25 years. A quarter of a century. Pretty awe inspiring, isn't it, that a band can configure, reconfigure, and ride the tide of a total sea-change in every facet of the music business. From that first glimpse at the crescent moon shaped jazz cat strutting through a starry night, through the covers of 25 years worth of albums and chiseled into immortality on the side of Mount Rushmore as album #20 hits the streets, this band was indeed Built To Last.
Russ Freeman has done something stunning here. He has opened the door to a musical evolution of a very identifiable sound, and to an evolution of the way orchestration can be used in contemporary instrumental music.
During the time that he was working on this project, his sister was diagnosed and went through treatment for breast cancer. She was deeply involved in the process of creating this music and Freeman dedicated the album to her. We talked about that but seeing a loved one through a catastrophic illness is not something that translates easily to documented conversation. The healing element of the creative process is in the music itself and he documents that in the liner notes. She is doing well, and he has stated that he will use his talents and resources in any way he can to contribute to research and support for those going through this.
I have been a “Ripps-head” since the first time I heard the crickets chirping on the opening track of the debut album. I have seen this band at least once a year and talked to Russ and the other members of the band numerous times. I have never heard him as animated and excited as he was during this conversation. When you hear Built To Last you will know why.
SmoothViews (SV): When I talked to you in early 2011 you said the band was going to put out an album in 2012 to celebrate the 25th anniversary. I asked you if it was going to be a look back, full speed ahead, or a little of both and you said it was going to be full speed ahead. That you played the crowd favorites during the live gigs and loved that but the Rippingtons have never been a band that spends too much time looking back. Did you have any idea at that time that this was where you were going to go?
Russ Freeman (RF): That was before I thought about what was coming up. I use inspiration. I'm treating it differently than I used to. When I have ideas I just trust them more now.
SV: Do you think that is because you have been around for a while. Your growth as a musician and an artist, and your experience in the studio, onstage, and as an instrumentalist and songwriter.
RF: I've been thinking about that. I noticed on the last album that my work flow had changed. The way I approached music seemed to change with that record. Now when I get an idea, any idea, I don't evaluate it like I used to. I used to really ponder whether it was valid, I would take it apart. Now if it pops into my head I pursue it. Now I can do it with enough singlemindedness to bring the idea to fruition. Maybe that is part of having the experience. In the early days I might have had an idea but not known how to do it. I would have to learn and in the learning process the idea would get distilled and the inspiration would get mired in the technical aspect of it. Now it is not that way. I have a skill set now and there has been so much technological advancement that I can accomplish almost anything I want musically. What remains is the challenge of being creative and that is the ultimate thing we are here to do. My creativity is has increased instead of decreased with time. You get the idea that kids are very free and creative then you become an adult and you get locked in and lose all that childlike
wonder but I find as I am getting older I'm getting more of that.
SV: I want to print that part in bright red bold caps! Underlined!
RF: I think it's true that we are told that as adults our creative impulses will lessen with age but mine are increasing. I'm trusting it. It's about trusting your ideas. I went through a long period of not trusting them. I felt like my ideas didn't fit into the formula they needed to fit into. Now I don't feel like they have to. I trust what I get and I go with it.
SV: This is so in line with what bothers me about our youth culture focus. We get told that over time we should quit growing and changing, that we will start losing our chops or get stuck in some other era when in reality if you keep going forward like you are, there is this foundation of knowledge and skill and life experience that makes you able to do more and do it with more depth.
RF:The thing about that is that you have to have the wonder. You have to want to explore. You have to want to learn. Essentially every piece of art is a learning process. It didn't exist before and you have to learn how to paint it or sculpt it or play it so you have to have the desire to know more. Maybe that's what we lose. We become content with what we have already done. I see it with artists who have big hits and spend the rest of their life going out and playing songs they wrote several decades ago. I don't ever want to get to that point. Doing that just doesn't appeal to me. The other alternative is to break new ground and learn stuff.
SV: Which is what you have done here. The first thing that struck me about this album is that it sounded like a 21st century progressive rock album. Not as ponderous as a lot of the 70's stuff was and more melodic but it has that feel to it. You're taking a band that has always had a lot of rock flavor to it and adding this additional instrumentation to it and expanding the songs beyond that tight four minute and out thing. And you didn't fall into the trap of adding a classical type heaviness with the orchestration.
RF: It's interesting to see it from that angle, I hadn't really thought of it that way.
SV: Then let's reverse this, since this is your interview not mine (laughs). What angle do you see it from?
RF: Actually I like that take on it because we have all come from this shared musical history. These are things we grew up with. They are part of our lexicon, it's part of our musical DNA. We reach for that stuff so easily and when it comes up you think “of course.” That's probably where it all really came from. I was trying not to think classically when I did this. I was trying to use the elements of the orchestra like touches of paint that would organize what the Ripps were trying to do. I stayed away from these areas that you mentioned.
