Published Apr 17, 2013"I think that if the Flaming Lips actually sat down and said, 'Let's write songs like One Direction and do just that, but we'll sing them and perform them ourselves,' it would probably be one of the best records ever. Their take on that would be so weird, and the lyrics would be so odd in the right way that it would be great." Luke Lalonde has great aspirations for the Flaming Lips. Luckily, Oklahoma's finest seem to be doing okay with Wayne Coyne in charge. But you have to admit that Lalonde is right: the Flaming Lips writing an album of bubble-gum pop for the tween set would be something.
Of course, Lalonde hasn't forgotten about his own band, Born Ruffians, who could also write a One Direction-type record. He's just too humble to admit it could be great. "Sometimes I think that the same thing is in us all the time, wanting to achieve what makes pop music as popular as it is," he says. "I have songs kicking around in my head that sound like One Direction. I can write and demo some songs like that and see where it goes. Who knows, maybe I'd fuck it up and make it really good."
Birthmarks is not the album most people will expect from Born Ruffians. It is slick-sounding, confident, expansive and sonically all over the place. The band's nerdy, minimalistic indie pop sound — Lalonde's nervous squawking and twitchy guitar chords, Steve Hamelin's erratic, booming drumbeats and Mitch DeRosier's friskily elastic bass lines — has mellowed to free up space for additional instrumentation, like glowing synths, ambient static, and all sorts of percussive tricks.
"I think this album is really exposing us as what we've always been," Lalonde explains. "When we started to conceptualize it, we said, 'We want this album to sound big, we want this to sound fucking relevant, we want this to sound like something that came out in 2013.' This record is showing us for who we are. We like big records, we like big hits, we like pop music, we like hip-hop, we like Miley Cyrus, we like all this shit and we want to sound like that sometimes."
Born Ruffians weren't always thinking about the teen pop market — like many scrappy teenagers, they dreamed of becoming the next Strokes. Cousins Lalonde and DeRosier, along with friend Hamelin, formed the band in 2002 while attending high school in Midland, Ontario. Originally named Mornington Drive, after a band Lalonde's father played in three decades earlier, the trio played some local gigs and hosted a Tripod website that still reads, "Mornington Drive may not rock your socks off, but they certainly will enjoy your socks off." They released a homemade CD called Makeshift Metric Catastrophe, which as primitive as it is, still sounds like the three of them.
DeRosier sounds pretty mortified at the mention, but sees the humour. "There is some pretty hilarious stuff on there," he says. "I think there is some blues going on. It was burned onto CD in Steve's basement, the packaging was sewn by Steve's mom and I think Luke painted the covers. They were sold off the counter at CD Plus in Midland, which is now closed. I don't know if I even have a copy."
The trio, rechristened Born Ruffians, moved to Toronto in the mid-'00s and started playing small shows around the city and getting their CD into the hands of Permafrost Records' Steven Himmelfarb, who would eventually become their booking agent. The guys also found their manager, Leila Hebden, and through her brother, Kieran (aka Four Tet), got a demo to Warp Records, followed by XL Recordings.
Both labels ended up releasing the band's self-titled debut EP — XL in Europe, Warp in North America. Suddenly they were on tour in the UK and getting ink from NME and Dazed & Confused, without ever doing those dues-playing gigs in Moose Jaw.
"Looking back on that I feel like we were very lucky," says DeRosier. "To hear of a band that just moved to the city, recorded a demo in a couple of days, and then signed to two big UK indie labels, I'd say it was important to just run with it. And that's what we did."
They stayed with Warp worldwide for their debut album, 2008's Red Yellow and Blue, which received an 8.0 on Pitchfork. They appeared on taste-making UK teen drama Skins, playing "Hummingbird" in a nightclub. (Fellow Torontonians Crystal Castles also appeared on the series.)
"I feel that we didn't meet expectations of the record label," says DeRosier. "I think we were more looked at as a buzz band than a long-term band. But we were able to keep doing what we wanted to do with or without those labels."
After touring for Red Yellow and Blue finished, cracks appeared in the foundation — Hamelin, for one, disliked being away from home. "I feel like we dove headfirst and went for it," explains DeRosier. "We were always wanting everything so badly: we wanted to tour, we wanted a label, we wanted to be a band for a living. But our first tours were hard on everybody. The touring lifestyle is difficult no matter who you are. It was something we had to get used to. Steve leaving the band was the first time I thought, 'Whoa! We can stop doing this?' It freaked Luke and me out a bit. That is when we started to see the band more as… not a business, because I love it so much, but something we could lose."
