Rank Your Records: Luke Lalonde Looks Back at Born Ruffians' Catalog
Ahead of their fifth album, 'Uncle, Duke & The Chief,' the frontman reflects on the Toronto indie pop outfit's career, from recording in haunted farmhouses to reading scathing reviews.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
“I feel like I should start this by saying I might be the worst person to ever do this.” Talking from his Brooklyn apartment, Luke Lalonde, the frontman for Toronto indie pop outfit Born Ruffians, is not trying to talk his way out of ranking his band’s records, but he is preparing Noisey for the worst. “My problem is that I’m not the type of person to have favorites,” he adds. “For our stuff it’s even weirder. And I won’t listen to our records after they’re done. So I’ll have to do this list based on my memory and my experience making these records.”
Lalonde is currently promoting the new and fifth Born Ruffians LP, Uncle, Duke & The Chief, the title of which references the nicknames of each band member’s dad. (Uncle is Lalonde’s dad, The Duke is bassist Mitch Derosier’s dad, and The Chief is drummer Steve Hamelin’s dad.) It’s an interesting play on threes, one that is not lost on the band. Uncle, Duke & The Chief is the first Born Ruffians album by the three original members since their debut, Red, Yellow & Blue. With Hamelin coming and going over the years, Lalonde says his full-time return to the lineup was something they needed to celebrate.
“Since Steve’s return, the band has felt stronger than ever,” he says. “When he said he would come back and play live again, it felt like everything was lined up. I was feeling a bit weird about the band without Steve, so it’s really reinvigorating things for us.”
Uncle, Duke & The Chief, Lalonde says, is Born Ruffians’ best album to date, one in which everything came together in all the right ways.
“When we left the studio we just had the feeling. It was kind of like when you fall in love,” he says with enthusiasm. “There’s something about this record where we just got it right. And you don’t always do that. It’s fucking hard to get your records right. You have ideas in your head and they don’t always come out the way you want them to. But sometimes it can be amazing. This record was exactly what we wanted to do, even though we didn’t know exactly what we wanted to do. We just did it and now we love it.”
4. Birthmarks (2013)
Noisey: Why is this your least favorite?
Luke Lalonde: I used to really hate our second record, but I’m gonna have to make Birthmarks last. This is totally where I’m at now. I guess I put this fourth because, looking back now that I have perspective, I think this is the least Born Ruffians of all our records. And I mean just in what the band has come to be, or whatever our sound is, this record represented the least. I’m still proud of it and think it’s very good, but it was less a product of being a band, and more a product of me pushing the idea of using a studio on the band. We jammed and wrote songs live, but we didn’t record anything live. Everything was done to a click. The drums were edited heavily. Everything was slick. That was not the producer, that was me. It was a little too heavy on the studio side than the feeling side. I think there’s a lot to be said about making records on instinct and making them quickly. I think rock records sound best when they’re scrappy, and I think Birthmarks is a little too sanitized.
In between your second and third albums you recorded a solo album, Rhythymnals. What made you want to use the same producer, Roger Leavens, for Birthmarks?
Roger is the man. He’s so good. It was eye-opening for me because I had been working on solo demos since I was 16. I used to have a MySpace page for it called Skeleton Me and sold about 30 copies of a CD-R I made. I never thought I would put it out on a label. And I started doing another one of those, but I met Roger and he let me make the record at his studio for basically no money, just because he liked it. He helped me turn these songs that were in my head into songs. So I started to think about what he could do for Born Ruffians songs. Because he’s so busy, we spent a year, on and off, chipping away at Birthmarks. We definitely owe him a lot for helping us make this record.
Tell me about the haunted farmhouse you wrote the record in.
I think that there are people who are open to those and people who aren’t. I think if I was, I would’ve lost my mind, because this house was actually more dust than house. It was an asthma attack once you walked in. I would take my inhaler 40 times a day. Mitch, who doesn’t even have asthma, contracted it while we were there. It was a farmhouse so it was very isolated because there weren’t any neighbors for quite a while. I stayed there alone for a period of time because I didn’t have an apartment. Steve and Mitch would drive back to the city. I was scared, but it was a real moment of triumph because when I was a kid I had a phobia of an intruder coming into the house, more than ghosts. But when you’re all alone in an isolated house like that, you’re forced to overcome it. So I triumphed over my fear of being murdered in a haunted farmhouse.
Born Ruffians were nominated for Breakthrough Group of the Year at the 2014 Juno Awards. How did you feel about that honor coming so many years after releasing your first album?
