Interviewed by
Shannon West

the Rippington's website

The Rippingtons have wrapped up what they jokingly called their three year 20th anniversary tour and released a new CD, Modern Art. When Russ Freeman put together the group that released Moonlighting in 1986 he had no way of knowing that it would turn into one of the most influential and original contemporary instrumental groups out there. The lineup has shifted with a certain amount of fluidity, people leave, new members come in, former members come back while Freeman's songwriting and virtuosity keep the sound on the growing edge. Besides writing, arranging and producing, he is the co-founder of Peak Records, a web designer, and now a painter and photographer. We talked about music, art, the similarities between them and the art of staying fresh, original and creative throughout a career that spans almost a quarter of a century.

SmoothViews (SV): I'm writing this editorial piece about how the genre has taken a lot of image hits because the segment of it that is high profile is not the best of what is available. There is so much wonderful music being made but it's mostly the tracks that never become airplay singles and the live performances. So that's what I'm thinking when I get my copy of Modern Art and you guys have put out this album that defines exactly what I'm talking about. It's this whole set of great contemporary instrumental songs.
Russ Freeman (RF): It's so funny because everyone's perception of your work is different. I was on hold with Delta the other day and I was hearing “Paris Groove” and it seemed so funny that they quickly grabbed that song. It seemed like for it was timely for them and it's current. You never have that perception when you're writing the music. I'm just writing songs the best I can, doing my job. Everyone's perception is different but we are totally pleased that people have such a positive reaction to this record. It's been amazing.

SV: There's some intangible thing here that runs straight to the early albums when a lot of us discovered the band.
RF: I think a lot of it is the personnel. We really have a good live band now. And there's the addition of Jeff. He's got a very vintage sound for the Ripps. He defined that sound in the 90s and he's all over this record. I noticed when he came back for the 20th Anniversary album how much it brought us back to that vintage period. I think a lot of it is Jeff and I think a lot of it's Rico. Rico is our new bass player and he's so tight with Dave and so cohesive as a rhythm section. All of that plays, you're really hearing the personalities of the players on this record. Another thing about it is that we had so long to make it. Generally, we come off the road and we have a deadline of two or three months at the most. This time we had a year to make the album so it was very relaxed and the players had a chance to get to know the music much better than they normally do.

SV: You mentioned in the press release that performing the songs live contributed to the evolution of the songs.
It always does. We try to get as much live performance as you can.

SV: A lot of artists don't want to do the new material until it's been finalized. 

RF: Well, yeah. We don't want to go out and play the songs before the public too far before they can purchase it but we were really anxious to get this music to our fans and I think they were really anxious to get it.  Three years is the longest the fans have ever waited between CDs.

SV: The interesting thing is that I had a real schedule conflict with your Jacksonville concert because I couldn't get off work early enough and I almost didn't go but the little inner voice was going “you've got to go. It's the Rippingtons.” Going into that theatre and seeing you guys onstage felt like coming home.
Thanks. That was our first live date of 2009. It was great to be back onstage.

SV: I was really surprised and overjoyed with the amount of new material you did.

RF: It's funny. We're debating now about how many new songs to do. We have seven or eight. I don't know if it's a good idea to fill up eight songs in the show with new material but the songs are playing. I'm amazed at the reaction we are getting.

SV: That's one thing I loved about the Rippingtons. If you are going to keep going to see a band that you've been a fan of for a long time you want some favorites but you don't want to hear them trot out the same old songs every time. If you are going to keep going you want to hear the new material. Especially when it is this strong.

RF: I'm glad you said that. You have to find a balance between the songs that people expect to hear and the songs that you want to play. Our fans have been very resilient about wanting to hear new material and very accepting of it.  I feel lucky because we are not the kind of act that has to play 10 old hits because that is all the people want to hear. Our fans are always anxious for new material. We did a private concert and got a standing ovation on a new song. It's the first time I remember that happening.

SV: Which song was it?
RF: It was “Body Art.”  I really don't remember it every happening before.

SV: Do you think that maybe the assumption that people are not receptive to new material is more of a perception than a reality?
RF: In our case I would say yes. People have been so loyal to this band. It astounds me. We owe our existence to our loyal fans. They must want to hear new material because we've had 17 or 18 studio albums and they are still looking forward to the new stuff.
SV: The fact that you can still come up with new material that sounds so fresh and vital is amazing to me.
RF: Again it's a function of our relationship with the fans and the relationships between the band members. I do as best as I have always been able to do as a songwriter. It's just a combination of all those factors. I have to say we owe it to the fans mostly.

SV: Right now there is so much inconsistency in everybody's lives. You just don't know what is going to hit you and there is something very comforting about little touchstones that have been a constant in your life. Music is like that and when it's a band like the Rippingtons one of the things that feels so good is that you have a sound but you aren't stuck in the past and dragging us backward with  you. The sound keeps evolving and you do give us new music to get excited about. 
RF: I'll keep that in mind. I'll feel more confident about putting more new songs in the set. We have it and we love to play it.

