Talking Heads: Bing & Ruth

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Arcana has the pleasure of half an hour in the company of Bing & Ruth leader David Moore.

He speaks to us on the phone from Brooklyn, where he has been holed up until now through the Covid-19 pandemic. Our main topic of conversation will be the ensemble’s new album Species, but for now Moore is coming to terms with the day. “New York is a little overcast, which is good as it’s been hot and sticky lately. I welcome a day when the sun hides away. I’ve not long woken up so I’m still working on my coffee as we talk!”

There is a break on the immediate horizon. “I just rented a little place in Woodstock for next week where I’m going to go with my wife and dog, as we actually haven’t left the city in three-and-a-half months. We were in Mexico City when all this started, and had a choice of ‘we either have to fly back tomorrow or we’re gonna be here indefinitely’, so we flew back and we’re very happy that we did.”

The new album, already reviewed by Arcana, complements previous long player No Home Of The Mind. Where that record, piano-based, had a fluid and almost liquid form, this one explores very different colours. Recorded in the desert, it inhabits a very different world. “A good friend of mine summed it up best when he said ‘It turned out different because we did it different’. This time around it felt like I was presented with a choice where I had developed my thing to a place where I could put a new record together with a little more ease, or I could try and go in a different direction. I opted to do that, as scary as it was, and continues to be!”

Moore uses the organ as the main instrument on this record, creating entirely new colours for Bing & Ruth in the process. Was that always the plan? “I got really into playing the Farfisa a number of years ago, and started writing what I thought was going to be a solo organ album. I took a walk one day, I was travelling and walking alone and I had this epiphany that what I had been writing for the last six months was actually a new Bing & Ruth album, and not a solo organ album. It all shifted about half way through, and it was, ‘Oh, this is what this is, and this is what I need to do with it’. So I called in Jeff Ratner and Jeremy Viner and we made it together.”

He agrees with the suggestion that Species sounds like the place where it was recorded. “It’s actually really funny that you say that, because when describing the album to people who haven’t heard it, what I kept saying was that it was a very ‘dry’ record. It was a very arid record, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact I was writing the music while living in and around the desert. It clearly rubbed off on me, so I’m actually really happy to hear that. It feels like a very different record for a lot of reasons, and one that was very important for me to make, for my own personal growth as a musician. That’s what you’re always trying to do, trying to move to the next thing, to keep searching and growing.”

With two of the tracks, Live Forever and The Pressure Of This Water, Moore is at ease working with bigger structures. “It’s interesting that you say that because generally when I’m working on an album it helps to develop a set of principles or philosophies, that can help guide you. One of the philosophies that I was really leaning on in this process was that every song on this record needed to be able to work as an hour-long performance. There are actually super-extended versions of all theses tracks in demo form. The idea was that we could play a show and do one song, and be on stage for an hour, hour-and a-half, and it would be a good and powerful show. If a song didn’t work after 20 or 30 minutes it wasn’t right. For the record we pared it down, created some forms and structure around it, and wanted to make something that was a full experience over the course of an hour. Clearly we’re not playing live, so that’s out for the moment!”

A tour was planned, but not surprisingly has been rescheduled. “Logistically I’m not very involved in the intricacies of the process; I work with my manager and am lucky to have a wonderful team that believes in what we’re doing and is willing to put in the work. Initially we had the two tours rescheduled, but then the US leg was cancelled outright. We’ve still got Europe planned in December, so fingers crossed that will work. It’s hard to see it, but nobody knows what’s going to happen next week, so who knows what will happen six months from now! They do a really good job working with the venues and promoters. I think the entire music industry right now is doing their best to accommodate everything that needs to be accommodated.”

The closing track on the Species album is Nearer – and despite being the quietest of the seven new pieces it is the one with the keenest emotion. “That’s a track that sounds completely different if you’re just listening to that song, or if you arrive at it as the last song on the album,” Moore explains. “As a listener to the record – because ultimately I make records for people to listen to them and enjoy them as a listener – I have noticed when I wrote that song I really liked it but I wouldn’t say it was top of the pile. I started messing around with it and put it at the end of the album, and found ‘oh shit, this is like a really powerful closer after having been through the rest of the album’. There is a certain amount of contextualising with that song in particular.”

