The Ruby Suns are a product of the polyglot melting-pot of musical influence in the new millennium. The work part-Californian, part-Kiwi traveler Ryan McPhun, this pan-Pacific project marries Californian beach-pop to Polynesian folksong and Maori chorale, whilst ripping guitar licks from Andalusian flamenco and Nigerian highlife, and borrowing the zoned-out ritualism of both Thai Buddhist music and Animal Collective records. McPhun's second album as The Ruby Suns, the Sub Pop-issued Sea Lion, found collaborations with members of Architecture In Helsinki, Shocking Pinks, Signer, and McPhun's former band, Auckland indie-pop pin-ups The Brunettes.
Interview: 28 November 2008
Where do you call your home these days?
“It’s still New Zealand. In my mind, I’ve been living there the past five years. I feel like Auckland is my home city. It’s just that we’ve been gone for so long; this year we’ve been gone all year. That’s been a weird way to live.”
Did growing up split between NZ and the US train you for a lifetime of travelling?
“I guess it did. When we were kids, at school in the States, we’d go back to New Zealand, regularly, every year. Later on, my father and step-mother moved around a lot, so I’d go visit them in different countries. Recently I stayed with them in Kenya. I got used to traveling like that, and, now, that’s how my life is.”
Did you always want to be the musician when you were growing up?
“Well, yeah. When I was 12, I started getting into music, playing drums and guitar. It was something I really liked. But, to be honest, there was a phase through my mid-teens when I was a lot more into skateboarding and surfing than I was into playing the drums.”
Did the Ruby Suns exist, as such, before you were playing in The Brunettes?
“Well, I’ve always made songs. I was already writing and recording some of my songs before I was playing drums on that first Brunettes album I played on, [Mars Loves Venus]. It’s just that the name didn’t exist, and I didn’t actually have a band.”
When you formed, what kind of band did you want Ruby Suns to be?
“Well, I think I listened to nothing but Nirvana when I started to play music. But, by the time I started to write and record, I was really into older stuff like the Beatles, the Beach Boys, old power-pop records. When I moved to New Zealand, I definitely decided that I wanted to make music in that ’60s/’70s pop vein, and I shared the same vibe with the guys in The Brunettes. From there, I got interested in other stuff, newer stuff, weirder stuff.”
Do you think much about your identity, as band, and what that conveys to people?
“I don’t want to think about it, but I definitely do. Some might say I actually worry about it. The reason I worry about it is because we’re trying to be some sort of successful band on some level. I know it’s okay to want that, but to do that you have to know what you’re doing. That involves figuring out what it is that you are doing. I’m constantly wondering what kind of band we are. I still don’t know. I usually just figure we’re a pop-band. Even though I’m not really sure what that actually means.”
Have other people told you what you are? How has the world perceived you?
“The album is what it is. I’m in a much different place, now, to what I was when I made the album. So, when people describe the album, now, I can’t really relate to what they’re saying. What people are thinking about this record is, to me, a reflection on what I was doing three years ago.”
Many reviews have commented on the apparent influence of West African guitar music on the record. Is that just the ‘reading’ of other people, or was that really something you wanted to explore?
“It’s definitely something in there, both as stories influenced by my travels in Africa, and as music. It’s something that I’ve been interested in. I really like highlife. I don’t know if that directly influenced any of the songs, but it was certainly in the back of my mind.”
Have people tried to rope you into some sort of media-generated Vampire Weekend-centric afro-indie-pop movement?
“Definitely. When the album was coming out, it was round the same time as that Vampire Weekend album was being released. But I wouldn’t say I have anything to do with them, or any of the other bands that were mentioned. I think that was just people trying to come up with an angle for a story, or create some new fad. I didn’t think there was much substance to it.”
Was your signing to Sub Pop just an extension of The Brunettes relationship with the label?
“I had met some of the guys from Sub Pop from playing in The Brunettes, and playing with The Shins. And, over time, I just kept in touch with them, kept feeding them recordings. I actually signed to our British label [Memphis Industries] first, and eventually when we made the second album, they agreed to put it out. They certainly weren’t putting it out as the side-project of some guy who played in The Brunettes; they knew this was my full-time thing, now.”
Auckland, as a city, has a real Pacific Northwest feel about it: it reminds me a lot of Vancouver and Seattle. Does that explain the Auckland to Seattle pipeline?
“There definitely are similarities between them. There’s that port city vibe: none of those cities are particularly ‘beachy’, but there’s water everywhere, and there’s this real sense of being by the sea. All of those cities are really green, and they seem vibrant just to look at. But I’m not sure anyone from Sub Pop really knows that Auckland’s so similar to Seattle.”
Was there once some time in which all those Brunettes-related projects —The Reduction Agents, The Ruby Suns, The Tokey Tones— were all playing together, in Auckland, at the same time?
“Pretty much all those projects were getting started around the same time: 2004-ish. Back then we were basically all in Auckland, and we were always playing shows together. The Brunettes were obviously the main band; James [Milne] from The Reduction Agents and Lawrence Arabia was playing in The Brunettes, so was I. The first show I ever played, it was me, The Reduction Agents, and The Brunettes. So, we did used to play together a lot. Now all of us are almost never in Auckland.”