RÜFÜS DU SOL
The globetrotting Aussie trio discuss the making of their new album, Solace
Rewind 30 years. Rock music and electronic music have little in common. Like bitter siblings fighting over their parents’ legacy, they sit on either side of a great divide. Rock music was real music because it was… live. Rock bands would earn their stripes – and their album sales – by touring relentlessly; loading the gear into the back of a transit van and playing every toilet and church hall from here to Australia.
Electronic bands, on the other hand, had little use for either the transit van or the front-room sized venues. All they needed, so the story goes, was a hit single, the right radio playlist and the pension was secure. Live performances might even harm your chances of stardom. Who, some might ask, wants to watch session singers mime to backing tapes?
Thankfully, things began to change. And they have continued to change. So much so that, for a band like Sydney’s Rüfüs Du Sol, it really is the live shows that seem to matter most. OK, they’ve released a couple of excellent albums too, but, as drummer/producer James Hunt admits, it turned out to be the endless touring that made the greatest impact.
“We literally toured for two years solid,” he explains on a crackly telephone line from LA. “And a lot of that was in the US. There was definitely this vibe that people were coming to see us because of the live show. They knew the albums and sang along to every word, but everything seemed to go up a gear when it was us and the audience.”
Rüfüs Du Sol – Hunt, along with keyboardist, Jon George, and singer/guitarist, Tyrone
Lindqvist, all sharing production duties – came from Sydney, but their US success more or less forced the move to LA in 2016.
“It’s halfway between Sydney and the rest of the world,” laughs Hunt.
Basing themselves in a Venice Beach house they found on Airbnb, they started work on their recently-released third album, Solace. It was an intense experience – the band, girlfriends, management and a studio all packed on top of each other – but one that was central to the sound they created.
“We really immersed ourselves in this album,” says Hunt. “Literally, locked away, with no sense of day or night. Losing ourselves in all the little tweaks, dead-ends and moments of beauty that make up a finished collection of songs.
“Yeah, it all got a bit obsessive and our personal lives suffered, but… it was worth it!”
Computer Music: Moving 7500 miles, living together for two years and recording an album at the same time. Impressive! No one hospitalised for drunkenly hitting delete? No smashed keyboards?
James Hunt: “I’m not saying it was easy, but we’ve known each other for a long time and we’ve been touring for a long time. When you’re living out of buses and hotel rooms for six months, you get to know a lot about a person. What they smell like in the morning. How they eat. Whether they’re going to get annoyed if you change that bassline.
“But you’ve also got to remember how excited we all were. Things were looking OK for the band. There was a nice buzz about the music. And we had the chance to live in LA, right on the beach. It’s what you dream of when you’re a kid. This is your job: recording an album. You can disappear into the studio for days on end, but that’s OK because what you ultimately want is to make the best album that you’re capable of making.
“The whole thing of being in a new city, with a studio – a proper, soundproofed studio, that was set up and ready to go 24 hours a day, seven days a week – gave us a creative drive that we’d never experienced before. It felt euphoric!”
cm : So you didn’t just stuff all the gear in the spare room?
JH:“Jon found this place on Airbnb and it said something about having a studio in the back garden. We went to have a look and, sure enough, it came with a detached, soundproofed studio. From what we heard, it’d been used as a recording studio in the 80s, but the guy who was renting it out to us only ever used it as a karaoke room.
“It had a nice… dusty feel. Darkness. Literal darkness. There were no windows. It was strange, being so close to the Pacific Ocean, but having no sense of space or time when we were in there. We’d sometimes finish work, thinking it was around midnight, and it was eight in the morning. Yes, that’s tiring, and we all got a bit moany, but then you walk out into the California sunshine and it just helped us reset our heads back to zero.”
cm : What was in there? What was the setup?
JH: “It felt like a proper studio. After you walked inside, there were glass doors that made it feel like we were going into a spaceship. First you hit the control room, which had the laptop and the Minimoog D. We’d always used software versions of the Moog in the past, so it was nice to finally get our hands on the real thing. Well, almost the real thing.
“The laptop – it was a MacBook Pro – was only meant to be a temporary measure. We figured that, once we started doing some serious recording, we’d need a desktop computer, but it never missed a beat. That’s one of the strange things about suddenly having your own studio. You automatically assume that everything needs to be bigger and more powerful. But laptops have come a long, long way. A decent one will have more than enough muscle.
“As well as bringing over everything from Sydney – all the live stuff, like guitars, drums, percussion, mics – we invested in a whole bunch of new toys. I’ve always liked the Roland Boutique synths, so we got a Jupiter and a Juno. The centrepiece synths were a couple of Dave Smith Prophet-6s and the OB-6. They provided the vast majority of sounds on the album.
“They were actually set up next to the guitars and the drums in the live room, but, in the end, the machines kind of took over.”
cm : No live guitars or drums at all?
JH: “There are bits and pieces, but nowhere near as much as we had on the first two albums. The Prophets seemed to open so many melodic doors that we never really bothered with the guitar. My background is drumming, so I suppose that is my area, but, again, it only played a minor role. We’d record a bit of live snare or percussion, just to give the beats a human groove.”
cm : Maybe an obvious question… but does being a drummer actually help you when it comes to programming beats? Or does it technically stifle the chance of those happy rhythmic accidents?
