep having these… I’m projecting or like thinking about what this is gonna be like, or what it’s gonna be like to have that amount of sound and to be doing that.

Russell: Yeah, yeah.

Eris: My first memory of you was in Detroit. I’m honestly not sure what year it was…

Russell: It was El club.

Eris: Yeah!

Russell: During Detroit weekend. It was you and Glenna and Jen. Y’all three and maybe like four other people came to see me. And it was really cool because even though it was such a small show, y’all came to see me to do my thing and then there was this one person, this Black guy, that was a bit older than me, who was from Detroit, but lived in Iowa or some shit now. He knew about my stuff and wanted to see me come play because of the ‘Mode’ video and he brought his sister and brother in law just to be like, ‘yeah,not a whole lot of black people get this kind of recognition or whatever so this is really cool.’ So it was great, I mention this because, I feel like the consistent problem that I at least experience as an artist that I think other people experience fairly consistently is like…walking into microphone and being like, ‘is this thing on?’ Yeah, you know, it’s like, ‘is there anybody listening?’ I’m like putting out the signals or whatever – does that resonate one way or another? Obviously, that was an example of something that really did, it was pretty cool and pretty still significant, you know, in a lot of different ways.

Eris: Yeah, that was, it kind of feels like yesterday, but it felt like a long time ago in a way too. Had you played in Detroit before that?

Russell: So, on that trip – yes. Originally I had this show at El Club booked because some friends from Austin were booking a label showcase. Because I was going out there and I’m close friends with Frankie from Discwoman, I posted that I was looking for another gig and Discwoman was doing an event at this place that like, literally that party closed the venue or like, the Grenadier club was the club. I did like a 30 minute live set in between a couple sets, and didn’t stick around for the end of the party, but heard that, like the cops came at 5am and like, shut down the club for good. And I think this was 2017 (both laugh)

Eris: Yeah, that sounds right.

Russell: Yeah, because the Moogvideo came out…they filmed it in November of 2016. Then the fire happened, and then it came out like February, I think. All of my, road stuff is really interesting, you know, especially given that we’re coming up on the five year anniversary of the Ghost Ship Fire. That I can very easily chart, you know, essentially my professional careers as a musician because this traumatic event meant that I couldn’t work a regular job anymore. I mean, I didn’t want to anyway, and that’s a whole other thing. But yeah, it kind of made it so that I couldn’t really work consistently. So all of my touring, essentially, not a lot, I have toured a little bit here and there, but like all of it professionally, you know, really started after December 2nd 2016. So I met you like six months after that.

Eris: Okay, see I was curious how long before I saw you that night…

Russell: Yeah, I had been some places, you know. I played at a couple Auxilary, South by Southwest things in 2012. I played in New York pretty consistently since like, 2009. It was always like, you know, first I was in school, and then I was working a full time job and just, you know, wherever I could fit it in and like, pretty much covering all my own expenses just to play for fun essentially, whilst also you know, building a career or whatever. It wasn’t really in earnest that I was starting to hit it until, yeah, really January 2017. One of the first things I played was when Trechi? was still helping curate this experimental festival called Corridor. I did a live set there at this old power plant, it was a really sick venue. They put this big old sound system, which I wouldn’t be surprised if it was actually the same or at least in part, the same sound system that you would play on for Tough, but there was a Boiler Room in the power plant and was basically this huge tunnel. It just turned, you know, these like eight or 12 speakers or whatever just turned the room into a big speaker. So I got to do all this crazy low frequency shit, like resonating the room and stuff like that. And also it was one of the first times that I got to play to more than my friends essentially. A lot of the sets I was doing around them were, you know, pretty plugged into what I internally referred to as the ‘ephemeral other’, what you sometimes referred to as the mother be, whatever that channel of life energy that we get kind of caught into. That was, and I’m still in that, for sure in a lot of ways. I’d like to hear from you about this a little bit as well, you know, because, fortunately we are in this world is trans people. Unfortunately, that journey comes with a great deal of hardship and lingering trauma. Not everybody has something as significant as the Ghost Ship Fire, but that definitely pushed me out of the closet to an extent, and it also pushed a lot of people in my scene out. This is obviously very much on my mind, because we’re like a month away from five years so it’s hard to not just to talk about it. I am curious about how your practice artistically, how it’s been, what’s your relationship with trauma within this vessel, how playing combats that? I also don’t want to really lead with this, because even in trying to describe it to you, I’m projecting what it means to me on it. Sometimes, like, in antagonism to the fucked up things that happened to me, sometimes, I don’t want to be defined by them at all. I’m playing to that, you know, sometimes I want to be, I’m imagining this world that doesn’t exist yet in which we just get to live and it’s not, you know, we don’t have to consistently worry about all the ways in which this world tries to make us small. We just get to live, you know. But I’ll let you talk now. Because I think I buffered that pretty well.

