It’s 6pm and Reuben and the Dark have just finished their first soundcheck of the night at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto. After the merch tables and guest lists have been finalized, we sit down and talk about everything from life on tour, to covering Leonard Cohen for the CBC, performing Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome” alongside Joan Baez and Ani DiFranco, and their love for the Calgary music scene. What was meant to be a “quick interview” has lasted over 30 minutes. As their second soundcheck is about to start, they invite me to stay for that too. Reuben and the Dark are a group of laid-back, approachable musicians who sincerely care about each performance and commit to a DIY approach from setting up stage lighting to selling merchandise and meeting fans after their sets.
Formed in Calgary by frontman Reuben Bullock, Reuben and the Dark is a five-piece band of multi-instrumentalists who were each involved with previous musical endeavours before joining RATD. The lineup of The Dark has evolved over the years, but the current band consisting of Shea Alain (guitarist and banjo/synth-player), Dillon Whitfield (bassist), Brock Geiger (drummer) and Kaelen Ohm (guitarist/keyboardist) has a creative chemistry that has propelled them from Calgary to cities throughout Canada and the U.S. in promotion of their highly acclaimed LP, Funeral Sky.
The sound of RATD is inspired by Bullock’s introspective songwriting. His lyrics explore emotional depths that are reflected in the band’s captivating harmonies and soaring folk melodies. Although Bullock is relatively new to the music world (he began playing guitar at age 21), he was always a writer, filling notebooks with poems and lyrics. As a rebellious youth, his writing helped him express his rejection of his father’s teachings as a travelling preacher.
After recording his first solo album with Calgary producer Jay Crocker using only analog equipment (2010’s Pulling Up Arrows), his second album was created with the intention of producing a larger sound. 2012’s Man Made Lakes included musicians Scott Munroe (bass), current band member Shea Alain (guitar), and Reuben’s brother Distance Bullock (drums). The album caught the attention ofFlorence and the Machine‘s manager and Reuben soon found himself in London, England recording demos and playing shows with FATM’s drummer, Chris Hayden. This experience led to Hayden co-producing their current album, 2014’s Funeral Sky and playing drums on its first single, “Shoulderblade”.
As I sit down with Reuben, Dillon, Brock and Shea of Reuben and the Dark, they reflect on the opportunities the success of Funeral Sky has brought them and what inspires them.
How was your first single from Funeral Sky, “Shoulderblade” chosen to be the first example or projection of the band’s sound? Why that song?
R: To be fully honest, we’re not a very deliberate band. We tried to record all of these massive tunes and the quiet one turned out the nicest. It just felt nice. I knew it wasn’t a single and at the time it was supposed to be a single. We actually put that out on a different record label, Luv Luv Luv. I thought it sounded nice and it was current because it was just written and recorded. We found all of this family footage to make a video with so it was really close to me and really close to the band at the time too.
R: When their manager and a couple of their crew were in Mexico, their manager set me up with Chris and we played some shows and Chris played drums on “Shoulderblade”. We went to Paris and went to their shows and it was pretty crazy to watch.
Funeral Sky was composed of lyrics that you [Reuben] wrote over the past 4-5 years. Have you experienced any inspiration on tour that has led to new songwriting or does that process come more naturally when you’re not touring?
R: It all builds up on tour but I need that quiet time for it to flush out and to be able to really write. On tour it’s just festering and building up.
Your label, Arts & Crafts, is filled with incredibly talented artists. If you could choose any of your fellow label-mates to collaborate with, who would you like to work with the most?
S: I think Dan [Mangan] would be nice to work with.
R: Yeah, I think Feist too, because she’s a bit of a superstar, but I’ve been a superfan of Timber Timbre for a very, very long time so it’s pretty cool that we’re both managed by the same people. We met in Austin last March and I totally fanned out on him a bit. There are so many musicians and bands on the label that I really look up to like Broken Social Scene, Kevin Drew, and Brendan Canning.
You were recently named one of CBC’s 10 Artists to Watch in 2014 and were asked to participate in their celebration of Leonard Cohen‘s 80th birthday. Were you free to choose which song you were going to cover? How did you end up covering “There Is a War?”
R: Yeah, we tried to figure out just the easiest one to play. (laughs) No, we were playing around with so many of them and we wanted to find one that felt good too. Shea was digging around in so many of them, and I was too, and we were back and forth with ideas and I ended up just putting on a record of his that I had and it was the first song on it, and I was like, “Perfect. That’s it.” Instead of just looking things up on YouTube and not having a connection, to go into your own catalogue, you own the record, you listen to it … So it ended up being easy – first record, first song on the A side. It was musically simple and lyrically perfect.
R: So many of them in the last couple years, I don’t know if there’s a single one for me.
B: I think it’s all about the little moments. It’s when those little moments are happening that you get that feeling.
