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Born Ruffians

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From the Promoter


Ten years ago, on the very first song on their very first album, Born Ruffians revealed their ambitions to
start their own country. They didn’t really offer details about how they would go about legally annexing
land, drafting a constitution or establishing a native currency, but we did know this much: it had a
population of three—singer/guitarist Luke Lalonde, bassist Mitch DeRosier and drummer Steve Hamelin. It
would have a simple flag made up of the colors waved in the album’s title, Red, Yellow & Blue. And as that
album vividly illustrated, their country was a primitive place marked by jagged terrain, rickety footbridges
and sudden tremors. Its roughly sketched borders were defended by makeshift fences made of tangled
guitar strings, broken drumsticks and—when all else failed—ravenous hoots ‘n’ hollers.
Over time, this lawless territory fortified itself into a stable nation-state. While some citizens left (Hamelin,
back to school), its population ultimately increased by 33 per cent (thanks to replacement drummer Adam
Hindle and second guitarist Andy Lloyd). The sparse scenery filled in with lush greenery. The rocky turf was
gradually paved over with smooth surfaces. That untamed, in-the-wild vibe gave way to the steely
efficiency of a big cosmopolitan city. State-of-the-union addresses—in the form of 2010’s Say It, 2013’s
Birthmarks and 2015’s RUFF— were broadcast to an ever-growing mass of enthusiasts around the world.
Born Ruffians’ makeshift country had become a pretty, prosperous place—thanks to regular alt-rock radio
airplay, millions of Spotify listens and non-stop international touring—but it was one that Lalonde no
longer recognized. Without his fellow founding father Hamelin by his side, it just didn’t feel like home
“The band was in a funny place,” says Lalonde of the period following the release of Ruff. “Everything was
just different without Steve. And after a few years of him not being in the band, it was starting to feel kind
of weird. Ruff was a fun record to make…but it didn’t feel like our band. I was starting to feel like, ‘What is
this? What are we doing this for? Is it just because we can get a certain amount of shows per year, and it’s
a safe bet?’”
On those early Born Ruffians recordings, Hamelin was more than just a drummer; he was the band’s
arhythmically beating heart whose frisky snare-rim taps and spastic thwacks embodied the Ruffians’ feral,
unsettled essence. Without him, Lalonde admits, “We kind of pushed ourselves out to that radio-rock
realm as close as we felt comfortable with—of trying to go like, ‘Look at what Phoenix are doing; let’s try
something like that,’ where we spend a year making the kick-drum sound right. But then, just as my
existential crisis about the band was reaching a peak, we started jamming with Steve again. He mentioned
he was done school and would be interested in coming back—and Mitch and I were just really surprised.”
With their old drummer back, the Ruffians swiftly reverted to their old battle-plan: recording as a trio, live
off the floor, bashing out the tunes in quick succession. “We all have the same weird, shorthand language
of knowing how to put a song together,” Lalonde says. “It’s really super-fast and efficient.” At a time when
many of their indie-rock peers are keeping tabs on Top 40 trends and incorporating R&B beats and EDM
textures, Born Ruffians’ new album, Uncle, Duke & The Chief, feels brashly defiant in its embrace of oldschool
rock ‘n’ roll aesthetics. In lieu of mouse-clicked studio trickery, it invites you to bask in the natural
reverb of the handclaps, tambourine rattles and booming drum beats bouncing off the studio walls. And
even though Lalonde primarily plays acoustic guitar here, he does so with a fervent intensity wherein the
listener practically feel his finger tips getting sliced on the strings.
Produced by Richard Swift—who knows a thing or two about balancing classicism and anarchy after
working with the likes of The Shins and Foxygen—Uncle, Duke & The Chief is a record less concerned with
what sounds hip than what feels good. In the Ruffians’ case that meant shedding some of their more arty
influences and reconnecting with the sounds they first heard on their parents’ turntables as kids: Buddy
Holly, The Everly Brothers and pre-psychedelic Beatles. “It’s about going back to the deepest, most
satisfying itch to scratch,” says Lalonde. And in doing so, the album takes you back to a time when the
Ruffians sounded less like a band and more like a gang, raising a wild ruckus and speaking in telepathic
tongues. “Take ‘Ring That Bell,’” Lalonde says, pointing to a personal favorite from the record. “I just wrote
that on acoustic guitar, but then Mitch and Steve did what they do—the weird bassline, the weird drum
beat, the weird shifts—and I was like, ‘That sounds like our band, 100 per cent. That’s a Born Ruffians song
at its best.’”
But if Uncle, Duke & The Chief is positively brimming with the audible bonhomie of old friends getting
reacquainted and realizing they can still finish each other’s sentences, its excitable energy is ultimately
fuelled by some serious anxieties. “There’s some dark shit on here,” Lalonde laughs—but only half-jokingly.
While writing the album, Lalonde’s father faced a cancer diagnosis (spoiler alert: he’s okay now!), and the
experience dredged up the deep-seated fear of death he’s harbored ever since he was a little kid. (“One of
my first memories was realizing that when you die, you die,” he says. “I ran to my mom with this feeling in
the pit of my chest, screaming and sobbing.”) Then, while all that was weighing on his mind, one of
Lalonde’s musical heroes—David Bowie—passed away. But once the shock wore off, Lalonde came to an
unexpected realization. “What really resonated with me about Bowie’s death was how beautiful it was; it
wasn’t necessarily a sad thing,” he says. “He died with such elegance: he didn’t tell anybody he was sick, he
delivered this final record to everybody, and then quietly passed away. I found it so heartbreaking, but
amazing. And I think a lot of the death talk on the record is more about how death can actually be a
wondrous and wonderful thing, in a way.”
The very day that Bowie made his grand exit, Lalonde sat down to write “Forget Me,” the song that opens
the new record. Over sunrise-summoning acoustic strums, Lalonde sings, “Someday, a white light will come
for you,” before adding a reassuring rejoinder: “to comfort you.” In the grand tradition of The Flaming Lips’
“Do You Realize??”, it’s a song about the inevitability of death that proves to be ecstatically life-affirming.
“It’s about how the light is something that you should embrace and feel okay going towards it,” Lalonde
says. “We’re all doing this together, we’re all on the exact same path—it’s just that some of us are ahead of
From “Forget Me” onward, Uncle, Duke & the Chief daringly tap-dances along the line separating
celebration and sorrow. While none of the songs explicitly address his father’s cancer battle, “Spread So
Thin” presents a gleaming, soft-focus account of a dream Lalonde had about meeting his dad as a young
man, a seemingly sanguine scene that nonetheless underscores the passage of time, the effects of aging,
and the inability to recapture the past. And the wistful ballad “Working Together” grapples with a young
couple’s difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy, before the song’s “Hey Jude”-sized outro provides the
warm communal embrace that friends need to get through tough times. Meanwhile, the album’s
barnstorming centerpiece, “Fade to Black,” deals with loss of a different, more insidious kind—that of
motivation and spirit.
Says Lalonde, “To me, that’s one of the toughest things about life: The ability to want to do versus the
ability to do, and just falling in that void, whether it be procrastination or watching Netflix. ‘Fade to Black’ is
about watching people struggle and say, ‘I want to do this’…and then not do it.”
Fortunately, the song’s jangle-punk jitters and heart-racing drum beat provides all the kick in the ass they’ll
need. After all, it worked for Born Ruffians themselves. Staring down a career crossroads, consumed with
doubt and thoughts of mortality, they’ve responded with a record as beautiful, exhilarating, chaotic and
nervewracking as life itself. Uncle, duke and the chief are home again.

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