We spoke to New Zealand musician Peter Ruddell from Sulfate and Wax Chattels in iso from his home studio. He shared with us a little about his band noise-rockers Wax Chattels’ new record that’s finished, new work from solo project Sulfate that’s in progress, writing and recording a song in 48 hours and songwriting in general plus more.
The most recent track that you’ve released into the world is ‘Song For Ruth’…
PETER RUDDELL: Where is Ruth at? [*looks around the room for his cat*].
I thought Ruth was your cat!
PR: It’s my partner’s cat originally. She is the best little thing. She comes and sits next to you when you’re working in the studio and hangs out, she’s kind of like a dog and sits next to you or on your lap and is always super affectionate; I wanted to acknowledge it. I made that track thinking that I needed to block myself away from all the social media and news, because I was finding myself sucked into it. I’m sure you’re the same.
PR: I thought of making a song all about her.
Nice! What effect has being in isolation had for you?
PR: For me, it hasn’t been that bad. I know a lot of other people have been struggling quite a lot financially and mentally. I’ve got a really great set-up here where I get to keep my day job, I get to work from home. I have a great little bubble here, its two apartments next to each other and we share a deck together; me and my partner in this house and then another couple of artists and musicians in the next one. A person over there has been decorating the rooftops, he’s been climbing over and painting faces on the satellite dishes with the receiver as a microphone, all these happy faces. It really lightens the mood. He’s been a source of much admiration, keeping everyone’s spirits up.
That’s awesome! I love hearing stories like that.
PR: He changed an air conditioning unit on a bar next door into a Marshall amplifier!
Cool. Over the last weekend you’ve locked yourself away for a 48-hour song writing thing?
PR: Yeah, it’s this thing called ‘Two Daze’. It’s a compilation of New Zealand artists who write and record a song in 48 hours. It’s going to come out for music month which is May. There was something like 20 artists who have written songs for the compilation. It was nice to have a really strict deadline. I feel like everyone needs that every now and then.
What did you find yourself writing about?
PR: The state of living in isolation, which I feel is going to be the theme of the compilation. It’s not a particularly positive take on it. Sonically it’s pretty different to the songs I’ve released both as Wax Chattels and Sulfate up until now. If you compare this track to the song I recorded two weeks ago ‘Song For Ruth’ it’s night and day. That was a real positive stay-calm-everybody kind of tune whereas this one is more guttural. It finishes with a ripping sax solo! [laughs].
Nice! Did you find the 48-hour thing challenging?
PR: Yeah, it was tough. You know when you’ve got a song and you think, this might sound good or that might sound good, but you have no time to pick which version is the best way to go. It’s just about, ok, that’s it! Let’s move onto the next thing. Then drums, ok, that’s a drum sound, awesome, I guess that’s the drum sound! It was kind of nice, ‘cause you know when you use computers, with so many variables. Have you played around with Ableton?
PR: It’s just a black hole, right? Limit yourself with time, which means limit yourself with everything else, it actually means you produce something which is a finished thing. Its punk shit man, it’s putting stuff together and your ability to do it; you yield something which is hopefully going to have an impact on others, which is the whole point of music, right?
Yeah. You’ve been making music for quite a while now, so it’s you relying on your skill, instinct and believing in yourself to do it.
PR: I guess. I’m really curious to see, there’s a bunch of pretty big artists on this list for the compilation and it’s going to be really amazing to see what they create.
Do you learn anything about yourself when you write?
PR: I guess you learn limitations, I learn limitations. I try to go into writing things phonetically with a very clear perspective. I don’t know if it’s the content that comes before the music itself in most cases; the learning about yourself would potentially be evaluating your thoughts and evaluating what you want to write a song about. That kind of yields what you think about the world.
I remember when we were writing lots for the next Wax Chattels record, there was a lot of… I don’t know if this is particularly what I want to say or feel comfortable portraying, especially to the wider community, it’s a tough one sometimes.
Where did you learn to write songs? The members of Wax Chattels all met at a jazz school, right?
PR: We did. You had to write original compositions there. I’ve been writing stuff since I was at school though, with bands all through high school. I feel like coming out of jazz school gave you a lot of options and ideas to create interesting variations on time signatures or variations on form. I feel like a lot of the stuff that I have been producing lately, has been pretty much very stripped down to its barest.
The Sulfate record that I made, it reminds me of… do you know Jim O’Rourke? He talks about how there’s no simple songs, only simple people. I was like, hell yeah! Let’s make some songs that are super simple and see if we can make them interesting in ways that are captivating. For all the craziness of jazz school, I kind of went off all of this technical prowess, I find it limits the effectiveness of what you want to say sometimes.
I wanted to ask you about the Sulfate release, specifically songs there’s a ‘Cyclone Pt. 1’ and ‘Cyclone Pt. 2’; what was the thought behind those? The first one seems kind of calm, like the calm before the storm or even being in the eye of the cyclone where it’s calm, then you have the next track which feels maybe like it’s the storm.
