“I just had to kick these two punk-ass kids out of the video store,” a wired Scott Russell revealed over the phone at about 10 p.m. only days before he was to leave the country. “I just hope they’re not out there when I close up. I don’t want any trouble. I’m a drummer! I have to protect my fingers!”
Sure, along with keeping the aisles of a West Island video store safe, 23-year-old Russell plays the drums. Well, not only the drums. Sometimes it’s plastic buckets. Sometimes it’s basketballs. Sometimes it’s that heavy-duty metal grating found on sidewalks, or an old sink, or a neighbour’s sturdy garbage can.
For Russell, the beat’s in everything around him. “Most objects have sound qualities,” he noted, while demonstrating the pleasant sound emitted from a fingernail flick on an unopened can of soda.
Russell is known around the city for playing a primal, eclectic mix of unusual percussion instruments. He used to busk on the corner of St. Catherine and Drummond, but that had its problems. “It’s not easy to find a place with good sound to perform. You can hear me from six blocks away. The best place is on the street, but you can’t play for too long before the people in their apartments call the cops.”
Nowadays, he reserves his playing for clubs and other venues, which could also cause some trouble. “At one show, I was playing on a propane tank that I found. It wasn’t completely empty, and it was leaking and smelling like gas,” he recounted. “With everybody smoking around me, I got a little scared.”
He tried university – at Concordia in Anthropology – but it just wasn’t for him. “I had too many ideas about what to do with my drumming to concentrate on school anymore,” he said.
Russell’s ambition is to make a living as a musician. The reason why he left the country only days after the video store incident was to jet off half-way around the world to play percussion and to dance on a tour with the Turkish National Dance Troop.
“I play music the same way that most people swim,” said a laid-back Michael Penning one Saturday afternoon. “You’re not actually going anywhere specific, but it feels good.”
Penning, 23, creates his mostly instrumental music with help from completely different tools: a collection of electronic equipment that he has accumulated – keyboards, sequencer, his computer.
His influences are many, from Thelonious Monk to Madonna, but his music propels sounds inspired by BT (Brian Transeau), Paul van Dyk, Moby and The Crystal Method.
He’s played a few venues around the city, but since his music is based on technology he is logically turning to the Internet to get his sound out there. His songs are available on Napster (for now!) whenever he or his friends are hooked up to the tune-swapping service. Penning is also aiming to send his music to Farmclub.com, an outlet for unsigned musicians. “It’s the best idea for independent artists. When you see Dr. Dre perform with a no name band, that’s cool.”
A career in music isn’t something that Penning is chasing after. Right now, he’s striving to be a university English professor. “I don’t have this rock star ambition; that’s not why I make music. I might make the effort, but I won’t get stressed about getting noticed.” he said. “But if a label comes along, I wouldn’t complain.”
Combined, they are known as S & M
“Well, it gets people’s attention,” Penning slyly pointed out.
“We’re inflicting pain on ourselves and on our audience!” teased Russell.
The two musicians have known each other for ten years. They were even in a rock band together for much of that time. But the pressure the teens put on one another to ‘make it’ broke them up. “We kept thinking ‘how are we going to get signed?’” said Penning. “The band got too stressful.”
Not too long ago, Russell and Penning agreed to get together to mix their newfound sounds. “When Mike and I play together, it’s fun music. Our artistic outlets let us be nutball psycho crazy creative,” observed Russell.
While their combined sounds may seem to be tens of centuries apart from one another, Penning said that they are closer than you’d think. “Well, 2001 is as far as we have come with sound. Anything has the risk of sounding bad. Banging on a garbage can could sound awful, but Scott can make music from it. I’m also taking random sounds – on my computer – and turning them into music. Imagine if Tchaikovsky had some of these new instruments at his time. He made cannons sound good.”
Playing live is a high point for the two, who get to witness the reaction that their music gets out of the crowd, which normally involves a whole lot of dancing. The guys say that in one of their shows, the audience actually gets to hear three – solos of Russell and his percussion and Penning and his electronic instruments, and the two combined.
And the music is appealing for a simple reason, said Penning. “Everybody feels the beat, everybody feels rhythm.”
For those craving the rhythm, Russell and Penning are planning to be back on the local music scene once Russell gets back from Turkey.