Eddie Ruscha Talks New Music, Secret Circuit, Classic Past Work, and Upcoming Projects
Over the years, Eddie Ruscha has created an important and ever-evolving body of work that seamlessly traverses and transcends genre and media categories. Employing several monikers, including Secret Circuit and — most recently — E Ruscha V, the artist freely and effectively draws from a deep well of experience, creative intuition, skill, and — perhaps most strikingly — a palpable love for music and art. And while the inspirations behind Ruscha’s music and visual art may be eclectic, his own work is a remarkable and cohesive synthesis of those seemingly disparate elements. Eddie Ruscha’s world offers sights and sounds unique to itself, and is as inviting as it is rewarding to anyone interested in paying a visit.
Not surprisingly, Ruscha’s varied artistic pursuits have included personal intersections and creative collaborations with a remarkable roster of artists dear to us here at WMF, including: The Samps, Tim Koh, Nite Jewel, John Cale, Gary Wilson, Peaking Lights, CMON, Doug Hream Blunt, Ariel Pink, Prophet, and even the elusive Folerio. All this — along with Ruscha’s notably pleasant and generous demeanor — added up to a recent and delightful one-on-one with the modern-day Renaissance man, which we are exceedingly happy to share with you here.
Bobby Weirdo: We’re standing here, surrounded by your art, and that makes me think of the SAMPS album covers you did for their album. Were those pre-existing works or…
Eddie Ruscha: I made those for them. For the first one, I envisioned these fingers coming over a brick wall or something – that seemed very SAMPS-like. I went with that, and it worked out. I did another for them as well based on some new age record covers.
BW: Looking at both your visual art and your music, there’s what you might call a tension or juxtaposition between concrete and fluid, synthetic and organic, and so on. It seems you’ve been mixing the visual and musical aspects of your work for your entire life, and I’m curious if that was a conscious decision.
ER: I think I’ve got that a bit more figured out at this point. It was unconscious at first but that’s what naturally interests me. I love the synthetic, robotic, man-made thing, and then I love the man-made humanistic thing. To put them together is something that’s always been exciting to me. Sometimes I’m in the mood for one or the other but -- for me -- listening to all-mechanical music can get tiring but so can the opposite. I guess I find both to be beautiful so I try and combine them.
ER: I keep thinking about it. I’ve just been too busy doing other stuff, but I like keeping the blog, and every so often I think about post stuff. I’ve got to get back to it, because the concept is good for me. I’ve got my dublab radio show [Cosmic Neighborhood] so that’s another outlet for my musical interests.
BW: Though a lot of your work has been released under the Secret Circuit moniker, your latest album was done as E Ruscha V, and I’m assuming that’s the Roman numeral for 5 and not the letter “V”, right?
ER: Yeah, because I’m the fifth [Edward Ruscha]. It’s a long line.
BW: You’re the fifth Edward Ruscha, and you have kids – is there an Edward Ruscha VI?
ER: No, I cut the name off.
BW: Do you have a boy?
ER: We have two boys.
BW: So that was a conscious decision…
ER: It was conscious; I thought five was a good number. It seemed like the right thing to do, and my first boy has it as a middle name.
BW: On the topic of names, the E Ruscha V album isn’t Secret Circuit. What motivated the move away from the Secret Circuit moniker?
ER: The music was a bit different, and a rebranding of sorts. But also, I felt like this particular batch of music [E Ruscha V] was a bit more sountrack-y, and the Secret Circuit stuff was heading more into club music, although a bizarre version of club music. I felt the right thing to do was to give a new way to approach [the music].
BW: You mention a soundtrack feel to the music. “Who Are You” is more like a single, and – not surprisingly – you’ve got a great video for it. That track and the entire album work on their own, but they also definitely have the feel of music that works well with visual accompaniment.
ER: I wanted something that wasn’t particularly background music, but something you could live with throughout the day and it could just be there as an accompaniment. There are a lot of focal points though – it’s not ambient, per se. It was something that interested me, and I was making a lot of music like that anyway. Maybe when you put your own name on something it could be perceived as more serious.
BW: I like the “Who Are You” video. It looks to me like you’re at Echo Park Lake, but there’s also footage from Paris. If you’re not familiar with those particular environments, though, it looks like it could all be from the same area.
