Born Ruffians have a lot riding on their third studio album, Birthmarks.
The Canadian indie-rockers’ previous effort, 2010’s Say It, disappointed just about everybody who heard it—including the band members themselves. It was recorded during a period of inter-band tension: Instead of living in the same space to write and rehearse, they found themselves barely communicating at all. Bassist Mitch Derosier and drummer Steven Hamelin recorded their respective parts in piecemeal fashion, fleshing out Luke Lalonde’s quirky songs but never really pushing them forward. The result was a an album of stark, rough-edged grooves, with arrangements that seemed half-finished. (And they were half-finished: The band ran out of money for studio time midway through recording.)
With Birthmarks, Born Ruffians made sure to avoid those same mistakes. They moved into a rented farmhouse and started from scratch, building up Lalonde’s laptop demos into expansive behemoths—mostly as a band, together in a room. And with producer Roger Leavens, they found a like-minded studio collaborator with the know-how to help them expand their sonic vocabulary.
Paste recently caught up with Lalonde, chatting about his band’s revitalized chemistry and sound.
: Say It felt very spontaneous and raw—mostly like the three of you playing live in a room. In contrast, Birthmarks feels very sculpted, very much a studio document. Were you guys itching to expand sonically after reining things in a bit?
Lalonde: Yeah, definitely. Talking about Say It, I don’t wanna say that it was a mistake or anything—we definitely wanted to work with Rusty [Santos] the way we worked with him on the first record. But I don’t think we were ready to make a record like Birthmarks, although I think we’ve always kind of wanted to do that. I think the goal of that record was to do something more expansive, something where we brought more instruments in and really worked on the songs in a different way, but time didn’t permit it. We ran out of money, and the spontaneous, live-off-the-floor feeling just kind of came that way just because that’s the only way we could do it. I remember when we finished recording, I wanted to go back and re-do the whole record, but we just had to put it out.
So this time around, the main goal in a really broad sense was to not to do that. We wanted to spend as much time as we could on every aspect on the record, and making sure we spent as much time as we could in the writing stage to make sure we’re happy with the amount of songs we’d written, and feeling confident with having a good amount of songs before even going into the studio. And then working in a studio where time wasn’t necessarily an issue, where we could work as long as we needed to—and Roger Leavens, the producer on this record, was really great for that. I’d worked with him before on the solo record that I did, so I was already really comfortable with him. But the way he works is, “However long it takes is how long it takes,” and that’s what we really needed for this record.
: Did you learn anything in particular from doing your solo album before the Ruffians album? Did that change your perspective at all when you came back to the other guys? It definitely does show that you guys spent a lot more time crafting the sounds on this one. It seems like you gained some confidence.
Lalonde: For sure. I think it gave me more confidence as a producer, sort of—being able to take songs that I’d done just on my own, songs that I’d created at home on my laptop, building songs that way and making a song strictly as a recording—doing that for a while, and then having enough songs eventually where I decided, “I’ll do this as a separate project apart from the band.” But it taught me a lot, and it gave me a lot of confidence—and approaching a band album that way as well: “I’m gonna do a lot of pre-production, demo all these songs.” I had pretty strong ideas for most of the songs where I wanted to take them and how I wanted them to sound, and I knew that Roger could really help me achieve that. It was kind of a good link—for a hardcore fan maybe who listened to the solo record, it maybe set them up a bit for the new Ruffians record, some of the new sounds that are going to be incorporated.
I guess I’ve always been the one who controls a lot of the overall sound of the band, being the one who kinda writes the songs for the most part. We get together a lot, work on songs that I’ve written, and we do jam a lot. A lot of songs come out of jamming and playing together in a room. But at the end of the day, I’m the one who kinda takes charge on a lot of things, so the solo record in that respect did influence how I approached the production of the Ruffians record.
: I know a lot of these songs started off as demos you did on your laptop, and I also know that some of the elements of those original demos actually survived on the finished album. Has that always been your typical writing process—demoing all these scattered ideas and then making sense of them later on with the band?
Lalonde: It’s always kind of worked that way. There’s always been certain elements of that in the band. But Red, Yellow, & Blue—it’s the same thing, songs that I’d done in my bedroom. I brought in the guys, and they’d say, “That’s great. Let’s just do that. That’s a great thing that you’ve done.” Nobody’s ever had an ego—they’re like, “We like this, let’s do it.” Nobody’s gonna say, “Well, man, I don’t really feel like I had too much of a part in that song.” If I do a song that I like and show it to the band, and I can tell it’s not working and they don’t like it, I don’t have a problem saying, “OK, let’s not use this one then. Let’s work on something together.”
But there’s always been that element—maybe a little more-so on this album, I guess. But it’s mostly working in similar ways—a combination of all of us being together, and a few songs where they need to go through those channels of just me working on my own and the band just trusting me to do it and put it on the record.
: I know Andy [Lloyd] has been a touring member for a while, but with this album, he’s an official member of the band. How and when did you guys come to that decision?
Lalonde: He’s been playing with us for about four years now, and it kind of fluctuates between helping us out live and filling in things that we’ve done on our own and sort of just giving him parts to play, and then there are a couple songs on the record where he was there with us when we were writing with us—like on “6-5000” he has a lead guitar part that’s one of the hooks of the song. For the most part, it was just the three of us on this record. He did play on a couple songs on the recordings, and he was there for some of the writing. And he’s definitely important to the dynamic of the band now, especially on the road. It’s been great having him. He’s always been really laid-back, too. If we’re doing something just the three of us, and he’s not included, he’s OK with that. But he’s definitely important to the overall dynamic of the band itself.
