The Love Language: This was the first cabin record to piss off the neighbors
Maybe it's something in his laid-back Carolina demeanor, but you've gotta give Stu McLamb credit for taking everything in stride. After accidentally stumbling onto lo-fi gold in 2008 with a suite of bedroom-recorded breakup songs that would become his first album as the Love Language, he's weathered trials that would send most of his peers back to their bedroom studios. But after several sometimes painful reformations of his backing band and a nearly endless tour in support of their excellent 2010 album Libraries, which received the support of legendary hometown indie Merge records, even Stu needed a vacation.
Retiring to the semi-idyllic woods of Black Mountain, North Carolina, McLamb dragged producer/engineer/best-buddy BJ Burton along, and the resulting songs on Ruby Red seem imbued with fresh purpose and direction. Adding soaring, anthemic hooks and an extra helping of distortion to his signature garage-pop sound, McLamb outdid himself once again, even if he's too chill to say so.
Gimmie Noise: It's been a little while since we've seen you up here in Minneapolis, and even longer since the release of Libraries. What have you been up to over the last few years?
Stuart McLamb: We pretty much just did a lot of touring on Libraries and when that wound down I moved out to Black Mountain where me and BJ [Burton] got a cabin and started working up some demos that ended up becoming a record. But it just took a little while to get things right on this, and I've definitely learned a lot of lessons, but ultimately the way the record was released and when it came out had to do more with scheduling and stuff.
It sounds like your creative space played a big role in this new record. Could you explain the Ruby Red to us northerners, and how you came to be involved there?
Ruby Red in Uptown is one of the few artistic cooperative warehouse spaces. When you get up to other cities you'll see a lot more of that going on, so it was really cool to be a part of that in Raleigh. It was basically just a big warehouse that a good friend of ours, Tim Lemuel, put a lot of hard work into. He built up these walls and sectioned off different rooms so artists could rent out space for cheap. It just seemed like a really cool thing, so we decided to get in on it and help build it up. We transformed this bottom room of a two-story warehouse into a studio in this huge concrete-walled basement. It worked really nicely for making room sounds with the drums and all that. I'd say a good 90 percent of the new record was done there.
How did working in that space and the cabin affect your songwriting?
Well, it wasn't a totally removed cabin out in the middle of the woods, but we basically were just looking for a place to get away. We'd been touring pretty hard and then getting back to Raleigh and everything just started to feel a little busy, so we tried to kind of get away for a little bit and see what the creative vibe was like. We would just bounce ideas off of each other to get going and that turned into the foundation for what turned into Ruby Red.
The cabin was just a sublease on Craigslist, pretty cheap, and it wasn't a remote thing but it was kind of tucked back in the woods. There was kind of a neighborhood though, and since we weren't making acoustic folk rock there was a couple complaints [laughs]. This was probably the first cabin-inspired record that pissed off the neighbors!
Lyrically, the last two records have been mostly songs of lost and unrequited love, with Libraries expanding that a bit. What kind of inspiration were you drawing from for Ruby?
I've never been too interested in or good at literal songwriting, so it's very rare that I write songs about one particular thing. It's always easier when you just got out from a hard relationship, a lot of artists draw on that, and I think I've had some of my more direct songs come out of situations like that, but with this one I wanted to move away. I just knew that it would be kind of strange to have this perpetual lovesick project. The first record just came out of a real place, but then I found myself struggling with what this project was going to be. I think I might have subconsciously tried to stir up drama, and that's totally the wrong way to go about it. Don't stir up lady problems for your art, it'll get really weird [laughs].
With the new one, the themes are all over the place so it's kind of hard to say. Honestly, I tripped on DMT and it was a really life-altering moment. I started looking at things a little differently. I'm not trying to preach like I'm a fuckin' shaman or anything, but we're on the cusp of some new era, and I think I was trying to scratch the surface of that and find out what it is.
Compared to the first two records, how was working on Ruby Red different? The self-titled one was mostly just you and your 4-track, while Libraries was made in a proper studio, right?
