Bass music as a genre has come a long way since its original pioneers first began crafting its trademark sound. From its days evolving in the warehouses of South London, to its mainstage prominence at festivals, to some even claiming that genre is dead, it’s seen its share of action within the dance music community. For Chris Mercer, better known to us as Rusko, now’s the time to keep pushing forward.
When we walked into the red-bricked green room of Neumos last November to chat with Mercer during his final pass through Seattle of 2014, we could see that this wasn’t an artist concerned with things like pretense or image. We sat down next to him as he offered us each a pre-rolled Caviar Cone out of a box likely purchased from one of Seattle’s local dispensaries. We all lit up, as we settled in and pulled out our notes. In the midst of what was far and away our least typical introduction to an interview ever, we couldn’t help but notice that much like his music, Mercer’s demeanor refreshingly defied the conventions of your typical DJ.
Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Genres
Lately, his newer releases have managed to crash through the boundaries of classification, whether by design or accidental fortune. From what Rusko describes though, the plan all along was to give a much-needed middle finger to making music limited by something as artificial as sticking to one genre.
[pullquote align=”right”]“When I sat down to write all three of the records, that was the plan for each one: To have each track a different tempo, each track a different flavor. Anything that fell into any kind of genre box got scrapped immediately.”[/pullquote]
It’s too often nowadays that we see artists getting stuck in that “genre box,” a strategy that stifles creativity and variance. Listening to Rusko’s boundary-free EP duo ! and ! Volume 2, it’s pretty clear that the strategy he employed to “make a whole batch of tracks and pick the weirdest ones,” worked to absolute perfection. Both EPs (with a third edition due out any day now) defy your typical classification, demonstrating the work of an artist who exists within a scene far too regimented in making music sound one way. Trance DJs make trance music. Bass DJs make bass music. House DJs make house music. It’s a division that segments not just DJs, but also the people who listen to this music.
The musical climate we exist in now separates fans in a way that prevents us from branching out and discovering an ocean of new music that’s never been deeper. Rusko’s finding himself falling far outside this system, making music now that he admits has given him “total freedom,” while “having much more fun” when it comes to creating something new and interesting. “The end result is something better that way,” breaking free of the sectioned-off genres that serve only to limit rather than focus us.
Stepping Away From the Dancefloor
But it’s not all about simply making weird tracks that defy classification. Rather, it’s about accomplishing a goal with a far wider scope. Mercer describes a need in his production that, in the face of more and more music beginning to all sound the same, it’s hard to find ourselves opposed to. Sitting there across from us, his face lit up as he dug into what’s become the driving force behind his studio process.
“It’s more stepping away from making dancefloor music to be honest. Everything kind of follows that dancefloor formula: Big build-ups, big heavy drops, and sing-along chorus-y vocals. It gets boring making music for the same audience, when in reality many more people are listening at home.”
That “build-drop-repeat” formula has ingrained itself in a culture that’s become infatuated with the mainstage. Rusko represents the opposing end of this spectrum, admitting his preference for playing to smaller crowds at intimate venues much like Neumos. This carries straight over to his music where, instead of cycling through each touchpoint of a Beatport 100 track, each song has “stuff that happens once, and there’s stuff that happens at the end of the track and not anywhere else. Little bits and pieces like that, that you wouldn’t put in a dancefloor track.”
It’s easy for any artist with such a long history of success to find themselves firmly rooted in what’s worked in the past. Many artists find themselves wanting to get noticed for producing the biggest, flashiest, and catchiest music out there. Where we find Rusko is in a place where getting noticed is all about defying convention. “When you do something different, people know it sounds different,” an observation that’s beautiful in its simplicity, and very much right on the nose. Stepping away from the more cyclical aspects of your classic mainstage track, Mercer has found a way to challenge that convention in a similarly beautiful yet simple way.
“All I’ve done is change the way the tracks are laid out. It’s all the same elements and it’s all still in there, but it’s just kind of sequenced in a different way. It’s linear. It starts in one place and ends in a different place. Rather than circular, which is more what most dancefloor kind of music is.”
“Too Focused on the Rave”
The work that comes out of his studio process isn’t all that sets Rusko apart though. Rather, it’s the work that’s going in that truly will put him on top in 2015. In an unprecedented move, Mercer will be getting off of the road completely this year to focus on making music. No festivals. No club shows. “No touring at all,” he resolutely states. It’s something that other artists have done for much shorter periods, typically to work on single albums followed by going right back out on the road to promote said music. Mercer’s ambitions though? They go far beyond simply pumping out 12 tracks and then heading back out on tour.
“Everything’s all become a bit too focused on the rave, all being about the big shows, and less about producing quality albums. It’s become less and less and less about that…No one really in this game these days gets to spend that much concentrated time on music. You can only go so deep into something when in two weeks time you’ve got to play a show.”
For all of 2015, the focus will divert away from the rave. Away from the festival mainstage. And most importantly, away from settling for less than perfection just because there’s a slate of live shows on the docket. The eventual goal: “More than one full length album out (in 2015).” With “12 months of no gigs and nothing but studio ahead of me,” he’ll certainly have more than enough time to double down on music.
Part of this will include a two month retreat to a cottage in Scotland, where he’s promising a record that will be “just live instruments with no computers.” Lest we forget, before he was the Rusko we all know and love, Mercer went to school at Leeds College for a degree in music performance. That passion for music extends beyond the less-than-organic EDM production process, for an album he opines will sound something like “lo-fi, folky dub.” Even he seems uncertain as to what exactly that means or entails, but that’s the sheer beauty of what 12 months off from touring will do: The freedom that “a normal kind of DJ schedule wouldn’t allow.”
Whatever this next year holds for the original “Cockney Thug,” you can color us excited for what a year off the road and in the studio will bring for one of bass music’s greatest visionaries. As our interview wrapped up and our Caviar Cones burned out (don’t worry, we’re still professionals and left a fair amount un-smoked), we couldn’t help but reflect on just how much 10 minutes of talking with Chris yielded so much. For many artists, we can talk for 15, 20, and even 30 minutes at a time and end up getting about 600 words worth of useful writing. Our chat with Mercer ended only when a head popped into the room reminding us that there were just 10 minutes to go until the man of the hour was needed on stage behind the decks. Lost in conversation with a charismatic and thoughtful musical mind, it was an experience that, when described as “that one time we smoked with Rusko,” doesn’t even scratch the surface of what went down in that red-bricked room.
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