Interview with John Russell

Nov 24, 2020

The improvising guitarist and organiser talks to Stewart Smith

Interview with John Russell

Active since the late 1960s, John Russell is one of the most original guitarists in improvised music. Fusing post-Webern atonality with harmonics, percussive tones and swing era comping, few players have done as much to extend the language of the acoustic guitar. Over the years he’s collaborated with a who’s who of improvisers: Evan Parker, Roger Turner, John Butcher, Maggie Nicols, Toshinori Kondo, Henry Lowther, Steve Beresford, Thurston Moore and Henry Kaiser.

Since 1991, he’s run Mopomoso, London’s longest running improvised music club. Short for Modernism, Post-Modernism, So What?, Mopomoso eschews dogmatic approaches to improvisation. Regular performers include Maggie Nicols, Alexander Hawkins, Hannah Marshall, Olie Brice, Kay Grant and Phil Minton, but the club is always open to new voices. Since the first lockdown, the Mopomoso community has continued its activities online, with a digital platform broadcasting since July..

In January, Russell received a terminal cancer diagnosis. Due to the pandemic, he has been shielding at home, only venturing out for hospital visits. Yet he has continued to make music, connecting with other musicians online and participating in GIO’s regular Zoom sessions. For GIOfest XIII, he’s recorded a beautiful solo piece with his 1933 Epiphone Masterbuild Blackstone, a rare and fragile model that brings out the humanity in his playing.

­Perhaps we could start off with you telling us a little bit about your background. You entered improvised music quite early on - you were still in your teens when you first played John Stevens’ Little Theatre Club.

John Russell: That’s right. Well, actually I never knew my mother. My father was a bully who I saw once a year and I was brought up by his parents who were very nice, kind people. My great grandma was still alive. So it was a kind of Victorian upbringing, you didn’t have a flushed lavatory, it was a bucket which was taken out once a week and buried in the fields. So it was a very different kind of upbringing from most people, but it instilled my love of nature and Romney Marsh where I come from.

And when I went to the local grammar school there was a kid in my year had a guitar and he was playing with older kids, you know, so during the monthly trip to town to get provisions, my grandfather didn’t buy shoes, they bought me a guitar. And so that was it. It was a good time, 1966, it’s the beat boom and everything, and John Mayall, and blues coming across and all the rest. So that just took over my life really and schoolwork went by the way.

I left school at 15 and worked for the local chicken farm in the village, because I didn’t want a career, I wanted to play guitar. And by the time I was 17 I’d been to Little Theatre Club, I’d played at Ronnie Scott’s for the Musicians Co-Op and things like that because I’d got interested in free improvisation through something Robert Fripp had said in Melody Maker.And I was chasing up Sonny Sharrock actually. I met Derek Bailey and he gave me guitar lessons in conventional technique for a year, which was really important for me. And he was the ideal guy to do it - he was a session musician, he was in the Russ Conway Trio, backed Gracie Fields, Opportunity Knocks all that sort of stuff. So that was a good way of extending my knowledge of the guitar, rather than learning from the older kids at school and listening to records and trying to copy them by ear. I also met a guy called Robin Musgrove who’d been in the first year and he was instantly recognisable. And he was having lessons from John Stevens. John, being a great proselytiser, said come play at the Little Theatre Club, and Robin introduced me to a drummer called Dave Soloman. And we played the Little Theatre Club and I borrowed a stack to take up five flights of stairs, Grimshaw Les Paul, and Dave battering ten sides of hell out of a very old drumkit. I think we played opposite People’s Liberation Music, which was a very strange gig.

And so then I moved to a place called Kings Langley, which is between Watford and Hemel Hempstead, and I was working as a farm labourer and coming into London at weekends, and sleeping on people’s floors and just hanging out on the music scene. And when I got a chance I moved to London, and I didn’t know anything about social security or anything, as I say, coming from a very odd background I was trying to live off doing a paper round. I was working one morning a week as a stripper - not what you would think but in a poultry shop stripping the furniture! I decided I didn’t want a career in anything because it would interfere with possibilities for music.

I struggled by on next to zero money which I have been doing ever since really because I’m very interested in a thing called free improvisation. Which in my book is unique - unique in that the audience discover the music at the same time as the musicians. In other musics people celebrate the style of music, but in this one, it’s pretty much about being in the moment. And I’ve often talked about this, but in one way, it’s the easiest thing in the world. And in another way, it’s the hardest thing to do. Because you play and then people analyse what they’ve played, and they write theses on it, they write compositions based on it. So they’re not improvising anymore. They’re doing something else. It’s quite difficult to keep in that moment of free improvisation, and it’s a very special thing, you know. And I remember once talking to an emeritus professor of psychology at Mushashino Art University. He took me to lunch during a festival. And I said do you guys say anything about transcendental experience? And he said, well, not a lot. We recognise them, but the only thing we can say is as soon as somebody says, I’m having a transcendental experience. It goes, and that’s very similar to the music.