ER: Yeah, I liked that too, and it could be one person’s memory. It worked out really well, and I combined [that with] animations that I made.
BW: Oh, you made those?
ER: Yeah, it took forever!
BW: I can imagine. And though we’re not talking about Secret Circuit specifically, once again there’s the layered approach -- mixing and matching.
As long as we’re talking about videos and particular tracks, I wanted to talk about the “Nebula Sphynx” video as well as the “Parascopic Rope” B-side and single. Steve Hanft and his wife Ashley Dunn directed both of those videos, and it looks like both videos were shot at Elysian Park…
ER: Yeah, they’re both at Elysian Park, and were shot on the same day. We were there, drove to the next spot, and did the next one.
BW: Because the “Nebula Sphynx” video starts out at a car wash…
ER: Yeah – it’s the one over on Glendale, by Fletcher. Some of the [car washes] you go into stop and the things go over the car, but this one just goes really slow. I had a rent-a-car, and I don’t remember why. It was a sporty looking car, and I thought we should use it in a video. I went to get it washed and realized how much I loved going through the car wash. It’s almost like a cheap amusement park ride and also brought back feelings of being a kid going through those and staring at the patterns. The slipping cosmic water galaxies seemed to work with them music. The idea for the video just appeared to me and we shot it.
BW: Did you use a GoPro for that?
ER: Yeah, but it was kind early with the GoPro. [It was] the very first one, so people were just getting them.
BW: Did you have to negotiate ahead of time with the people at the car wash in order to film there?
ER: No, and we had to go through about twelve times just to make sure we had it, and to try different things. A couple times the camera knocked over.
BW: Musically speaking, “Nebuala Sphynx” is an example of a type of Secret Circuit track where elements are gradually added and stacked on top of each other. As far as putting a track like that together, I wonder if you have a grand vision ahead of time.
ER: I hardly ever have a grand vision ahead of time. It mostly starts with experiments and then I keep working on whatever sticks. Some things happen really easily, and some things go through a lot of changes. That particular track started off with Cole MGN and myself messing with some synths and i just built it off of that.
BW: “Parascopic Rope” is a standout track and video. The mystery of the video though, is that while you must have put a lot of effort and time into it – and I presume you want people to watch it – it’s literally almost unwatchable.
ER: Yeah! When we started messing with the GoPro the idea came to me to attach it to a long rope and swing it around. We made some tests, and it took a while to make it work, believe it or not. We looked at the results and thought, “Woah – this is cool, but this is intense.” But it seemed to reflect this idea of how planets work, or something like that. I really like the way it came out, but it’s not for the weak at heart.
BW: Do you know Steve and Ashley from CalArts?
ER: I met Steve at CalArts. I did some soundtrack stuff for him, and I was in a couple of his movies. That’s how I met Ross Harris and the Sukia crew and Beck back in the day.
BW: You mention movies, and you appeared briefly in The Crow as part of Medicine. There are some other unusual Eddie Ruscha pop culture appearances I want to touch on. First, there’s the Gap ad that you and your dad are in. How did that happen?
ER: The Gap asked, we said OK, and we did two of them. It was a trip to see the billboards -- that’s for sure.
BW: Was it a themed campaign, like dads and sons or something?
BW: Just two guys! You’ve mentioned before that you work for your dad [painter Ed Rushca]. Is that you “day gig”?
ER: That’s my day gig.
BW: Is it possible to briefly describe what that work specifically is?
ER: Working on paintings, among other things – helping to plot out things, doing lettering, cutting, masking, and painting. [It’s] a lot of the painting stuff that would take one person forever.
BW: Another unusual collaboration is that you created a brief piece of music for a cocktail – the Bel-Air Bellini.
ER: Oh yeah – that was interesting.
BW: Did you specifically make that bit of music for the cocktail, or was it something that you had lying around already?
ER: I made it specifically for that – they hit me up, so I did it. I used the sounds of the ice cubes in the video they shot and tried to hear music in there and i just brought it out.
BW: For inspiration did you make yourself one of those cocktails?
ER: I didn’t -- I made a different cocktail!
