The fire was monstrous, the deadliest in the history of Oakland, California, and it changed Russell Butler’s life.
They were standing outside Ghost Ship, a warehouse that had been converted into residences and an artist collective, when the flames started at about 11.20pm on December 2, 2016.
Friends were inside enjoying a house music concert; Russell’s instruments were set up for performance.
“I was supposed to play there,” said the Bermudian, who identifies as non-binary rather than male or female; “they” and “their” are preferred pronouns.
“Inside was a mix of artists and people who had come to see the show and people involved in putting the show together. Some people got trapped. Thirty-six people died in the fire; I knew 17 of them. It derailed my life in a bit of a way.”
Then, working as an exhibitions installer at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, they took a leave of absence to grieve. “Music was really the only thing I could do — literally,” they said. “Things started to pick up, I was starting to get booked but, in a real, physical sense, I couldn’t do stuff.”
The career change stuck and the modular synthesiser became their bread and butter.
“I make very little money off recorded music so I do live performances, some DJing and there are also some projects I’ve been able to collaborate on — film projects, scoring and sound design, which is essentially making sound effects,” they said.
“I’ve also been doing more lectures to create more context for the work that I do and the place it has within electronic music history.”
Since February 28, Butler has been artist in residence at the Synth Library in Prague, Czech Republic.
“It’s essentially an opportunity for you to go to a place that helps you facilitate your art,” said the 33-year-old, who is there courtesy of the Travelling Fellowship, a $10,000 grant presented by their alma mater Tufts University.
“As an artist in the 21st century, you’re also a press agent, a booking agent. The disparate titles can make it fairly difficult for the average person to [produce work] on a regular basis.
“A residency is almost a retreat — the only expectation is that you’re there to create things.
“Many residencies will be off in the woods somewhere. I’m in an urban centre in central Europe but I’m completely isolated because I don’t speak the language and I live alone in an apartment. It means my only responsibilities are to feed myself and go to the Synth Library.”
Because of that, they were able to finish 16 pieces of music in just over a month. Tomorrow they’re giving a lecture on “my artistic practice and things that led me to Prague”.
“Otherwise, I’m recording. I will also be doing several live performances and touring in the next few weeks.”
Electronic music developed at the end of the 19th century but it was only in the 1990s, when the technology became more affordable, that it became prevalent. The likes of a custom synthesiser typically used by Russell can cost about $5,000.
“Modular synthesisers are the original way of making electronic music,” they explained. “They’re a series of circuits — panels with jacks and knobs, different ways to sculpt sound.
“They’re usually very inaccessible because they’re very expensive, but they also have the benefit of being instruments that anyone can use without any musical background.
“With a violin, for example, so many things go into how it’s supposed to sound and the physical way the body responds to the instrument. [Modular synthesisers] are more about the individual’s taste in the immediate moment. If [the musician] can put together sounds that sound good to them, they can still have a deep and valid experience of making music.”
Russell’s music lessons began at age 4, but it was not until middle school that they developed a serious interest in composition.
“I played the violin and then the saxophone at Warwick Academy. At 11 or 12, I started guitar lessons and at 13, the electric guitar and that was my first foray into electronic sound.
“It led me to getting more interested in how to record music and, eventually, experimental forms of music, which led to electronic music and the forms of instruments that allowed me to make it. The modular synthesiser most interested me.
“It allows customisation and self-expression in that it opens things up more than typical means of composing songs, such as with popular or classical music where you have a theme that runs throughout the composition and then you have different compositional elements that further illustrate that theme. Other forms can allow something a bit less linear, but still have a more narrative element.”
They feel fortunate to have had something to lean on at a difficult time in their development.
“Music has always had an extremely therapeutic quality for me. I’m lucky to have an alternate means of self-expression in a society where being male-bodied and being vulnerable is not of value.
“We live in a patriarchal and misogynist society. Music is one of the only ways in which it is deemed acceptable to be vulnerable in that way — when I identified as a man, it was one of the ways I could experience emotions.
“Just for looking, talking and acting in a certain way, I was called a faggot from middle school, even though I was dating girls at the time.
“We are taught that only women are allowed to be vulnerable; men are only allowed to be vulnerable with their mother and sexual partners. I feel it’s caused significant problems with Western society as a whole.
“It’s a function of patriarchy — you have to demonise the things that are inherent to the experience of what you’re repressing. If you’re to be a powerful man you have to quash out everything that’s feminine.”
They found a like-minded community in dance halls, although, even there, bigotry can creep in.
“The only people who can really get booked consistently are straight, white people. Dance culture has a reputation as a place where people go to be the worst version of themselves. It’s where queer, black and brown people go to get away from the trappings of daily life. In the black community, the church is a rallying safe space — it’s where you can go when you experience hardship and struggle, where people go for economic and educational support, a kind of icon, a safe port in a storm — but people are exiled from it because of who they identify as. The party becomes the only place where they’re accepted, where they feel safe.
“So you’re escaping from the outside world but the opportunity you gain is to confront yourself and to really have an authentic and real experience of what it is to live without a boot on your neck all the time. That’s the culture I strive for and I am lucky to be in a community of people that share those values.”