Demons of Ruby Mae can’t help but appear a tad annoyed, whenever people try to define their music. I guess you can’t really blame them: after years of hearing definitions as disparate as “indie pop”, “acoustic”, “electronica” and at one time even “folk”, it must get annoying.
Multi-instrumentalists Adam Rowley and Jonny Gavin have played in bands since their teenage years, but began their own act in 2013. Following the release of their EP, “The Boy who cried Wolf” in 2015, the Manchester-based duo went on quietly building a loyal fanbase via a selected number of live shows across the UK, while their hit single “Beneath the Surface”, which featured in the popular US show “Suits”, reached the 3 million streams on Spotify.
The boys then travelled to France in order to work on their full-length debut album.
“Demons of Ruby Mae” came out on October 2018 and was met with instant acclaim, drawing the attention of media outlets including those of BBC, that put DORM among the top 20 East Midland artist of 2018.
After signing for Anti Fragile Records (US) and Long Branch Records (Europe), DORM went back in the studio to produce their new singles, “Tomorrow” and “Hero”, which came out earlier this year and further consolidated the profile of the band.
Starting out as a mostly acoustic, stripped-back affair, over the years the sound of DORM has evolved into sophisticated compositions where guitars, piano grooves and layers of synths blend organically to create a wall of sound that resonates with raw emotion – especially during their live performances, thanks to Jonny’s powerful and yet impeccable vocal delivery.
The fact that their music has been attributed to so many genres, just goes on to prove that Demons of Ruby Mae are not afraid to bend the rules when needed, and venture beyond the boundaries of a specific genre, in a constant bid to avoid creative stagnation.
We met with Adam and Jonny in their rehearsal space ahead of their gig at Academy 3 in Manchester, and had the chance to watch them play their setlist before sitting down to talk about their musical identity, their new singles and what does it mean to be hard working, emerging artists in the digital streaming era.
So, I had planned to warm up with a different question, but after seeing you guys rehearse among this wonderful array of synths, audio interfaces and pedalboards I need to ask. How did you get to where are you now? How did you start making music?
Jonny: Uhm… we were a group of friends and formed a band?
Fair enough! But could you tell us a bit more about your first experiences as songwriters? Were you both playing in other bands?
Jonny: Yeah, that’s how we started, we were both playing in the same band. But then me and Adam started to come up with music that was quite different from what the others had in mind. Some of the songs that would eventually end up on our EP [“The Boy who Cried Wolf”] were composed back then. We just had different ideas and we realised they were not going to work for the rest of the band. We’re still friends and everything, but being just the two of us makes things easier when it comes to song writing.
Adam: We could play in bands, theoretically. But I don’t think there is anyone who kind of gets each other’s music sense as much the pair of us do. So even though we do enjoy it, we’re not playing, and writing, with other musicians. I think the real origin of the band is when there’s just the two of us writing, and from that we don’t want too many people involved in playing live, so that’s why I’ve got all the synths, that’s why Jonny’s got all the guitars and the vocals, and we’re trying to keep it all as a duo.
When people watch us live and there’s just the two of us and you hear that big sound that we’ve got, I think that makes people a lot more interested and invested in the sound than when they see shows with a full live band. It also shows the dynamics of it much more.
And I guess for the audience it makes for an interesting contrast. At least from the point of view of someone who’s not a musician, but maybe just an avid listener, it makes you go like “Whoa! How do they do that?”
Adam: Yeah, definitely, and it’s a lot of hard work.
Jonny: Or backing tracks! Demo boards! Demo boards and iTunes! (laughs)
Adam: Yeah, demo boards and iTunes, you don’t need anybody else with things like that!
Joking aside, we spend a lot of time on production to be able to recreate all that live, it’s a very big part of us. We create all the sounds ourselves, we rehearse a lot before going into the studio, and also in preparation to a gig, so everything works the way we want. But it takes a lot of time.
Speaking of contrasts, can you tell us a bit about your new singles, Hero and Tomorrow? They differ a lot from one another in terms of style, and show just how diverse your musical influences are – and by the way, I love that you’re very open about your musical influences, to the point of creating playlists on Spotify for your fans! But it’s like you have two souls.
Adam: Two souls, what do you mean exactly? I like that (laughs).
Well, in April you released “Tomorrow” which feels like a rock anthem, something maybe in the vein of The National, Coldplay, even U2. But then just a few days ago you released “Hero”, which is much more synth-oriented and almost danceable. So it’s like you have these two major influences that kind of meet in the middle.
Jonny: It’s funny you say that. Somebody who is quite versed in music – he’s a friend of mine and he listens to a lot of music, plays in a jazz band and so on – heard songs from our debut album released as singles, “Synesthesia” and “Beneath the Surface”, and he said that until he sat down and listened to the whole album as a body of work, he didn’t really understand how the singles were linked together. So you can say that, about “Hero” and “Tomorrow”, that you don’t understand how they’re linked together.
