Bio: There’s no denying that much of New Zealand’s popular music is heavily indebted to whatever is currently pumping out over the American airwaves. What’s far more unusual ... (more)
Bio: There’s no denying that much of New Zealand’s popular music is heavily indebted to whatever is currently pumping out over the American airwaves. What’s far more unusual, and a whole lot more interesting, is when the cross-pollination travels in the opposite direction. With its Polynesian rhythms, strong Pacific influences and an entire song sung in Maori, Sea Lion is destined to be the most authentically “New Zealand”-sounding album you’ll hear in 2008. However, the mastermind behind this incredible album, Ryan McPhun, didn’t grow up in Grey Lynn or Dunedin. McPhun is an expatriate Californian who travelled across the vast Pacific Ocean to New Zealand, and has assimilated the sounds he found here with his three-piece psych-pop combo, The Ruby Suns.
McPhun was born and raised in the seaside town of Ventura, California, but his hunger for travel and new experiences eventually led him, via Africa and Southeast Asia, to his current home, Auckland. Having arrived in New Zealand, McPhun gathered some likeminded musicians and formed the band Ryan McPhun & The Ruby Suns in 2004. Never one to sit still, McPhun also played in various Auckland-based pop groups including The Tokey Tones, The Reduction Agents, The Nudie Suits and The Brunettes, with whom he toured the US with The Shins and Rilo Kiley in ’05. (McPhun also plays drums, percussion and background vocals on The Brunettes most recent Lil’ Chief album Structure & Cosmetics.) Initially featuring a revolving cast of local musicians, the band (now simply called The Ruby Suns) eventually coalesced to the core trio of McPhun, Amee Robinson and Imogen Taylor.
The Ruby Suns are a DIY cottage industry - the perfect example of how a band can function and thrive in a post-MySpace world. Ryan records and produces all of their music in his own home, and Amee meticulously crafts all of the band’s artwork. They have toured extensively throughout the US, the UK and Europe, and yet are still (happily) without a manager. Even a freak tour-van fire that destroyed all of their equipment and merchandise in 2006 didn’t stop them from continuing on with their self-organised and self-funded tour of the US.
The release of the band’s first album, The Ruby Suns, in 2005 went mostly unheralded in New Zealand, but, as Jesus himself said, “a prophet is not without honour, except in his own hometown”. In the UK, things were very different, and The Ruby Suns’ debut received numerous fine accolades from the notoriously fickle UK music press, being variously described as “sparkling multilayered sunshine pop” by Uncut and “astonishingly good” by Mojo, after being picked up and released by hip UK indie label Memphis Industries.
A successful UK tour with likeminded pop auteurs Field Music followed in the wake of the UK album release. Once again, disaster struck, and hard-drive failure laid waste to much of the material Ryan had been working on prior to leaving New Zealand. What had been painstakingly assembled over a protracted period was re-recorded in record time on their return, and within months a brand new album was finished. So successful were these sessions that the band elected to release a strictly limited edition EP, “Lichen Ears”, just to maintain momentum and justify a few more gigs around Auckland.
… Which brings us to Sea Lion, the second full-length Ruby Suns album, and the first Lil’ Chief Records release for 2008. With its title inspired by the sea lion colony visible from Highway 1, south of San Francisco, and recorded by McPhun alone in his Auckland basement, Sea Lion’s melodic musings found inspiration in the natural world and his travels within it. “Tane Mahuta,” sung entirely in Maori, is an ode to the great Waipoua forest in Northland and “Adventure Tour” tells a tale of a memorable drive through the South Island. An African influence also exerts a strong presence in the album. Not only was Ryan struck by the people (“Ole Rinka” is about a man he met in the Maasai Mara National Reserve), but he was also enamoured of the music, especially Kenyan traditional music and modern day hip-hop.
The depth and breadth of the Ruby Suns’ songs has, to no surprise, grown dramatically since their 2005 self-titled debut. The epic Sea Lion was intended to be a world music album, however reverb and psychedelic pop managed to creep back in, to create a unique mixture of exotic sounds, accomplished with an impressive array of instruments - from steel-string ukulele to djembe drums to pots and pans, all set upon a cosy cushion of synths and cassette samples. The Ruby Suns offer these words to describe their new album: “Pop music, noise, psychedelia, flamenco, South Pacific, southern Africa, home recording, hiking, travelling, animals, beaches, vegetarian food, especially falafel.”
With such a heady mix of sounds, how can Sea Lion be anything other than a classic? (less)