Q&A | Ryan McPhun, on his good band the Ruby Suns

Always trust a man in a jumpsuit. Ryan McPhun knows how to wear one well, and whilst performing musical acrobatics as a one-man act no less. In his band the Ruby Suns’ natural state he’s accompanied by two New Zealand padres, however since relocating to Oslo in pursuit of parenthood the Californian Kiwi has needed to think laterally. And employ all his limbs, to pull off the live version of his multi-layered productions in a solo capacity. He chats to Sarah about his latest album Sprite Fountain, impolite pram gangs, and the unsettling contradiction between Norway’s centre-far right politics and its ‘egalitarian’ social policy.

You’re a Californian New Zealander currently living in Oslo. How did you end up in NZ, and what took you to Oslo?
My father and his family are from NZ – née Scotland – and sometime preceding George HW Bush’s Gulf War in 1990, when there was a debate around bringing the draft back, my dad hooked up his twin Californian kiddos with NZ passports. When I realised uni in LA wasn’t for me I decided to head to Auckland, where I was initially enrolled in a music production diploma at SAE. I un-enrolled before the course started unfortunately.

A bigger reason I moved to NZ was that I was going out with the daughter of my dad’s Mt Roskill Grammar surf buddy. That relationship eventually fizzled and, fastforward a few years, I’m moving to Oslo to be a dad. My Norwegian partner has a more stable source of income, shall we say, and she wanted to be near her family when we had our kid. Also, it’s pretty easy to have a kid here: heaps of paid parental leave, free hospital care, a monthly baby stipend for all parents…These are the things you can give your citizens when you’ve got a trillion (USD) in the bank.

What do you like about Oslo, and what do you miss about NZ? And vice versa if you like!
There are plenty of great things about being here if you got the dosh. There’s an indoor skatepark whose architecture makes it look like a fancy contemporary art museum from the outside. The inside has some cool architectural stuff too. I think they spent more time worrying about the architecture than the ramps to be honest. There’re some hills to go snowboarding and skiing down just a tram ride away from downtown.

A lot of Norwegians, including my partner’s family, have modest cabins spread about the place. There are two in the family and we visit them as much as we can. No water and no electricity. Unfortunately you can still get mobile coverage, but other than that they’re very peaceful. In the city – shows, galleries, performances, writer talks, great public transport. Expensive though. In Norway: social services as mentioned above; sort of an egalitarian society – by world standards; a centre/far right government – everything you could want!

There are heaps of things I miss about NZ. It’s easy to take for granted the importance of being part of a community until you’re removed from it. That and food. FOOD. Everything takes a lot longer to get up here and there’s very little variety.

How has your new home – and fatherhood – affected your musical output, including the themes explored on Sprite Fountain?
My musical output is down to a trickle these days. A lot of parents learn to maximise their efficiency when their day planner gets squeezed, but for me pressure and productivity have an inverse relationship.

Fatherhood seeped into the subject matter of a few songs on Sprite Fountain, namely ‘Pram Gang’. It was initially inspired by walking around my neighbourhood in Oslo – teeming with young parents – feeling anxious about my own impending pram acquisition and its inhabitant. I was jogging a lot in those days in a futile attempt to quell the anxiety.

“A lot of parents learn to maximise their efficiency when their day planner gets squeezed, but for me pressure and productivity have an inverse relationship.”

In summer you can courteously jog off the footpath around teams of pram-wielders with nary a worry. But in winter, with half a metre of snow cleared off the footpath, you’d expect that courtesy to be reciprocated. In one instance, a fairly small pram gang of three decided not to break formation to allow a lane for me to jog past them on the footpath. I was forced off-piste, run off the road. My clothes and shoes were wet already from the falling snow so I didn’t mind too much, but it tells you a little bit about how parenthood can affect the brain.

Is there an overarching theme or sentiment driving this recording? How does it contrast with, or complement your previous albums?
I had no big picture in mind when I started making this record. I just sat down with the gear I had and started making noises, trying not to judge too harshly what was coming out. I also knew that it was going to take ages to make another record after Christopher in 2013, so I toyed with starting a new project for this one but realised in the end that there wasn’t much point.

Save for my voice, which is still affectation-less, this record sounds nothing like the last – but that’s almost more on brand for me than if I’d adhered to previous production styles. It’s a continuum of sorts.

What are some of your favourite production tools? How do you make the live show work without your NZ-based bandmates?
My production tools of choice are always changing. I’m usually trying to make sounds I’ve not heard before, but if that fails I’ll settle with something I’ve not done before. I don’t know whether it’s a zest for exploration or debilitating insecurity, but I’ll never do the same thing twice. Since I’ve been in Oslo though, I’ve only had a handful of instruments and a limited amount of gear, so I sort of embraced those limitations for Sprite Fountain.

