By James Wood
In the early 1980s, a few years before Russ Freeman gathered a bunch of his L.A. musician friends together to create the groundbreaking Rippingtons’ debut Moonlighting, the multi-talented guitarist and composer spent time on TV sound stages listening to orchestras play.
On the band’s new album, Built To Last, Freeman pays homage to those days, working with orchestral textures for the first time in addition to opening up new realms of creativity that transcend expectation.
Built To Last also celebrates one of contemporary jazz’s most enduring legacies — a 25-year journey that spans nearly 20 albums. The album has universal appeal, with elements of jazz, rock, pop and country combined into one eclectic mix of sonic art.
But Freeman and the Ripps really go for broke on the metal world with the music mash “Monument Monolith,” a freewheeling blast of intensity on which Freeman complements his acoustic guitar with a little of everything you’ve never heard before: “angry cannibals with boiling pots” on percussion, orchestra, solo violin and a blistering solo by Zakk Wylde for good measure!
I spoke with Freeman to get his thoughts on the new Rippingtons album and on celebrating a quarter century of great music.
GUITAR WORLD: What was the idea behind recording Built To Last?
It’s a look back at the last 25 years, but it’s also a chance for me to give a nod to my musical roots, which was something I had never done before. I thought it would be nice to have some of the DNA of where I came from on this record. What’s really wonderful was getting to go against the grain in terms of genre. That’s what was most exciting for me.
The diversity of the album is its strength. You’ve even got a tasty country vibe going on “Hotel Deville.”
What’s ironic is that even though I grew up in Nashville, I didn’t get that musical flair from there. It actually happened after I had moved to LA and began playing in country bands. Looking at the arc of how I’ve been as a composer, I would have never chosen that song for any other Rips album. Before Built To Last, I would have always found a reason why it wouldn’t fit.
How does a song like that come to fruition?
Great question. When I was young, I used to write everything down on staff paper and work from there. Over the years, I’ve found it much easier to just let things sort of simmer in my head and then work things out. Sometimes a little motif or a piece of a melody will happen, but in the case of that song [“Hotel Deville”], the song happened pretty much in its entirety.
There’s quite a bit of orchestral music on this album as well. Do you have a background in that?
I do. I studied composing and orchestration and it was originally the first thing I wanted to do for my career. I remember going to the sound stages at Warner studios in Burbank and watching them record orchestras for live TV. Back in the day, they always used live orchestras for television. My first break in the business actually came about as a composer. Soon after that, I had the opportunity to record the first album and that’s when I created the band.
On the track “In The Shadow of Giants,” you mention paying homage to the rock guitar gods who inspired your journey. Who were some of your influences?
When I was young, my dad would listen to a lot of classical music like Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Then he turned me on to bands like the Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival. I loved that stuff. I also loved the acoustic guitar work of James Taylor and Gordon Lightfoot. Then there’s David Gilmour, Jimmy Page, the list goes on. I used all of those influences on Built To Last.
You also give a lot of credit to your guitar teacher.
One thing my guitar teacher told me when I was ten years old was that I was going to learn classical guitar and I was going to learn how to read music. That became the basis of how I learned and why I play more acoustic guitar than electric. It was a fabulous foundation. As a result, I feel very solid in both kinds of guitars. My teacher taught me the basics of everything I know as a guitarist and I realized that I wouldn’t have a career if it wasn’t for him. I recently called him up to thank him and we reminisced about the old days.
I’ve got to ask you about Zakk Wylde, who laid down an amazing solo on the progressive-rock-sounding track, “Monument Monolith.” How did that collaboration come about?
Zakk’s manager and my manager are married, so that was a pretty easy connection to make [laughs]. But Zakk was so gracious to come in and do the solo. It’s a wonderful track.
For me, a song like that just stops you in your tracks and makes you feel alive.
I think music connects with you. To me, it’s either true or false; it either works for you or it doesn’t. That’s what it’s all about.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.