A Conversation With Jeff Lynne
Mike Ragogna: Hiya, Jeff, how are you?
Jeff Lynne: Oh, not too bad, and how are you?
MR: I'm pretty good, pretty good. Hey, it looks like you've got a couple of projects, your solo album Long Wave, and also The Very Best Of Electric Light Orchestra.
MR: Where do you find the time in the day?
JL: Well, don't forget, that's all I had to do. I spent three years six days a week doing those two albums plus another eight songs for my new album, original songs.
MR: Let's first get into Long Wave. Long Wave is a bit of a tribute to your musical history. Things you loved?
JL: Yeah, things I loved, that I've loved since I was a tiny lad.
MR: Your track list includes older classics, such as "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," "Smile," and "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing." But there are also tracks such as "Let It Rock" and "She."
JL: What can I say? I've got a very diversified taste. Part of it was, obviously, that I'd grown up through the rock 'n' roll era, and so that's why they're in there, because they were very formative in my rock 'n' roll years.
MR: It must have been hard for you to come up with a track list for this one. How did you choose them?
JL: It wasn't difficult, they sort of jumped at me when I wrote them down, a few of them. I've been thinking about doing this for years, but I never actually got around to it because they sounded so complicated to do. I never even tried them before. I actually listened to the records, probably a hundred times, each song, just to get into it in such a deep way. I really wanted to do them perfectly. There wasn't a musical mistake anywhere, and there isn't, so I'm really glad to say that.
MR: I imagine some of these songs were favorites of your parents, maybe playing in the house when you were little?
JL: That's right. We didn't have a TV 'til I was about thirteen. That's when Roy Orbison and Del Shannon came along, so, okay, I was safe. That's what I did. I listened to them, and I also had a crystal set in bed, you know? I would listen to all that stuff, because the BBC was on long wave and that's all you could get in those days.
MR: Thus the title for Long Wave. You've been part of ELO, The Traveling Wilburys, The Move, and you've been associated with many more. You're constantly in musical motion, aren't you?
JL: Well, I like to be. Music is my first love. I have so much fun doing it, especially doing these old, beautiful songs where not only is the tune great, but the chords are marvelous and the words are superb. It's just so rare that you get all three things spot on. This is why they sort of jumped off the page for me, you know? Sometimes, I would trawl through iTunes to try and find different versions of it, so I could do...what do you call it?
MR: An amalgam?
JL: Yes, exactly. Very well spotted.
MR: Thank you.
JL: Yes, an amalgam of different styles of that song rather than get trapped. What I really did was discard the arrangements from them and make my own arrangements so that they sounded like my style, more like harmony and no flutes and clarinets and all that kind of stuff. I wanted to make it a little bit more rock 'n' roll or kind of a bit more sixties, I suppose, rather than fifties.
MR: It was Jeff Lynne-ized.
JL: I hope so, yeah.
MR: When you have a project like this, is it tempting to go on the road and tour with nothing but this kind of material?
JL: Nothing's ever tempted me to go on the road yet.
MR: [laughs] Perhaps you'll want to return to material like this again for another project?
JL: You never know. If somebody wants me, maybe I'll do a show, but we'll see. I've just done a documentary, really. It's like an hour and a half long and it tells you the whole story of me and ELO and all the people I've worked with. There are interviews from all the people I've worked with and produced. It's quite fun, it's really good. We had a screening of it at the Grammy museum and it went down really well. I was really pleased.
MR: Looking back at your career from the early days until now, are you surprised at the amount of achievement you've had to this point?
JL: Well, when you're doing it yourself, you don't notice it. It's when people tell you about it, when it's written down or, obviously, the documentary, then I do see all the achievements. I don't gloat over it. I'm very thankful.
MR: Speaking of your achievements, they include big ELO hits such as "Telephone Line," "Living Thing," "Evil Woman," "Don't Bring Me Down," and more, such as "Do Ya" with The Move. Looking at that body of work, you've created a lot of anthems.
JL: Oh, that's very sweet, thank you.
MR: Yeah, the way that people have used personalized some of these songs over the years goes beyond just having an enduring pleasant song.
JL: Yeah, they've gone further than I ever imagined. When I first wrote those songs, all I was hoping for was that they'd get on the charts; "Ooh, maybe they'd get in the Top Ten. That would be great!" As a songwriter, that's what you're sort of aiming for, because you want people to hear them. But when they're still sticking around after forty years, it's really quite amazing, and then I do become amazed by it.