It was a nice nod from a part of the industry that we never considered ourselves part of. It was a nice brush with that world. We’ve always made it on our own without that other side of the Canadian music industry, like the Junos and mainstream FM radio. Basically it was just a nice surprise. We knew we weren’t going to win but it was nice to go in freezing cold Winnipeg.
3. Say It (2010)
This is number three only because I’ve always wanted to re-record Say It. I have this fantasy where we’ll do it and call it Say It Again. It’d be a live version of the record that shows these songs have power and they don’t have power on this record. I went back and listened to it in 2015 because I was really down on it and a friend said to give it another listen. Once we mix a record I don’t generally go back and listen to anything. Uncle, Duke & The Chief is the first record we’ve done where I can still listen to it afterwards. And I still enjoy listening to it. For the most part, when I listen to our old stuff I cringe. I haven’t listened to our first album since 2007. But when I went back and listened to Say It, I thought it wasn’t too bad. I’m proud of it. It’s weird as hell.
We recorded it to tape with Rusty [Santos], who is a weirdo genius. As soon as we finished it, I sent an email to our manager and the guys saying, “We need to redo this. We have to go back and record it again.” And our manager said, “That is not an option. We’ve spent all of our money, so that’s that.” Now that I listen to it, I don’t think it’s as bad as I originally thought. It’s just not the record I thought I wanted to make. It just needed a little more time in the incubator too. Some of the songs just weren’t there yet. I guess I have to put it at three. This whole list feels super arbitrary.
The title of the record had something to do with improving communication in the band?
Yeah, and I wish we also didn’t do that. I wish the title just reflected the music and not what was going on with us. We had the song “What To Say,” and we based it on that, but told people it was about the relationship within our band. I don’t know if it was. And I don’t think we were any better with communication. There was stuff happening, like Steve leaving the band. He felt he needed to get out for a bit.
Andy Lloyd joined the band and you became a quartet for this album. How did having a fourth member change things?
Andy joined to help out live. I wish we had more time because I had a bigger vision in my head. I rented a timpani, all of this percussion, and we had a sax player and these horns. It turned out cool, but I wanted it to sound bigger. So we needed Andy to come in and fill in the songs, and he immediately became part of the band dynamic, both on, and most importantly, off stage. He helped balance things out. With three people it’s always two against one. I think we, or at least I, since I was feeling insecure back then, needed another ally or friend in the band. Andy just gets along with everyone. He’s a sweetheart—kind, loving, always nice to be around. He’s a huge asset… terrible word to use! He’s a great guy to have in your band.
After giving your debut album an 8.0, Pitchfork gave this album a 3.8. How much did that affect you guys?
I spent the entire day in the bathtub. I drew a bath, and stayed in there for hours and hours, even after it got cold. It was bad. It was a huge bummer for me. Back then, I let those types of things affect me way too much. I put a lot of weight on what other people thought. The worst part is I admire a lot of music writers and I think the job of the critic is an admirable one. They’re obsessed with music and they tell readers why something is good. I like the analysis of music and art, that things can objectively be good and bad. And when they came out and validated all of my fears, it was crushing. But you learn from those mistakes.
This was your last release for Warp before signing with Yep Roc. Was that an amicable split?
I don’t know. We have a new manager now. Our old manager was responsible for those negotiations. The last conversation I remember was working on a deal and trying to get more money. They were going back and forth and then the deal was off the table. And now we don’t speak with that manager any more, for a bunch of reasons I don’t want to get into. But we liked working with Warp. We had a lot of friends in the office. It’s just the nature of the business.
2. Red, Yellow & Blue (2008)
I remember this record being a rush. It was mostly funny with some anxiety and pressure. We put out an EP that got us quite a bit of attention. But we had an A&R dropping into the studio, scaring the shit out of us. He’d said [adopts English accent], “This doesn’t sound right. You’ve got to redo it.” The concerns I had over Say It, this guy had with Red, Yellow & Blue. He’d say, “This isn’t the record you’re supposed to be making!” But Rusty would stick to his guns and tell him it’s what we were doing. So there was some fear and a gut-check there. I’ll always wonder what the other dimension would’ve been like. We had another producer, a bigger producer—I guess I can say his name now. We had a phone call with this guy Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, Modest Mouse, Shania Twain), and we didn’t end up working with him because he wanted to much money. We talked to Rusty and he was very appealing because we were huge fans of Sung Tongs, the Animal Collective album he’d worked on. Jacquire was the other side of the coin. He could do the slick thing for us, but Rusty could do the cool thing, and we went with Rusty. So I’ll always wonder what it would’ve sounded like and where we’d be if we’d gone with the other guy.
But it was a really fun record to make. It was our first time working in a proper studio. It was our first proper record, so we were excited. There are a lot of good songs on there that we still play. It’s got a special place in my heart, I guess.