You’ve talked before about the risk of improv becoming formalised, a set of sounds rather than an approach.

JR: Well, I think that’s true. There are a lot of people now who come to the music and call it improv and they add it on their list. They think it’s just about making the right kind of noises, and it’s nothing to do with that at all. It’s about being creative in the present. And it’s about using your ear. You know, that’s the most important thing. Chris McGregor was once asked, what’s your favourite instrument, and he said it’s the ear, the ear drum. And it’s absolutely true.

Would you say you learnt a lot from John Stevens?

JR: Yes. I think I think John was a great proselytiser of music, actually. He could say some ridiculous things like “I’ll be sitting here because I’m sitting here”, was one of the things. It’s like, what? He once told me off for going for a pee. Because it was impolite to the musicians. I said, it would be rather more impolite if I sat here and pissed myself [laughs]. If you disagreed with him he’d just say you don’t understand. He was so passionate about the music, which was great, actually.

But there’s lots of things you learn through the course of a lifetime’s playing, you know. And if you can come from our time that’s before Reagan and Thatcher, monetarism, it does give you a different perspective on how you do it. You know, you say, I think this is good, how do we put up the flag and share it with other people? Whereas I think younger people already have in their subconscious a kind of built in thing about, oh, that’s a good idea, that would be successful. And I don’t think being successful is a particularly interesting thing. It’s something that a lot of programmers go for. So they put on these safe programmes.

And you get the same stuff all the time. The mayor of Taipei in Taiwan wanted to give some money for entrepreneurs and help the businesses. And after, he said, how’s it going, and they said, great, we’ve had the 96% success rate. He said, that’s terrible. We should have a greater failure rate, because that’s how you find new stuff. I feel that’s kind of important.

How has Mopomoso adapted to the pandemic?

JR: One thing I’m doing because I’ve got this terminal cancer thing hanging over me is I’m hoping to set up a Mopomoso trust, to help increase the understanding and spread of freely improvised music. Then there’s the Mopomoso live team, and that’s sleeping at the moment.

We’ve also set up Mopomoso TV and we’re having a sort of Christmas party thing on December the 20th. And then we’re gonna have a special schedule across Christmas and there’s team have been working on that. We have episode six coming out on November the 15th. So it’s quite a lot of hard work. And the idea, again a bit like the Mopomoso live thing, is to have people who are known, who are unknown. It’s a way of sharing the music across the world - it’s an international music. And the sharing aspect is very important. And the other thing is, we make it quite fun. It’s sort of magazine program, you know. But there are links too, if you want to go deeper into the music.

I very much like the idea of breaking out of the bubble, in all ways. We’ve seen in the American election and all sort of places that people have this bubble. And if we can reach newer audiences, in newer places, they might just go, what’s this crazy shit? But then they might follow it up. And that’s what we’re trying to do, rather than just go around and around the same community. I mean, we want that community, of course, they’re great for us. But if we can get a few people who’ve never come across it before and they tell a few more friends, etc. And the idea is to tell people it’s not difficult.

You know I do find some people, some critics, not all of them of course, present company excepted, but some critics try and make the music sound difficult. To give themselves a job with it. Or they try and make it more mysterious in order to make it sound more attractive, which for me is frankly a turnoff. Yeah, you don’t need all these bells and whistles. Let the music speak for itself, it’s good stuff.

When you started Mopomoso, did you consciously try to make it different to other improvisation platforms?

JR: I wanted Mopomoso not to be so rigid, I think in a way, and to to offer something different. I mean in terms of things I used to do my Quaqua events, I think the first one was in 1981 at the London Musician’s Collective. And my idea for that was completely the opposite from Company, where Derek [Bailey] would put in people to antagonise each other. My idea was to develop existing playing traditions juxtaposed opposite previously divergent strands in order to make a creative environment for musicians. That became a weekly club and we’d have things where it was a pound to get in and concessions. My partner Joanna was on the door. And somebody came to the door and she asked for some money and they just said “huh, keep music secret” and ran out.

Before that, I was always putting events on. If you didn’t put events on you didn’t have anywhere to play. And quite often you’d ask friends to play, find a cheap photo copy shop, make an A4 photocopy, give them to your friends and it probably wouldn’t go anywhere. And you’d have two people in the audience. I remember talking to Brian Case at Ronnie Scott’s funeral and I praised him for a review he did of an improvised music concert where he described the audience two men scowling over a tea cozy. And I thought that was great. I thought that was one of the best descriptions, because it was so resonant of how it was happening at time, you know. And I’ve seen this music spread all around the world. Yeah. You know, sometimes there’s festival sized audiences, but sometimes there’s smaller audiences but there’s a lot more of them dotted around. And if we can draw those strands together and people can make contact with each other, I think that’s very important. If we’re going to do anything as human beings on this planet, we’ve got to learn to share. We’ve also got to learn to share the planet with nature.

