Russell, a music industry veteran who formed the Bootheels with Jakob Dylan, at 17, later fronted the Freewhelers, a group that recorded for both DGC and American in the 1990s. Since that time he has released a series of sturdy and consistent solo albums, shared stages with Wilco and Johnny Cash and has toured Europe and other territories with Robyn Hitchcock. He is also a member of Those Pretty Wrongs with Big Star’s Jody Stephens.
It’s fitting, then, that “Deep Feelings”, culled from Medium Cool, carries a Big Star feel while retaining Russell’s particular musical vision. With guitar figures and that could have been laid down by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell on #1 Record and vocals that sound like the ghost Chilton himself, the track emits a waft of hazy innocence and something more libidinous. If rock ‘n’ roll is about danger, there’s plenty lurking in these four minutes.
Russell, speaking from his Los Angeles-area home says, “The idea of the tune was just to have a little bit of fun. It’s about saying, ‘Let’s forget about all the bullshit going on in the world and recognize that we have a connection.’ I wanted the music to reflect that feeling.”
Russell made the album with the help of longtime friends Jason Hiller (bass, co-producer) and Derek Brown (drums). Danny De La Matyr adds vocal harmonies while Liam Hayes (Plush) adds guitar harmonies to “Blue Balloon”. Throughout, Russell and cohorts capture the push-and-pull of youth with the well-tempered tendencies of adult life.
I’ve heard that this record took you by surprise in some ways.
This is one of those albums that was so automatic that I dreaded the day when I was asked about it. I usually understand what’s going on with a record. But this one was pretty automatic. Even the preparation for it with Derek was that way. The first day was just an experiment to see if it was going to work out. Since it did I cut the other side. There wasn’t much discussion.
Is recording usually more labor-intensive?
That used to be. Somewhere around the time that I was living in New York, probably about 10 years ago, I just decided that I would start connecting all the parts that came easy. I’d see if I could turn those into something. It was something that was a little more subconscious. I think I was always that type of writer but I think it’s gotten to the point where that’s more my default setting. This is probably the first album I’ve done where it’s really come together that way.
There’s always a “craftiness” in me that has the need to polish things up and tie things together but in this case, I didn’t do a lot of that. That’s why I kept it in a rock ‘n’ roll vein, because I figured I wouldn’t polish it too much.
I used to sweat making sure things came out in order as a writer: I’d agonize over the perfect introduction to the point that it was crippling. Then, one day, I said, “I can start in the middle.” It was a relief.
What happens is, as you get older, you have more tools at your disposal. At the same time, you have more patience. You also take it a little less seriously. These are all natural progressions. There’s a certain confidence you have to be able to do that, just to trust yourself. If you do something enough you start trusting take one or draft one or idea one.
I love the looseness of the album. I’ve always liked records where you can hear people talking between tracks instead of it always being a completely polished succession of songs.
This was just scorched down to tape. Eighty percent of the vocals and the bass, drums and rhythm guitar were all laid down in two days. What took longer was figuring out what the other guitar would do and what the harmonies would do. All that other kind of stuff: mixing, etc. Most of it was intact in two days.
I owe a lot of that to Derek and Jason, who was not actually supposed to play bass on the record. The night before I went in the original bass player couldn’t make the sessions. Jason was going to engineer. I figured I’d let him off the hook and not make him play bass for once. He just attacked everything at first blush. That’s why I think the bass is so phenomenal on the record.
Just running down the titles for the album, there’s “Can’t Be Sad”, “The Sound of Rock & Roll”, “Corvette Summer”. I don’t know if “carefree” is the right word, but there’s a sense of youthfulness, maybe.
I think there’s a lot of jogging back and forth between past and present. You end up being faced with a certain reality: Here I am now, where has all this lead me? Sometimes it isn’t pretty! [Laughs.]
What was the band you saw that made you say, “I didn’t know this was possible”?
I was taken to a lot of concerts by my parents when I was young. I think, when I was a baby, I was at some outdoor festival where Santana was playing. But from the moment I started thinking, “I’d like to see a show,” I was already playing shows. I was already on the other side of it when I was sixth grade. I played the junior high dance in 1981. The show that probably crystalized it all for me was R.E.M. in ’85 at the Santa Cruz Civic.
I didn’t realize that there that many people who cared about them as much as I did. Of course I pulled myself up to Peter Buck and watched everything that he did. I was about 14. After that I started going to see shows whenever I could. Shit, just being among that much paisley blew my mind. [Laughs.]
I listened to the first Dream Syndicate album so much in my teens. I literally could not get enough of it. I don’t even remember how I got turned onto it. Of course, the king of it all, the pinnacle, was the Replacements. Westerberg was really the spark of, “Oh, I think I could maybe try to do this.” Hendrix talked about Dylan’s voice being permission: “If he can sing, I can sing.” Westerberg was my permission.
You named the album Medium Cool. Is that a nod to the 1969 movie?
[Laughs.] I loved the movie but it’s not really about the movie. I actually don’t recall how it came about. But the idea is: I’m not 25. I’m making a rock ‘n’ roll record. It’s not going to be the coolest thing ever. It’s medium cool.