Published Jan 01, 2006Nineteen ninety-six was a great year for Spookey Ruben. His acclaimed debut, Modes of Transportation Vol. 1, was receiving critical acclaim for its XTC-esque pop eccentricity and it had the weight of TVT a NYC record label that was at the time making successful initial forays into the indie underground behind it. The album came out on major labels in the UK and Germany, and he was "big in Japan." On the crest of this hype, Ruben was flown around the world, playing gigs and doing interviews with media enthused by a new wave of pop. Even The New Yorker magazine took notice, placing the album in its year-end best of 1996 list alongside such notables as Beck (Odelay) and Eels (Beautiful Freak). It was a time when the likes of the Cardigans and Stereolab, DJ Shadow and Wilco were reshaping the pop landscape. For his next album, he had a double album concept in mind, entitled Bed and Breakfast, and set about its realisation. That was the last we heard from Spookey Ruben.
Five years later, Bed and Breakfast are finally finished, but the sense of pop potential has largely dissipated, and Spookey finds himself starting from scratch once again. It was no fall from grace his heights were never enough to warrant such drama but more the slow slipping away of the good head of steam he had built. The reasons why reveal myriad facets of the music industry and the fickle nature of commercial taste. But they also reveal an artist who believed his own hype, who painfully discovered he'd been a flavour of the month to those who helped guide his early career, and whose hubris and stubbornness nearly derailed his promising career for good.
Standing in front of a yellow doorway into a small, basement apartment in the heart of downtown Toronto, I know I'm here for one reason æ a lead to my story. Notoriously eccentric and weird he has carried the nickname Spookey since grade nine, after all I want to enter his world, and in the best tradition of "celebrity" profiles, an environment is always a good place to start. I've asked Spookey specifically, and unusually for me, if we could do the interview at his home because I want to see it and I want to write about it.
I don't know what I'm expecting six foot orange stuffed animal suits? a collection of obscure insects? a tin foil sculpture designed to capture alien signals being beamed directly into Spookey's brain? but the reality is disappointingly... normal. And neat, for someone whose creative brain clearly works on part attention deficit, part eccentric experimentation. I really doubt he's cleaned up for my arrival, but the small bachelor apartment is relatively clean, albeit a little cluttered. On work tables are scattered stickers and flyers for his upcoming record release; neatly arranged and marked file boxes contain label and personal business; at his work station is a computer, mixing board and recording equipment, surrounded by instruments; on the turntable is a record by Asia. And on the wall, a framed reminder: The New Yorker's Top 30 Albums of 1996.
One thing is evident he doesn't seem particularly prepared for, or at ease with visitors. There isn't even a place for both of us to sit, and he pulls up two chairs very close together in front of his computer, as if we were about to collaborate on some work or play computer games together.
From the outset, he fidgets. Throughout our two-and-a-half hour talk, he constantly, unconsciously and compulsively plays with his hair, pulling and twisting it into a series of bizarre sculptures worthy of a teen movie makeover montage. He pops open a tall boy of Bud, then pours a thimbleful into a child-sized juice glass. When it's empty, he continues to pick up the glass and slurp hopefully in search of a final drop. Only once, near the end, does he finally refill it about the same time that he turns off the silent television that blinks distractingly in the corner. Regularly, he pops up off the straight-backed chair as if to stretch his legs, but realising he has nowhere to go, simply spins completely around and sits again. And all of these mannerisms are exaggerated when he feels uncomfortable usually when talking about the deal he signed with TVT, a bit of business gone bad.
Holding a linear conversation with Spookey is like paddling a canoe into a crosswind; sometimes tangents blow it off course, at others, he more directly tries to steer away from uncomfortable subjects. After some history and TVT talk, he blurts, "I want to talk about my new album."
Originally conceived to be the follow-up to his debut, in the form of two different EPs, Bed and Breakfast have just been released as separate full-length CDs on Ruben's own Hi-Hat Recordings label, distributed by Page. But since abandoning the idea of releasing them with TVT, Ruben has continued to work on the two albums consistently, and it's clear he's deep inside the concept behind them.
