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A Conversation with Sampson Hellerman, drummer from Ripe


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Courtesy of Paiste

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Sampson Hellerman, drummer from the LA-based funk and soul band Ripe ahead of their show at the Boulder Theater on Dec. 5. Insightful, open and funny, Hellerman spoke to me about the realities of being a working band on the road, the importance of trust when building songs, their new singles and upcoming album, and much more.

I want to start out and talk about your history a little bit. What’s your background in music? How did you first get on a kit and how did Ripe come together as a band?

I grew up in New York City and my dad is a big music guy. So for me, I was exposed to, I guess what you could call the “classics” early on, you know, the Keith Moons and the John Bonhams and all that. From a very young age for me, it was sort of like, “Whoa, drums are crazy.” It was always a trip, playing drums in New York City, because we were living in apartments and all that. But my dad would get first floor apartments that have basements and we’d build a soundproof wall. And we’d still get kicked out every year. It was really through discovering great drumming that made me think “Oh shit, you got to do that.” And then I had a bunch of bands growing up. I was always playing in bands. I had one band that I was feeling pretty invested in that sort of fell apart last minute right before college. So I got into Berkeley. I was living with a guy who used to be in the band who’s not in the band anymore. We had an apartment, we didn’t dorm. We were sort of too late to dorm. And we quickly realized we had no idea how to meet people. So we would have these open door parties. The first party we ever had, there comes Robbie [our lead singer] walking in. The three of us just sort of sat down and did a little jam, wrote a little song and put it up on SoundCloud and it got some good love. We were just like, “Alright, well, I guess we gotta do that again.” And here we are 11 years later.

I got to say, you guys are one of my all time favorite festival finds. I came across you guys at Summer Camp in 2016. How does the festival experience compare to a more standard show?

I very much came from Grateful Dead jam. That was really where I had my inception. So, I think that for me– and I do think I speak for everybody when I say this– we’ve always had the idea of being a crossover band, you know, a band that has songs on the radio, but has that die hard  level of live show commitment. We don’t want to just be a radio band or just be a jam band, There was always going to be both and we’d always straddle the line. I think those festivals obviously have different identities. We just did Austin City Limits, some very different festivals from Summer Camp. Summer Camp has a very different energy and a very different vibe than Bottle Rock in Napa or Austin City Limits. I think that it’s those jam festivals, it’s Summer Camp, and it’s Moe.down or Tumble Down, all these festivals where you find these people that live and breathe music and bands in a way that normal humans don’t. And I feel comfortable saying that because I am one who has seen 75 Phish shows and sees every Grateful Dead iteration that comes around. When you fall in love with a band the way that these fans do, you’re in it for life. And that is the kind of fan that we want because that’s the kind of fan we are. I think those festivals were so vital for us early on, too, just sort of start cultivating that community.

Your shows are so communal. They feel like everyone’s in it together. That fully stems from the energy y’all bring to the stage. Every time I’ve seen y’all, it’s jumping, sweating, arms around the people next to you. Those are the kinds of shows that really stick with a person. Could you speak to what you think creates a great performance? And would you share any major onstage moments that really stick out to you?

When we play our song “Little Lighter” and we get to the last chorus. Robbie says “jump” and everyone jumps. Everyone’s partying and everyone’s jumping, and everyone is doing the same thing, everyone is on the same wavelength, everyone is on the same page. But you’re right. I love all sorts of music, right? And I’m not even gonna say a band. But you know, you’ll go to a show and it’s a band that you really love and you’re just sort of watching the album, right? You’re just watching the song being played, which is great. Not shitting on it. I think that is its own sort of thing. But for us, it was always and still is that we want it to be this cathartic release. It’s an experience. It’s not just a concert. It’s not just a show. It’s not just an event. It is an experience with the people around you. It is a moment in time to put away everything that isn’t right. There it is. It is a moment to be completely present. Because on our best nights, we are completely present. I said this before to my bandmates, like the best shows, the show ends and you walk off the stage and it’s like you’re snapping out of a fugue. Like, “I don’t remember a single thought I had for the last 90 minutes.” You’re just so present. I think the goal is very much for the band to feel that way and for crowds to feel that way. It’s that symbiotic relationship that does go back to that jam band sphere. But you elevate it a little bit. It is a party and it is this high energy, cathartic release of energy.

One thing that I’m interested in is the general public’s idea of what being in a band is. People think “sex, drugs, rock and roll” all the time but really, it’s late nights, hard work, and rather rough living. So could you maybe clear up some of that? Or share something that you think that the general public should understand about touring? And then also maybe a couple of tips for maybe some younger bands who are still trying to find their footing? 

Absolutely. It’s funny, you say that, man. It’s so true. I just started in the early stages of a relationship with this girl, and she was telling her parents and her sister about me. And they were all totally skeeved out. They’re like, “A drummer guy? Are you sure? You know what they do.” But it’s like, “no, no, you guys have no idea.” I think it’s tough. And we’ve sort of all found that in our lives, even with our family members. You hear someone’s in a band and, like you said, you think “sex, drugs and rock and roll.” But what it really is is running a small business. Nobody really thinks about that. It is very much running a business. We have a daily meeting every day at 11am because we have so many decisions we need to make, from merchandise, to tour routing, to crew, to scheduling writing sessions, scheduling recording sessions, scheduling in general.

