I am horizontal on a bench listening to a Tibetan funerary text next to Gavin Rayna Russom. The 43-year-old LCD Soundsystem member had suggested we meet at the Rubin Museum of Art’s cafe in Chelsea, and the day has now turned into exploring the museum’s The World Is Sound immersive sound exhibition together. “On-brand,” she jokes, sitting up to continue our loop of the building’s top floor. An ambient drone travels up the Rubin’s spiral staircase and the artworks, which the Museum describes as exploring “how sound and our sense of hearing shape our daily lives, our traditions, our history, and all of existence,” are organized cyclically around it.
The afternoon is moving at the pace accorded to someone who makes peace with forgetting their cell phone at home. This is the case of Russom today, who otherwise is used to a fairly exacting schedule. For the rest of the year, she’ll continue being on tour with LCD Soundsystem, in support of their latest album American Dream. The band’s comeback record debuted atop the Billboard 200 in September, becoming their first Number One. Also earlier this year, Russom came out as trans publicly, and being honest about what she calls “the core of who I am,” has bolstered her life in all arenas. She’s now relaunching her website to recontextualize her identity and music. Acknowledging 2017’s National Coming Out Day, a cache of Russom’s music, much of it only previously available in limited physical editions on underground labels, will be made available to a wider range of listeners through her SoundCloud.
Russom tells me her “life is folding in on itself, in a way.” We’re making our way through the Rubin’s exhibition, ripe with work that Russom says has held her interest for decades. Russom uses her pastel-painted nails to point out texts that harmonize with her own background, including a quote from the composer Pauline Oliveros, “Listening is what creates culture.” She says, “I had studied composition, and I had been making music since I was a kid. To some degree, I had been making electronic music since I was a kid.” She tells me of early exposure to music in her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, studying feminist music theory at Bard College in the mid-nineties, and relocating to New York City after graduation.
Russom originally became involved with LCD Soundsystem during the early aughts after quitting a restaurant job. She was making and performing her own music, and doing a magic show she describes as "DIY punk rock theatre." Her background in composition was starting to feel like a more solitary one amongst her peers, and she began exploring analog synthesis. She interned at a shop while learning to repair synthesizers, which she says were too expensive for her to buy at the time. “I come from an old fashioned family, where my mom always encouraged me, if there's something I wanted to buy, see if I could make it myself first,” she remembers. Money was running out, and she sent out as a mass email to members of creative communities that she was involved with advertising her ability to build custom synthesizers. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy was the only person that wrote back, and he was desperate for help.
By September 2001, James Murphy had co-founded a label and production team called DFA Records, and was building up towards LCD Soundsystem’s 2005 debut record. Russom explains, “There was an initial phase in which I was working with James in the studio. There were times when I'd sort of be in the studio, there was a lot of overlap, and a lot of dialogue. During that phase, he always talked about, Oh, there's this one synth part on a certain song, wish you could come play it with us. It just didn't end up happening, for mostly technical reasons.” Plus, she deadpans, “Synthesizers are hard to carry.” At the same time, Russom was composing music in collaboration with Delia Gonzalez, the Cuban-American musician and artist, and releasing some of it on DFA Records.
Russom moved to Berlin in December of 2004 but continued her relationship with DFA Records. In 2009, DFA released a 12” series from Russom’s project, Black Meteoric Star. She says her Black Meteoric Star work has helped place her in conversation with “a younger generation of folks interested in building analog synth gear to create raw electronic music” and musicians making “punk/techno/psychedelic hybrids,” particularly on Brooklyn’s L.I.E.S. Records. Also in 2009, James Murphy asked Russom if she wanted to join LCD Soundsystem and come to Los Angeles to work on their next record, This Is Happening. Russom flew to California for several weeks to work on it, and as their tour approached, she became a permanent band member. She moved back to New York, where she still lives, but she says, “I miss Berlin sometimes. Berlin's a great place to be trans.”
Prior to this year’s critically and commercially successful LCD Soundsystem record, American Dream, the band had a very public and amicable retirement, with a sold out 2011 farewell show at Madison Square Garden replete with guests who were asked to adhere to a black-and-white dress code. The results are recorded on a 2012 documentary, “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” and the album The Long Goodbye: LCD Soundsystem Live at Madison Square Garden, which came out on Record Store Day in 2014. When the band released their single, “Christmas Will Break Your Heart,” on Christmas Eve in 2015, and were announced as the headliner for 2016’s Coachella, the reaction was partially one of confusion. The New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich commented that, “The outcry over the band’s resurrection feels similar to the way we occasionally react when faced with evidence of a prior version of ourselves: there is recognition, confusion, some fear. And then there is the inescapable fact of who we are now.”
To say the least, the public quickly warmed to the band’s reunion. By May 2017, when LCD Soundsystem was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, critics noted in particular how Russom danced enthusiastically while playing the band’s new songs “Call The Police” and “American Dream.” The Pitchfork review of American Dream characterizes “everything LCD stood for” as “integrity, respect, [and] a sly but genuine love of just how much music can shape a human being’s identity,” and in July, the music publication also published an “as told to” coming out essay by Russom. Despite this fanfare, Russom is utterly believable when she says it’s not natural to her personality to be “on a Number One selling album tour with a really popular band.” Still, she’s accustomed to being a career musician. “I’ve been on tour for the last 15 years of my life, whether with my own projects, or with other bands.”
Russom’s other projects, including Black Meteoric Star, are now aggregated on her Soundcloud. She says listeners “in large part, have no idea that [Black Meteoric Star] continued past the 3 2009 releases.” Last year, she released a double LP called The Xecond Xoming Of Black Meteoric Star on Chicago’s Nation label. The limited 300 copies of the vinyl-only edition sold out in presale. She made a film at the beginning of this year called “No More White Presidents,” which she says “played a major part in the acknowledgment of my trans identity,” and featured her Black Meteoric Star alias, as well as a Black Meteoric Star soundtrack that she released as a limited edition cassette tape. The project is also releasing a new EP called 3 Love Songs, and in addition to making it available to stream and download, she’s selling pre-orders of 300 limited copies of a pink-vinyl edition. This National Coming Out Day, Russom is making these projects available for all to listen, with certain limited editions available on her web shop, and a free download of The Xecond Xoming Of Black Meteoric Star available for 24 hours.
Russom’s new website is an important archival project, where she is able to present “a deeper understanding of the context” of her practice of creating feminist music, and a more complete musical history that honors her female collaborators. Most of the music on Russom’s SoundCloud is from the last three years, a time she describes as “a period of my creativity which I think was a real renaissance.” Above all, Russom wants to be clear about the ways in which her identity and her art interact, saying, “I'm a trans woman, so everything that I do will be the work of a trans woman. I'm proud of that. I can draw a really direct correlation between this period of what I think of as very expansive musical production—really being able to do things that I've wanted to do for a long time—and also being able to accept and be public about my trans-feminine identity. Those are definitely connected.”