Eris: Oh, yeah. I mean, I don’t know….

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Russell: It’s also cool if you don’t want to talk about that because very often, as marginalised people, it’s like ‘oh, let’s try out our trauma to get consumed by people who don’t have our experience’ and, you know, sometimes it’s not an expression of being a whole person, but, you know…I’ll allow you to react.

Eris: Well, I mean, I was just thinking about what you were saying about how you had a very traumatic experience, which in some ways, pushed you out? I mean, I’m paraphrasing, I don’t remember exactly. I had a similar experience of at least having something else creating inertia in my life towards that. Something that didn’t feel very positive, you know, which was just like my own life kind of falling apart. And so, there’s a fair amount of, chaos inside me, I’m pretty, traumatised and upset a lot of times. For me, the music is, really, like how I stay centred in myself and that’s how I’m kind of like, playful in a space where it’s hard to be playful otherwise. I don’t know, it makes me feel stronger somehow. It’s hard to put words around.

Russell: I think that’s kind of a commonality. You know, I had a very similar conversation with ADAB, Miah. We’re all very familiar, you and I are very familiar. So we had some, it was, you know, similar kind of scenario to this where we have, a Zoom meeting that’s being recorded and somebody else is transcribing it for something and they have some questions to help structure the conversation and stuff. One of the questions was, when do you feel most free? I kind of premised it with like, ‘well I kind of don’t know what that is, because of the world that we live in.’ I can kind of imagine what it might be, but I don’t know what… I think the closest thing that I feel, to whatever that might be, is playing. But how I also have to recognise the problematic nature in that, because to an extent, I’m also saying that I feel most connected to myself and most grounded or most connected to other people, when I’m working. For context, you know, I’m absolutely a political radical and progressive, I don’t know, where I lie on the political spectrum, probably closest to an anarcho communist. Within that, I don’t want to be defined by my work, by my labour, by work I mean my labour, my physical labour. It’s what I have to do to survive, it’s what I have to do to keep the lights on, to keep my belly full of food, to keep electricity so that I can continue to make work that can be put into the commodity exchange, that is the music business. Essentially, just so I can continue to live with a certain level of comfort on this plane of existence. Feeling feeling free, I don’t associate that with physical, with being a physical labourer. Especially being black and having the ancestral experience of my ancestors being enslaved in multiple countries and continents, within the Western Hemisphere and beyond. So the context in which I feel free isn’t, not to say that I won’t use my body to do physical labour in some other kind of way, in this idealised world in which we don’t have to create value for somebody else. I think this speaks to the struggle that I mentioned earlier about being an artist where you feel connected and spirit, but then you in order to facilitate your ability to do this thing, you have to enter this world of commodities and then the waters get pretty murky after that, but you go ahead.

Eris: Well, I mean, just listening to what you’re saying, it makes me actually want to bring up DJ AutoPay. When I think about how it feels to be on your dance floor and hear you play ‘Keep On Talking Shit. This is based around, and I’m going to do very little editorialising here, just to say this, “All I Do” by Stevie Wonder o is a really beautiful song. And the sample is beautiful in your song but there’s also this sort of truth of the situation that you’re finding yourself in playing the song for, like, soundtracking in some sense, some bullshit. I mean, I found that really cathartic on the dancefloor. I love the song, but I was here you hear you talk.