"Bed is the slower songs, Breakfast is the fast songs," he begins. "Bed is red and Breakfast is green, like stop and go. Breakfast has this 80s digital watch [on its back cover] and Bed has the old cuckoo clock. The production is kinda like that æ Bed is more towards the 70s and Breakfast leans into the 80s. Breakfast is the short and sweet poppy songs, Bed is deeper, the lyrics are heavier and the songs are slower. [For inside booklets] Breakfast is cartoons and Bed is this heavy dictionary. Bed should be listened to completely in the dark. For ideal listening pleasure, Breakfast ought to be dubbed to a cassette on an original Sony Walkman and you should be on a treadmill with your leg warmers on." Spookey doesn't stop to consider that today's average music fan was born to a mother in leg warmers and hasn't seen or heard of them since.
"I think conceptually it's unbeatable," he enthuses. "It's really tight. A lot of people are telling me Bed is better; I want people to argue about it. It's also kind of cool because even if you buy one, you're gonna want the other one. You can't have just one."
Both albums are fully embedded in their respective concepts, and reward repeat listening with choice musical and intellectual titbits. And Spookey is correct that there have been few precedents for a dual release concept on this scale, even if his pop history is a little lacking.
"To put out two albums at the same time I really don't think that's been done, to my knowledge." Guns N'Roses Use Your Illusion I and II? "Oh yeah," Spookey says, disappointed. Bruce Springsteen's Human Touch and Lucky Town? "What's that?"
Spookey was born Alan Ruben in Ottawa, ON. His father is an aeronautical engineer and works for the European Space Agency (ESA); a year later, the Rubens moved to Holland, then Germany, where Spookey first attended a British school, then a German one. Although by environment, German is his first language, Ruben was raised on a steady diet of British TV and music culture; when the family moved to Reston, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC, when he was 13, he spoke English with a British accent.
"I was actually supposed to repeat a year in German school, but I was way ahead of the American school," Spookey says. At the time he was "completely metalled out. Metallica, Slayer, especially Voivod was my favourite band." His nickname followed shortly after. "For the first two weeks, I had super long hair and I was this angry kid trying to hook up with the cool metal guys. At first it was that I was evil, but then it just became Spookey. There were maybe three metalheads and all the other people [we hung out with] were punks and skinheads. Two months later, I was right in there, forming bands." It meant close ties to the DC hardcore scene including high school friendships with members of Avail, and exposure to a big influence in Shudder to Think.
Through a series of high school bands, Spookey honed his songwriting skills, but soon became bored with metal, and by the mid-80s had been seized by different sounds. "When I was about 16, I had this pop revelation when I heard Sioxsie and the Banshees, Cocteau Twins, the Sugarcubes, the Mission." It's not a huge step from the young boy in Germany obsessed with Canadian prog rockers Saga the most keyboard oriented of that ilk to the clean melodic lines of groups that Spookey now considers tragically misunderstood: Level 42, A-Ha, Haircut 100. "My friends and I for it to be cool, it had to be cyber it had to be torqued out in some digital or futuristic way. To me, that's what Voivod, Cocteau Twins and a bunch of other stuff all had in common." It's an influence clearly heard in Spookey's current pop a retro-futurism that has let techno and other, clearly more modern sounds pass him by in favour of a more old school, mid-80s future pop.
He was also facing the realities of the music business through the fate of his favourite band. "I was into art and wanted to learn about film and that's what got me out of metal, ultimately. Look at Voivod, they're just stuck in that metal circuit, going on tour and playing in these fucked up clubs. I just thought that was kinda gross. You put out eight albums and you're still playing those clubs. My whole thing... well, I remember the letter I wrote to York University. I was talking about how great the music video medium is, and how that's really how music should be perceived always with video."
