Photo by Farrah Skeiky
Ned Russin doesn’t live in Kingston, PA anymore. After the release of the last Title Fight album in 2015, he spent four years in New York City, during which time he got his bachelor’s degree in creative writing and started his solo project, Glitterer, a spacy bedroom pop counterpoint to the hardcore sound he cut his teeth on. By the time he moved to Washington, D.C. in 2019, he’d distinguished himself as a creative force apart from the beloved punk band he co-founded in part with his twin brother Ben almost 20 years ago.
His second full-length album, Life Is Not A Lesson (ANTI-), pushed him even further, but it also brought him back to his noisier roots. Made under COVID-19 lockdown, it’s the first release since his self-titled debut EP that he recorded on his own, with the exception of remote contributions from Ben. Left to his own devices, he found himself mixing his glossy synths and indie rock hooks with a larger-than-life guitar distortion he started inching towards on his last record, Looking Through The Shades.
He even (briefly) found himself back in his hometown to film the fuzzy music video for “Are You Sure?” which he tapped Ben to direct. Featuring Ned alongside a cohort of colorful, masked local contacts, it’s fueled by the fun and the mundane surrealism of goofing off with old friends–an apt accompaniment to an album that, at times, feels like a housebound homecoming.
Make no mistake, though, this is a Glitterer album, if a grittier one, like Russin upended the glitter tube and kept shaking until it covered everything in an abrasive, sparkling, sandpaper coating. Before the February 26 release of Life Is Not A Lesson, Russin spoke to The All Scene Eye about getting the best work out of himself without external feedback and his complicated feelings on narrative songs.
You had to cancel your tour back in March when the pandemic started, which is also around the same time you recorded this record, Life Is Not A Lesson. What was that time like for you?
I was actually on tour into lockdown in Europe.
Yeah, I started tour at the beginning of March, and then I was supposed to actually start recording in Europe for a weekend. Then I was going to come home for a couple of days and continue touring, and kind of had this whole plan worked out to where I was going to record in a few different sessions, make a record in between touring, and then kind of wrap it all up together with Arthur Rizk, who I’ve worked with in the past–you know, he’s produced Power Trip and Code Orange and all these great bands, and he’s a good friend of mine. I was going to do a final session with him and then mix it all and master it, have it be out by the end of 2020, and keep touring that whole time.
Obviously, when I had to fly home early from Europe, that plan kind of evaporated into thin air. I had planned on recording some songs myself to begin with, but I didn’t plan on doing every single thing myself. It was definitely a wrench thrown into everything, but at the same time, it gave me an opportunity to try something I had never done before. I was just kind of locked in my house for months working on songs, slowly recording them, and trying to figure them out, so I spent March through May finishing up the record and recording everything myself–except for the drums, which were done at a different location by my brother, and my friend Colin [Gorman] engineered that–and then sent that off digitally to be mixed by Arthur. Everything just completely changed overnight, it felt like, but I kept continuing on, trying to make a record regardless. I still wanted to do it, so I just kept working on it.
Being more hands-on with the production this time around, what were some things that surprised you in the process, or that turned out differently because you were the only one in the room?
It’s really hard to say because I was so close to the project, you know? Like, in the past, things have changed because of feedback that I’ve gotten from other people, or from just hearing somebody play something in a different way–that changes your perspective on something pretty quickly. Doing it all myself, I guess the changes occurred over a longer period of time.
You know, I like to get things done as fast as possible. I don’t like to second-guess myself because the recording process is usually such a long, drawn-out thing that I try to make it as quick as possible–just kind of get the ideas out and run with it. I feel like going with your gut is important, and just getting the songs out there to be heard is one of the most important things about making the record. But when I had all that time to myself and I had the opportunity to go back and redo things, it became the thing of trying to figure out exactly what it is that I want, which is a hard decision to make.
I’m not a person who does well with an overwhelming amount of options. That gives me quite a bit of anxiety, so I tried to manage that while holding myself accountable and while trying to get the best stuff out of myself. I was essentially trying to act as an outsider while being the only person in the process. It’s difficult to do and to be objective in that way, but giving myself all that time I think was what made it possible.
From the beginning with “Bodies,” you get the immediate feeling that this album is bigger, fuzzier than the last one. Tell me about how that track came together, and more broadly, the sound of this album.
“Bodies” was one of the first songs that came together for the record. It was in this phase where I was writing songs with, like you said, kind of fuzzier, more blown-out, more present guitars, which was, you know, something that is not unique to the world of music at all–not even unique to music that I’ve written in the past–but it was unique to this band at that point.
When I hear a band playing extremely loud with super distorted guitars that are really going for it, that gets me excited, and it’s hard to do that completely on your own. When I’m playing music by myself, I don’t have somebody banging on the drums behind me and somebody with guitar turned up to 11, so I started writing these songs, and I was able to kind of create that effect on my own, and having that in my headphones was something that got me excited. I just kept coming back to those instruments and those amps over and over again to write songs, and that created a foundation for the record, it felt like.
