Interview: Bing & Ruth’s David Moore on creating an all-encompassing live show (playing The Barnes Foundation on 12/14)

“If I don’t keep myself busy, I’ll go crazy,” says David Moore, the Brooklyn-based composer and musician. “It has to be music all the time.” Depending on which day of the week it is, you can find Moore playing in one of the following bands: the Piledrivers, which he calls a “skate-punk/old-time fiddle band”; Langhorne Slim, the folk group led by Pennsylvanian Sean Scolnick; or Pepper Johnson, the folk/country project Moore recently started.

And there’s also Bing & Ruth, the 11-piece ensemble (woodwinds, strings, voice, guitar, percussion, synthesizers) that plays Moore’s ambient, classical and experimental compositions. Given the complications associated with touring such a large ensemble, it’s an extremely rare occasion that Bing & Ruth is performing at The Barnes Foundation on December 14. The group will play two sets, one focusing on new material from an upcoming album, and the other showcasing pieces from 2010′s illuminative and entrancing City Lake.

In a recent phone conversation, I spoke with Moore about Bing & Ruth, the challenges of working with a large ensemble, and creating live experiences where unpredictable things can happen. Detours in the conversation took us, naturally, to boomerangs and Jimmy Buffett.

The Key: Hi David. How are you?

David Moore: I’m good. It’s a beautiful day outside. I need to go to the music store to get some amps repaired, but I really want to go play frisbee. I have to find someone else who doesn’t have to work today that can play with me.

TK: Sadly, frisbee isn’t a sport that works alone, unless you actually have a boomerang.

DM: That’s true. I think it’s time the boomerang comes back. I’m open to the idea. But then I’d be the saddest frisbee player ever.

TK: As modern life becomes increasingly defined by alienation, the boomerang has replaced the frisbee. Okay. So before we talk about Bing & Ruth, you make very different music under the name Pepper Johnson. And the group’s first album, Flat Country, was released this year.

DM: After working on Bing & Ruth for several years, I got a bit burnt out on it, and started Pepper Johnson. I wanted to do something else, and so started doing some home recording. I really liked the music because it was like nothing else I’d done before, but I had no intention of really doing anything with it. I played it for some friends who really liked it, so I took their advice and put it out. I’m working on another album now that’s already half way done.

TK: So this was the first time you’d made this type of singer-songwriter, folk, country songs?

DM: Yeah, it was. But I wanted to avoid the whole “here’s an experimental musician who’s now trying to make a folk album” thing. It’s definitely very informed by my work with Bing & Ruth, and my love of experimental music. I’m really into early American folk music, so it’s that channeled through an experimental spectrum. You know, I enjoy Elliott Carter and I enjoy Jimmy Buffett. I don’t want to just make one style of music.

TK: Do you really like Jimmy Buffett?

DM: Yeah, I really do. I’ve seen him twice now, and next time he comes anywhere close to New York, I’ll definitely be there. His concerts are great. This guy gets it. I mean, I disagree with him on many things, but he gets the idea of a concert being more than just pushing music on an audience. It’s not just about the music, but about hanging out and partying. It’s fun.

TK: Do you ever wish the music you make with Bing & Ruth had the same type of feel as a Jimmy Buffett concert?

DM: Honestly, that’s something I’ve pushed for—this idea that a show is an interactive experience between the audience and the band. Maybe there is no band, and there is no audience, but there’s just one experience. We try to play in really strange, interesting places, and set up shows that change the way people normally think about a concert. A concert should be all-encompassing, and not just about the music. Some people cry, some people fall asleep, some people are bored, and some people are overwhelmed. But everyone has some sort of experience.

TK: How does a Bing & Ruth song happen? Do you compose for all the instruments, and then present the piece to the players, or is it a more collaborative process?

DM: Generally, what I’ve done is that I have a lot of pieces in the pipeline. At the moment, I’m working on a new album, so there are about 30 pieces. I normally write out little sketches, and then work them out in rehearsal and try different ideas on the fly. I’ll just point to the clarinet and say, “Hey, try this.” Sometimes it will sound good, and sometimes it won’t work at all, so we’ll toss it. Sometimes something reveals itself that I didn’t know was there—a new door will open on something that I previously thought was trash. A lot of my favorite pieces have come about that way. Usually by the time the final score is written, the band’s been playing the tune for a couple months.

TK: Is it a challenge to find opportunities to perform with the full ensemble?

DM: Yes, it’s extremely difficult. That had a big thing to do with me putting the band on hiatus for several years. But I’ve been blessed because the people in the band are not only some of the most brilliant artists I know, but they love the project and are willing to do it for next to nothing. I feel very lucky to know such amazing, inspiring musicians. To get them all in the same room at the same time, though, is next to impossible.

There was never a point in history when touring with a large ensemble was an easy thing to do. You just have to take the reality you’re presented with and do something with it. I was never around for the heyday of the large chamber ensembles. I missed all that. When I decided to start the band, I didn’t really take all this into account. I didn’t consider these difficulties. I only focused on the best way to make this music, and eventually realized that it took 11 people. Then we had to figure out how to make it work.

TK: You’ll be performing some new works in Philadelphia that nobody has heard yet. Can you tell me about them, maybe how they sound compared to City Lake?

DM: Honestly, it’s still pretty up in the air. Since I started working on this material, I’ve approached it in a few different ways. I like to start from scratch each time, and always go in a new direction. There are multiple versions of the songs, and they’re all different. Most of the ensemble from City Lake will be back, but we’ll be adding in new elements that fit the new pieces best.

TK: When you perform a show like this one, how loyal is the performance to the original piece? Do unpredictable things happen with each show?

DM: We have a setlist, and then try to take that set and make it one piece. Some things are extended, and we try to vibe with the audience. If the energy in the room tells us that we should play a piece longer than usual, we’ll do that. It turns into a living, breathing thing. They can be quite different depending on the vibe of the particular performance.

I’ve been playing live shows for a long time, in all sorts of different groups, so we learn to read the energy of an audience. It’s about crafting a space so it will gently nudge the audience in that direction. We definitely want every performance to be a unique experience, and we try to never repeat ourselves.

Bing & Ruth play The Barnes Foundation on Friday, December 14. The show begins at 6 p.m., $10, more information here.