The trajectory of XL Recordings, a beacon in independent music, is largely thanks to the ears of Richard Russell.
Over the decades, the British label has studiously inducted fundamental sounds into the zeitgeist. The groundbreaking rave aggression of The Prodigy plunged the masses of the 1990s into an intoxication with electronic dance music — one that still lingers to this day — and the debut of Dizzee Rascal single-handedly introduced the rest of the world to grime in the 2000s.
But it’s not just fringe sounds: the label has been responsible for the emergence of Adele, M.I.A., Vampire Weekend, Sampha, Jungle, and King Krule — and that’s not counting the roster of imprint Young Turks with the likes of The xx and FKA twigs. The label’s resume sparkles with the kind of star power that now reads like a peerless festival line-up — that’s largely due to Russell’s forward-thinking ethos, developing long-term strategies that have bolstered their growth.
Russell, a seasoned producer and DJ in his own right, has prided himself with the label’s sparse output – an average of six new albums every year — and the resulting impact that range from universal critical acclaim to Grammy Awards. But quietly amongst the headline-grabbing talent lies Everything is Recorded, Russell’s own music project that reconfigures his pursuit for new voices into an ongoing collaborative project.
In his studio, Russell has invited talent, from within XL and beyond, to write and record material that first resulted as a debut album in 2018. A sprawling 12-track effort imbued with touchstones across the soundboard — dub, R&B, trip-hop, rap, jazz — the album succeeded with a formidable balance of late-night atmosphere and infectious grooves. Russell is, after all, an unashamed music nerd, and his efforts under this project allow him to stretch artistically in many ways he can’t as a label manager.
Russell also injects that inclusive curatorial spirit through his ongoing ‘Making a Mixtape’ program on NTS Radio. With his overflowing library of vinyl and studio equipment, he’s back this year with a new album, FRIDAY FOREVER.
It follows a vague concept — a journey through the course of a buzzing Friday night, complete with timestamps to mark each chapter of this urban voyage.
But it’s the continuation of the project’s vast musical range that makes it an entrancing listen. FRIDAY FOREVER also features live instrumentation that adds weight to the album’s gentler moments — its penultimate track ’11:55AM/ THIS WORLD’ is otherworldly, a track radiating a sombre and spiritual tone that you may find in any poignant Spiritualized ballad. In other moments, you’d find yourself scrambling towards Discogs — the sheer amount of impressive new talent on this album almost eclipses the remarkable contribution of Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah (father of EiR collaborator Infinite Coles).
Russell spent an afternoon with us unraveling FRIDAY FOREVER, revealing the freewheeling ethos behind his project, the samples that characterise the album’s best moments, and running XL Recordings over the uncertainties of today.
Hi Richard! What compelled you to tackle a second Everything is Recorded album?
I’m always recording, and not just for projects that I’m working on. The studio is always operational — sometimes I make beats on my own, sometimes there are people around and we make music together.
After the last record, I carried on making music with Infinite Coles for his own project, and then some different collaborations manifested, along with other ideas and concepts. At a certain point, I realized, without ever really deciding to make another record, we were making one anyway. So I decided to embrace it.
Tell us more about the concept behind FRIDAY FOREVER.
Well, I had this sample by an artist called Maddy Prior. ”This world is gonna break your heart,” it’s from an old English folk song (‘Poor Little Jesus' by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band). Infinite and I wrote this new song, using that as a theme, and to me, it really sounded like music that was an aftermath, the next day.
Coincidentally, we also had a couple of songs — one of which is about being in a club, and another the journey home from a club — and it just felt to me that there was a story there. I wondered if it would be interesting to pursue that idea and frame it like a movie.
By telling that story through these different songs, I wanted to use that as a way of getting interesting work from different collaborators and writers — with their own voices and experiences.
The roster on this new album features a refreshing amount of newer talent. I’d like to know more about the dynamics that take place in the studio, especially since many of them are younger artists collaborating with an experienced producer like yourself.
The first Everything is Recorded record was the first record Infinite Coles had worked on, so he came into this one experienced. We’ve had a great working relationship, and we work together very easily.
And then there's these two superheroes on the record, Ghostface Killah and Penny Rimbaud (formerly of punk group Crass), and these two are superheroes to me. One’s from hip-hop and the other from punk. They are both very inspirational and are experienced in the studio.
But I also have a bunch of artists who are at the start of their journeys. If you're working with people with the right spirit, it doesn't really make a difference, whether they've made 30 albums or if this is their first time. You're there to express yourself, and it's all to do with the atmosphere, the setting, the mindset, the spirit, the intention — those things have to be right.
Is there anything you do to make the studio a conducive environment?
It's a sacred space. I have a sign on the wall that says "No outside realities”. It has a certain atmosphere, smell, feeling, and it's just about creativity and music. It's not about anything else. It's all we do there. The space is only dedicated to that.
