Showcase Interview: Drawing Sound Landscapes at a Particular Moment – The Presence of JR
Rigas Ritmi Festival takes place in the capital of Latvia every year in the first week of July. This year it will take place from 1st to the 5th July and celebrate the 15th anniversary by offering different excellent concerts. This also includes the Showcase programme, where Latvian performers will present themselves to foreign music experts and guests of the festival. The program will take place at the New Auditorium of the Riga Congress Centre on 2nd and 3rd July at 14.00 p.m. Jānis Ruņģis, the new generation guitarist, a master at creating a relaxing ambience, and his band “Jāņa Ruņģa Klātbūtne” or “The Presence of JR” will perform there on the first day and also at “Kaņepes Kultūras centrs” at 21.00 p.m. of the second day of the festival.
Showcase in its nature is a performance where unknown or barely known artists present themselves to different experts. Thus, the question – what is it? What is “The Presence of JR”?
Showcase really is a great opportunity and option to present yourself to representatives of foreign press, managers and producers. It is also an opportunity to present yourself to the Latvian audience. It is a concentrated 30 minutes long musical performance similar to an essence, where the band has been put for you on a plate. We are a trio: bass player Reinis Ozoliņš, drummer Rūdolfs Dankfelds and myself (Jānis Ruņgis, guitar – author’s note). The performance will include four to five pieces. There might be a three to four minutes long song in radio single format, but the next composition may as well go on for ten or even 15 minutes.
A radio format song? With lyrics?
I am still thinking about it. I have sung in my concerts before, both – with and without lyrics. When I am not singing lyrics, I use vowels that everyone knows and kind of merge with the instrumentals. In concerts, I sometimes play an instrument similar to a blockflute, but it is not a blockflute. I have also played clarinet, piano and synthesizers. We are similar to a rock trio: electric guitar, bass guitar and drums.
That might be called a post-rock.
We are something more like psychedelic jazz rock. The formulation is very changing, because we are a dynamic band. We are not used to playing in one dynamics. When you imagine the combination of words “rock music”, you associate it with one thing, great loudness, but we are trying to find balance.
It is also some kind of soundscape, as you have defined it at some point.
True. I am used to supplementing music with completely free improvisation that has no real rules. I want to find something truly fresh, to find a state of soul, which I have not encountered before. This is a good way to achieve such goal. This is way I am operating with effects, guitar pedals, frequencies and loops.
Essentially, the bass guitar and the drums serve as rhythmical background on which you can build your soundscapes.
Yes, but not always, because the bass player and the drummer are personalities as well and they also have voices, which are expressed through their instruments. I let my band mates express themselves freely. No restrictions or specific rules. At times, I have told the bass player to play one particular riff and nothing else; but in most cases, we all improvise together freely. These compositions often sound the best. Each musician knows best what they want and how they want to play. We are paying attention to the concert venue and the general energy of the day of the performance. How I feel, how are others feeling and how is the audience feeling. Sometimes, we decide on a specific set list , but upon arriving at the venue, we realise that we cannot use it and we have to look for other ways.
Does it mean that you have no two identical performances?
Impossible. The task, the wish and the will is to make people remember a concert, a particular event, for the rest of their lives. I am sure that people who have attended our concerts feel this way. This is why we do not perform often. So we always have this feeling of growing energy inside the band, the feeling that when we have not been playing together for a long time and we have met again - we can give 200% of our energy to a performance.
Why “the presence”?
Why not? What else could it be? It simply is my presence. Everything started in 2012, when I met drummer Ivars Arutjunjans and bass player Jānis Rubiks at Riga Dome Choir School for a jam session. There we created the title song of my current band “Ruņģa klātbūtne” (Rungi’s presence). We felt so excited about all of it that we understood – we have to make a band! It is primarily considered to be my solo project, because it bears my name, but I still feel that it is a band. I talked with Ivars about band names - “Jāņa Ruņģa Ābece” (The ABCs of Jānis Ruņģis), “Jāņa Ruņģa Alfabēts” (Alphabet of Jānis Ruņģis)… The word “presence” slipped out and we liked its ambiguity and depth.
In English you call yourselves “The Presence of JR”.
It sounds better in Latvian, because in the Latvian language it is a combination of two words “klāt” (here) and “būt” (to be). “Būtne” (a being) as a living organism, an individuality. I want to change dogmas in the society and the way people perceive music and look at bands. In Latvia, improvisation music field is developing slowly. It existed also during the Soviet period, but jazz was different then.