To me, the most important work in the band is making sure we all like each other and that we’re all friends. Because touring is really, really hard. Touring is long, long hours over long stretches of time. You’re away from your home or away from your family or away from your partners. You’re out there. And it’s hard. It’s really hard. Running any business is hard and this is no different. I think it starts with love, friendship and respect. If you don’t have those feelings towards your bandmates and towards the people you work with, then it’s not going to work in the long run. Our mentality is very much based on longevity. How do we make sure that we can do this for a lifetime to come? I have always felt that the real work is making sure that everybody is copacetic on a personal level. Me, John and Robbie are gonna go on a hike in Malibu today. And while it is very much a day off, for me, that is really important. Going to grab coffee with your bandmates or going to have dinner, going on a hike and just making sure that you have these people’s backs and they have your back. Because when you’re out there, and you’re on tour, and it’s week 8 of 10 and you haven’t seen your own bed in a long time, just barely gripping the sanity, these are the people you turn to. Especially when you’re in a touring band, you finish the show, you drive back to the hotel, you probably get to sleep for four or five hours, wake up, drive to the next city, do it all again. There’s no time for sex, drugs and rock and roll. That’s the thing that nobody tells you. You’re working hard. It’s not how it was in the 1980s. It’s just not the world that we live in and operate in.

To any young touring band, I think all I can say is that the most important thing is you have to really, really love the music that you’re playing. You have to love it. Because you’re going to be playing it night after night after night. Same songs night after night after night for years. So you have to love the music. You have to love the people you’re touring with. We’ve had amazingly talented people on both crew and hired guns for the band. They can be the two best players in the world, if you don’t vibe with them in the right way, it doesn’t matter how great they are. You need to be able to sit in a room with someone for weeks on end, and not get sick of them or get sick of them and be able to work with that.

We joke around, like, we all went to Berklee College of Music. They should have had a class called Touring 101 where you just sit in the van for 14 hours. Because that is very, very real. You got to love the music. You got to love the people you’re dealing with. You got to love life. You got to love the lifestyle. You gotta get a kick out of leaving the hotel room at 5am with your bags on your back, getting in the van to drive to the next show. You gotta have that feeling of like, “you know, this sucks, but damn, I get to do this. I’m lucky that I get to do this.” We all have that. I think we’re lucky that we ended up with a group of people who really get off on the life. You gotta love it. That’s really what it comes down to.

Great answer. I really appreciate that. I think that comes through very well, just the sense of camaraderie that y’all have. I’m interested in the songwriting process as well. From a lyrical standpoint and musical standpoint, your music is very joyous but also is not afraid to talk about the darker aspects of life. You’ve got lighter songs like “Little Lighter,” but also songs like “Brother Sky” that talk about some pretty heavy stuff. Could you talk about the philosophy you have when building a song?

Yeah, absolutely. Admittedly, Robbie is the one. The lyrics come from his brain. When I say he’s a bro, that is the understatement of the century. There’s so much depth, and wisdom in that guy.  I remember when he wrote the lyrics to “Pretty Dirty,” we must have been like, 19. I just remember thinking “he hasn’t experienced any of this? What is he talking about?” But it’s this old soul wisdom that he has. I mean, he’s just such a really remarkable human. I think that we all trust in his brain and his ability to explore life. And that’s really what he’s talking about. He’s talking about life. He’s talking about his experience of living, he’s talking about our experiences of living. He and I were in a room yesterday writing a song with some songwriters out here in LA. I was in real time going through, I don’t want to call it a crisis, but a thing I was going through, and he was taking what I was going through, and he was putting it into the song. And even though I wasn’t the one writing the lyrics, here was this extremely cathartic experience of my real time experience being put into these words that I so deeply resonate with. I just fully trust him to speak on my behalf and to speak about my life on my behalf. We all do. The trust there is pretty unshakeable. I think we really just, we believe in him and we believe in his worldview, and we believe in who he is as a person and what he has to say, and what he has to say on behalf of all of us. And it’s very, very rare that we would be like, “Hey, why don’t you try this word here?” Because it’s just almost never been necessary.

What’s your philosophy with supporting those lyrics musically?

Songwriting has really developed and changed for us over the years. It used to be we all got into a basement and just sort of yelled at each other for a couple hours and then all of a sudden there’s a song. Then we started getting involved in the writing scene out here in LA. We sort of started discovering smaller group writing. Like, “Let’s take two guys from bands and put them in a room with a producer or writer and really highlight that person’s ideas and trust that. So if John and Robbie and a producer are in the room, it doesn’t make that song, any less of a Ripe song, or my song. It is our music collectively. The ability to trust each other, whether it is the lyrics, or the guitar part or the drums, trusting your bandmates that we all know how to convey what we’re trying to convey for the larger group for the band. We go into the studio, and it’s like, “Okay, I had no part in writing those words or that guitar part, but I’m trusting these people to speak on my behalf.”