I feel fortunate that every time I walk in there, I still feel that — it’s never worn off. I think because I never had a studio like this early in my career, I'm even more grateful to have the opportunity to work there. I also think other people seem to appreciate that feeling when they come there as well. That always seems to lead to authentic work!
What would be one guiding principle in finding collaborators?
It's all about feeling — that feeling is an important part of music, along with my instincts as a fan. As a fan, you can't get that wrong. A music fan makes a playlist of songs that they love, they can't be wrong about that.
I tap into that feeling about an artist, their voice, their spirit, and about their character — whether I get excitement from hearing them. There also tends to be a natural connection to the project, because there's some shared spirit and feeling.
I imagine it must feel liberating working with different artists in a space like this.
Yeah, I think part of the beauty with Everything is Recorded is obviously the engagement with an artist. It’s very, very relaxed. They're coming to contribute something to this record, but they also carry on with their journey, their own world they're making, their own albums [that] they're doing.
This is a little break from that. With an artist and a record label, that's a greater commitment. XL might sign one artist in a year, whereas in Everything is Recorded you might find 10 new collaborators on the record. So it’s a different dynamic — it’s a lovely way of collaborating, which is quite free-flowing and easy.
What lessons have you taken away from your collaborators?
One is that you can make music quickly and spontaneously. With Flohio, we didn't have to labor over those things. I had a sample that I wanted to play for her, for instance, and we talked about the time of night, and the feeling, and the story. Collaborators like her were able to just do things that worked.
We didn't have to overwork, we didn't have to over scrutinize or overthink. I think that's really refreshing.
One distinct element of FRIDAY FOREVER is the live instrumentation on certain tracks.
Like the first, there are a lot of samples on this record. A lot of these songs are based on a specific sample, and we've used that as a kind of starting point. On '10:51PM/THE NIGHT' there’s a sample from Smog/Bill Callahan, and on '01:32AM/WALK ALONE' a sample from Man Friday’s ‘Love Honey, Love Heartache’, which is a classic Paradise Garage tune. On tracks like ’05:10AM/ DREAM I NEVER HAD’ and ’10:02AM/ BURNT TOAST’ there's more, as you said, live playing.
This one came out of jams that we recorded in the countryside in Dorset. That was a totally different type of feeling. The first half of the record, you have a slightly more clubby feeling, it's very sample-based. The second half, which is more psychedelic and woozy, has definitely more of that instrumentation on there.
Are these samples taken from your vinyl collection?
It depends on the song. On ’02:56AM/ I DON'T WANT THIS FEELING TO STOP’, I had the Mikey Dread sample on a USB stick, plugged into my DJ set up in the studio. I was able to tweak and filter that sample, so that was done completely DJ-style.
Where possible, I sample from vinyl — i like the texture you get when you sample from records - and I edit them in Logic.
How do you usually acquire records to sample?
I try not to ever look specifically for samples because I think that can get laborious. I have a pile of records in a room where I exercise at home. I always add records to it which look interesting, most of which I haven't heard before.
Sometimes I'll look at a record and think "Yes, it feels likely there might be a sample in there". Sometimes you just know there's not gonna be a sample in there, but it's still gonna be an interesting record to listen to. I’m always adding records to that pile.
It sounds like that spontaneity in the studio also extends to your record collection.
There has to be some of that! I am creating that possibility of accidents, so they're sort of slightly intentional accidents.
How’s it going on the XL end?
I’ve been very fortunate over the decades of running the label. A team has come together where they are really able to operate the label day-to-day, and it's staffed by people who are fantastic in their work. There’s the spirit of the label in everything they do, so I'm free to make music, which I greatly appreciate.
I’m there to provide feedback on the creative side, so people come around and play me things when I'm available. The thing that's important with the label is to put out records that are good quality, original, and have some possibility of affecting culture and pushing boundaries.
There's a new Arca record coming up, and we just put out the new King Krule. There’s a new artist called CASisDEAD who's got his first record coming from the label. As long as there are artists of this calibre working with the label, then that's all I can ask for. It’s definitely important to put out a small number of records, but obviously working with people of Thom Yorke's calibre is wonderful.
When I look at another label like Warp, I think, "This label has put out so much incredible music over three decades now.” They’ve supported so many artists who've been massively influential, and I think that's a fantastic thing.
How do you see yourself steering the label while the industry continues to be disrupted by the ongoing pandemic?
This is obviously a very tough time, and live music has been hit hard straightaway. This has serious ramifications for people on the touring side, especially crew, so we've been talking about different ways where we might try and help with that.
As streaming continues, people are able to make music and labels are able to release them, even in this situation. Obviously, music is very important to people at the moment. Our label staff are still working, even if they are working from home, so they're able to keep getting paid and that's great.
It's an incredibly hard situation and the government has got to look into what they can do to help people. The main elements of a record label are intact, but there are challenges that will come up, which are all unforeseeable at the moment. We're just taking it day by day.
Stream FRIDAY FOREVER here:
This interview has been condensed for clarity.