Ruth Goller’s career is based on a heady mix of jazz skill and punk attitude. Hailing from the Italian Alps, but based in London, she plays both electric and double bass. Over the years, she has featured on a long and impressive list of intriguing projects, from Acoustic Ladyland and its successor Melt Yourself Down, to The Golden Age of Steam, Metamorphic, and World Sanguine Report.
As she’s always open to pushing the boundaries in all directions, Goller’s new album Skylla is a blend of improvisation, harmonic explorations and multi-layered vocals. Innovative and sonically fascinating, the album supports her reputation as one of the rising stars of the modern jazz firmament.
Goller began playing the violin as a child, before being drawn toward the low end. Her range of bass techniques has become world-class, and she has been described as delivering ‘thunderous hooks’, perhaps one of the reasons that she has worked with award-winning jazz musicians Kit Downes, Marc Ribot, and Shabaka Hutchings, as well as a certain Paul McCartney.
We caught up with Goller on a recent Zoom call, when she talked us through five of the albums that have been important to her career.
Must-Have Album: Ruth Goller – Syklla (2021)
“Someone asked me to write a song for a monthly mixtape, which is where this album came from. I’d just got off a flight and was really, really tired, but now I had a deadline for the next day, because I had to write this tune.
“I took out my bass, which was out of tune from being in the flight case, and just started playing harmonics. Accidentally, because of the unusual tuning, I really liked the harmonic series I got from it. I put a mic up quickly, but I wasn’t even plugged in so I recorded really close to the strings, improvising.
“I cut a piece out that I liked, and started putting layers of my own vocals on it with stream-of-consciousness lyrics. I was just saying phrases, half-mumbling, not thinking at all. It only took a couple of hours – but I got so many people saying they loved it. I kept on writing over the next 12 months and by the end of it I realized that I had an album’s worth of music.
“The Cologne Jazz Festival then asked me to do a gig, but I didn’t even have a band. I didn’t conceptualize how I was going to do it live with all those vocal layers – so I asked my singer friends, and we arranged it for three vocals. The gig got a really great response. It was all consequences and coincidences, and that is why it’s so true to myself: I didn’t overthink it.”
Worthy Contender: Melt Yourself Down – Last Evenings on Earth (2016)
“I first played with saxophonist Pete Wareham in Acoustic Ladyland, which was just after I moved to the UK and got involved with different bands. A lot of those people were quite important for my development as a musician and a bass player. Me and Pete have a deep and long-lasting musical friendship, and he’s been very influential to me as a musician while finding my identity.
“I grew up playing punk music, and then when I moved to the UK I studied jazz at Middlesex University. I then thought I needed to play jazz standards and double bass exclusively, but when I met Pete I realized that I didn’t have to make a choice. He’s a brilliant jazz musician, but he’s also a punk musician.
“The stuff he writes is not straightahead jazz at all. It’s full-on, festival band, live music and I’ve always found him very inspiring because he takes the best bits from punk and jazz. Why not? Pete’s sound has something really raw about it: It’s the most amazing saxophone sound.
“I’m playing electric bass on this one. I’ve fallen in love with the Fender Mustang in recent years, and now I’ve got two of them, so I’m really happy: one with humbuckers and one with single-coil pickups, which is more punky and dirty. I like playing simple gear.”
Cool Grooves: Vula Viel – Don't Be Afraid (2019)
“This is a really interesting project. Bex Burch is the bandleader and she plays an instrument that she built for herself. It’s an augmented gyil, plus a huge kind of vibraphone marimba, and then it’s me on electric bass and Jim Hart on drums.
“Bex went to Ghana to study Ghanaian funeral music, which is a very speciﬁ c style of its own. Rhythmically, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever come across: It’s all in cycles and bell patterns and really, really long forms. Because it’s all in a pentatonic scale, you don’t get a lot of harmonic change. At the same time, Jim is doing all sorts of amazing stuff, with every limb playing a different time signature or pattern, and still improvising within it.
“I love playing with this band, although it’s very hard, and I’ve learned so much. Sometimes I feel like, ‘Where’s the pulse gone?’ because everything is in three or four, and you can feel it in two different ways. I’m really, really pleased with this record and with my sound.
“Internalizing those forms is the same as playing a jazz standard; when you learn one, you just think of which chords are in every bar. Then it kind of melds together and you stop thinking about where you are. You have freedom within the piece of music to improvise.”
Wild Card: Chris Montague – Warmer than Blood (2020)
“This is another trio, led this time by my good friend Chris Montague, with Kit Downes on piano. I love the music, and it’s unusual in that we don’t have a drummer; just electric bass, electric guitar and acoustic piano.
“Kit prepares the piano so he can get a lot of percussive sounds. It’s kind of like approaching a traditional jazz quartet but with very different, and very new, sounds. Chris’s compositions are amazing. I don’t know anyone else who can write music like this, in this kind of unusual context. It is really special.
“As with all the bands I play with, something is written before we play, but then there’s always a certain amount of freedom for me to explore and improvise. It’s very interesting – when you play with a drummer, you automatically want to play louder, which means that when you’re playing without one, instead it becomes about keeping the energy up without being too loud.
“I’ve explored a lot with effects pedals with this band, using a bit of distortion at a very low level, and also a bit of reverb – the combination gives the bass a kind of eerie vibe. The drums usually fill out the bass, but when that’s not there any more, as in this band, everything becomes very exposed. I find that using some reverb helps a lot to hold the bass down.”
Hard to Read: Band X – Album X
“Sometimes, as a jobbing bassist, you’ll be called into a recording session at short notice, with the expectation that you’ll be able to sight-read musical scores or charts created to give basic harmonic and rhythmic information,” says Goller. “If a chart is correct, I can play a piece of music straight away without having to transcribe it in the session and work out what the chord movement is.
“It’s okay for me to do that, but it takes time, and of course, in a studio time is very costly. So having a good chart means that I know the basic information of a tune, which in turn means that I can concentrate on being creative with what I need to play.”
However, things can be very tricky if you turn up to a session to find that no charts of any kind have been made, as happened to Goller once: “I was recording at the same time as I was hearing the tune for the first time – basically, I was guessing what was coming next!”
That would be a challenge for any of us; luckily, the project turned out well. “It was actually fine, as they were happy to edit things. It keeps the music organic and I feel like you can come up with things that normally don’t happen. It can be stressful in the moment, but if you work with good musicians it is always fine in the end.” Amen to that.