The Music of Chance

An artist of the accidental, Jim Ruiz croons a lounge music of personal loss.

At 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 7, 1998, Minneapolis City Council member and local-music fan Jim Niland mounts the makeshift stage in the Let It Be record store to deliver a new civic proclamation. Behind Niland, the four members of the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group--Jim Ruiz on guitar, his wife Stephanie on bass, his diminutive look-alike brother Chris behind an organ, and friend-of-the-family Allison LaBonne on second guitar--stand bashfully, staring at the floor.

"And, whereas," Niland reads, "the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group is one of Minneapolis's finest bands; and, whereas, the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group is known for their excellent previous album, Oh Brother Where Art Thou?; and, whereas, the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group has celebrated our city in their great single 'Minneapolis'; now, therefore, I, Sharon Sayles Belton, mayor of the city of Minneapolis, do hereby proclaim Sunday, July 5, through Saturday, July 11, 1998, Legendary Jim Ruiz Group Week in the city of Minneapolis, and urge all citizens, especially music fans, to recognize this event." Applause.

At which point the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group slides into a shimmery version of the song "Stormtrooper." The in-store performance is the Ruiz Group's first gig in a year, and the band is rusty; in fact, LaBonne has only been playing guitar for a year, and Stephanie Winter-Ruiz only picked up the bass in April. The band breaks down on the bridge of the first song, and the cheesy drum machine starts too up-tempo on the second. But Jim's cocktail-jazz guitar solos are flawless, and the audience applauds at the breaks.

When he gets a chance at the end of the show, Ruiz finally comments on the implications of an official Legendary Jim Ruiz Group Week: "People ask me how it feels, and, well, I feel pretty important!" he gushes. He pauses: "Not that I deserve it or anything."

Ruiz, 33, hasn't courted widespread attention in any concerted way, but his growing résumé betrays him. He has a record deal with Minty Fresh, the Chicago boutique label run by Geffen executive Jim Powers, best known for launching Veruca Salt and the Cardigans and for promoting stylish international indie pop. When Ruiz rendered a decade of his life's highest and lowest experiences on 1995's Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, local sales of the disc reached nearly 5,000.

Along the way to that taste of success, Ruiz has been a ska kid, a mod-rocker, and now a bossa nova crooner; he's lived in Holland, and found his most appreciative audience in Japan; and just last month, after 15 years, he finally received his B.A. in history from the UM. And while Ruiz scarcely registers on the national level, underground pop fans serve as an international network of fierce advocates. "Jim Ruiz is a very pure soul," says Gail O'Hara of New York's Chickfactor, a cosmopolitan pop zine that regularly features the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group. "They're one of the most charming bands around, and outside of Minneapolis and Japan, they haven't gotten the recognition they deserve. But Jim and Stephanie both need to know that mass acceptance does not equal success, and to me they are the epitome of success. In a just world, Jim would be set up with a mansion and the studio of his dreams, and he wouldn't have to worry about the music business that haunts him."

But instead, the quiet bohemian couple shares a tiny apartment overlooking I-94, and their bouts with the biz have been frustrating. Jim was recently dropped from a fat music-publishing deal with Sony, which had provided advances on his albums; tour-support funds from Minty Fresh might be drying up as well. The situation has forced the Winter-Ruizes to take a long look at their finances and become, as Jim terms it, "a fiscally responsible band." To do that, he recently laid off the band's umpteenth drummer and dumped plans to tour as a six-piece. Keyboardist Chris Ruiz has reverted to part-time status and Jim's remaining members are brand new to their instruments. Necessity has bred a bit of innovation: For future live shows, the band will use canned drum tracks engineered by Rod Smith, the local loungeaholic and mixmaster.

And so, at a moment when Ruiz is celebrating a new album release and the novel honor of Legendary Jim Ruiz Group Week, the future is unclear. (The day after the Ruiz declaration, in fact, newspaper ads appear trumpeting Sayles Belton's proclamation of "Smashing Pumpkins and Rock 100.3 Day.")

"I guess I thought being on an indie label, you'd get a lot more freedom," considers Stephanie in her mild northern English accent--she was born American but raised in Norfolk. "But it doesn't seem to happen for us."