Hamelin took some time off but eventually returned, along with multi-instrumentalist Andy Lloyd, who had been playing in Caribou's band. Their second album, 2010's Say It, was co-released by Warp and their new Canadian label, Paper Bag. Unlike Red Yellow and Blue, where the trio lived together, they chose to write the album in the studio. The album's title was derived from a new agreement that the band would work on communication and always say what they felt. Despite some positive reviews (though not from Pitchfork, which gave it the kiss of death, a 3.8), Say It didn't have the same verve as their debut.
Both DeRosier and Lalonde speak with disappointment about their sophomore release, agreeing with Pitchfork's criticism that "much of the material sounds rushed and half-finished." "Say It came out as a way where fans were like, 'I don't know how I feel about this record,'" admits Lalonde. "I wouldn't go so far as to say I regret making that album, but I do regret [how] little time we took to make it. I think if we had the same circumstances with Rusty [Santos] where we could record as long as we wanted till it was done, that Say It would have been a very, very different record."
Three years between albums was long enough for fans to worry if they would ever return, especially when Say It failed to elevate the band's profile, and Lalonde had moved to Montreal to work on a solo album. Lalonde's album, Rhythymnals was released in October 2012, just as the band were finishing up Birthmarks. The intimately minimal pop songs suggested a nod to R&B and electronic production, which also signalled that a change might be in store for the Ruffians. But with his bandmates cheering him on, Lalonde felt encouraged to experiment on his own.
"I think that works to our advantage, bridging to our hardcore fans that here's the singer doing this other thing," says Lalonde. "And maybe it will set up the next Ruffians record, having it come out just before."
Birthmarks' genesis dates as far back as 2010, while they were still promoting Say It. Lalonde began writing material for the band in Montreal, while working on Rhythymnals. He would send songs from both projects back to DeRosier, Hamelin and Lloyd.
"Luke would send stuff that he wouldn't know what to do with," explains DeRosier. "Songs like 'Cold Pop' and 'With Her Shadow' started as Luke's songs, and we said, 'We should use those!' It's a very personal thing when he writes a song and I say, 'Give us that song.' But we're a lot more open to talking about that stuff now than we were before."
Wanting "something bigger, thicker, tighter, a more isolated recording" for the Ruffians, they decided to also use Rhythymnals producer Roger Leavens. "After working with Roger on my solo album, I knew he was the guy we needed," says Lalonde. "He was able to sit back and let us do what we wanted to do, but also take over if we didn't. That was just the ultimate situation for us, to have this person take control when we needed him to."
Birthmarks is very much about fresh starts. With a new international label in Yep Roc (they remain on Paper Bag in Canada), they reconnected personally and professionally, reverting back to the formula that helped them get here in the first place. Relocating to rural Ontario, near Stratford, the band holed up in a friend's (haunted) family farmhouse to find inspiration.
"The farmhouse was pretty ideal," says Lalonde. "It's exactly what I dreamed of when I thought about getting out of the city, so we could live together and get in the mindset of living again as a band and being able to play all the time. It definitely had an impact on those sessions; being surrounded by fields and no sound for miles and making music till two in the morning if we wanted."
"I frequently miss the time we had there," adds DeRosier. "There was a lot of dust and mould, so you'd wake up feeling sick, but it was fun to be there."
Taking along a video camera, the bandmates also posted video blogs to YouTube that documented their time at the farmhouse, be it recording, testing their archery skills, chopping wood or engaging in some intense games of Risk.
For Lalonde, it was an opportunity to examine their place in the musical landscape. "Being out of touch in Stratford was kind of metaphorical for being isolated in terms of the time between records," he says. "We had a feeling that we had fallen off the radar in between records. We really felt that we were kind of anonymous, which was a positive thing for me. That's basically what 'Needle' is about: the beauty of anonymity, being the needle in the haystack, and that being a metaphor for the band and music in my life. We're not Arcade Fire, we're not putting out a record to millions of people. It kind of feels like we're putting out our first record again. That's where the title comes from, Birthmarks, because it's a new place, a new step for us."
It's a new step that may catch some fans off-guard — and that seems to be the point. Birthmarks not only sounds unlike their other records, but at times, like an entirely different band.
"That is exactly what I want. It's kind of nice to hear," Lalonde says with a laugh. "On certain songs, I was hoping people would say, 'Who is this?' [I want] new people to hear this and have it be their first impression of Born Ruffians. That was one of our goals."