(photo: Mariah Tiffany)

Oakland musician Russell E.L. Butler and video artist Ian Colon debuted a collaborative “exploration” piece last Saturday at MUTEK.SF’s “Nocturne 3” in the basement of the San Francisco Mint building. I sat down with Russell and Ian earlier that day at Heron Arts to discuss their current projects, as well as MUTEK’s potential impact on the current state of the Bay Area music and arts scene. Read excerpts from our 30 minute discussion below.

The Bay Bridged: What’s the inspiration behind the new A/V performance you’re debuting at MUTEK.SF?

Russell E.L. Butler: Ian and I have been working together in various capacities for the extent of our friendship.

Ian Colon: Over a decade now.

RELB: We’d always been trying to figure out a way to collaborate in a live performance context because we also both kind of have that background. We went to college together. We used to live together. We’ve been in the Bay for a while together. And the opportunity really just kind of arose with MUTEK coming up, to put some of our words in action.

IC: We have collaborated around a lot of different ideas of what it means to be an artist, and what collaboration means, and how we express our identities in different contexts together.

[Russell and I have] made music videos in the past, but having the live element together has just been really exciting…a new territory for us.

TBB: From Black Jeans to modular synths, how would you describe the current sounds you’re working on these days?

RELB: I feel like it’s more an evolution of my process as an artist…I’m always striving to experiment and definitely develop in a technical and a conceptual capacity. But I feel — the way that I kind of approach my stuff — I think about that very holistically. I think about the breadth of the work. So really, something that I started out with Black Jeans is really connected to my entire lineage as a musician. Past and future, from that point.

TBB: Did you rehearse the music you’re going to be performing during your live set, or will you use your “empathic intuition” to improvise based on how the crowd is feeling?

RELB: I think it’s typically more the latter. I think that, if anything, more of the rehearsal or kind of practice stuff, at this point, goes on outside of the studio for me, sonically. I’m thinking about stuff or I’m taking in new music or new sounds or new experiences. And then, the sum total of that essentially comes out in the improvised live performance. Because, you know, it’s me — past, present, and you–past, present. And then, together, we create this thing to move into the future.

…all that being said, I didn’t really put as much energy into structuring the live performance. I feel like I have a really good form for making a set that is really abstract but then also has these elements that are accessible, whether it’s through dance, or beats, or bass, or whatever else. And so, that frees me up to work with Ian and be kind of more of a technical facilitator in terms of what it is he’s trying to do conceptually. I feel like a lot of the rehearsal, even so is like, showing each other video clips, or talking about this political moment, or something else that has happened in current events, or the evolution of a particular piece of technology…so much of it is the technical minutia. Like, how does this module work? How does this video mixer work? How can we make an interface that we can take from Ian’s living room into a broader live performance context?

IC: I think Russ and I have a very fluid connection, conceptually. And because we’ve been friends for so long and worked together in so many different ways, we’re able to communicate about things regardless of which form they’re gonna take. And so, Russ has a much longer history of working with modular synthesizers than I do…

In addition to everything that Russ said, we do have a pretty tight conceptual manifestation of a narrative story through the actual setlist.

(photo: Mariah Tiffany)

TBB: How does music help you stay present and grounded during modern times?

RELB: It’s consistency. Even if we were to lose electricity, we could still make music in many different kinds of ways. It exists as kind of one of the five elements. I mean if air didn’t exist, then sound wouldn’t exist, then music wouldn’t exist…Whether we are being politically tried, which we have been from time immemorial, or not. Whether we are going through a period of intense sadness, or a period of intense joy and happiness. It is that thing that is just always there and reliable. No matter what, I can turn on the radio, or turn on my synthesizer, or open up Spotify or put on a record, and that thing is gonna be there for me.

TBB: Does your work still continue to draw from your Bermudian heritage?