MR: Now, in a group like ELO, you are participating with other band members in coming up with some of the arrangements, et cetera, right?
MR: But on your new solo album, Long Wave, you play every instrument.
JL: Yes, I love to play drums and bass and guitar and piano. Those are the main instruments I play. That is it. I've always loved to. On some old ELO stuff, I'm playing bass on a couple of albums, so it's not like it's something brand new. I have done bits and pieces of it, it's just that now, I've had so much more experience as a producer. I've had like thirty years more experience than those songs, and I've been working with lots and lots of great people. I've actually learned a lot more than I knew when I recorded those ELO songs, and that is really why I wanted to redo them. I listened to them on the radio and I go, "I dunno, it's a bit wooly, that. It's wooly sounding. There's no clarity, and that's what I was looking for." So I went into my studio and I started on "Mister Blue Sky." I finished it as this brand new version and I played it for my manager Craig and he said, "Wow, that's fantastic, it's much better. Why don't you try some more," and so I did. I tried "Evil Woman" and "Strange Magic" and they came out really good, too--bright and full with nice punchy bottom end. I'm very, very pleased with them and I'm really glad that I did it because now they exist in the world in a much better form than they were before.
MR: And you have the new song, "Point of No Return."
JL: Yeah. That song's about five years old, actually.
MR: When you looked at the ELO body of work and chose the twelve for this project, was it hard to stop?
JL: It was, actually. I actually got enough for two volumes, so it's quite amazing that I couldn't stop at that point. Also, my manager always wanted bonus tracks, that seems to be the new game. "Oh yeah, you finished it, but where's the bonus tracks?" "Ah."
MR: That's right, you need one for iTunes, one for Amazon, one for Wal-Mart...
JL: Yeah, you've got to have loads of these bonus tracks. It's just odd. It didn't used to be like that, of course.
MR: With Long Wave, you have these eleven songs. I would love a childhood memory or two--sweet, bittersweet--associated with these songs.
JL: I was sitting in the living room and my mum and my auntie was there listening to the radio. Well, they were talking, basically, but the radio was on, and "Only The Lonely" by Roy Orbison came on and it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was like, "What the...?" My mum and my auntie said, "Ooh, that's horrible. It's too sexy," so that's a funny thing. I was only thirteen at the time, but I thought, "That's the most marvelous thing I've ever heard," and I told them so. They said, "Ooh, don't be silly, that's too sexy," whatever that means. I just remember that happening and that "Only The Lonely" opened my eyes to what actually was going on and I thought, "Who told everybody what to do on these records? How do they know what to play? Who tells them? Who does such-and-such?" One great story I heard about that session--well, all his sessions--was Roy Orbison used to sing behind the coat rack in the studio because they hadn't got any baffles in those days. That's the most hilarious picture in my mind, of this most wonderful singer ever, stuck behind this coat rack all muffled and that. You couldn't hear the instruments into the mic if he couldn't hear his mic in the instruments.
MR: What's amazing is you have no hint of that because of the amount of reverb on his voice.
JL: Yeah, reverb and echo. There'd be reverb and a slap of feeding back a little bit. It's like Fred Foster used to say of him, "It's like putting icing on a cake for him." If you've got a beautiful voice you can do it, if you haven't got a great voice, echo doesn't actually work sometimes.
MR: And it isn't like you're using it to hide anything.
JL: That's right. You can hide a little bit, but at the end of the day, if you don't sing in tune, then echo will make that twice as bad because it lingers on twice as long.
MR: [laughs] That's right, good point. There was no major pitch correction going on in those days.
JL: No, none at all. But he didn't need it, he was such a beautiful singer. On some of the other songs, there's always a story. Like you're sitting there, I could be in bed listening on my crystal set, for instance, on the long wave--it's always long wave, that's where everything came from off the BBC. I've got memories of that, hearing songs for the first time in bed and going, "Wow, what a great thing."
MR: A lot of fifties kids in the United States went to bed with their radios on, including me. Yeah.
JL: Yeah, with the headphones.
MR: When you were thirteen and thinking how sexy Roy Orbison was, [laughs] was that the point where you decided you wanted to be doing this?