Set-up after soundcheck at Fri-Son, in Fribourg, Switzerland.

For example, I don’t have any amplifiers here in Norway so all the guitars, bass and synths were put directly into my sound card or into my Eventide Harmonizer, spring reverb, guitar pedals – or all of the above – before going in. For a while I was recording drums at my friend’s place in Copenhagen until I met someone here nice enough to let me use his studio.

It took ages but I eventually found some Norwegians to play with and we’ve played a few shows as the Ruby Suns in Norway this year. Recently, though, I did a solo tour around Europe. That was a new experience for me, and quite the challenge to present these songs and productions, filled to the brim with sounds in a solo capacity.

I ended up having to use a fair bit of prepared elements as I had to be able to carry all my gear on the tube and airport trains and whatnot. So I triggered a drum loop on a drum pad, played guitar and sang, played bass sequences with footswitches connected to a sampler, and in one song, played keyboard with my left hand, drums with my right, bass one-shots with my feet and sang. That was the limit to my ambidexterity.

Norway’s centre-right coalition narrowly secure power for a second term earlier this year. What are your observations on this, including regarding local sentiment – and have you gotten any insight into political trends towards conservatism, and far-rightism, while touring through Europe?
Whoops, that question is a little triggering. Behold, babble: It’s hard for me to get a read on why Norwegians have voted in, for a second time, a coalition between the centre-right Høyre party and the Fremskrittspartiet (“Progress Party”) – the far right party formerly supported by white supremacist mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik. I just don’t get it. Also, we talk about doubling the refugee quota in NZ which is quite a meager goal, but in Norway, one of the richest countries on Earth, they want that quota to be zero and have succeeded at least in making their refugee intake the lowest it’s been in 20 years while also breaking their yearly deportation records. Cool huh?

“It’s hard for me to get a read on why Norwegians have voted in a coalition between the centre-right and the far right party formerly supported by white supremacist mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik.”

It seems Norwegians are just as susceptible to protectionist, populist rhetoric as anyone else – even though their otherwise progressive and comparatively egalitarian society would suggest the opposite. So sometimes I get a bit of a Scrooge McDuck vibe about it all. Norway for Norwegians. I must be losing a bit of nuance in translation though, and my limited dealings with Norwegians that aren’t 3-and-a-half years old usually don’t involve deep dives into Norwegian political thought.

So, my point of view is maybe akin to a non-New Zealander happening upon Kim Hill’s recent discussion with Don Brash concerning te reo and making the assumption that his essentially racist, or at least stupid, views are held by a multitude of kiwis rather than the smattering of hateful comment section trolls that they are. I hope I’m right on that one.

Live at Village Underground, Shoreditch.

In Norway’s case, I suspect perspective may be a bit of a culprit in recent voting patterns. Norway, thanks to the Labour government’s (Arbeiderpartiet) forethought in its dealings with Norwegian oil, has been really, really rich for quite a long time. Norway is one of the only countries to escape the ‘oil curse’. Upon its discovery of vast amounts of oil deposits hidden beneath the North Sea in the late 60s, rather than funnelling income from initial oil exploits straight into its economy, Norway’s ruling Labour Party instead chose to only invest in the oil sector for a full 10 years before a single crown was spent on anything other than research and development. The 80s saw Norway’s economy boom as the oil money came trickling in and that, according to the older folks I’ve talked to, is when Norwegian society began to change with haste. Thusly, many youngish adults today have never experienced or don’t remember the Norway that was one of the poorest countries in Europe.

I remember a conversation I had with someone before this “Progress Party” entered the government for the first time. This person was thinking of voting for them because they promised to decrease rail disruptions and cancellations by privatising the national rail system. Oslo has four rapid transit networks, by the way. Train, tram, underground rail and bus that work very efficiently in my outsider’s opinion. Having lived only in cities with either less than ideal or horrible public transport systems, I was confounded.

I’ve only experienced privatisation of essential public services resulting in less efficiency, not more of it. Norwegians have never experienced being part of a crumbling, purely capitalist society, nor have they experienced a semi-socialist society further down the neoliberal road like that of NZ. I’m probably just a cynical, assimilation-resistant, rather be somewhere else, immigrant they shouldn’t want, but I worry that Norwegians want to learn from their own mistakes rather than those of others.

“Norwegians have never experienced being part of a crumbling, purely capitalist society, nor have they experienced a semi-socialist society further down the neoliberal road like that of NZ.”

