Born Ruffians Share 'Uncle, Duke and the Chief' Album Stream & Track-by-Track Breakdown

Matt Barnes
Born Ruffians

Since their humble beginnings as Toronto-area instrument-wielding 15-year-olds to their current status as indie rock darlings, the quirky band known as Born Ruffians (with Luke Lalonde on guitar and vocal duty, Mitch DeRosier on bass, and Steve Hamelin on drums) have staked a claim as an inventive outfit known for churning out a steady stream of unique guitar-driven albums filled with catchy hooks. Their latest, Uncle, Duke and the Chief, drops Feb. 16 and is one Lalonde calls the veteran band’s strongest work to date. Led by the infectious single “Miss You,” the album is the first to feature the aforementioned original lineup since 2013’s Birthmarks. (Drummer Steve took an extended absence to attend school for teaching and was lured back because, well, being in a rock band is more fun.)

Exclusively streaming here along with a track-by-track extrapolation courtesy of Lalonde himself, the singer spoke to Billboard about the inspirations behind the album, their long musical journey, and reveals why 2013 stand-out single “Oh Cecilia” is absent from streaming services.

Uncle, Duke and the Chief is such an oddly specific title that I bet there’s a story behind it.

The inspiration for it came from our dads, which isn’t the coolest inspiration. They’re huge fans of the band and my dad’s nickname is Uncle, Mitch’s dad’s nickname is Duke, and Steve’s dad’s nickname is The Chief. It popped into my head and everybody liked it immediately. It’s weird yet kind of evocative. We didn’t intend to try to make our dad’s part of the story of the record necessarily, we just liked it as a title.

Has your dad heard the album?

Yeah, that’s part of the reason we were joking about it. Our dads have listened to the record more than anybody probably will, ever, at any point in time. They’re all supportive of the band and my dad is a musician as well. He tried to make a go at music in his twenties, so he kind vicariously lives through us now and is really into the band. He still listens to the demos on repeat all the time. It’s a little much sometimes.

I understand you recorded this record a year ago. What was the hold up?

Well, we were ready to go and thinking ‘Let’s do this.’ But then labels have these rules: nobody puts records out in the summer and you can’t put a record out in the fall because that’s when the big blockbuster ones come out, and then it becomes January or February. We’ve sat on records for a year before and we’re older and more patient now, so it’s fine. Plus, it allowed us to do a lot more stuff, like the videos, we wouldn’t have been able to do if it came out sooner.

You guys have been more ore less together as a band for the past 15 years. What’s kept you together?

We started this band when we were kids at 15, and it’s always had this kind of special thing. Bands that stick together this long often do have a special relationship. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but it’s analogous to love and having a partner. You have a special connection to that person that is really had to define, but it exists. When we get together to play, there’s something special that we can't replicate with other people. (Having Steve back) is a really satisfying turn for us, and it felt really good considering it lined up making our strongest record to-date, in my opinion.

Not only that, but how many people still frequently spend a lot of time with the same group of friends since they were 15 years-old?

Yeah, exactly.  Friends you don’t grow apart from. It’s work, like any successful relationship or marriage. It’s work. “We wouldn’t be together for 40 years without a lot of work!” You put work into your relationship, there’s compromise, there’s admitting that you’re wrong when you’re wrong. You have to nurture that.

You collaborated with the producer Richard Swift on the album. What did he bring to the table?

I can’t stay enough great things about Richard Swift... he brought a lot. I don’t know why I had this thought he’d be our guy, it was a gut feeling. I had all of these demos and they had a certain feel to them, and I thought Richard would be able to translate those demos into a record without compromising. When you get attached to your demos, you get demo-itis in the studio. You don’t want to lose the special thing you have with them, but you also want it to sound better than the demos and that’s a really hard thing to achieve. Richard was able to do that through a combination of being really laid back but also just having a resume we admired. He’s a legitimate artistic genius, from the Foxygen record he produced (2013’s We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic), all of his own stuff, and the record he did with Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats (their self-titled 2015 debut featuring breakout “S.O.B.”). He’s a great musician but also the kind of guy who can come into a room but also be that force who can push a song into another realm.

What’s was the inspiration behind single “Miss You?” Is it about someone specifically?

