Born Ruffians nukes their “minimalist” label
by James Brotheridge
I’m not much into giving people I don’t know nicknames. But from what Born Ruffians’ singer/guitarist Luke Lalonde tells me of Roger Leavens — the producer of their most recent record, Birthmarks — you could legitimately call him “The Chameleon”.
The band worked with Leavens on a cover of “Five Years” for Paper Bag Records’ tribute to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. He also produced Lalonde’s solo album, Rhythymnals.
Both times, Leavens’ shape-shifting production prowess impressed.
“When he doesn’t have a band, he does commercial music,” says Lalonde. “They [Leavens and others at his studio, Boombox Sound] write or outsource songs for Honda or whatever. So they have to be able to create a specific esthetic artificially. They have to be good at [handling requests like], ‘OK, we want this folk thing,’ or ‘We want this thing that sounds like [French alternative rock band] Phoenix.’ So then when you bring a band in there and you say, ‘I want this to sound a little bit more like this,’ they’re so quick. They’ve got just the thing.
For Lalonde and the rest of the Ruffians –– bassist Mitch Derosier, guitarist/keyboardist Andy Llloyd and drummer Steven Hamelin –– Leavens’ versatility helped them change the way they recorded.
They used to more or less play live off the floor. Not this time.
“[Our old stuff] couldn’t be played on an FM radio station right after Foster the People or a Green Day song,” says Lalonde. “We wanted something that sounded a bit more relevant.”
Now, let’s run through the indie cred meter. A producer who does a lot of commercial work moves the needle. Speaking fondly of Foster the People bounces it a bit more.
If you’re a snobby fan, you might be worried.
I’m not one to argue with results, though. Born Ruffians’ music was pegged as minimalist pop over and over again for 2008’s Red, Blue and Yellow and 2010’s Say It. That description is obliterated by Birthmarks. Lalonde’s vocal range, which might once have drawn comparisons to Animal Collective, has been blown out to Prince levels of funkiness. The instrumentation still chases tangents but now the production fills out those moments, giving them an excellent pop sensibility.
It’s probably not surprising to hear that Leavens and co. spent 10 months, on and off, recording Birthmarks, as opposed to pounding it out in a few weeks.
Lalonde sees benefits to both ways of recording.
“Depends on what kind of record you’re trying to make,” says LaLonde. “We’d rehearsed a lot of the songs quite a bit. We knew we could’ve sat down and played them. We just wanted to deal with one element at a time. We wanted to be able to zoom in microscopically and edit any part of the song we wanted to.”
The breaks from recording helped, too.
“The time off was great to keep writing and cultivating new ideas back,” adds Lalonde. “At some point, it felt like we had a pile of books, and I’m like, ‘I’ve got to read these books.’ At least I always seem to have a pile of 12 books I want to read and I read one of them and buy three more. The pile keeps growing and you hate that pile of books.”
Luckily, the band’s ideas for Birthmarks never turned into that pile of books.
“Eventually, somehow everything just felt done. You’d just work on it enough that you felt satisfied.”