"But I just don't think it's quite as black and white as that," Jim interjects.

"Oh, you love to put things in black and white, Jim."

It's a funny exchange, because in the legend of Jim Ruiz's life and career, almost nothing has been so simple.

About three years ago at a Washington, D.C., gig, the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group shared a bill with the Mexican cabaret roots-rocker El Vez, a performer known for adopting a militant stance regarding his ethnicity. "His band came up to me before the show and they're like, 'Hey man! We've read about you! It's great to be playing with you, man!'" Ruiz remembers. "And I realized the reason they're saying that is because I have a Spanish last name. I think they were really disappointed that I wasn't very Mexican. I may be racially mixed, but I'm more Minnesotan than Garrison Keillor."

But Ruiz (he pronounces it "Reese") is well accustomed to being misperceived, personally and musically. A third-generation Chicano from Richfield who does a white-bread take on Brazilian bossa nova pop, he has found kinship in places as far away as Japan, Sweden, and Holland. His music has unintentionally fallen in with the neo-lounge craze, yet it transcends such novelty status. And while the new album does boast the Mexican-flavored "Uncle Wieny"--a tribute to the L.A. family member who male-bonded with Ruiz after the 1990 death of his first fiancée--Ruiz swears that there's no other relation between his south-of-the-border genes and his south-of-the-border genres.

"The Japanese saw that as a connection as well," he says, sitting back at his favorite LaSalle Avenue sidewalk cafe. "And I thought, well, no. The connection I have to Brazilian music is through Everything But the Girl, not because my name is Ruiz. What did my parents listen to? They had the Doctor Zhivago soundtrack. My dad liked Dylan. [The music] had absolutely nothing to do with my ethnicity, but I'm beginning to think I should play it up. It might help my record sales!"

Ruiz seemingly prefers to operate on the far side of expectations, a tendency that goes back to his early days at the fringes of the Minneapolis rock establishment. His first musical distraction came in the form of a teenage "stupid new-wave band," the Abstracked, followed by his forgotten ska band, the Liquidator. Ruiz had a brush with the bourgeois life when he played bass in a band of privileged Minnetonka kids, an experience so alien to him that he would later write one of his best songs, "Glad They're Gone," about the banal suburban party culture he had discovered in the west metro. ("But it was a black abyss/Of well-planned lives and marriages/And all the kinds of things which lead to nothing," the song concludes.)

Upon his arrival on the UM campus in 1983, Ruiz continued to experiment with more proletarian rock forms, and he soon fell in with Minneapolis's Anglophile, retro-oriented "mods." While the rest of the rock scene was fixated on the Replacements and you-know-Hü, Ruiz ran in a crowd that venerated the cacophonous local "beat" band the Funseekers. Many of the local musicians who were once mods--Ana Voog, Ruiz, Ed Ackerson of Polara--are now in their early 30s and only now garnering wider attention for making innovative pop music of all stripes. But circa Purple Rain, Ruiz made his entrance as the bassist in Ackerson's fanatically purist mod group, the Dig.

"It was all about having a scooter, looking as much like the Jam as possible, leaping around onstage, playing through Vox amps," says Ruiz. "And we totally went over horribly! That's the hardest I've ever worked in a band. You could not be more in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Indeed, the most important thing about Minneapolis's mods is that they were an alternative for rock kids who felt no affinity with the monolithic Minneapolis sound of the time. "Allison says I have a big chip on my shoulder, and I probably do, but I got so used to the idea that no one was ever gonna like anything I ever did that it really freed me up," Ruiz says. "It was the biggest surprise of my life when someone wanted to put my stuff out. Maybe it gave me a sense of despair: 'Well, no one's gonna like this anyway, so I'll just do what I want.' It's very liberating to be not listened to."

Eventually, Ruiz liberated himself even further by rejecting rock 'n' roll altogether. He left the Dig and slowly learned jazz guitar--a shift not unlike that of his hero Paul Weller, who gravitated from the neo-mod band the Jam to the bossa nova balladry of the Style Council. "I didn't want to do 'Summertime Blues'; I wanted to learn jazz chords, which is probably not a good idea for a beginning guitarist," says Ruiz.