JL: Oh, definitely. I think from the age of thirteen, I really wanted to be a producer and I've always thought that the producer was the top of the tree. I always went, "Oh, he's a producer," people like George Martin and that. I think, "Wow, you've got to learn so much of that," and you really do, actually. When I first started out, I didn't know much at all and I didn't realize I didn't but I just thought I could do it without even being taught, but what it was I've learned over the years is it's happened by teaching myself--learning from my mistakes and all things like that. Now I've been doing it for this many years--forty-five years or whatever--record producing and songwriting and stuff. It's like, "Wow, that's a long time to be doing it," longer than my dad was working for Birmingham Corporation, which is unbelievable. He retired.
MR: It's interesting that addition to your arsenal of knowledge and tools for producing, you also can play musical a few instruments.
JL: Yeah, I mean it's only because I love to play. I started out on the guitar, obviously, and then I taught myself piano from the guitar. I was lucky enough to live in my mum and dad's house, which had a front room separate. The only trouble with it was that the bus used to go past every five minutes or ten minutes, so all my demos I made on my B&O tape recorder, when you come to listen to them now, there's always a bus rumbling through the track. It's really funny. But I did learn how to make records on this little tape recorder called Bang & Olufsen.
MR: Right, Bang & Olufsen. I had a set of B&O speakers that lasted forever.
JL: Oh yeah, they do still make some great stuff. Very innovative and futuristic.
MR: Jeff, let's talk a little bit about The Traveling Wilburys. Basically, you guys were all pals--Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and George Harrison. What an interesting period. Can you go into how that all came together?
JL: Okay, I'll tell you how it started. Me and George were making Cloud Nine in George's studio in England, because he'd asked me to produce it with him. After a few weeks of working on it, we'd always finish at dinner time, and then go back up into the studio and listen back to the work we'd done and make notes for the next day. One night, he said, "You know what? Me and you should have a group." I said, "Wow, that's a good idea, who should we have in it?" He said, "Bob Dylan." I went, "Oh, Bob Dylan, yeah, of course," and I said, "Well, what about Roy Orbison?" He said, "Yeah, great, Roy Orbison," and we'd both just gotten to know Tom. Tom was always brilliant, like the All-American Boy, so we asked him as well. Funny enough, everyone we thought of in this group all joined immediately, which was fantastic.
MR: It resulted in this album The Traveling Wilburys, which, considering all the artists and talent that went into it, sounded like one cohesive album.
JL: Yeah, well it was really. We wrote those songs, one song a day, for ten days, and that's how we got the ten songs. What the fun part was, we'd sit around a big round table, each with an acoustic. Sometimes, one of us would have a twelve-string or two of us would have an acoustic twelve-string and that rhythm track would be five acoustics. Then sometimes we'd double-track that and it'd be ten acoustics on the backing track, which is just the basic rhythm guitar. Then we'd sing the words at night after dinner and we'd take all the tapes back to George's and just finish it off, really--put on the finishing touches and mix it over at George's studio. I think that's why it comes out like that, because it was done in a specific time...really quickly.
MR: Let me ask you a personal question. Obviously, you guys became pals, and you had a few passings. You also worked with Del Shannon when Roy Orbison passed...
JL: ...no, he didn't join, no.
MR: But you did some tracks with him, right?
JL: Tom and myself and Mike Campbell were producing some tracks for Del. That was a separate thing. That was a couple years later.
MR: Yeah, and some of the recordings were released on bootleg as The Traveling Wilburys.
JL: That's probably what it is, it gets mixed up because people put different labels on them.
MR: And George passed recently. My point is you must miss your buddies.
JL: Oh, of course. Always. I miss both of them, I miss George and Roy. They were both great. We had so much fun and did so much music together.
MR: Yeah, it's wonderful. Jeff, what advice do you have for new artists?
JL: Uh, stick at it. That's probably it, really.
MR: Well, that's the best advice.
JL: Stick at it and don't give up.
MR: Jeff, thank you so much for talking with us about your new solo record, Long Wave, and Mr. Blue Sky - The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra.
JL: Re-recordings, that's what you can call it.
MR: Hey, if you were to sit down with a glass of wine and listen to that ELO project top to bottom, what would you think?
JL: I feel very pleased with it. It's made it sound more alive--more punchy, more present. I'm very, very pleased with it, even without the bottle of wine.
MR: [laughs] Thank you again Jeff, and all the best with your projects and whatever you've got coming down the pike.
JL: Cheers, all the best to you, too.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation With Micky Dolenz
Mike Ragogna: Micky Dolenz, how the heck are you?