Russell: Yeah. So I mean, that project came out of I mean, that recording itself is my first successful attempt at a remix. There’s other stuff that I tried to make that people will not hear because it is not good. The way that I typically work producing in the studio is is, very rare, the samples might still be on the sampler, but the sequencing is not, I overwrite stuff all the time. If I’m recording something, I don’t want to perform it live typically, unless I’m DJing it. For that project, it comes very much out of wrestling with this experience of commodities where the more you DJ, the more you have, at one point or another, if you’re, especially if you’re a producer and a DJ, and you work within the realm of electronic music and I include hip-hop within the context of electronic music, then inevitably you’re going to have to decide whether or not you’re going to sample music. Very often the problems within that are not as readily considered by the people who are making these things, especially typically white, cis normative people. There’s this pervasive attitude that anything can be owned or anything can have somebody’s signature stamp on it, regardless of what the cultural meaning might be to somebody else, or what the historical significance of some thing might be, or whether or not the person who created this thing to begin with was exploited by the system that was able to make it happen. You know, I think a lot about Loleatta Holloway, in this kind of case. A lot of people talk about the Funky Drummer break, a lot of people talk about the Amen break, but not a lot of people talk about Loleatta Holloway. She is the one of the most sampled female vocalists of all time, unfortunately she passed away in her 50s or 60s and if you were to hear the things that she sang on, you would hear the fat many 1000s of songs that have utilised her voice, I’ve got.

Eris: It’s hard to imagine house music without her voice. I mean, really, Unknown 100, 1,000,000%. The ways in which Black women are consistently exploited within this white supremacist, capitalist heteronormative patriarchal system. I can’t help but think that that’s fucked up. And that’s me, you know, do I and will I play tracks that sample her voice? Yes, because it’s complicated. Have I played many tracks that involve samples that I didn’t even know about? The thing is that we need to, and I also recognise that myself as an individual within my own practice, I can’t possibly solve this problem, but it’s one that I have been engaged with from the very beginning. In the context of something like Detroit techno, a lot of those guys were super specific about not utilising samples. When you think about the fact that people like Jeff Mills and Matt Mike, and many others were session musicians at a time, they constantly saw their their labours be exploited by others, and be completely extracted and divorced from their bodies as Black people. That kind of erasure, a lot of people don’t consider that it is a form of death that leads to our death which is why I talk about it in such intentional and serious terms. This being said, it took me a while to get to re-mixing or to get to engaging with this problem in a way that felt comfortable to me. DJ AutoPay, the name initially came up because a close friend of mine, Sky, Ben Versluis, who mixed my second Black Jeans record, he put out my first Black Jeans Tape. We’ve been friends for a long time, we used to have a techno duo together. We initially were going to try and do a joint project that was just gonna be remixes and songs about weed.

Eris: Black Tourmaline was your work with Ben. Yeah, yeah. So that’s the that’s the album that he helped me mix. That’s the one vinyl record of it that is pretty hard to come by. They’re only 100 made, that’s 100% another story. But yeah, all of this, fractalizes you know. Typically, I’m also a person that contains a great deal of chaos and this is one of the ways in which it manifests. One thing leads to 15 others. So we originally were going to do a joint project where we would just do songs that were remixes or were about weed, very much in the spirit of like, DJ Topcat ‘I Need Weed In My Life.’ My name was DJ AutoPay and his name was DJ Normal Cool Guy, which to me is still one of the best DJ names ever. I hope eventually he makes tracks under DJ Normal Cool Guy because it just makes me think of that meme of the guy at the party standing in the corner. You know, being like, ‘oh, they don’t know this.’ I do something light hearted that wasn’t you know, this series techno stuff where we were trying to get signed or get bookings or whatever else, something that was just fun but it took me a few years really to make, ‘Keep Talking Shit’. Part of this was because I wanted to approach remixing in a way that was still considered mimetic culture. When remixes were first conceived of and then popularised, though they were a party to mimetic culture, memes did not exist in the way that we consider them to be memes now. So, if I was to be a person who did remixes under this moniker, I would want them to consider this kind of mimetic form of communication. I was just watching this interview between Zack Fox, who’s a musician and comedian, and Thundercat, who’s a musician and comedian and they’re close friends, they’ve been on tour together a bunch of stuff, and they’re just like, shooting the shit. It’s for a podcast that Zack was doing for a while and Thundercat tells the story about playing…fuck, this is a way in which like, meaning and things change, but like Dave Chappelle, you know, questionable relationship with that man now, but Dave Chappelle had a benefit concert and Thundercat was playing with his brother in a band that was backing up Stevie Wonder. Stevie was having a great time and started riffing on his own songs and so they were playing ‘All I Do’, and he started singing that line over the course of ‘All I Do’. I immediately heard the track in my head, so I just clip that off of YouTube, threw it in the audio track, put some drums under it and I couldn’t stop laughing. I’ve never had that reaction to creating something before where I think this is the funniest shit ever, I hope that somebody else does, too. I immediately started sending it out to friends just being like ‘Hey, am I crazy? Or is this the funniest shit you’ve ever heard?’

