The Ruby Suns' Ryan McPhun represents a new breed of musical auteur for whom eclecticism comes preternaturally. Like Dirty Projectors' Dave Longstreth, Skeletons' Matt Mehlan, and his tourmate Toro Y Moi, the young New Zealand–based musician is one of those omnivorous polymaths who easily assimilates various genres and alchemizes them into distinctive hybrids that somehow translate into "pop"—albeit a skewed strain of pop, a pop far from that of Ke$ha, whom, McPhun surprisingly reveals, he wants to emulate in the near future.
McPhun grew up in Ventura, California, where he was obsessed with Michael Jackson, the Beatles, and Nirvana, before immersing himself in early-'90s gangster rap. Frequent trips as a youth to his stepmother's place in the Virgin Islands hipped McPhun to reggae. He moved to Auckland, New Zealand, in 2004 and began playing in the indie-pop bands the Brunettes and the Tokey Tones. The members of those groups turned McPhun on to a lot of excellent '60s and '70s pop, but he was already a serious fan of the Beach Boys (it's a California state law, after all).
McPhun formed the Ruby Suns in 2006, signed to Sub Pop in 2007, and issued Sea Lion the next year. It's a fine piece of Polynesian-lounge/sunshine pop that grows hazy and trippy around the edges of its spiked-coconut-juiced, orch-pop compositions. The album exposed McPhun as a cross between Brian Wilson and exotica popularizer Martin Denny (listen to album closer "Morning Sun" for proof), and it showed a lot of promise.
That promise comes to fruition on the new Ruby Suns album, Fight Softly (also on Sub Pop). This album sounds larger and more densely detailed than does Sea Lion, and it brings into higher definition the Ruby Suns' own vivid strain of exotica—an amalgam of sun-drenched pop, dub, psychedelia, ambient/new age, various world musics, and even a little IDM. McPhun purposely took different technical and compositional approaches on the new album.
"Listening to Sea Lion, it's got quite a strange sound," McPhun says via e-mail. "The frequency range of the songs is sort of limited in a way—not super bassy, not super trebly. I definitely wanted to mix these new songs with more clarity and more bass. It's not perfect, though, but I'm getting better!
"In regards to the composition," he continues, "Fight Softly is similar to Sea Lion in that a lot of songs don't have traditional structures. I can't even tell you what the chorus is on half the songs. But this kind of music composition is what got me excited about recording in the first place, so it's kind of the default way I write songs. I'm kind of done with that, though. Right now I want to make a party-pop album like Ke$ha or something."
Hmm. Well, time will tell if that's a wise strategy. Let's hope instead that the Ruby Suns continue more in the vein of "Closet Astrologer," a widescreen, multileveled orchestral beauty somewhere between Arthur Russell's World of Echo and New Order's mid-'80s chart dwellers; it gleams like a retro-futurist romantic ballad that one could imagine Burial or the DFA remixing.
Whether you think it's impossible to attain "uniqueness," however you want to define that loaded word, McPhun seems to strive for unique fusions of styles to create unique music—indeed, he's something of a 21st-century Arthur Russell, perhaps the most inspirational figure to musicians fighting (even if softly) generic tyranny.
"That was my main goal with Fight Softly," he admits. "I don't think it's impossible to attain 'uniqueness' with pop music. I think it is more challenging to be unique when in the 'rock' format—just drums bass and guitar, etc. But that's not my thing, so I could be wrong."
The song "Haunted House" from Fight Softly is particularly revelatory of McPhun's mongrelized approach to composition, with its many disparate elements coalescing into something novel and alluring—think Black Dice cubistically reediting Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al."
"So I write songs like a mongrel?" he asks. "Interesting. ['Haunted House' is] an example of [a song] that began with drums, most of the track was put together in a day or two, but the 'chorus' I grabbed from a track I was working on three or four years ago. I think it works and is interestingly simple. But, yeah, you're right—mongrel."
McPhun views his music as defiantly antipurist, even if it leaves the Ruby Suns open to charges of "cultural appropriation."
"I don't think limiting yourself is going to help anyone make interesting art," he says. "There's too much good stuff out there to limit your influences. I haven't heard anyone blame us for cultural appropriation. We did a song ['Tane Mahuta'] in Maori because of the cultural significance of the subject matter of the song. We live in New Zealand; that's the native language. If I offended anyone with that, they haven't told me yet."
I propose to McPhun that disorientation is as important to his sound as beauty, and he agrees. "It's definitely something that I deliberately do. I like surprises in pop music, so I think if I had heard this record without having made it, I would probably really like it."
What a coincidence.