Photo by Shervin Lainez
RÜFÜS DU SOL: The Highest Rise
Fresh from their first Grammy win, Australian trio RÜFÜS DU SOL take Rolling Stone on a magical drive down memory lane to revisit a decade of dominance.
“I was pretty dialled in when we played ‘Alive’, so I was just witnessing it as an audience member onstage,” recalls James Hunt as he runs through his band’s first landmark show at Los Angeles’ Banc of California Stadium. This wasn’t just any set, mind you. It was the first time Rüfüs Du Sol played the single live, less than a month after releasing their latest opus Surrender in October of last year. It was also their first time performing with Curtis Harding, the American soul/R&B singer featured on the track, on the first of three sold-out nights at a venue massive enough to host the Los Angeles Football Club. And during that climax, the stadium burst with white confetti meant to symbolise rain, nearly drowning the ecstatic audience in a blizzard of paper.
“Especially because we put the focus and spotlight on Curtis, we were kind of shrouded in darkness, silhouetted with rain on the screen behind us,” continues the amicable drummer. “In those moments I’m aware that I can react more freely, and I was just laughing because the confetti was so overwhelming: This is fucking insane! Just revelling in it. It’s such a good feeling playing a song for the first time live, to finally see it.”
Looks like there’s rain up ahead
Like there’s a crack in the heavens
“I was just so focused on getting my pattern on the [Roland] SPD-SX that all I could think about was Don’t fuck this up the first time you play it!” adds bandmate Jon George. “But when the confetti hit I got to experience it a little more.”
We’re currently walking the halls of the Banc of California Stadium reliving the epic evening, amongst the towering structures of the concrete cathedral. Below us, workers mow the vividly green field — a slight whiff of cut grass meeting the glorious Southern California sun in the air. The guys squint behind designer sunglasses, smiling, lost accessing halcyon memory banks while scanning the stands.
The gents carry themselves with the calm confidence of professional athletes. Not quite rockstars mind you — there’s a bit too much self-awareness, like they’ve beaten back the ogre of arrogance that comes with that label. A dead ringer for Bradley Cooper’s younger brother, Jon George radiates the same effortless charm. Perpetual smile, perfectly trimmed beard and coif. With an unbuttoned dark, flowered silk shirt, gold chain and motorcycle cop moustache, Hunt reminds me of what Mac from Always Sunny In Philadelphia would be like if he was actually as cool as he thinks he is. Meanwhile, vocalist Tyrone Lindqvist vibrates with a sense of perpetual self-analysis. He talks the least, often letting the others cover a subject, but is deliberate when he speaks. He seems a bit more in his head than the others.
“I felt really nervous walking out on this stage, and I get it at Red Rocks too, because you’re at the bottom of the stage essentially,” remembers Lindqvist, wisps of blond hair blowing in his face, crisp white Axel Arigato Clean 90 sneakers matching his couture white jumper. “You’re like on the ground and the crowd’s above you, and it’s just like a wall of people. We’ve experienced twenty to thirty-thousand people in a festival that’s all on the ground essentially, and you’re above them. Whereas here it’s like engulfing, like the back wall, the crowd in front of you it’s just so immersive. And it’s so much energy, such a buzz. I remember my mouth just got so dry at the first song, I’m like, ’Oh, there’s no chance to drink the water, Fuck, keep it together, dude!’“
Looks like the tables have turned
Like there’s a change in the weather
Feels like my time is returning
Like I’m about to get out of this cage
We’re touring venues across the city today not just because of Rüfüs Du Sol’s exceptionalism in live performance, but also because Los Angeles has become their second home. Perhaps by chance or fate. LA is also home to many of their most watershed concerts along their path from Sydney to wherever they are now. Their first club night at the seminal Echoplex (“You really had the world to gain,” remembers Lindqvist wistfully, “and nothing to lose”). Theatre performances at The Fonda and Wiltern. Coachella 2016, 2017 and 2019. A free Santa Monica Pier show that broke capacity. Selling out the twenty-thousand-seat LA Historic Park. The ship has certainly sailed harbour, destination unknown.
“The music is experiential for them, and therefore it should ideally be enjoyed in an experiential environment for us,” offers Zane Lowe when asked about Rüfüs’ live appeal. “They’re trying to capture overarching moments in time rather than create single moments.” The former BBC DJ first heard the band touring Australia with The Chemical Brothers, but really sank into them with his current role as Apple Music’s Creative Director, where their global appeal became even more apparent.