BW: For the dublab fundraiser/Stones Throw single you did, “Proton Drive Theme”, you did the A-side, Ramona [Gonzalez, Nite Jewel] remixed…
ER: Remixed mine. And that’s the whole premise. Because before that, I had remixed the Peaking Lights one [“More High”]. Ramona made the next one, someone remixed it, and then they made a track the next year.
BW: Speaking of Peaking Lights, I don’t know if it’s secret, but you mentioned to me a couple days ago that you were recording with Peaking Lights Family Band.
ER: Yeah – it’s not secret, because we’ve been playing [out] a lot. It’s this big band, and it’s pretty amazing live. We got together because we played an insane Dior fashion show out in the Malibu Hills. There were 100 models and Rhianna was in the audience. It was quite an experience. They basically built a small city out there.
BW: So Peaking Lights Family Band is distinct from Peaking Lights, right?
ER: Yeah, it’s something we all compose together, and most of it’s made up on the spot. [After we’d done several shows] shows, Chris from Stones Throw asked us to do some recording, so we went in the studio and we’ve been working on it.
BW: Since you mention Chris/Peanut Butter Wolf, have you DJd at Gold Line?
ER: I have – it was super fun.
BW: What is that like only DJing with records that are already there?
ER: It’s a challenge, and not the way I usually operate because I’m so weirdly specific, playing things that I’ve been listening to or have been inspired by. But it was really fun and cool, because you pull stuff out and don’t know what you’re going to get. And the records over there are just, you know…of high caliber.
BW: They’re from Peanut Butter Wolf’s collection, right?
ER: Yeah – they’re probably not from his “A” collection, but it’s all really good.
BW: You’ve mentioned Prophet before in your blog, which I think is an interesting connection.
ER: I played a show with him recently when I played in the Doug Hream Blunt band. The band was Peanut Butter Wolf, Jimi Hey, Aaron [Coyes], and some other crazies. It was on the roof of the Ace Hotel here in L.A., and Chris brought Prophet in to play keyboards. We’d rehearsed three times at Stones Throw with Doug , and then Prophet came in and rehearsed a few times with us – what a cool guy. Luaka Bop contacted us and wanted to do more shows like that, but we’re still waiting on that.
BW: Oh yeah - because Luaka Bop has Doug Hream Blunt on the label. Thinking about the early days of that label, and going way back to when I was a kid, I would speak pretty regularly with Greg Kurstin when he was playing with [jazz great] Charles McPherson. That was before Geggy Tah even had their hit…
ER: Dude – talk about going back, I played with Greg in a punk band back in high school in the hardcore days. It was like a noise-y, no music band, kind of like The Fall or something. The band was called Subliminal Discipline, and Greg played with us at a house party in a backyard in the deep Valley with a keg.
BW: You’ve mentioned that Manual Göttsching’s E2-E4 is a favorite of yours. What is it particularly about that album that is significant for you?
ER: It’s a perfect thing to get lost in. I love everything about it, and it’s so mysterious. It’s rhythmic but kind of stationary. I don’t even want to ruin the beauty of it by talking about it, but I just love it. He supposedly made it only for himself to listen to on a long travel.
BW: And you’ve still got the Can poster in your studio, right?
ER: Yeah, I’ve got it in there. It’s kind of a barometer that i can look up at and maybe they keep me in check in some way when i need it.
BW: I think one of the all-time weirdo pop masterpieces is “Cool in the Pool”, and that’s a song that seems to be important to you.
ER: Very important. Discovering Can was just a huge one for me – the pinnacle of modern music for me.
BW: Regardless of what genre you’re working with or listening to at any given time?
ER: Yeah, because they’re their own genre, and that’s what I love about them. It’s not like I listen to them all the time anymore, but I know those records inside and out. And Holger [Czukay] is – of course – a hero. I got to meet him.
BW: In what context?
ER: He played at Spaceland in the 90s.
BW: You have quite a history at Spaceland.
ER: Yeah, we used to be there all the time. So many bands rolled through there. In fact, Damo Suziki played there one time. Michael Karoli was playing guitar, and they took an intermission break and just played the sound of water over the speakers. Damo went around the club, hugged every single person in there, and then they went back and played some more. It was really amazing. The rest of the band were from this obscure Holger-related band called P.S.Y.P.H.
