People & Places

Coralville record producer hits musical milestone with movie soundtrack release

Russ Curry's client Heavy Color featured in documentary by Mark Ruffalo

Russ Curry is photographed Oct. 22 in his office and studio in Coralville. One of his clients, Heavy Color, recently com
Russ Curry is photographed Oct. 22 in his office and studio in Coralville. One of his clients, Heavy Color, recently composed the soundtrack for Mark Ruffalo’s documentary, “Invisible Hand.” (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Russ Curry of Coralville said his Curious Music record label has been flying under the radar in Iowa since he launched it in 1988.

Not any more.

Its profile is rising, with the release of Heavy Color’s soundtrack for the film “Invisible Hand,” from executive producer Mark Ruffalo.

“It’s brought a level of interest to the label that is like double what I usually get. Part of it, of course, is because everybody knows who Mark Ruffalo is,” Curry said of the actor who has played Bruce Banner/The Hulk in several “Avengers” movies and other Marvel superhero films. “But I believe the music itself deserves a global audience, and so I’m out there pounding for them every day, particularly for this release.”

Heavy Color, a modern-music ensemble based in Toledo, Ohio, brought its artistry to Iowa City’s virtual Witching Hour Festival this past Friday and Saturday, further advancing the Curious Music name on the local scene.

Founders Ben Cohen and Sam Woldenberg introduced themselves to Curry in 2017, when he spoke at a Toledo Museum of Art launch party for one of his releases. After introducing themselves, the duo handed him a CD.

Curry gets this kind of pitch weekly, but he listened to Heavy Color’s CD on the way back to Iowa, “and I loved it,” he said. “I usually don’t love the music that I’m handed or that’s given to me. But theirs was very exceptional.”

They struck up a friendship and remained in contact. More recently, Cohen and Woldenberg had been in touch with the directors of “Invisible Hand,” and offered to put together the soundtrack for the film. It’s the first documentary about the Rights of Nature movement, examining the global battle between nature, capitalism and democracy. Then early in the pandemic, Cohen and Woldenberg contacted Curry about releasing the music on his label.

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“It’s an amazing, amazing movie and it’s an amazing soundtrack,” Curry said. “It was just perfect timing, and I love everything about it. I love working with them. I love the music they produced for the soundtrack. Also, it’s the first soundtrack that’s been released on Curious Music, so it’s sort of a milestone for us.”

Other media outlets are taking notice, Curry said, from newspapers to an Iowa PBS profile on Curious Music coming up in January.

“It’s gone from like zero to 60 in a matter of a months, as far as people being aware of it,” he said.

Russ Curry’s musical beginnings

Curry isn’t a musician, since he said he can only play about three chords on a ukulele.

Now in his mid-50s, he said music began speaking to him at age 3. At age 12, the Midwestern boy who grew up in Chicago and Iowa heard the sound that would change his life.

“The musical creative landscape was what was on the radio, which at that time was AM and FM. It was a different universe,” he said. “I started to become aware of this really unusual experimental electronic music — a lot of it seemed to be coming from Germany. And it was just really, really weird and it spoke to me. This type of music seemed to have its own self-contained language. ...

“The Midwest, to me, was drab and gray and all the same and conformist. And then I encountered this music, which to me was like, ‘Oh, I understand this. This is my tribe,’ this really strange experimental electronic music.”

“Autobahn,” a 22-minute piece by Kraftwerk, grabbed his attention. Even though it was sung in German, he said it spoke to him instantly, like someone “threw a light switch.”

“I was literally a changed 12-year-old,” he said. “I felt like I was the only kid in Iowa that was in on this little musical secret that was supercool.”

He studied English at the University of Iowa and worked at the school’s radio station, KRUI.

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“That sort of led me down the path I call ‘Alice stepping through the looking glass,’ where I went slowly from being a musical fan and appreciator to someone who worked in music,” he said.

Part of the reason he forged that path was his increasing awareness that nobody knew about the type of music he worked with.

“I still feel that way to a certain extent,” he said. “I felt that I was onto something or was aware of this amazing creativity that others weren’t aware of. That’s one of the things that really led me to start a record label.”

He chose the name “Curious Music” because he wanted his releases “to be thought of as a dialogue between artist, label and audience.” The kind of dialogue he discovered at age 12.

“When I heard ‘Autobahn,’ it seems to me that the intent of the people behind making the music, at least in part, was to get me to think about the world differently,” he said. “I wasn’t listening to groups like Boston or Cheap Trick anymore. It put question marks in my head and made me think about perceiving the world I existed in, in a different way. ... How do I view the world and how do I interact with people in a good, productive, caring, compassionate way?

“I named the label ‘Curious Music’ for that reason, because the music I wanted to be involved in asked me about what I was doing and made me curious about the world, about what else is out there — not only what other type of music is out there, but what else is out there in life, which is a question for a lot of people, and I still ask myself that.”

Making music a business

He’s finding what else is out there, as the production world keeps evolving. He didn’t have the technological gadgetry at his fingertips in 1988 that he has now. After the initial 13 years, however, he was feeling burned out. So in 2001, he ceased production and focused on being a human resources consultant, which he still does on the side.

“The spiritual feedback or spiritual payback that I was seeking by doing the work wasn’t there,” he said of his first go-round with owning a record label. “I wasn’t happy with it for a number of reasons. It wasn’t even financial, although that was part of it. I asked myself, ‘Is this bringing me joy?’ ... Whether it’s spiritually or just strictly artistically for an appreciation of some type of craftsmanship or creativity, ‘Am I doing the work that ticks those boxes?’ And right now I feel that,” he said, after restarting the label in 2017.

“Maybe a month from now or 10 years from now, I’ll feel differently. I don’t know.”

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Back in 2001, the work was different, he said, “particularly because for most of that period, we didn’t have cellphones and we barely had computers.”

Now he can do almost everything from his laptop. But even with all the advances, and the widening scope of genres he releases, his mission remains the same.

“Both when I started and in the current day, it’s two perspectives I bring to the project,” he said. “One is creative ... so I try to have a good, amiable relationship with an artist that I like. ...

“The first thing we do, is we do our best to make a creative work of art. I call it ‘an artful product.’ We’re making art first, and that involves things like production, manufacturing, mastering, mixing, design, graphic arts — all that stuff that makes this artful product. We look at it from a creative perspective first, and think, ‘How can we make something that’s lasting and meaningful, and would be of interest to people, and do the best that we can.’ That’s the first part of the equation.

“And then most artists and composers struggle with pivoting to the business, because they’re so creative and they don’t think linearly necessarily, and they don’t think in a business context, which is how the creative mind works. ...

“But on the other hand, I am able to split my thinking that way, and at some point during the big timeline of the project, I start thinking about the business side of it. How to manufacture it, what should the cover look like and how should we distribute it and in what format should we put it in — CD or vinyl or digital? ... And then there’s just a bunch of little technical details and financial details, things like that.

“So I think one of the strengths of my label is that I’m able to work with the artists and understand the creative language, but I’m also good at pivoting to the business side, the commercial side and promotional side.”

He said he’s not cut out for the cubicle world, however, and the upside of being self-employed is being able to vary his focus from day to day.

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“I actually pay a lot of attention to trying to make each day its own entity,” he said, “and bring the best that I can and get the most that I can out of each day.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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