“That’s why they can sell out really large venues, because people want the experience they have when they listen to the album to continue into an event. People aren’t going to the club to wait for that one song, they’re going to the Hollywood Bowl to see how Rüfüs Du Sol bring that music to life,” Lowe adds. “I don’t look at them as just a playlist act, I look at them as an album act.”
“I don’t look at them as just a playlist act, I look at them as an album act.” – Zane Lowe
Their prodigious live punch cannot be overstated. There are bands who excel in the studio, and are therefore considered studio bands — until you see them live, and are reminded Oh, this is how they were meant to be heard. Radiohead, Modeselektor and Pink Floyd come to mind. Not that Rüfüs have quite ascended to that level yet, but it’s in play. This magnitude in performance bolsters the prescience the boys had in filming their Live From Joshua Tree extravaganza — the brainchild of Creative Director Katzki (aka George’s brother Alexander). Katzki has been with the band since the beginning, helping mould their particular aesthetic; he conceptualised the band filming an audience-less concert displaying Rüfüs Du Sol’s live chops without distraction, in a static but breathtaking natural landscape that both complements and contrasts the band’s sweeping, gorgeous electronics: Nature meets Machine. But its timing was a thing of pure kismet, dropping just before the entire planet Earth shut its doors to the outside world, locking us all inside for seemingly endless months of forced solitude, loneliness and at times despair. Just as we were all dealing with never seeing a live show again (or at least anytime soon), here came Rüfüs with a high-def broadcast from the edge of nothingness.
Looks like I’m on my knees again
Feels like the walls are closing in
Sure, there are bottomless live shows one could cue up during lockdown, but something resonated singularly about there being no human beings to be seen except for this trio of Aussies. Live From Joshua Tree felt like it was filmed under strict social distancing protocols, no audience save an army of sentient blinking light bars sprinkled across the boulder-strewn Mojave. Connection via isolation, as if you were the only person Rüfüs Du Sol were performing for. Unsurprisingly the 45-minute clip spread like wildfire during the first few months of global lockdown, a streaming message of hope in a bottle.
To many it was a catharsis. A lighthouse. A beacon of music and solace and companionship beaming from the stark deserts of California. Or was it Mars? Who knew. Who cared. When it was impossible to dance with another human being, we’d sync up that set, press play at the same time, and experience it amongst friends spread across the city.
While in hindsight the idea seems obvious, it wasn’t. The label didn’t want to pay so the guys ponied up the money themselves (estimated between $100-$120K) to timestamp where they were at the time. It ended up being an absolute genius stroke of both art and marketing. Simply put, there is no way Live From Joshua Tree would have had the same global impact in any other era.
If you want me
If you need me
Next thing you know we’re back in the shiny black SUV, bombing the ten freeway west from downtown to Venice Beach. The guys have agreed to slip in a new track, and they’ve pushed it to eleven. Heads are bobbing, Hunt subconsciously drums the syncopated beat on his lap. If they were at all initially hesitant that has vanished, and in its place an excitement for the reaction of new ears. I’m not special — the lads take great joy in playing their new songs for old friends, gauging reaction and absorbing energy from their enthusiasm.
“I like playing the music a little too loud so no one can talk,” smirks George.
The track sounds superb. Most of the famed Rüfüs dynamics are there, the only sign of it being a demo are unprocessed vocals. It’s a perfect soundtrack for this journey, one well-travelled by almost every Angeleno. Hazy memories of wandering home in the early morning from warehouse raves flash with pink and pastel blue silhouettes — the towering palm fronds that define LA’s skyline.
Perhaps it’s just coincidental that the music matches the city so well. At the same time, perhaps not. Because locality seems to be an integral component of the Rüfüs Du Sol experience. Consider their first album, Atlas, written and recorded entirely in Sydney (and unexpectedly debuting at number one). Their next, Bloom, was written and recorded in Berlin. Not an accident mind you — the guys decided that the Global Capital of Techno + Debauchery would lend their sophomore LP exactly what the German city offers. It too debuted atop the Australian album chart.
“We’ve enjoyed that process of relocating for different writing emotions,” explains Hunt when the track is done playing. “We always set up a little DIY studio and I think that reinvigorates the writing process for us. And we’re pretty lucky that we can work anywhere in the world, so we were just willing to take that opportunity.”
Then came 2018’s Solace, and the City of Angels. “When looking at the writing period for Solace I guess we’d spoken about it a bunch,” says George, “but we decided to move to LA for the reasons of it being the mecca of so many industries, and we were excited to be able to connect with our producers and be closer to labels and stuff like that.”