Micky Dolenz: I'm good, I'm good! How are you, Mike?
MR: Good, and I'm doing even better now that we're talking with Micky Dolenz. Of course, everybody knows you from that group, Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
MD: [laughs] Spelled with two "e"s.
MR: [laughs] Oh, wait, make that The Monkees! Right, and let's get that up front, too. Rumor has it you Monkees are getting together for a little tour?
MD: Yes, yes we are. We're getting together for a little tour in November. It's early days yet, but Mike and Peter and I are going out for a limited tour of twelve dates in November.
MR: Beautiful. Micky, obviously, because Davy Jones passed, things must feel a bit different now.
MD: What can I say? I knew the guy for forty-five years, it was a big shock, of course. The way that I describe it is like losing a sibling. You're with somebody that long for those many years, you do become as close a sibling as you can. I don't know if you have any siblings, but if you do, you'll know what I mean. Everybody is still in a bit of shock. It's not something you're going to get over real, real quickly. Life just goes on, basically. You do the best you can. This whole tour came out of discussions about having a memorial for him and that evolved into a twelve-city tour. Even though this is not The Davy Jones Memorial Tour, he will certainly be remembered and there will be an homage.
MR: Beautiful. Okay, you've got a new album titled Remember. "Remember" is one of my favorite songs by Harry Nilsson, so let's start there, with the title track.
MD: Harry was a dear, dear friend. We hung out a lot. I was there when he wrote a lot of tunes, and "Remember" is one of them. So when the album started coming together and I was talking to the producer about the variety of this material--which we'll discuss--I mentioned that one. I always said I wanted to do it again because I'd been there, and, of course, it's just a wonderful song. He thought it was a great idea, so he laid down some piano stuff and we chatted about it and it turned out really well. It turned out so good, and the sentiment of it was so spot-on. We looked at each other one day--I think the original working title of the CD was going to be something like Scrapbook or something like that--we just looked at each other and just said, "This is just too perfect. This is what the whole CD is about. Let's take advantage of that and just call it that," and there you go.
MR: It really is the perfect name for the album, especially considering the stories behind these songs, such as "Johnny B. Goode."
MD: Yeah! Absolutely. Johnny B. Goode has been covered a billion times and I started doing it in my solo show because before The Monkees, I had a rock 'n' roll cover band, a couple of them, and we would do all the typical rock 'n' roll cover tunes of the time--the Chuck Berrys and the Little Richards and the Fats Dominos--and "Johnny B. Goode" was one of my little party pieces in my cover band when we were playing the local bar mitzvah or bowling alley cocktail lounge. When I went up to The Monkees to audition for the show, my agent said, "You have to prepare some music. You have to sing and play something." That was part of the audition process everyone did, and so I got out my little guitar and I started going over some tunes that I was familiar with. "Johnny B. Goode," like I said, had been one of my little party pieces when I did these gigs, so I sang it for my audition piece for The Monkees and that's the song that got me the gig. Obviously, there's a very warm spot in my heart for it. We have re-envisioned it, as you'll notice. Over the years, I've started just goofing around, so it is slightly--in fact it's not even slightly, it's quite seriously revisioned. But it's one of my favorite tracks on the CD.
MR: That leads us to "Sugar, Sugar." I love this story, so I'm just going to shut up.
MD: [laughs] Yeah, well, as we started talking about doing this album, it came out of these stories. We were trying to decide what kind of album to do and he had some ideas about material and I had, too. Then I started telling him--him, by the way, being David Harris, the wonderful producer of this material. He started saying, "Oh, that's a great story and we should focus on these stories, because not only is the material really good--the songs that you want to do--but the stories are kind of interesting, and it might be a theme." That's where the whole theme of this thing came around. I just kept telling him stories and one day, I said, "Well this is a real funny one, this story." The Monkees were supposed to go back in the studio and record during the big battle that we were having for the music and just the battle to have some control over what was being recorded and what was being released. Up until that time, basically, we had none. We had absolutely nothing to say about anything. So, spearheaded by Michael...and Donnie Kirshner at that time was the head of the music department, the publishing company sort of running the train for the music. Sort of a big battle ensued, and the next song that was supposed to be recorded was "Sugar, Sugar," but we kind of said, "No," and I ran away to England where, by the way, I wrote "Randy Scouse Git," about my adventures there. So we said, "No," to Donnie Kirshner and I went to England and lo and behold, Donnie gets fired and they released the record sometime later with a cartoon group called The Archies. Donnie said, that way, he didn't have anybody that could argue with him!
