On a sticky morning in early July, I met singer Robbie Wulfsohn and drummer Sampson Hellerman of Ripe at Devlin’s, an Irish pub on Washington Street in Brighton. The bar was empty and the World Cup played on the lone television screen; the match was a knockout round between Brazil and Mexico. Hellerman, hopeful for a Mexican victory (they lost 2-0), sat quietly glued to the screen. Wulfsohn and I exchanged pleasantries as we always do, as two colleagues in Boston’s close-knit music scene. Wulfsohn had recently made an appearance at a show I performed with Aubrey Haddarda few days earlier.
“I went to my first Allston house show in years after your show the other night," he says. "I got playfully made fun of for being the old guy in the room by people that didn’t know me.”
Fresh into his mid-twenties, Wulfsohn isn’t exactly an old dog. But in another sense, he’s been around longer than most in Boston’s music community; he’s thoughtfully sharp and earnestly self-aware.
“I think Boston’s relationship with the arts scene is very colored by transients. There’s a lot of Transplants. For us, we identify and as a Boston band; to me, it’s not the four years we were at school here that make us a Boston band, it’s the fours years where we weren’t. A lot of people don’t do that.”
Ripe, Boston’s beloved seven piece dance/funk outfit, formed in 2011 at Berklee College of Music. Long before the band became the institution it’s known as today, an Allston house show seemed glamorous.
“It’s a funny thing," Wulfsohn notes, "I remember when an Allston house party was a thing that I hoped we would play.”
Hellerman and lead guitarist Tory Geismar moved to Boston together from New York in 2011, where the Berklee social scene subsequently brought them to Wulfsohn, as well as guitarist Jon Becker, and horn section Josh Shpak and Calvin Barthel, on trumpet and trombone respectively. Bassist Nadav Shapira joined the band in 2015.
Wulfsohn reminisced: “I felt very young then, I felt like I had been dropped into this world where everybody else knew what they were doing.”
In the seven years since its formation, Ripe has risen to national recognition. The self-described “musical soulmates” recently returned from a stint of headlining shows across the country supporting their new album, Joy in the Wild Unknown, including two sold out nights at the Paradise Rock Club. From Boston to San Francisco, up to Toronto and down to New Orleans, they were consecutively on the road for two months. Years of extensive touring is not lost on Wulfsohn.
“The best coffee I’ve ever had is from Mudhouse in Charlottesville, Virginia. Husk in Nashville is one of the best meals I’ve ever had. The best cocktail I’ve ever had was at The Anchor in Houston.”
He quickly added a favorite dessert spot: “Shout out to Boston, FoMu is dope.”
A shared love of jazz and jam bands are what fueled the inner workings of Ripe’s creative conscious. From those core components, a particular hybrid was crafted: groove centric, horn heavy, improvisational jam music with pop centered melodies, led by an infectious energy bursting at the seams. The experience of Ripe’s live show is cathartic for their devout fan base, and at the very least a party for their newcomers.
“We want to build a world. I want people to think of Ripe in both musical terms and non-musical terms. I want people to look at Ripe and think of funk music or dance music, and also be able to look at Ripe and think of community and experiencing joy. I want there to be as many things as possible in the world we’re trying to build.”
Ripe’s notoriety was heavily propelled by the overnight success of a video in 2014. A performance of the fan-favorite “Goon Squad” recorded in the Berklee studios went viral after appearing on the front page of the popular Reddit subpage, r/listentothis. The video grabbed around 250k plays in 48 hours.
The lurch forward attracted the attention of industry play makers and agents alike. Ultimately, the goon squad of early twenty-somethings chose to work with agent Jason Kupperman; Kupperman is still representing Ripe today.
What’s unusual about the trajectory of Ripe is the group’s sparse discography, a decision attributed mostly to the band’s ambitious tour schedules. Until April 2018, they had released two EPs: 2013’s Produce the Juice, and 2015’s Hey Hello. Including “On My Mind”, a single released in 2017, their studio output in the last seven years was a total of ten songs. For all intents and purposes, the legacy and reputation of Ripe has been crafted by live performances, a strategy Wulfsohn describes as uniquely personal.
“It’s up to us to know what we want. It’s not always up to us to know the best way to get there, that’s when you trust a team. But nobody can define why we’re in this game except for us.”
2018 marked a turning point in the band’s career, a year that oversaw the release of the debut full length album Joy in the Wild Unknown (endearingly referred to by Wulfsohn as JITWU).
The process behind JITWU was the group’s first taste of such a large-scale production. This involved shopping around for a producer; what was required was a trusted captain at the helm.
“We basically did a producer shootout. We did two songs with four different producers.”
Those producers include some of the group’s idols: guitarist Corey Wong of Vulfpeck notoriety, Eric Krasno and Alan Evans of the instrumental funk trio Soulive, and Grammy-winning producer Aaron Levinson. For a band with an arsenal of road-worked material, a steadfast producer like Wong was the ideal pairing.
“Corey’s method was about having all of the perfectionism we wanted to take place before we get into the studio, to get our parts tight and intentional so that when we get in the room it’s a matter of getting perfect execution and the vibe right, not a matter of experimenting and figuring out the space.”
JITWU is the culmination of Ripe’s work thus far; amid a slew of newly written material, including the lead single “Little Lighter”, are old favorites like “Stanky” and “Flipside”. There is a relentless energy to the album, elevated by anthemic bouts of melody and conviction. Whether a song pulses in a foot-stomping pop-disco (“Beta Male”),or ascends to an arena rock chorale (“Follow Through”), JITWU is teeming with a pop swagger, confidence and total self-assuredness, despite Wulfsohn’s occasional uneasiness.
“As simple as this may sound, it sounds like us. I still listen to that album even though I get mild anxiety listening to our own music on the record.”
Wulfsohn added with a smirk: “Though that feeling is fading; I have to make peace with it. When my mom puts me on in the car, I need to not get mad at my mom.”
With a recent performance at the Levitate Music & Arts Festival, Ripe are riding high on prosperous wave, fueled largely by the band’s work ethic. The remainder of the fuel source are their ever-adoring fans who Wulfsohn feels are owed an experience.
“I do think that so much of our human experience is analogous and shared, and if our joys and sufferings are objectively different, they feel subjectively very similar. If I can elevate the mundane aspects of life into something exciting and singular and lasting, I feel like I’m doing my job.”
As Ripe’s rise to success intensifies, Wulfsohn always has his eyes forward, while his imagination runs wild.
“I would love to see what opening for Maroon 5 would do to how we are received by people. Also, this is an absolute pipe dream, if Daft Punk ever decides to tour again and wants a live band to open for them, we are so down.”
At this rate, that could very well be a reality.
Joy in the Wild Unknown is available on all major streaming services. For a comprehensive list of tour dates, announcements, and music, visit the official Ripe website.