Yeah, it’s a funny song. I guess I would say it’s about my girlfriend, but not in a direct way.  I don’t actually tend to write a lot of love songs, because I find that a lot of people write them and I don’t know I have the hot takes to write the best ones. I’m no Sam Smith (laughs). I’ll write about aspects of my relationship or relationships with people. Certainly the simple sentiment of missing somebody was about (my girlfriend) Laura, because we spend a lot of time apart since I tour and she’s in India a lot working on her PhD. The other aspect of that song, which is sort of a character, is a guy walking down the street who (think people) can sense his longing and his pain. I liked the kind of narcissism or self-centeredness that comes with that. The character is probably me, actually.  

Comparing the new album with 2015’s RUFF, this one sounds deeper and more introspective and seems lyrically different.  Would you agree with that and was it a conscious decision?

Lyrically there was more aggressive tendencies on RUFF. This one is a little more emotional and reflective, they connect to bigger things. I think RUFF was quite meaningful but this one, with a few exceptions, is deeper and maybe a little more serious. There aren’t really songs like “Eat Shit (We Did It)” or “Oh Cecilia,” which is the lighter side of the band. As for if it was conscious, lately I’ve been driven to write songs that I connect with in a more meaningful way. The songs that make it out to the world, and the ones that make it to sending a demo to the guys, tend to be ones you have to kind of believe in. As time goes on, I’ve tended to discard the more trivial or lighter tracks maybe and gravitate to ones that have more gravity or meaning. There’s also more to talk about lately in the last couple of years, in personal ways and bigger ways. That’s not to say I have a bunch of meaningless crap on my track record, which isn’t true at all. I have a hard time drawing lines in the sand between different records lyrically, but then I also talk in circles trying to figure it out because I don’t know if I do have it figured out. So, to answer your question it wasn’t a conscious decision. Songwriting is very instinctual and I just do what feels right and then try to figure it out after.

2013 Birthmarks stand-out “Oh Cecilia” can’t be found on either Spotify or Apple Music. What gives?

The string sample in the song is from a Japanese anime movie. The Japanese label’s terms for us using the song was that we weren’t allowed to sell the song digitally or something. We could sell it physically on CD though, and they don’t have a problem with streaming it on SoundCloud. It’s weird, but somebody’s trying to sort it out.

Born Ruffians' Track-By-Track Breakdown of Uncle, Duke and the Chief

FORGET ME

The first sound you’ll hear when you press play on the album is an acoustic guitar strumming a C major chord. I really like the familiarity in that. It’s a bit of a “welcome, please come in.”

“Forget Me” was meant to sound like something found and timeless. I wanted it to be an artifact that represents whatever kind of nostalgic loss that’s closest to the center of the listener.

There are a myriad of ways we experience death and loss and this song is by no means universally applicable. I know losing a loved one can just be pure pain and agony. I think this song is about a different kind of loss altogether. It’s the acceptance of the fact that we’re all on that path, that we are literally all going to die and there’s nothing we can do about it. I wanted the song to represent that march toward the light together and how we all have each other’s backs.

I wrote this song the day David Bowie died. I sat in our little rehearsal/studio space, listened to Hunky Dory and cried. Safe to say I was very much open and vulnerable and I picked up a guitar and the song just came. The recording on the album is a complete recreation of the demo I made that night. It was very important to me that we not stray too far from it. Steve and Mitch are very cool with just letting a song be when they know it’s complete.

About a year before I wrote the song my dad was diagnosed with cancer and had spent the year going through chemotherapy and radiation treatment (he’s doing great now). As a family we maintained a great deal of hope but it’s hard not to consider the potential loss of a parent during a time when they are struggling with severe or potentially life-threatening illness. I think all of the death-related accompanying feelings were being channeled through this song. Maybe Bowie’s death was the catalyst that brought everything to the fore and made the song spew out of me.

MISS YOU

I found this old voice memo on my phone from 2015 called “I miss you so much baby.” It was me singing that melody and lyric over a sort of eighth note piano thing, very early 60s vibe. I guess I just heard it on the right night when I had a guitar at hand and it struck me as a strong part. The rest of the song came very quickly.