PR: It was written as one song really. I figured they should be spread out on the record so that you could have… I think the reason I did it was for radio play. It was going to be difficult to get radio to play this 7-minute epic, whereas if you can just cut to the heavy bit people will be like “Hell yeah!” It does feel like two distinct songs in a way, Part A and Part B, so I thought why not just separate it into two tracks.
Who are the songwriters that you admire?
PR: Jim O’Rourke is definitely one. Prior to the Sulfate release I was listen to a lot of Yo La Tengo and Dirty Three. Swans is a big touchstone; Michael Gira has this side project too called, Angels Of Light, which is again going back to simple songs. A lot of the simplicity in that material was very inspiring. I’m currently in a place where I’m trying to strip things back and make them as effective and as simple as possible to make them hit even harder. Artists I think can do that well are really onto a good thing.
What inspired that change?
PR: Possibly frustration, frustration at my technical abilities. I just found myself listening to music that was simpler with fewer changes.
Is there a specific way that you wanted to differentiate between Sulfate and Wax Chattels?
PR: If I sit down and start writing something, I feel it goes in one of two ways. It either goes in the noisy, fast, angular stuff that is Wax Chattels – in that case I’ll take it to the band and we’ll work on it, we’ll chop it up and take an idea from Tom and take an idea from Amanda – or it goes in another direction; I wanted to have a separate outlet where it’s more beautiful and I had a clear idea of where I wanted the song to go in its entirety and it suits the Sulfate idea of simplicity and often slowness temp-wise. I feel like I’ve been making a call early on in the writing process which camp it fits into.
What’s a song that always cheers you up?
PR: Oh shit, I don’t know. I don’t do any DJ-ing for this very reason. I go through this playlist on my phone and go, oh yeah, that’s sad, oh that’s sad too, and that’s so sad—it’s a difficult question for me to answer [laughs].
Sad songs can make you happy too.
PR: True. There’s some catharsis in it. I like to think there’s a lot of catharsis in the music that I make, none of it is particularly happy or inspiring I don’t think but, maybe there’s some catharsis in it.
What was the first concert that you went to that made a real impact on you?
PR: I remember it very clearly. I went to the Big Day Out when I was fourteen and I remember walking in and seeing the band Die! Die! Die! play, you know that band?
I do, I’ve interviewed them before.
PR Cool. This was after they just won Rock Quest when they were still in Dunedin, I remember walking in and seeing this band that wasn’t much older than me – they would have been about nineteen – I thought shit this band is incredible! It was a fuck yeah, I should be doing this moment.
They’re amazing live!
PR: Yeah, so good. I’ve seen them five or six times.
What are you going to start working on now?
PR: Well, with this isolation it’s all about songwriting, right? You can’t get together with bands, it’s limiting and challenging and how we react to that. We’ve just finished recording a Wax Chattels record, we’ve wrapped up the recording… who knows when it will be released.
PR: I think right now my focus is on the next Sulphate record. My goal for the foreseeable is to have an alternating year, this year should be a Wax Chattels year and next year will be a Sulphate year, I’ll just start working on some stuff there. When we do end this lockdown I’ll hit up my mate David and we’ll make the next Sulphate record.
What direction has the new Wax Chattels record taken?
PR: It’s heavier.
Heavier?! Is that possible?
PR: [Laughs]. We spent quite a bit of time in the studio finding sounds this time. The previous record we wanted to keep as live as possible, this record maintains that live element but we spent a lot more time thickening it up, making the keyboards thicker and the bass more intense. Sonically it’s much more a step up.
Any particular themes you were writing about?
PR: It’s not too dissimilar from the doom and gloom we’ve been talking about [laughs]. I feel the world has changed so dramatically in the last month though, it’s going to be interesting to see what comes out of it, how people interrupt it post this crazy change in the world. All of the songs were written last year, we tracked it towards the end of last year and just got mixes back. The world is a different place.
You said you were exploring a lot of sound in the studio; did you have a favourite sound that you really love?
PR: Personally, my keyboard sounds more and more like a guitar every time [laughs]. Check this out [*holds up an effects pedal*]. There’s a guy in Dunedin called Pepper’s Pedals who makes this thing called “The Satanist” which is black metal distortion in a Wax Chattels box. It’s the most straight in your ear trebly distortion, I love it! It’s all over the record.
What’s one of your favourite songs to play live?
PR: We have a new track on the new record it’s called ‘Mindfulness’. It’s all about how we shouldn’t just try to use the techniques the mindfulness to deal with the shit that we’ve got going on because that’s actually a way of not changing anything, it’s a way of just accepting the status quo rather than kicking up a fuss and actually seeing some real change. That song to play live is so challenging. Me and Tom have to lock in insanely tightly, there’s a whole bunch of aggressive vocals. It’s a thrill to play.
Any other favourites on the new album?
PR: There’s one we’ve been playing live for maybe a year now, it’s called ’Glue’. I can’t wait for the record to come out really. It’s taken a while. I’m going to be excited when it finally does come out.