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First Play: Born Ruffians, Uncle, Duke & the Chief

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Melody Lau

Luke Lalonde was feeling lost. Following the release of Born Ruffians’ 2015 album, Ruff, the frontman admits that he was “losing focus and losing desire, I guess, for what the band was.” To Lalonde, Born Ruffians’ identity is deeply embedded in its original three-person lineup, which included bassist Mitch Derosier and drummer Steve Hamelin. The latter left the band in 2013.

While Lalonde isn't discrediting the work of the two new members he and Deroiser welcomed in the interim, Hamelin's absence was felt. Lalonde longed for the dynamic he had when the Toronto band first started and even remembers telling his girlfriend, "If Steve were to come back, I think it would really reinvigorate this band." It's a feeling he says he "put out into the universe," not believing anything would come of it. Until one day, it happened: Hamelin said he wanted to rejoin the band.

When Hamelin returned to the fold last June, Born Ruffians were already back in the studio to record what would become the band’s fifth album, Uncle, Duke & the Chief. It was there that the band members embraced who they really were — a rock band at heart — by recording tracks live as opposed to meticulously piecing parts together, a method that they’ve tried in the past and which led to a disconnection between the studio and the stage.

“I think a lot of times, bands lean too heavy on the studio and forget that they need good songs and so you come out with all the wrinkles ironed out,” he explains. “We just realized that we like records that have mistakes and are a bit scrappy, and that sound like you believe the band is playing — that’s where we realized we sound the best.”

At just nine tracks, Uncle, Duke & the Chief is compact, potent and brimming with energy. Each track is a neat punch to the gut, delivered by some of the band’s best melodies yet, like the fiery roll of “Fade to Black” or the immediate hook of “Ring That Bell.” It’s not necessarily scrappy, but the rough-and-tumble sensation of the guitars and bass crashing against the drums, plus Lalonde’s sometimes scratchy howls climbing over the cacophony of it all, makes for a thrilling listen.

It’s a kind of vigour that is in part fuelled by the band’s reunion, but is also the result of Lalonde’s complicated relationship with life, death and loss. “It’s not necessarily a fear of death,” he discloses, about one of the themes on the album. “But death as the light at the end of the tunnel, like that old cliché.”

When Lalonde was first confronted with the reality of death as a kid, he ran to his mom, in tears. Even now, he confesses that “if I think about it too much, I kind of lose my breath and I fall down this well like it’s my Sunken Place or Upside Down, or whatever.” But it was a feeling that Lalonde had to face in recent years when his dad was diagnosed with cancer and went through rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. While his dad has since recovered, that experience, compounded with the death of one of his idols (David Bowie), led Lalonde to write one of the first songs for Uncle, Duke & the Chief: “Forget Me.” (The album title actually refers to the nicknames of each band members’ fathers, a tiny tribute to Lalonde’s dad as well as Derosier’s and Hamelin’s.)

“I hadn’t put that in any song yet, I hadn’t translated those feelings,” Lalonde says. Inspired by Bowie’s final act of putting out his last album, Blackstar, and how his exit wasn’t weighed down by sadness, Lalonde was determined to not let fear anchor his songs either, even if it sometimes lurks beneath the surface. “We’re all going to die eventually, it’s the one thing we’re all doing,” he states. “But we’re all on that path together.”

And it’s in unity that Born Ruffians have found a sort of optimistic road forward.

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