I was really happy with the verse “I walk with my head held high, telling myself that I’m an average guy, but all these people know I’m faking and they see that I am aching.” I liked that the narrator was sort of a mix of pure ego and emotional suffering. He projects onto the people on the sidewalk a desire that they actually care about him, that they are even paying attention to him. I liked that character and vibe. This guy is sort of full of himself and proud of his pain and his longing, he feels like it elevates him beyond just an ordinary guy. He wants to show it off. I think I laugh at my own hubris a lot when I’m writing lyrics, like “what the fuck, how am I special?” The idea that my feelings are unique is so stupid, but I write them down anyways. I guess that character is me…

The original demo of this song is much more lo-fi, sounds like something made with a tape recorder. The backing vocals and lead vocal were all written at once, they sort of popped into my head simultaneously. I wrote and recorded the demo alone and didn’t initially consider that it would be a Born Ruffians track. I played it for Mitch and he was really into it. We played around with it but it felt like we were just covering one of my songs rather than performing a Ruffians song.

Eventually we found ourselves at this church in Kincardine, Ontario. We rented it for a month in 2016 to write and work on material. We were playing Miss You and getting frustrated because we knew it was a good song but it just wasn’t working. Mitch had the idea to switch the strumming pattern from a swingy acoustic guitar to straight, down strumming on an electric. The song transformed from a throwback vibe to something much more vital and urgent. All of a sudden the idea of missing somebody became a matter of life and death. The song plowed forward with a very powerful engine rather than chilling out and being cute. We all fell in love with it.

Once we got into the studio with our producer Richard Swift, we’d had enough time to gain a good perspective on the song and he helped us marry the two vibes together. In the end we recorded what I think is the ultimate version of the song.

SIDE TRACKED

I wrote a couple tracks about a fictional breakup during my writing sessions for this album. While the lyrical content is fictional, I think it explores something beyond a breakup or a couple’s fight. It’s about the idea that we can change drastically and internally without others knowing. There’s no marked difference day to day but one can all of a sudden come to a realization that something is different. It can be positive or it can be weird and uncomfortable.

Steve heard the original demo and thought it had potential, relating it to Curtis Mayfield or ‘70s Philly soul like the Delfonics. We wanted to push it in that direction as much as possible. At least in our minds it’s the white guy three-piece version of that.

We had spent a lot of time working on and tightening up the arrangements in rehearsal. There are a lot of incredible moments that happen instrumentally in the track. It’s one of our finest arrangements. This song wasn’t on our list of what we were going to work on with Richard Swift in the studio. We went day to day and chose songs that felt right. I think it was day three and Richard asked to work on something a little slower after we had spent the first two days working on louder, faster stuff. So we pulled out “Side Tracked.” He had exactly the right treatment and sound to capture the vibe we were going for perfectly. He got it immediately. I don’t remember doing very many takes before we had the one. Richard also added the Juno (keys) on it. He has a way of tying everything together and putting a bow on it.

FADE TO BLACK

We were asked to do a radio show in Toronto for the CBC. It was one of the first things we did as a band after Steve came back. We were asked to cover a Tragically Hip song and we chose “Fireworks” because I had a gut feeling we could do something with it. Mitch and Steve started doing this kind of krautrock drum and bass thing and I put the guitar and vocal over it. We surprised ourselves by how much we liked our version and were sort of lamenting the loss of the rhythm section parts over a one-time radio thing. So we decided to re-appropriate the part. I wrote a new vocal and guitar part over top of it and it morphed into Fade to Black.

I don’t recall writing the lyrics. They definitely came out of singing gibberish in rehearsal. By getting the idea for the vocal rhythm and melody and letting sounds start to form into words. I write a lot of stuff that way.

Eventually the line “If you talk about a dream enough it might come true” came along and guided the rest of the song towards that end. Also “waiting on a sun that’s never rising” really felt devastating to me. It’s really a bummer of a song. It’s about the inability to create change in your life even though you may have the desire to. I think a lot of people struggle with that in different ways. I’m not necessarily encouraging people to go out and follow their dreams, I was just trying to explore that place between desire and action, or “the void” as it’s called in the song.

