Published Mar 25, 2008In 18 months, Toronto's Born Ruffians went from an obscure local band packing an awkwardly harmonious brand of indie rock to an international mystery act that forced major head-scratching by signing to the electronically-heavy Warp label. A playfully assured and unconventionally melodic debut EP answered questions about their potential, and found their support slots with big names in their circle like Hot Chip, Peter Bjorn & John, the Hidden Cameras and Caribou. After an unexpected delay, the band's first full-length, aptly titled Red, Yellow and Blue, is now among us, opening up the buds of this blossoming band's exploratory habits even further, whilst giving us more of that unpredictable whimsy that found them a fan base from the get-go. Singer/guitarist Luke Lalonde willingly subjected himself to a bevy of cluster of brain-teasing questions...
How was SXSW? Did you guys get shitfaced and sun burnt?
Yes and yes. I don't remember. It was the highlight of the tour thus far. It was two and a half days molded in to one big fun party zone. We played three shows, all to full, rowdy crowds. Made some new friends, met a few I already knew, forgot some of the new friends I'd made, found them in my phone a few days later. Free stuff everywhere (most of it drinkable). I want to go back next year even if it's as a fan.
You guys are currently on tour with Cadence Weapon. WTF? How have the shows been so far? Are they as weird or divided as that bill would lead someone to believe?
The shows have been really good. I think we're all into the diversity of the bill and it makes for a better show.
I know he likes to collaborate with people he plays with - has anything good happened on stage yet?
At the beginning of the tour we all had full intentions to learn a David Bowie song together, which we'd play as a double encore if one was warranted. What actually ended up happening was a drunken cover of "Say It Ain't So by Weezer that Rollie forgets the lyrics to every time we're shitty enough to try it.
I remember you guys telling me last summer that the album was in the can. What kept you guys so long?
We recorded and mixed the record in May 2007 in two weeks with the intention to have it out in the fall. After hastily mixing it we decided with producer/whiz kid Rusty Santos that some of the songs weren't up to snuff, and if taking more time to mix meant pushing the release date back, that was okay. I went to New York in July to remix a few songs and add some final touches. The label then lolly-gagged around a January release, which eventually turned into February and finally landed around March 4th.
Was the wait difficult for you or was it appreciated so you could just have time to chill?
I think we all enjoyed the chill time, were a little anxious, but now that the record is out nobody cares about the past.
What type of significance do the colours in Red, Yellow and Blue play in the album's life? I sense some kind of political commentary at play in the title track, but I can never be too sure... Are you guys outspoken politicos now?
No, there are absolutely no political undertones to the lyrics, I'd like to clear that up. It's a simple song about what it says it's about. If I started my own country those are the colours I'd use and the reasons are stated. I liked the simplicity of the song, and the lyrics seemed to share similar themes with many others on the record. Also the song immediately sounded like a nice introduction to the album so we decided to also name it Red, Yellow and Blue.
Is there any sort of gimmick currently happening or in the works to introduce those colours into your wardrobe, à la the White Stripes? And why not?
Some times we run out of clean clothes, so we wear our own merchandise. Mitch's solid yellow tux was too big in the breast so we couldn't bring them on this tour, but look out Japan because we'll be bringing them on our "Burning Up '08 Tour!" In all seriousness, no fuck off.
What do you see as the biggest differences between the EP and the album? Were there things you were looking to try that didn't happen with the EP?
They're similar in that they're both collections of songs we'd written over about a two-year period. The EP was recorded with no knowledge of how or if it would be released. The album was recorded as 15 songs not knowing what would go on and what would be banished to b-sides or later EPs. I think it's hard to see the difference until I can get more perspective on it. I know the record is more mature than the EP, but I don't think it's incredibly different. Old fans can still follow along with us. Our next record is going to kick both their asses anyways, so who cares right?
Tell me about working with Rusty Santos? What did you go into the studio with and how did he help you achieve the sound of the album?
Rusty was really great, and we can't wait to work together again. We came to him with homemade demos of every song we intended to record. The idea was to show him the songs without a lot of bells and whistles, although I did indulge some vocal layering and percussive parts to show what we had in mind. In some songs he brought out unknown extraterrestrial tones I didn't know were even in the music. He's really into mic placement, and likes to record things right first try before adding any effects. He's also really good at using reverbs tastefully and thoughtfully. We're both into dynamic sounding records over the ones that are full volume throughout. I think if we'd worked with anyone else we'd have a record that could have been good but didn't reach its full potential.