This detour mostly kept Ruiz off the stage for several years, time he spent with his live-in girlfriend of six years, Rena Erickson, a popular mod with an uncanny '60s girl-group singing voice, who had played in such garage bands as the Blue Up?, the Cavegurls, and Rena and Her Men (joined by Ruiz). For several years, Ruiz would either take time off from school or study abroad in the Netherlands with Erickson--an experience he would romanticize in one of his first successful flirtations with bossa nova, "Mij Amsterdam."

The hardest aspect of the time spent in Holland, Ruiz says, was his long separation from Erickson; although they had gone together, they were actually stationed in towns on opposite sides of the small country. By the end of their stay, the couple was ready to get married. They decided to forgo a traditional Dutch ceremony in favor of a wedding at home before friends, and the couple returned to Minneapolis in the summer of 1990, planning to wed in a month or two.

Those plans were derailed one day while Jim was giving Rena a ride to work on his scooter. As Ruiz passed the intersection of Park and 38th, a van ran a stop sign and struck the scooter, throwing both passengers to the ground. Jim survived with a broken collarbone, but Rena's helmet had come undone, and she died in the hospital days later, at the age of 22.

More than one local musician has suggested that Erickson's death coincided with the end of the waning mod scene. But for Ruiz, it was nothing less than the defining event of his youth. And the musician's subsequent work would build on the sonic levity he had first explored with his late partner, while incorporating a wistfulness for their life together. The lyrics to the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group's 1995 debut, Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, read like a diary of Jim Ruiz's 20s--a suite of perceptive parables about being young and in love in South Minneapolis.

Stylistically, the elegantly produced album was a triumph of post-mod pop; it quickly--and coincidentally--found a place in the cocktail-party craze that descended upon the city that year. Some fans heard Oh Brother as a swell summer party disc. But beyond its facade of frivolity (like the ska-laced REV 105 hit "My Bloody Yugo"), the album evolves in Act Three into a meditation on Erickson. "They say that love inspires loss/Existence has this cost," Jim sings, with perfect tragicomic timing, on "Be My Valentine." In "She's Gone Away," he confesses that "Fear and guilt and pain/Are my companions every day." By the penultimate track, "Lucht," Ruiz sinks into a full-blown existential dilemma, as Chris Ruiz's organ plays a funeral procession. "In the face of death, is all life worthless?" he sings in the song's darkest moment. "Ask me on a bad day and I'd say, 'Yes, I suppose.'"

Oh Brother Where Art Thou? is riveting stuff, made even more so by the irony behind the album's plot: While Jim Ruiz is singing of lost love, his current love is faithfully singing at his side. Ruiz had met Stephanie Winter at the edges of the mod scene, and in 1992 they became Stephanie and Jim Winter-Ruiz, the core of the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group, with Stephanie's Nico-from-Ipanema vocals a perfect foil for Jim's tunes. Ruiz evidently grasped the tension of enlisting his mate to mourn her predecessor, and he managed to find a reconciliation of sorts through "Oh Porridge," the album's finale.

An open letter to Stephanie, the song confronts the issue directly: "I know when I speak of her you sometimes do despair," Ruiz sings. "And I know that you dream of her, that she walks right through our lives/And I don't know how else to say... I really love you." To the unfamiliar listener, it sounds like a song about a love triangle, but considered in context, it's loaded with history and meaning. And as Brian Tighe's swooning sax part carries the music away, what lingers is the feeling that you've been through a deeply personal account of loss and what comes after.

Fatefully enough, it was Ruiz's tribulations that might have contributed most in elevating his songwriting above the level of quaint, retro-looking novelty. "Everyone has to go through this in life," Ruiz says. "It's just that I wrote songs about it instead of seeing a psychologist. It's funny how that might have made me a better songwriter, in a weird way--how it made me need to express more in my songs than I ever did before."

And even in 1998, nearly every Jim Ruiz song can be understood in light of his past--or, at least, in terms of a conversation between the expectations Ruiz once had for his future versus the unexpected future that he got.

