Simon Ward of The Strumbellas, the Juno Award-winning collective, professed his love upon a dampened crowd at the Winnipeg Folk Festival alongside members of Reuben and the Dark and The Wooden Sky. Reuben Bullock, sat in his chair with his guitar strapped and caught in a humble moment of self-realization. He might just be one man waiting there, but he is the singer-songwriter, guitarist, and spends the rest of his time as a carpenter.
Bullock did not accept the notion of the life that his father led as a travelling preacher, but has ironically found himself while on the road restoring some light of faith within the darker imaginings of the mind. Now his name is found on the esteemed Arts & Crafts label and his healthy handful of festival dates on the road encourages the pursuit of his own salvation.
Before his performance with The Strumbellas and The Wooden Sky, Bullock stood in the rain to discuss his songwriting anxieties, working with Broken Social Scene’s Brendan Canning and the similarities this job shares with his skateboarding career.
AMBY: How has the preparation been going for the Pete Seeger tribute?
REUBEN: Good! Yeah. We kind of took an abstract tune of his, which is open to interpretation. It’s an a cappella song that he sings with no music to it, so we kind of tried to put music to it tastefully.
AMBY: How did you choose that as the song that you’d do?
REUBEN: Just because it was so abstract. All it is, it’s ‘One Grain of Sand’ and all the versions that I could find of it has him singing a cappella with no instruments or anything. It’s just real and he’s kind of just singing on one note the whole time. Wanted to do something that fit with the band, so we put it together and now it sounds like one of our songs, but it is his melody and lyrics.
AMBY: Does Pete Seeger hold any close importance to you or has this experience turned you onto him?
REUBEN: Yeah, it kind of turned me onto him. I know who he is and heard a bunch of his songs by proximity, but I looked into him a bunch more. I don’t want to sing someone’s song that I don’t really know anything about, so I think that the research came afterwards. I’m excited to be a part of it.
AMBY: All of these are new discoveries, you’ve admitted in previous interviews that you weren’t into music until you were in your early twenties. Slowly turning onto artists like Seeger, has it given you a new perspective on everything?
REUBEN: Yeah, it’s funny that the classics are more recently, even Bruce Springsteen is something that I’m visiting now. I’m discovering him now.
AMBY: Any record in particular, ‘Nebraska’?
REUBEN: Yeah, ‘Nebraska’. It was the one, you know? So it was cool, yesterday I played ‘Nebraska’ off that album because we did a Springsteen themed workshop. I’m discovering all of this stuff a little late, which is nice because I got to be kind of naive thinking that the songs that I was writing at the time and I’d have people say that tunes I wrote sounded like people that I’ve never heard of before and I thought that was by chance. But now, kind of digging into music deeper and understanding where the standards are and what songs come from where and who has been doing it, you kind of see how you fit into it better. It is nice looking back at it, instead of trying to see where you fit in when you’re developing a song. You can already have your music and realize that you’ve been taking notes from all of these people without even knowing it from the people that have been paving the way for those types of songs.
AMBY: These are all artists since putting out your record? Have the enlightened or hindered your approach to your own songwriting?
REUBEN: Yeah, I’m not sure. This record ‘Funeral Sky’ are songs that have been taken from the past four or five years, probably. There are some solo tunes, mostly solo songs that got developed with the band and some that the band workshopped on this album. But writing now, the next album, it’ll be interesting to see what happens and what kind of influence after learning so much more about it. It’s the third or fourth time that we’ve been or I’ve been in the studio making a record and now I’m definitely at a point where I’m able to overthink a lot of things. It was nice, on the first album, the first time that I ever sat down to record something and you just didn’t know what was there so you couldn’t think too much about it. You were doing it all for the first time, honing your skill, ability and ear for a certain type of sound and it gets more difficult to record, the more you learn about recording and the option there are.
AMBY: Then it gets more dangerously distracting? Over analyzing and removing yourself?
REUBEN: Yeah, you just think way too much on it. I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes.
AMBY: Well, it also helps that you’re a part of this family that is a collective it seems with Arts & Crafts. Is there anyone in particular that has given you some foresight?
REUBEN: I don’t know, I suppose I look at some of those bands as models too with what they’re doing and what they’re like and what their performances are like, what their albums sound like. Little things like that. We sat down with and jammed a bit with Brendan Canning and worked on some tunes, which was pretty fun. We got a studio for the day and he wanted to work on a song with us. That was fun. That was something that I’ve never done before to have someone come in and say, hey I have these ideas. He had ideas for us, which was cool. It ended up changing a song because we just opened it up again. Yeah, stuff like that that are less specific but there are some influences making their way in to this band, I think.
AMBY: Do you find music more collective as opposed to skateboarding, which was more of an individual mentality?
REUBEN: It’s becoming that now and this album is going to become more of a band effort and more of a collaborative effort. ‘Funeral Sky’ was, but all the songs were written already and we workshopped them as a band and we’re going to bring a lot of songs on the table that are not finished and have the band do it together, which I’m pretty excited about because I’m pretty closed in my own way of thinking about a song and as soon as other people get involved, it just opens things up.
AMBY: Is the plan to go somewhere remote and shut things down?
REUBEN: I don’t know, I haven’t had time to think about it but there’s going to be a plan. We are so used to doing things on the fly, but this next one I’m going to make sure there is enough time to be really saturated in what we’re doing.
AMBY: Do you think that the best art and work comes out of ample time or restricted time?
REUBEN: I’m not sure. Everything that we’ve done has been on such a tight schedule and I’m really happy with it, so I’d like to see what happens if we have some time. Maybe we would just waste it and wait until the last minute and cram everything into a recording studio, but we’re going to try out and take as much time as we can.
