Born Ruffians first formed just more than 10 years ago in Midland, Ontario, they didn't exactly mesh with the other Midland acts.
"The music scene in Midland featured a lot of skate punk and emo when we were growing up," says bassist Mitch DeRosier in a recent phone interview. The band performs with Fleece and Small Wood House at 9 p.m. on Thursday, March 15, at the Grog Shop. "We started playing Strokes covers and our own kind of music, and it wasn't super well-received at first. We'd be on 10-band bills at the YMCA. Every band was like a screamo band. Starting out, we had to find our own path."
The band eventually moved to Toronto and thrived. In 2006, it signed to Warp Records, a hip UK imprint best-known for electronic music.
"That was through our manager at the time," says DeRosier when asked about signing to Warp. "He gave our demo to someone there. That was a huge thing for us. That was a surprise. At the time, they were signing [indie rock] bands like Grizzly Bear and Battles."
Warp Records would release Born Ruffians' self-titled debut and 2010's Say It. The band would leave the label to join Yep Roc, an equally hip label based in the States. Its new album, Uncle, Duke & the Chief, represents the third release the band has recorded with Yep Roc.
Richard Swift (the Shins, Foxygen, Tennis, Nathaniel Rateliff) produced the disc, which marks the return of founding drummer Steve Hamelin.
"[Working with Richard Swift] was awesome," says DeRosier. "It was our favorite recording experience, for sure. He is a genius, I would say. He is very good at what he does. We clicked right from the start, and the vibe of recording was great. There was a lot of guiding. That was a great thing. You can obsess over mistakes when that's the heart of great music. We're definitely not known for our amazing skills at playing our instruments. It's more an energy and vibe thing. He was fantastic, and we hope to get back together with him one day."
DeRosier says that in returning to the band's original trio lineup with Hamelin, the band wanted to return to its roots.
"This one was really about getting back to being the three of us working together," he says. "We rented a church in rural Ontario a couple of summers ago and got together to jam and make demos. It was really fun. It was like being back in Midland and jamming in the basement when we didn't have any shows. It had that kind of feeling. It's reflected on the album and how the band is on stage now too."
Album opener "Forget Me" starts out as an acoustic number that sounds like vintage Brit-pop before drums and bass kick in.
"It was a song that [singer-guitarist] Luke [Lalonde] originally wrote," DeRosier explains. "It was the day that David Bowie died. He was sitting in our jam space working on other stuff. The news hit him in a rough way. He was a huge influence for Luke and all of us. At the time, his dad was going through cancer treatment, which ended up being successful. Luke was dealing with potential loss and the Bowie news hit him in such a way that the song just came out. He just couldn't get it down fast enough. We took it into the studio and re-recorded it, so it was as true to the demo as we could. We struggled with it and thought we should maybe have used the demo. But we made the right choice, and it sounded amazing."
Pristine vocal harmonies propel the trippy "Side Tracked," a song which features shimmering synthesizers and a funk/soul-inspired drums and bass. DeRosier says the song didn't make the short list of tunes for the album.
"I remember it was one of Steve's favorites early on," says DeRosier. "It wasn't on the list but one day Richard [Swift] wanted to do a laid-back vibe song. That was the one that came out. I'm most excited to play it live. We don't show off our chops, but it's maybe the closest to that kind of thing. There are a lot of notes to play on that song."
Noisy guitars distinguish the snappy "Fade to Black," a tune that DeRosier says is a tribute to the Canadian rock band Tragically Hip.
"We did it in this way where it has this Kraut rock vibe. It turned into this cool cover. We wanted to take that and turn it into our own song. That one came from a different place than the others."
The album closer, "Working Together," features a throwback, Dylan-like vibe.
"I'm sure [Dylan] was on Luke's mind while singing it," says DeRosier. "It came together in the studio almost entirely. We had a weird demo of half of it. Richard kind of puppeteer-ed us in the studio. There's almost like a false start because Steve played the drumbeat wrong. There's a Dylan influence and a Beatles one for sure. Those are on-the-nose references."
For the live show, DeRosier says the band has always prided itself on "leaving it all out there." The jittery songs on Uncle, Duke & the Chief should work particularly well.
"It's nothing too flashy," DeRosier says when asked about the live show. "We just play the shit out of our songs and have fun doing that. This tour will have the most of that. This is the first record where we can play every song. There's no song that we just did in the studio and would have to relearn. We can play the whole thing, and we're super excited to do that. The songs and the show will feel fresh and exciting."
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