Beginning life as Ryan McPhun And The Ruby Suns some five years ago, the group’s line-up has undergone a series of changes since the early days. But Ryan’s musical vision has remained the same. A sensory homage to the big wide world out there, The Ruby Suns’ second album ‘Sea Lion’ was released under the newly shortened Ruby Suns moniker and best exemplifies their sonic culture clash. Weaving a cacophony of weird and wonderful noises into the fabric of the record, Ryan McPhun used a dictaphone to document the soundtrack to his travels and to add a touch of genuine exoticism to the record.
And this intrepid Californian has travelled to many a far flung clime in his lifetime, but now calls New Zealand home. He is a lynchpin of the Auckland music scene, having played in one the city’s most prolific indie pop bands, The Brunettes.
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Ryan will be the first to admit his shameless appreciation for all things pop. But while he may sing the praises of super starlets Janet Jackson and Beyonce, he also holds the enigmatic Kate Bush in high esteem. As well as expressing an avid interest in the diva and all her many forms, Ryan also has a penchant for hotshot producers like Timbaland. So, he likes to drape himself in multi-coloured ethnic garb, and has the appearance of a carefree hippy traveller, but his love of pop and mainstream R ‘n’ B sets him apart from his contemporaries as bringing something entirely different to the indie mix.
These pop persuasions can definitely be heard in latest offering ‘Fight Softly’, which is by its name a contradiction in terms. “I think I’m growing disillusioned by whatever the indie world may be,” he explains. “I relate to some bands because our influences cross over but I don’t really listen to many indie guitar bands any more. So this album was probably a response to guitar-driven music without even realising it.”
A smorgasboard of indie pop hooks, tropical beats and heavy synths, making this record posed the ultimate challenge for Ryan. “I don’t have a producer so I had to do it all myself, which meant I had to figure out on my own how to make things sound better. In some ways I tried to make it sound more pop, more hi-fi and to give it a bigger sound,” he says. “I wanted to to get things sounding a lot clearer and a lot more crisp. I want to stress that it is a pop record and although there are long songs and passages on there, I was just trying to be more focused.”
In terms of atmospheric quality and its capacity to fill a room, the album definitely lends itself to a bigger sound. With its whooshing bass lines and varying guitar effects, it shows a marked departure from straight down the line guitar-led instrumentation. Tracks like ‘How Kids Fail’ and ‘Haunted House’ even provide subtle dance floor fodder for glitchy feet.
But is there any particular reason for this change in direction? “My friend Bevan definitely had a big influence on the album's sound. He plays in Signer which has always been an ambient techno project. But our paths have started to merge now in some ways and he’s starting to make a lot more poppier stuff. I really got into his music and it made me want to start making more aggressive sounding stuff,” he says. “And talking to him about synths made me want to explore my sound more and use more synths as a set sound, start effecting sounds, rather than just sitting down and playing the guitar.”
But in stark contrast to its rhythmic energy, the album’s thematic content is somewhat darker than previous attempts. Can the current dearth of decent indie bands, according to Ryan, explain this? “Some of the songs were a little bit more personal this time round. One track, ‘Cinco’, was about a group of people who were making me angry because they were trying to kick me out of my room in the studio.” He goes on to note that both ‘Sea Lion’ and ‘Fight Softly’ were drawn from similar inspirations: “I guess there are less dictaphone recordings,” he continues, “but it’s always the same things that provoke my creative outpourings-holidays and travelling.”
The Ruby Suns have taken a trip into the unknown with this latest album, and emerged triumphant. This is a band truly unrivalled in their attempts to courageously blur the musical boundaries between East and West. There’s just no one quite like them.
Words by April Welsh
Big Chill Festival 2010