An Interview with Russell David
Upon release of Friends are Friends Forever.
The interview was conducted on Monday August 28, 2000 at Cafe La Trieste, San Francisco, CA.
R.M. Slinky: So tell me about this album, Friends are Friends Forever. What's it about?
Russell David: It's about friends and love, and other stuff too, and pain. The title is really just an afterthought - something I thought sounded cool.
RMS: Is that how you usually think up titles for your albums?
RD: Pretty much. I mean, I usually have several ideas going on in my head, and then eventually, one of them pops out as the title. Then, I can usually go back and look at the songs, and find some theme that actually ties the title in thematically. It's random in that way, I guess.
RMS: So what brought out the Friends are Friends idea?
RD: Well, it's a song by this Christian mega-artist Michael W. Smith, and I heard it a lot when I was in the church back in the late 80's. I remember it being a super emotional song, about how friends go on forever in heaven. Now I'm more cynical about that idea, so my use of the phrase is a little disrespectful in that sense, but it also means something to me - so there's that double meaning, which I like.
RMS: And what do you mean by it?
RD: I mean that, for me personally, friends are friends forever. I mean it more internally. I don't believe in heaven, so I reject the premise of the original song, which provides a certain irony, or whatever, but on a deeper level, I can completely get behind the thing. Friends really are forever to me. Even the ones that leave you, and break your heart, and disappoint you, or the ones you hurt and make mistakes with, etc. People I love and that make an impact in my life will always be in here, in my heart.
RMS: And that theme is reflected in the songs?
RD: Some of them. I think especially of the last song, Victim of Jesus. It's really about that. And there are some others about women I've been in love with in the past. I haven't seen them for years, but I can still write emotional love songs for them, hoping that if they heard it, they'd remember. I can still feel those feelings, and remember, and be sad about it. I can remember the good times, and wonder why everything went the way it did. And I still love them. I don't take that back.
RMS: Yeah, Victim is a dangerous song to record. It makes you very vulnerable. Did you second guess yourself about including the song on the album?
RD: Not really. I see it as dangerous in a sense, but no not really. I want to be vulnerable in my songs. That's one of my goals. So while I do think there's that moment when you’re writing or recording something that reveals a deep wound, or talks openly about a specific kind of loss, when you stop for a moment, doubting yourself or something - but you gotta do it. The song has to speak. You can't keep it inside. You get that internal pause, and then you push past it. The goal of my music is to communicate, so to the extent that you veil things, or refuse to be open, you diminish the song.
RMS: But the reaction of the listener is important to you. You do care what they think, and because of the sensitive nature of the material, you must worry that it comes off well. Right?
RD: Of course I want people to be touched, so if they laugh at me, and they're saying "ha ha, you're so silly to fall in love with Jesus," I'll be hurt. But even if that happens, I had to write the song. My job is to put the song out there.
RMS: I've heard you describe the song Victim as a "gay love song to Jesus." Can you explain?
RD: Well, that's what it is, really. After getting some distance from Christianity, I was struck with the whole issue of homosexuality, and it's really a strange latent thing for Christian men, and their relationship with Christ. I thought about my own loss, losing my image of Jesus as best friend, and it really was like a romantic break up. So the song is framed in that sense. I talk about our relationship together, and how things were beautiful in some ways, and destructive in others, and how ultimately, I had to leave him. Really, given the all-American masculinity and homophobia perpetuated by a lot of Christian groups, I find it fascinating that intimacy with Jesus doesn't make Christian men a little more uneasy. But that's all a side note. The song is really about my own experience with Jesus. I wanted to convey the emotional weight of leaving him. I wanted to make that real for other people, so they could see it and understand.
RMS: You also mentioned the idea of lost love. That topic seems to be a major source of inspiration for you. It's come up before, hasn't it?
RD: Sure. Romantic love and religion are my two topics, and I think they're best when totally mixed together. It seems strange to me that sex and religion are so disconnected for most people. It's the opposite for me. For me, the most romantic kind of love has a spiritual, devotional, self-sacrificial quality, and the most effective religions are the ones that leave you pregnant with that lust for oneness with the deity. I see them as totally connected.
RMS: Interesting. So when you write a love song, it's actually, in a sense, a song to god?
RD: I don't know if I'd say that exactly. But I am trying to get at the same thing. Not god, but the feeling of integration and connection. I think in a larger sense, I'm looking for the same thing from both, but there are differences. A love song to a woman is more immediate, because she's, at least in most cases, an actual flesh and blood person., with whom I can interact, disappoint, etc. God is definitely more pure in that sense. The idea can stay there in my brain, untouched by reality.
