The Persistence of Melody

When one thinks of places where a creative soul might seek out inspiration, Florida doesn’t usually top the list.

Known for its aesthetic involving flamingos, velvety black light posters and breast implants, the Sunshine State is often seen by New Englanders as a warm, low-tax place to tuck away old people, and at worst as a lawless haven for drug smugglers and terrorists learning how to fly airplanes—not to mention a spawning ground for new strains of staphylococcus and invasive pet pythons.

However, amidst the skyscrapers of Miami and the tiki bars of its outlying reaches, a passion for the visual is quite evident in the numerous museums, galleries, and the annual Art Basel event, which encompasses most of them in some way.

So there it was that Massachusetts native Russell Brooks found himself reworking his muse once again for a couple of years, infusing what was already a solid firmament of musical and literary joie de vivre with a shot of Dali, Picasso and Goya. Known best to Valley residents as “Lord Russ,” late of the rock band The Aloha Steamtrain, Brooks was always both a consumer and creator of all things psychedelic—albeit with the addition of a bravado-laden kick acquired from an equally zealous absorption of glam rock icons like T. Rex and David Bowie. So melting into the hot tub of surrealism came as naturally to him as it might to a pocketwatch in “The Persistence of Memory.”

Brooks’ newest solo effort, Heir of Mystery, clearly reflects a deepened exposure to moods, colors and perspectives that only an art history major might truly appreciate. The Advocate spoke to the Lord in advance of his upcoming CD release show for the aforementioned album.

Valley Advocate: Are you reveling in the joys of winter once again?

Lord Russ: I am loving this so much. There’s nothing I like more than having my toes freeze off, my fingers turn white and my entire body fill with dread for going outside. I love it. Actually, no, I don’t like it at all. I miss the tropics and want to be there all the time, though it’s not so bad out right now.

Do you still have a working motorcycle?

I do not. I sold it before we went down to Florida, which would’ve been the perfect place for it, of course. I would like to have one again.

What was living in Florida like for you? You had a regular Elvis gig [Brooks has been known to pay some bills doing an Elvis Presley act] down there, correct?

I had some Elvis gigs at some fancy hotels down there, but mostly I was working on this new album, which I started down there.

Your new album is almost experimental compared to a lot of your former pop-driven stuff. What were your chief inspirations?

Well, I’ve kind of been inspired by some new music like Ariel Pink, Of Montreal and MGMT that my wife, Perry, turned me on to. There’s also a lot of my long-time influences from things like ’70s glam rock, Bryan Ferry/Roxy Music, David Bowie, and back into some old Pink Floyd and Moody Blues—but there’s also a lot of drum beats, drum machines.

And there’s the inspiration from a lot of art that isn’t music. Perry and I went to Art Basel in Miami for a couple years in a row, where we saw some amazing things, things that inspired me to incorporate a lot more surrealism into my music—paintings in general. In fact, there’s a song on the album called “Crivelli,” named after an Italian artist from the 1400s who did this amazing painting of St. George slaying a dragon, and of course being “Lord Russ”—I was inspired to name myself that when I was 13 because I thought that I had been King Arthur in another life—when I see these medieval art things, it sort of haunts me, as if I were there, you know?

I never knew that was the origin of “Lord Russ.” I had always thought it was just some nickname you’d landed in college or something.

No, no, no. Junior year of high school I started signing all my papers that way, and the teachers thought I was absolutely nuts, and they were right.

You played everything yourself?

I did. My friend gave me a lot of software to record with, and I’m kind of a Luddite, so it took me a while to straddle the learning curve, but it’s got any keyboard I could want. I mean, there are live keyboards on it too, but there are all these Mellotrons—on some tracks there are like 10 Mellotrons playing haunting melodies. So, yes, I played everything on it, got to experiment with a bunch of drum machines, which I’d never really done before, and it was all really interesting.

So you also did all the recording and mixing?

Yes, I did. I’ve always liked recording at home the best, in my bedroom, even. The last Aloha Steamtrain album was done in my bedroom [except for] the drums, [which] Frank Padellaro recorded in his studio. Mark Miller at Sonelab did the mastering on Heir of Mystery, and Dan Richardson gave me a lot of tips for mixing, but, yeah, I pretty much did it all myself, and I’m proud of that because I love the way it sounds.

It seems like the heavily neo-psychedelic material on the record might lend itself well to a video or two. Have you done any work on making one?

Actually, I have. My same friend who gave me the recording software also gave me some video software, which finally a few months ago I decided to try out, and I made a video for “Love Song Trilogy,” which is one of the more rocking songs on the album. There are actually a lot of rockers, sort of Ziggy Stardust hard rock, kind of glam.

I can hear T. Rex in there.

Yeah, T. Rex. That’s why I shy away from calling it a purely psychedelic album. Let’s say modern psychedelic glam rock. Or even futuristic psychedelic glam rock, but… what was the question again?


Right. I don’t want to give anything away about the Iron Horse show, but I’ve been diving into the video pretty hardcore and there will be some live elements. It will be a multimedia extravaganza, and people will get their money’s worth, for sure.

You were also recently featured in an art magazine in L.A. What was that about?

It’s a magazine called (t)here, and they do this thing once a year called “One Day of Art.” They have a whole bunch of artists come together in a city and give them a theme, then they have 24 hours to execute art based on the theme that they picked, which is secretive, so no one knows what they’re getting. It’s like drawing straws. I was the first musician that they had do it for the magazine, because it’s a visual magazine, but it was great, they flew us to L.A., put us up in… [after a while we determine that the hotel was the historic Hollywood Roosevelt]… Anyway, the great thing was that when Perry and I got in the room, above the bed there was a giant poster of Syd Barrett, so we knew we were in the right spot then. It was great—I picked “silence” as a theme, so I wrote two songs, one on ukulele and one on guitar, and presented them the next night at this strange art studio, and then it turned into an all-night affair.

Do you have a backing band playing with you for the CD release?

I do. I’ve put together a new band for this but we’re also using some live tracks, because, well, you’ve listened to the album and, as I said, it’s very, very lush with the 10 Mellotrons and all, and I would be sad if I couldn’t be surrounded by those 10 Mellotrons, even on stage. So we’ll have some backing tracks, with a core that’s a live band. Brian Jones—ha, Brian Jones. Yeah, we’re going to give him electro-shock therapy to wake him up.

He’s not gonna smell good.

[Laughs] No, he’s not gonna smell good, but then, he never did. No, but anyway—Brian Marchese on drums, Jason Bourgeois on bass and keyboards, and this beautiful young whippersnapper named Grant Wicks, who’s a phenomenal guitar wizard. And of course, I’ll be playing some guitar and singing.

Have you been collaborating with anyone in other ways?

No. I do everything by myself. Which is kind of how I feel sometimes. No, I haven’t actually been doing too much collaboration. We’re learning the album from start to finish, because it’s a concept album. As far as collaboration goes, I’ve never played well with others, I guess. I mean, I have, but I don’t tend to collaborate. I tend to create best when I’m holed up and reclusive, which I am now that I’m not going out all the time.

What have you got planned for the upcoming year?

I’m looking to get us gigs, set up a tour, really, for the United States, but mostly I’m concentrating on Europe for this. I think this album… I mean, I think America would like it, but I think Europe would love it. It’s juste_SEmDthey get the arts there more, you know? I think the overall cultural intelligence of Europe is a little higher.•

Lord Russ performs at a CD release party for Heir of Mystery Feb. 23, 10 p.m., $8/advance, $10/door, Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center St., Northampton, (413) 586-8686, The Chandler Travis Philharmonic completes the surrealist party.

Author: Tom Sturm

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