Born Ruffians (from left): Luke LaLonde, Mitch DeRosier and Steve Hamelin (Andy Lloyd not pictured) on stage at The Bowery Ballroom in New York City in 2007.
Born Ruffians (from left): Luke LaLonde, Mitch DeRosier and Steve Hamelin (Andy Lloyd not pictured) on stage at The Bowery Ballroom in New York City in 2007. Robyn Lee/flickr.com
Good musicians can turn playing a live show into an act of transcendence. Chords seem plucked from rainbows. A voice harnesses the thundering natural power of a flash flood. The bassist and a backup vocalist clash like titans over whose half of a burger was left over between the sound check and the start of the set.
No wait, not that last one. Playing live is supposed to be the last refuge of romance in the modern music industry, where a band's chops are everything and there's money to be made to boot. In reality, playing live is a juggling act, and a tour involves enough moving parts that something different can go wrong every night.
Because we want to know how people pull off the great trick of turning the playing of music into a life, today we're launching a series of interviews with musicians that will focus on the hidden aspects of playing live. We'll ask this same set of questions to musicians at every level, from first-timers playing basement shows to seasoned road warriors in major venues to those who play in tiny clubs in their neighborhood for the price of a bar tab.
Born Ruffians, based in Toronto, Ontario, released their second full-length album, Say It, on Warp Records in June, and promptly embarked on a tour of the U.S. and Canada. This fall, the band — the core trio of Luke LaLonde (guitar and lead vocals), Mitch DeRosier (bass) and Steve Hamelin (drums) joined by Andy Lloyd on keyboards — made another trip around North America. I caught up with them backstage on October 1, following their sound check at Brooklyn's Knitting Factory.
On stage, Born Ruffians play coiled, eccentric pop bent like a wire around LaLonde's vocals, which can skitter from a mellow croon to a yelp. Before the show, LaLonde, DeRosier and Hamelin talked about the loneliness of the road, wondered how much drinking is too much drinking, and punctured the idea that touring is a guaranteed money maker for a band.
1. Where did you play last night? Where/when did you wake up this morning?
Luke LaLonde: We played in Northampton, Mass. last night. It was a really great show, my favorite show of the tour so far. I ended up going to bed at 3:00 am, and woke up at 10. So I got 7 hours of sleep, which is pretty good night's sleep on tour. You can't ask for much more than that.
Steve Hamelin: Nope, nor will you get it.
2. What did you eat for breakfast today?
LL: Oh, we had a good breakfast at Sylvester's in Northampton. I had a BLT with avocado and a nice butternut squash with kale soup.
Mitch DeRosier: I had the southwest home fries which come in a mountain shape and is covered in all kinds of stuff.
SH: I had steak and eggs with gorgonzola butter, which was the selling point for me.
3. What's the first thing you look for when you get to a new city?
SH: The boring answer is the venue. We go right to the venue almost every single time.
LL: If there's any time to do anything else we generally will go to the hotel and check in and maybe lie in the bed for a minute and leave our bags there. But most of the time it's just straight to the venue. The drives are so long and we tour in a van. If we toured in a bus that we slept on we'd do way more stuff, but we're the type of band that tours in a 15-seater van and we drive throughout the day pretty much every day.
So [you] show up, load in, soundcheck, try and get some food. That's all tour is. You're trying to locate the best food, you're trying to sleep whenever you can, and then try to play the best show you can.
Since you have another show in New York tomorrow, you don't have to drive. What are you going to do with your day off?
SH: Tomorrow when we have "the day off," we don't actually have it off. We're doing media stuff all day.
How much do you like or dislike doing media?
SH: I guess I'll answer as the guy who does the least and at one point said he didn't want to do any more: I actually don't dislike it. I think for me it depends on how enthusiastic the person doing it with you is. If they show up and they seem like they're interested in it then I actually enjoy it. But when you're doing the interview and you're still answering and they cut you off with the next question, you're just like "You want this to finish? We can finish this real quick." But if they're enthusiastic it's good. We like doing it because we want people to find out about our band. It just sucks when it feels like people would [rather] be anywhere but talking to you.
4. Do you have any pre-show rituals?
LL: We don't really. Occasionally, if we're feeling really motivated we'll do some vocal warm ups where we all sing together. Otherwise, we all like to have a couple beers. We don't like to be drunk when we go onstage, but it helps to just ... it's just part of hanging out as a few Canadian boys. Beer and socializing go hand in hand. I guess that's a ritual sort of. We spend time together before we play.
SH: Drinking is a ritual. Is that a problem?
LL: (joking) Well it begins at 8:00 am ...
5. Is there a song in your set that you know will kill?
LL: Mitch writes our setlist, so he'd probably have the best answer to that.
MD: I think so. I feel like writing a setlist ... there can be both an art and a science in it. You have to have moments in it. You have to know what songs will do the best in order to make the set sound the best. And we have at least one or two songs that we know will go over really well.
LL: There's a bunch that you hope, but there's a couple that you feel a lot more confident in.
MD: Do you want specifics? "I Need A Life" — we close an encore with that almost every show. And I think [with] "Foxes Mate For Life," we've found more recently how good a reaction we get from that.
SH: We have noticed because we released the album in June and then we immediately went on tour with it, we were getting most of the strongest reactions for the old album. But I have been noticing that the newer songs are starting to get reactions closer to what the older ones were as well. Eventually by the time the record gets out, I think "What to Say" [will get a reaction]. You know — singles with videos — people find those songs. ... But you can be surprised because "Foxes" came out of nowhere. It was never a single.
6. What's the best advice you ever got from somebody on tour?
LL: I feel like I learn something from every band we support. From Caribou I learned a thing or two about work ethic. From Franz Ferdinand's [lead singer] Alex [Kapranos] I learned the importance of really putting on your best show every night and how much — I don't share it to the full degree — but how much everyone in the audience affected that guy. He got off stage once and the crowd was electric, they were really into it. And he always had them there by the end of the show but [he'd have] thought the show was terrible because there was one guy in the back with his arms crossed. I was like, "Dude, he just watches shows like that!" That's how I watch shows and I love shows, but sometimes I don't want to move.
SH: Akron/Family — when they play live, you kinda get the sense that you might not be seeing the same show every night. More so with them, less with us because we do like to work out a set, but we've added in sections where it's just like, "This is where we use our musicianship." We don't know where it's going to go and sometimes we're a little nervous about who is going to come back in at the right time, but it usually works out. They taught us that live and record can be different. And that's how you have fun. That's what keeps us on our toes.
7. Who is the first person you make friends with at a venue?
LL: If you don't have your own sound man, it's great to go up to the sound man right away and introduce yourself and try and get a friendly rapport going with them because the show is in their hands sometimes. And you just want to make sure you're on a page with them where they know you appreciate you're doing something important for them. I always try to be conscious of having a friendly demeanor around bar staff and promoters and every one just to make sure they know you appreciate what they're doing.
MD: Is it bad I thought of the promoter first because then we might get more beer if we ask later?
SH: That's a true move too, though: being real nice and then when you run out you're just like, "Can we just get a couple more beers, dude?"
LL: Basically we're not nice, we just fake it. We manipulate people. (laughs)
SH: It's all one-night relationships, you know.
LL: You want to leave a good impression. The stories that circulate are the bad ones, and you don't want to leave a bad story behind.
It really seems like this is a job, which is not how it comes off from the crowd's perspective.
SH: It's interesting and you get used to it, but we'll play a show and the crowd — you know, hopefully they have a good time — but immediately when it's done, they start socializing amongst themselves, and all of a sudden there's this weird moment because the light's on and you're just packing your stuff up on stage. And if you walk out into the crowd — and we noticed it especially as a support band because less people recognize you — you know no one and you have like no friends in the crowd except for this small core group that you're constantly with. You're just like an outsider in every town. For a minute, everyone's focused on you and then for the rest of the show no one knows you or gives a s*** about you.