Heavy emotional subplots aside for a moment, it's unquestionably the hyper-stylish sound of Jim Ruiz's music that's hooked local audiences, especially in the years that saw the industrywide retreat of overblown alt-rock. But true to the twists and turns of his career, Ruiz soon found his greatest following wasn't in Minneapolis or even in the Americas, but rather halfway around the world. The discovery began with Minty Fresh's shrewd decision to send the band on a Japanese tour in December 1995.

Tokyo turned out to be the crossroads of a growing international twee-pop underground, where the Ruiz Group falls into a specific genre known as neo-aco--short for "neo-acoustic"--a sound epitomized by Life, the Cardigans' 1995 multiplatinum (in Japan) classic. Within a national pop culture that values cuteness, an unlikely set of circumstances had caused sexy/elegant Swedish pop bands like the Cardigans, Cloudberry Jam, and the Excuse to find mass acceptance among fashionable Japanese teens. (Of these bands, only the Cardigans are well-known in the States, and then only for 1997's sleeper hit "Lovefool.")

Jim Ruiz managed to walk right into this Japan-pop taste trend, an occurrence that may have had as much to do with the exoticism of the Ruiz women's Nordic good looks (juxtaposed against the Ruiz men's darker hues) as with any unwitting sonic similarities. In Tokyo, the bandleader was summoned to the throne of Japanese pop star Cornelius, the head of Trattoria, a leading neo-aco label, where the two discussed an obscure French chanteuse, Katerine. "We discovered other people in the world doing the same thing, independent of each other," Ruiz ultimately says of the group's tour. Hence, Jim Ruiz, the Chicano who had eked out a musical home in some of the whitest music scenes around, had traveled thousands of miles to rub elbows with newfound peers, and for the first time located his own scene.

Ruiz returned to America energized, and his recent indoctrination into the international scene was a great influence on the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group's second album, Sniff. Ruiz's plans to record in Sweden's classy Tambourine Studios were spiked for logistical reasons, but Sniff, made in 1997-98 in Minneapolis and Chicago and co-produced by John Crozier, instead represents a uniquely Midwestern contribution to the neo-aco mystique--beginning with "Last Time," a blast of disco-drenched pop with a digital production that updates Oh Brother's analog sound by about three decades.

But as much as Sniff represents a technically enhanced Legendary Jim Ruiz Group, the process of its creation took a toll on the band. After hearing individual tracks, Minty Fresh would often step in and demand big-budget remixes and retakes with new producers and players in Chicago. "It sort of pitted band members against me," says Ruiz. "I would go along with the rerecording stuff, and I would get the wrath of the band for doing it." The tension has lingered, and Stephanie was the one to assume the role of band pragmatist. "Because they're Jim's songs, it was interesting for him to hear what other producers could come up with," she offers. "But for the people who worked on it here, it was rejection."

"I think it's easy to fall into a purist attitude," Jim responds. "It's just a record, it's not like I put tennis shoes on the Lincoln Memorial. We tweaked some sounds and everyone gets all bent out of shape. It seemed like such a big, enormous deal."

"It is a big enormous deal!" Stephanie says. "It's an accomplishment! I wish I had an album coming out with 12 songs I wrote on it. But people hearing the record aren't gonna hear all the stuff we're talking about. Before the songs were redone, I think this album was darker than the first one."

"See, now you're creating this mystique, like there was this perfect album and then it got messed with..."

"I didn't say it was perfect, I said it was darker," she laughs.

"Some things needed to be fixed, and we fixed 'em," he finishes.

From an outsider's perspective, Sniff's finished product is a pleasing mix of high-tech and low-. And to appease both sides of the aesthetic debate, the album includes a before and an after version of Ruiz's self-deprecating self-portrait "Bigfoot": one as a wild electro-pop romp, the other as a tribute to jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery. Left on the cutting-room floor, unfortunately, was "Bobby Stinson's Guitar," a song about Ruiz's acquisition of the late Replacement's instrument, which manages to be both a humorous refutation of the Minneapolis sound and a heartfelt elegy.