BW: You must have seen Silver Lake go through a lot of changes over the years, and Spaceland is certainly an important part its history.
ER: Yeah, an old band of mine – Future Pigeon -- was playing [one time] and Ariel [Pink] opened. It was one of his first L.A. shows, and that was the first time I’d ever seen him. He was in a pair of tight pink pants with no shirt on singing from the floor of the room and prancing about. I was like, “Oh my God!” There was hardly anybody there, and I went up to talk to him afterwards. I told him, “That was amazing! It was like every kind of good music in one.”
BW: That’s how his music came across to you, even in that early stage?
ER: Yeah. He was super cool when I went up and talked with him, and we became friends after that.
BW: You’re also friends with Tim Koh. Was that a CalArts connection?
ER: I’ve known Tim even before he went to CalArts. I met him through another musician, Eugene [Goreshter], who plays in Autolux now. He told me I should meet Tim because he was into the same kind of music I was into. This was back when Tim had short hair, so that tells you something!
BW: You worked with producer Matt Hyde during your time in the band Maids of Gravity, and I can’t picture what that would have been like, and what you might have gotten out of that.
ER: I’d just gotten out of the band Medicine, and I made all these demos. I felt they were really cool, but all of a sudden I was signed. They told me I should work with this producer even though I felt I could do it myself. So it is what it is, and I learned a lot.
On the next record, I worked with John Cale, which was interesting and amazing. Not that I’m totally happy with it…
BW: Was his production style hands-on?
ER: He was very hands-on. We definitely went head-to-head a bit, and that’s not a guy you want to go head-to-head with. He’s intense.
BW: The project Laughing Light of Plenty was later re-named The Naturals. Originally it was just the “Rose” single that was released, but later there was a full-length album. How did that all happen?
ER: It’s all a strange, long story. I met Thomas [Bullock] who became my partner in Laughing Light because he had done a remix of a track by my project Dada Munchamonkey. The single took off in the dance world, and he got really into that record and said he wanted to record with me. We started hanging out and recording and became fast friends. [He’s] such an inspiring dude [and] really opened my eyes to a lot of things that changed my way of thinking about music, like the Italian DJ Daniele Baldelli. He told me he used to DJ in a space pod at a club called Cosmic. Baldelli became my next touchstone after Can; his 80s mixes were so inspiring to me.
Anyways, we kept making stuff, and then a friend of his offered to put a record of ours out. He gave us money to get in the studio and make the record. It came out on a boutique underground record label in New York called Whatever We Want, and this was at an interesting time in dance music. When people put out dance music [then], they put out these bland [record] covers, but [Whatever We Want] was using crazy, well printed art, so it made a mark at that time, especially in New York and Europe. The single got around and did pretty well. [DJ] Harvey and all those people were playing it, so it was an underground classic.
We wanted to put the record out again, but Thomas wanted to change the name to make it different since [the other tracks] were more demos. So the one that came out as The Naturals is the more demo version of the record.
BW: On the topic of remixes and different versions of tracks, were you in involved with the Woo version [“Woo Are You”] of the E Ruscha V track, “Who Are You”?
ER: A little bit. Matt from RVNG hit me up and asked how I’d feel about Woo remixing a track off of the record. It was like a dream. Matt wrote me later and said they wanted to sing on it. I didn’t know what to expect, and I was floored when I heard it. It came out better than I could ever have imagined, and it’s so nice to be involved with them – they’re such cool guys, and one of my favorite bands, of course.
BW: You’re also singing on “Who Are You” a little bit at the very end – it catches you by surprise.
ER: Yeah, I sing, but it has to be a very special mood that I’m in. Either that or the music has to call for it. Vocal and instrumental music are equally important to me but sometimes i find vocals distracting.
BW: Now and then, the word “exotica” has been used by others in connection to your music, and there the Secret Circuit album titled Tropical Psychedelics. There is a vague sense of that sort of exotica influence on your music – is that influence actually going all the way back to a Les Baxter/Martin Denny style exotica, or where do you see it coming from?