Having spent his whole life as a strange Canadian in strange worlds, Spookey finally returned to study film at York in Toronto. And ironically he fell into a crowd that worshipped the ground he'd just spend all of high school walking on. "I ended up hanging out with the guys in [Toronto indie stalwarts] Phleg Camp. They were all into the DC scene and I just thought that was retarded because that's where I was from. I was trying to get away from any kind of guitar or punk-based music, so I would keep my own music to myself, my own secret music."
By 1993, Spookey was deep into his new pop project, and finished one song, called "These Days Are Old." Built on My Bloody Valentine drum programming and Spanish guitar, it demonstrated Spookey's knack for hooks and ability to merge seemingly disparate ideas. He submitted the song to Toronto "edge" station CFNY's new music contest and was not accepted; he then submitted for a Videofact grant, got it, and made a video for the song that launched his career.
The video for "These Days Are Old" a ridiculous montage of Spookey in a space helmet, jumping around, disappearing, people pushing him around was "experimental entertainment" in his mind. Everyone else just thought it was hilarious, prompting eventual medium rotation on MuchMusic, a write-up in Details magazine, and the beginning of phone calls from interested labels.
"Nettwerk Records called and asked Do you have a demo?' I was like Demo?' I had only thought it out so far," Spookey reveals. "It took me eight months to write and record three more songs. I sent it out, but [Nettwerk] didn't get my other songs."
It was the beginning of a series of disillusioning experiences for Spookey. When he received the Videofact grant, he explains, "I thought Oh, I can quit school and keep making videos for Videofact.' That was a dumb idea." Two-and-a-half years into a four year degree, Spookey was done with York.
Despite the fact that Nettwerk showed no interest in his other "pop music influenced by psychedelic drugs and Shudder to Think," he kept thinking "Oh, now I'm gonna get a record deal." It was almost another year before New York label TVT called. "I signed the deal with TVT and the album took another year to make. I delivered it in early 1995 and it came out late in 1995."
From the outset, there was chafing in the working relationship between stubborn Spookey and the label who was paying the bills. "They wanted me to redo a bunch of stuff, and we redid it and I thought it sounded terrible, even though it probably sounded a lot better," Spookey admits now. "I just thought No, it's gotta be the original demo, the original recordings.' We ended up spending all this money, I was at Looking Glass Studios in NY and I was just complaining all the time, saying This is a waste, we're using the original tapes.' It was kind of a nightmare. Then the album came out and got incredible reaction all over the world."
For that year, everything seemed great. Spookey largely ignored Canada, but his profile overseas was everything he had convinced himself he should expect. Tours, interviews, attention, a bit of money. But by the time Spookey began work on a follow-up to his acclaimed debut, troubles began.
The primary problem, in Spookey's mind, is that his A&R (Artists and Repertoire) representative left TVT for MCA Records, leaving him without a fan in his corner from the record label. Such reps often work as go-betweens between artists and the label, and without one, Spookey felt lost, like no one cared or was listening. As he embarked upon Bed and Breakfast, increasingly he couldn't even get people from the label to return his calls. "I'm working on the album all by myself," Spookey says. "I had no one to talk to. I delivered the album, no one listened to it. No one cared."
For his part, Spookey now admits to being stubborn as well. "Originally I was supposed to work with [producer] Stephen Lironi, who was working with Hanson and Bon Jovi and stuff. I just wasn't into that that wasn't what I was all about. And I think it wasn't really presented to me properly. I think they probably could have gotten me to work with someone like that, but it's just such a mess. I was shocked, because I was a pretty important artist, not just for TVT but for the world."
In 1997, Spookey delivered tapes of what was then two EP-length releases, Bed and Breakfast. TVT wasn't too keen on what they heard, and grew increasingly nervous about the concept behind the double release. He returned to work on more demos, while his frustration grew. "The way they were treating me was just terrible," he says. "I thought I was this up and coming. After talking to them every day [about Bed and Breakfast], they said no, it's gotta be one record and you don't have enough songs and all this other complaining."