And that's fine, it's not like I want them to hoist me up on their shoulders and carry me around, but it's weird. It gets in your head at first. When you're just like, "Now they're all drunk and they're going to go somewhere else and have fun," and you're just cranking down your drums and covered in sweat. It's a big high and a big comedown really fast. And that's when you start power drinking for the rest of the night.
Is that really how you deal with that feeling?
SH: I drink a fair amount on tour. I think I can admit that because I don't think it's a big problem, but every night I will drink.
LL: You have to feel sociable or you gotta go back to the hotel.
MD: You kind of forget that, when you go back and think about before we started playing shows. Looking forward to [being in the audience at a show] would be once a month or however long. So all of those people out there at any given show are going out and looking forward to that one night. And they go out and get drunk and have a good time. [But] every night we're playing one of those shows.
LL: I think a fair analogy is a show like Jersey Boys. You buy a ticket for your parents, and they're like, "I can't wait to see Jersey Boys!" And they get there and it's their one night to see it and they leave and say, "That was great!"
But those guys are there every day and they have to go out there and be extremely enthusiastic and genuine about it.
8. How did you get to the venue?
LL: We drove.
MD: [Our tour manager] Alan drove us.
SH: When we complain about all the stuff we have to do, there's a lot of unsung guys on tour. Like Alan, he has to do everything we do, but he doesn't get that moment to go on stage and blow off steam. So he could murder us by the end of the tour. But there's a lot of really important people who are a lot more mature than us that keep the show going.
9. Do you drive during the day or night?
SH: During the day. Alan drives.
10. What do you watch or listen to on the road? How do you decide?
SH: We don't have fights about that at all. We all like similar stuff so we can just pass iPods around or the radio or whatever. We have a pretty good van harmony.
11. How do you stay in touch with significant other or family while you're on tour?
SH: That's a hard part. We all have serious girlfriends. Alan's married. We all live with our girlfriends, so that is a tough part. I haven't actually talked to my girlfriend for a significant amount of time since we left, which is bad. It's hard being from Canada. We use Skype. You just try to get a call in once a day, every other day for as long as you can. That's the toughest part of touring for me — 100%— is maintaining relationships at home. You just feel guilty.
12. Do you have day jobs apart from music?
LL: Well, Andy, the fourth member of the group, he works at a record shop when we're home. But I don't know if he has to. He likes working at that record shop.
13. Are you in the black at the end of the tour?
SH: A lot of tours break even. Just lately we've started making a bit, but it depends. We have to cut corners to make money, and then often if we make money in the U.S. or Canada we'll lose it in Europe or Australia. So touring kind of always evens itself out.
You make most of your money from one-off university shows where kids pay a high tuition that then goes to a band who comes and takes the tuition money and gives them a one night show. Or publishing is a huge one — like sync-ups with commercials and stuff. Which is why every band that you know does that and no one cares about it any more. Its just necessity.
14. How much of your total income comes from touring? (How much of that comes from the label, the venue, merchandise sales, etc?)
SH: Not to go into specifics, but the way we tour, I would say 60% of our money is from guarantees from the venues or from the door. 40% is merch. Maybe [that split is sometimes] 70/30. It depends how good the merch is going.
LL: The money is all a group thing. Everything is even. So if one of us gets paid we all get paid, including our manager.
15. What's the worst part of touring?
LL: The worst part is just being away. You have to really try and block that out. Because if you let it get to you then it gets you down. You have to keep in the moment and think, "We're having fun," and just focus on that and don't worry about what you're missing out on because you can't change that.
SH: I couldn't imagine touring with a kid. I know there's people who do it and leave on tour, but I couldn't imagine doing that. It's one thing leaving your adult girlfriend. We're lucky, we have girlfriends who have a lot going on and maybe want to see us go for a few weeks.