Interview with Jackie Frank Russell III (Exosphere, solo artist)

If you’re a member of any Facebook fan groups for modern prog metal bands (namely Haken and Devin Townsend), you’ve probably seen the name Jackie Frank Russell appear in your feed. But if you know Jackie, you know they are also as prolific of a musician as they are a meme-r. With projects spanning genres, and a voice that can alternate between beautiful falsetto and brütal, hellish screams, they are definitely a name to watch in the progressive metal world.

Jackie stopped by to chat about some of their projects, their education, and what’s in store during these strange times.

Tell us about your musical background. How did you first get into music. Who were some of your idols growing up? How did you discover “progressive” music?

My Dad is where I got most of my drive to start I’d say; he loves Megadeth and Metallica, who ended up being my gateway into metal music, and the first instrument I learned was trumpet because that was Dad’s instrument in high school. After I started on trumpet, my 3 little siblings immediately followed suit and became great musicians on their own instruments, so being surrounded by that was a hugely positive factor in my musical pursuits.

Aside from the Big 4 and standard heavy metal acts, I distinctly remember Ensiferum being gods to my middle school self (From Afar still kicks so much ass). From there to prog was basically dependent on my internet friendships and having people recommend me bands to keep listening to. The first progressive act to actually make me care, however, was Devin Townsend—who remains my absolute biggest musical and personal inspiration (who I’ll probably splurge about more later haha)

Tell us about your solo work, and your two latest albums, AAAAAAAAAAAAA and aaa. Also, for those that have a hard time counting, how do you remember how many As to put, and why did you choose the amount that you listed?

AAAAAAAAAAAAA and aaa (I sometimes call them ‘Big A’ and ‘little a’) are kind of my last little creative splurge from my undergraduate experience at Elmhurst College, during which I had been working closely with my composition teacher to proficiently and efficiently churn out high quality music that I was happy putting my name on. The titles refer to my sentiment that lyrical content isn’t necessarily the end all be all of how I enjoy songs—sometimes all you need is a held out vowel sound to get your message across—though the capitalization and number of letters suits the styles of music as well; AAAAAAAAAAAAA—13 A’s, which I remember by being 3 groups of 4 and a 1 added on—is the loud obnoxious metal album, and aaa is the electrono-ambient-stylized product. 13 felt right just because of its general negative implications—Friday the 13th and all that—while aaa was less thought about and more because it felt right as the companion to Big A.

You’re currently studying composition at DePaul. How do your studies accompany your personal compositions?

It’s weird, I’ve only made, like, 2 full compositions with the assistance of my comp professor, Dr. Christopher Jones, but in that time I feel like the way I’ve thought about composition has changed entirely. Even the songs I’ve made outside of school have felt the imprint of this new outlook, and I think that’s gonna show on my next album pretty strongly. I think it’s gonna be called Truth, looking to get lots of work done on it over this Plague Season™.

I know you are a fan of Devin Townsend, and you have his ability to alternate between clean and harsh vocals. What advice would you give to young singers to do so without harming their voice?

YEAH DEVIN! He’s got a crazy versatility to his voice, and having a model like that as someone to look up to definitely starts one off on the right foot. I think one of the most important things that people will sometimes look past is the necessity of practicing consistently: the best way to know your voice and its current limits is to have good muscle memory in consideration to what parts of your throat you should be aware of for easy noise production. The more you practice and perform the more endurance you’ll have for either clean or distorted vocals.

How did you meet your band, Exosphere? How would you describe your sound and vision as a band?

Exosphere is a sludgy psychedelic doom band I think? It’s hard to pin down, but definitely really heavy and groovy and at times dread-inducing. I met our drummer Bill Kaszubowski in my undergrad and we pretty much immediately started jamming with his band at the time, which is where I also met Henry Edwards our current bassist. Steve was friends with us through mutual friends and he was in the same area as these guys and had some wicked asymmetrical riffs that he wanted to throw down for a band, and Exosphere came out of the combination of his contribution and my attempts to make this genre that I had previously disliked into something enjoyable—doom and stoner-sludge is definitely not my ultimate cup of tea, but in writing for Exosphere I’ve found the sounds I like within the lexicon, and with that I now have a better appreciation for other acts within the similar genre vein.

Who would be your dream collaborators?

Devin is the obvious choice right, but beyond that there’s so many vocalists I’d love to write tracks for. Matthew Shadows from Avenged Sevenfold comes to mind, I’d love to hear him do something a little less straightforward and I’d be glad to push him haha. I’m really lucky that lots of the people I know are such great musicians and beyond that just wonderful human beings who are always aiming to make awesome art. The first to come to mind is Max Mobarry, lead singer of Others by No One who also did a guest feature on AAAAAAAAAAAAA. He has a voice that’s so unique and characteristic that it’s hard not to subconsciously come up with melodies that would suit him.

What are you planning on doing these days to deal with the COVID-19 related shutdowns?

Yeah, it’s the question on everyone’s mind. I’m taking a small break from DePaul during this time because I know my aptitude for online classes is shaky at best, and I don’t want to flub my masters over something like that. I work at a pizza place right now so my job security is luckily okay, but I’ll be taking this reprise to try and find work more closely related to the music world.

If you were given the option to be the first human to have their consciousness transferred to a Data-like body (like, the guy from Star Trek: The Next Generation), would you do it? Why or why not?

I’m pretty torn, because I would definitely entertain the idea of being, in some sense, immortal beyond the normal means of carnal life. The problem I think is that the first person has a pretty high chance of not getting it done right. I’d be their guinea pig lab rat thing, and I’d be way too stressed to take that on I’d imagine. If I was, like, the 7th person to do it and they were all stored safely I’d probably be down though.

Listen to Jackie’s albums AAAAAAAAAAAAA and aaa here.

Check out Exosphere here.

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