: What was it like living together again for the writing of this album, especially compared to Say It, where you guys were living apart? Do you think living in the same space actually affected the songwriting or just the general spirit of the band?
Lalonde: I think it affected everything. That was one thing, when I was moving back to Toronto, and I knew we were gonna get back into practicing together and working on songs I’d accumulated, I didn’t want to go back to just renting a rehearsal space and going there three days a week for like four hours a day and forcing ourselves to be creative in those times. I really wanted to find somewhere where we could rent a house and just go somewhere. And we lucked out and found this farmhouse in Stratford, which is a couple hours away from Toronto. We went there for a month in the spring, and then we weren’t there again in the fall for another month. It was great to get back into the feeling of when we used to live together. We could just wake up and play, or play at like three in the morning if we wanted to, or just like watch movies and drink beer and eat food together. It really just helped us get back into the friendship mode, I guess. When you spend a lot of time on the road, when you come back home, you just spend a lot of time with your girlfriends. We might get together and play games or whatever. But they’re my best friends, you know? And when you spend time on the road and come home, it’s not that you don’t want to see each other—it’s just that you want to have the other part of your life. But I wanted to get back to that vibe: We are a band, and we need to be together while we’re doing this. It helped us all feel really good about what we were doing, and feeling that we were doing it as a band instead of this scattered process of me doing everything and them being there every once in a while.
We would demo together, record everything and then listen to it all together, and we’d get really excited about the songs together in a room. And that was a really good feeling, and I think it really brought the record together in a good way, just being confident as a group about it. I really felt we were all on the same page with the album, too, and it had a lot to do with that. So there was a closeness that was nice to come back to—feeling close to the music and close to each other, too.
: I know that communication within the band was a big element or theme of Say It—the idea of being able to verbalize an idea and be honest with each other. Do you feel like you learned a lot from that process, and did that affect the new album in any way?
Lalonde: For sure. I think we’re the type of guys who don’t talk much about serious stuff. We talk a lot, but it was more of a case of…not letting issues amongst ourselves pile up and build into a big mound. If anybody had an issue with something, just come out and talk about it. I think that’s just a case of staying together and keeping in touch more, and all of that had to do with why I wanted to come back together and live together again—just getting back to that dynamic of friendship. And that’s really important to me, especially getting back on the road and practicing, it’s basically just hanging out with my best friends. That’s what makes this part of it fun for me—having my best buds there with me.
: Random question: Was that farmhouse in rural Ontario actually haunted, or was that just a joke?
Lalonde: Nothing too crazy happened. The owner of the house kind of passed the house on to his family, which is how we got the house. The family who lived there are connected to us through our manager. The previous owners’ father was a playwright, and he died. And the one condition of them living there was that they leave his room as a memorial to him and that they don’t touch the room. So when we were shown the house, we were like, “OK, don’t touch this room. This room is off-limits.” We all slept on the top floor, and then there was this bedroom we weren’t allowed to go in. So it just had this ominous feeling, like the “room at the top of the stairs,” this untouched bedroom—kinda like the crazy mom in Ace Ventura who keeps her son’s bedroom as it was even after he died. So it did add this freak element. Nothing happened really. Mitch thought he saw someone when he went down to pee in the middle of the night, but it was probably just a coat rack. A lot of weird noises, but nothing too crazy.
I spent a lot of weekends alone there because I didn’t have an apartment at the time. Mitch and Steve would drive back to Toronto on the weekends to see their girlfriends, and I would just stay there. I don’t know—it definitely had an energy about it. I don’t know if it was just being isolated with no one around, so quiet and pitch-black. It was a bit spooky. I was watching Fringe and other scary shows on DVD at the time.
: There are some interesting changes of direction on this album sonically and with instrumentation. Could you talk a little about “Permanent Hesitation”? That’s one of my favorites—I love the really funky guitars and bass—and it’s another great example of how you guys are so good at playing with space sonically. Did anything in particular inspire that track, and do you have anything cool to share about it?
Lalonde: That song went through a lot of changes. It started as this kinda three-chord country-western song that I had. But I knew it would never be used because it was so generic. But it was a way to get the lyrics out. I pictured a middle-aged husband with his wife and another woman with her husband. And this woman and man in separate relationships would see each other every once in a while, and they’re at a dance, and they long for each other across the room. Over the years, they know they can never have each other—it’s this kind of unrequited love for both of them. But they’re sort of chained to these relationships they know they can never leave under the eyes of God or what have you. It was sort of a tragic love song. And then I had this other song that was a girl who was kind of a bitch, but the guy was kind of infatuated with her. He knew she was no good for him. The songs kind of married together well—the styles as well. I took the kinda funk element of one and jammed the lyrics together, and it became this whole other song.
And the production of it—it went through so many changes: playing it live together in the room and recording it, and changing it in the studio and re-recording it, taking it home, mixing it. It went through so many changes that by the end, it was a whole different song, by the time we were happy with it. It came from “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” by Bruce Springsteen, which has a similar bassline and chord progression—trying to get that feeling across. And Prince—I know I was listening to a lot of Prince, so maybe that was coming out. It was one of those songs where we built it in the studio. We had the song, but we ended up really honing in and figuring out, deleting entire guitar parts and filling it in with other instruments. Having a lot of time to spend on that—it was a case of basically building it.