Cramming all seven members of Ripe, a self-described dance music outfit, onto the stage used to be something of a science — so much so that frontman Robbie Wulfsohn once referred to it as “human Tetris.”
“We started playing in like basements and college rooms that were basically converted on the fly into places where live shows made sense,” Wulfsohn says ahead of the band’s set at Devils Backbone Hoopla this Friday.
"... We definitely played shows with me not really on the stage, or me like on tiptoes leaning into a mic stand that's off the stage.”
Luckily the game of human contortion is mostly at an end as they've started to play bigger venues.
“It's very difficult to play your instrument when you are also in the middle of a gymnastics move,” the singer admits with a chuckle.
Ripe began when a group of freshman at Boston's Berklee College of Music met while partying in the early days of the 2011 school year.
Soon after, they started playing together, and while the guys had no clear vision of becoming a professional band, they built up a following in the Boston area through constant gigging and the release of two EPs: “Produce the Juice” in 2013 and “Hey Hello” in 2015.
Ripe started to blow up after a video of its track “Goon Squad” racked up 250,000 YouTube plays in about 48 hours, NPR member station WGBH reported when it profiled the band last year, and more than 1 million streams on Spotify.
“Local neo-soul/funk group Ripe just wants to be heard,” Boston Globe Correspondent Mackenzie Cummings-Grady wrote in 2015. “Drawing from an eclectic mix of inspirations old and new, the band honors and respects the sounds of its soulful ancestors, while striving to set the bar higher.”
Following increasing recognition, Ripe released its first album, “Joy in the Wild Unknown,” last year.
And not having to worry about tripping over each other in front of a packed dorm room has certainly helped the band find its groove.
“We have sort of felt, both on the inside and in the way that our music is received, this transition from ... [being] a band whose simple intent was to elicit a party atmosphere to a band that wants to take that feeling of joy and ecstatic release and amplify it,” says Wulfsohn.
Before Ripe hits the stage at Hoopla, Wulfsohn talked about the ins and outs of dance music, channeling history without mimicking it and the emotional arc of "Joy in the Wild Unknown."
You all describe what you play as "dance music." Why?
“Regardless of the genres that we pull from and regardless of sort of the colors on the palette that we want to use, we are going for those sort of moments of ecstatic release ... like when music motivates you outside of your comfort zone. And, at least for me, the most obvious signs of that are when you physically do things that you normally wouldn't do. Crying is a big one, dancing is a big one — like being willing to physically engage with people around you and have a communal moment.”
Today, when we hear dance, we think computer beats and synthesizers, a lot of EDM. That’s different than the dance music you’re making.
“What that music sets out to do does feel very kindred with what we set out to do. Being at an electronic music festival or an electronic music set, and seeing the elements of community and ... [empowerment] to get more into it — the idea of like getting lost in the musical moment and feeling a massive release through the music — all of those things [are things] we identify with really strongly. It's just the music that does that for us tends to involve real instruments.
“And we do not shy completely away from electronic textures, like, there are synthesizers onstage with us. We are not afraid of those textures being present, but we also think that for us the most exciting way that we can share that moment with other people is through the instruments that we know how to play the way that we do. So, I can get some more. The electronic textures of EDM are a means to an end, and what we're trying is just a different means to a similar end.”
What, in your opinion, makes the perfect dance song?
“I think for me, it is being able to simultaneously get completely lost in the rhythmic sway, in, like, the motivation to move, and also the ability to lock on to any one element, or any combination of elements, and have paying attention only reinforce that the motion is the goal. That the, like, release is the goal.
“... The groove is absolutely what is primary, but the ability to find that both in the sum of its parts and in each individual part, to me, is as close to pursuing perfection as you can go after.”
Does Ripe try to channel the history of jazz, funk or jam band into its music in any way?
“We are simultaneously students of music and in the lineage, and, for me, that excited me because it lets me be simultaneously super reverent and super irreverent towards even monumental works of music. ... Do I want to be any of these things as a pure expression? Probably not. Do I think that in all of these things is some element of what we're setting out to do that we can learn from? Absolutely.”
Your first full-length, "Joy in the Wild Unknown,” came out last year. What is the arc of the album?
"That album was the first time we really came to express that idea of heavy joy in a way that we felt comfortable standing behind. ... While the album doesn't necessarily follow one narrative arc, the intent of that record is to sort of chase after that feeling of weighted joy from as many different angles as possible."