A few weeks before the release of Russell E.L. Butler's long-awaited album, The Home I'd Build For Myself and All My Friends, the Oakland techno luminary is feeling nostalgic. Butler grew up in Bermuda, a tiny British territory with a majority-black population, in a house full of books. So, for our interview, Butler invites me to meet up at Marcus Books, the oldest black-owned bookstore in the United States and a stone's throw from the first apartment the artist lived in after settling in Oakland in 2009.
Butler first came to Marcus Books a few years ago to drop off donations for a book drive a friend organized for San Quentin inmates. "It felt like something I'd been missing for a long time, this cultural experience," says Butler as we stand outside the store, next to a mural of a rifle-toting Malcolm X. "These places that center our creativity are invaluable, especially in this age where you can hit 'add to cart' and hit 'subscribe' and you're getting your monthly re-up of books."
Butler's dad, the author Dale Butler, devoted his career to chronicling Bermuda's distinct culture and history at a time when, as often happens in colonized places with melting-pot demographics, inhabitants questioned whether a unique local culture truly exists. "There's a lot of people back home that talk about Bermudians not having culture, but they're so culturally rich," says Butler. "[My dad] felt this obligation to document this stuff so that wouldn't be an excuse for people."
The younger Butler's music is rooted in similar ambitions of advocacy through creativity. But The Home I'd Build For Myself and All My Friends is less about cultural preservation and more about actively shaping culture in real time—in Butler's case, working toward a culture that takes care of queer and trans people, black people, immigrants, low-income folks and artists.
For Butler (who uses the pronoun they), a safe space isn't just some abstract ideal—it's a material need. They're an affiliate of Club Chai, the queer- and trans-forward Bay Area club music collective rooted in global rhythms that slip easily between genres and borders. Club Chai grew out of a warehouse scene that Butler became immersed in upon moving to Oakland after graduating from School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. It's the same underground electronic music scene that suffered an immense loss in the 2016 Ghost Ship fire.
Butler was slated to perform that night on Dec. 2, 2016, but happened to be outside the East Oakland artist warehouse when it went up in flames. Sadly, they lost 17 of their friends, many of whom were queer and trans underground electronic musicians.
The music Butler has released since speaks to the artist's difficult healing process. "I'm 32 and I'm just like, cool, what else life? What else, yo?" Butler tells me as we browse Octavia Butler's apocalyptic science fiction at Marcus. "I survived all these things I thought would kill me. What now?"
In early 2017, Butler released an EP, I'm Dropping Out of Life, which was already in the works before the Ghost Ship fire; Butler had been workshopping two of the tracks in a producers' meetup group run by Chelsea Faith Dolan, a.k.a. Cherushii, a beloved local house musician who died at Ghost Ship. While in the liner notes, Butler specified that the life they're dropping out of is an uninspired one, alluding to the need to seize the day, the record's sentiment was decidedly dour compared to the emphasis on creation and possibility for The Home I'd Build For Myself and All My Friends, which comes out on Nov. 15 through San Francisco label Left Hand Path.
That said, The Home I'd Build For Myself and All My Friends isn't the soothing music of an imagined utopia: sonically, it manifests many of the tensions and struggles of everyday life in a polarized place like Oakland—where luxury apartments are jarringly juxtaposed next to homeless encampments, and violence is as enmeshed in the day-to-day as art and music. Not traditional techno by any means, Butler's tracks sound like they're wrestling, fighting. Fat bass lines jut out like springs; eerie synth notes creep, like an approaching shadow in one's peripheral vision, with a tension that never quite dissipates.
"It's not to elicit this feeling for foreboding or negativity—it's in order to elicit this extreme complexity, and feeling overwhelmed," Butler says. "Because of the album's name and its look, I thought a lot about, if I'm trying to create this space, am I at all served by thinking of it in a utopic fashion? ... I'm creating this idealistic space, but that doesn't mean there isn't a breadth and depth of feeling in that. It isn't all sunshine and rainbows and shit. It's hard work and struggle."
This ability to hold seemingly contradictory realities at once stems from Butler's life experiences as a queer, non-binary immigrant. They're used to often being the first: the first Bermudan person people meet in Oakland, the first person who uses "they/them" pronouns someone encounters, the first black person who isn't African American. For a long time, as their star rose in the local scene, they felt isolated constantly having to translate their identity to strangers. But eventually, they shifted their perspective and began to view their unique circumstances as a position of possibility to move the culture forward.
"In my knowledge and my upbringing at the very least, I didn't learn about people doing what I'm doing, who look like me and are from where I'm from, who were involved in any measure of this shit at all," says Butler. "I have some trepidation saying I'm the first X, but a lot of the time I am. And that comes with a lot of responsibility I take really seriously."
This sense of responsibility means forging new paths, new ways of thought, for the lofty ambition of building a more equitable society, Butler says. On The Home I'd Build for Myself and All My Friends, techno is the language Butler uses to bring these new realities into being.
As Butler tells me, "I'm forging the history of my people as I'm creating it."