I have been a Rippingtons fan since their first album crossed my desk in the mid-80s. (Please do not do the age math as far as me having a desk in the mid 80's that was not in an elementary school classroom!
) Over the years the band has continually raised the bar when it comes to contemporary instrumental music. During the period when artists were recording formula music in order to get airplay, Russ Freeman and the band managed to bring depth and originality to radio-friendly music. They were on the frontlines when this was a new and vital genre in the 80's and early 90's. Now, with the release of Cote D'Azur,
their 20th album, they are again frontrunners - this time in the revitalization and evolution of the genre. Freeman is an articulate, caring person and a passionate musician. He is also a very patient man because the power supply to my laptop shorted out while we were talking. He maintained his sense of humor during several long pauses as I tried to keep it alive by holding the cord in midair while doing the interview. He's a busy guy and I am very grateful that he took more time than planned to talk about the new album and how the music was created.
SmoothViews (SV): Since I talked to you last time you've moved from south Florida to California. When did that happen?
Russ Freeman (RF):
Late last year. My wife wanted to get back to California, and all my family is here, so it made sense for us. I do miss my friends in Florida though.
SV: We miss you too, but we'll forgive you (laughs), especially since I am in love with this album. I feel about this one like I felt about the early stuff. There is something intangible about it that bridges back to the way the music sounded before it got smoothed out. It has that kind of depth and texture and individuality to it.
It's funny, it's hard to describe where these albums come from, but I think a lot of people have connected with this record. We are hearing from our fans that they love something about it. It was a very passionate record to make. I tried to be as honest as I could about what I was doing at the time when I was writing it. You take chances and you never know how things are going to turn out. When I was writing the calypso song (“Le Calypso”) it was turning into a kind of sixties surf tune, which was really unexpected but it's a breath of fresh air and people have responded to it. I've found that when you write honestly people do respond.
SV: The other thing that was so cool about that one is the sound affects you used in it. There are all these little sonic things layered into it.
RF: Most of them were generated from my 60s Strat (note: Fender Stratocasater – the one most rock legends play, along with the Telecaster, which he mentions later). It's funny, I realized one day how great my workhorse guitar has been through all the years, and I thought it would be fun to just write a song for the Strat. I had played so many styles on that guitar, and I wanted to do a surf tune, so that's where that song came from. It's got these really modern synthesizer sounds and these retro old-fashioned guitar sounds mixed in with each other. It was fun to do.
SV: This album is inspired by your time in France, which brings this mental picture of accordions and cafes. "Paris Groove" from the last CD kind of eluded to this direction, and when I saw the title of this one, I thought it was going to be an expansion of that theme, but I hear a lot of influences here - France, the surf-rock sound, some Flamenco, Middle Eastern, even some chill. Was the inspiration the sound of French music, or was it a case where being in that area inspired you to write the music and that ended up covering a wider scope?
RF: Mostly that. I was inspired by the beauty of everything there, especially the French Riviera and the complexity of that region. There is so much there. The mountains - the Alps are gorgeous – and obviously the water. I try to dig a little deeper, and all these different musical influences from surrounding areas are there. It became a fascination for me. Hearing these musical influences and looking at my surroundings were the inspiration for the songs. They became kind of musical paintings.
SV: We seem to mostly think of music, especially instrumental music, as being inspired by emotional experiences more than visual experiences, so the question that comes to mind is how do you convert a visual inspiration into a musical experience?
RF: The feeling you get from what you see and what is surrounding you becomes the music. Obviously, you could get into a caricature of any given region and the music that is associated with it. In this case that would be cafes and wine and accordions. That is only one part of the whole scene, but I do feel - and I feel a little wistful because - that part of the culture is being lost. They are more plugged into pop and reggaeton and those influences now. It's much different and more complex. It's a natural evolution, but there is a sense of loss because the traditional sound is fading away.
SV: You did present a touch of the old flavor in songs like “Postcard from Cannes” along with the complexity on this project. When did you fall in love with this area?