SV: I'll be the little devil on your shoulder that says “play more new stuff, then play even more new stuff.” (laughs)
Well we have it and we love to play it

SV: More than any of your recent releases you have brought that trademark sound without making it sound recycled. There are elements of texture and melody that are Rippingtons/Russ Freeman themes but they are in a new context and new songs.
RF: The way I look at it is maybe the definition of a song has changed. The thing that I most love about music is the thing I see less and less of, and that's harmony and melody. Now I hear a lot of rhythm. I don't mean to criticize modern music but it almost seems quaint and old fashioned to have as much harmony and melody as we do. It's almost dated (laughs)

SV: I guess if that's dated I'm with you because what I like so much about the songs on the new CD is that they are tight, catchy, and melodic when a lot of what is out there is riffs that don't turn into songs.
RF: Right, or grooves. I hear a lot of repeating rhythmic patterns with four or five note themes and the themes don't develop. You just keep hearing it over and over. So the artist is trying to get you to instantly recognize the material. I try to stay away from that.

SV: You lived in Colorado for quite a while, then came to Florida while most musicians and the music business seem to be concentrated in New York and LA. Do you think being this far away has helped you keep the originality and freshness in what you do?
RF: I think that is a good point. I have not been in those circles and I've kind of had a fresh take on how I approach the music. Not to say that being in those circles isn't a good thing. There's a lot of networking and positive associations and I've probably missed some good energy from not being in that. So there are pluses and minuses.

SV: You had Rick Braun on this CD. He's an LA guy and he brought something really beautiful to that song.
RF: Absolutely, it was great working with him. It's no different than if I was in LA and knocked on his door and said “Hey Rick, do it!” There's not that much difference than physically being there because we have the technology that allows us to communicate so easily.

SV: When I talked to Jeff last month he said he did his tracks at his studio in Seattle and that you and he had been working together for so long that you could give him a pretty raw track to work with and he could intuitively come up with what would work for it. Then I heard the final product and it did sound like the two of you were in the room together.
RF: Again, here's what's really unique about this record. Almost everybody would do many, many takes. Much more than normal as the song developed. I did this one completely opposite of how I've always done it. Normally I put the guitar tracks last. What I usually do is mock up the song structure with the melody and rhythm and I'll send it to the players so they can start learning it. But I leave it loose enough, generally, to where I want their input so they are not just mimicking what I've already played. From there we build a song. I like to do things left field so this time I decided that what I would submit to them was the finished guitar tracks. All the guitar tracks were completely done first and they played to them. I think it was way harder for everybody. They're always saying they want to play to the guitar, that it's the glue that holds everything together. They have been saying that, and I have been telling them that the track they are working with is not the final guitar track. I gave them what they wanted this time. I said here's the finished guitar. Play to it. It was harder for them but look at the cohesiveness. It really seems to have made a big difference.

SV: I think that's what I heard that does sound different but you can't quite define it?

RF: It's funny because everybody wants to play to something that is definitive and when you are building an album nothing exists at first. It's just thin air. You've gotta start somewhere so I thought that since my tracks are rhythmically solid on guitar, and it holds things together, I felt confident about playing all the guitar tracks first. 

SV: Had you guys worked on these songs or done any kind of framework with them as a group before you started recording?
RF: No, the songs didn't exist yet.  I had to teach them the songs. We're enough of a live band that I want to let the songs develop a little bit, but on this one I was pretty strict on the form. Sometimes I'll send them out and say I don't really know what I'm looking for but on this one I was pretty specific. All the tracks were kind of already finished.

SV: It seems like the songs get more improvisational and a little more edgy toward the end of the CD. Is that strategic or just the way it came together?
RF: The last thing that ever happens is the sequencing and I don't have much to do with that. I'll submit my sequence and it is invariably changed by the end. When the albums come out I don't even know the order of the songs. I think one thing they try to do is space the songs by who is featured so you don't get too heavy with classical guitar vs sax. We're distributing the features pretty evenly now. We're featuring Billy a lot. It's great to give everybody a chance to play.

SV: I noticed that a lot and another thing I noticed is that you used a lot more guitar textures on this, and a lot more textures in general. You've got the sitar effect, some rock electric solos, a lot of things going on with the acoustic.
RF: My wife is always telling me to play more classical guitar. Then we took a poll on our website and people wanted more electric guitar. I've always felt like I'm more of a chameleon as a guitarist. I'm always able to put whatever texture might be good for the song rather than considering myself to be some kind of virtuoso soloist. I try to play what is needed for the song at hand.

SV: You haven't used the trumpet much either.

RF: Marc Ledford played on “Black Diamond.” It may have been that long ago.

SV: I love Eric Marienthal and Paul Taylor but there is something about Jeff Kashiwa. It seems like Jeff's presence – the way he plays- just meshes with the songs you write and makes everything come together.
RF: I'll tell you about Jeff. The song that I wrote with my wife called “I Still Believe” - I gave it to Jeff and it is totally dependent on his performance. You give a guy a song like that and you're placing all your trust in him. It's maybe my favorite saxophone performance of any Rippingtons song ever. As a songwriter, I was so happy with the way we were able to realize that song and I give that credit to Jeff.

