Ryan McPhun of the Ruby Suns on being totally obsessed with Nirvana as a 'tweenager'
Frode & Marcus
The Ruby Suns are the brainchild of Ryan McPhun, whose New Zealander ancestry led him to the land of his father before he joined his first band. Before that, he had played along to Nirvana in his parents' garage. That experience, coupled with what he learned as a member of the Brunettes and the Tokey Tones, gave him the confidence to pursue a bit of a different musical path with the Ruby Suns.
The Ruby Suns is akin to other New Zealand bands in that its music doesn't fit comfortably inside an established genre of music outside of pop. The rhythms are reminiscent of English R&B, and the music would appeal to any fan of Heaven 17 or soulful synth pop of any era. We recently spoke with McPhun about not trying to fit in with a genre, not overthinking his art and using a picture-modification program to create the glitchy inside cover art for his 2013 album Christopher.
Westword: Did you grow up partly in New Zealand?
Ryan McPhun: A little bit. More spending small amounts of time in places rather than living there. We would go on trips once a year to New Zealand, whether that be a winter trip or summer trip, to visit my grandparents. So, yeah, New Zealand is part of my childhood.
You got into Nirvana at a young age. Wasn't that also around the time you started playing music?
Yeah, it was. I was totally obsessed with them at eleven or twelve. I wanted to play the drums first, and after six months, I also wanted to play guitar, so I kind of learned both instruments at the same time.
What was it about Nirvana that inspired you to play music and maybe make your own?
Well, I just wanted to be like them, I guess. I watched videos and live videos, and I was just in awe of that band. They had a kind of punk ethos about them, but they also had a pop sensibility that few of those artists had because Kurt Cobain was such a huge Beatles fan. I think that's what kept me with them. One of my first tapes was of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, so I was a very early fan of the Beatles.
Did you start your own band early on?
I mostly just played Nirvana covers in my parents' garage. It wasn't until I was seventeen that I started recording my own music, but I didn't have a band. I was just doing that in my mom's garage. It was on a digital eight-track. It wasn't until I moved to New Zealand that I started my first band.
Did you already know about Flying Nun and Crowded House and that sort of thing before you moved there?
Not really, no.
Why did you want to relocate there on a more ongoing basis?
I moved there to be with my girlfriend, who is a Kiwi. I moved to Auckland.
How did you find it to be in terms of being a musician?
Just before I moved, I found out about a couple of bands that I became extremely excited about. One was the Brunettes, and the other was the Tokey Tones. They were both doing '60s-style pop, I guess -- a little bit more modern production and instrumentation. Eventually I joined both of them. I did quite a lot of touring with the Brunettes, and we did some tours of the States and two of Australia, so I ended up meeting quite few people from being in that band, and that's actually how I hooked up with Sub Pop.
How did you end up connecting with those bands when you got to New Zealand?
I just sent them an e-mail -- pretty simple. I don't know what I would have said. I think I said I loved their band and sent them some things I'd been playing around with -- a couple of sort of demos.
What facilitated the formation of the Ruby Suns?
Oh, I think being in the Brunettes made me think, "I think I can maybe do this, too." I'd met people, and I could contact people that I'd met on Brunettes tours in New Zealand. I met a few more musicians, [including] one of the guys that was in the first incarnation of the Ruby Suns, James Milne; he and I used to be in a band called the Reduction Agents together, and I had played in his Lawrence of Arabia project as well.
Your songs seem to contain elements of pop, obviously, and R&B or soul. Would you agree with that?
I like a lot of soul records, but I don't know if any of that leaked into my own songs. There could be some sort of sensibility that comes from that, but I don't really know. I guess I don't really think about those sorts of things. I like a lot of types of music. I don't really worry about how they influence what I do or if they do or do not influence what I do. I try not to worry about genres. I just do whatever.
Yeah, your music doesn't really fit into any kind of strict genre anyway.
Wow, that's a compliment. My favorite stuff is like that.
The cover art for Christopher is reminiscent of Bryan Ferry in the '70s.
Oh, yeah, sure.
Some of the rest of the artwork is kind of glitchy and visually fuzzy. Was that your idea?
Well, yeah, I did all the artwork. I sort of try not to overthink things -- I just do things, and they are what they are. If I like it, I'll do it, and if not, I won't. It's not necessarily meant to be fuzzy. The inside cover art is that glitchy thing. I've always liked digital, glitchy artwork in some ways. It was created by a program that my friend designed. I just really like that program. It basically takes images from your camera on either a computer or a phone, and it distorts them and makes them a kind of feedback using algorithms that he designed. It's an amazing kind of explosion it creates, and I liked it and wanted to use it.
It looks like old VGA graphics in a way.
The band is a trio now?
The band has been a trio for quite a while now. Since 2010, we've been touring as a three-piece.
You have a lot of sounds going on in the music. Do you all play multiple instruments?
It's not too complicated right now. It's bass and guitar and synthesizers and vocals and a couple of sample-type things. We all just switch and do as much as we can, and we all sing a little bit, too.
When you play live, do you use a whole drum kit, or a partial kit you can play standing and then switch more conveniently to guitar or synth and bass?
I'm not playing drums. I just play guitar and bass. It can look a little bit unconventional, but we do a simpler approach to the songs live. It's more straightforward live. It makes some of the songs a little more exciting, I think. I hope it does, anyway. We're not playing to backing tracks, so it's still very live, and we'll change things. If it works, we'll keep doing it. It's more of a "band" band than it has ever been before.