By Ian Bremner
For all of the opinions about Nashville, it remains a creatively rich town. A small town too. A town where you casually notice a poster for a release show at the local coffee shop, then start to feel the poster follow you around town, popping up in all of the places you like to frequent as if demanding you take a listen. When you finally do, you find out the artist lives in your neighborhood and plays around with many artists you’ve come to love in recent years. This is Rich Ruth, whose new record, I Survived, It’s Over is an odyssey of ambient jazz from his home studio that may as well be outer space. Listening to I Survived, It’s Over, you will hear new sounds each time through. You may leave your body and return to it in 43 minutes when the runtime officially reaches the end.
Mike Ruth, aka Rich Ruth met me at the same coffee shop where the poster hung a week earlier to discuss the making of I Survived, It’s Over. Records like this can feel less like music and more of a physical journey if you let it. Getting inside the head of the maker, albeit briefly, helps lead the way.
Ian Bremner: I think most folks think of Nashville to have this rich folk, country scene, which it certainly does, but there is also a pretty great ambient, instrumental, jazz type scene. What have you found special about the community you have found here?
Mike Ruth: It sort of has opened up since the pandemic. It seemed to be moving that direction but there are so many great musicians here that once people stopped touring, a lot of the gigs went away. A lot of people, including my friends who I respect, play with big pop country bands which is not always fulfilling, but it’s a way to make some money, certainly more than an ambient jazz musician. When that stopped the last couple of years, people have had a moment to take stock to things. A lot of us have all known each other a long time and things have really flourished out of that. There are a lot of cool weekly instrumental things. I play at the The Underdog every Tuesday, a band called Whitten. Basically all hired gun musician types who get to play instrumental, pedal steel sorta stuff. There are 4 or 5 things like that happening every week all over town. There is a good community of outsider musicians who have honed in on what they’re doing the last couple years. There’s a great community of people who support it.
IB: You play around with a lot of folks like Sean Thompson, Spencer Cullum, Erin Rae, S.G. Goodman, and while their music can go into cosmic sphere, your solo work is in an entirely different direction, what draws you to this particular sound?
MR: It’s just an amalgamation of music I like. I stopped writing songs with words because I am just not a good singer. It just wasn’t the natural thing for me to do so I stopped trying to do so. I just really gravitate towards instrumental music and have honed in on different sounds. I love folks like Brian Eno, Alice Coltrane. I try to find what gave it life and gave it movement. I just make music every day and have started to invite in other people and it started to amaze me what was happening, largely based on what other people were bringing to the music. It’s all rooted in things I know and like about instrumental music, but it gets taken somewhere entirely different.
IB: So how do you know when a song is complete? Is the final recorded product basically a snapshot capturing the energy of a jam, or is it meticulously formed by an idea?
MR: It all starts from improvisation. I’ll go into the studio and just churn something out. Essentially, 1 out 10 of those things are actually worthy of someone else’s time for me to send them. Usually, I try to carve out a space for their particular style or personality and I don’t really ever give anyone guidance on anything. I never say “OK, play this part I wrote on your saxophone” or whatever. Most of the people I work with all have similar sensibilities. Then they’ll send me back 3 or 4 takes improvising over it or something they’ve written. Then I mull over it for like year and listen to it a million times and decide if its something I like, then probably not end up doing anything with it haha. It’s a long process. It’s like sculpting something, where it starts like a block of clay and over a long period it becomes something else.
IB: Do you ever take a chunk out of something and splice it with something else?
MR: Oh yeah, all the time. Someone was just telling me Frank Zappa would do that a lot. He would record guitar solos and then would build another song around the solo. That’s essentially what I’m doing. Part of the reason is a lot of my friends are busy on tour all the time, so I don’t have access to a band or musicians. My fried Ruben who plays drums, he’s on the road around 150 dates a year. There will be a song I didn’t end up using and I’ll take like 8 bars out of this perfect drumming and make a whole new song out of it. I’ve never mentioned this before but 3 of the songs off the record are built around the drum track from 1 song. He sent me 3 drum tracks for the first song. 2 of the other songs I just used some of the same drum tracks and put them towards songs I already had. If that makes sense. No one would be able to pick up on that. “Hmm these 3 songs all are 90 bpm and have the same drum feel..”