SV: It really sneaks up on you and builds and builds and really grips you.
RF: You can't ask for more as a songwriter.

SV: I wanted to ask you about your songwriting partnership with your wife, Yaredt Leon, she's got a strong sense of melody too.
RF: She's a super Spanish pop songwriter and so hooked into melody. It's funny because they are going through this same kind of transformation in that market as we have here. They've gone into the reggaeton phase and she loves the old salsa and the roots and now they are kind of losing that. It's going through the same kind of commercialization that the American market is going through.

SV: Over the last few years you've become a visual artist too. You've got some of your paintings displayed on your personal website.
:I thought long and hard about posting my work. I felt like it had to be at a certain level so you don't get tagged as some kind of a jack of all trades master of none. At this point I did feel confident enough to post it on my site,  and I'm getting some good reactions, actually.

SV: It's really fascinating because it is very detailed.

RF: I think that is one style, and that's the style I'm working in now. Obviously as I try to develop my skills as an artist I'll go through different phases, as I have as a musician. It's something I feel strongly enough about. It's part of the development of myself as a human being, that I wanted to put it out there to the world.

SV: It's definitely at the level where I wouldn't worry about that “master of none” thing.
RF: (laughs)  It's a passion, you know, it's something I love to do.

SV: It said on your site that you had been into this when you were a kid. When did you start getting back into it and developing it ?
RF: It came from my web development. That's how I started getting back into it. That was a good seven or eight years ago. It was from learning the tools of web design, then getting into PhotoShop and illustrator and Flash design. I guess I really started getting serious about art about two or three years ago during some of my travels. I was developing my photographic skills and it just hit me. I don't know why. You get these urges to create art. I don't know where it comes from. It's the same as music. I don't know why I write music but I do it.

SV: It kind of sounds like a trite analogy but I think of painting with color and painting with notes.
RF: What I've been trying to do recently is make as many analogies to music as I can to further myself as an artist. To try to take the skills I've acquired as a musician and translate them into this other medium. There are definitely analogies to be made.

SV: You've got to pin that down because it sounds so interesting. The skills you've acquired as a musician and use in this other field too. What would those be?

RF: A real basic example would be that you have a musical scale. I would make that analogous to blocking in forms and shapes, light and shadow. Very basic building block structure. The syntax of music would be the syntax of light and shadow. Maybe another would be that you've got your major, minor, augmented type keys and I would make that analogous to perspective. So you have all these tools that you use. Musicians use tools and so do artists.

SV: And musicians use shade, texture and color. And so do artists.
RF: Absolutely. It's about acquiring the tools. I just love studying art too. Seeing where it has come from and how it has evolved. The whole thing is fascinating to me.

SV: When you have these tracks and you go into the studio to mix them that's what you are doing.
RF: You're mixing colors. You're deciding the hue in music when you are deciding the tempo and some of the instrumentation. When you were asking about using a rock guitar or an accordion. That would be like hue shifts in a color scheme or an under painting. There's a lot of direct analogies.

SV: Getting back to the music business, you have a band and a record company. You've always been on the frontlines as far as adapting to technology but how do you look at putting an album out in 2009 and getting it to the people who need to hear it?
RF: That's a tough question. I don't know what the smartest business answer is. I guess the answer would be that since we haven't been able to arrive at a survivable place as an industry, at a place where we can distribute the music we are now leaving it up to the goodwill of the fans to find the music and purchase it.

SV: And to spread the word.
RF: That I again attribute to our fans. Turning other people on to our music and being so devoted and loyal. You can't put a price tag on that.

SV: Peak is one of the few surviving record companies that focus on adult oriented instrumental and vocal music. I know the label is under the Concord umbrella and going strong. What do you attribute that to?
RF: Again, I have to thank all the people involved that we have been able to survive because not many have and I attribute it to the success of the artists on our roster and the fans for their support. It all emanates from the fans. I don't think any artist should ever forget that.

SV: I think one place where you and the band have kept that bond with the fans is that you have read the fans and seen what we wanted by looking us in the eyes rather than by going to somebody who does not look us in the eyes but says “our research with those people has said that they want this.”  Instead of going through that filter you have come straight to us.
RF: Everything we do is our relationship with our fans when we play live. That's our basis. I've never composed music by committee. I wouldn't be able to do it. I mean take it or leave it. If you like our music that's great. But it is going to be what it is. It can't really be determined by a focus group.

SV: I was reading a book that was about how easy it is to lose sight of who you are and what you need to be doing and get caught up in a crowd mentality or just get so busy you lose focus and the analogy they used was losing and finding your North Star. It seemed like a good analogy for what we call smooth jazz because the focus has shifted so far away from what people originally came to the music for.  But I can pick up any Rippingtons album and there might be some influences that came from industry trends but you were never overtaken by them. Right up to this album you've kept the North Star in sight and we, as fans, really appreciate it.
RF: That's a good way to end it (laughs)

SV: So we wish you the best and hope this one does really well for you as you head for the 30th, 40th, and 50th anniversary tours.