How did you guys hook up with Warp Records? The label was still primarily for electronic acts at the time, so it was a weird fit.
Warp happened through our former manager, Leila [Hebden]. She had been on the road with her brother Kieran, who’s Four Tet. She was backstage at his show and so was Simon from Warp, so she gave him our demo tape. The story he told us was that he put our demo on while he was chopping celery for soup at home. It slowly percolated and he decided he liked it. That was what he told us when he came to Toronto and signed us. So it was the strength of the demos and right place, right time on Leila’s part.
What is the significance with the three colors?
When you look back, decisions are so arbitrary. This one came after I wrote the song “Red, Yellow & Blue,” which was a bedroom song I recorded at three in the morning. I played it for Steve and he immediately said, “That was great. We should make it the first song on the record and also name the record Red, Yellow & Blue.” It’s the sort of hardline thing that Steve does sometimes. Where I can be fucking wishy-washy and have an endless perspective on something, Steve can come in and simplify things.
Steve left the band for a bit at this point.
My timeline is off, but we had done a tour with Franz Ferdinand and that was after Steve left. We did it with our friend Ahmed [Gallab]. And then Steve came back right before we recorded Say It.
Did you and Mitch have any doubts about continuing?
There was absolutely no doubt. I don’t know if I ever thought Steve was leaving for good. The second time he left was way more devastating. That was after Birthmarks and he needed to go back to school and change his life. But the first time we thought we could make it work. We thought he’d come back and just started auditioning drummers. We knew Ahmed because he had played with Caribou. It just felt like another chapter.
You guys played the song “Hummingbird” on an episode of Skins. What was that experience like?
Fun! It was our first and only time being part of something like that apart from making a music video. We weren’t aware of the show’s popularity. The music supervisors were all 20 years old, and one of the actors was into our band, so they chose us. Our manager said, “You’ve gotta do this. All of my friends love this show.” We were never not gonna do it, we just weren’t aware of what Skins was. So we went to New York and learned that, “Oh, this is a real production.” There were a lot of people and a lot of cameras. It was weird though. We’d be standing in the corner and there’s no music playing, but we were pretending to play while these actors did their lines and their kissing 20 times in front of us. The result was great though. We still get people coming up to us saying they discovered us through Skins. I still haven’t watched the episode though.
1. Ruff (2015)
Why is this your favorite?
There are a lot of reasons. I think, lyrically, it’s my most consistent and realized. I felt like I finally hit my stride as a lyricist. It was getting back to writing as a band and playing live as a band, coming together as this unit. We split it down the middle. If Adam [Hindle, drummer] and Andy played on a song, we shared the song four ways. There were no headaches over that kind of thing. It was very much a group effort. It was a little scattered, but in a good way. We did three secret shows at the Piston [in Toronto] that went really well. We realized we could play these songs live really well. Birthmarks we just could not play live. That album only yielded two or three songs live. For the most part, we don’t generally play songs from it because a lot of the songs don’t translate, whereas with Ruff we can play all of the songs. That just felt really good. I was really proud of this album. And I’m really proud of the hooks too. I think “Don’t Live Up” is one of our catchiest songs. I think it’s underrated in terms of Ruffians “hits.” I think it represents a lot of the things I strive for in writing a song. I also really like the B-sides. We had a great batch of songs for this record. There really wasn’t any filler.
This album was very off-the-cuff and impulsive. You described it as “ugly innards music.” Was it a reaction to Birthmarks being such a studio record?
Yeah. There was definitely the feeling of, “We’ve done that, so let’s do the opposite.” We toyed with taking it even further by just getting some 57s and entering a small box of a studio and doing everything live. Birthmarks was such an exhausting experience where once we were done we were like, “Fuck, thank God we’re done with that.” For Ruff, we wanted it to be fun throughout and spend less time on it. We wanted it to be a great experience.
How long did it take to make this?
We had 14 days in the studio and did a song a day. And then we mixed it with Rusty, which took a week. So it took three weeks all together. Birthmarks took the better part of a year.
I interviewed Mitch and his dog Charlie for Ruff and he told me that he didn’t feel sick listening back to this album unlike the others.
[Laughs] I think he was being hyperbolic. But yeah, there was just this feeling of pride in this record, and not cringing over doings things we had regretted on previous records. It just felt way more decisive. Mitch and I were very much steering the ship back then. Steve had one foot in and one foot out. School was consuming most of his time, but we had him come back in to write and he played on half of the songs. We had convictions and we were very sure of them. There are no real regrets with Ruff. It’s not a perfect record, but I think it’s our best—not including our newest one.
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.