Ryan McPhun knows that ambition can be pricey. As the man in charge of Auckland, New Zealand, indie-pop trio The Ruby Suns, he uses a menagerie of instruments to craft offbeat indie-pop. Consequently, each new piece of gear he decides to bring along for international touring quickly adds up. “A lot of bands don’t think about that, but [I do] because I’ve been on the managerial side. We notice when we have to spend $600 on excess baggage,” says McPhun.
For their current U.S. trek, the band is carrying “a mixture of live instruments and digital representations of instruments, whether that be samplers or a drum pad.” He won’t slim his roster of tools for recordings—The Suns’ repertoire has included a didgeridoo and djembe drums—but loading up for tours means “trying to get stuff we can fit without breaking the bank.”
McPhun’s concerns about luggage also hint at his history as a seasoned international traveler. Sea Lion, the Suns’ 2007 sophomore album, was sparked by the musician carrying a Dictaphone along on trips around Southern Africa, Thailand and New Zealand. “I would record anything and everything: people talking, noises on the town, loud birds, insects, music. It was like having an audio diary,” he says. The resulting Sea Lion is a free-spirited potpourri that evokes a wealth of reference points: among others, a tempered Hawaiian ukelele, bright calypso rhythms, ’60s American surf pop and the soundtrack from The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s often hard to tell what the hell is being played or where these sounds stem from, so McPhun’s project often receives the broad but well-intentioned description of “multicultural.” He shrugs off the grand sentiment, noting, “I’m just a New Zealander-American. I haven’t lived in a lot of countries, so culturally, I’m playing in the forest.”
Fight Softly is a new kind of forest. Issued last month via Sub Pop, the Suns’ latest finds McPhun pursuing psychedelic electronica instead of working with unrelated pieces. Still, his fingerprints are omnipresent: His gliding vocals are filtered through effects, the percussion is smooth and a giddy sensibility rides through the experience. The production can be muddy and confusing, but it works well when paired with the warped textures.
Despite McPhun’s interest in remote corners of music, he notices that Fight Softly occasionally recalls American pop music. “Olympics on Pot” contains a passage that he believes is a cross between Prince’s “1999” and Phil Collins’ “Sussudio.” He attempted to put “a little bit of R&B feel” into “Sun Lake Rinsed” and “Cinco,” whereas another track resembles Fleetwood Mac’s “Tango in the Night.”
The Ruby Suns leader hasn’t been hearing these names repeated by indie rock/pop listeners—the bread and butter of his fan base. Instead, he reports that Fight Softly has been dogged by “a lot of weird and negative responses,” plus comparisons he believes are unfounded. “In the indie world, people don’t have many reference points for what I’m trying to do, or they say, ‘Oh, it sounds like Yeasayer, Animal Collective, [or] Vampire Weekend.’ Those are all fine bands, but that’s not what influences me much,” McPhun says. “I’ve been an Animal Collective fan for a long time, but people are comparing our album to their last album. [Merriweather Post Pavilion] wasn’t out when I started half the songs. It’s weird. People compare me to that album and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s not true!’ ”
While the ever-industrious McPhun is more than willing to venture wherever his wanderlust may take him, there is a moment of hesitation. “In interim periods, there’s always a worry. ‘What the hell am I going to do? What’s it going to be like?’ I can’t help but think in the back of my mind, ‘I don’t want people to hate my music,’ ” he says. After recognizing how futile this line of thought is, he asks the million-dollar question: “Who knows what the blogosphere is going to love?”