8 Dec 2018

Matthew J Ruys on his new album Things Broken, Things Awoken

From RNZ Music, 1:10 pm on 8 December 2018

Matthew J Ruys is releasing music under his own name for the first time in twenty years. Now based in Los Angeles the self described Jack-of-all-trades discusses where music has taken him over the last twenty years and why now felt right to release his new record, Things Broken, Things Awoken.

Matthew J Ruys

Matthew J Ruys Photo: supplied

Matthew J Ruys: Yeah, that's the music industry in New Zealand. If you want to make a living out of it you have to be a Jack-of-all trades. I started off as an artist. Firstly I was singing on other people's projects like Strawpeople and Moana and the Moahunters. Then I was a part of House Party which was Phil Fuemana.

House Party became White Boy Black, because we were doing all these shows in south Auckland and people would come up to Phil after the shows and say "That white boy you've got there, he really sounds black."

So, he came to me one day, and he said, "We're changing the name of the band, it's White Boy Black." Just for those who were around at that time, none of that was my idea. I don't consider myself black. I'm about as white as you can get, I mean I have red hair. Carpet matches the drapes. No black guy here.

Then that eventually became Fuemana. I signed a deal to EMI and did solo stuff. I can't remember what the question was but, I've been doing it for a while.

Alex Behan: It's okay, I've got my next one ready, that's fantastic. What was it like, in the 90s, being a white guy with red hair taking part in rap and RnB in south Auckland. Stick out like a sore thumb?

Matthew J Ruys: You know what? I stuck out like a sore thumb to, this is going to sound really ... I don't know, I stood out like a sore thumb to white media.

Because they almost felt like they had to say, "Who does this guy think he is?"

But I grew up in Māngere on Bader Drive. Over the fence were the Bunces, Frank Bunce and those guys, we played together as kids. Then, my dad worked in bars and stuff, and we lived up north in Whangarei and we lived in a suburb called Otangarei, which was gang central, and I was literally the only white kid in the neighbourhood and then in the school, and everything. That was my experience growing up.

So all I really knew was Māori and Polynesian in other words. The funny thing was, in Otangarei, in school, I was the only non-Māori kid, and they got me to lead the haka when our school did our haka.

Then, when I got into intermediate school, or high school and stuff, I was always near the top when it came to Māori studies, and things like that. So, it was my upbringing, so, it was natural.

I was surrounded by, and I ate, slept and breathed soul music and RnB, and then eventually early hip hop, and all that sort of stuff and reggae, and it was just in me.

Alex Behan: There's good stories here. Matty J is in the RNZ Studios, and you're in here because you've got a new song, and we'll get to that in a second. But in preparation for the interview, I obviously went back and listened to a few of your '90s songs. I was a teenager at the time, when ‘Colour B.L.I.N.D’ came out. I listened to that again yesterday and it's hot. What a great track. It's peak New Jack Swing, I'm thinking the New Edition era it's perfect in that vibe.

Matthew J Ruys: Yeah well Phil Fuemana and me were inseparable. He wasn't working on that track with me but we were inseparable back in those days.

We would be the first in line to buy those records. That was back in a time where you would actually ... an album would release at midnight, and there'd be a line outside the record store waiting to buy it.

We were the ones who loved that stuff. We ate, slept and breathed it. So, it was normal for me to go, "Well, now I'm signed to EMI and I'm going to make records. I'm going to make the records that I love."

This might make me sound a little bit big-headed but it was a bit before its time back then.

Alex Behan: When was it?

Matthew J Ruys: That record, the first single Colour B.L.I.N.D came out in about '92, '93 somewhere there.

Alex Behan: That is early, that is early.

Matthew J Ruys: That song was actually recorded with Stuart Pearce and Paddy Free, two incredible, amazing New Zealand musicians. So we created that together.

Just as a one single thing, the next year music awards came around and I won The Most Promising Male Vocalist off that one song. So it did get played a lot and it was in people's public consciousness.