But the thing is, we don’t go into the studio and think: “Right, let’s try to write a song that sounds like Demons of Ruby Mae”. We just enjoy making the best song that we possibly can. And if that requires real drums, then we will use real drums. We like the fact that not every single song that we release is exactly the same. Otherwise it gets boring, you know!
And do you plan to go down that road with your next album as well, nurture that duality?
Jonny: Yeah. There are a lot of great bands out there, like Catfish and the Bottlemen, with great songs and a great voice; but do all the songs sound the same and do you know what you’re going to get when you tune in to a Catfish and the Bottlemen’s song? Probably you do, and probably some people really enjoy that. I don’t know.
But to answer your question, when we get back in the studio for our next album, personally I’d like to try and push ourselves, musically, and do something we haven’t done before.
About Hero, and specifically the process of writing the lyrics – you’ve mentioned that you write about personal experiences and those of people you meet. Now, there is a line in Hero that really stuck with me, “teach me something that I can believe in”. Does that come from a personal experience as well?
Adam: With the lyrics of Hero, we were trying to adapt them to a more upbeat sound, and I guess the concept was that everyone wants to be someone else in life. Everyone has an ideal, something or someone they look up to. And as you build yourself up to be that hero, you’re actually the hero of other people!
How do you go about your songwriting process? Do you both share songwriting duties, so to speak, or maybe one of you is more focused on the lyrics and the melody the other on the harmony?
Jonny: Everything is possible, it depends on the situation.
Adam: Yeah, if Jonny wants to write a whole album on his own, then why not! Whatever sounds good. And me, sometimes I might go six months without writing any good lyrics, but I’ll write some great melodies, and sometimes it will be the other way around.
So you both write the lyrics and you both play, switch from the guitars to the keyboards and piano, depending on the situation. And writing a song can happen in any way, it can start with one of you sitting at the piano, trying chords, or with a guitar riff, or a groove?
Jonny: The process of it is never the same, it’s always different. I don’t play now a lot better than I used to, but I don’t think you necessarily need to be great at an instrument to write a great song.
Technique helps but it’s the idea that matters.
Jonny: Yes. And a song can start any way, even with just a Voice Memo of a melody in your head. Simple as that.
Yet you play multiple instruments and your playlists show a pretty wide range of music influences, style-wise. Did you get any kind of formal training?
Jonny: Nope, I got thrown out of every single formal training I had the opportunity to attend!
Adam: I got to grade eight in music, [required for entry to higher study in a music college] but didn’t finish it. The piano school closed down and I didn’t carry on. But my teacher was an unbelievable blues piano player and he taught me how to play blues piano. And actually, I enjoy that more than anything else.
Do you ever find inspiration in other art forms? At least going by your album covers, the visual aspect seems to be very important to you. Do you take care of the graphics personally and where does the inspiration comes from?
Adam: We do all the designs by ourselves and get a lot of inspiration from other artists. It makes the whole process more enjoyable than just giving the job to someone else. I take a lot of inspiration from the paintings of Rothko, for instance, and then there is an artist called Sugimoto who takes photos that look like paintings and they’re incredible.
Jonny: And that way, even though the songs may sound completely different, you know by the artwork that it’s Demons of Ruby Mae.
There’s a common theme.
Adam: Yes. And we’ve had our logo onstage since we started the band. So we’re not overdoing it, but you could say the visual aspect is important to us.
Leveraging the platform
In a music market that is plagued by overexposure and fragmentation, many like to blame the online music platforms and the tricky algorithms of the streaming services. Overexposure certainly appears to drive audience fragmentation: having instant access to thousands of songs can be overwhelming, to the casual and the mindful listener alike. Instead of looking for specific artists and albums, the majority of us then turn to playlists and recommendations, and by doing so, we effectively back ourselves into corners of tailored content where single “hits” overshadow the albums.
But it’s not all doom and gloom out there. While it’s true that the streaming platforms are re-writing the rulebook (and changing our listening habits in the process) this is not necessarily a bad thing for the artists, provided that they have a strategy for making the most out of the various platforms and associated media; and it doesn’t mean that you have to give up on releasing albums either.
This is exactly what Demons of Ruby Mae have been doing since the release of their EP in 2015 and now, with their debut DORM out, their strategy is starting to pay off.
You released your debut album last year. Many artists think that it makes little sense, nowadays, to release a full-length album, in terms of costs and also considering that the listening habits of the public have changed and people tend to listen to single songs or playlists instead of full albums. I can’t help but notice that five out of nine songs from your debut were first made available as singles. I’m sensing a strategy, here.
Adam: Because of the way the industry has changed, you have to release singles. Streaming platforms have changed the whole concept of releasing music, especially digitally. And digitally is the way you are going to get noticed, whether people like it or not. People like to say bad things about Spotify, but it has really helped us.
Then how important it is, to have a full-length album out?
Adam: It’s a great feeling! The issue I have with releasing singles, like Jonny said earlier, is that if you listen to singles you may not know that it’s us as a band, Demons of Ruby Mae, until you put them in a body of work from start to finish. We spend a hell of a long time figuring out how we want the tracklist to go, and if you listen to just one single out of the album you may think it’s a completely different band. But if you listen to the song in the context of a full body of work, you realize it’s actually a piece of art.
