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Interview with Ruby Suns

Sean Riley: So you’ve been on tour in the U.S. for about three weeks. How are things so far? Any memorable moments?

Ryan McPhun: It’s been good. I think the memorable moments are like the really blizzard-y, snowy drives. It’s been really intense. We had to cancel our Kansas City show because of the storm. But other than that, we’ve had some really good shows. I think we had a lot of fun out on the West coast. That was my favorite run so far.

SR: It’s easy for newer bands to get pigeonholed by the media and fans, with all the new names for genres and subgenres. So, if you could describe what The Ruby Suns is all about in three words, what three words would you pick?

RM: Does “the” count as a word?

SR: If you would like it to count, it can.

RM: I don’t want it to count.

SR: Then no, it doesn’t count as a word.

RM: Then I would say, “Pop without the money”.

Emily Lohr: Who would you say are your musical influences?

RM: Pick a genre and I’ll tell you some favorites.

EL: Psychedelic rock.

RM: Well, lately, I haven’t been listening to too much psychedelic, but the first Pink Floyd record was on at a venue the other day and I was super super into that record. It reminded me how I hadn’t listened to it in a while, but I heard it again and it was amazing.

SR: Your sound certainly draws on a lot of electronic and pop music influences. What is your take on the whole situation of dance music today?

RM: Well, it does seem like there’s some sort of homogenized thing that’s happening where it’s way more normal now for bands to just have a whole bunch of electronic things on stage and play a show or just be in an electronic band and it’s not weird like it was that one time not too long ago. As far as the States is concerned, I don’t live in the states and I’m not into blogs or anything like that, so I don’t really know what’s going on. When I hear new bands, I think, ‘oh that must be what’s in.’ It must be interesting to be here [in the US] because the [music] culture is so huge. There are so many bands, but in New Zealand, there’s like twelve bands.

[laughter all around]

RM: No, that’s a joke. There are a lot of bands in New Zealand, but everybody’s doing completely different things. There’s almost, like, not scenes or something. If there’s a scene that we belong in, it’s like, Bevan [Smith, keyboards] has his own band that’s somewhere in the same world and Alistair [Deverick, drums] has his own band called Siner and Boy Crush, respectively. They’re the only bands I can think of that are anything like The Ruby Suns in New Zealand. I’m in both those bands and they’re in this band, so that’s like a scene of three people.

SR: Is it true that there are more sheep in New Zealand than people?

RM: That’s true! Something like ten sheep to every one person.

EL: Do you have a favorite city in the states that you like to play in?

RM: Well, even though it ends up being stressful all the time, probably New York. Sometimes the audiences in New York can be less than ideal, but there are just so many people there, so it’s guaranteed that somebody will be at your show. But we had a super good time in Portland [OR], which was almost a surprise. Only a surprise because I don’t remember them being as loud and dance-y as they were, but our show was really really good and I was excited about how excited the audience was. It was cool.

SR: We have a show here called Portlandia, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it—

RM: Of course, yeah! You don’t have to be in Portland long to be like ‘oh yeah I’m sure if I lived here, I’d probably tease them too.’

SR: The lead single off your new record is called “Kingfisher Call Me”. That’s not a kind of song title that you hear every day. Can you tell us a little bit about the backstory behind the song and how you got the title?

RM: Well, the title came first. I think I was going to write the song about something else, when I thought of the title. And then I just kind of changed my mind and the lyrics aren’t necessarily about a bird. My flat in Auckland felt a little bit suburban, but it wasn’t far from downtown or anything like that. Even though it was a heavily populated area, there were an awful lot of birds in the trees around my house and I’ve always been a fan of kingfishers. There are often a couple sitting in a tree outside my bedroom window. So, I was inspired by that.

EL: Why is the album called “Christopher”? Do you find it difficult to come up with album names?

SR: Yeah, who is “Christopher”?

RM: It’s difficult to come up with album names, to come up with something that’s meant to sum up the album in some kind of way. And also knowing that you’re going to get asked about it… That’s the worst part! No, but seriously, Christopher is kind of a character that’s singing the songs, I guess. That’s how I see it sometimes.