SV: When I saw you with the band last spring you said this was going to sound different from any album the band had ever done and mentioned the orchestration. I got this little tinge of fear that it was going to be over embellished or overly classical sounding but you have actually taken this orchestration and used it to add another dimension to music that sounds like The Rippingtons.
RF: The challenge is to get some personality infused in the orchestra. I'm finding that now as I am delving deeper and getting my chops into more serious orchestration the challenge is the same as with any band. You have to impart your personality into it. It's an engine that is waiting to be driven. You've got massive amounts of color and texture – way more than you have with a band. There is more dynamic range. You have more instrument choices. There are a thousand different ways you can approach it and that's what is so exciting to me as a composer. There are all these different colors. It's like going to the store and having every single paint hue available to you after being limited to a smaller palette of hues.
SV: Kind of like going from just primaries and jewel tones to all the swatches on the big paint chip wall at Home Depot.
RF: Absolutely. I feel like after 25 years I have explored most of what is available for this five piece setting. That's why I felt like I needed to break out and push the sonic envelope a bit, and it has been incredibly inspirational to do that as a composer. I feel like I am gaining so much more confidence as a writer because I've had a lot more experience before I got into this and now I get to expand on what I was doing before.
SV: You have all these sonic colors and shadings and textures, all these instruments to choose from. How do you distill that to the essence of what you are actually going to use?
RF: That's what became more challenging than I thought. The label gave me the green light. At the time I told them I wanted to do orchestrations, but not that I wanted to do orchestrations with the band. They OK'ed it, I couldn't believe it and I was thinking “wow, I get to orchestrate these songs.” It would be totally unlike anything we had done before and I was excited by the prospect. I recorded the album, I wrote it and used the orchestra with the band. I saved the best for last and started doing these orchestrations after the album had been recorded. That's when I realized how difficult this task was. I was thinking about how I could keep any of the personality of the band in these orchestrations when the band wasn't there. How do I make it a Rippingtons album? That was really challenging. Then I realized it was the same challenge we always have. You've almost got to have a mission statement and define the parameters of how far out you want to go. This was more difficult because I had so much more available to work with. It's like you're flying a Lear jet instead of riding a bicycle. You have all this control and power and a lot more dynamic range. I could have gone in any number of directions and I could have done anything so what I had to do was distill it down the way I thought it would work.
SV: How did the process work? I'm thinking pretty much in terms of sequence from getting the idea to bringing it into fruition.
RF: First I came up with the concept of the record, which was tied into the fact that the band was built to last. The the jazz cat is immortalized on the side of Mt. Rushmore. Those were the two images I was working from. This band has lasted 25 years and I am so impressed with that idea. The fans have kept us going for all that time and that idea became iconic. Then the idea popped into my head to use these instruments that have been proven over time, and when I thought about using the orchestra the whole thing clicked for me. The first thing I did was write the orchestration for the song “Built To Last,” the opening track on the album. I wanted to write a really simple theme and restate it over and over with different instrument combinations. Then I decided to use that theme through the whole album. The rest of the songs came organically from that. By then the label was willing to let me go with it. I've got to hand it to them because that was a real leap of faith. At the same time I felt empowered because I had made it this far. If my audience has followed me this long they will give me one last chance (laughs).
SV: I think they will give you about 25 more years of chances. The title track has a lot of different stuff going on instrumentally but the melody is such a pure Rippingtons melody that anyone who has heard the band is going to be able to relate to it. The arrangements are different but the essence is there, and it's time for this music to start stretching out and bringing different things to the listeners. There has been a lot of formula music over the past ten years and I think people are getting restless and hungry for something more.
RF: It's too early to say whether it's going to be a success but I think that there has been a lot of excitement about this record and that's one of the big reasons. People seem so incredibly ready to embrace something different. I have been doing interviews and the album has gone out to the media and I've never seen this kind of reaction to anything I have done before.
SV: You have this thematic thing that goes through the whole album based on the melodies you have in the intro and overall it is very cohesive but there are a lot of musical styles over the different songs. There is everything from folky/Nashville to electronica to hard rock to Latin to orchestral soundscapes. Then you've got big band swing on a Ripps type melody.
RF: The reason for that is that by the time I got around to doing “Route 66” I had broken every rule the Rippingtons had. These were unwritten rules I had created in my mind when I started the band. They were parameters. I didn't realize until after the record was done how liberating it was to set out to break them. I intentionally threw in “Route 66” only because I just wanted to break all the rest of the rules I could think of. I had already gone this far. It's just like smashing windows with a baseball at that point.
SV: I had these little notes I made about the tracks and the comment I made about “Shadow of Giants” was that it sounded like you were intentionally breaking rules with that guitar solo. Then you really took out the baseball and aimed for the window with Zakk Wylde.
RF: He added the touch didn't he ? You never know how something is going to happen. Especially when you've got a great guest artist. The challenge was to figure out what he might want to play and that is what I came up with. I know what a master he is and he completely understood what was happening with that track. His approach was so musical. He's only the second guitarist we have ever had as a guest, the last one was Peter White in 2000.