I love how stripped down your music is, but because you guys really play up the rhythms and gang chants, it comes across as this beautiful paradox: stripped down and complex. Was there any sort of intentional attempt to carve out this sound?
Because we only have three instruments we're always aware things can get boring quickly and easily. We all like quick time signature changes and parts that keep us on our toes, as well as the audience. We also like challenging ourselves to learn to sing or play parts that would have been done with our pretend fourth member had he only been a real person. Mitch says our music is either the simplest form of complex, or the most complex form of simple. I think he's kind of right. Check out our next album with a few more imaginary members and a whole lot more cough syrup.
I mentioned the title track, and for me, that song has the most impact, mainly because it uses ambient textures that are just so different from the band's other songs. Was there any separate goal with that song? Were you trying to experiment?
The song itself was a demo I made in my room one day with all the instruments that we transferred into the studio. I played it for Steve after I finished it and he said, "We should put that song first on the record and name it after it." So we did. My demo was much dryer. Rusty took the drums to outer space and mic'd them from Southern Ontario, and put everything through an underwater reverb cannon. The goal was to have a separate introduction to the album as a pretty little ditty. Goal accomplished; it's probably my favourite song on the record right now.
Your vocals are always singled out as being awkward. Just to clear this up, how did you find your voice? Were there any vocalists that helped you in that department?
I found it through a late puberty. A "late bloomer" she called me (my mom that is). I learned to sing as a little kid in children's choirs with my sister and the occasional singing lesson. That taught me to open my mouth wide and to breath with my stomach (which still doesn't makes sense to me but somehow helps). I quit singing to play guitar when I was 11, because it was cooler. Around 15 or 16 we started a band and I learned it was even cooler to do both at the same time. At first I was trying to sound like John Lennon, Julian Casablancas, and my dad. My dad was a front-man in a couple rock bands in the 60s and 70s. Now I try to be more like my sister Jessica who's an opera singer. The people who opened my eyes and ears to using my voice as more of an instrument were David Byrne (particularly the Talking Heads SNL performance of "Take Me To the River" I caught late one Saturday night as an impressionable 17-year-old boy), Gordan Gano and Tom Waits. I could list loads more but I'm getting long-winded.
I'm getting a little tired of all of the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah/Pixies/Modest Mouse comparisons (I don't even get the last one). Do you guys feel the same way? What have you found to be the most common (read: annoying) comments or comparisons made about you guys in the press? And what about the constant misspelling of your last name? Which way is it by the way: Lalonde or LaLonde?
I put my name as LaLonde on our MySpace for a bit for fun, but there's only the one capital 'L'. I also had it as Lucas Large until I was written up under that and cried of embarrassment. My frustrations over any of the comparisons you listed were never too large but have been worn down to a nub. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's record was fun and I listened to it the summer it came out. I listen to the Pixies more than Modest Mouse. We've recently been compared to an extremely new band which is kind of weird as we've got four or so years on them, I don't think they're biters or anything, just an unlucky coincidence I imagine.
Finally, tell me a little bit about that huddle you guys do at the beginning of your gigs. (I hope you still do that!) What do you guys say to each other? Do you try and build up some kind of game face? Is it testosterone driven like the typical football huddle?
Oh sorry, we haven't done the huddle in some time. We now start the show with a vocal loop version of "Red, Yellow and Blue that kicks in huge with a fat beat and bumpin bass. Maybe some day we'll bring back the huddle but Steve has to get rid of his chest B.O. first. I think it lost the spark it once gave us so we dropped it. But when we did it we used to just nervously giggle to each other and then chant, "Bless your sacred heart, for when we are apart, I always want to start all over again." It was a little something I wrote for a girl, but together we sing it as a love song to the audience. This is making me miss the huddle, maybe we'll bring it back tonight.
Catch Born Ruffians live in April:
4/10 Casbah, Hamilton ON
4/11 The Ford Plant, Brantford ON
4/12 Call The Office, London ON
4/17 Zaphod's, Ottawa ON
4/18 Grad Club, Kingston ON
4/19 Casa, Montreal QC
4/24 Vinyl, Guelph ON
4/26 Lee's Palace, Toronto ON