But perhaps the most effective moment on Sniff is its first track, "Last Time." Seemingly a sequel to the themes of Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, the song simultaneously bears the album's sunniest chorus and its most serious message: "This might be the last time/I ever would remind you to/Keep on looking forward, and to put the past behind you," the Winter-Ruizes sing. To this, Ruiz attaches his most explicit affirming optimism yet: "There's no need to cry/Who knows, death might be the very best part of life." Thirty-five minutes later, as Sniff ends with the Erickson-inspired lullaby "Sound of Music," Jim Ruiz seems to have achieved some semblance of peace.

A few months after the release of Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group was on tour in California, when their label called their hotel and urged them to hightail it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland to play an industry buyer's convention. "Because we didn't know any better, we just listened to him," Ruiz remembers. The band cancelled dates in Portland and Seattle, and wound up racing their van overnight along precarious passes through the Rockies.

"Chris was up front, and I was driving, going up and down all these mountains," says Stephanie. "A sign said to watch out for slippery roads. I had been driving for quite a while, and I had not hit any ice or seen any. I don't know if I was just dazed and confused, but after a while, when it's dark, you can't really tell if you're going up or down anymore. There were these trucks in the right-hand lane with their blinking lights on, so I figured I was going uphill and overtaking them."

Actually, they were heading down the last long slope of the mountain range. "All of a sudden, I saw this truck ahead had jackknifed and was blocking the highway, so I put my brake on. Right then I hit the ice. The van wouldn't stop, and I just kept pumping the brakes for a long time. I screamed, and then the van went off the side of the road." A snowbank brought them to a safe stop, within a few feet of a collision with a parked truck.

Years later, the incident lingers in Jim Ruiz's memory, and colors his perspective on the music industry. "I could have lost Stephanie, another person in my life. And for what--to play this thing? It really makes me sick to think about it."

This interviewer suggests that if you die on the way to the grocery store, you haven't necessarily died for groceries.

"No," Ruiz answers bitterly, "but I don't drive 16 hours straight through barren landscapes to get to the grocery store. I don't know. It's more than just the danger. It's the exploitative nature of the business that really bugs me. I mean, Rena died going to work, but it didn't mean she died for work. I don't know...I guess I could say she's a victim of a car-based society. In Amsterdam she probably could have taken a tram to work--"

Ruiz stops himself here, and realizes what he's saying. He changes his tone to mock agony: "We're all victims!" he cries. "That's a really negative aspect of my personality," he finally concedes. "Maybe I see myself as a victim too much. I get dejected easily."

It's true that Ruiz's weakness may be wishy-washiness about defining and working toward his goals. "You grow up and you have this dream," he says, "and you have to question the dream once in a while. What is it you want? I have to figure out what I want." Such reticence could also be seen as a levelheaded response to the treachery of the music business: His band's financial prospects are dimming, after all, as the fitful industry vacillates wildly about what it wants.

The downtime between albums evidently led Ruiz to more restless fantasies about world travel, a constant theme in his songs. He's now taking a summer class in teaching English as a foreign language. "They asked where I would go, and I told them, 'Anywhere without a right-wing dictator.' I was thinking Indonesia--they used to be a Dutch colony."

It would be easy to conclude from all this evidence that the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group is close to over. But many people who know Jim Ruiz better--including himself--suspect that once the Group takes Sniff to live audiences, his excitement will return.

Or maybe a drastic change is just the kind of risk that Jim Ruiz needs. If there's a single metaphor for the way that Ruiz's songs contend with issues of life, death, geography, and ambition, it might be found in his UM senior thesis, which he finally completed this spring. Appropriate to his personal travels, he wrote about the exploits of the Dutch East India Company in Japan in the 17th century.

"It would be cool to go to the places I studied," he says. "It's interesting that those Dutch people would go out there, because it was almost certain death. You weren't going to live there very long."

He laughs, then, aware of the ironic connection this idea has with his tenuous career. "Maybe it's a death wish!"

The Legendary Jim Ruiz Group will perform Friday, August 7, at Lee's Liquor Lounge; call 338-9491.

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