RF: My wife and I started traveling four years ago, and I was in love with Italy, so I was trying to get her into going to Italy. Her father is French, so she felt like we should go explore France. She fell in love with Paris, then we started going to the south of France, and I was just fascinated. That's when the idea hit me that this was going to be the inspiration for the next album.
SV: You've never worked within the industry imposed boundaries of what "smooth jazz" was supposed to sound like, but do you feel like for this album the handcuffs were off a little more.
RF: (laughs) Handcuffs? I like that.
SV: I can't take credit for the handcuffs line, Jeff Golub came up with that one. You, he, and a lot of other artists seem to be getting back to a more individualistic sound.
RF: Ultimately the musicality has got to come through at some point. These players master their instruments, and they want to play. I think whatever handcuffs there are will be overcome through sheer musicality at some point.
SV: I do too, especially since the audience wants it so much.
RF: The audience always wanted it. On the other hand, whatever market forces can help get the music out there have always had some merit.
SV: One really interesting thing you said about several of the songs is that you followed your instinct as far as taking the song where it needed to go.
RF: What I did on this record was to write completely stream of consciousness. I decided that if I had an idea I would follow it to the end and not second guess it. The most difficult thing about songwriting is thinking that as soon as you have an idea you have to edit it. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to trust my instincts and see where these songs would take me. It takes some courage to do that because you are looking at it and feeling like all your experience is telling you that you shouldn't be doing it that way. You have to stop listening to that voice and just keep going, which is what I did for all these songs.
SV: That may be the key to what I meant about taking the handcuffs off. You've been around the industry people who demanded that musicians play it safe and work within a narrow framework so that little “voice” has gotten into everyone's mindset. It has to take a conscious effort to quiet it and follow the music.
RF: It does, but the songs lead you there when you let them. Take a song like “Passage to Marseilles.” There was no other way to go with it. There were no guideposts as far as how to count it or how to conceive of the instrumentation. It's all so different, and yet people like it. I thought it was going to be kind of a freak song and just sit out there, but people are telling me they love it even more than the other songs. It's so odd to see that. I see people responding positively to the most unlikely songs. They love it because it is different.
SV: Have you noticed how people seem to be a lot more open to things than people in the industry assume that they are?
RF: I think they always have been. I love to talk to people and just ask them what they are listening to. I was talking to my wife's cousins and I asked them what music they had on their iPhones. They will tell me all about new artists they are excited about and it is so different. They don't think in terms of formats or types of music. They just hear a song and like it and that's it. You'd be surprised by how diverse most people's tastes are. At least I always am.
SV: I've noticed the same thing, and with the variety of music that people can hear online now they are exposed to so many types of music that they just start to find songs they love and not even think in terms of type anymore.
RF: My mission has changed now. I want to write music that I can look back on with pride.
Is it something I want for my legacy as a songwriter? I owe this to the people who are listening and the ones who are going to find our music in the future. I owe everything to the fans. They are the ones who have kept us in business, they have supported me and the band for all these years. I want to give them something of value, too. I have also found that if I like it they generally like it too.
SV: Talk about the continuity here. The members have changed over the years, and a few guys have been in and out of the lineup over time, but there has always been this consistency even as the material evolves and changes.
RF: It's hard to talk about it, because, on one hand, you have the influence of the people who come into the band and their musicality. It's a very natural process. I always try to write to the strengths of the people who are playing. I learn from them and I try to be a sponge for whatever influences they bring too. On the other hand, they are playing songs that I have written, so it's a connection from both sides.
SV: There is a lot of texture on this album. It especially shows up on “Passage to Marseilles” and “Rue Paradis,” where there is this kind of textural chill groove going on in the back. You used a Telecaster on that one too – it's like guitar geek heaven in here!
RF: One of the first things I thought about when I started writing for that one is that I had this old Telecaster I wanted to use. I found it, it was really in bad shape, and I took the time to have it fixed up. I'm so glad I did because I used it on practically the entire album.
