Artist Interview Series: Rich Ruth
As show coverage drops off during this period of quarantine, the "features" space on this site will feature more and more artist interviews, with the intention of keeping musicians connected with fans, and vice versa. This third write-up in the series captures a Q+A correspondence with Rich Ruth, a Nashville artist who is currently composing ambient music, though he boasts quite an eclectic musical background. From rock to jazz, from psych to funk, Rich Ruth has been something of a musical chameleon, and finds as much inspiration in his world travels as he does through his deep dives into classic discographies.
And a quick editorial note before we begin: I have chopped up and summarized past interviews, filling in gaps with context, but have decided to reprint this exchange verbatim. I believe that in this particular interview, the artist's responses would lose a bit of meaning if parts were left out or abridged.
Photo taken from Rich Ruth's Bandcamp
DC: You have played in a number of bands over the years, but this is your first solo project (which has been released, at least). Had you been developing these musical ideas for some time, or was it all pretty new and fresh when you jumped in? RR: The specific ideas for Calming Signals developed in a very fresh and new way when they came about, but for the past ten years I've been obsessively recording my own music and creating ideas. My infatuation with and collection of synthesizers has also been steadily growing throughout the same time period. After a lot of years of playing in rock, psychedelic, and soul projects, I just started to grow tired of the direction and trajectory of that music. I had been naturally gravitating towards more avant-garde ideas and records that I was into. I saw Bitchin Bajas at a house show at the end of 2017 and decided from there I was going to make a much more dedicated approach towards composing left field and ambient-leaning material. DC: On past projects, guitar has been your instrument of choice, but there is so much more on Calming Signals, including quite a bit of synth. What led you into this new territory? RR: I absolutely love the guitar and the breadth of territory it can cover. I had been so focused on guitar my primary tool of expression that I hit a wall with it. As years have went on, synthesizers, drones, sampling, and loops have taken that role. The emotion that can be coaxed from repetition and subtle changes in tone or oscillation can evoke such emotional responses for me. Guitar can provide that just as much and I still use it a great deal, just more as an auxiliary element than a foundational one.
Kansas Bible Company performing at Bonnaroo in 2014. Ruth is thrashing on the far right. Photo taken from KBC Co's Facebook. DC: What was the recording process of Calming Signals like? If I am not mistaken, you recorded and produced the album in your home studio, but it featured a number of outside musicians and organic improvisation. How were you able to work that out, logistically? RR: The recording process started with sketches and loose ideas of different synth compositions. When that started to bore me, I decided to bring in my good friend James Green to improvise some flugelhorn on them, and from then I gradually enlisted a handful of extremely talented friends to do the same. All of the different voices are what made the record come to life. The paring of repetitive, droning synthesizers with very human performances of wind, brass, and percussion brought something totally new out of the tracks I had been working with. They didn't feel stagnant at all anymore. These aren't unfamiliar ideas either, obviously Eno and Bowie employed a lot of the same approach.
DC: The track Haynes Manor has a really great Eno vibe. I know that he has been a big musical influence in your life, but what other musicians (or artists in general) inspired you during this writing and recording process? RR: A lot of the inspiration came from composers and artists I've been into for a long time. I just began to pay much closer attention to what gave avant-garde music movement and life. Artists like Steve Reich, John Hassel, Haruomi Hosono, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Terry Riley, Robert Fripp, Gigi Mason, Can, and of course anything in the Eno-sphere - specifically Low, Heroes, and Another Green World. The everlasting aesthetic and vibe of the ECM catalog will always resonate with me. There’s also such a rich tapestry of contemporary left field and ambient-adjacent music that has helped shape my approach. William Tyler, Bitchin Bajas, Joseph Shabason, Emily Sprague, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, and Nils Frahm all make such captivating work and demonstrate that you can have a career doing this. Additionally, travel has always been a huge influence on how I view these works and how they come together in the end. I always try to invoke a sense of motion and some type of feeling that is similar to enjoying an unfamiliar experience. Also the film Paris, TX is a spiritual influence on creation and what the curating of empty space can lead to for me. DC: Ambient music is a really broad genre, and it serves a variety of purposes. What role has ambient music played in your life, and now what do you hope your contribution to this genre does for others? RR: For me, ambient music has become a very vital force in my life. It's greatly helped me recover from trauma and feel grounded to the earth. I went through a series of jarring life events that eventually lead to having to sell our house and move. This was when I was deep into working on Calming Signals and it transformed the process into something much more meditative and necessary for me. Since then I've gradually returned to a normal pace and sense of living, but making relaxing ambient music has been very integral to that process. I do it as a practice most days and record every bit of it - I have hours and hours of archived stuff in this vein. DC: Looking ahead, what is next for you? More solo work? Collaborations? Touring? Recording during this time of quarantine? RR: Lots more is ahead - I have a new record that is almost completely finished. It's very very collaborative and features a lot of the same homies who played on Calming Signals as well as a few new folks in the mix. Once all this Covid stuff blows over, we can hopefully find a game plan for that. I'm hoping to tour a lot more as well, but want to make sure the pieces are in place for it to be viable and sustainable. As for quarantine time, I've been obsessively working on music, much more in the long form ambient context. I think the world can use some of that right now. I've got a great deal of collaborations floating in space right now - it's been nice to connect with so many musician friends in the same boat and try to be constructive. I've already released two 4-song EPs since this whole thing started and I'm hoping to stay deep in the zone and release more of them.
DC: And speaking of quarantine, are there ways that readers can be supportive during this time of cancellations? You were all set to play Big Ears in Knoxville this spring. Do you have merch available, or links you want to pass along?
RR: Feel free to buy a Calming Signals LP or buy a digital copy of one of the new EPs. They are very relaxing, I promise. I was so stoked about Big Ears and a few other shows that have since been cancelled. I've been to the festival twice as a fan and it is such a pillar of experimental art. We're all in this mess together though and I just hope that we can emerge with a new sense of empathy and understanding.