MR: Ha, nice. Let's tell everyone Ron Dante was the voice on The Archies.
MD: Yeah, and by the way, a great song. It turned into a big hit, but that was the song that was sort of the watershed of the whole Monkee music thing. So Donnie said, "I'm only going to work with animated characters now because they can't talk back." It just made a good story so David Harris and I are talking about it and he says, "Listen, can I just try a couple of things with it? I think we might be able to get something out of there," and I was incredulous. I was like, "You've got to be kidding me! It's 'Sugar, Sugar'! I mean, it's a great song, but it's not the kind of thing I want to do now." He said, "Well, just trust me to give it a shot. That's all I'm asking. Just let me play around with it," which he was quite good at. "Give me a shot," and I said, "All right, okay, go for it. See what you can do," and now, it's like one of my favorite tracks on this CD. Talk about revision.
MR: And it ties into "Randy Scouse Git." So your producer had a lot to do with this arrangements on your new album?
MD: Yes, he did.
MR: I'll just throw it out there. "Good Morning, Good Morning." That also has a cool story.
MD: Yeah, "Good Morning, Good Morning" is another great track. Another one of my favorites. That comes out of that trip to England that I was telling you about where I ran away from home. I ended up in England and I ended up meeting Paul McCartney for a press opportunity and we took a photo. The next day, he invited me down to Abbey Road studios to listen to some tracking they were doing for their new album called Sergeant something. I can't remember what that was called...Sgt. something.
MR: Sgt. Bilko!
MD: [laughs] Yeah, that was it, Sgt. Bilko. Anyway, they were working on the album and I went down and, I don't know, I guess I was expecting some kind of freak-out/love-in/be-in funfest Beatlemania insanity thing, and it just was the four guys sitting there in the studio playing. I'd gotten all dressed up in my paisley bell-bottoms and my tie-dyed underwear. I must've looked like a cross between Ronald McDonald and Charlie Manson. John Lennon looks over and says, "Hey, Monkee Man, do you want to hear what we're working on?" I was trying to be so cool, I was like, "Yeah, far out, man," so he points up to George Martin who was in the booth, and he plays the track, "Good Morning, Good Morning," and, of course, that song is burned into my brain forever after that point as you could imagine. Over the years, I kind of fooled around with it, just sitting around, playing my guitar, and I just came up with a different arrangement using different time signatures and things like that. David heard it and he thought that it would make a great tune. That's how that one got on the album.
MR: Wow. Micky can you give us another song?
MD: Oh, you know, one of my absolute favorite songs on the album? It's the one entitled "Do Not Ask For Love." It's an old song--well, "old" meaning "sixties," written by Michael Murphy, the famous country songwriter and singer. We used to just sit around and sing it with him and hang out and have some fun. We actually did record it once. It came out on one of those unreleased Monkee things. We recorded it as a little pop song, but I always thought it would make this wonderful choral arrangement, and that's how I did it. This is an arrangement entirely written by myself and David Harris. There's no one else on this vocal except me and I think we counted once and we think that there's up to forty vocals on this. Live vocals. Not at the same time, obviously, but forty overdubs without any electronic doubling or anything like that.
MR: Micky, what advice do you have for new artists?
MD: Get a good lawyer!
MD: [laughs] I'm serious. Well, you know, I would hate to be a new artist trying to break right now into this business the way it is. There isn't anywhere near the same mechanism and infrastructure of a music business that there used to be. Even though a lot of people criticized it at the time, there was a grooming and nurturing and a development process that the young artists and new artists could go through, and if you caught the attention of an A&R person--a powerful record music man or woman--you had a shot at being developed. These days, there are a lot of people out there and there are a lot of good people and good music, but sometimes, it's raw. You hear somebody and you think, "Boy, if they could get a great A&R person working on them and working on their music..." and that's what used to happen. The artists would go into a record company, they'd sign them and invest an enormous amount of money into the development of that artist--the grooming and the connecting them with other great artists, other musicians, say, or other writers. That, basically, doesn't happen anymore because the record companies, for the most part, went out of business because of downloading and stealing music. They can't afford to make those investments with all the artists. So I'd say that's the biggest problem now is trying to find the very talented artists that are out there somewhere and then trying to find the money to develop them, to groom them, to nurture them and make sure that they don't have to get a job at Burger King because they can't afford to support themselves.