SV: Do you take all these guitars on the road?
RF: I back-line most of the guitars because of the logistics of touring and setting up, but I am getting into this new guitar made by Carvin that Steve Oliver turned me on to. I just love it, and I am thinking of bringing that one out with me.
SV: You were one of the first bands to embrace the new technologies. Magicisland.com, which originally was the home page for the Rippingtons, then added other artists, started up in the early 90s quite a while before other musicians got on the web. Now you do web design. So here we are almost 20 years later and these internet stations, blogs, and web magazines are pretty much the only way to access new adult oriented music. Where do you see the role of technology as far as getting music to the audience?
RF: It's better than it has ever been. Now the cell phones, the smart phones, have become a novel delivery mechanism that makes it really mobile. And you get to hear a lot more music on streams than on the radio. That's the good part of the technology - that it makes us able to deliver the music. The bad part is that file sharing and people stealing it has created a difficult business model and that made it difficult for artists and songwriters. The other part that really concerns me is the possibility that using technology is redefining the concept of making music. I had a parent come up to me the other day and say “my son is really talented. He's just nine and he's already mixing music.” Mixing, not playing. You don't even need to play an instrument anymore. I was crestfallen to hear that people think that you are making music when you manipulate music that other people recorded. There is this perception that you don't have to work and learn an instrument, you can just tweak it. That's kind of sad.
SV: Fortunately I still see a lot of kids learning to play real instruments and making that commitment. It's harder with the budget cutbacks in school systems and so many distractions like games and programs that let you play without really playing.
RF: I hope people keep playing instruments (laughs).
SV: There is a big difference between playing the Guitar Hero game and being a Guitar Hero, and I think the kids that would make the commitment do still pick up on that. At least I hope so! Another kind of out-of-the-box thing you have done with this album is that you started doing big chunks of the new material in your live sets for a pretty long period before the album was released.
RF: We decided to play the first six tracks in the last month of our tour last year. I don't know what made us decide to do it. We just felt like it, and we wanted to see how the crowd would like it, so we went for it, and they loved it. They absolutely went crazy for it. It seemed like a counter intuitive idea to play songs that nobody could buy yet, but we wanted to play stuff we enjoy. We had a blast playing it, and I think that feeling our enthusiasm for it was infectious to the crowd because they really connected with it.
SV: I imagine that created some excitement about the new music that helped get the sales party started, too. Plus, you were high-profile interactive when it came to getting word out that the album was coming, and you've got some really exciting material about the music on your website including your thoughts about each of the songs and how it was inspired. Didn't it debut at #1.
RF: It was briefly #1 so that's a good spot to have.
SV: Obviously you'll be spreading the excitement with more live gigs, can you clue us in on anything else that is coming in the future?
RF: We are going to put out an album next year. That will be the one that celebrates our 25th anniversary, or 26th (laughs). I'm just starting to think about the next one. Of course we are all really looking forward to getting out there and playing the music from this one. We will be doing that through the end of the year. We definitely have a release scheduled for early next year. I believe it is for April.
SW: Is it going to be a look back, full speed ahead or a little of both.
RF: It's going to be full speed ahead! We play the crowd favorites during the live gigs and love that but we've never been a band that spends too much time looking back.
SV: That's one of the reasons I love you, the fans love you, and the reason you have been around so long and keep building a bigger fan base. Thanks for the fabulous music and for spending some time with us and I know everyone is looking forward to seeing you live this year.
Visit the Rippingtons' website at www.rippingtons.com to find out more about Cote D'azur including Freeman's commentary on the songs, sound clips, and ordering information. The album is also available on iTunes, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and most online music retailers. You can also purchase it at many of the remaining “brick and mortar” music retailers.
Friend the Ripps on Facebook too: http://www.facebook.com/rippingtons
He talks about the Carvin guitar that Steve Oliver developed – here is a video of one of them, although it might not be the same model: http://www.carvinchannel.com/play.php?vid=140