LOVE TOO SOON

There’s a word from a dead language in South America “Mamihlapinatapai.” It translates roughly to “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something that they both desire but are unwilling to suggest themselves.” I think about it often and it’s definitely been the subject of several songs. “Love Too Soon” is another attempt at writing about that feeling.

I rented a studio in Brooklyn to write and record demos. This song came out of the time I spent there. My girlfriend got me a Danelectro guitar for Christmas. It’s white and cream colored with gold pickups. It’s a beautiful guitar. I love playing it so much and it kind of wrote “Love Too Soon.” I found the chord progression on it and it sounded like a love song.

This song also wasn’t part of the initial plan for the record but was called on the fly one day. I really felt strongly about doing it that day for some reason. Richard added a bit more depth to the recording by removing the guitar after the first verse and letting the organ and piano take over the vibe. It’s a beautiful song with a ton of space and I love that. It breaks the album up nicely.

SPREAD SO THIN

Musically I’ve always thought of this song as an underwater forest at night in slow motion.

I should preface this with the fact that my dad is still alive and well…I had a dream I met him at a party as a young man, close to my age. He didn’t know he was my dad so we were just meeting as friends. He reached his hand out and introduced himself. He was really nice. That’s basically all I can remember from the dream but it really stuck with me.

The song isn’t meant to be a melodramatic autobiographical song about my parents. I hesitated to show it to them and tell them about it because of lines like “your broken dreams could fill the world.” I don’t think my parents live on a pile of broken dreams (I took some creative license there). I do think, at times, that they spread themselves pretty thin. They struggled with their own business and sacrificed a lot for me and my sister. They both worked a lot.

All that to say I like the meaning to be with the listener for the most part when I’m writing stuff. So I don’t put too much literal stuff about me or my life in there. I like to reach for that nebulous place where cryptic meanings meet deep, personal truth.

TRICKY

Tricky was part of the first batch of songs I wrote for the record. I just loved the explosive nature of the chorus. It all came together pretty quickly and I recorded a version of it at our rehearsal space. It’s probably the lightest song on the record. It’s meant to be a fun, jump around song.

RING THAT BELL

This was one of the last songs written before we went into the studio. I was home at my parents place over Christmas and wrote it on acoustic guitar. I didn’t have any drum or bass parts but I had the song structure nailed down. It shifts vibes, dynamics and speed several times and I knew Steve and Mitch would nail it. It was really invigorating playing it in rehearsal. We didn’t have a demo of it so it felt like it wasn’t on the table to be recorded, but once we got to Richard’s studio it was the first song we brought up. I think because it had no baggage it felt like a good place to start. We were ecstatic with the way the recording came out.

WORKING TOGETHER

This song has three parts and is sort of about three different things. One is very personal. I’ll repeat myself here and re-state my desire to reach for the nebulous zone where cryptic meaning meets deep, personal truth. I think I achieved that with this song, so elaborating on a lyrical meaning here would undermine the meaning itself. I would just encourage you to read the lyrics, take what you will from them and I’ll keep my own truth about the song here next to me.

I think what’s very magical about this recording is that it bridges that lyrical idea to the physical song writing space of the studio. It was an unfinished song going into the studio and we knew we were taking a risk by recording it on our last day with Richard. We’d played the “chorus” part together in practice and I had made a little demo of it at home but it was drastically different. The middle part came from another song I was working on…it was all very serendipitous how it came together.

We were playing in it the room, Andy was playing acoustic guitar on the floor and Richard walked in and sat on the piano. It took on a very Dylan New Morning vibe, the piano glued it all together. The song has a false start because Richard had to reiterate his idea for the new drum groove to Steve and you can hear him say “ba-doom-boom-kat!” I just love that. As soon as we played that take back I said “we’re using that one and you’re leaving that in there.” I did one vocal take. Having never sung the song in that form it was the perfect way to do it—capture the first take the first way your instinct tells you to do it. Wham, bam thank you ma’am. It was a beautiful thing.

We really wanted to call the record Wave to Nobody for a while but were afraid it would come off as self-pitying and self referential in terms of our career or something, which the lyric is certainly not meant to be. It’s supposed to be a little dig at myself for spending the previous three lines being so optimistic and all “peace-and-love.” I think I’m too self-conscious to be that unabashedly positive so I had to throw in a little cynical thing at the end.