INTERVIEW: Ruth Ruth
The Major Label System Can't Keep A Great Band Down (Ruth Ruth)
By: Alex Steininger
New York-based Ruth Ruth has seen it all in the music industry. With a 1995 hit single ("Uninvited") and a national tour with future top 40 hit-makers No Doubt and Everclear opening up for them, Ruth Ruth seemed poised to break, sporting rock songs that were as fun as they were thought-provoking (think Catcher in the Rye set to music) and putting on an unstoppable live show.
However, label woes soon found the band asking to get out of their contract with American Recordings, releasing an EP on Epitaph in the interim, and eventually signing with RCA Records.
On RCA, the band released Are You My Friend a beautifully crafted, lush pop record that still managed to display their Elvis Costello-meets-the Jam rock sound of old. Soon thereafter, drummer Christian Nakata injured himself in the parking lot of a hotel playing football. After that, the band called off the remainder of its tour and went back home to work on its next record.
Ruth Ruth changed its moniker to Ultra-V for its next album, 2000's Bring on the Fuego. Frontman Chris Kennedy gave up his bass duties, instead concentrating on his vocals. But an album chock-full of modern rock hits wasn't enough to satisfy RCA. After Christina Aguilera's Christmas album bombed, Ultra-V and several other RCA bands that didn't ship astonishing numbers of records found themselves without a label.
"We were presented with choices," Kennedy says of their decision to change Ruth Ruth's name to Ultra-V and to change their sound in the process. "One, continue playing the major label game, continue to be treated without respect, put out an album that will be released around the world with the possibility of making some money. Or two, leave. We chose number one. We took the shot. I'm proud of the Ultra-V CD, and how we successfully separated ourselves from Ruth Ruth for an album.
"Some of the songs on it are among my strongest, I feel. Matt Wallace was a great co-producer to work with. The Ultra-V CD was a great recording experience, with all members collaborating together in a way we never had before. The whole Ultra-V era contributed greatly to RR still being a band."
After Ultra-V called it quits, Kennedy went to the basement, recording a solo project under the name KENNEDY, playing all the instruments and using a drum machine and samples. The still-unreleased album, Evolution, showcases a side of Kennedy he had never revealed with his old bands, delivering melodic, danceable soul songs owing more to Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye than Ruth Ruth's more punkish and New Wave influences.
"The cool thing for me as a writer is that writing for KENNEDY is a completely different experience from writing for Ruth Ruth. I get to expand my imagination and it's very fulfilling."
But you can't keep a great band down. Kennedy, along with the other members of Ruth Ruth, soon realized this. The group has since reformed, playing their first show in New York at Brownies in March.
"When all expectations have been stripped away, what are you left with?" Kennedy says on the band's perseverance. "Hopefully what you felt at 13, alone in your bedroom, playing Pet Sounds, pretending you're Brian Wilson, your love for music and the euphoria you feel from it."
When asked if any KENNEDY songs will find themselves re-recorded for a Ruth Ruth album, Kennedy quickly says, "The two are very different, so I doubt any of those songs end up in a Ruth Ruth set."
Thinking back on Ruth Ruth's three albums - Laughing Gallery, The Little Death EP, and Are You My Friend?- Kennedy seems proud of what the band has accomplished and excited about what it will do next.
"It's my hope that fans of the band were left satisfied," he says. "We gave each album everything we had, trying to make CDs we'd be proud of, CDs we could tour behind. This was the most important thing to the band - respect for the music, respect for the recording experience and respect for the fans."
What about Ruth Ruth's long break?
"The Ruth Ruth hiatus was due to my wanting to explore some solo projects," informs Kennedy. "Then one night, we all were together again at a Suzuki Beane show - a new band Michael Kotch, Nakata and I are in, fronted by the lovely and talented Leila Mack - and I suggested Ruth Ruth re-form. It was time."
"The new CD will have an urgency, an energy. It's the result of friends making music together, respect for each other. It's our CD, the one we've wanted to make for a long time: A rock-pop album reminiscent of the best of Ruth Ruth, our statement of survival.
"There's a song called 'I'm the One' about trust, betrayal and abuse. One called 'No Hero' about self-realization and the scary elements of it. And one about overwhelming passion, love and the scary elements of it, called 'Electric'."
Since Ruth Ruth's last album, a lot has changed. The radio has been taken over by hard rock acts like Creed, and emo seems to be creeping its way onto airwaves everywhere, thanks in large part to Jimmy Eat World's staggering success.
With this in mind, I ask Kennedy if there is any new music that he feels relates to the new Ruth Ruth material.
"This beautiful girl named Leslie introduced me to many artists I'd never heard before," he responds. "Belle & Sebastain are my current favorite. I love the new New Order CD, Phoenix, Kruder & Dorfmeister, the Strokes, Daft Punk, and Elvis Presley Live In Las Vegas 1969, of course.
"What all these artists have in common for me is the urgency of their music, the intimate feeling the music conveys. I want these feelings to be all over the new RR CD."
When it comes to majors, are Kennedy and Ruth Ruth burnt out? Or are they ready to dive right back in and test the waters once again?
"The idea is to record the best album we can. As far as promotion and distribution, time will tell."
Kennedy, known for his humor and wit, has always been as serious as he wants to be. When discussing the band's current itinerary and future goals, he doesn't skimp on the jokes.
"I'm getting a lot of enjoyment from the whole KENNEDY thing and the one-man live show, where I incorporate visual art, linking the music with images from past, film noir, sci-fi and Man Ray, etc. Right now it's on hiatus, while we do the RR CD.
"Our immediate goal is to make a kick ass record. The long-term goal: Have lots of sex and eat lots of chocolate."