IB: That sounds creatively very fun, but also a little anxiety-inducing knowing there are infinite possibilities to every sound. When do you say OK, I am done with this song. How do you know when to stop?
MR: That’s honestly the hardest part, when to stop. I will just keep throwing shit at it. If an actual audio engineer looked at the tapes of the sessions I do, they would have a panic attack. I’ll have like 50 tracks, with 25 of them muted. Old ideas from 3 months ago that I never commit to. A lot of times, I just have to feel stuff. I have to remove any attachment to a particular song and think, “it doesn’t need all this. It doesn’t need 6 guitar tracks.” It takes a lot of self editing and knowing when to pull the plug.
IB: This is true of some of my favorite records. Each time through I Survived, It’s Over I hear new sounds, or find new areas of interest. Usually it depends on the setting. Cooking dinner, on a bike ride. How aware of the listener are you?
MR: With this one, I was. I never want to make anything that’s too challenging where normal people can’t enjoy it. I want to challenge people but I’m not trying to be Aphex Twin. I love Aphex Twin. Part of it was the anxiety of the time and that whole era. I wanted to work with a push and pull of bringing the music down and bringing back up to the point of almost going insane, then going back down. Just ride that feeling. I’d say a big influence on this record was an album called Chill Out by The KLF. It’s a pretty legendary British electronic album from the early 90’s. Kind of an ambient, psychedelic odyssey. It’s very much a journey and I wanted to flow to feel like it’s about to go off the rails.
IB: Very much a headphone record
MR: To whatever degree it’s getting out there, it’s very much THAT. It seems like folks want to dive in and really actually spend time with it. That wasn’t necessarily my intention, but I have always loved records like that. I wanted it to feel complete. Where it starts one way and ends in another. Like climbing a mountain.
IB: What I love about records like this are the different paths it leads you on after the fact. I was unfamiliar with The KLF and a band like Tortoise until hearing your album. I love different wormholes music can send you on. Is there anything you’re into at the moment?
MR: I’m obsessed with DJ Screw right now. I’ve been aware of him for a long time but have never understood the depth of that music or what he was doing until recently. It’s been awhile since I’ve been this excited about new music. It’s all I’ve been listening to for the last few weeks. Slowed down trippy Houston rap from the 90s. I can’t get enough.
IB: I won’t ask you to get into it, but it sounds like the creation of this record was a real meditation for you on the heels of trauma. Now that the project is OUT, do you feel on the other side of that healing process?
MR: Some of it are things I will be working on my whole life. Instrumental music is tricky. It’s hard to have a narrative for it. It’s been cool that some of that story is wrapped up into what this music is. This record is also a lot of the madness of 2020 as well. The tornado in Nashville, the combination of everything. A lot of people have reached out, so it’s been a positive experience being able to talk openly and normalize things that have happened.
IB: I only ask because I am just interested in the way people practice mindfulness. You seem pretty disciplined in the way you speak and certainly musically. What other outlets do you pursue? Running, swimming, meditation?
MR: During the pandemic, I rode my bike a lot. That’s where I did a lot of intense listening to music that ended up inspiring a lot of my own. Riding my bike around Shelby Park in East Nashville. A lot of pretty out-there 60’s jazz. At this point, I think music is the main thing that is tied up with those things for me. It’s a daily meditation. Just working on things that I like. Just making ambient noise in my room.
IB: This might be a silly question, but you were talking about it earlier with “I Survived, It’s Over,” how do you name an instrumental project?
MR: The songs I just let come to me. I’ll read a book and catch a little snippet of something and put it in my notes. A few of the songs are references to East of Eden, which I was reading at the time. Naming the record, I fretted over way more. There is a long legacy of cool instrumental music with amazing record titles. It has to be poignant and cool, if it’s music that means something, which I want mine to. I had no clue what I was going to call this record. I was floundering for weeks. I was in therapy doing EMDR and saw this sheet of paper the therapist had given me. It had two columns. In one, it had “choose how you felt in the traumatic moment” and in the other it had “what you want to associate with the moment.” It just sort of kicks you a little bit. It’s a bit melodramatic, but with the context of everything, I think most people can identify with the thought of “I survived, it’s over.” Everyone has gone through crazy shit the last couple of years.
I Survived, It’s Over is out on Third Man Records. Listen/Buy ->