RMS: What are the love songs on this album about?
RD: Hmmm. I have to think back and remember now.
RMS: What about Southfield?
RD: That's about a woman I haven't seen since 1996, and will probably never see again. The song is just about disillusionment. Believing in something, and then seeing that it wasn't what you thought it was. It's boring, I guess. The same old love song endlessly repeated.
RMS: But Southfield seems very cryptic to me. One of the lines in chorus makes reference to "somewhere in the south that really is north." Lines like that don't lend themselves to immediate interpretation.
RD: Well, I put in details that are specific to me, and to the relationship. I don't mean them as a code really. It's just my method of songwriting. I don't want to write general love songs, because I don't identify with those. I want to be very specific. I wrote Southfield for the woman it's about. It's for us. She'll never hear it, so I guess it's just for me now.
RMS: Do you think you'll ever outgrow the love song, or come to a point in your life where it's not relevant anymore?
RD: I don't know. I hope not. Heartbreak is one of the most beautiful experiences in life. I hope I have the chance to experience it many more times.
RMS: You're joking though, right?
RD: Sort of, but it's true too. In a twisted way, I think I do enjoy being emotionally at odds. I need that melodrama. It's not a good or healthy thing, but I have to be honest with myself about it.
RMS: That doesn't sound good. Have you thought about therapy?
RMS: I wanted to ask a question about the way you write your songs. Some artists talk about reaching a conceptual ideal, or refining a piece until they reach the image in their mind. How is it for you?
RD: Most of what I do is stream of consciousness, so I can't give much insight on the process. I usually write lyrics based on emotional prompts. There's usually an overall feeling I'm trying to describe.
RMS: Do the music and lyrics come together?
RD: Not usually. I always have a notebook with me, so when ideas strike me throughout the day, I'll stop and write some lines. Later on, I'll sit down with my guitar and try to hammer out a melody and some chords. Usually I have to juggle the words a little to make 'em fit. So it's a two stage process.
RMS: Do prefer writing words or music?
RD: I definitely feel more comfortable with the words. I feel more free. I'm very limited in my musical ability, so it's frustrating sometimes. That's why all my songs sound like the same song. Maybe I should take lessons?
RMS: Are you seriously thinking of taking lessons?
RD: Hell no.
RMS: There was a scathing review of the "Friends are Friends" album written by Konstantin Levin, appearing in Czechoslovakia Today!, and several other Eastern European magazines. Do you have a reaction to the negative criticism?
RD: To be honest, I'm happy that Levin took the time to listen. I fully recognize that my music is not for everyone. In fact, only a small minority of people will actually get what I'm trying to do, and find it valuable. I know that. So it's good that he's out there warning the public. Most of the things Levin brought into play are valid criticisms, and I take his point. At other spots, he fell into an uncalled for personal attack - but maybe I'm just being too sensitive? I trust his readers to make that decision. But at it's core, I respect Levin's opinion, and I'm glad its out there. Hopefully his review will prevent a lot of angry hate mail we'd otherwise have received.
RMS: This is your first album released directly in CD format. What took you so long to come around to technology?
RD: It's money, pure and simple. There was definitely something quaint about the whole cassette tape thing, but the transition to cd was long overdue. I'm happy that we've finally crossed over. It should help get the music into more hands, I hope.
RMS: Are there plans to reissue previous Simple Music releases?
RD: Definitely, but it's gonna take a while. There's a lot of work involved in remastering stuff to cd, so I'll do as much as I can, but I need to balance that with the new stuff we're doing. I'm planning to work backwards, starting with I Wish I Was Beautiful. I'll also front load some of the old Armerdings and Russell stuff and try to get it out there.
RMS: So what's up next? Do you have an idea about the next album?
RD: No firm ones. I've recorded at least one song for the next release, and I've written a handful of others that I plan to record. I'm a little scared about it. There seems to be a really bleak, dark, almost hateful, tone to them - so this might be an evil one. We'll see. It's hard 'cause I've been so busy with the mix down, and the new JONAS record, so I haven't spent much time in the studio.
RMS: Any cause for the darkness that you can ascertain?
RD: I don't know. I've been going through a strange time. I think it's just more personality evolution. As I get older, I see myself getting stronger in some ways, and colder in others. I'm hoping I'll find a balance, though sometimes I worry that I'll end up a complete curmudgeon. Maybe I'm already there? Probably more than I realize.
RMS: Thanks for talking. Look forward to checking in again soon.
RD: Thanks for the interest. It means a lot.
R.M. Slinky is a freelance columnist, and long time friend of Simple Music.