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Trio’s collaboration results in big sound

Layered harmonies underpin Rags and Ribbons’ rock

Rags and Ribbons features guitarist Ben Weyerhaeuser, drummer Chris Neff and pianist Jon Hicks.
Rags and Ribbons features guitarist Ben Weyerhaeuser, drummer Chris Neff and pianist Jon Hicks.

There are only three guys in Rags and Ribbons – guitarist Ben Weyerhaeuser, pianist Jon Hicks and drummer Chris Neff – but you wouldn’t know that from listening to their music. Like their main creative influence, Muse, the Portland band makes a lot out of a little, specializing in big, dramatic, harmony-heavy rock that sounds like it requires at least a dozen people to pull off.

Weyerhaeuser and Hicks met in a choir class at Willamette University, eventually starting their own a cappella group, an experience he describes as “hilarious and cheesy.”

“We had this wonderful entrepreneurial experience with that,” Weyerhaeuser said. “It was fun creating that from nothing and having this small liberal arts school rallying behind you. I think that was our initial inspiration – what if we started our own band and wrote our own music? A lot of the ingredients in the current sound are group vocals and vocal harmonies, so that’s kind of where it all started.”

That a cappella background is apparent in Rags and Ribbons’ music, which layers vocal harmony atop vocal harmony until there seems to be a full chorus of voices on the recordings. They’ve released an LP and an EP – 2012’s “The Glass Masses” and 2013’s “Magnesium Dreams” – and they bring their melodic, operatic sound to the Big Dipper this Wednesday.

Weyerhaeuser says part of the reason he collaborates so well with Hicks is that their radically different approaches to music end up complementing one another: He connects more to the emotional or lyrical content, whereas Hicks is more interested in the technical aspects of a song.

“Jon’s background is in music composition and music theory, so he’s always been very passionate about classical music,” Weyerhaeuser said. “I’ve always been stoked on the emotional side of music, and I think that’s where Jon and I sometimes balance each other out. … Learning how to communicate and learning each other’s personalities has been something that has helped with that process. It was daunting at the start, but I think we’ve learned how to collaborate over the last couple years pretty well.”

One of the biggest difficulties for Rags and Ribbons is recreating their bombastic studio sound in a live setting: Not only do their albums have a slick polish that will inevitably be stripped away, but some of their songs juggle more parts than three people can reasonably handle.

“We like to think we’re able to capture the orchestral side and the grandiosity that the recordings have,” Weyerhaeuser said. “On most songs, all three of us are singing and playing, so everyone’s super busy. But I think soundwise it’s pretty close.”

And as for their unusual bass-less lineup, Weyerhaeuser said they haven’t ruled out the idea of adding another member, though not anytime soon.

“We’re still very much open to a bass player,” he said. “Inevitably, it’s been a tremendous commitment to figure out the three of us working together, because there are a lot of strong personalities. We’ve finally figured out how to do it with the three of us, so bringing a fourth person into this seems kind of intimidating.”

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