In terms of my own condition, I was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the beginning of the year, and I find with free improvisation that if you’ve got lemons you make lemonade. And I’m interested in continuing as long as possible with that. I think it’s like Kazuo Ohno, one of the founders of Butoh, died at the age of 104. At the age of 102 he was still dancing in the wheelchair, he just moved a couple of fingers. So it’s about using what you’ve got. So I think free improvisation is very good. You know, if I was supposed to play some difficult solo violin concerto, I couldn’t do it. You do what you can. And that’s one of the wonderful things about improvising. Yeah.

You seem to have taken to playing online, whether it’s solo or with GIO.

JR: I’ve enjoyed it immensely, working with GIO on those things. Again, it’s that sense of community, it’s keeping that going.

How do you find improvising over Zoom?

JR: It’s taken a while to get used to. The Zoom settings are better than they were at the start. So that helps. But I do the GIO thing. I also do some playing with a saxophone player in Japan, Kosei Yamamoto. We do little bits and pieces. I’m booked to do a session in Hanover. It kind of keeps me in touch. I’ve been kind of shielding since March, except to go to hospital. What with chemotherapy and radiotherapy and things, the immune system is compromised, so I have to be extremely careful. The people working in the hospital are heroes to me. They’re risking COVID every day to save lives. And I find the conspiracy theorists scum. It makes me so angry. It’s a good way of getting my blood pressure up I suppose.

The people you’ve been improvising with online - have you worked with them before?

JR: I’d never played with Kosei before. So it’s been great, actually, we’ve got closer over time. Every Sunday morning, 11 o clock my time: Hello Kosei, how are you? “Good good”. We play for a little bit and then I get tired and I say, see you next week. And it develops, you know, that’s cool. So yeah, you work with what you’ve got. And the important thing is to keep that sense of the present. One of the things we’re doing with Mopomoso TV is we have a chat room and premier the programmes. So it does give a sort of sense of a live event.

There’s many ways to deal with this stuff. It’s not the same as playing live. All sorts of things come into play. And I hope people will understand that when the virus is finally beaten that they’ll be able to get that thing, that live is what it’s about. I mean, that’s what I tried to do with the recording for the festival, my solo, just make myself as open and as vulnerable as possible, and play with what I can do. And I was pretty pleased with myself. I think it’s reasonably authentic, you know. I hope people get something from it, you know. It kind of kind of encourages them, you know.

I mean years ago, Mal Dean, an amazing man, he told me he once played a trio with Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. And he felt he played 5% of the music. And it was great. Just being in that scene. Yeah. So you don’t have to be a virtuoso. It’s about the ear and it’s about being open to - what’s that thing, Dorothy L Sayers - as my whimsy takes me. But it’s actually not my whimsy. It’s the music’s whimsy. You know, the musical imperative is unfolded for you as you improvise. So it’s not a commodification of something. It’s not. It’s not.

There’s a lovely thing Victoria Wood does in Dinnerladies, where she takes the labels off the tins so she surprises herself what’s she’s eating for dinner. A lot of people want to know what’s inside the tin and whether it’s the same as the musical label, but that’s not for me.

I wanted to ask about the guitar you play in the GIOfest set.

JR: It’s an Epiphone Masterbuilt Black Stone from 1933 and it’s incredibly rare and I’ve never taken it on the road because it’s too fragile, you know. So I’ve used it almost exclusively since the first lockdown started in March and use that opportunity to slowly get used to it. You know, it takes a long time to get inside the instrument. It’s you, the instrument and the music and it’s this trial of going round. When it’s putting all that together. It’s not the kind of thing that people think, oh, you just think of music and you can just play it on the instrument because, of course, you can’t do that. Nobody can play the guitar that well. They can do certain things in certain genres, when they recognise cliche. I spent quite a bit of time doing ear training exercises in the past but no, you never learn to completely play an instrument in the same way you never completely learn to play music. And that’s a mistake people can make. They think that’s possible: I’ve learned to play music, give us a key. Then they churn the stuff out.

You last played GIOfest in 2010, in a trio with John Butcher and Dominic Lash.

JR: I thoroughly enjoyed it, I’m happy to say. The reason I’ve got no teeth has to do with the radiotherapy. But it could have started when I walked down Sauchiehall Street and found a shop selling tablet. Which I’d intended to buy to take home as a present to take to people. I’m afraid it got eaten in the hotel room and I had to go and get some more. But yeah, it was great, I just love that atmosphere, you know. I’m looking forward to the festival and enjoying all the music. I think it’s really important and it’s a good core of people.