Eris: It’s fun but also a really amazing song too. That’s the thing, these are these mimetic party tracks that have this something else though too.

Russell: Yeah, totally. The humour helps it penetrate in this other way. It’s unexpected, because at first, the vocal is just so dissonant and then when the sample comes in, I’ve seen this many times on a dance floor now, the sample comes in it’s like ‘wait, what!’

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Eris: It’s very interesting because it could feel menacing, but it can feel sweet at the same time. It’s so interesting.

Russell: Yeah, totally, because it is really light hearted as well but it’s serious. It’s like don’t disrespect me. Then the second track ‘More Fem, More Masc’, that was in a similar…the thing that I try to do that is difficult the older you get, and the more constructed your processes become as an artist is doing things that make you uncomfortable. That track, I made it at a time when I was at one of my lowest points during lock down. I didn’t realise it until when I was mixing it, like, ‘oh, I need this,’ more than anybody else. It’s been a while since I’ve made something that wasn’t so considerate of like…you know, it’s always going to be me, I’m not making concessions, but there is a consideration of how this will be received, because that just comes with experience. Eventually people talk, or you release music and people are like ‘oh, this thing meant a lot to me or this thing’ or whatever, they play your stuff, and it connects more people, whatever. I hadn’t done track with my own book, because a lot of people think that the vocal on ‘Keep Talking Shit Is Me’ Which is…

Eris: I wasn’t sure, but I was curious.

Russell: So to do this track, which is also, aside from the Funky Drummer break, it doesn’t contain, any samples from a song, it’s all just, it’s all interpolation. The melody itself, the melody is interpolation, and then the vocal cadence that I’m utilising, it is an interpolation of the interpolation of ‘Fast Car’ by Tracey Chapman. That is a way in which the level of memetics like kind of cascades. That’s the perfect scenario, which is why it’s also difficult and taking me a while to make these tracks because it just this idea that when it settles in my brain, it’s just completely succinct, it’s already done. It’s just a matter of going through the motions of making the thing. Whereas the other stuff that I make is very much, I’m as present with the making process as the music coming out of the speakers is, each thing that I’m hearing in real time, I’m going to eventually make the decision of whether or not it’s going to be in the track. These Autopay tracks, it’s like 70% of the structure is already done in my head, I just have to make it. It just occurred to me, singing it in my own head and then I put it down and then you know, I played it for the first time Mix Sunday? with BOYS II THEM.

Eris: Was that the first time you played it for a dance floor? I didn’t realise that!

Russell: That was the first time that I played it in front of people. And that’s part of why, and also I hadn’t listened to it in a few months at least…

Eris: Music needs a cooling.When I record a work of music, I need a little cooling period before I can hear it as a piece instead of the pieces.

Russell: Yeah, totally because then there are also things, what I tend to find once a track ages is all the things that I didn’t hear when I was making it. When it comes to effects processing stuff because all the delays and stuff I use are mostly to create ghost notes or these underlying other rhythms that you know, kind of up the rhythmic content of the song whatever. So sometimes you don’t hear the undertones or the ways in which certain harmonics interact with each other. If you’re working on a track for a few hours, you’ll wear your ears out, so you’re just not going to hear certain things. 

Eris: Plus there’s that whole interaction with the sound system in the room too which is gonna give it a whole different life because that’s what we’re ultimately making these songs for. I don’t know if you know this artist called DJ Equalizer and he’s from Baltimore. He made like these very, I guess he would say very direct bass and breaks records. To hear that song, it was like a lullaby made this in this kind of style.

