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Born Ruffians’ Luke Lalonde talks fifth album, songwriting & acting

Dan Webb
Born Ruffians are a Canadian indie rock band who will be releasing their fifth studio album, Uncle, Duke & The Chief on February 16. We caught up with singer and guitarist Luke Lalonde in the lead up to the release.

We’re actually working on another one right now. I don’t know if it’s like, poor form to talk about that when we’re promoting one that’s coming out in a few weeks, but we’re working on the follow up to that.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. How familiar are you with the Australian music scene? Are you a fan of our biggest musical export, The Wiggles?
(Laughs) Yeah, I actually didn’t know they were Australian. We’ve played there a few times, I wouldn’t say I’m super familiar with the industry there, but similar to Canada, a surprising amount of good music comes out of Australia, considering the size of the population.

It would appear that a lot of the subject matter in your songs is based on personal experiences and relationships. Is that a conscious decision from the outset of the writing process?
Ah, yeah. I mean, it’s conscious. I tend to write about myself, looking inward, or looking outward. But I mean, I do write more, I guess, when I’m kind of in a sort of down – not super depressed – I don’t write so much when I’m happy. I think a lot more songs come out of being sort of down. I don’t think that’s ever really changed since our first record but, yeah it’s definitely a conscious decision, I guess. Whatever I write, I have to feel a connection to it in some way. So whether or not it’s directly about myself or about somebody else – I’ll try and write a song for a family member or a loved one or whatever – I have to feel that connection to it, that emotional connection to it. I think most people do, I don’t know. I definitely don’t so much write about things that are happening in like, politics or fictionalised stuff. I’ll write a story, but that tends to be metaphorical for something I’m feeling or whatever.

The way David Bowie died I thought was just quite beautiful… like everything else he did, very inspiring and very beautiful.

On the subject of your songwriting and writing when you’re feeling down – you wrote “Forget Me” on the day David Bowie passed away. Can you take us back to that day and how you were feeling?
That was kind of an interesting sort of sadness. It’s the kind of sadness that you can live with, that you can hang on to in a way. It was definitely a sad day, but the way David Bowie died I thought was just quite beautiful and how the record (Blackstar) sort of unfolded in front of people was like, kind of a note or like, just part of his death. And I just thought it was a very beautiful – like everything else he did, very inspiring and very beautiful. A friend had told me in the morning that he had passed away, and I couldn’t really deal with it all – I didn’t have time throughout the day to kinda like sit and think about it at all. In the evening I went to our studio spot and just listened to David Bowie records and cried, basically. And my guitar was there, and that song just literally kinda came out. Almost in one go, kinda – one of those songs that just kinda comes out if you’re sitting there, basically. At least the first verse and the first chorus. But yeah, I think it was kinda the culmination of a lot of different things. My dad had gone through cancer treatment the year leading up to that as well, and he’s doing fine, he’s doing well now. But he was diagnosed with lung cancer and had gone through chemo and radiation. I hadn’t necessarily dealt with that head on, or I certainly hadn’t written about it or channeled it through any songwriting. And I think that all kind of came out through that song, or elements of all of those – dealing with potential loss, or the actual loss of like, an idol. But really the song is about the beauty of death, and how we’re all doing it together, we’re all on the same path together. We’re all heading that way. You know, that’s one thing that all of us are doing together. And I think that can be kind of an inspiring thing.

Can you tell us a bit about the creation of this record and what it was like working with producer Richard Swift?
Man, it was great. It was incredible. I really, really wanted to work with Richard. I don’t know, there’s something about – I just had a gut feeling. I didn’t know him at all – I knew his music and I knew stuff he had produced and stuff that he had worked on. I just had this feeling. All the demos had a kind of similar sort of feel to them, kinda this lo-fi thing. I had to run everything through guitar amps and everything had this kind of gritty, lo-fi kinda sound. I don’t know, I just thought Richard would be the guy. And we got him and we went to Oregon and we just like, clicked with him immediately. He’s one of those magical people. We got along with him really, really well. He’s such an incredible musician and mixer and producer, just like all round. And also he’s just a great person to be around, just to spend time with and stuff. It wasn’t working at all, it was just super fun. He just kinda got it immediately, he just got what we were after. There wasn’t a tonne of deliberation or talking about stuff, we would just do stuff. He never like, directly will order or do anything – not that he won’t do anything, he does a lot, he played on all the songs and stuff. But he never makes us feel like he’s telling you what to do or anything. It was super easy going but, he just did things the way he did them and it worked so well. Like, he put two mics on the drum kit. We’re just like, cool, that’s great (laughs). We’re used to seeing engineers put like, literally 20 mics on a drum kit. Right off the bat, we were like, cool, this is going to be great. Everything was in the same room and a very live feeling recording process. He’s the best, we really love Richard.

