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A Maze of Music: An Interview with Labyrinth Lounge

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I recently had the chance to chat with Emanuel Ruffler from the band Labyrinth Lounge about the band’s debut album, their back story and much more. This LP was released several weeks ago through New York-based label Rufftone Records.

German born Emanuel Ruffler visited New York in 1992 and was immediately struck by the breathtaking artistic level and creative environment, so he moved there to study with legendary pianists such as Jaki Byard, John Hicks and Mulgrew Miller a few years later. After taking grand prize in the Thelonious Monk Competition, he has achieved songwriting credit on Me’shell Ndegocello’s ‘Aquarium’ and also collaborated with world-famous designer Emanuel Ungaro, which ultimately led to Ruffler soundtracking an ad for an Ungaro-produced perfume.

Labyrinth Lounge is:

Valerie Troutt – vocals

Ambessa ‘the Articulate’ Cantave – rap vocals

Emanuel Ruffler – keyboards

John Ormond – bass

Jaz Sawyer – drums

Maya Kronfeld – piano on “Storytime”

This music is recommended for fans of The Internet, Mali Music, Outkast, Brand New Heavies, Betty Carter and Neneh Cherry. The band is also preparing a string of live performances in L.A. and the San Francisco Bay Area in the fall of 2017.

Stereo Embers Magazine: Labyrinth Lounge is an interesting name – how did you decide on that?

LL: Our drummer Jaz Sawyer came up with this name, we used to call the band our “lounge” project at first, because those were the places we played and our sound was based around slow moving material with a groove. Then as we found more ways to make the songs more interesting and complex. Jaz called it “Labyrinth Lounge” and that was it. The name stuck and now we’re back!

SEM: How would you describe your own music? 

LL: Interesting question, I think there are always two sides to that: as a musician you are probably most interested in how the music is put together, what inspirations, influences or what process has gone into it. On the other hand, a lot of the music criticism is centered around the experience for the audience: What it reminds you of, or what the emotional points of reference are. A piece can look quite different from these two views….

So the way I would describe Labyrinth Lounge’s music from my role as a creative person: it is a collective of individual voices, that gives each of the members a great deal of freedom. We generally don’t tell each other what to play and there is a level of trust that each of us can carry the torch and lead at any given point. And we purposely make sure that each member gets their sound in.

As a listener I find the music we create kind of a nice mix of characters. It is laid back but it keeps moving. It is straight to the point but not simplistic. It has a sense of tension and relief in how it is performed. I am going to leave the comparisons and references up to the audience…

SEM: Is Porgy your debut album? Your bio mentions an in-depth backstory, so I thought I’d clarify. 

LL: Yes, it is our debut record, even though it is right between a long EP and short album in length. We had a few singles out before on Pursuance Records but they never featured the whole band in its full detail. Porgy is definitely the first time we all went into the studio together and recorded the live band.

SEM: Your band members are located in two different cities across the country from one another. How have you overcome this challenge in terms of composing, recording and live performances? 

LL: It’s actually 3 cities, LA, Oakland and New York. The challenge of having to travel makes it harder to organize everything. But when we do manage to all get together we know it’s very important. We make the best of the opportunity and we all prepare well and give 110% for the time we are together. So far it has been quite productive.

SEM: Where is your favorite place to perform? 

LL: One of my favorite places to play until a few years ago was a club called “Zebulon” in Brooklyn. They closed and have now re-opened in LA and I heard it’s great! I haven’t played there yet but I am really looking forward to the opportunity. We are going to try booking a show there for Labyrinth Lounge…stay tuned.

SEM: ‘Trouble Won’t Last’ felt like an important message was being conveyed in the midst of all the havoc occurring under Trump. What is your outlook on all of this and is there a direct tie in with this song? 

LL: We recorded the song before the election and I don’t think it has any direct Trump references, as opposed to some songs we had recorded after….But we were certainly talking a lot about the political trajectory of the U.S. Oakland is such an important place for progressive politics, the birthplace for a number of political movements – especially concerning the rights of minorities: the Black Panthers, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter…they all got a lot of energy out of Oakland.

The outlook on politics in America, the outlook on justice, the outlook on equality and fairness is really bleak at the moment. The outlook for nature and the environment is equally bad. It is a shock for many people that we could take so many steps back in such a short time. But this is where the lesson of “trouble won’t last” comes in: many of my black friends were not so surprised by the strength of this side of the American public. This is why hearing Valerie sing “this too shall pass” is kind of healing. It comes from a position of understanding, realization and acceptance – but not resignation. It’s like she is telling us: “we’ve been going through this for a long time. We have seen it all before. It’s nothing new and we will overcome it in the end.” It’s an inspiration, really.

SEM: ‘It’s Just Water’ is a really great song. What is this song about? 

LL: The song was a collaboration between Valerie and me. Then Ambessa added some verses that added another layer. I think each of us came up with a related idea of what this line means. My thinking was along the lines of an eco-anthem. It’s jut water, the most ubiquitous resource….but then again water is life. Valerie took it as a metaphor for personal growth and group activism. I think one thing that is definitely true is that water serves many purposes and we use it in many different ways. Which is kind of a fitting concept for our eclectic group of people and our audience.

Find Labyrinth Lounge / Rufftone Records on the net and support their craft: