By Kyle MacKinnel on June 9, 2010
What does it really mean when we use the term indie? Do we speak of artists signed to independent record labels? The recent contractual history of countless bands heralded as “indie” certainly begs to differ. Over the past decade, the idea of an indie sound has jettisoned from, say, any band that sounds like Modest Mouse to a much broader quilted genre sewn from a whole slew of micro-genres. In a modern world where the likes of Devendra Banhart can cozy up to Warner and Sub Pop seems (almost) as big as Columbia, it might just be high time to check our parlance. Luke Lalonde, lead singer and guitarist of the oft-proclaimed indie band, Born Ruffians, concurs.
“I think it’s reaching a boiling point now,” says Lalonde over the phone from his home in the indie hub of Montreal. “Every line is blurred. A lot of the stuff that now gets grouped with indie rock would have been pop music five years ago. I wonder what will be the next real genre—the next movement. What’s going to come out of these ashes?”
It’s a very good question, and Lalonde has long been at work to become part of the answer. Having completed their second album, Say It, perhaps Born Ruffians are getting ready to find a cure to what ails us.
Lalonde is hesitant to tell the story of how his band formed, citing lack of originality. “Should I tell the truth or should I make something crazy up?” he responds when asked about Born Ruffians’ humble beginnings. Truth be told (we can only assume), the young guitarist was in a high school music class along with his cousin, Mitch Derosier, whom he convinced to trade in the trumpet for bass in an effort to jam together. Another classmate was Steve Hamelin, who was similarly talked out of pursuing trombone to play drums. According to Lalonde, the band was taken “really seriously” in high school, and the three friends continued to play local gigs and practice regularly until they unexpectedly met their manager-to-be, Leila Hebden.
“I don’t know what potential she saw in us, but she did,” recounts Lalonde. In fact, Hebden was so enamored with Born Ruffians’ prospects that she quit her record label job to whisk the trio of 19-year-olds southward to Toronto, and by 2006, had signed the band to Warp. Lalonde still counts his blessings for the big break. “If you’re writing music, it’s one thing,” he says. “But if you want to make it in the business you need those little chances of luck, and we’ve definitely had our fair share.”
The fact that Born Ruffians’ suitor turned out to be Warp is particularly curious, considering that the label had previously been focused on electronic and house music, featuring artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre. Warp founder Steve Beckett was just beginning to look for bands to diversify his roster when he signed Born Ruffians and another little-known outfit called Grizzly Bear.
2008 brought Born Ruffians’ debut in the form of Red, Yellow & Blue, which proved to be a fresh, invigorated shot to the musical pipeline. Lalonde’s alkaline strums and insouciant vocal style backed by the punchy rhythm section of Derosier and Hamelin attained a potent kinesis topped off with the innovative chops of mixer/producer Rusty Santos (Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear), who Lalonde unabashedly compares to one of the all-time greats.
“I always think of [Santos] as a Brian Eno-type figure,” Lalonde says. “It’s awesome having him in the studio. He’s really an artist at heart. He’s business savvy and works really hard, but he knows that he’s trying to make a work of art that will last and not just something that will sell.”
Born Ruffians teamed up with Santos a second time to record Say It, and the final product offers a more focused, mature sound, but not without the sprightly fragmentation that coursed all through Red, Yellow & Blue. Opener “Oh Man” mirrors the Spartan, anthemic quality of Red’s title track, and the first single, “What to Say,” sports the jaggy haircut of David Byrne. Its follow-up, “Nova Leigh,” takes a turn for the postmodern in its lyrical self-description—it’s a heady sort of splendor, and the fervor ringing from Lalonde’s cries is contagious. Perhaps most resonant is the refrain on “Retard Canard”: “I don’t want to start a flame in your heart/I just want to set the world on fire.” The sentiment is one of revolution, and as far as Lalonde is concerned, it all might as well be made from dry timbre.
“It’s great,” he says. “I think that’s where music needs to go, those genre walls taken down. I think it makes it a lot easier for music to just be music.” Anyone who’s been listening closely must have heard the seams burst—so now we can speak freely of the rebirth. F