I didn’t experience firsthand much of this swerve to the right on this recent tour I did around the UK and Europe. The few places I played that weren’t state-funded Arts complexes were safe havens for weirdos in their own way. In the case of Zürich, Switzerland, it was a venue that employs recovering heroin addicts in a kind of back-to-society rehabilitation programme. Switzerland has one of the most compassionate sets of drug laws in the world. Jeff Sessions would hate the place if there weren’t so many white people there. I remember trading some Brexit barbs with the in-house sound tech in Dublin now that I think of it. But, as I was travelling by myself, when I wasn’t soundchecking, eating or playing, I was driving, listening to my cucky podcasts and audio books.

What’s the music scene like in Oslo? Is there much support for independent artists?
I don’t get out much for reasons both parental and monetary, so my grasp on the scene here is small to non-existent. I know there’s plenty going on though. Big surprise: the music scene seems to be pretty different to what I’m used to in Auckland. Folks here seem a little more ‘professional’, and as such there seems to a be a tendency towards a certain production style or standard. I’m guessing it has something to do with the amount of money put into funding schemes and whatnot.

I get the feeling that royalties are higher here too. There’s even a special kind of royalty for people who play on a record. Even if that person had no hand in the songwriting and got paid for the session, the player is still entitled to a royalty for being involved. How about that? I know there are funding schemes for projects and touring. And – I believe – there is still a kind of two-year programme for any artist endeavour, where you get paid a wage to produce either a body of work or a specific project. In fact, there was recently an article on Pitchfork about state funding for the arts in different countries. You can guess – or at least I could – which country had the highest funding per capita: Norway, and by a big margin.

It’s noticeable also how many galleries of varying description there are about the place. There’s always an interesting opening happening somewhere. Same goes for the literature world. Litteraturhuset (the Literature House) is particularly impressive. Just in the past couple months they’ve had talks with Siri Hustvedt, Chris Kraus, Colson Whitehead, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the journalist Luke Harding and a bunch of others.

Any artists you’re digging lately, that you’d like to point people to?
The back catalogues and productions of the three members of Yellow Magic Orchestra are endlessly inspiring. They all did so much so there’s always something new to discover. Like Ryuichi Sakamoto‘s soundtrack work, especially Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and The Revenant.

Some great tunes they were involved with in some way: Parallelisme – Miharu Koshi, Souvenir Glacé – Testpattern, Automne Dans Un Miroir – Tamao Koike, Inori – Taeko Ohnuki.

Anything Mica Levi does which also includes some incredible soundtracks.

The Swet Shop Boys record is fun.

I just made a playlist on my Spotify page called ‘Recently‘. Check that out.

You’ve collaborated and performed with some other pretty excellent NZ acts, including Lawrence Arabia and the Brunettes. What are some of your favourite memories from playing with them, and do you still work together?
Well in my first year of living in NZ I’d joined both the Brunettes and the Tokey Tones, who were my favourite bands at the time. It was with the Brunettes that I got my first taste of touring. We’d done a couple shows in NZ with the Shins and they ended up inviting us to be their sole opening act on a massive tour they were doing in the states at the height of their Garden State-related popularity. That was pretty intense.

I think our first show was at First Avenue in Minneapolis, where Purple Rain was filmed. I remember there was a curtain in front of the stage. We’d not seen the audience size before we went out on-stage, and as we played the first few notes of the first song the curtain arose, exposing a totally full house staring back at us. It’s a big venue – 1550 cap – so that was crazy.

“I hope that I would’ve disoriented people enough to make the confusion seem deliberate, but I doubt David Byrne was fooled.”

Another memorable live moment was when I was drumming for Aussies Architecture in Helsinki and we were playing at Webster Hall in NYC, another big spot. At some point in the show, I’d spotted David Byrne in the balcony. The other guys had met him before so perhaps it wasn’t the biggest deal for them, but I was startled. I recall stupidly attempting an intro drum riff to a song à la Prince’s ‘Take Me With U’ that I’d pulled off at other shows. This time of course, I gloriously failed and fumbled the hell out of the riff. I hope that I would’ve disoriented people enough to make the confusion seem deliberate, but I doubt David Byrne was fooled.

Even though James Milne – Lawrence Arabia – has suffered my worst on-stage episodes: a mid-song panic attack at a French festival, and a complete emotional breakdown behind the drums in Auckland many years ago, he still allows me to be his Euro bandmate. This year Lawrence Arabia played at Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona and it was great.

The Lawrence show with Spanish friends as bass player and keyboardist went really well and there were some amazing artists playing. James and I were a little obsessed with this record Junun by Shye Ben Tzur and the Rajasthan Express and we got see them play close up and the performance was incredible. After that we headed to Grace Jones for a pretty overwhelming performance to close out the night.

Ryan McPhun is frontman for the Ruby Suns. Find him, and his latest album Sprite Fountain, on the internet.

Go see the man play, in New Zealand:
31/12    Auckland – Wondergarden
12/1    Wellington – Moon
13/1    Auckland – DJ set @ the Golden Dawn


Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.