Alex Behan: Give me a little bit of recent history, the last 10 years or so. Let's just check, this is the first time you've released music under your own name in a little while?

Matthew J Ruys: Yeah. It's been about 20 years or so since I've done stuff under my own name. When I left New Zealand we moved to Melbourne in Australia and we spent quite a few years there.

Then, we had an opportunity to travel some more with work and things. I've got two boys, who are 12 and 15 now, and we just thought we'd really want to give our boys an upbringing where they get lots of cultures, learn a lot about the world experience lots of things. So we moved to Singapore from Melbourne.

There, I started curating what is basically Asia's version of South by Southwest. For those who don't know what South by Southwest is, in the US they have this big thing that happens in Austin Texas, where bands, not just from America, but all over the world congregate there, do showcases.

Alex Behan: So, you were in Singapore doing a version of this?

Matthew J Ruys: A version of that. It's called Music Matters Live. What it is, is, the Asian market is growing at an exponential rate. Once upon a time, Kiwis for instance, never really thought about going to Asia because of the problems with piracy and all that kind of stuff.

Kiwi bands tended to go, "I've got to go to London, or I've got to go to Los Angeles," and that's how I'm going to break worldwide.

But Asia has a whole bunch of countries with literally billions of people. These days, now that music is streamed, piracy still exists but not like it used to.

Also the world has opened up more and many Asian countries want to hear music from around the world, just like the rest of us do. So, I was curating this festival for a number of years. We'd have bands coming in from America, and England, but would also have them from Poland and Israel and Russia and Germany and Canada, as well as lots of Asian countries as well. It's an incredible thing.

Australia really gets involved with it every year. It was something that New Zealand wasn't really looking at much. So, when I went in there, obviously I did my part to try and bring some Kiwi excerpt for it as well. So, we've had Aaradhna perform there and we've had Jason Kerrison and we've had Seth Haapu and Theia. That's what I was doing in Asia.

Alex Behan: Then from Singapore to LA.

Matthew J Ruys: Yes. I travelled to America a lot, in the mid to late '90s, with work, music stuff. I'd always said to myself, "Well, at some point, I want to live there." So, we do. We live in Santa Monica, in Los Angeles.

Alex Behan: Beautiful.

Matthew J Ruys: It is stunning. One could argue that we've gone to another place that doesn't have a lot of seasons, but it does get a bit cooler in the winter, and hotter in the summer, there is some change there.

Alex Behan: Matty J, you were woke, before woke was a thing, you wrote Colorblind in '92, and you're still on that conscious music buzz. The new song features a very well known artist, Speech from Arrested Development, who's a very prominent and conscious rapper himself. I'm overusing that term, but it's appropriate, I think.

Matthew J Ruys: It's appropriate.

Alex Behan: The song is called People X People, People versus People, People X People.

Matthew J Ruys: People X People. I mean, the chorus sings: "People are people." The X thing, a couple of reasons. One, when I was writing it down, people are people, I thought of Depeche Mode, and I thought that there's a Depeche Mode song from early in their career that was big, that was 'People are People'. So, that was a factor for going X instead of R. A completely different song, but same title. It was legendary, it was their first big hit.

Alex Behan: I just love the fact that you are a Depeche Mode fan, obviously.

Matthew J Ruys: I love Depeche Mode.

Alex Behan: Cool.

Matthew J Ruys: So, there's that. Also the song is a lot about people should be treated equally. We are all human beings, we're all equal. Malcolm X stood for trying to bring equality to black people. Living outside of the US, you see some of the inequality that happens, but in the US, you see it on a daily basis. It's hard. It's hard to experience.

Alex Behan: How long have you been in Trump's America, and how long have you been in America in general? Have you seen a change? Is there a change? What's going on?

Matthew J Ruys: We moved to the States as Trump was going into power. He went into power-

Alex Behan: All right. You've only known Trump's America almost.

Matthew J Ruys: Yeah.

Alex Behan: Wow!

