[Brian Russ with "Backwords"]
It’s no secret anymore that Brooklyn is the new spot for emerging artists. Some have called it an invasion, but really, in the windows of the old factory buildings there is a new sort of production abuzz. Ironically enough, Backwords’ first album is titled Factory Angels, and is a tribute to the sweeping changes in American landscape and sound. Songwriter Brian Russ’s music is an emulation of his own experiences—from volunteering on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, to teaching computers in Crown Heights, to moonlighting as a musician. The band is headlining their first show at Southpaw this Thursday, 5/1. He speaks to GofG about Brooklyn, music’s pending revolution, and why the 60’s are a state of mind.
Why do you spell your name wrong? Well our cosmic spiritual healer friend, Jenelle, once got a tattoo sewn on the center of her back. The tattoo simply said, "is" and it completely blew my mind. What an amazing word - "is." Humans do so many great things. By the nature of our being we define the word "is." So I thought, "words on a person's back... Yes, that's right - backwords!" Plus it reminded me of the way the Beatles misspelled their name on purpose.
Where does the inspiration for your music come from? At this point our music is inspired by a strange combination of completely desolate places like the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and completely populated places like Brooklyn, New York. In both places there's a certain sense of "belonging to the earth" that hits you like a wet fly swatter to the cheek. Plus there are feelings of total isolation mixed with feelings of total involvement coming through in our songs. I think we live in a unique time in this country where we're on the verge of some huge revolution, but it's not quite here yet - and that seems to be what our songs are about.
Often you liken the spirit of music today to a 1960's kind of feel, why would you say the 60's are reemerging? Change is in the air. You can feel it everywhere. Brooklyn is bustling with art, music, and literature - the likes of which has never been seen or heard before. And it's not just Brooklyn (I just say Brooklyn because I live there) - there are these artistic scenes all across this country that you can feel spreading every time you wake up in the morning. One of these days it's going to explode and we are all going to descend on the Mall at Washington, D.C. and we aren't going to protest or anything, we are just going to have one big dance party televised across the universe. It's like we're entwined in a web of post-post modernist foul-ups and we're ready to be real people again with authentic (and completely inspired) feelings. The 60s are back and this time they're here to stay.
Do you think music is inherently political? Popular musicians have an insane hold on the masses. 20,000 people go see the Rolling Stones in every major U.S. city every single summer and pay $100 to do it. Musicians have power which they can harness and use in any way they see fit. I think music is political when a message needs to get across that the government is hiding. Musicians know how to 'tell it like it is.' Hip-hop is at the forefront. And part of me still believes that John Lennon and Bob Marley were killed by government agencies that feared an open minded, uncontrollable, peaceful society.
Before, the 60's were almost militantly anti-war. These days it seems most Americans are unhappy with the state of things, but few young people are on the streets, protesting. Do you think music has anything to do with the less heightened state of protest we find our young people in?
I do think the times are different in this regard. There have been some great politically charged albums in recent years - but there hasn't been an anthem of sorts, like "Smile on your Brother," or Country Joe and the Fish "I'm Fixing to Die Rag." We have the Gen X lazy blood still flowing through our bodies. Since the 60s we've become obese gas-hogs who take prescription uppers by day and downers by night. Our last anthem was "Loser" by Beck (or maybe "Creep" by Radiohead) and we haven't had anything close since. We're in need of a new spiritual musical leader like this country is in need of a new president. Who's gonna write the next anthem that gets us back on the streets? Every song a musician writes has that potential.
As your day job, you are a computer teacher in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. How does this factor into your life as a musician? Teaching is a very demanding job. I'll come home feeling exhausted - sometimes too tired to even pick up a guitar. But at the same time, teaching keeps me on task in terms of booking shows, arranging band practices, scheduling tours and keeping the business side of things rolling. On days when I only have a short lunch break and I'm on my toes all day, I seem to get an incredible amount of band related work done on the Internet. Teachers are speedy. Teaching seems to fit the life of a musician in that you get out of work by 4 pm everyday, which leaves you just enough time to get out to your gig. But when it comes to waking up at 6:30 in the morning the next day... ouch.
There are thousands of bands in New York. Does frustration over getting heard ever hinder your ability to create quality music? If you stay true to your musical vision and you stick to your gut reactions - you will end up sounding uniquely amazing. That's what Backwords, believes. Yet at the same time, I'll admit we look up "rival" bands from the area and compare numbers of myspace song plays and friend counts. There is an unspoken rivalry with up and coming bands, and I think it exists primarily on the internet. When you actually go out and see other bands, you immediately want to be their friends and do countless shows with them. We want to be friends with so many bands in our neighborhood - there's so much good music here.
In the digital age, where myspace and i-tunes are where new sounds break through, what is a modern marker of success for an emerging band? I guess "Selling out" isn't what it used to be. A lot of new-ish bands seem to make it by getting a spot on a Volkswagon or Apple commercial. Or on a FOX reality TV show or something. Part of me shudders when I think that's the way things go these days. But I take pride in knowing that we haven't sold ourselves out yet. When push comes to shove - will you hear Backwords on a Bud Light commercial? I don't think I can answer the question. Neil Young is like the angel on one shoulder who says, "Don't do it, man." And Jeff Tweedy has the little horns on the other end saying, "But you'll be able to afford your own personal studio loft.."
If you could direct readers to one of your songs, which, and why? There's a song, I'm pretty sure you can hear on both of our websites that encapsulates a lot of the feelings I shared in this email. It's called "Hotels," and it features some ripping soundscaping guitar towards the end. I think that part of that song sums up the times we live in better than any words can.