Russ Gabriel – delving deeper into the world of one of the UK’s finest electronic music talents
Russ Gabriel is a name synonymous with the emergence of techno from the UK during the 90s, which encompassed labels such of Peacefrog, Soma, WARP, Rising High, SKAM & Rephlex (amongst many others). As the owner of Ferox Records, he is first and foremost an electronic musician and composer, but in recent years has also turned filmmaker. With an approach, style and sound that wouldn’t go amiss in the likes of Eglo or Sound Signature’s catalogue, it’s easy to underestimate the impact he had: his talents being called upon by the likes of Magnetic North, Djax, Planet E and Force Inc during his early career, more recently courted by the likes of Freerange, We Play House and Mobilee.
For the uninitiated, Russ is of the most respected musicians and producers of his generation, having recorded nearly a century’s worth of EPs and a stack of albums since his debut back in 1991. With the return of his imprint Ferox in 2014 and the forthcoming release of “Adventures in Techno Soul Vol. 3”, a follow-up to the much sought after “Adventures in Techno Soul” remix compilation that featured the likes of that Derrick Carter, Carl Craig and Kenny Dixon Jr back in 1996. We thought it high time to track him down for a catch up and a chat.
Let’s wind the clock back to start, who or what got you into electronic music then?
“I was always interested in synthesisers. I used to listen to all types of music but anything with electronics in it used to fascinate me. I remember going to a school disco of a friend when I was in my early teens and there was a band there with two synthesisers on stage. While others around me were dancing, I was totally fixated by those two machines the whole evening, staring at them and wondering how they worked. At that point I knew I would one day own one.”
How did you find yourself progressing into production?
“As soon as I left school and started work, I started saving for some equipment. At that point I really just wanted to play with some sounds and experiment with some ideas. I was listening to a lot of dub around that time and figured I would probably end up making some tracks in that direction. Then one day, shortly after purchasing my first synth,I discovered Colin Faver’s radio show on Kiss FM and that changed everything for me. That was the first time I heard electronic music. Before that it was just people using electronics in other forms of music, but what he was playing was music based on electronic instruments from the offset. Discovering Colin Dale’s show on Kiss shortly after, I used to listen to those two shows religiously every week and started analysing and learning from all the new music they were playing. I got a deal with some local guys who were releasing hardcore records under the condition that alongside the hardcore, they would let me do a more techno tracks on the B-side.”
You went on to make quite a few records for Magnetic North and DJAX Upbeats – how did that come about?
“After those early hardcore releases, I started looking for a label to release my techno stuff. Dave Clarke was just starting Magnetic North at that time and the tracks seemed to fit well on that label. I quickly moved away from the harder type techno and realised I would have to set up my own label to release exactly what I wanted. The release I did on Djax was also around the same time as Ferox was getting going. I always loved Djax and lots of other stuff coming out of the Netherlands at that time. My music has always been heavily influenced by that early 90’s Dutch sound and I’ve always tried to use equipment that helps me get close to the sound I’m looking for.”
Do/did you have a favourite piece of studio equipment?
“That changes all the time. Sometimes there are bits of gear that you really get into and learn every little nuance of. Those tend to be the ones that you like the most as they will always be your most creative tools, if you know them inside-out. For a long time the Roland SH101 was my favourite synth. You can hear one on pretty much everything I did prior to about 2004. I think I have owned about 5 of them over the last 25 years and it was the first analogue synthesiser I owned. My favourite piece of equipment at the moment is a modular synthesiser that I’m building. It’s a project that I’ve only just started but, having been using synthesisers for so many years, I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get into the modular world. Building a synthesiser in modules means you can tailor it to your specific needs and wants. It’s really great fun from a nerdy perspective and also a very powerful instrument where pretty much anything can be patched to anything else which opens up so many doors for new sounds. The other great thing is that I can easily remove certain modules and set-up a smaller synthesiser to take on the road with me when I play live. I have some gigs coming up in Asia in the Autumn and this will be the first time I take a small modular set-up to live shows. I started out taking all my synths with me to live shows before I started DJing so it’s all going full circle at the moment.”
“I think the scariest has to be the first time I ever played live which was in Ulm, Germany. I had so much equipment that the whole trip was majorly stressful. Getting everything through customs took ages in both directions and in the club I was petrified that something would malfunction and destroy the whole show. I couldn’t relax and was worried also that someone would try to steal something, or would pour beer over something.”
Tell us the story behind the original “Adventures in Techno Soul” compilation…
“The first compilation was really born out of a trip to Detroit. I went to the U.S.A. for some gigs and was based for a short time in Detroit, at least long enough to get to know a few people. The surprising thing for me was that although the city is very much a Mecca for anybody into techno, the enthusiasm and respect there for European music was just as great. The record shops were well-stocked with the best music that Europe had to offer alongside all the home-grown music. I initially wanted to ask a couple of producers in Detroit and Chicago to remix something for the label but the positive response was more than I’d anticipated so ended up with an album full of remixes. By the time I got home the album was pretty much already finished.”
“Amazing! I’m so happy that we are able to produce vinyl again and release some music. With all the ups and downs, distributors going bust and all that stuff, this is now the third phase of releasing music so that’s why all the catalogue numbers for the singles start with a ‘3’. I’ve just got the finished copies in for the ‘Adventures In Techno Soul’ 3 compilation and it’s really great to have the opportunity of working with the artists on there and finally see and hear the finished result. It took months to put together and I feel like I listened to all the tracks about a thousand times before making the final selection.”
With so much looking back to the past, where do you think we should be looking to for the future?
“It’s crazy in a way that so many labels are now back to releasing vinyl either alongside or as opposed to digital. It might seem from the outside that this is going backwards. Vinyl is, after all, about 100 years old as a format and the fact that it works at all is incredible. Cutting a wave into a spiral groove on a plastic disc doesn’t seem very futuristic in a world of technology. The reality however is that it might be around for a while longer yet and for the foreseeable future the best option for many labels. There are so many reasons why it’s successful as a format, but the main one I guess is that people like to hold something in their hands that they have paid for. Even software is predominantly sold in a colourful box. I always feel like I have been ripped off when I pay money for a load of ones and zeros, whereas when you hold a piece of vinyl in your hands and see the music in the grooves, you get a much better idea of the work that has gone into it. But who knows? Maybe something will suddenly come along to replace vinyl. Something more viable than digital downloads, a completely new concept than no-one can foresee now.”
“Adventures in Techno Soul Vol 3.” is out now on Ferox Records: