BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM calls The Ruby Suns’ new album Sea Lion “riotous”, “celebratory” and “fun”. He talks to Ryan McPhun about influences, self-production, and musical tourism.

*   *   *


The Ruby Suns: Sea Lion

RYAN MCPHUN has one of the coolest names in popular music. He’s also just released his second album, Sea Lion with the Ruby Suns (formerly known as Ryan McPhun & the Ruby Suns). And it’s bloody brilliant. Crammed with gorgeous melodies, outrageous harmonies, complex textures and instrumentation, polyrhythms, influenza-like catchiness, improvisation – it has basically everything you could want in an album. I could use the hoary-old cliché of calling this is a headphone album, but instead I’ll just say it deserves undivided attention. But as a reward, listening to Sea Lion should leave you with a ridiculous smile on your face. It’s one of the more enjoyable local releases for a long, long time, and confirms that the Lil’ Chief stable of bands up in Auckland are continuing to do some pretty amazing things.

McPhun was born and grew up in Ventura, California, but decided to relocate to New Zealand. “I think at a loose end where I was, I was living in Los Angeles, and I kinda wasn’t doing a whole lot in a way. I just wanted a change.” Being a dual citizen helped, “half my family are from New Zealand” and a big reason, understatedly, was “girlfriend probably.” Ryan McPhun and the Ruby Suns were formed in 2004 “with people I’d met just from going to shows.”

McPhun fitted straight into the influential Lil’ Chief Auckland scene. “Some of the bands like The Tokey Tones and the Brunettes were really influential when I first got here and started thinking about performing. I was always writing music and recording my own music but I wasn’t as serious, I was doing it more for fun. A lot of the people I met here were more into what I was into. It was quite an easy transition.” Sea Lion for example, features assistance from Heather Mansfield (The Brunettes) for example, reciprocating the help that McPhun provided on the Brunettes’ Structures and Cosmetics (he played drums, percussion and sang a bit). The Ruby Suns aren’t just McPhun though, with a permanent ensemble of McPhun, Amee Robinson and Imogen Taylor. The live version has had up to ten members.

Their debut album got a warm critical reception from English and American scribes, and the band embarked on a pretty chaotic tour of England (including touring with Field Music) and the US. The US tour included having their van burn down when they driving along, in what is quickly becoming a legendary New Zealand music story. “It was really scary. We were just driving down the road and somebody was yelling from a car next to us that there was a fire in the rear of the car, and we freaked out, got out of the car and watched it burn down.” It didn’t end their tour, far from it, but McPhun admits that “it was stressful trying to get passports, that was the hardest thing. It took us a few days to recoup and figure out what to do.”

The debut album also got a lot of comparisons to a famous iconoclast from the 1960s – Brian Wilson. It was always a bit reductive, and was probably a bit annoying. McPhun suggests that with Sea Lion “I just wanted it to be different to the first one. As different as possible.” The album was recorded in McPhun’s basement, over the period of three years, a reasonably substantial time. He confesses that “I’m not super quick with ideas probably. I took that long to compile enough songs to make an album.” Recording at home, also poses its own challenges – McPhun’s brand new hard drive crashed just as I called, probably quite a stressful thing for a home-music boffin – but the self-production does allow him the freedom to be unconventional. “It’s a fairly conscious move. I don’t want to sound too homogenised.”

It also means ideas aren’t necessarily followed along in conventional structures either, the album foregoes repeating memorable melodic ideas simply because it should. Prominent examples of that include what would have been an explosive “chorus” for most bands in ‘There are Birds’ and the outro to the sublime ‘Remember’. “Elements of some of the songs are improvised, sometimes I purposely try not to have a concrete structure and go with whatever parts I have and don’t worry about repeating a chorus or bridge just because it’s supposed to be repeated. It’s not over-thought.” This in part reflects some of his musical influences - such as Animal Collective, and the Elephant 6 groups, with McPhun admitting to being fond of Neutral Milk Hotel, and his music touching on Olivia Tremor Control’s fascination with white noise and summery melodies.

One of the more memorable songs from the album is an homage to the mighty kauri tree Tane Mahuta. “It’s just really impressive. I was just really amazed when I first saw it. I was just thinking about it one day in Auckland and came out with some really basic words and translated them into Maori.” It’s rare for a New Zealand indie band to sing in Maori, and it took someone who didn’t even grow up here to take on the challenge. Admittedly, with a less talent, it could easily have been quite naff, but instead it ended up being one of the most exuberant Kiwi singles for a long-time. Armed with a very large posse of singers, it’s the sound of a whole bunch of people having fun, and in the process singing in a language that, outside of Maori musicians, few have attempted to use. “It’s kinda weird that no-one has played around with that. A lot of American bands play around with Spanish in their words. I’m not really sure why. There are no early Flying Nun bands which did anything in Maori that I know of.” It also reflects the musical tourist that McPhun is to an extent – sounds from all over the world are incorporated into the mix.

There are some other odd moments in there too. I thought Echo and the Bunnymen were reincarnated at the very end, something McPhun describes as a “little quirk at the end”; or the ‘Christmas’ bit in ‘Adventure Tour’ which was recorded in a jail McPhun found in a rose garden in Lyttelton. “We camped in that rose garden on Christmas one year. We woke up on Christmas day with the guy who looked after the roses, and we thought he was kicking us out, but he was actually just saying ‘hello’. He was this real quirky guy, and he ended up inviting us round to his house, and making blueberry pancakes. I think we just jumped in the window of that prison when we were there and thought it sounded kind of cool. That was my sister and her boyfriend Chris, and I thought it’d be funny to do a twenty second song.” There are other spur-of-the-moment moments too – ‘It’s Mwengi in Front of Me’ for example was improvised. “I’m really into weird noisy stuff, that was that influence shining through”.

But the lasting memory of the album, despite a few tonal changes in the middle, is one that is riotous, celebratory, fun. This is something that is remarkably difficult to pull off in such a convincing fashion. “I think that has a lot to with a lot of the bands that I’m into, most of the music I’m into is usually kind of upbeat joyous stuff. I think that’s all that is. Bright music usually sounds a bit better to me.” McPhun sang at the end of his first album about how he wanted to avoid being “Tim” on “floor 27, office 401”. “I don’t think I could ever go down that road. I’ll have to have a job one day.” On the evidence of Sea Lion, which is, in my honest opinion, one of the best local releases for a long time, let’s hope the occupational pressure doesn’t happen for some time to come.