MR: Thanks. And Micky, when is Circus Boy: The Next Generation going to happen?
MD: [laughs] Not for a while.
MR: Okay, this has been such a pleasure, sir.
MD: Thanks a lot for your time. So your radio station? It's solar-powered?
MR: Yes, I'm with the only solar-powered station in the Midwest, KRUU-FM.
MD: How cool is that?! Where is it?
MR: It's in Fairfield, Iowa.
MD: Gosh! How many watts?
MR: Well, it's online presence is over a million listeners a month, but it's a low-powered station with about a hundred watts.
MD: But it's okay, it's solar-powered. How cool is that! I'm a science geek so I follow this stuff.
MR: Thanks Micky, I appreciate the kind words and your time and stories.
MD: Very cool. Thanks a lot for your time, Mike.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation With The Rippingtons' Russ Freeman
Mike Ragogna: Russ Freeman, welcome to the madness that is solar-powered KRUU-FM.
Russ Freeman: Well, right on. Hey, Michael, how are you?
MR: I'm pretty good, you?
RF: Great, thanks.
MR: I really appreciate you taking some time today to talk about all things Russ Freeman and Rippingtons.
RF: It's fun, you know? We just passed our twenty-fifth anniversary and it's just been really remarkable to see the reaction on this record.
MR: How is that twenty-five year old youngster doing?
RF: [laughs] The Rippingtons have never been stronger. You never can imagine. When I started the band, I literally just thought, "Well, we'll do one record and that'll be it." I kind of felt that way throughout our history. "Just make the last record you ever want to make." Maybe that's been the secret of the success of our continuity.
MR: Nice. Have you been surprised at how popular you've become over the years?
RF: Well, the band has changed radically over the years, so I guess I'm surprised at how loyal our fans have been. I think one of the very smart things I did when we formed the band was to anticipate that we'd have personal changes over time. I think that's contributed greatly to the success of the band--knowing beforehand that it would evolve. It's also kept us very creatively involved with it. So, you know, it's been great.
MR: I want to know when another good buddy of solar-powered KRUU-FM is going to make it into The Rippingtons, even as a one-shot deal, which would be David Benoit.
RF: Oh, what a great guy. Every time we play a show, someone comes up and asks, "Are you going to do another Benoit-Freeman project." They're very popular and David and I have had a blast working together over the years.
MR: Me too, and I think I may have asked him that question, "So, when's the next Benoit-Freeman happening?"
RF: It's fun, I think, to do projects like that because it takes you away from your day job and you have a great time. We get together and write and we made sure that actually wrote together physically because it's fun, man! You get together with a piano and a guitar and you just goof off and have a good time.
MR: But beyond that, you could also do--oooh, buttinski that I am, I'm from New York, you see. I would love to throw out there--and this might not work because you guys might be too creative for this--but what about taking an artist's body of work, an Ellington or whoever and then just attacking it the way that David Benoit and Russ Freeman would?
RF: Yeah, actually, that's not a bad idea. That's a pretty inspired idea. You never know.
MR: [laughs] All right, Russ, let's get into the new album, Built To Last, that title, obviously, about the group. And on the front cover, you've got the Mount Rushmore scene with Bill Mayer's jazz cat.
RF: Oh yeah, he's a remarkable artist and he's been an integral part of the visual aspect of The Rippingtons. He's drawn the jazz cat ever since we began.
MR: Yeah, but I notice the second song here is "American Panorama," and at the end of the CD, you have a classical take of "Built to Last" as your reprise, and from there, you add orchestral versions of some of the earlier tracks. I'm not sure I can think of another jazz project that does that. Collectively, you could call what you've done "Jazz Americana."
RF: Well, there's a lot of things, Michael, that are unique about this record. I guess the reason that this record is so different is that I wanted to break all the rules that we had written over the years for the Rips. I just wanted to do things entirely different, as kind of a celebration that we had made it this far and that our fans had been so loyal to us. I thought, "Well, if they've followed us this far, I'm going to just take a hard left." I wanted to delve into things as a composer that I felt like I hadn't had the chance to do. What's really remarkable is how people are responding to it. In defense of the orchestral things, sometimes, these ideas come to me in that form and then I try to adapt them to the band. I didn't do that this time, I just thought, "I'm going to take every idea and execute it as it comes to me," almost like a train of thought. So on the one hand, you've got this Americana type thing with my Nashville roots, which is also something that's been subliminal over the years. I've never really dug out and played the kind of music that I learned to play when I was a kid, and I thought, "I'm just going to have fun and do that for once." So you've got all these wildly different things going on in this record.