Showcase is an opportunity to show this presence outwards, beyond the borders of Latvia. Do you have a strong and serious willingness to present this kind of music, which is not bound to a specific territory, in European clubs and festivals?
Of course, I would not turn down such opportunity! I believe that people abroad would appreciate this kind of music more. They are used to such kind of music more, because they historically have been in contact with it. It is not such a surprise anymore.
Have you attended Rigas Ritmi Festival as a listener and enthusiast of music?
Yes. When I was studying guitar at the Jazz Department of Jāzeps Mediņš Riga Secondary School of Music, during the second or the third year the school management invited me to Rigas Ritmi Festival. I and singer Loreta Medne received invitations to participate in master-classes and visit all concerts for free. It was the first time I encountered Rigas Ritmi Festival.
What master-classes and workshops did you attend?
There were several of them, but I remember a very good Afro-American singer and percussionist, called Vinx.
He is a musician of funk direction.
Yes, there was a side of funk; he is a member of the band “Jungle Funk”. Then I met many local musicians as well, for example, Ralfs Eilands and Kristīne Prauliņa. There were many musicians who are popular now and I find this experience positive.
Which of your favourite artists would you like to see in the festival?
The legendary guitar player John Scofield. I find it strange that he has not been in Latvia yet. From bass players, I would like to see Kurt Rosenwinkel. From pianists, I would choose Keith Jarrett.
You have learnt from masters, but what is your academic background?
I graduated Jānis Mediņš Music School for Children as a clarinettist. I have played in brass bands and participated in competitions – even won some of them. Earlier, during childhood, I participated in opera shows, because my father is an opera singer (Guntars Ruņģis).
Did you play clarinet there?
No, I was an actor! I fell in love with academic music, opera singers and symphonic orchestra already in childhood. At the age of 14 or 15, I took a guitar in my hands and my father taught me the basics of playing a guitar, because he is a former rock guitarist. I am very grateful for that. I began playing in my first rock band “Order Sang”. We composed original pieces and performed on the radio and TV. It was a very good first experience. Then we focused more on the culture of the 1960s and 1970ies, the US and the UK. We were fans of the legendary artists of that time – “Pink Floyd”, “Led Zeppelin”, Jimi Hendrix, “The Doors”, “Velvet Underground”, etc. We tried to make music within the limits of that style. I understood that I need to improve professionally and went to Jāzeps Mediņš Riga Secondary School of Music. Then I got expelled and went to Riga Dome Choir School. I have studied in four secondary schools and therefore explaining my academic journey is difficult. I studied guitar at the Latvian Academy of Music for one year as well.
In such case, I must ask – do you consider the academic path to be of primary importance in general or is it enough with the background you have received and then you improve further on your own?
Currently, I don’t think it has primary importance. Of course, it was a meaningful and useful experience, but now I continue my education outside school by playing in different projects and I don’t have time for everything anymore.
In which projects do you participate now?
I play with the pop singer Aminata Savadogo.
Are you going to the Eurovision Song Contest?
No, I am definitely not, but I helped her in making her album. I played different instruments – guitars, banjo, synthesizers, bass and percussions. It was my first experience in producing pop music. I also perform with saxophonist Deniss Paškevičs in “Funk Therapy” and with singer Elza Natha. I participate also in the creative workshops of drummer Rihards Fedotovs, where he gathers musicians and invites some well-known artist. We take his original songs, rehearse on the day of the concert, re-arrange them and then jam.
I have had the honour of playing with symphonic orchestras: the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, Liepāja Symphony Orchestra and Vidzeme Chamber Orchestra. I am also recording the new album of Kristīne Prauliņa; her new songs are written by Reinis Ozoliņš. A lot is going on, and it is difficult to list everything.
You are 25-year-old. By listening to your list of work, I have to conclude that many artists are unable to achieve such scope even at the age of 45. Is it because of the development of the Latvian music life?
I think, laziness. A jazz music guitar player is a guitarist who simply works hard. If you play jazz music and exercise in improvisation on daily basis, you will understand other music structures, harmonies and rhythms better. In the context of a simpler music it will become clear to you much sooner what is going on there and where is the catch. You also gain understanding of the quality of sound.
Finally – will there be an album?
Yes. I don’t know yet, when. I am growing towards it. Until now, I have participated in making albums of other musicians and accumulated experience. I have been accumulating the diversity of music. And, of course, financial resources matter as well. I want to issue a debut album so good that it will blow minds.
Let’s wait then for “The Presence of JR’s” album “Mindblower”?