Published May 22, 2010Looking at photos of Toronto's Born Ruffians from two years ago, when the trio were releasing their debut album, Red, Yellow & Blue, it seems like not much has changed. But the past 24 months have been a period of strain and transition as singer-guitarist Luke LaLonde, bass player Mitch Derosier and drummer Steve Hamelin saw their friendships get pulled apart at the seams, thanks to months of heavy touring. Thankfully they were able to stitch it back together. "It took a while to learn how much control we have over our music," says LaLonde, on the phone from London, England. "You're kind of the boss of what you do."
LaLonde and Derosier grew up together in Midland, ON and met Hamelin in high school. Despite musical differences (LaLonde was into guitar rock, Hamelin loved mid-'90s hip-hop luminaries like Wu-Tang Clan and Puff Daddy, and Derosier dug the Top 40) the trio bonded over a love of the Strokes-stoked garage rock revival in the early 2000s. "The Strokes came out, and all of us were like, 'Whoa, they're so cool. Let's start a band,'" recalls LaLonde. The trio were eventually picked up by UK indie Warp, who released their self-titled EP in 2006, setting the stage for their full-length debut the following year.
"We recorded [Red, Yellow & Blue] in 2007 and started touring through fall 2008. By the end of the year we had toured more than we'd been home," explains LaLonde. "Maybe it was a bit too much." That November, the day after playing a sold-out gig at the Opera House in Toronto, Hamelin announced that he was through with touring. "Steve just really didn't have fun. He decided that life as a travelling musician wasn't for him. He missed his life at home."
LaLonde and Derosier remained undeterred. "There was never any thought of giving it up," he says. "Right away we both kind of looked at each other and decided we would keep going." LaLonde and Derosier quickly recruited Ahmed Gallab to fill the band's vacant drummer seat for the duration of 2008 while Hamelin would help write Red, Yellow & Blue's follow-up and fill in live when needed. "We thought we'd transition. We'll finish this record with Steve, then we'll sort of play it by ear."
Say It was finished last September with Hamelin keeping beat in the studio. "We sat down and had a conversation following the recording in September," says LaLonde. "We talked about everything really honestly and realized a lot of our problems were coming from communication issues." After hashing out their differences, Hamelin agreed to rejoin the band full-time. "He could drop his issues that he had with touring and focus on minimizing his nerves. He always had a nervous streak before shows. He was the guy puking in the garbage can before we went on. I think maybe he realized he could take things less seriously," he says. "Whatever elephants were in the room, we put on the table. Our friendships are as strong as ever."
Despite all the strife, the inner-band turmoil proved creatively fruitful. "It definitely affected the music. Real life just tends to do that," says LaLonde. "All those experiences went into the songs when we came back from touring to finish writing." The album's title came from the band's new manifesto ― if anyone has a problem, say it.
"Ideas were flowing easier," says LaLonde. "It made things a little more chilled out and it's reflected in the songs." In his quest for a more collaborative process, he would hold back his own opinions to give Derosier and Hamelin space to add their two cents. "I wanted to keep any of my personal demos that had drum and bass parts out of the mix, so that any idea I brought in was an incomplete idea that they could complete. Everything was built from the ground up in rehearsals. We didn't demo anything and went into the studio blind, in a good way. Ideas were spontaneous, creativity was there. We acted on impulses in the studio and then left it to the mixing to decide what should remain."
Say It abandons its predecessor's spiky, staccato rhythms for rolling bass lines. Likewise the gang vocals have been replaced with LaLonde's more relaxed and at times soulful approach. "I think there was a male, soul influence," he says, name-checking Sam Cooke, Roy Orbison, Roger Miller and Scott Walker as current influences. "I sort of tried to channel some part of that... evoke an attitude of vocalists I like."
Talking Heads remain a strong influence on LaLonde, describing them as "comfort music," but he finds it difficult to nail down what he was listening to that influenced Say It. His interest in new music tends to ebb and flow, a pattern affected by the band's tour schedule. "[Touring] might make me a little more jaded. Maybe subconsciously there's a competitive edge to me where when I'm on tour I'm really aware that we're not the only band in the world and that there's thousands of bands competing, in a way." He says his shifting musical tastes and a change in the feelings he wanted to evoke were the likely reason for the sonic shift in his vocals. "I think I can only ever sing how I sing naturally and I try not to force anything."
The last two years were "a challenge in certain ways and a joy in others," says LaLonde. "It sort of made me realize that I have to take a leadership roll sometimes, be the camp leader and rally the troops." Where LaLonde used to groan at the prospect of heading to Europe ahead of his bandmates to do a week of press, now he sees the positive side. "It's nice to have people that want to do an interview with you."