JH: “In reality, it’s a bit of both. In my teens, I got deep into jazz drumming, and that seems to allow me to really see into the heart of a beat. I can immediately listen to a loop and work out
“In my teens, I got deep into jazz drumming and that seems to allow me to really see into the heart of a beat”
“‘Wonky’ music is getting a lot more attention: music that doesn’t fit into the usual blueprint”
what’s pushing it forward and what might feel better if it was behind the beat. You can understand where the accents need to be. All those little bits that bring a loop to life.
“But there were also some late-night jam sessions where we were just throwing things into the computer without worrying too much about rules and technique. Like you say, you hear it the next morning and you think, ‘That’s wrong, but it works’.
“I actually think that’s one of the areas where electronic music has become much more interesting over the last year or two. For want of a better word, ‘wonky’ music is getting a lot more attention now than it did: music that doesn’t fit into the usual blueprint. It’s not exactly new – I’ve been a fan of artists like Flying Lotus, Burial and Caribou for a long time – but I do think that it’s becoming more acceptable in the mainstream.
“I wonder if it’s some kind of reaction to the whole EDM thing. Everything was overquantised and over-produced. The sound had to be big and shiny. Maybe you don’t need all that. Sonically it can be a bit fuzzy, and the groove keeps falling apart, but it’s a great tune. And it feels real. It’s made by machines, but it has that imperfect human element.”
cm : Was it Flying Lotus that provided the link from jazz drumming to electronic music? He certainly has the jazz credentials… isn’t he related to John Coltrane?
JH: “The way I discovered electronic music was kinda weird. My mum had one of those Jane Fonda workout tapes, and every time she played it, I would tune in to the music. It was kinda housey… disco. But I was playing jazz, so nothing really fell into place until I heard Boards of Canada in my late teens. I began investigating how they made this music and fell in love with their dark manipulation of sound. How they could take this sound and make it into something completely different. As if they had a power over sound.
“Somewhere in my head, I must have put that together with the Jane Fonda tape. And it didn’t take long for me to realise that I wasn’t the only one with these ideas. Both Jon and Tyrone were in the same circle as me and, after school, we decided to have a go at making music.
“We started listening to a lot of different stuff. Booka Shade, Trentemøller, Chemical Brothers…
but the common thread was this undercurrent of darkness. It was emotional, but not over-thetop happy. It had soul. We had no idea how to make music that sounded like that, so we literally sat down and tried to copy the stuff that we listened to. How did they do that? Why does that bit work?”
cm : Obviously, at some point you have to start searching for your own sound, but there’s nothing wrong with trying to ‘copy’ stuff when you’re first learning how to be a producer. We’ve all done it.
JH: “Anyone who can just load up Ableton and create a fully-formed, original and distinctive song straight from the get-go is very lucky. Or they’re lying. Personally, I think that production is a lesson that never ends. The more you work at it, the better you get, and the closer you get to the sound that you’re searching for.
“We could definitely feel that when we were working on this album. Everything we did was more intense. We spent way more time on the technical side of making this album. As if we were looking for something different.
“As well as the new synths, we had a load of production tools to play with, including everything from Soundtoys. We were sending percussion or little riffs through EchoBoy, turning these basic bits of music into something complex and multi-layered. All of that was getting laid on top of the song, adding a level of sheen that we’d never bothered with before. Well, it wasn’t that we never bothered – it just wasn’t on our horizon.”
cm : I seem to recall you being Pro Tools users on the first album. You’ve moved over to Ableton Live now?
JH: “We did a lot of the early recording with Pro Tools, but we started to get issues with processing, and Ableton Live seemed like the best alternative. As it turned out, Ableton has been far more useful as a platform. The music we record – especially on this album – makes far more sense on Ableton. And it allowed us to make music faster than we’ve ever done before.
“This was also the first time we’d experimented with making music ‘on the move’. In the past, everything had to be segmented. If we wanted to do some recording, we had to be in the studio because of the whole Pro Tools setup. With Ableton, we had more freedom.”
cm : Didn’t you record some of the album out in Joshua Tree National Park?
JH:“Yeah, that was one of our grand visions for this album. We planned this whole road trip and went out there with the sole intention of recording a track. Writing and recording the whole thing while we were in this amazing place.
“We took the Prophets, a couple of mics, a little Yamaha mixer and some of the other gear. We had a starting point, which was a very simple arpeggio line we’d been working on. You can guess what happened. As soon as we got there… nothing. We hit a complete block.
“Initially, we got seriously depressed. We were in this wonderful situation, but nothing was happening. Like we were staring at a brick wall. Out of nowhere, we started throwing a couple of new ideas around and, that’s when it happened. A song called LostInMyMind. All in about two hours.”
cm : Maybe it’s because I know about how it was put together, but when you listen to that song, it does actually sound as if it was recorded in Joshua Tree. Could it have been recorded anywhere? If you’d been based on a petrol station forecourt in Cardiff, would it have sounded the same?
JH:“Ha! That’s an interesting question. And who knows the answer. But it certainly felt like one of those times when the place became part of the song. The sky, the smells in the air, the humidity… the way it looked. When you looked out the window, it was like being on Mars.
“If we ever get the chance to record on Mars, I’ll let you know how it turns out!”
Rüfüs Du Sol’s new album, Solace, is out now. As part of their world tour, they’ll be playing four UK dates, starting at London Printworks on November 29
Vocalist Tyrone Lindqvist is centre-stage at Austin City Limits festival in 2017
A Mellotron, the Nord Electro 5… and some intensely psychedelic wallpaper!
Production by committee in Rüfüs Du Sol’s LA beachfront studio