Love Language Mastermind Stuart McLamb on New Album ‘Ruby Red,’ Recording With a Former Teen Whistling Champ + More
It took the Love Language’s frontman and songwriter Stuart McLamb a little more than three years to record his third LP, 'Ruby Red.' Along the way, he returned to the studio and overhauled much of the album, and the extra time seems to have been worth it.
Released in July on Merge, 'Ruby Red' is the work of an artist refusing to stick to the sound that originally pushed him into the indie spotlight. Gone are the lo-fi aesthetics and nods to '60s pop and Motown; in their place are slick paeans to psychedelic garage rock, Kraut-inspired rhythms and even a touch of '80s New Wave. McLamb recorded the album with the help of 21 other musicians -- a far cry from the Love Language’s self-titled debut and 2010 follow-up, 'Libraries,' both of which were all-solo affairs. And yet despite the genre play and bigger sound, McLamb’s penchant for hooks, clever arrangements and Phil Spector-inspired orchestrations remain intact, and the overall result is a new and somewhat unexpected side of the band.
When Diffuser.fm reached McLamb by phone, he was driving on the highway in a "shady" used trailer he'd just picked up for the band's upcoming tour. We decided it's probably wasn't the best time for an interview and rescheduled for the next day, when McLamb chatted about the band's expanded sound, the process behind making the new album and the story behind that treacherous trailer.
So what happened with the trailer yesterday? Is it functional and ready for tour?
Oh, I’m going in tomorrow to have it tuned up. It’s been sitting in a parking lot for two years! It’s a little shady driving it. It’s like the 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' trailer.
Can you talk about what prompted you to record for the first time with other musicians, as opposed to the solo recording you’ve done on the past two records?
I wanted to experiment with different things. I don’t think one approach is better than the other. The albums have all been sort of circumstantial. I think the first record called for kind of a more intimate thing. It was music that was coming out of a therapeutic sort of way, for me to just get that stuff out, and then with this record, I didn’t want to do the same thing as the last two -- to perpetuate this break-up material. My life has changed a lot recently through touring, meeting a lot of people through the band and things that have happened, and I wanted this to be more community-oriented.
How collaborative was the recording process? Were the songs completely written and arranged in advance, or did some of the record come together in the studio with the other musicians?
I wrote every song, pretty much, but not totally down to coming up with grooves. My brother played drums on 'Calm Down,' and the second half of that song was all him. We built the song off that locked-in groove; his drumming was expressive and helped build the outro. He also played on the song 'Knots,' and Dave Mueller from the band Heads on Sticks helped work out that bass groove. I co-wrote the song 'Kids' with Mike Dillon of the Durham band Gross Ghost. We tracked that one totally live; he was playing bass. These guys brought a lot to the table. It was good to have others involved so it wouldn’t be so one-dimensional, and they brought more life to the record.
How did you select the musicians that played on the record? Were they local musicians and members of your touring band?
We’ve never been the type of band to just go into a rehearsal space and just hash it out. People have come in and out that I have a lot of respect for, and the band’s lineup kind of rotates. This record was the result of the touring lineup being kind of spread out during recording sessions in different towns, so they came in when they could, when I needed a bass or a drum part. Otherwise, I would bring in musicians from around town.
Why did you decide to scrap the initial version of the record and go back into the studio?
Well, it's not like the whole thing was scrapped. We tracked about 65 to 75 percent of the record in a month, and a lot of that has remained intact in the final results, because I still wanted much of that moment in time from that month of recording. But then we went back and listened and reassessed things, which took a long time. We originally had 20 demos and 15 songs recorded, and when we went back we cut some songs and did some new ones. The ones we cut might show up later on something.
Was there a conscious effort to rework the sound of the Love Language and show a different side of your music? Or did this happen organically as you began to write and record?
It came out of me wanting the project to go along with where I’m at. I want it to be relevant to where I am, even when I’m in my 50s and 60s. I see this as a lifelong project, and in order to keep doing it, I need to move away from the pre-existing ideas of the sound.
I read that 1997 International Teenage Whistling Champion Tony Woodward whistled on the song 'For Izzy.' How did that come about?
Yeah, he’s an all-around hilarious, amazing dude in Raleigh. He was, I want to say, once on David Letterman, or maybe Jay Leno. When he gets a couple in him, he starts showcasing his talent. You'll be at this rowdy dive bar in Raleigh, and he'll just start whistling 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow,' and everyone will be super quiet. He ended up on the record because we heard him one night at a bar whistling, and he told us about how he was a champion whistler.
What’s next for the Love Language?
It's always hard to predict. I might start out my next project a lot like the first record, like more of low-fidelity thing. But I haven't really thought that far ahead. I am excited about the idea of being a little more hands on in the recording process, though.