Phones ring and field recordings follow: footsteps in a friend’s backyard, getting drunk at a bar in Chicago, screaming kids at an indoor pool, and Kenyan rug makers singing. All of these sounds churn within tidal tape manipulations. Relating to a small, solitary sea bird on the opening track of Sea Lion, Ryan McPhun sings, “The great Pacific can connect you with your relatives.”
McPhun was born and raised in the seaside town of Ventura, CA. Eventually his hunger for travel and new experiences led him to his newfound home away from home. New Zealand has offered Ryan its mountainous South Island, rugged beaches and the North Island’s enchanted forests, to which Ryan replies with sounds he has borrowed and fashioned from machine, Manuka trees and many a musical instrument. Although New Zealand is somewhat isolated in the southern most part of the Pacific Ocean, Ryan has remained true to his buccaneer instinct. He and his Dictaphone (portable tape recorder) have ventured into the wilds of Africa, the ancient monasteries of Thailand, and the haunting landscapes that surround his everyday.
In 2004 McPhun gathered some like-minded Kiwi wanderers and formed the band Ryan McPhun and The Ruby Suns. He also enjoyed stints in various Auckland-based pop groups including The Tokey Tones, The Reduction Agents, and The Brunettes, with whom he toured the US with The Shins and Rilo Kiley both in ’05. McPhun also plays drums, percussion and background vocals on The Brunettes recent Sub Pop release Structure and Cosmetics.
The band is now shortly, sweetly and simply called The Ruby Suns. At present the live band consists of Ryan McPhun, Amee Robinson, and Imogen Taylor.
Over the past four years the band has savoured various successes. In 2005 they signed to NZ indie label Lil’ Chief Records and released their debut self-titled album, securing their ongoing student radio stardom. In 2006 this album was released through Memphis Industries (home of The Go! Team and Field Music among others) in the UK/Europe and through the Popfrenzy label in Australia. Not bad for a band that records their own music at home, makes their own artwork and to this day is completely self-managed.
This latest album from The Ruby Suns is titled Sea Lion, the name of which is inspired by the sea lion colony visible from Hwy 1, south of San Francisco. Recorded by McPhun alone in his Auckland basement, ??Sea Lion??’s melodic musings found inspiration in the natural world and his travels within it. “Tane Mahuta,” sung entirely in Maori, is an indigenous-sounding ode to the great Waipoua forest near Auckland and “Adventure Tour” tells a tale of a memorable drive through New Zealand’s South Island. An African influence also exerts a strong presence in the album. Not only was he struck by the people (“Ole Rinka” is about a man he met in the Maasai Mara National Reserve), but he was also enamoured of the music, especially Kenyan traditional music and modern day hip-hop.
The depth and breadth of The Ruby Suns’ songs has, to no surprise, grown dramatically since their 2005 self-titled debut. The epic Sea Lion was intended to be a world music album, but reverb and psychedelic pop crept back in to create a unique mixture of exotic sounds, accomplished with an impressive array of instruments—from steel-string ukulele to djembe drums to pots and pans, all set upon a cosy cushion of synths and cassette samples. The Ruby Suns perfectly describe their wide-ranging influences with: “Pop music, noise, psychedelia, flamenco, South Pacific, southern Africa, home recording, hiking, travelling, animals, beaches, vegetarian food, especially falafel.”