From here, the story and Spookey's willingness to tell it gets murky. TVT insisted on only one release, and attempted to cobble together an album from the tracks he had completed. And though he now believes it's a terribly sequenced, bad album, Spookey himself sequenced it. The result Modes of Transportation Volume 2: What's A Boy to Do? finally came out in Japan, but not in North America. "The album's called What's A Boy to Do? because there wasn't anything I could do."
In indie circles, in fights between big evil corporations and poor, misunderstood artists, the tie, as it were, goes to the artist, and for years, Spookey has let others vilify TVT for burying his second album. The truth is murkier.
"The truth is, it was about to come out, but something fucked up. I can't tell you," Spookey says cryptically.
Was it you?
"Sort of," he admits.
What did you do?
"What's cool about my new record is that I'm using a bunch of songs from that record."
But you re-recorded them. (Typically in record deals, the label pays for and owns the recordings, but not the songs; the artist can record the songs again later, but can't use those recordings without permission.)
Don't they own them?
"I got permission to use them. They're going to get a cut off this record."
If they thought it was going to sell, why wouldn't they release What's A Boy to Do? in the first place?
"There's no one to take care of it over there," he says.
Did you do something to sour relationship? (Silence.) Was it on purpose? (Silence.) Did you just say "Fuck you, I don't want you to have my record"?
"Something like that. But not exactly like that. Know what I mean?"
At this point, Spookey grows increasingly frustrated with TVT talk, repeatedly changing the subject. And while the details remain hidden, it's clear that he made sure TVT was unhappy enough with the album that they cut Spookey loose. Convinced that another record deal was just around the corner, Spookey was happy to go.
"People kept telling me Fuck TVT, tell them to fuck off, you can get a deal anywhere.' And I believed them. I thought Oh yeah, you're right, I should tell them to fuck off. I can get a record deal anywhere else. That didn't go the way I thought it would.
"I'm sending out tapes Don't you remember Spookey Ruben?' I got so many A&R people at big labels saying Yeah, we want to do something with you, blah blah.' Even my old A&R guy, now at MCA, saying he wanted to take me on. You're fresh out of some other deal, you believe that shit immediately he was going to re-launch Mo'Wax on MCA and we were gonna get DJ Shadow to do remixes for my record, all this bullshit. I'd always find a new A&R guy who would do the same thing for three months, then he'd be gone. Even publishing companies Oh, you're a genius.' Suddenly, three weeks later, I'm not a genius anymore.
"That went on for two years. I got totally depressed. I couldn't even get out of bed."
There were other endeavours that didn't quite fly. Spookey directed a video for Toronto band the Weekend. When the label hated the work-in-progress, before Spookey even had a chance to finish the concept, they the footage back and took Spookey's name off the credits. Finally, resigned to his fate as, for now, an indie artist, he applied for a Factor grant to fund further recording, and when he got it, found himself buried in paperwork. But from that grant sprung hope, in the form of his new label, Hi-Hat Recordings. "[On the application], you have to say what label you're on, and I just wrote Hi-Hat. We got the Factor grant and suddenly it was a label. I thought, well, if we have this label, we might as well start putting out bands.
The new label will start a modest release schedule this fall with Toronto/NY band pop band Girls Are Short, but the first order of business is the final realisation of five years of effort on Bed and Breakfast.
And finally, Spookey will turn his attention to a homeland he's only known as an adult. As a young man, "I would actually try to seek out certain Canadian bands because they were Canadian having a Canadian passport and knowing I was born there, I always had this thing: When I get to Canada, all my problems will be solved.'"
The end of this month will see Spookey embark upon a series of live dates for the first time in years, traversing the country for the first time. "It's embarrassing that I've never played in Vancouver or Edmonton, but I've played London, England eight times."
And Spookey will try to live up to the slogan of his newly minted record company æ "the sounds of freedom and adventure coming out of Canada." Fragments of new songs and ideas are already swirling. "I've got concepts and bits and pieces and you just have to keep thinking about it and it brews. It gets stronger and stronger. It's like a seed in the earth. Don't overthink it." And hopefully, the road to its realisation will be easier than the last.
Photos by Roman Sokal