MR: Yeah, yet it all works together.
RF: What's remarkable is this single we have now, called "Cougars and Gigolos," actually. It's intensely popular with the fans. They're getting up and they're dancing to this song. I have to hand the credit, actually, to the label because I told them, "Look, I'm going to do something entirely different," and they were totally cool with it. They said, "Do whatever you want." So the surprise was that when I turned the record in, they loved "Cougars and Gigolos," and they said, "We think this could be a single," which, of course, I couldn't believe. I said, "That will never be a single!" Of course, now here we are, it's a hit single.
MR: Russ, give us a history lesson on how The Rippingtons formed?
RF: Well, I had started a band under my name, and I'd done a record back in 1985 called Nocturnal Playground, and that was just at the advent of the radio format that began to play this music. Back then, it was a much more inclusive kind of format. It was "Quiet Storm." They'd play everything, it was interesting. So at the advent of that, I had the opportunity to record another album. We were playing every night at the Baked Potato, all the people in town would come and jam. Marcus Miller came and sat in, David Benoit--I think that's where I met David, actually, was at the Baked Potato--Brandon Fields was in the band. Kenny G came down and sat in, that's where I met him, and he joined the band for a time at that point. So anyway, that's where the opportunity to record Moonlighting came. That was the kickoff point.
MR: Moonlighting, of course being the first album, but "Moonlighting" also being a popular song.
RF: Also kind of a play on the idea that we were all moonlighting with advancing careers at the time.
MR: You gave a little hint before about your creative process, but how do you do that thing you do?
RF: Well, it's changed over the years. Originally, I would write everything down on staff paper like a real musician is supposed to. [laughs] And then it devolved into me just kind of thinking about things very hard and then, of course, I played piano and guitar so I would just write on whatever instrument seemed conducive at the time and now I've gotten to a point where it's completely all mental. I just imagine the whole thing. So I don't really do anything besides that. I just think about it.
MR: Russ, one of the things that keeps coming up over and over is the concept of writing down music on staff paper and being able to read. It seems that reading has sort of fallen by the wayside over the years because when you're in a band, its arrangements use memory and maybe some chord charts. Actual reading and notation seems to have been downplayed in the musical culture over the years.
RF: You're probably right, Michael, and I hope it's not entirely true. But I have to give credit to the guys in my band particularly like Jeff Kashiwa, who just did all the parts for Nelson Rangell, who is a stellar, fantastic musician who came in and just read everything down in Denver. So there's something really to be said for having the craft of music down. I think it's very important. It's being able to express yourself verbally and on paper. It's a critical skill you need.
MR: Right. And other responsibilities have now crept up on the artist, like having to be their own marketer. Have you felt any kind of pressures to either "Come up with the hit single" or "Come up with this" or "Come up with that" while you were dealing with labels over the years?
RF: Well, that's a really good question, and, Michael, I think the honest answer is most of these pressures are internally felt by artists. I don't think there's external pressures so much from labels that the artists feel. Everyone wants a hit, but it's one of these funny things where you've got to be true to your artistry and you can't think about hits. I really believe that. You can't write for what you think the crowd wants because they know it. They can sense it. You have to have an art. If you really want to have longevity you've really got to have something to say artistically. I think it's important that you face that.
MR: Nicely said. Okay, "Cougars and Gigolos," combining the concepts of creativity and having a hit that we talked, let's go to that song. Like how were you inspired to write it.
RF: [laughs] You want to take that particular song?
MR: Well, it's the hit. [laughs]
RF: Okay, I guess it's funny. It's kind of a self-explanatory thing where it would never be a hit; it was never constructed to be a hit. It was almost a tongue-in-cheek thing and yet I felt strongly that where that song came from musically was in a valid place. When I was twelve years old, I would follow these studio musicians around in Nashville all over the place and I would watch them record records for stars and they'd let me sit behind the glass with them, sometimes in the booths, and you know a twelve year-old kid can ask a thousand questions and I did, and they were so gracious to me. It came from the real place of this, it's real music, this is what I grew up doing, and finally, when I was a teenager, I was in on some of these sessions. I was playing with some of these guys on records. It was just luck that had me do that, so I wanted to go back to that kind of space about how we felt about recording back then. It was all in a live situation. It was really fun, the way that the instruments locked together. I know I'm kind of rambling, but the other thing that's really cool about this track is there's a resonator that I picked up, and it's a slide dobro, and it was just fun to play. So there's a lot of stuff going on that just kind of makes this track unique and fun.