Matthew J Ruys: Well, I've spent a lot of time there in the past. I used to do a lot of work in Atlanta Georgia, and I'd be there a couple of months at a time. So, I got good experience back then and I have noticed a difference. Trump seems to give like-minded people an open door to be more expressive about their racism.

Alex Behan: Normalizing extreme language in some ways.

Matthew J Ruys: Yeah. The stuff that was usually relegated to their own living rooms, on their couches while they were screaming at the TV, they can now walk with a tiki torch down the road and say it out loud.

That's a noticeable difference. It's a very divided nation now. The space between red and blue is way bigger than it's ever been in the past.

You look at it and you go, "There's no way this is ... I don't know how they'll ever ... Actually on the album, which I'm working on now, there's a song called, 'I Don't Know How We Will Ever Work This Out'.

It's basically about that. It's like the gap is so big and it doesn't matter even if you agree with something on the other side, you can't say that, because you're going against party lines and stuff. It's crazy.

Matthew J Ruys

Matthew J Ruys Photo: supplied

Alex Behan: That's the part that's strange to me, because there is middle ground for all of us, and there are so many things that even people on both of those sides agree on. It's just that there are a few issues that separate them, and they are vehement about those particular issues.

Matthew J Ruys: They're vehement about what side they're on.

Alex Behan: Yeah. People love to be on a team.

Matthew J Ruys: Yeah. If people had been able to make their own choices in the senate Kavanaugh would not have been voted in. But because the party lines were so strong he's now in the Supreme Court.

Alex Behan: You're listening to Music 101 not Politics 101. Matty, let's play the song, People X People. When did you decide that you wanted to make music again, what was your plan for this album? Hang on, I've got the name of the album, it's a good name, Things Broken, Things Awoken.

Matthew J Ruys: As I've been talking about living in the US again, that title came out of just life. There are some stunningly amazing, awesome things about America. America has brought has incredible things into the world, they still do amazing things.

So what happened was, I moved into Santa Monica and there's another Kiwi musician who lives there, named Mark Tierney, he's 1/2 of Strawpeople. Mark Tierney and I go way back. He actually worked on my original album, we've shot music videos together.

So, when we ended up in the same town, the first year was just settling in and everything. Then, we started hanging out a bit, and one thing led to another. We decided to put a studio into the back of my house. Mark had a whole bunch of gear.

It was quite organic how it all happened. Then we toyed with this idea of doing a joint record that would just be like a sessions record of hanging out in this garage. But, as we started developing music, it became clear that he was developing a Mark Tierney project, and I was developing a Matt Ruys project.

Then, I thought to myself, Maybe it's time to do another Matthew Ruys record? It's been a long time, I've got all these ideas, I've got a plethora of songs. Because also over the years I've written a bunch of songs for other people  ... I'm always writing.

So one thing led to another. Then different ideas came out, different songs. When the gestation of 'People X People, People are People', when that was all coming about and I was looking at the themes and stuff I had known Speech since the '90s when I was traveling to Atlanta. We'd become quite good friends over the years.

I just thought, I'll shout out to Speech. We actually demoed songs in the past. Him and I have this, there's a demo that nobody gets to hear, of him and I doing a version of 'So Much Trouble In The World' by Bob Marley.

So anyway, I showed him the song, and he's like, "This is it man! We've got to. I love this. I love its message." He is very conscious and they still tour all the time. They've just spent three months in Europe touring and they sell out every show they do.

They still release records, they're just not looking for chart success anymore. So their records are even more conscious. The latest album has only been out for a month and it's just fantastic.

To me it's some of their best work. Anyway, I will say this, because I want to give a plug to Speech he has made a film, a documentary film, where he goes into prison and works with prisoners from all kinds of walks of life on their own music. It's an amazing film. It's called 16 Bars. It's doing all of film festivals around the world at the moment. It's getting rave reviews.

For me, and I'm not only saying this because I'm his friend, there's a lot of documentaries out there about prison life and stuff, this is the most amazing, heartfelt, tear jerking, documentary you'll ever see. It'll probably end up on Netflix, so New Zealand will probably get to see it that way. But incredible stuff.