AMBY: Do you share your music with your family and your father?
REUBEN: Yeah, he’s a big fan, quite a big fan. Both my mother and my dad. But yeah, that story comes up every now and then.
AMBY: That whole story of your father being a travelling preacher and the irony of the similarities within your own career choice.
REUBEN: Yeah, there’s that but there’s some difference with being a preacher and a songwriter. I don’t know. He’s proud. And my mother right now has a secretary job, she’s been his wingman for quite some time now.
AMBY: Is their reaction important to you, in terms of what you’re putting out?
REUBEN: Yeah, they’ve always come out to shows and they’ve always seen me play and they know my songs and they’re super fans. My mother is at every show that I’ve played for the last five years. Yeah, for sure. I don’t think that there is anything that I’ve done that they haven’t liked, so I don’t know if it’s bias or not and I don’t know if they’d be like, ‘Hey. This isn’t working.’
AMBY: Do you find it is more of your individual feeling of satisfaction that is more important?
REUBEN: Yeah, for sure, for sure and I struggle with that because I prefer the live show because I want to show somebody a song, I want to play it and physically play it for them. I don’t want to hand them something and say that I hope you like this version of the song that we play.
AMBY: It’s almost like 30% of the song is done before you hit the stage and 70% comes out when you explore it and perform it more.
REUBEN: Yeah. It’s individual, but it’s nice to have some feedback. It’s nice to play a show when people hear the record and know the songs and sing along and you’re like, okay you like it. It takes the edge off and you’re not trying to impress somebody.
AMBY: What was the feeling like hearing people sing back your songs, like ‘Rolling Stone’ for the first time?
REUBEN: Really cool, yeah. Really cool. It’s been happening in random places. Going on tour, we’re going to these cities in the middle of nowhere and people come out and know the lyrics. It’s really flattering. It’s quite a feeling.
AMBY: Are these feelings that you were searching to get through other things you did, like skateboarding? Or are you still searching for it?
REUBEN: Yeah, I don’t know what it is. I suppose that it is a pursuit, it is something that you do naturally too. You’re just inclined to do it. I’m inclined to write and perform, even though it is sometimes stressful and the schedule is hectic and it is just something that I feel that I have to do. With skateboarding, that was how I felt about that too, at the time. Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t think that it is intentional. I just got to do it. It is all I know right now and it is all that I want to be doing.
AMBY: In the past, you’ve talked in the past about your experience in Thailand, the gangs at your high school and everything. Is part of you trying to find that adrenaline spark now or have you found that on stage?
REUBEN: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, there’s always been dramatic episodes, I suppose, surrounding me or whatever. I guess that comes from music now, for sure. I do draw comparisons to skateboarding and music, they have so many similarities to me, as far as the way that I am and the way that I express myself, I see a lot of parallels. There is something about uncertainty about a calm moment in chaos and on stage, it is kind of chaos. You have all these variables that could go wrong and all of these people that are watching. You have nervousness, stress or whatever is all happening in your mind, but you’re trying to portray something and you’re trying to do something in an effortless way and kind of put a style across, almost in the middle of something that feels really uncomfortable and really chaotic and you’re trying to be a calm presence. It takes a certain, same thing with skateboarding I suppose, with fear and nervousness being involved and having to use a very honed skill and ability to kind of perform through that anxiety and especially with things that scare you.
AMBY: How do you overcome that anxiety?
REUBEN: Just repetition, you know. Getting used to it and kind of finding a place, a spot that you feel calm. Sometimes, I get anxiety attacks every now and then, but you know it happens. It’ll happen and you try to get your head in a good spot and know why you’re there. You’ll get a big audience that talks over you and that is rowdy and the show sucks and it’s hard.
AMBY: Do you thrive off that though, the struggle?
REUBEN; I do, actually. I don’t know what it is, but it is not that often that I finish a show and feel that it was sweet. I’m pretty hard on myself. I get that I find that I’ve fought with audiences so long that it’s hard when an audience participates or gets into it because I’m so used to trying to play over people and wanting people to hear and listen in. So it’s letting go of that and it’s been happening recently, to say okay I’m here because people want me to be here and I’m not sneaking on stage and hoping to impress somebody or whatever it is you’re used to dealing with without an audience.
AMBY: What was it like coming into it, finding that this is the sound that translates it all in the best way for you?
REUBEN: I put a band together to release a solo album and then it was night and day, I’ve never done it before and I also got a string quartet to play at the same time at the very first show. It was a brand new band and a string quartet and this old church, I just couldn’t go back after that. This is how the music is supposed to be. It was way bigger than it was on the album, then I realized that was what I was going for. I lost interest in recording maybe at that point and just wanted to make a band that felt like the way the song felt in my head when we played it. Since then, it’s been trying to keep it really simple and have guys involved that understand and we can just perform and feed off of each other’s energy and not overcomplicate things too much, try to hash out ideas as quick as we can too and not dwell too long on little arrangement pieces. That’s kind of been how we have been taking it.
AMBY: You’ve said that you were waiting to hear the record on vinyl, that was the moment you were building up to. What’s the next moment you have in your head?
REUBEN: I don’t even know. Yeah, I guess there is lots of stuff. I kind of scatter my dates in the calendar that I always look forward to or events that keep things interesting and this summer is sweet because it is all festivals and that’s what I’ve been really waiting for, the summer to be doing all of this. I’m not thinking about anything than where I am at right now, I think.
Thank you Reuben and the Dark, for giving us your answers!
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Interview by Colton Eddy |