Over the past three decades, Indianapolis’ Vess Ruhtenberg played in a slew of notable projects, from legendary punk outfit the Zero Boys to rockers The Lemonheads, to his own indie rock group United States Three.
But never before has he made a solo record. Until now.
“I just finally thought, ‘Well I haven’t done it,’” Ruhtenberg says. “I was alone in my studio for a couple of weeks, which is a tremendous downtime. So I finished a couple of old songs, and I had a whole bunch of new ones. I just did it. It was really fun. It’s silly to say, but putting out your own record is a new sensation.”
And so Ruhtenberg’s debut solo album, appropriately entitled Tremendous Downtime in celebration of that empty studio time, is due out on Nov. 17 — the same day he’ll play covers of The Cure at Tonic Ball. Recorded at a studio he co-founded with Jeb Banner named Twin Mono, the album is both political and vulnerable.
Tremendous Downtime is 11 solo Ruhtenberg creations that came together during a difficult time. “You’re not really sleeping, you’re not really eating, you don’t feel like socializing,” Ruhtenberg says. “So what do you do? You go in the studio. It was one of those times.” Certain tracks like “The Brighter Side of a Coin” and “You’re Done Chasing Me” speak to this in their titles alone.
“It was a bit of a tough time emotionally,” Ruhtenberg says. “I was struggling in my love life, so I was having this self inspection time mixed with sadness mixed with ‘I’m gonna do something productive because I’m not gonna waste my time.’”
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He was also, like the rest of us, witnessing a drastic change in America’s political climate, which took him back to an earlier time in his life. “The political songs were resuscitated from Bush era, but they apply so much more now with the unreasonableness of things,” Ruhtenberg says. “Even though I would sometimes write little protest songs to amuse my friends during times of strife, this time, for the first time, I felt like it was time to come out and say something publicly, being an artist with an opinion.” Tracks like “Lady Liberty” and “The Times They Better Be Changing” are examples of this sentiment.
“I’ve always had somewhat feminist lyrics on a lot of songs, but this time I wanted to be a little bit more direct,” Ruhtenberg says. “I mean, we have a sexist president, and that’s kind of weird.”
Beneath all of this tension, however, lies an exploratory spirit that has never quite existed on previous Ruhtenberg records. The song “It’s OK to Try New Things” characterizes this playful essence perfectly. “I tried to do things differently, which is why ‘It’s OK to Try New Things’ is the centerpiece of the record,” Ruhtenberg says. “It’s just nice to run the other way. There’s no point in doing things over and over again, which is one of my complaints about rock and roll in general.”
“I’m always impressed by how willing Vess is to just try something,” Twin Mono studio partner Jeb Banner says. “He hasn’t gotten to that point where he’s too cool to do something stupid. He’s willing to do something, and if it doesn’t work, he’s like, ‘Alright, let’s try it again.’ I think he’s kept a pretty consistent thread through all of his work of being willing to experiment and play.”
But although it may mark a new chapter for Ruhtenberg, Tremendous Downtime contains the “Vess aesthetic.” Banner says that you can really draw a parallel between Ruhtenberg’s songwriting and the architecture he’s attracted to. After all, Vess’ grandfather Jan Ruhtenberg was a highly regarded architect, who worked with Philip Johnson.
“[The Vess sound] is modernist,” says Banner, who also describes Ruhtenberg as “an architecture buff.” “He is very intentional about every sound he puts into a song. He’s perfectly happy to leave some empty spaces. He’s really careful about not crowding things. You can see a direct connection between the architecture he likes and the music he makes.”
This aesthetic is also something that bandmate Paul Mahern of the Zero Boys (who mastered Tremendous Downtime) sees in Ruhtenberg’s work as well.
“He’s got a really particular aesthetic that he’s really maintained through all of his bands,” Mahern says. “The way he puts a song together and, even more importantly, the way he puts a recording together is just very uniquely Vess.”
But Ruhtenberg admits that he’s starting to get bored with “Vess.”
“I really wanted to just do a record that was carefree, and endings and beginnings were somewhat invented on the spot,” Ruhtenberg says. “Sometimes I said things that I’d flinch about, or there’s a line that is a little pitchy. But, I left it.”
Going forward, fans can expect more solo output from Ruhtenberg in the future. “At this stage in my life, I can just play songs of my life, and songs I wrote yesterday as me as easily as I ever could,” he says. As for Tremendous Downtime, physical copies of the album will be available to purchase at Ruhtenberg’s Nov. 21 performance at the Hi-Fi with Busman’s Holiday.