Russell Mofsky is a true student of the guitar whose story has been told, thus far, via the strings of his guitars.
The Miami-bred guitarist and composer's life has been motivated by the beck and call of the six-stringed muse. From his early days performing with the unsung Miami punk legends Quit to a period of wandering through the flourishing abstract jazz scene of New York in the '90s, Mofsky has traveled many sonic paths to arrive at his current point. He composes and performs as Gold Dust Lounge, a project that mixes equal parts surf guitar and mid-century noire to make a final product that is altogether sublime.
Mofsky employs as interesting an array of tools as one would expect of such an aural alchemist, including a few lovely vintage guitars and a dizzying collection of unique effects pedals with which to morph and meld new and old sounds. We spoke with the guitarist about his fretted life as he prepared for a weekend of festivities celebrating the release of an album he says he's been trying to make for years.
New Times: What was your path to the guitar?
Russell Mofsky: My mom says I started asking for guitar lessons or a guitar when I was 4 -- that's when it started -- but no one ever acted on that. My mom's side of the family is not a musical bunch.
So, when I was eleven, I was chasing a cat at my cousin's house in North Miami and it ran under the bed in my uncle's bedroom. I lifted up the little cover to see if I could get to the cat and there was something in the way, so I pulled it out and it was a guitar case. I immediately forgot about the cat and opened it up and it was an old '60s Gibson Melody Maker that had been refinished in like this awful tan color, and my uncle gave it to me! So that night, finally, I had a guitar.
Who would you cite as early influences, being that you came from a non-musical family.
I was really into AC/DC, Iron Maiden, and Van Halen. I didn't really have any direction early on. I had a guitar teacher that was trying to turn me on to a lot of college rock at the time. He had me get the Replacements' Tim when it came out, and Aerial Boundaries by Michael Hedges, and he was trying to get me into the Smiths, and I couldn't stand the Smiths at the time. I was like, "Dude, I wanna learn Ratt, I wanna play like that!" And the irony is that now, the Michael Hedges or Tim -- especially Tim -- are such an amazing albums for me, and I hardly listen to any of that crap rock anymore, with the exception of AC/DC, because that's not crap.
I went to school with this girl Patti Reinert and she was always telling me, "You've got to meet my brother Sean." So, finally I met Sean and his friend, this guy Paul Masvidal, and the two of them already had this band, Cynic. They're a thrash band out of Miami and they backed up Chuck Shuldiner and Death on several world tours, and Cynic are legendary. So, I started hanging out with them.
And early on I was never into guitar players really, I was into bands. I practiced guitar for a couple of years in the early, early days and I learned the pentatonic scale and power chords and had some facility, so as soon as I got in with the guys, I got into bands -- which is where I really learned how to play.
There were warehouse shows out in Kendall in 1986-87, and we'd go to the Cameo Theater and check out everyone from the Bad Brains to Dead Kennedys or whoever happened to be in town with all the punk shows back then. Then finally Quit got going, and I just kept going with different bands.
I went to like these summer classes at UM and there was a guy in one of the classes, Jeff -- who is a jazz guitar player -- and we got to talking just because we both play guitar and I remember he asked me what guitarists I listen to, and I was like "I don't know what to tell you man, I listen to bands. I guess I like guitar players in the bands that I listen to?"
It seems like all of the stuff you gravitated towards and all of the stuff selected for you by that teacher featured guitarists with very unique voices that happened to also be athletic.
I think coming from a band point of view, there's guys that are just shredding guitar players, but maybe they can't write a song to save their life. I feel like I straddle this line between being a writer and being a guitarist, and I can play, but not like a shredder or something. Those two sides were always equal, and then the desire to just make all kinds of noise, early on discovering feedback and reverb, and like, shaking the amp and getting the reverb tank and springs to make an earthquake sound and having my parents be like, "Shut off that God awful racket!"
You use a really interesting array of gear in Gold Dust Lounge. What equipment is currently inspiring you?
I'm still using the same Boss analog delay that I got when I was eleven, I still have it and it still works. Actually, it's not on my board right now, but it was on my board until very recently. I got into fuzz a couple of years ago. I never had a ton of effects until I got the Zvex Fuzz Factory when it came out in the mid-'90s and I thought, "OK, some guy's making some weird stuff now," not just the Boss and Ibanez pedals, but now there were people building some ridiculous things.
I saw your board at the Rat Opera performance and I counted at least 5 fuzzes. Do you have a fuzz problem?