That’s why we want a record, and we don’t just release the songs, we release the artwork, and so on. It’s like a story. You don’t get that when you listen to a single on Spotify, looking at a tiny thumbnail of the artwork. But as a musician, you still got to release singles. People keep moaning about it, but it’s just the way the world is now.
Jonny: From an artist perspective; the machine says that you could just keep releasing singles, but if you never put it all together in an album you will never feel like you could put a pin in it and just go: “That’s a period of time that we captured, and it’s done and we achieved something”
Adam: It’s like having single chapters versus having a whole book.
Jonny: Yes, and if we’d carry on just releasing singles, we would never be able to sit back and appreciate what we’ve put together; it’s a milestone. There’s the artwork and the pictures and everything else that in, say, ten years from that first album will make us go: “Oh yeah, I remember how young I used to be and that was album no.1!”
And I love that you’re comparing it to a book, because to me this is exactly what it feels like. There is a narrative to a full-length album that lacks in a bunch of singles.
Speaking about strategy, and different media, how important it is to have songs featured in two major TV shows? I’m talking of course about “The Boy who Cried Wolf” and “Beneath the Surface”, which were featured in “Siren” and “Suits”, respectively. How important is it, both short term, in terms of a boost to your digital platforms’ listening perhaps, and long term?
Jonny: Maybe we underestimate even today what it has done for us, in terms of exposure and financially, enabling us to record our debut album. In a sense, it still continues to give us exposure, people still discover the band via these shows. And it’s weird feeling, to think that it starts in the US but then ends up in India, Montenegro, everywhere!
Adam: And again, another positive of Spotify: you find the song on Shazam, play it on your phone, you go straight to Spotify and download the single. That’s incredibly important and how would that person find out about you, otherwise?
But hopefully that also translates into more people listening not just to the single, but discovering you as a band?
Jonny: Definitely, and I think it raises the profile of the band as well. People like to find out what’s popular, what other people listen, and they’ll be interested in a song that has been featured in a movie or series, regardless of the music and genre. They can see that on the platform, they can see if a song is also featuring somewhere else, like Netflix for example, and then if it’s on Netflix then it must be good, right? Interestingly, “Beneath the surface” [featured in “Suits”] has been our most successful song so far, and it’s the only song on the album that we didn’t re-record and remix. So in terms of sound quality of production and quality of mixing it’s the poorest, and yet it’s the most successful.
Because people associate it to the TV show?
Jonny: It’s more about what was captured when we recorded it. So why trying to recreate it?
In it for the long haul
Let’s switch gears for a moment and talk a bit about your roots. You are both from Leicester. Why did you move to Manchester and not London, for example? Was it purely for practical reason other than the music scene or do you think Manchester does offer better opportunities in this respect?
Jonny: A bit of everything, I’d say. Adam had enrolled to the university here, and there are more opportunities and a better music scene than Leicester, so I followed him.
Adam: Manchester has a very thriving music scene. Unfortunately, Leicester didn’t have that at the time. It’s getting a lot better now, but when it was time for me to decide it was always going to Manchester. So we loaded everything in the car and came here.
Was there anything specific about the musical identity of the city that drew your attention? People will often reference big names such as Oasis or Stone Roses, but the electronic music scene is also a huge part of the city’s identity.
Adam: Even though Leicester has now a good heritage of bands, Manchester remains Manchester, you know. It’s britpop, it’s The Hacienda, it’s “Madchester. On the other hand, I don’t think that our music is much like that of other Manchester’s bands, so I wouldn’t say bands such as Oasis and others were a big influence. Their influence was in terms of “They are fucking brilliant!”, because you look at them and you think about how good they are on stage, how successful they are, and so on. But I wouldn’t say we are trying to write songs as Oasis would, if that makes sense.
Absolutely. One last question to wrap it all up. 2018 has been a pretty good year for you. You released your debut album, which put you on the radar of major media outlets, including BBC. How does it feel like, and can you tell us what’s in the pipeline for 2019?
Adam: 2018 was definitely a successful year for us, we had been working on the album for a long time, so it was great to have that out. As for 2019; it’s going to be wild of course! (laughs) But seriously, whatever happens this year, or next year, it does not change the way we focus on writing songs. So, we’re going to keep writing, keep releasing songs, and if we want to release an album, we’ll release an album. We’re very privileged to be at the level that we are at, but it’s certainly not where we want to be in the long term.
And where do you want to be in the long term? Say, in three years from now.
Jonny: Just happy making music!
Adam: Yeah, the dream is to be able to do it full time, in whatever form it takes.
Jonny: Maybe not making music for, like, Gameboy.
That’s pretty lucrative though!
Jonny: It is, massively. But I’d rather be performing!
Adam: Just being able to write music for your own band; there’s something special about it. Takes a hell of a long time, though.
I’m sure it does. And a lot of hard work.
Jonny: Yeah, but we’re in it for the long haul.
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