Analogue Music | Reuben and the Dark

Reuben and the Dark

By Matt Conner

When I told Reuben Bullock that the songs on his new album linger, for lack of a better word, he knew instantly what I meant to say.

It's a sentiment he hears on a consistent basis, that the compositions as written and recorded by his band, Reuben and the Dark, remain with the listener—haunt them, even—long after the counter resets to zero. For some fans they even describe it as a "spiritual experience." I just nodded. That's what I meant. 

Even for Bullock himself, the act of creation is nothing less than a mystical process, one he respects and reveres as much as he can. Even when he writes, Bullock says he tries to even get as physically close to the ground as possible, writing songs while lying on his back and noodling around on the guitar. A man in touch with the earth, doing his best to connect with his mortality and those around him on the fleeting journey.

Analogue: Typically my conversations with artists about to release an album will begin with how they're feeling about the songs. But with this new album, I was struck by how deeply personal they felt, and I wondered whether having all of these people ready to hear such deeply personal work might be overwhelming to release.

Reuben Bullock: Yeah, it's actually my heart and I think that's why it gets intimidating. I mean, it's awesome playing shows and it's all songs. You're writing songs and playing songs and you're a performer by default, because you're on stage. But I never intended to be an entertainer or performer. It's just all a result of writing songs and showing so much of my insides. [Laughs] All of the songs are so loaded with such personal experience and pain and intimate expressions. 

So yeah, I often find myself on a stage wondering, 'What do people think of me? What do people think of this?' Luckily, people connect with it in a way that seems valuable or important. A lot of times will say that they have a spiritual experience at a show, and I think that experience can often be a feeling. For whatever reason, the songs are putting out all of this emotion. Just like you said, there aren't too many songs of mine you can put on in a coffee shop and do some writing. [Laughs] 

Maybe I'll grow out of that with some maturity or maybe that's how I write and express things. But it does leave you vulnerable because that's an exchange. Depending on what you get back from it, you can feel heartbroken.

Analogue: You recently played New York. Was that a Communion Music night?

Reuben: Yes it was. 

Analogue: Did you get to play some of the new tunes?

Reuben: Yeah, we've kind of been dipping into a couple of them that are a bit older from those shows. That was also a showcase night, too, so we got to play in front of an audience that wasn't that familiar with us. That was the pre-tour and then the band is together this week. This tour we'll be dipping into the new stuff. 

Analogue: I was curious how it felt putting these songs out there live?

Reuben: This is the first time with the band that we've really cycled through an album. It's a learning experience. The strength in songs comes from a number of things when you're performing live, I think. One is your own muscle memory and the fact that you've given all of this stuff such history. When you play an old song, it carries weight, but it's hard to tell if it carries weight to you or the audience. If they've heard it on the radio or something, they respond way different than if you just play something they've never heard before. 

It's hard to not play while looking around a bit out of curiosity, but again, that's the last place you want to be. I don't want to be performing wondering how something is going over, but there will be that transition time where you're getting used to something as is the audience. But overall the last record is so old that it's nice to play something that's current and of the moment.

Analogue: Can you speak to that—the time between albums?

Reuben: Yeah, somehow we just never stopped being busy. We managed to tour pretty much non-stop the entire time. It's funny I fell into the same trap everyone experiences after putting your first record out. It's not even necessarily a writer's block, since I wrote so many things in that time that there's probably three or four albums' worth of songs... I almost put out three albums of material before this. But I almost got stuck in this world. Normally I write 12 songs and then put out an album. That's it. 

I've said these songs are kind of like mystics as they're blowing my mind with some insight about myself that I didn't know when I wrote it. But two months or six months later, I'm living in the middle of a song.

This time, for some reason, I held the bar way higher and had expectations on myself. I loved the first 10 or 12 songs we wrote after the last album, but I also realized I wanted to play festivals. All of the songs I'd written were gentle and more conducive to me sitting on a stool in some theater. So then it's like, 'Why am I writing these songs if I want to play anthems or rock tunes? I just wrote a really delicate folk album.' So I went back and wrote more and tried to get into that right head space. It just took me a really long time to find all of those songs. I had to whittle it down some from close to 50 or 60 finished songs. 

Analogue: Earlier you said that people will claim a spiritual experience at a show. Is the creation process spiritual for you as well? 

Reuben: Yeah, I think it has to be, and I think that's what comes through. When I really write, I believe in maybe multiple consciousnesses. A big part of this record came from waking up in the morning and feeling exhausted for months. Then I'd wake up and feel at peace. Then I'd feel different again. I started to wonder what was going on in my dreams. I don't remember any dreams ever, but I remember feeling tossed around and maybe experiencing some really heavy, dramatic things I didn't understand the physical repercussions of that. 

I started trying to get that stuff out when I was writing. I tried to get to a place where I could channel whatever it was inside of me. A lot of this album is me now looking back and learning from these tunes. I've said these songs are kind of like mystics as they're blowing my mind with some insight about myself that I didn't know when I wrote it. But two months or six months later, I'm living in the middle of a song. 

So there's definitely something spiritual about it. It's my own therapy or meditation. It's a way of communicating with myself, I think. When I really write a song, I end up laying on the floor and getting as close to the ground as I can and scribblingn when I really get into it. I'm always aiming for those moments when I'm surrendered to the moment and I try to write it exactly as it comes. 

Analogue: You've got one part on the album where you mention learning from your parents to keep everything inside, and that made me smile, because I thought of your career which is baring it all, so to speak.

Reuben: [Laughs] There's the duality of it all, right? 

Analogue: How did you learn to flip that switch?

Reuben: I think it's a learning I'm going through right now. If I walk into a room of people now, I am headed to the back corner. It's not that I'm shy, but I'm very introverted. Yet if you put me on stage, I'm alive and confident and all these extroverted qualities come out. It's something I'm trying to understand about myself. 

Analogue: Do you ever pull any punches from the stage when something's too personal?

Reuben: [Laughs] There's definitely a couple like that, but I don't know if any of those songs are in the set anymore. But some of the most sad songs are the ones that people connect to the most. There's a healing quality to a lot of these songs. That's the part of it that makes these songs kind of mystic. As I sing them, there's something about the way that I write them... I'm not writing to be sad. I write to get things out and process stuff. So all these songs end up being medicine in a strange way. Even if I'm writing something that just killed me when I was writing about it, by the time it's done, I kind of feel full. There's this human feeling that comes with it.