Live in Chicago, Day 3: The Ruby Suns

photos by Jeremy Farmer
review and interview by Sheryl Witlen

The final in-studio band of the week has journeyed the farthest to join in on the Engine Studios action we have been enjoying these past few days. Ryan McPhun and Amee Robinson, otherwise known as The Ruby Suns, are another fantastically creative New Zealand band representing the bursting music scene that has been infiltrating the arts global community over the past few years.  The extreme-sports-loving, Flight of the Conchords rearing, Lord of the Rings inspiring land of the ferns charms our ears and hearts thanks to the youthful chirpings of the Ruby Suns. Signed to Lil’ Chief Records at home, Memphis Industries in Britain, and SubPop in the States, the band formed in 2004 after Californian escapee Ryan moved to Auckland and started playing with several local bands, among them The Brunettes. Embraced by the stellar artists with whom they have been fortunate enough to share a stage, from Throw Me A Statue to labelmates the Fleet Foxes and to the Dodos, it is easy to understand why they are so well-liked and are continually paired with bands that reflect the same energy as theirs. Amy and Ryan have recently reduced the band from a trio to a duo without compromising their sound or vision. Though they have transitioned from their days as a more traditional band with a drum kit, bass player, guitarist, keyboards to pre-programmed electronic loops, layers and clicks and equipment, one cannot describe or categorize their sound any better than ever before. As has widely been reported, Ryan’s globe trotting and spirited adventures have in turn have enabled him to create a sound that cannot be lumped in simply as indie rock music. Tracks such as “Tane Mahuta” and “Oh Mojave” delve into African beats and tribal rhythms while the sun-soaked “Palmitos Park” is a bit more folksy and spare. The Ruby Suns are touring relentlessly throughout the United States (two SXSW festivals, the SubPop Anniversary show, tomorrow’s Pitchfork Music Festival) and Europe, but Amy and Ryan are not the type to let their fatigue affect the audiences they adore. In the fall, Ryan and Amy are planning to spend several months in Seattle and hopefully working on some new material as well. 

Sheryl: Amy, during the in-studio performance, you promoted the vegetarian movement, and New Zealand is often portrayed in the States as being a very environmentally conscious country — how do those things influence your music and touring, especially concerning the recent gas crisis?

Amy: I think friends have influenced me the most, not really our government or our country. A lot of younger folk have been jumping on the whole “green” band wagon. I think that anything that influences your life is bound to influence your music — in a round about way.

Sheryl: You have recently toured all throughout Europe and the States; when was the last time you were home?

Amy: February. We plan on returning in time for Christmas.

Sheryl: You mentioned your upcoming stay in Seattle — is this for writing or relaxation?

Ryan: We have so many things we want to do: go to a baseball game, go swimming in a lake, go to Vancouver Island.

Amy: I want to go volunteer at the animal wildlife organization PAWS [Progressive Animal Wildlife Society] and play with some baby animals. I think all of that will help us with ideas and the house we are staying in has lots of gear we can play with.

Ryan: I envision us being busy having fun and I am hoping that some ideas will formulate.

Sheryl: Ryan, you are originally from California. When did you make the move to Auckland and how did you two meet?

Amy: 2003

Ryan: Our fathers were surf buddies since grade school.

Amy: So we have known of each other our whole lives and apparently met when we were still in diapers. We went boogie boarding when we were six.

Sheryl: Did you both play music separately or was it something that happened when you both lived in Auckland?

Ryan: I’ve always played music and Amy as well, just not as seriously. When I first went to New Zealand, I started recording a lot more and wanted to get a band together.

Amy: We played together in The Brunettes as well.

Sheryl: KEXP has been showcasing a lot of great new talent out of New Zealand — anyone you want to highlight for our listeners?

Amy: Tonkey Times. He is really, really stupidly good.

Sheryl: You should take him out on tour with you.

Ryan: That’s a good idea!

Sheryl: The New Zealand government helps fun bands to tour, correct?

Amy: It is amazing, but things might change unfortunately with the next election. If the other party gets elected, they will want to cut funding because essentially it is coming out of tax payers’ money. But at the same time, it is generating money for New Zealand. The priority with that party is not for the arts. The [current] Prime Minister of New Zealand is not perfect — but who is? She is the master for the Arts and Culture, so she is right there when it comes to helping promote artists.

Ryan: She orchestrated most of the help towards the artists who have been touring from New Zealand within the last few years. American bands can tour like crazy and with tickets being as expensive as they are…

Amy: With that little bit of aid from the government. Without it, it would be so much harder to tour.

Sheryl: How is public radio in New Zealand?

Ryan: Apparently in the early 90’s, there was almost no Kiwi music on Kiwi Radio. Then there was a big push in the late 90’s into the 2000’s. The first thing that happened to me in New Zealand was I sent a demo to a radio station, the Auckland radio station, and they playlisted my song and played it for over a month. It kind of made me think, I can do this. Great encouragement. But Kiwis care a lot about international bands and will go see whatever indie band, British or US, and it will sell out the 400 or 500 capacity venue that they play.

Amy: In England, it was the opposite.

Sheryl: What have you been listening to lately?

Both: The new Kate Bush album.

Ryan: El Guincho from Barcelona. He just canceled his USA tour, unfortunately. It’s kind of like the Panda Bear album but faster, with more dance elements and a heavy Spanish take on it. A friend of mine in New Zealand recommended it and he might have found it through Pitchfork, we met at SXSW and hung out, shared music tastes.

Amy: This was out second time at SXSW and it was pretty intense. We played six shows total. We went swimming in this river, which was awesome — you have to go when you go to Austin. Although we did see some snakes.

Sheryl: Water moccasins?!

Amy: Well, apparently they weren’t, which is good.

Sheryl: Because they are poisonous! You have enough of those at home.

Amy: No, New Zealand has no poisonous creatures. I don’t know how that happened that Australia got all of them.

Sheryl: And the criminals.

[all laugh]

Amy: We only have these birds that attack cars because they are shiny.

Sheryl: We should import some of those here to help out with the car crisis… but then we would probably just shoot them.

[all laugh]

Sheryl: Well, thank you so much for stopping by, we hope you enjoy performing tomorrow and we loved having you.



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