The Road to CukoRakko: The Russ Liquid Test May 8, 2018 22:17

Interview by Jordan Kirkland: Live & Listen

If you're a music lover in Alabama, you've more than likely heard about an amazing grassroots festival known as CukoRakko Music & Arts Festival. Founded in 2014, the festival has been held twice a year at Horse Pens 40 in Steele, AL. As this concept has continued to evolve each year, festival producers have decided to bring the spring festival to Birmingham's Avondale Brewing Company on Saturday, May 19th, while still having plans for a full-weekend festival in October.

The spring festival will now be known as CukoRakko Fam Jam, a one-day event held in the heart of Birmingham which features a wide variety of world class talent from across the country. As we prepare for another unforgettable CukoRakko experience, we're sitting down and getting to know a few of this year's performers. For our first installment, we caught up with none other than the headliner, Russ Liquid of The Russ Liquid Test. See below for the full interview, and stay tuned for additional preview coverage in the near future.

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Redefining the possibilities of modern music, The Russ Liquid Test fuses the raw vitality of classic funk and the inventive sound design of electronic production. Songwriter/producer and renowned brass specialist Russell Scott heads up the New Orleans-based band. Guitarist Andrew Block and drummer Deven Trusclair round things out, with each providing a distinct musical background deeply rooted in the New Orleans jazz scene. A kinetic energy infuses each the band giving way to a mixture of funk/jazz/electro. The Russ Liquid Test evokes a kaleidoscope of textures, senses, and moods. At the heart of The Russ Liquid Test is an improv-driven musicality.
The studio workhorses are continually putting out new music and have quite a few releases up their sleeves for 2018. The Russ Liquid Test creates a joyful sense of synergy in their high-powered live shows, with recent appearances including Shambhala Music Festival, Lightning in a Bottle, Summer Camp, and Sonic Bloom, among others. No matter the setting, a clear multidimensionality can always be heard in The Russ Liquid Test’s projects. “We want to make people feel good but also give them something to reflect with,” says Scott. “It’s not about just making party music or music that’s more introspective—it’s for the full gamut of human expression, and we want it to be just as dynamic as life itself.”

Let's start off by talking about your musical background. You've built a strong reputation as a multi-instrumentalist. How did you get started?

Russ: I guess I was always interested in music. My mother was the choir director for the church we attended, so I kind of got started through the church. I learned piano first, then came the trumpet. Woodwinds were next. I guess you could say one led to the other. 

Tell me a little about the formation of the band: The Russ Liquid Test. You guys put out your debut EP, 1984, back in 2016. You've since released a follow up EP. How did you get together? Tell me about the dynamic of this band.

Russ: Well, it's always been a goal of mine to get back to playing music with other people. That's what I come from. When I met Andrew Block (guitar) doing the Gramatik tour, that's when I kind of knew that this was the time to do it. He shares similar musical tastes and understandings. He wants to do the same things that I do, so it really seemed like the perfect thing to do. We had a few different drummers before we met Deven (Trusclair), but once we met him, it felt like it was meant to be. He's one of my favorite people, and also one of my favorite drummers. 

I feel like there are still a fair amount of people out there who don't understand the dynamics of a live electronic band. Can you elaborate on how this concept works for The Russ Liquid Test?

Russ: Well, we kind of started out more along the lines of the traditional way that live electronic acts are doing it. They have some sort of backing track being played by a computer, and they supplement that by playing live instruments over it, which is kind of what we've been doing. We're slowly transitioning away from using a computer to play more parts than there are musicians on stage. Figuring out ways to still have the same impact, where we are triggering landscapes and textures, but in a way that's freeing us up from being locked down by a computer...if that makes any sense. 

How about the amount of improvisation that's involved in your live show? I'm always intrigued to hear different artists' approach towards this creative aspect. 

Russ: Our view that we all share on improvisation is that when used correctly, it can be a very powerful thing. However, as with anything, if it is overused, it can really take away from what you're trying to accomplish in the first place. That being said, we really like the power of a song. The song, to us, has specific parts, so there is variation to how we play each part on each night, but we try to stick the parts to really define what it is that we're going for on each particular song. We like to sprinkle that with moments on kind of add as a build. 

