Even Ryan McPhun may by now have lost count of just how many Ruby Suns he has shared a stage with, he has after all been touring his music around the northern hemisphere for six years and four albums now. This year’s version includes drummer Alistair Deverick and long time collaborator Bevan Smith, aka Signer. Tomas Nelson caught up with McPhun while the three were on a first tour in support of the latest and most poppy yet Ruby Suns’ album, the rather enigmatically-titled ‘Christopher’.
Who is Christopher? I became irresistibly curious as to the meaning and relevance of the ‘Christopher’ title when The Ruby Suns new album was released at the end of January. It was the first question I had to ask Ryan McPhun when we corresponded over a delightful two-part email conversation as McPhun and friends transited between Europe and the United States, on a twin tour promoting the album’s release.
“I think of Christopher as quite a youthful name and I used it to represent a feeling of naive adolescence that comes up in some of the songs. While working on the songs I thought that the album would be called ‘Boy’ but of course in the end I couldn’t really use it because that Irish band took it. Christopher is also a really funny joke character that some friends made up. So I think of them when I mention the album title, which is nice.”
Desert of Pop opens the album with a moment of playful synth, followed by a quick transition into an explosive rush of Kids of 88-like pop goodness. The title provides an immediate image, a cluster of all that is pop – but as an endless, dry, and desolate void.
“It’s both an indictment on how vapid/vacuous most pop music is and how shitty the industry is, but also a celebration of the good stuff,” McPhun explains. “It’s also about getting obsessed with an artist or singer just from listening to their music.”
He confesses, this is something that has happened to him a couple of times, reckoning that Desert of Pop is probably the most pop-orientated song he’s ever made.
Having listened to the album repeatedly I find it hard to pick a favourite. Each track has its own character with lyrics that are simple, poetic and relatable. McPhun’s favourite is the album’s last track Heart Attack. Admitting that is “…probably the most depressing”, he says he particularly likes the cool sounds he developed on his Korg Poly6 for this song, along with a second verse that he describes as sort of an ode to Steely Dan.
As illustrated by the varying nature of The Ruby Suns’ now four albums (2005’s ‘Ryan McPhun and The Ruby Suns’, 2008’s ‘Sea Lion’, ‘Fight Softly’ from 2010 and this year’s ‘Christopher’), McPhun says his musical likes are always changing.
“The only constant is my voice. I don’t worry about what I’ve done previously when working on new stuff. I make a point to never repeat myself.”
As per normal, and belying the plurality of The Ruby Suns’ name, McPhun mostly made this album by himself. A lot of this record was written in Norway where he just had his laptop and a Nord Modular G2 synth to work with. This meant that many of the songs started completely electronic. He added bits and pieces and replaced things when he got back to Auckland and his studio in Mt Eden.
Extra details and various elements were added by friends including drummer Alistair Deverick and Bevan Smith on synth. The violins evident on the first two tracks, Desert of Pop and In Real Life, were played by Andrew Keoghan and Jess Hindin.
‘Christopher’ was mixed and mastered in New York by Chris Coady and Joe Laporta respectively. McPhun went to New York for a few weeks in early 2012 to be present during Coady’s mixing sessions.
“It was the first time any of my recordings had ever been taken apart and put back together again outside of a bedroom studio, in a proper one with proper gear and a proper mixing console. It was proper.”
Deverick and Smith are also part of The Ruby Suns live touring act. Having just finished a 12-date European tour McPhun says there was nothing too crazy about the tour to report – just a near-death experience.
“It was super hectic so we had almost no time outside of the van/venue/hotel. We had a night out in Brussels for my birthday which was great. I tried to schedule the Paris show on my birthday but it didn’t work out. Fortunately the show and night in Brussels were perfect. We had a complimentary Belgian beer tasting thanks to the promoter and wandered around the old town late into the night. The weirdest thing was that as we were driving to our hotel in Lausanne after the show, our van lost control down a snow covered hilly street and the van nearly got sideways down the hill, almost hitting a car on one side and a brick wall on the other. Somehow the rear tyres gained traction just before either happened and we were fine.”
After the European tour, which started in London and finished up in Switzerland the three made their way to the United States to continue on with a 26-date tour there. That one loops over a month from Los Angeles to San Diego, taking in places like Washington and New York in-between
A pair of great videos, for the songs Kingfisher Call Me and In Real Life, have already been released.
Norwegian/Swedish duo Frode & Marcus directed the Kingfisher Call Me clip. McPhun saw the video they did for El Perro Del Mar and loved it. He got in touch with them and says they liked the song. He had a general vibe in mind and multiple Skype meetings were held for a couple of weeks prior to shooting.
“We worked through everything together then just figured out the shots when we got to the location – Frode’s family cabin in the forest in Sweden (where it was zero degrees or below freezing most of the time).”
He says they had lots of ideas and admits some simply didn’t work out.
“It looks amazing and definitely captures the withdrawal and solitude I had in mind for the main character.”
The video for In Real Life helped inspire the cover art for the album. Friend Hannah Goldblatt took the photo during the video shoot.
“It’s partially a comment on how image-obsessed all the music worlds are. I think ‘indie music’ fans are just as susceptible to marketing as anyone else, so I wanted to make fun of that. Indie bands are supposed to be this and pop artists are supposed to be that. It’s all complete bullshit.”
The inside cover art was made using an image created by Mike Lemmon’s incredible El Alef application. It uses the camera on a phone or laptop and distorts, colours and contorts the image into something usually quite fantastical. It’s free to download and worth giving a try.
I ask McPhun what he thinks his greatest successes to date are.
“Being able to tour. Being able to go lots of places. Having more than the bar staff show up at shows in different countries…” he jokes meaningfully.
“Signing to Sub Pop was probably the biggest thing though. I got hooked on playing music when I was 12 because of Nirvana and I know the guy that ‘discovered’ them, because he signed us too. I still buzz out when I think about that.”
Through four albums and various incarnations of The Ruby Suns McPhun has enjoyed almost a decade of northern hemisphere touring. Whether humbly or realistically, he summarises.
“I have no expectations for ‘Christopher’, other than I want it to not make me in debt. Of course it would be nice if some people liked it too.”