Born Ruffians are never satisfied
As quick personality tests go, the age-old question of “Is the glass half empty or half full?” tends to reveal a lot about a person. In the case of Born Ruffians singer-guitarist Luke Lalonde, a casual inquiry as to how he feels about Kanye West sheds some further light on things.
“I read an interview with Kanye West right before his new record [Yeezus] came out,” Lalonde says, on the cell from a coffee shop in his hometown of Toronto. “He was still talking about how he hasn’t got what he deserves. He’s one of the biggest artists in the world, but he’s not satisfied with what he’s accomplished. On one hand, it’s like ‘Come on man—enjoy what you have.’ On the other hand, it’s like he’s always looking to do things better. Not to say that I’m like Kanye West, but I totally identify with that feeling. I’m never happy with where I’m at—I’m always wanting more.”
That should tell you how the frontman feels about Born Ruffians’ third and latest album, Birthmarks. The release is the sound of a group that’s determined to flip the script. Born Ruffians’ two previous releases—the critically adored Red, Yellow & Blue and the 2010 follow-up Say It—positioned the band as smart-assed purveyors of quirky indie rock. For Birthmarks the quartet made a conscious decision to shake things up: the songs are more ambitious, and the productions aesthetic is all about shooting for something more bombastic than past outings.
Fans of the band’s back catalogue will be happy to hear Born Ruffians haven’t totally abandoned indie rock. Things kick off with the spiky “Needle”, which suggests someone has been studying the cacophonic work of METZ. From there, though, Born Ruffians—who include bassist Mitch Derosier, guitarist-keyboardist Andy Lloyd, and drummer Steven Hamelin—have no problem bringing new tricks to the party. The chugging “Cold Pop” draws on Brylcreem-dipped ’50s doo-wop, while “6-5000” is laced with atmospheric synth washes and splashes of Afrobeat guitar. On the don’t-adjust-your-speakers front, “Rage Flows” culminates in a cone-frying firestorm of distortion, this giving way to the electronica-bathed funk of “Too Soaked to Break” and the tribal-flute–looped folk of “Dancing on the Edge of Our Graves”. It’s cool stuff that marks a dramatic artistic leap forward.
Lalonde takes pains to point out that he’s happy with Birthmarks, as well as with everything that Born Ruffians has done since forming in the middle part of the last decade. At the same time, he admits to being disappointed that the new release hasn’t exactly blown Robin Thicke off the charts.
“Every time we put something out, there’s always the hope that it will jump into this new kind of territory,” the singer says. “It felt like, when this record came out, that it did exactly what we expected it would do. Which is okay, I guess. I mean, we’re still in a good place, but Rolling Stone didn’t write about us—we didn’t draw a lot of new attention.
“But I think with everything I do,” he continues, “there’s not really a sense of disappointment, but more a realization that maybe I didn’t execute completely what I had in mind. It’s part of wanting to keep moving forward. And it doesn’t make me any less proud of the record—I was really proud of it when I listened to it when it was finished, even though you always go, ‘I wish we’d taken that further, or done this differently.’ Still, I don’t want to come off as bitter.”
This brings things back to the glass-half-full or -half-empty question.
“I don’t think I’m a pessimist—I’m more of a realist,” Lalonde offers. “I expect the most reasonable outcome out of things, so I think that sometimes that makes me seem pessimistic. To be honest, when the record was coming out, I kind of knew what it was going to do. My hopes were for the single [‘Needle’] to do a little more than it did, but then my attitude was immediately ‘On to the next one,’ to where I’m really trying to concentrate on writing the next record.”
Lalonde has a good idea what that record will sound like. One of the reasons he was so happy with Birthmarks was that he had a huge role in the production of the album, utilizing tricks that he learned while recording his solo debut, Rhythymnals, last year.
Having had a taste of being behind the board, Lalonde has a newfound respect for forward-thinking producers. And, predictably, topping the list of those he admires is a certain superstar named Kanye West.
“Producing is something that I’ve always wanted to do, even if I’ve come to terms that I’m not going to be a hip-hop producer like Kanye West,” he says. “Still, in the back of my mind… I mean, I idolize Kanye West. In some ways I see rock ’n’ roll as this weird, disposable genre. The ’90s were the heyday of hip-hop, where it was totally scary to Middle America—now it’s like people have the formula down. But back to Kanye—not to keep praising him, but to do something as crazy as his new record and still be considered a trendsetter is just really, really important.”
Even if, evidently, there’s still room for improvement.