There are so many great shades of fuzz, how can you not get into that? From like sputtery, velcro-y unstable tones to just doom fuzz to stuff that's almost ring modulator sounding! I knew I liked Fulltone stuff, so I got a lot of his stuff really cheap on the scratch and dent part of his website. It was just about trying out a bunch of these different flavors.
My favorite one is by a company called Blackout Effectors, and it's called the Twosome, which has two sides, one is their Musket and the other I can't recall, but it's awesome!
How do you explain to a non-guitarist what is so attractive about having so many different pedals that make various distortions, and why it's not entirely redundant?
I would make an analogy to food, like for a chef. You have banana peppers, habaneros, jalapeños, it's all colors, right? There isn't just one shade of red, there's a whole range of a red! And people seem to understand that when they're painting their house, so this just a sonic analogy of that. You have the ability to manipulate different sounds through different circuits, so why not?
How did your sound develop into doing what you do with Gold Dust Lounge?
So, Gold Dust Lounge sort of represents all of the various influences that I've had since before I even picked up a guitar. From my experiences playing with punk bands and thrash bands and stuff, I wound up moving to Boston, and even before that, I had started learning jazz at Miami-Dade, really an extension of meeting Jeff. I spent 4 years at UM -- none of it in music school -- but I got to know a lot of people in music school and was exposed to guitar players like Pat Metheny and John Abercrombie and Joe Pass, or pianists like Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. I got really into this music from this one label, ECM Records, and I heard all of this stuff and I decided I wanted to learn how to play stuff like that.
I ended up going to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and everybody that I was with that finished there moved to Brooklyn and was really into the scene John Zorn had sort of created, and everyone was really into the avant noise jazz scene and I went and did that for a few years and realized I was never going to be like a Kurt Rosenwinkel kind of player, but I knew that I had my thing and I got back into writing songs.
So, I moved back to Boston in '98, and there was this bar that I used to hang at and there was a rockabilly trio there, the Cranktones. It was the first time I was really exposed to rockabilly. Obviously, I had listened to Elvis and Carl Perkins and knew about it, but these guys were a huge influence on me. I liked that the music had a broader appeal than the deep jazz in NYC, which was almost like going to a museum and just staring at something on the wall.
I liked that the rockabilly sort of reconnected me to rock music. A lot of guys and girls that aged out of punk get into rockabilly. All of these musical influences, and then stuff like all the TV I watched as a kid: 6 Million Dollar Man, Land of the Lost, Creature Feature, all of these old sci-fi, low budget monster movies, Bonanza, and all of the music from those shows, all of these theme songs were mixing with other influences, and it was just coming out in my music.
The other thing is that when I moved back to Miami, within 6 months I went to this shop called Glades Guitars, and I walked in there one day knowing that it was pretty much a high end acoustic guitar shop, around one corner, there was a wall of consignment guitars. And just all alone by itself, hanging, was this white Fender Jazzmaster. I had always loved Jazzmasters, I had always been a huge Sonic Youth fan, and I knew that this was the kind of guitar you could really make a racket on -- not just use for what it was intended for. And I played it and it just spoke.
I had played so many horrible Jazzmasters throughout my experience as a guitarist, I was always hoping to find one. I just loved the way they looked. And I had a Fender amp, so when you plug those two in together -- it kind of doesn't matter what you play on to a casual listener -- but when I started playing Gold Dust Lounge, I had already sort of appropriated the sound of surf guitar.
So it's a culmination of all of these influences and stumbling upon the equipment that accentuated it. Would you say this impending release is the statement that really speaks to all of that?
Yeah, I'm still amazed I was able to execute it. I've recorded a couple of albums with Gold Dust Lounge and we've had 3 or 4 attempts over the years were we just weren't prepared the right way. We played so much live that it felt like, "Well, let's just go into the studio and do what we do," but it just never really happened. And there were various lineups and this lineup and the group of people working, and I think having Aaron Fishbein as a producer to offer critique and an ear, this album by far really covers all of the bases for me.
I'm really, really happy with it and really, really proud of it. I told Aaron at one point if there was some sort of tragedy and I didn't survive, I'm just so glad that this happened.
Gold Dust Lounge album release party with Shark Valley Sisters and the All-Star Rat Opera band playing from the Rat Opera songbook, 9:30 p.m., June 21, at The Nest, 60 NE 14th St., Miami. Visit Facebook event page.
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