R: Yeah, that’s fully the magic and it doesn’t happen in recordings. The idea is to share something, really, and it doesn’t really happen when you’ve pre-recorded something and someone is listening to it while they’re distracted by something that’s not really involved in the experience, like driving your car or you’re on the bus and you’re listening with your headphones, but being at a show, you’re going from this creation through the full experience and there’s moments when you feel like it’s working, those moments in the middle of the song and you can sense that the whole room gets it.
S: Also, with the performance with the live audience, you’re playing and you can give it out and then you can get it back. When you’re recording and you’re three takes in and you’re like, “Okay, how do I make this refreshing again?”, but live, there’s no going back and there’s an energy you get from the people watching you.
Speaking of moments on stage, this summer you performed alongside Joan Baez and Ani DiFranco at the Winnipeg Folk Festival where you honoured the folk legend Pete Seeger by singing “We Shall Overcome”. Tell me about being a part of that experience.
R: Oh yeah, it was like a full impostor complex. Like, we should not be here based on the folk roots lineage. So I kind of got a kick out of it. For Kaelen, it was really massive because she grew up listening to Joan Baez and Ani DiFranco, big time. I thought it was really cool just being in their company but I actually had more of that moment when I played with Wooden Sky. That day we did a different workshop with Wooden Sky and they’ve been a pretty big influence on me from a long time ago with their song writing. So that was cool because we’ve become pals but I’m still really taken back by their songwriting and that was one of those moments for me when I was like, “Woah, I’m playing with these guys that I’ve looked up to so much.” There’s so many of them, I’ve got to start writing them down because we’ve got to do some pretty rad stuff. I mean, last night in Montreal was sweet. You know, we show up in a city we don’t live in and people are cheering and singing along to your songs and it’s amazing.
So you [Reuben] got into music later in your life, you started playing guitar when you were 21, and it was also around that time that you started discovering classic albums that you hadn’t listened to before.
R: Oh yeah, at like 25, I hadn’t listened to anything other than what someone had put onto my music player or what was being played on local college radio stations.
R: I don’t know, I like so many different kinds of music. I think the more you get into music and not having come from a background of studying music and bands to understand that what you do plays into this big picture of music – whether you’re conscious of it or not – you’re similar to so many other bands and you realize that you’re part of a greater community without really knowing. And you relate to certain things that are similar to what you do. After I recorded my solo album, the guy I recorded it with told me to listen to Nebraska and I was like, “Springsteen? Really?” because I knew of him but I only knew his top radio songs – but it totally sounds like my songs were influenced by that album.
R: That’s a cool thing, discovering a lot of the classics after the fact and instead of trying to emulate it, just understanding that you’re going to end up sounding like a lot of stuff that you relate to and maybe naturally you’re a part of a larger consciousness. But I don’t really listen to music much away from my record player.
B: We put that Janet Jackson tape on a few times. (laughs)
R: (laughs) Our tape selection is very limited.
D: Because Calgary is where we all cut our teeth and it’s such a small, tight community, I’ve been most inspired by bands coming out of there in the last 5-10 years. Guys like Jay Crocker, the band Azeda Booth which has now turned into Baths, are like little mad scientists in this small scene that no one outside it really knows.
R: Oh yeah, I would say Jay Crocker too and a band called Ghostkeeper. There’s a community of musicians there that are really on another level. I made my first album with Jay and he taught me so many things – a way of life and approaching music. Scott Munroe too, our old bass player, I did my first solo album with those two guys.
D: You watch the people in that community evolve and you’re like, “Wow, you’re doing something cool and you’re doing it in your basement.” It just feels more real and it makes doing other things seem more achievable.
R: Everyone wants to know what your influences are. My influences, honestly, are the people that are in the band. It’s like Shea – I know what kind of guitar he plays and what sounds he’s really good at and I’ll be writing a song and I’ll want Shea to be able to rip on the song, so it actually plays into the creation of songs.
R: There’s lots of them but then you forget about that. As soon as you play it a couple of times you kind of hide those insecurities a little bit. There’s definitely a time right when you first put songs out, even with the band, that you’re like “Ugh, don’t read into this too much.”
B: (laughs) “You okay man?” (laughs)
R: (laughs) “Yeah, everyone like hangs out a little longer…” (laughs)
S: “You wanna like … talk? Do you need a hug?” (laughs)
R: (laughs) Yeah, I don’t know if there’s any one in particular… The album is littered with that stuff, for sure. It’s quite personal.
As the audience took their seats, Reuben and the Dark gave Toronto another signature performance filled with their tight, spine-tingling harmonies, their openness to the audience’s energy, and their dedication to the authentic delivery of their music. Reuben and the Dark are currently touring the Canadian west coast and will finish the tour in their home province of Alberta on December 4th.