ER: I love all that stuff. And then you listen to those old Sun Ra records where he was listening to that and making his own version of it, which is some of my favorite stuff of his. There’s something about it; it’s teleporting music.
But we’re in Los Angeles, so I feel that there’s that vibe anyways. It feels natural, and is something I euphoric I want to hear a lot of times.
Tropical Psychedelics actually came to being because my Myspace page had those two genres listed. Back then you had to pick your genre and those two felt pretty good together and summed up what I was doing.
BW: Is there a way to see some of the live events you’ve played, or are they one-time things? For example, you scored and performed live music to the 1922 Swedish film Häxan at the Hammer Museum in 2009. Did you tape it?
ER: I did tape it, because I was proud of that and feel it worked really well. It was a lot of work because it’s a very long movie. I’m really happy with how it came out, though.
BW: Is it something you would consider revisiting in the future?
ER: It is – that, or another movie. I think Häxan has been done quite a bit now.
BW: You grew up in Laurel Canyon, and have indicated that you may or may not have gone to Frank Zappa’s house there at some point.
ER: I did go to Frank Zappa’s house when I was little, and swam in his pool. My mom told me she took me there all the time, but I don’t remember it.
BW: Speaking of your mom, one of her friends got you into Faust and Can, right? Who was that friend?
ER: The artist Jim Shaw. My mom worked at an animation company in the ‘80s called MidOcean, and Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw worked there. They were super underground at the time – not famous at all. I worshiped those guys and thought they were the coolest people ever. That’s who I wanted to be like when I grew up. Going over to Jim’s house and seeing all these crazy costumes and things he made was really inspiring. In my eyes my mom kind of helped bring attention to them as artists.
Anyways, Jim had a garage sale, sold a bunch of records, and Faust, The Fall, LAFMS, and Can were in there – it’s life-changing stuff when you’re a teen. And another guy that got me into cool music was Gary Panter. He got me into Throbbing Gristle, The Residents, and stuff like that. So my path was set at a young age.
BW: What was it about your time at CalArts that was so special? So many great artists have come out there.
ER: It was a great time to be there – to come out of high school and to see all these other people making art and music. There was tons of music around – I took classes in African and Balinese music, and then I took animation classes, experimental film, and stuff like that. So all that was in reach.
I was in Medicine at that time, and then we got signed. So I was like, “OK, I’m not going to get my Master’s -- I’m going on the road.”
BW: You guys were the first American band signed to Creation, right?
ER: Yeah. Possibly the only, but I’m not sure.
BW: Being an L.A. band, did you feel a connection to the label and England? Did you fly over there ever?
ER: Yeah, we flew over and hung out with them and My Bloody Valentine. I'm not sure that we ever totally fit in but it was sure an exciting time. We toured opening for the Smashing Pumpkins before they got big [and] also with the Flaming Lips, [who] were in an Econoline van at that point.
BW: Secret Circuit is playing as part of CMON’s 2019 March residency a Zebulon. What’s the connection to Josh Da Costa and CMON? Is it through RVNG?
ER: I met Josh through the scene – I think I played on the bill with Regal Degal maybe? I liked him right away, and I liked his music.
BW: What else will be going on for you in 2019?
ER: There are a couple things: There’s supposed to be something happening in London that will be musically and visually-oriented. I’m also going to be doing music for a dance in the south of France [Arles] this summer.
BW: When you say “dance”…
ER: Modern dance.
BW: So they’ll have a dance piece…
ER: And I’ll make music. We did it about a month ago at the MAK Center, and it came out cool. Before that we had done one at Hauser and Wirth with a film by my wife, Francesca Gabbiani. The choreographer [Dmitri Chamblas] is getting all kinds of offers to do stuff and it’s a really different world than club life. I dig it. It gives voice to more abstract sound.
I’m also putting the finishing touches on a new record – the E Ruscha V follow-up album. I also made a record with Scott Gilmore, and we’re finishing that. I also have another project called "Only Thingz" and I put out a cassette on this great label called Good Morning Tapes and it's more abstract stuff, so I'm finishing another one of those as well.
I put out a record and a tape last year with the drummer of Medicine and our project is called "The Parels". We've got new stuff. Then There’s the Peaking Lights Family Band…there’s always something going on, that’s for sure.