Russell: Well, the thing is, with Baltimore specifically, I haven’t heard DJ Equalizer but I do have some Baltimore records. That stuff is hyper regionalised music, not a lot of people outside of the Northeast ever really even get their hands on it besides some of the bigger names who went on to do other things or whatever, because so many of the things exist just on records. That’s absolutely a space that I would look at in terms of the freedom in working in a state of simplicity, because it might just be a brake, a bass boom, and a weird vocal or a weird sample flip and it’s the sickest party track you ever heard.

Eris: I guess as a trans person too, hearing it over and over again, the hypnoticness of it. Dancing and listening to the song at a club was an experienceg where I felt different at the end than at the beginning, if that makes sense.

Russell: Totally. Especially when the vocal comes in and, admittedly I’m not the best vocal performer but I wanted to capture that, I wanted to capture this, where you can feel like the desperation. I was so afraid. All of this is to say, similar to the Autopay track, I had this experience of like, ‘this is so funny, I need to share it,’ this was like, ‘I’m afraid.’ I haven’t had that experience as an artist in a long time where I was just so afraid, because it’s my voice, it’s this content in which I’m being out in a way that I haven’t experienced before. As I said, you know, when I played it at Mx Sunday? And I hadn’t listened to it in a while it, it hit me at that moment, how down bad I was when I made it, how fucked up I felt, and how I didn’t feel like that anymore. So yeah, with this in mind…Drumsheds!

Eris: Oh, my God. Yeah.

Russell: It’s hard to envision what that’s going to be like, but I’m really excited because I feel like it’s a kind of sum total of our friendship thus far.

Eris: Yeah, that’s what I felt like too. I’m grateful for the various ways in which my life’s intersected with yours, I thought about them a lot before we talked today. I really trust having this moment with you, and the strength of your playing and what I think we can do together. Just for the sake of people reading who don’t know, your set with Miah, adab, BOYS II THEM, that was so much what DJing is, should be and could be. That was incredible, that was my first time being with people after quarantine and to see you two in control, in that space. It’s hard to put words around, but it meant a great deal to me, and I hold that with me all the time.

Russell: I’m just excited that afterwards Miah texted me and was like ‘yeah, I think we should do that again sometime,’ I was like ‘dawg, we just do this now. What are you talking about? That was a question!? You thought we weren’t gonna do this like, no, let’s just rip the band aid off?’ But it’s also so Miah too, right. It’s like, ‘yeah, you know, I experienced something really great, might not ever happen again but we’ll see.’ You’re like, ‘no, we’re going to make this happen again. I will make this happen again.’

Eris: All right, well cool. 

Russell: It’s gonna be a lovely time.

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Eris: Yeah. I keep thinking about, I actually had a session last night over here, I was playing Maya a record and I was like ‘this one, this one’ because I’m going to have those special tracksfor us to play. I just keep thinking, ok, here I’m doing this with my friend and we are going to be playing on such a loud system, what is really going to penetrate people on that system.

Russell: Totally.

Eris: And you’re someone who’s always telling stories and narratives and you’ve talked about memetics and I mean, that’s something I’m doing in my own ways, not to draw too close a comparison to what you’re doing.

Russell: Draw that comparison there homie! We’re connected, at least for us, we are not afraid to admit that we influence eachother. So these are ways in which I have been influenced by you, for example, the Dusk Til Dawn party. That party was simultaneously ‘I’ve never seen this before’ but it’s also ‘I know exactly what this is and how I can do it.’ It was transformative and so affirming, all the records that I was so scared to play, that’s who you are, play that shit. If this person can do the most with this fixed amount of media, you’ve already got this. To have had many affirming experience since then that that lesson helped propel me into, it just feels like the inevitable place that we’d end up playing together. Just the fact that it’s in such extreme circumstances is something that… I think I’ll calm down about it once we get into the booths. Otherwise, I don’t really get nervous but I definitely am a pretty anxious person sometimes about certain things.

Eris: I am too, it’s like a scene in a science-fiction movie, where they’re about to shoot you into space and you’re like ‘shit, ok.’

Russell: We’re the two trans girls that got cut from Armageddon.

Eris: Yeah, exactly!

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