Yeah, what was your guitar setup like on this album?
I used somewhat similar stuff to the last record because I don’t have that much guitar stuff at all. You know, I’m a bassist exclusively, but I have a Fender Strat with humbuckers–like, a Fat Strat–and I used a Gibson SG that actually belongs to my girlfriend. I used her 800 and I used a Sunn amp, I think it was a Concert Lead, and just kind of cranked everything. I used some distortion pedals, but it felt like a pretty traditional guitar setup, you know? It was more about cranking everything past the point of no return.
One of the more striking moments on this album is one of the cleaner bits–the title track stands out with this clean, kind of droning part. Tell me about “Life Is Not a Lesson.”
That song is one of the ones that took shape over time. My favorite way to write a song, and the most ideal way to write a song for me, is to have an idea and execute it in as short amount of time as possible. Like, in an ideal world, I would have an idea for a song and finish that in an hour or two. I’m able to do that sometimes when I’m really in-the-zone and really feeling connected to it, but sometimes that obviously doesn’t happen, and you just keep coming back to certain ideas.
I started messing around with the piano riff first–which, I mean, it’s not even a riff. It’s, like you said, a repetitive, almost droning part, so I was doing that as just kind of a way to write chord changes underneath it. I had that on a loop and I was playing bass over that to come up with some chord changes, and it was just kind of working. It felt like something that could be a song in and of itself.
Then I had these lyrics on my phone that I’d been working on, and that process is always kind of difficult, but something that I try and make as easy as possible on myself. I try and have a running list of lyrical ideas, and I try to not get too far ahead of myself because there’s nothing worse to me than trying to fit lyrics to a song that don’t fit–you know, if you have something completely planned out, it’s hard to make it fit to something that it’s not naturally supposed to go to. I had this thing and I kind of scrapped it, and the only line that I kept was “life is not a lesson.” I kind of built it around the piano riff and that lyric, and that set the mood.
Going against what I said earlier about the foundation trying to be this super loud, band-driven, fuzzy record, when I hit that moment, which was kind of midway through, I felt like that was maybe a thesis of the record. It was something that I felt like was really important. I think it’s important on full-length albums to have that kind of diversity, because nobody wants to hear the same song for 30 minutes. That’s taxing on the listener, but at the same time, you want there to be something that stands out and is not the same thing over and over again.
Getting to that point, it felt like I had a lyrical idea, it felt like I had the sonic mood board or the sonic palette to pull from, and it felt like it was a complete idea. I was fully on board and fully aware of what I was trying to do. I don’t try to go into a record or any kind of project with everything figured out. I like to allow room for experimentation and for my subconscious to wander, to try and figure out what I’m actually trying to say and what I’m trying to sound like.
This record asks a lot of questions and is very open-ended, and you close it with the most definitive statement, that life is not a lesson. If you could talk more about lyrically, this record–I’ve heard you refer to this feeling of longing throughout it. What was it like for you writing lyrics in this unusual period of time when the table was kind of turned over on you?
Yeah, part of what you’re saying I 100% agree with, and I’m happy that it came across that way because I do think that the title track, the line, that whole song at the end of the record is supposed to be the answer to a question, you know? It’s something that really clicked for me in sequencing, in putting that song at the end. There’s also some sonic tricks there that–it was not intentional at first, but once I realized it, I was very focused on it, and it made me feel like I had something that was put together and fully realized. It felt like I had accomplished a goal.
But going back to what I said about not wanting to have the record figured out, in writing lyrics, I kept coming back to the word “want” over and over again, and there’s a point when I’m like, whatever, six songs in, where it’s like, “I keep saying this word. It just sounds nice in a song and it gets across what I’m trying to say, and I keep talking about it.” It’s something that I’ve been thinking about and that I wanted to address, but I wasn’t sure of how to do it, and then, kind of like the song “Life Is Not A Lesson” being the midway point of the songwriting, it made me realize what I wanted to get across.
A lot of the time, what I do and what I’m interested in is offering conflicting viewpoints–like, from my own perspective. I write songs that are not true to myself, or that I don’t necessarily 100% believe in, not as a satirical, tongue-in-cheek thing, but as a way to admit–it’s like, everybody makes exceptions to their own rules. Everybody is hypocritical. Everybody has these kind of, like, pulling at multiple ends in themselves. Part of that for me was desire pulling in all these different places and trying to figure out the root and the cause and the complications of all that, and then trying to answer, what does that mean?
That’s where I got to with the title track, and in my mind, this is not a solution to the world’s problems. This is not some philosophical or religious text. This is an idea that I’m working through and that I want to get across in the way that I like to, which is music, you know? I don’t like narrative and I don’t like arc, but at the same time, I love them and I’m fascinated by them. To me, this felt like the most narrative–or maybe not narrative, but an album that has an actual arc to it that I’ve done.