SV: How did you come up with someone whose history is hard rock as your second guitar guest? I can see people freaking – Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society, and Rippingtons in the same sentence?
RF: Actually Andi Howard, my manager, is married to his manager and that was the first connection. It just worked out.
SV: That song takes you from tribal percussion to hard rock guitar and shifts straight into this beautiful textural part but it all comes together seamlessly.
RF: I wrote this song early in the flow of songs. It started out with the orchestration. I followed this idea about a staccato orchestral thing and wrote it and it shifted to different rhythms. I went back to some of the earlier things we did and I was impressed by the soundscapes we had. We hadn't done that in a long time so I brought back this giant percussion soundscape. Then it goes into this rock thing that was new territory too. When Zakk became available and was gracious enough to offer his help I thought that was the place for him.
SV: The melodies and textures here remind me of what you were doing on Sahara and Black Diamond but more fleshed out.
SV: That could be this bands' next Brave New World. The last one was about technology, this one is about expanding the horizons of instrumentation and adding a new dimension to contemporary instrumental music. I am in love with this album and can't wait to see where this music can take us.
RF: Funny you should mention “Black Diamond” because I am actually going back and orchestrating some of our other tunes. I'm having fun like I can't tell you. I'm like a kid. It's intense (laughs.) Wait till you hear what I'm doing, it's wild.
SV: You take four of these songs and redo them as pure orchestral arrangements at the end. They are beautiful.
RF: It was a big challenge. It was tough. First it was hard to say what the scope is. I could have gone wild with it. I didn't want to go too far out but I didn't want to play it too safe either. I didn't have a pure vision of how the
arrangements were going to happen. In a sense they were kind of random. I made my decision in the end and did my best. In the end I think they were really compelling.
SV: The classical guitar version of “Built To Last” is gorgeous. You said the whole process was really tough. Why?
RF: I had kind of mocked up several of the tracks at the time that my sister got sick. They were really in a framework stage and I let her hear everything that I had. One thing I did was a mockup of that song. I never do that. I never play my work tracks for other people because they can really be terrible (laughs) and they are in process, not completion. I included her from the beginning with this one. I told her the album was going to be for her and she was going to help me with it. By the time I was ready to do that song I realized I was going to have to sit down and actually play it. There just came a day when I had to do it, like my number came up. It's 25 years and you have to sit down and play classical guitar with no band behind you and no help. Bare naked. It's like a nude scene and there is no net. The first thing I realized was how terrifying silence is. We don't deal with it in pop music. You have a chord on the guitar, you let it ring, then instantly get to the next chord. Rushing it wasn't going to work on this one. I had to embrace the silence. It was very challenging but it was exhilarating because I love the guitar, I love the instrument. It has always been masked by drums and keyboard. This was a chance for the fans to hear how glorious a guitar can sound by itself and I'll do my best to play it. When I finished I thought it was too simple then I realized it was perfect for what it was and I didn't need to do, or overdo, everything.
SV: It worked beautifully.
RF: I give the instrument the credit. I just did my best to play it. The interesting thing is that I recorded it at about 5am and when I listened to the playback there was no string noise, which is very unusual. I tried to go back in and recreate that and polish it but it wad a definite case of the first take being the one to go with.
SV: Are you going to take this out on the road as an orchestral performance?
RF: I'm hoping to get some performing arts centers involved and do it with some orchestras. That's one reason I'm working on more songs. I think the orchestras would get into it because it's challenging music to play. For me it's something that is going to keep me interested and I want to pursue it.
SV: This could be a real opening for the orchestras because right now they are trying to become relevant to new audiences and keep their old line donors happy at the same time by doing pops performances and bringing in everything from oldies pop acts to classic rock artists and turning themselves into a big backup band. If you come to them with current, contemporary music that is written for an orchestra it would be exciting for the orchestra and the audience.
RF: I really believe that if we can bring a new vocabulary, a really contemporary vocabulary, to the orchestra
it will introduce this to a whole legion of new people. That's what I hope to accomplish, basically for the rest of my career. I want to try to shed some light on this type of music. To me, the symphony orchestra is the ultimate rock band, the ultimate hard rock band. Having had this experience it is all I care to write for for the rest of my life. It is challenging and intensely rewarding to do this.
SV: And it can open this up to generations of music fans who have kind of shied away from this type of instrumentation because they thought it was overly serious or not relevant to today.
RF: We have marketed orchestras incorrectly as being elitist and put them in this formal concert hall setting. If orchestras were in the park every weekend people would flock to them and if they had this vocabulary of things that were really new that people would like to hear it would showcase what they can do because these orchestras can do anything. They can play anything. They need new settings and new types of music that will draw more people in to experience them. I am excited about writing this music and doing these arrangements that could bring the Rippingtons into this revitalization.