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Hear an Unreleased Arthur Russell Song, ‘Oh Fernando Why’

Russell's bandmate Ernie Brooks talks about working with the late musician; Ibiza's Circoloco party pays tribute with an event at Detroit's Movement festival

Ibiza’s Circoloco is well known as one of the island’s wildest parties, with a musical policy focused squarely on underground house and techno of a Continental bent (and “bent” pretty much sums up the vibe, as well). But Circoloco’s promoters have something a little different in store for their event during this year’s Movement festival in Detroit: Go Bang, a celebration of the life and legacy of Arthur Russell, the cellist, songwriter, avant-garde composer, and disco producer who died in 1992, and whose reputation has grown by leaps and bounds since Audika and Soul Jazz began reissuing his work in 2004.

The lineup for the 14-hour party features a number of Circoloco regulars, residents, and co-conspirators — Carl Craig, Ryan Crosson, Lee Curtiss, Andrew Grant, System of Survival, D’Julz, Kim Ann Foxmann — while an exhibition installed at the venue, Detroit’s TV Bar, will showcase unreleased music by Russell and photographs of the musician. A portion of the proceeds from the event will go to the local charity Youthville Detroit and the Detroit Techno Foundation.

You can listen to one of those previously unreleased songs here. “Oh Fernando Why,” an alternate version of which was released on Audika’s 2008 Arthur Russell anthology, Love Is Overtaking Me, was recorded by Russell along with a handful of collaborators from his bands the Flying Hearts and Necessaries, among them Steven Hall (who today helms the tribute project Arthur’s Landing, and who will play at the Circo Loco party as Nirosta Steel) and Ernie Brooks, of the Modern Lovers. SPIN spoke to Brooks about working with Russell; read on for the interview.

What was it like to work with Arthur Russell?
What can I say about Arthur — I’ve worked with quite a few musicians over the years and he was the most purely gifted musician I ever encountered. He moved seamlessly through genres, from classical to pop to dance to experimental to electronic. He was willing to try almost anything with almost anybody, and through it all his pure gift for melody kept surfacing. He used to call me in the middle of the night with his keyboard at hand and sing me a melody. Then he’d try out different lyrics, asking for my take on what worked. His words never cease to amaze me; they have the compression and natural voice of William Carlos Williams combined at times with the high-toned eloquence of W.B. Yeats.

He was also a tireless collaborator and a good friend, though at times a very difficult friend, because he was never satisfied. He was always looking for some ineffable pop sound, a lush and transcendent flow — sometimes he wanted to be Fleetwood Mac, sometimes ABBA — a very ambitious vision that, in our early ensemble, Flying Hearts, we never came close to attaining. We did make some pretty decent pop music, catchy with quirky chord changes and odd-measure lengths that were woven seamlessly into the song structures.

He had this odd mixture of incredible reticence and self-doubt, mixed with a confidence that he was going in the right direction. He wanted to call one version of an ensemble “Voice of the Future.”

When was this version of “Oh Fernando Why” recorded, and who played on it? And what’s the relationship between this song and Love Is Overtaking Me’s “Oh Fernanda Why,” which was credited to Turbo Sporty (Arthur Russell and Steven Hall)?
I think this was recorded just after the Flying Hearts broke up and before Arthur began to play in the Necessaries. The people who are featured on these sessions are drummer Jessie Chamberlain, guitar player Larry Saltzman (who now plays with Paul Simon), John Sherman, also on guitar, and Steven Hall on the background vocals. I believe that was the first version we recorded. This is a different version from the one that was released on Love Is Overtaking Me; this band version has never been released. It also has some really good pedal steel guitar and we can’t remember who played it.

This is a beautiful song. The story of the writing of it is that Arthur went to Italy on tour with a theater company, Mabou Mines, and he met an Italian pop group called L’Orme. He was going to produce or play with them, but somehow it didn’t work out, so he was sitting alone and desolate somewhere near Milan and came up with this.

This song was written by Arthur. Turbo Sporty was a project of Steven’s for which he and Arthur recorded some songs together, but the songwriting credit is Arthur’s, that much I know.

How many unreleased songs of Arthur’s do you have? Are there plans for further releases?
I pull out these boxes of cassettes I have from recording sessions and rehearsals. I don’t know how many there are, but there are a lot of unreleased songs and alternate versions of those that have been [released]. In the search to get the right sound, Arthur would record take after take. For example, with the song “Wild Combination,” I think I’ve listened to several hours of experimentation with different effects and edits. With World of Echo he went way into the sonic fog; he was always changing the palette of sounds. I guess if you count fragments and versions of songs, there are probably 50 or 60; some may never get released because the audio quality is not great. But some of my cassettes, that are well recorded and not overplayed, sound really hot. Interestingly, cassettes are making a comeback as a way to put out new work, at least in Williamsburg, so who knows?

I would love to see a re-release of the Necessaries album and include the extra Arthur songs. Also, most of the Flying Hearts sessions produced by John Hammond (who brought us Billie Holliday, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen) have yet to see the light of day — would love to get my friend Jerry Harrison (Modern Lovers bandmate, Talking Head) to give them a real mix. Of course whatever gets done will be in collaboration with Arthur’s estate and Tom Lee. Hopefully, Steve Knutson may want to release more of Arthur’s work on Audika Records, which has done such a great job so far in bringing him to finally get the recognition he deserves.