SR: What sort of developments have you made with the Ruby Suns’ sound from your last record, 2010’s “Flight Softly” to the new record?

RM: I think a big part of it was clarity in both the song-writing and production. There are a lot of acoustic instruments on the new album. I don’t know if it sounds like it, but there are. Both records are superb, also quite electronic. But the new one, I think is more direct and I wasn’t trying to fill every second of every song with sound effects just because I’ve done that before, so I was bored of it. So there are some songs that are just really simple and have really simple arrangements. That’s something that I haven’t really done before. So my goal was to do something different and write a pop song.

SR: I was told the opening track off the new record, called “Desert of Pop”, is about an encounter with a famous person. Am I correct?

RM: It’s sort of jokingly about when I met Robyn, the singer. But it’s also about having these little obsessions with albums or singers or songs and you kind of feel like you can relate to the person singing the song, when in reality, you can’t at all. But it feels like you could be close with that person.

EL: Do you ever think about doing collaborations with other artists?

RM: No, but sometimes I think about female singers, especially good female singers. It’s really amazing to use a female voice, like a tone of voice that I can’t get to.

SR: Your last Boston gig was in 2010, opening for Local Natives. When you open for an artist, how much interaction do you have with the headliner? Are you actually in the tour bus with them or talking with them?

RM: No, you’re almost always travelling separate, but for the rest of it, it kind of depends on how nice the band is or how popular they are.

SR: One of your breakout tracks, 2010’s “Cinco”, has an iconic video featuring a basketball match between elderly people. What’s up with that?

RM: That was just a concept that my friend had and I just said okay and wanted to have a video. He had a whole bunch of people that he had in mind who could do it.

SR: Tell me a little bit about the cover art for “Christopher” because it’s pretty striking compared to some of the cover art that comes out now-a-days. Did you create that?

RM: Yeah. I liked the songs and the sounds and wanted it to be direct. I didn’t want it to be too obscured, just for a change and it was sort of my version of a pop album, so I thought it’d be cool to do a pop cover. It’s kind of a classic cover concept, to do the person’s face.

EL: Do you have any pre-show rituals before you go on?

SR: …that you’re willing to disclose of course.

RM: Well, I get really nervous, so I usually have a couple of drinks. Whiskey. Not a very exciting ritual.

SR: You mentioned when you tour the States, you always have to get used to the long drives. Any recent records or other artists that you guys are particularly into lately, to keep you occupied in the car?

RM: Today we listened to Paul McCartney’s “McCartney II”. We were about to listen to the 25th anniversary edition of Michael Jackson’s “Bad”. which comes with a bunch of B-sides.

EL: Do you come up with songs when you’re on the road? Or do you just sit down and write? Or do they just come to you in a bar and there’s a napkin in front of you, so you start writing?

RM: It’s not usually on tour because I’m usually too tired to be creative. Or in a car or plane, I’m usually too drowsy to work. As time has gone by, traveling makes me more and more drowsy. It’s usually when we’re not touring and it’s usually just melodies floating around while I’m showering, eating breakfast...

SR: Now-a-days, touring seems to be a necessity in the music industry to actually make a profit. Do you guys look forward to touring?

RM: Well it take a lot of effort and money to do it, coming from New Zealand, so it’s not particularly carefree and when we do it, we have to try to do Europe and the States at once because it’s just too expensive not to do that. So that means being away from New Zealand for a big block of time and it’s tough on everyone’s girlfriends and the band of course. It’s hard to leave home for that amount of time. It takes a lot of organizing and coercion.

SR: Any particular fun moments in Boston that you can recall?

RM: Well, I think I’ve quite enjoyed the shows I’ve had here. We went to a house party after the show across the street. I don’t know how we met those people, maybe Local Natives knew them, but anyway that was really fun. Another time we were traveling in a motorhome and you always have to watch out for the clearance of the motorhome on bridges and stuff because motorhomes are quite tall. And we were driving along the water and saw a bridge that we had to go under that looked like it was too short. So we had to stop sort of like on the highway and I ran up the hill to try and get eye level with the top of the thing and the driver inched forward and I said whether it was going to clear it or not. It was okay, but it was kind of an ordeal.