You touched on it a bit there, but in terms of the production this time round, you’ve gone for a natural, lo-fi vintage sound. It certainly makes for a captivating listen. Did you go down the path of recording everything live and to analogue tape?
We have before, we did our second album to tape and it wasn’t the best experience. I think the funny thing about tape is, not only do you need good equipment, you need really talented producers and engineers to use it. It’s over twenty years now really, well, you know, give or take, twenty years since people have used tape. So most engineers are a little rusty with it. Cos you start bringing that out, you got to know what you’re doing, first of all. We found that the idea of tape is great, but we find with the convenience and recording of computer’s still the way to go. We did do as much as we could live, which is to say just the three of us. We did vocals after and then we would do stuff that we couldn’t play in the room together. So actually Richard did a lot of keys on the album. So he’d be sitting there listening and then he’d swivel in his chair and start recording a Juno part or a Mellotron part or whatever. The drum, bass and guitar stuff was all just like, done in the room together, kind of live, with no clicks or anything.

We did our second album to tape and it wasn’t the best experience.

In your words, how would you say this album differs from your previous releases?
Well, I mean each record is sort of, you’re trying to figure out how to do it right, based on past experiences but also based on the material that you have in front of you. So, you might be sort of narrowing down, like, well this worked last time and this didn’t work last time. But you also have to look at the type of songs that you have and how that might affect how you might want to record. This album certainly felt to us, even though we had demoed a lot of the songs, it felt like the album was very much songs that were just kind of existed in our rehearsal space, or that would exist on stage. It felt like we just wanted to make kind of, a rock n roll record the way that we like rock records sounding. Where you believe that a band is playing the record. There’s a certain amount of wrinkles that just shouldn’t be ironed out. There’s records that sound immaculate that are great, that I love, but for the most part we just like stuff that has that embrace of mistakes and stuff like that that sounds real, you know.

You recently made your acting debut alongside Tim Heidecker. By coincidence, we recently interviewed Eric Yahnker, the guy who did the artwork for his latest album. We’ll ask you what we asked him – how did this work come about, and what was Tim like to work with?
Oh cool. Well, the movie was by this Canadian director that I had met a couple of times, his name is Pavan Moondi. He’d done another film before this one – well, he’d actually done a couple I guess. But the one he’d done before this he’d cast another Toronto musician named Leah Goldstein. He likes casting non-actors in his movies. He asked me to do it kinda out of the blue and I kinda jumped at it because I’d always wanted to try it, it’s something in the back of my mind I’d always wanted to do. I was also super excited when he said that he had Tim Heidecker on the line and was hoping to get him for a role, because I’m like, a huge fan of his, like, big, big fan of Tim Heidecker, and everything that he does. It was scary, very scary. I only did one scene with Tim but it was very intimidating because I am by no means like, a pro, and he’s very much, he’s so good, very, very funny. His improv skills are excellent. He would do 20 minute takes and just like, have the whole room – like, the camera guy would be shaking. He was laughing so hard so they couldn’t use some of the takes because the camera was shaking (laughs). But working with him, I mean he is a nice guy, he was nice to me. He showed me the pilot episode for the Decker, the newest Decker that he was working on. He was cool, he was really nice.

Do you think you’ll pursue further acting work?
I would do more. It’s the kind of thing that takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of energy, a lot of creative energy. You really gotta slug it out and audition a lot if you really want to make a go of it as a professional actor. So it’s the kind of thing where I would have to be spoiled and just like, if people approached me to do something that sounded cool I would definitely do it. It’s not something I think that I could dedicate a tonne of time to going after, at least right now. But it was super fun. It was one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had.

What’s planned next? Are you going to be working on another album, or would there be an Australian tour on the cards at any point in the near future?

Well we would love that. We would definitely love to come back. There’s nothing planned yet but I think we’re working on it. We’re trying to figure out what the options are. We would absolutely love to come back to Australia, we love playing there. And yeah, there’s another record. We’re actually working on another one right now. I don’t know if it’s like, poor form to talk about that when we’re promoting one that’s coming out in a few weeks, but we’re working on the follow up to that. So we’re just hopefully going to have a steady flow of material and new music coming out over the next year and a half, year or whatever.

Finally, a question we ask everyone. If you could collaborate with any artist, in any medium, past or present, who would it be and what would you ideally create?
That is a good question. I think it would be like a writer or a director. It would be Charlie Kaufman or Spike Jonze. I guess I have to choose one. I don’t know, it would be somebody like that though, just whose movies I really love. I think I would choose Charlie Kaufman, even though he’s probably difficult to collaborate with – I don’t know what that would actually be like, I’m sure he’s a nice guy. He seems like kind of the guy who needs to go into a room alone and write and work on his stuff alone. But I don’t know, it would be cool to do an album – a film where the album, the album and the film – where it’s not so much a concept album and it’s not so much a film, but it’s like a visual album or something. You can listen to the record or you can watch the movie, but it’s like, meant to be watched together. And I would do that. (Laughs) Yeah, it’d be like Beyoncé. My girlfriend just yelled Beyoncé, cos that’s what Beyoncé did. But I would do the Beyoncé thing with Charlie Kaufman.