RELB: Yeah, I think that is also a measure of consistency within the work. I can’t ever change the place of my birth. And even if I don’t live there full time, or even if I were to decide tomorrow that I’d never go back there, which is definitely not in the cards, then it would still have a measure of impact on my life. There are many things, just from my origin, I can’t to compare to a typical American existence. So no matter what, and no matter how much distance I have between myself and that place, there will always be a measure of it within the work.

I feel like if anything, because of my technical facility, I’m able to take a concept like “what is it to sound Bermudian?” and create a part of that lexicon that didn’t exist before. I think of myself in terms of a continuum of Bermudian artists. I can’t really say with confidence whether or not there has been an electronic musician in Bermuda’s past. I mean…it’s incredibly likely. But I take a great deal of pride, and also a sense of responsibility for creating that if it didn’t exist before.

TBB: I read something about how you make techno for people who don’t think they like techno.

RELB: Yeah, I suppose so. And I feel like it’s not even something that’s specifically relegated to me. I kind of find that it’s something that is relegated to folks whose primary interest is not in the genre itself; it is to just create. And then the genre is really just like a foil in which you can create something. I think because of that, you end up being able to draw from many different places that will overlap with someone else’s experience beyond just like ‘Oh, I know what it’s like to experience a four on the floor techno thing at a club.’ If you bring in ‘how the ocean smells’ as a conceptual launching point, somebody might not exactly get there, but they might connect with your work in a deeper way because there is something that has a measure of familiarity to it. I feel like any kind of conceptual undertaking comes across to some extent.

IC: I used to not super be into techno, and while techno may on its aesthetic solo merits be one thing, I think it’s a completely different experience when you have a community-centered space where there’s a live performance happening and there’s a gathering of people who are like-minded and signing up for one experience with the aid of this sonic platform. I think it’s amazing to find people willing to extend an open hand to you and educate you about anything and Russell has definitely done that for me with techno and, like, the community is just fantastic.

(photo: Mariah Tiffany)

TBB: Do you feel like MUTEK.SF’s marriage of the often polarized worlds of tech vs. DIY arts is a step in the right direction as far as representing the Bay Area’s diverse culture?

IC: I think that there’s always value in putting people in the room together who are gonna have conversations with people they wouldn’t have otherwise. I think MUTEK is an incredible celebration of the multiple communities that exists here…I hope lasts longer than this weekend, and people take a longer term interest in supporting the incredible artists that are here, and the many, many people that couldn’t be here because this is not at a price point that everyone can experience…I hope that the excitement that I feel and I know everyone else feels about having all these great artists here kind of highlights how fertile and rich the creative scene here and people continue to support it.

RELB: The Bay Area has always had a very important part to play in the development of all genres of contemporary music. It’s not just relegated to something like the Grateful Dead. Along with that, there’s the San Francisco Tape Music Center where one of the first synthesizers was developed and so many forms of experimentation were pioneered, as well as multiple synthesizer manufacturers that ended up making their base here like Dave Smith and Roger Linn, two of whom were very influential in the creation of MIDI…Coupled with its rich diversity, that culture does not exist in any kind of a vacuum. I feel like there was a reason why those kinds of technologies were able to be developed here, specifically. If anything, MUTEK is part of that lineage, and I hope, because it comes from an external place, will help expand it to a greater world …I feel like the main thing that folks want to end up with out of this experience is a measure of consistent economic opportunities in the Bay Area for artists of all kinds, and this is a step towards that, I think.

IC: I think there’s a huge community of people who work in technology in one way or the other who may have means to participate in communities, but they don’t know if that’s their place. They may not consider themselves artists…or in a patron-class type situation. And I would say that it’s exciting to see global recognition for the Bay Area in the form of something like MUTEK, to say to people who are here, ‘You have the power.’ You know, ‘The light is on you. You have the power to bring people up with you.’

Keep an eye out for more projects from this tight-knit audiovisual duo in the future, as well as Russell E.L. Butler’s planned summer release the Home I’d Build For Myself and My Friends.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.