There are places on this record where it feels like short fiction to me, in the way that short fiction can sometimes not be a narrative arc, but can be more of a meditation. The kind of turning point track on this album is “The End,” which is this very concrete scene. “Lay down and make the bed / close my eyes and cover my head / Sit inside and think of the end,” which tells a story, but is not necessarily part of an arc.
Yeah, and that also reminds me of a point that I wanted to make in regards to your last question. I wrote the last couple songs and recorded this record in quarantine. In lockdown. And of course, I know what’s going on in the world, and I’m aware, and I live in it, so I want to write a record that reflects where I am, but at the same time, I don’t want to write a quarantine record. I don’t want to write a pandemic record because it feels to me like that would only be relevant to the pandemic. You have to think of how these things relate to life beyond what it is now, which is a difficult thing to do because life is really only what is going on now.
But in regards to narrative, yeah, I agree with your points. I’ve never been really interested in writing a narrative song. That’s just something that never really struck me. I don’t feel like I have that ability. I like when other bands do it, and I like songs that tell a story, but to me, when I sit down to write a song, it often feels like I’m trying to decipher my own feelings. I’m trying to get across an idea. I’m trying to talk about something a little bit more abstract, and that is really hard to do in narrative, if you’re trying to do something textural.
I don’t have a real thought-out process to writing lyrics, and I don’t have a specific idea for what it is I do. Again, I feel too close to it, but I like lyrics. I like literature. I like words. I think about all those things a lot, and it’s trying to find a balance of saying something that sounds good and works and you like, and that means something, and that also gets your point across, which can happen in so many ways. It can be setting a scene, it can be discussing an emotion, it can be all these different things, and so there are definitely narrative aspects to it, but it’s not a story.
It creates something interesting too, which is like, beyond everything, what is the character that is saying these things? Everything is autobiographical, I guess, but I don’t know–that’s the interesting thing about music, is anything you write down is assumed it’s coming from you and about you. You can’t think about all those things when you’re, like, sitting down. I mean, I guess you can–it’s just, I would feel that that’s overwhelming. It would be hard to really do something that you’re content with. You’d always want to be changing it.
You did a video for “Are You Sure,” which looks like it was a lot of fun to film. Where did you shoot all of that footage?
That was all done in and around Kingston, Pennsylvania. I actually was talking to another director about doing a video, and that fell through, and while I was doing that, my brother Ben, who has done video stuff in the past, made a passing remark about me not asking him to do the video, just as a joke. Ben did some editing stuff for Title Fight, he went to film school for three months and dropped out of his only film class after, like, two weeks, but he’s always been into video stuff–has always been interested in it and good at it, so I just took him up on it. He wasn’t really expecting me to do that, and so he was like, “Oh, I actually have to come up with something now. I have to figure something out.”
We talked a bunch about it, and I was not trying to be in the video because I don’t live in Kingston anymore and I didn’t want to travel there. And, like, two days before–I mean, the video was due on a Monday, and I told Ben a month and a half in advance, and then that Wednesday before, Ben’s like, “Okay, we’re gonna start filming now. I need you to come up.” And I said, “Okay, if you need me, I’ll come up.”
So I went up, just as everybody does, trying to be as safe as possible and work as quick as possible. We came up with a very loose concept that was more based around shots than it was a story. Ben had some ideas, and actually, the big idea for the video was just having it be a constant, slow zoom-out kind of edit, so we just thought, “What would be cohesive and interesting to put all that together?”
It was Ben and some other people from Wilkes-Barre who all got this together really quick, and I think it turned out really well. I’m happy with it, and I’m especially happy to work with my brother. That’s just really cool. It’s a cool creative relationship because we used to make movies all the time as kids, and we used to mess around with video stuff, but we haven’t done anything in a professional capacity. We haven’t done anything that was a project like that, so to do that with him was really, really cool.
If there’s one big takeaway from this project for you, now that the album is coming out, what has it been?
To me, and this is something I’ve been thinking about, and that I think about in regards to consuming other music, it’s like, music is still important at the moment. Maybe it’s selfish of me to say because I’m putting out a record, and obviously I want people to listen to it if they want to hear it, but I think putting out music into the world is a good thing at the moment.
The world is particularly trying at the moment, and to have something to engage in that hopefully offers some reprieve, but also just the fact that someone else feels a similar way, or acknowledges that things are difficult, but is still trying to get through it–I think those things are important. I hope that people can listen to it for whatever reason they want to listen to it and get what they want to get out of it, and can do that from all other things that are being produced right now that aren’t, like, terrible disaster porn. I don’t want to say people need normalcy, but people need things that are just reaffirming that you’re alive, and it’s okay to be alive, and we are all in this together.