In the times that we find ourselves, does David look to certain music to help with what we’re going through? He considers the question for a little while. “My relationship with listening to music is very cyclical. I’ll go through periods where I’m listening to a tonne of new albums, then periods where I’m listening to a tonne of old albums, and then through periods where I’m not listening to anything at all. When the quarantine started I was listening to a lot of new music, and as it stretched on I haven’t been listening to as much music – but I have been making more. I don’t listen to a lot of my own music, so probably the two new albums I’m listened to most in this time are the new albums from Fiona Apple and Run The Jewels. The Fiona Apple album is in my top five at this point; it absolutely lives up to every inch of hype behind it. It’s very powerful.”

Talk turns to other world events of recent months, and as we speak Moore has been participating in a number of Black Lives Matter demonstrations in New York. “I’ve been to a lot of them, and I’ve done a lot of marching”, he says. “I don’t feel very comfortable talking about it because it’s not really my place but I’m 100% supporting the movement and want to be involved in whatever way I can. The marches have been really powerful and beautiful experiences, and it’s been inspiring to see all these people out in the streets for such a sustained period of time. It’s a really powerful moment in our history right now – and by that I mean the history of the United States. There is a lot of reckoning that’s been needing to happen for a long time, but that’s about as much as I’m comfortable talking about.”

He is enjoying encounters with classical music, and one composer in particular. “I am an absolute Bach freak. As far as the old timers go, Bach is my Michelangelo. He’s everything! As a student I studied him quite a bit, I played his music. I was classically trained and went to a conservatory before I switched gears and got into more improvised-based music. My relationship with classical music was always very academic and pedagogical. I was just with it for the learning, and when you’re sixteen and trying to pound out Bach, you’d rather be hanging out with your friends! It wasn’t until years later when I had stopped playing classical music that I really started to gain a really deep appreciation for it. I would always play the keyboard but the thing that really brought me in was the Violin Partitas. I remember hearing them one day and it was like I was hearing God’s voice for the first time. Sorry to be cheesy but that was how it felt. Still, today, it’s radical and subversive. The issue for me – and I don’t want to speak ill on anybody – is that it’s not very often I hear it played well. A lot of the recordings, the vast majority of them, are clearly done by extremely talented people but are a little too prescriptive for my taste. I think something that was really beautiful about his music was how flexible it was, and how much personality could be put into it, so when I hear recordings that are a little stiff or maybe just don’t resonate with my values of humanity, it’s hard! Then I talk to a lot of friends who are really talented and listen to a lot of Bach, and they say ‘No, you just haven’t heard the right one!’ It’s like the really annoying Frank Zappa conversation everybody had at the time, ‘you just haven’t heard the right record’. But it is true!”

He agrees with the thought that Bach is a really good way in to classical music. “Yeah. It’s very simple, as complex as it sounds. To use a term I don’t really like, it is minimalist. You can really break it all down. I can go full music nerd into all that stuff, but I try to avoid doing it any more, it can go a little downhill! It’s interesting that one of the first breaks we had in New York was getting invited to do something called The Wordless Music series. The guy who put it together was this brilliant man called Ronen Givony. His whole concept was pairing bands like indie rock bands with classical music that he thought was very sympathetic to the music of the bands. You would get some bigger bands playing. The first one we did we opened up for the Icelandic band Múm. I performed a couple of the Goldberg Variations on piano, and then Bing & Ruth played, then the pianist Hauschka, and then Múm. It was certainly the most creative bill I had been on up to that point, and definitely still has been. I think there is a lot of potential for people who are fans of my music to find some cool stuff in this other world. I think classical music can be intimidating for a people because it is a very insular world. At this point it is very tied up in class, which I guess it always has been, but that feels ever more obvious as the wealth gap gets bigger. But it is music for all the people.”

Species by Bing & Ruth is out now on the 4AD label, and it can be heard and purchased here. David’s playlist for Arcana – including the music of Bach, naturally – can be accessed here, and you can click here to see what we thought of the album.

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