MR: Now, your track "Route 66," which is an original as opposed to it being a cover song for those of us who might have made the mistake, let's go into that one.
RF: Okay, well this happened pretty late in the CD. At this point, I had written several songs that were completely off the charts for the Rips. Something that we had never tried before, some of these alternate orchestrations. And I said, "Now I've got to break every rule I can." It was like throwing baseballs at windows. "What can we do that the Rips have never done?" One of the kind of unwritten rules I'd had in the band is that we'd never done any kind of swing-type tunes. I didn't realize how fun it was and what a blast we had to record this.
MR: Even though this is your 25th anniversary record, what you're saying with this album is sort of like where Russ Freeman is now, where the band is now.
RF: I think you're absolutely right, and I have to give credit to the guys in the band, too, because they eat it up. They love the record, they love playing it, and the crowds are feeling that energy. It's incredible, the response that we're getting. We're selling records and I think people are generally excited to see us playing this music. It's a thrill for us after twenty-five years to have that kind of reaction from the crowds. So I always go back to the fans. They're the ones that drive the whole thing for me.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
RF: Wow! That's a tough question. We talk about this a lot. We talk about the fact that it's much more difficult now, revenue streams are smaller and it's just challenging. I think you've got to have the passion to do it, obviously, and the drive and other than that to just hone your craft and wait for some good luck. We all need the good luck.
MR: Yeah, it's really hard on a new artist because you not only have to be a new artist but you also have to do your own social networking, like I mentioned earlier.
RF: Well it's a double-edged sword, I think, Michael, because social networking has obviously really changed the landscape of how people perceive artists and your ability to get your music out. We didn't have that when we started. That's a positive thing. You know what else? I think it's really positive that we have such an amalgam of styles being blended together. If we can keep things from being in boxes and try to get players together and different styles together... Look at Zakk Wylde. He came over from a total rock 'n' roll place to play on our record and it was an incredible success. I have to hand it to Zakk, and there's another guy who has his craft together, who is creative enough to really want to try something different.
MR: Yeah. Well, coming from Ozzy roots, that was an amazing piece.
RF: Yeah, so when you go back to looking at success and why is Zakk so successful, well he's got craft and he's willing to try new things and that's an important thing.
MR: Yeah. Why did you thank your mastering engineer Bernie Grundman the way you did in the credits? You give him a lot of credit there.
RF: Well, for a lot of reasons. One thing I love about this particular album is that it's got a much greater dynamic range than we're used to having in pop music because when you add this classical element you can go all the way to silence. Silence in pop music means catastrophe. It means something's gone wrong and there's major malfunction. But in this kind of style where we're blending these two media, silence is golden. It's welcome. So there was incredible dynamic range for Bernie to have to work with and I think he really enjoyed the challenge, but it was a challenge.
MR: I also want to bring up the track "In The Shadow of Giants," which is a sort of tribute to your heritage, right?
RF: It's funny, it's my wife's favorite tune on the record. She loves it, so it's got that going for it. Yeah, I love blending classical guitar and rock guitar. You don't hear that much. Again, I just love colors, I love these textures. Combining these things to me is a thrill.
MR: All right, we have to know what guitars you're playing these days.
RF: Well I have about fourteen of them out when I record, you know. But I have my favorites. You know what was the Swiss army knife of guitars on this record? My baritone guitar. Used everywhere. It's cranked in the mix. I don't know if you can hear it, but there's a baritone guitar on a lot of tracks.
MR: Words of wisdom?
RF: Words of wisdom? Thanks to people like you who are putting out the word about the Rips, and thanks to our fans who have stayed with us all these years. Now we're on our second generation of fans. Kids come up and say, "I've grown up to your music all my life," so thanks to everybody.
MR: Yeah, and it being your twenty-fifth anniversary, it's got to give you a really nice glow that you contributed the amount of music you have to the culture.
RF: Well, it's just incredible. If you can make a difference in one person, it's meaningful. So I love the fact that people are digging it.
MR: Congratulations and I wish you the best. I really appreciate your time, come back and give us a progress report!
RF: Oh, I'd love to. Thank you.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne