Beneath the icy beauty of Bing & Ruth lurks a lake of dark uncertainty. The New York-based instrumental quintet has come to prominence in the last year thanks to their brilliant third record, No Home of the Mind, which features pianist and bandleader David Moore using his instrument to create trance-inducing loops that expand and contract, as if the music itself is breathing.
Moore's success with Bing & Ruth arises in part from his deep reverence for the piano as a tool for emotional self-discovery. His practice sessions have long been a kind of personal meditation—a deep trip to the far edge of himself. And like any honest self-reflection, what's been found is both comforting and disturbing: Bing & Ruth's sound defies the wispy "ambient" label and demands much more from the listener. What's heard on tracks like "Starwood Choker" and "The How of it Sped" is Moore in the midst of personal growth. Like gazing out into space, things feel bigger, more frightening, and more beautiful with each passing note.
Currently in the middle of an abbreviated tour, Bing & Ruth will return home to Manhattan on Wednesday night for a basement show at Le Poisson Rouge. Their set will feature many of the standouts from No Home, but in newly-made forms that are the result of the past year's gigging. Speaking to Gothamist last week from the road, Moore detailed his affection for New York, the challenge of being an independent instrumental band, and what it takes to keep making music out on the limits of imagination.
How did you first become aware of music similar to what Bing & Ruth has become? You grew up playing banjo in Kansas and that's a bit of jump. Where I grew up in Topeka, Kansas, there just weren't a lot of options for being exposed to things that are more like us. I think there were two main things. First, I had this game on the Sega Genesis when I was kid called Ecco the Dolphin and you just sort of swam around and this sort of beautiful soundscape-y music played. And I would just play this game for hours and hours and I never got to another level, I just swam around. I think that was a very early exposure to something that wasn't an option . And I think the other thing was watching The Simpsons when I was a kid and there was some commercial and there was some music that really struck me and was something that I hadn't heard before. I tracked it down what it was and it was the composer Thomas Newman, who's still very active, but he sort of had this golden period with a few of his films, American Beauty and the In the Bedroom. And those were accessible, I could go to the blockbuster music in Topeka and they would have them, soundtracks and such. They didn't have John Cage, they didn't have Steve Reich, any sort of modern composers, but they had film scores. I think those two things were my earliest exposure to it, and of course once Napster took off it was a feeding frenzy and that was also a big part of my development.
Was the piano always present in your life? Your music leads me to wonder how your relationship to the instrument has changed over time. Has it been in every home you've had since you were a young kid? My dad was a musician. We didn't have a piano in the house when I was a baby, but when I was 5 or 6 I told my parents that I wanted to play piano. They got me one and I sort of dove in.
Socially, growing up where I did I always felt like an outcast and felt like I didn't really belong anywhere and the piano is kind of this place where I felt like I had some control and domain over my experience. I just sort of dove in and worked really hard at it, basically. From the time I was 6 years old and my dad would sit with me everyday and show me things and practice with me. So, it was really something I enjoyed and as I grew older, with going to college and figuring out what the hell I was going to do with my life. There really wasn't much of a question, it was "Well here's the thing I'm better at than anything else in my life and here's the thing I want do the most." There's something really pure about the instrument. There's something about the piano—it's one of the few instruments that you can really play by yourself and create something that's fully formed, with no technology added. It's a very pure expression.
At the risk of using genre labels, neoclassical, independent, experimental piano music has been through an explosion. And one of the hallmarks of this sound is the distortion or alteration of a traditional piano, whether it's Nils Frahm putting felt on piano strings or Olafur Arnalds employing tape delay and echoes. There's a collective of pianists that seem to want to contort the inner nature of the piano. Does that resonate with you? Why do you think that's been a method that so many people have taken? I'm just in full support of people playing and listening to the piano because I think it's just an incredible instrument. People will look outside of the instrument for things to bring back into it, so, yeah, augmenting the piano, felt or prepared, that's been going on forever. For me I need to feel like I have full control over what I'm doing and there's something about the purity of the instrument with nothing outside added as sort of this restrictive challenge. When you start augmenting the instrument and doing different things, you can certainly do some awesome stuff. I've heard some really incredible prepared piano; but for me, for my voice, it never really resonated with me as a path because it was this sense of endless tinkering. I need like real limits on what I can do and within those limits I can find the most.
You came to New York to study at the New School. Was there a moment when you were in Kansas in which you just realized that you had to go to New York? How did that come up? I never really wanted to move [to New York City] when I was younger. Everything was an organic process, where I played in Topeka when I was in high school and realized that I wanted to better. I was playing with the best players in Topeka and I wanted to be better than that. And so I moved to Lawrence and started to play in bands and hit a wall there. And then I went to Kansas City and felt like I hit a wall there. My mentor at the time pulled me aside and told me "You gotta move to New York."
And I'm glad I went through that and didn't just jump into New York, because it's pretty intimidating and overwhelming especially when I moved there 15 years ago. It was a pretty different scene and creative environment. And the fact that I showed up with all of this experience behind me and all of this work that I put in made it so that I could make the most of it when I got there. I really hated it the first year I lived there but I grew to love it and fell in love with it. It's just been this constant back and forth of loving it and hating it and feeling like I needed to go away from it forever. I actually just moved back to the city yesterday. I've been living upstate for a year and a half.
What impact has New York itself had on your writing? I presume you were writing music of some sort of your own before you came to New York, but did that take a turn when you arrived? I was living in Kansas City and if you want to play music in Kansas City, at the time, you had a few paths and one was jazz and one was jam band. So I did those things but they never really resonated me. Moving to New York opened me up to way more options and the thought that I can kind of dig deep into what I actually want to be doing, and that was really incredible. And having that opportunity to link up with players at the New School. The band now, there are five of us and four of us went to New School and we've been playing together for over a decade.
What, in your experience, is the experimental piano, "ambient scene" like in New York? Is there even a scene? The joke is that when I started the band, I didn't start it with any ideas that we would even play a show, because there didn't really seem to be a place for us. But with the growth of what we do, it's assertive and creative on two fronts. One is the actual music that we're making and the other, when I was doing everything myself, it was kind of freeing in a way to not have go to venues or go to promoters. We could make our own thing. So we would do a lot of setting up our own shows, DIY style or approaching strange places or weird theaters. It happened sort of slow and organic and built up year by year.
I've also been very cautious about that, because there are a lot of scenes, especially amidst more left-of-center types of music, that feel really insular. It's the same people in the same bands playing for the same crowds every show. And I saw that—my friends play free jazz and I'd go see their shows and it would be all the same musicians in the audience and all the same musicians on the stage. So even if there had been a scene for us it wasn't something that I was super interested in finding. I just kinda wanted to do it our own way.
Chords and melodies in your music change over many measures. When you're writing, do you play in that style for hours and then listen back to find nice transitions that happened that you weren't really expecting? Is it improvising in that way or are you taking a fragment or a motive and building outward from that smaller piece? What is it like for you? It's interesting, all the songs on the record were really intuitively written. I just walked to the piano and just started playing it. I don't know where it came from. But I should say it didn't come out fully formed, the idea or a fragment of an idea. Sometimes it happened over the course of an hour, sometimes it happened over the course of three days. But I would just keep playing it and evolving it and changing it.
A big part of my process was recording everything. So kind of going on these little spurts where I would work on something for half an hour and step away from it and listen to what I did. It was really fascinating because I would be toying with an idea and be like "this is great, I want to do this and try to build a song around this." And three days later I'd listen back and listen to the first thing I did and it's completely different. it's evolving in a very organic way. In a way that you can't really force it. For me it's a trance. You sit down and I'll play for a couple hours on something and not even realize that a couple hours went by. It's my form of meditation for myself.
Do you take inspiration from many other art mediums? I think with dance and film there's certainly a lot of cross collaboration. We've worked with dance ensembles and filmmakers and done a lot with that. But I think for me, I have a really big problem when people take themselves too seriously. And that might sound weird coming from me, I would imagine if somebody didn't know me, might think that I take myself really seriously, but I don't. I have strong ideas about what I do and reasons why I do them. I think ultimately, I don't have any respect for reality as we know it. I think that it's hard for me to take something in if I get the sense that it's a little bit up its own ass. There are things to take away from everything, I've gotten a lot out of things from Band of Outsiders but I've also gotten things from Fast and the Furious. There's something in everything if you know how to look for yourself.
What do you think are the most common misconceptions that even a devoted fan of "ambient music" might have about you personally and your writing process? I get a lot of people who assume that these records are large productions and their built through a lot of overdubs and provisions. The way I always like to do things and the way that we've always done them is just the band getting together in a room and playing the music and recording it. In the new album, it's just the sound of five of us in a church playing together. There's no overdubs, we just worked on the song, stepped in and recorded them. I think another common misconception is that I'm like personally into this type of music and listen to it constantly—I actually don't. I make it because it's what I feel the need to do and its what comes out of me when I sit and play, but as far as the music that I actually listen to and enjoy the most, it's usually very different.
Say someone has no experience live with Bing & Ruth, what is there to expect by coming to a show when you guys coming together? It's up to you. I feel like—I'm constantly afraid of sounding pretentious, like I said I really don't take myself that seriously--I'm not here to tell you how to feel. I'm here to give you something and then you can take it and make it what you need. And it's interesting because I've found in talking to a lot of people after shows, the same show people have such different reactions to and my only sort of theory about is it can really act as sort of a reflection of yourself. There's a lot of validity in self exploration and meditation if that's your bag. This is a way that people can sit in a chair or stand and close their eyes if they want and just go with us. You're not going to hear curses or verses, you're not going to clap between songs. We want to start the set and play and be done. You can have the journey that you want to have and for some people it makes them extremely uncomfortable and there's a lot of people that hate our band because of that. But I like to think that there's a lot more people that love it because of that. It really is a reflection of whatever you want it to be, it's not my job to tell you how to respond to it.
Bing & Ruth plays Le Poisson Rouge Wednesday, September 20th, at 7 p.m. (doors at 6) // Tickets available here