The Ruby Suns: Different Strokes
Currently touring the States with yet another new lineup, Ryan McPhun from The Ruby Suns spoke to DOUG WALLEN about his unique songwriting process and his desire to make a different album to 2008’s head-turning ‘Sea Lion’.
Since relocating to New Zealand in the middle of last decade, California expat Ryan McPhun has been through the revolving door of the Brunettes and the Tokey Tones, two bands on the Auckland label Lil’ Chief. But it’s been his own band, founded as Ryan McPhun & the Ruby Suns before being shortened to just the last bit, that has won him international acclaim. The Ruby Suns got their start on Lil’ Chief with a self-titled debut in 2005, while 2008’s head-turning Sea Lion and the new Fight Softly were released on Sub Pop in the US and Memphis Industries in the UK.
Sea Lion introduced a mass audience to McPhun’s globe-spanning blend of Beach Boys harmonies, African and Caribbean rhythms and melodies, orchestral-tropical atmosphere, and other unlikely tidbits. Fight Softly, by contrast, is steeped in electronic euphoria, with shades of bubblegum R&B and laptop psych. McPhun’s vocals flit like a breeze over a rubbery pop core, and never once does he appear less than placid. His latest songs still sound better on headphones than pumping through a car stereo, but they’re now directed at the hips.
It sounds like you mostly wrote, played, and produced Fight Softly yourself.
Yeah, pretty much.
Did you consider recruiting an outside producer?
Well, I’d love to work with other producers, but other producers are really expensive. So far I haven’t spent any money in the process of making albums, really. I play with my friend Bevan Smith in a band [of his] called Signer; he’s been making electronic music for a long time. He helped with a little bit of the production, or at least ideas. I sent him demos and he made some suggestions. He helped mix the album as well.
Being signed to Sub Pop, though, couldn’t you afford to work with a producer?
Well, I’ve never asked, but it’s pretty expensive to have a producer and pay studio time and all that stuff.
You do seem very comfortable in the aesthetic you’ve created, so it’d be hard to replicate that with too much outside help.
Yeah. Another big problem is the way I do music. It’s sort of writing and recording at the same time. Sometimes it’s a sound I stumble across when I’m working on a recording that will affect the structure of a song or trigger some other passage. So the whole process has just been one thing for me. I have often thought, “How on earth would I go into a studio?” I don’t go into my own little studio space with songs. I go in and start tinkering, and eventually a song comes out of it. And it’s written when the recording is finished.
“Sometimes you can sound a bit twee, I guess, and that’s something I was adamantly opposed to doing. I guess I wanted the songs to be a little more weighty, even though some of them aren’t.”
The new album has a newfound focus on beats, synths, and other electronic elements.
Definitely. Part of it was me wanting to make a different album than what I’d done before. But a big part of it was Bevan helping me. Maybe the main thing was a shift in musical likes or what I was listening to. And also coming back to a lot of stuff that I listened to when I was younger, when I was a kid. The last few years I’ve just been revisiting everything and kind of revitalising my love for Michael Jackson and artists like that from that time. Like Phil Collins for sure, and Hall & Oates and Janet Jackson.
Was the new direction influenced at all by the live show?
That’s funny because as soon as we started touring Sea Lion, a lot of the songs were quite old and we’d been playing them for quite a while. I’d already figured out new ways to play the songs, and we were using a lot of backing tracks for touring during that time. I’d made heaps of tracks for a lot of these songs that were acoustic-based on record, so the live versions were pretty electronic. If anyone remembers seeing us at the beginning on 2008, that was a sign of what we were going to sound like on the next album.
How do you decide how much instrumentation to employ versus samples and sequencing?
Well, with the new album it really is just a mixture. Whether I played it or not kind of depended on what the source was. But oftentimes, when I was making the album, there were kind of demos for all of the songs and I would just chuck together a drum beat so I could work on other things, like melodies. Sometimes I got so used to hearing this drum beat that I was kind of attached to it and there was no point in changing it. That’s actually what ended up happening for a few of the songs. It’s really basic drum sequencing. I got so used to it that I thought it fit. But it’s really a mixture. All the keyboards are either synthesisers or triggering samples. That’s all played.
I was curious about the background vocal sample in ‘Mingus And Pike’.
That’s a baseball announcer. I forget who exactly. I used to play baseball when I was a kid, because I grew up in the States. So touring in the States the last few years, I’ve gotten back into baseball a little bit. I just wanted to do something having to do with baseball. [Laughs]
Is the title of that song a reference to [jazz great] Charles Mingus?
Actually, we lived in Seattle for a couple of months in 2008, and there was a dog at the house. His name was Mingus, obviously named after the jazz musician. But I’m referencing the dog more so, because we were sort of dog-sitting in a way. A big part of our time there was looking after this pit bull.
I was also curious about ‘Haunted House’, this dancey song that just gets in and gets out.
That’s a funny one. To me, that was one of those that was made too quickly. I had no invested interest in it; it was just sort of ideas. I was so unattached to it that I wasn’t even going to put it on the album. To me it seems throwaway. I mean, it is. It’s a pretty basic pop song, which is funny because that’s actually what I love. I guess because the process was so quick, I sometimes question those songs. I’ll have absolutely no opinion about them sometimes.
Would you ever develop songs like that more when you play them live?
If you felt like it was thin or unfinished…
That’s true. You could always find a better way to play it live, but at the same time, I’ve always thought you might as well use that energy making new music rather than plodding away at the old stuff.
If that one almost didn’t make the cut, were there many songs that were left off?
Not really. There’s only one that didn’t make it. I think there were a few other things I was tinkering with, but nothing that was ever finished. Like I was saying before, because the writing and recording process happens at exactly the same time for me, I usually just stop when I have enough songs to make an album. I don’t have 15 songs and then go into the studio and record them over three weeks. I’m sure that’d be really nice, but at the same time, when you do things that quickly [on studio time], it’d have to sound like a pretty basic album.
There was a lot of Beach Boys influence on Sea Lion, but not so much on Fight Softly. Did you just work your way through that?
Yeah. I don’t think I necessarily didn’t want anything to sound like the Beach Boys. I can’t deny that they have been just a massive part of my creative upbringing, and they’re a big part of why I wanted to make music in the first place. But I think it was some of the things that come along with sounding Beach Boys-ish. Sometimes you can sound a bit twee, I guess, and that’s something I was adamantly opposed to doing. I guess I wanted the songs to be a little more weighty, even though some of them aren’t.
Fight Softly is out now on Sub Pop/Stomp.