Sometimes rock-based musicians are better off scaling back and stripping down the instrumental expanse to work in an intimate acoustic setting. This live-in-the-studio approach allows for greater up-front emotionalism and deeper lyrical compassion to shine through. MTV’s revolutionary Unplugged series exploited this toned-down, roots-based idea with acclaimed artists such as Nirvana, R.E.M., Alice In Chains and Korn, all of whom totally prospered in the crystalline acoustic environment. Similarly, Born Ruffians believed the best way to advance their latest batch of songs was to cut back the electronic noise (including some wailing sax) for understated masterstroke, Say It.
Hailing from a small town north of Toronto, Born Ruffians first made waves with ‘08s fully formed entrée, Red Yellow & Blue. That’s when singer-guitarist Luke LaLonde, long-time childhood pal, bassist Mitch Derosier (who’d been jamming together since high school), and drummer Steven Hamelin moved to Toronto and toured with several big name acts, garnering an impressive fan base along the way. Joined by ex-Caribou bassist Andy Lloyd, who’ll supply keyboards, guitar fills and backup vocals on tour, the friendly foursome hit the road again, this time to promote their eagerly awaited follow-up record.
But life wasn’t always so cushy. At the start, Born Ruffians often got dissed in favor of the trendy emo bands making the local club scene. It seems sniveling suburban white boy blues were more popular than the Strokes’ upbeat, Classic rock-derived, subterranean pop nearly a decade ago, at least in the Great White North.
“When we formed the band in 2001, we were fifteen. The Strokes Is This It came out. That polarized us. We realized the reason we weren’t into new music was because emo was so big. Whiny screaming stuff we didn’t like. We got laughed at and booed in Midland for being different, but we felt as if we were probably snotty about it,” LaLonde recalls.
Sticking to their guns, Born Ruffians also learned the ‘less-is-more’ approach to arranging could truly benefit a song’s enduring power. One of LaLonde’s inspirational bands, The Beatles, prospered by taking that risk on the archetypal Rubber Soul.
“It’s all about the groove and feel, getting across an idea in a simple way,” he claims. And he’s out to prove it.
Sprightly rudimentary jingle, “Oh Man” (which approximates the Strokes clever styling), neatly sets up Say It’s easygoing flow, relying on a good hook and tribal tom beat to captivate underground pop heads, new folk rockers and mainstream taste-makers alike.
Scurried six-string spangling juts out of jittered flitter, “Retard Canard,” a quirky bass-slapped, drum-tapped military march interrupted by the declaratory, “I just wanna set the world on fire,” refrain and probably inspired by the Talking Heads fidgety new wave eccentricities or, perhaps, the Violent Femmes resultant elementary scruff.
Effortlessly syncopated percussive patter underscores the minimal guitar-bass frenzy consuming half-spoken reflection, “The Ballad Of Moose Bruce.” Its made-up superhero from a bygone era looks back and gives advice to weary minions, channeling the ‘stop and smell the roses’ adage in a diligent manner.
Skittering along a little faster and louder, “Blood, The Sun & Water” anchors gently strummed guitar lucidity with dotted drum dollops and a booming bass bottom. Beseeching sax-sulked, slow roller “Come Back” and swiftly galloping, stroller “Higher & Higher” make the grade as well.
I spoke to the head Ruffian, Luke LaLonde, on the phone before his band hit the road for an autumnal 2010 US tour.
How and why did Born Ruffians scale back Say It’s tracks to their sparsest acoustic auspices?
It was a case of not wanting any ideas to go unchecked. In the studio, if someone had an idea to try an overdub, we’d get it on tape. But a good chunk of that stuff, when it came to the mix, didn’t make it. The less cluttered it was, the better it sounded. It came out sounding like a 3-piece record, like the last one. Aesthetically, it’s similar sounding. The difference was in time and songwriting. It wasn’t a big production. A lot of saxes were toned down. There’s prominent sax on “Come Back’s” introduction, but the rest is hardly audible and sounded like synths.
How would you compare the new album to Red Yellow & Blue?
They’re approached similarly with producer Rusty Santos (Animal Collective/ Panda Bear mixer). We recorded very much live and were inspired by ‘60s and ‘70s bands. Isolation is what The Beatles did best. It makes us sound better together. There’s not a lot of compression, which is sort of a modern sound. I don’t know if we’ll continue with that sound. There’s no AutoTune. It’s not overly slick. It’s more organic. The difference is the time between the two records and where we wanted to go with the songs. We were concentrating on distinct verse-chorus pop. We haven’t had a huge hit single. But it’s in the traditional sense of pop-friendly music.
What has producer Rusty Santos done to hoist Born Ruffian’s studio sound?
He’s really good at being an innovative mixer. His approach to production is an art form. He approached each record distinctly. He has all the experience we don’t. It’s great having him on the team stamping his sound all over our records.
Are you upset your music doesn’t get played alongside tertiary emo bands on conventional mainstream radio? In the ‘70s, you’d obviously gain a modicum of aboveground contemporary exposure.
To me, a good pop or rock record could be based on ‘70s pop as a reference. To reference pop now, you immediately think of Lady Gaga. This record is by no means close to that.
Who were early influences?
I tend to listen to a lot of older music. Say It is our mid-’70s to early ‘80s record. Talking Heads are an ever-present influence. To a lesser extent, Violent Femmes and David Bowie. Newer stuff I tend to take with a grain of salt. There’s not a ton of new music I find extremely engaging. I’d rather hear an older record I haven’t discovered or find a cool contemporary band and find what influenced them. At the same time, you have to keep up and release stuff that’s relevant. We wanted to avoid being a Classic rock band like the Rolling Stones. We wanted to evolve from that reference point, like The White Stripes, Hives, Vines, Libertines, The Coral, and Kings Of Leon.
“Retard Canard” has a distinct percolating Talking Heads feel. But their influence seems buried elsewhere.
That was a nice riff-based song that we went big on the C and G chord. They’re overused chords, but we didn’t have any songs that used those chords. So it was fun to play. We realized when we were rehearsing, why make it so complicated when sometimes the simple tunes are the most fun. Hopefully, that infectious feel will come across and people will enjoy it. At the same time, we do enjoy a challenge, pushing our comfort zone and making us concentrate on what we’re doing. There’s a math-y type feel.
What songs were the most difficult to compose?
I guess something like “Blood, The Sun & Water.” “Nova Leigh” has parts that we weren’t sure of the time signature. It jumps in at weird intervals in a needlessly complicated way (laughs). It sounds crazy.
On the other hand, I was struck by the easygoing temperance and unembellished whimsicality of “Sole Brother.”
That’s one of the worst cheesy puns as a title. It’s about me whining as an eleven year-old kid because I have to do all the chores. It’s supposed to be from a child’s perspective and how my sister never helped rake the yard. In a roundabout way, it’s about wanting to be an only child. It’s fictional though. It’s not like I don’t love my sister. Steve had these other lyrics for the second part about wanting his favorite rappers to be best friends. The ideas seemed to pair up well. It’s actually the first time we had a lyrical collaboration since high school.
Did Bob Dylan, in a circuitous way, influence your poetic narrative?
I bet it was a lot of Dylan. He was a catalyst in my writing in general—a fascinating obsession that rubbed off lyrically. I do read a lot fiction-wise. I like Bukowski, Steinbeck’s East Of Eden. I’m actually reading a lot of non-fiction now to get stories floating around in my head.
Born Ruffians’ latest record, Say It, is available now via Warp Records. More info at bornruffians.com.