Watch highlights from The Russ Liquid Test's recent Fox Theatre show here:

I also wanted to talk about the New Orleans music scene, and the impact it has made on this band. You had the chance to work with Ivan Neville and Russell Batiste Jr. on your debut EP. How has it been for you since relocating to the area?

Russ: Andrew Block, our guitarist, is really the person who is responsible for connecting us with these amazing musicians to collaborate with. He's been in New Orleans for around eight years...maybe even ten. He's an amazing guitar player. He's been nominated as one of the top guitarists in New Orleans by OffBeat Magazine. He did that by going out and connecting with the people who he wanted to learn from and associate himself with. He put in a lot a time and effort. So, it was really neat for me when I moved to New Orleans about four years ago. I was just plugged into all the amazing connections that he blood, sweat, and teared to make. He kind of gave The Russ Liquid Test an unfair advantage to just be plugged into having guys like Ivan Neville and Russell Batiste on our debut EP.

Well sometime's it really is a 'right place, right time' thing, you know?

Russ: It really is. I'm always trying to keep an optimistic perspective on all of the events that happen in my life. You never know where an opportunity can lie. That's kind of been the whole thing with this band. I was living in the Bay Area, and my place burned down. I was a bit of a transient while I was touring with Gramatik. That's when I met Andrew, and he suggested that I move to New Orleans, so we could make music together. It's kind of one of those things where good comes from bad. I don't think I would've made that decision had my place not burned down. 

No kidding...

Russ: That's my philosophy of life, you know? You have your freedom of perspective. That's the only thing that is free. Truly freedom.

I think that's accurate. It's crazy how a disaster can turn into a blessing. It's almost as if it was meant to be in the long run.

Russ: Yeah...and it's really easy to drown in your own sorrows, but if you can stay afloat, you'll be able to see land. There's my daily preach for today. (laughs)

I also wanted to ask about RLT's sophomore EP, World Gone Crazy, which was released in November on GRiZ's label, All Good Records. Was this experience much different than 1984?

Russ: It was somewhat of a similar experience. I would say that the biggest difference between the two is that we didn't collaborate with as many people this time. 

You've had the opportunity to share the stage with a wide variety of amazing performers. What are a few recent highlights?

Russ: We recently did a tour supporting Umphrey's McGee. On the last night, they asked me to sit in on a Herbie Hancock track, "Hang Up Your Hang Ups." I got to play saxophone, and I kind of associate myself as being a trumpet player. They insisted that I play sax, so for me, that was a really cool moment to have really crushing musicians ask me to play sax. It was so much fun. Even more than that, we just played Red Rocks with our homie OPIUO. There was a huge orchestra. I've known Oscar (OPIUO) for probably nine years now. He's one of my closest friends. It was really neat to see him headline Red Rocks with a full orchestra. I was really stoked for him. I played keys/horns and Andrew played guitar. 

That sounds amazing. With the Umphrey's sit-in, was that much of a challenge? What's the transition like between the trumpet and saxophone?

Russ: It's different fingerings and some of the same muscles, but a little bit different. To be honest, it's pretty easy. I play trombone too, and it's way harder to go from trombone to trumpet, or vice versa, than to go from trumpet to sax or trombone to sax. Even though the trumpet and trombone have the same type of mouthpiece. The saxophone has a reed, the other ones just a brass piece of metal. For whatever reason, when you play the trumpet and then go to the trombone, the mouthpiece is so much bigger. It feels like you're swimming. If you do it vice versa, it definitely feels weird. 

Before we wrap up, you're obviously headlining the CukoRakko Fam Jam in Birmingham on May 19th. What can attendees expect from The Russ Liquid Test?

Russ: Oh yeah, that's gonna be fun. Get ready to dance, and if you don't like a certain song, give it a second. We'll be playing something completely different in about one minute (laughs).

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Photo by Craig Baird: Home Team Photography