Yeah, and both Libraries and Ruby Red were done with BJ, he was a huge part of the sound. The first record I did on my own with a Boss 8-Track type of thing, but for Libraries we went into a studio that already existed in Raleigh and worked it up. With this one we got out of that studio and just bought some gear and built our own. It was a lot more hands on, man work, lifting heavy things and all that shit. It was funny, I remember when we released one of the songs on the record we got a writeup from Pitchfork, and the writer mentioned something like "great to see what Stuart McLamb did with a big-budget studio" or something, and if you could see this place...[laughs]. It was great, I took it as a compliment, and a lot of credit goes to BJ, obviously, but it was a pretty homemade studio.
It's always kind of a bro vibe recording with BJ, he's not like, "I'm gonna make you a star, boy!" There was PBR cans with ashes in them littered around the studio; it was pretty laid-back. It's just this grimy little setting, but really conducive to making music.
What sort of personnel did you work with on this album? There's certainly a lot of additional textures on songs like "Hi-Life."
I think total there was over 20 people in and out on this one. With some there was a big crew in the studio all at once, like with the horns or the strings, but a lot of it was multi-tracking and stuff, having friends come in and lend some ideas. The Love Language is kind of confusing. When a record gets done, I tour with a totally different rotating cast of friends and it switches in and out, but we've never been the kind of band that all live in the same town and have a rehearsal space. The band can't all take off work for a whole month to jump into this so we just figured we'd get everybody in there when we could. Rather than that being an issue, I just decided to embrace having tons of other musicians around.
BJ Burton's name gets mentioned a lot on this new album; it'd be great to hear about his contributions since he's a local boy now.
Well, BJ had toured with the band for a while but his main focus was being an engineer, mixer, and producer. So he had gone up, met some of the folks at Totally Gross National Product, and then I think he went up to work on a project in Minneapolis, either Marijuana Deathsquads or Polica, can't remember the exact timeline. Then he just fell in love with it, I remember for a while he was calling me like, "Dude, you gotta move up here," and for my own reasons I stuck around here but we're still friends and talk all the time. He's just been killing it up there.
I actually tracked a bunch in Minneapolis at that point. We tracked "Golden Age" and "Faithbreaker" at Humans Win! Studio and the Sound Gallery. We were working, it was December...so that was a great time to be in Minneapolis, the weather was just...great [laughs]. It was funny man, I had been through before on tour but it was during the summer. That was the coldest moment I had ever experienced, getting off the plane and going outside to smoke a cigarette. I must have been out there for three seconds and it was like, "Holy shit...I need to get some gloves and a real coat. How do people deal with this?" Get really drunk, I guess.
Overall, Ruby Red seems to be a bit heavier than your past works, 'specially songs like "First Shot" and "Faithbreaker." Can you speak to anything that might have prompted that shift?
Yeah man, Libraries was a really breezy, beach-y record. I just wanted to do something a little darker and more uptempo. So as I was working on the demos, they were definitely rocking a lot more, and BJ had come from a little more of a metal and hardcore background, so we decided to try and make these songs as heavy as we could get away with. I was just ready to do something a little louder too, you know.
I love the video for "Calm Down"; I'd watch a whole movie about that astronaut if you made it. Ever think of going into screenwriting?
Um, I felt like I could maybe do a music video and that's about it. It would be fun though! I was toying around with the idea of something that would keep you isolated from your environment and not really connecting with anything, and finding a moment through music. It's funny, Merge Records rules but they're still an indie label, and I think our video looks like it costs $10,000 but we didn't really have a budget. When we started looking at space suits, it was crazy, they cost like $3,000 and they come with a technician, it was insane. The one we found, when we pulled it out of the box we were like, "Oh man, this is just not very believable. "
It's funny though, because looking back on the video it fits the character, like maybe he's just some dude who dresses up like a spaceman. He's like a furry. A bunch of different people played the spaceman; Napoleon Wright, my friend, did the breakdancing scene. I'm actually the dude buying 40s at the convenience store, that was my cameo!
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