On the business behalf and talking about what I can tell young bands, for me, you have to be able to trust people that you are working with. I mean, it’s America, you’re putting your license with these people. If you don’t trust them to speak on your behalf, whether that is lyrically, or musically, you’re gonna have some problems.

Just to piggyback off that question, one of my favorite things about you guys is that you have some great bridges. I mean songs like, “Follow Through” and “Brother Sky,” there’s so many good ones. Is there a secret to a great bridge?

I feel like a lot of our bridges probably started as the chorus and we were like, “You know what, I think we can beat that. But we still want to keep that section so let’s make it the bridge.” I don’t know. I feel like most bridges don’t get written as a bridge. They were probably something else first and ended up getting beat.

I appreciate it. And that brings me to my last question. Just to touch on some of the new music, do you think of it in a sense of  evolution or  a continuation? You mentioned that your approach has evolved quite a bit over the years. So are there things that you’ve done in the past that maybe you try to avoid now? And also, could talk a little bit about what it’s been like being back in the studio since your last release in 2018?

I think for us, stagnation is death, right? Like you stop growing, you sort of end right there. Because, you talk about longevity, we have to stay on our toes. We have to stay creatively interested. And we are changing as people. We are growing, we’re maturing. So naturally, our creativity follows suit. As much as I really love that first EP we did in 2013, it’s like, we are so far past that in so many ways. We recorded that in a classroom at Emerson College. I hope we never ever have to record an album in a classroom at a college ever again because we want to do it right. I think it’s so important to grow. It’s so important to allow your creativity to mature and blossom. A lot of our processes have changed and a lot of the things we have to say have changed.

I look at Joy in the Wild Unknown and I look at this new album that we’re going to be putting out in a couple of months. There is a sense of realness, and a sense of darkness and a sense of pain and heaviness that we didn’t have in 2017. We lived five more years of life and we went through a pandemic. We went through changes within the band, and we went through some very challenging personal growth as individuals. That feeling of “let’s go find joy in the wild unknown” doesn’t make that go away. It doesn’t negate that, but it’s now a more complex feeling. Now there are more colors in our lives. We’re not in our early 20s anymore anymore. I turn 30 tomorrow and it feels different and there are more colors to it. It’s the necessity to be able to say that in the music and to put that into the music, I think is part of why we’re able to still do this.

To any fans out there who just want to hear the joyful stuff, it’s not even like tough luck, because I want to hear what they need to hear. But at a certain point as artists, we do have other things to say. Man, it’s been a really tough few years. It’s been really, really hard to write. You’re not just writing songs about, you know, “I feel a little bit lighter now.” Because we don’t, you know. Now it’s like, “waiting for things to get better/ feels a lot like settling.” We need to go out there and talk and do something about it. It’s just a very different time and we’re different people. You sort of have to let the creative process grow with who we are as individuals. And I think that that made the studio process of recording this new album really special.

It’s the Time Capsule moments where I can think of recording Joy in the Wild and then I can think of recording Hey Hello and how we all felt and how we all were as people. I remember when we recorded “Settling” and “Noise in the Forest,” it was two days after the George Floyd murder. There were protests in the streets. We were terrified that those of us who had gone to protests were bringing COVID into the studio. It was like, “Okay, but we’re here. We’re here to make this music. Let’s make it.” But there was an intensity in the air. I mean, it was thick. Now when I listen to those songs, I think back to that, and I remember that, and this whole album, I remember writing and recording it in the middle of like, we don’t even know if we’re ever gonna get to play shows again. So all we can do is create and make music like we know we can and get into the studio together. We’re allowed to do that. We all took our tests. We all quarantined for two weeks to make sure we could and it felt— I feel like I’ve used the word “cathartic” a bunch in this interview— but it did feel cathartic because it was like, “this is something we can control. We can get into the studio and make music. We can’t play shows right now. We can’t tour, but we can record.” And that album ended up getting us the record deal with Glassnote and has really been our jumping off point to getting back into the world.

COVID, which, I know a lot of people feel like it’s over, but let me tell you from the touring side, it’s not. We are still very much in a post-pandemic world where a lot of people don’t want to go back and a lot of people don’t have the money to go back to shows. Ticket sales are suffering across the board. We’re still there in a lot of ways but it gave us the ability to get into the studio. That was the most normal feeling thing we could do. It was like pressing pause on everything else. We can still record. We’re not dead because it felt like we were. It felt like “Holy shit, we’re a band who tours. That’s who we are.” When that stopped, it’s like, “Who the f*** are we? Who am I?” We all had to go through that individually and collectively. So being in the studio during that was pretty, pretty vital, I’d say.

Thank you for that. That was the last one I had for you. For what it’s worth, I think the world needs bands like Ripe right now, so congratulations on the Glassnote signing and happy birthday, man.

Awesome, man. Thank you and thanks for taking the time.

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