“Then we got this house in Venice,” adds Lindqvist. “On Rose Avenue, which we’re going to come up to, and we got swept up in the excitement of it all, and we were writing around the clock.”
The SUV rolls to a stop in the heart of Venice Beach, off its Rose Avenue artery, and we all unload. Again, like at the Banc of California Stadium, the guys take a moment to drink it all in, sharing dumb and fun memories. This is where they found their home — a house with a soundproofed back studio, where Junkie XL lived before. It’s where they found chaos, recklessness and unbalance. It’s such an important locality for them, so seminal, that they named their record label after it: Rose Ave.
“The house to me holds both the most joy and exciting time in my life, and it also holds a lot of weight, like darkness,” remembers Lindqvist. “The yin and the yang of this place, of my time there, it was a moment of transition. It was a place of opportunity. We knew L.A. was a washing machine, but were unaware that we were in the thick of the washing machine, which is exciting and fun. And we were working around the clock in this house with poor boundaries, poor communication and just no self-care. And it was a real period of becoming a bit more self-aware and facing more of our insecurities and more of our demons basically, just facing the shadowy parts of ourselves. Our ego.
“And it was so fun, but there were some decisions that I made in my personal life that just caused me, and a few people around me, more pain than was necessary.”
There’s a pain in my chest that I can’t describe
It takes me down, and leaves me there
When I talk to the night, I can feel it stare
It creeps inside… and meets me there
It’s also where they transitioned from boys to men. A bunch of twenty-year-olds navigating the mega-waves of semi-rock-stardom, seasoned by its wipeouts and wary of its pitfalls, of being swept overboard and buried underwater. When discussing this era words like unsustainable are used by them all, again and again in different contexts. Of nonstop days-long marathon writing sessions, often drug-fueled, and the damage that that level of obsession can have on loved ones and oneself.
For what it’s worth, George and Hunt seem to have grown more at peace with this time of iniquity in Venice. They have smiles when they share the stories and anecdotes, like the time Lindqvist dressed in all white, put a lampshade on his head Sharpied to look like producer Marshmello’s goofy helmet, and knocked on the front door, somehow actually tricking Hunt into believing the superstar DJ was just swinging by.
“Yeah, I don’t know how he fooled me,” laughs Hunt, remembering that early morning visit with a bit of disbelief. “Maybe that says more about my state of mind than it does about anything else.”
“Just to be blunt,” adds Lindqvist, “we were not in a sober state.”
On the other hand, some recollections seem to give Lindqvist a bit of anxiety. There’s an edge there, as if he hasn’t completely come to terms with the headiness of these days.
“I wish that I could have talked to myself earlier,” Lindqvist will share with me a week later via Zoom. “I wish that I could have painted a different picture as to what a successful musician looks like. My idea of that was a life spinning out of control — it was the Kurt Cobains, the Rolling Stones, touring rock’n’roll, just being carefree, like not caring, not having feelings necessarily. Being a bit like, ‘Fuck it, just going to do what I want’. And I just wish that a different picture was painted: the other side of it, which is just that it’s hard work. It’s really fulfilling. You work with your closest friends, hopefully. The more you communicate and the better you communicate, the better you work, the more enjoyable it is to play shows, write music together.”
Barrels of digital ink have spilt outlining the trio’s conflicts at that time, and the use of recording Solace’s followup Surrender as a time of great growth — not just musically, but spiritually and socially. Finding ways to improve themselves individually, and leveraging that personal growth into tools to work better with one another. More than a passing thought, it’s clear this was the central theme to the recording of Surrender, and can be seen in the title itself, as a time when the lads gave in to the process, wrestled with their egos, and found a way to love one another again — in the studio, on the stage and perhaps most importantly in the van, so to speak. The dark temptations of Venice were swapped for the clear skies of Joshua Tree. Tequila, spliffs and 6 a.m. recording sessions were exchanged for ginger shots, yoga mats, Wim Hof breathing techniques and post-show ice baths.
“Usually the story is that people drift apart — they make one amazing album and then splinter,” shares Cassian, the accomplished Australian DJ and producer who has played an integral role as the band’s engineer for a decade now. “I’ve worked with a lot of artists and the way Rüfüs communicates and resolves decisions as a unit in the studio together is amazing. They are three individual artists, and to come together and make one cohesive vision, to put that together is insanely difficult,” he adds. “It’s funny because they’re all really different people, and the confidence and security within the group to be able to express your individuality, and not to be seen as a threat to each other or anything negative, is the biggest thing I’ve seen.”
Confidence without ego is a terrifyingly difficult sweet spot to reach — for any human, not just a globetrotting musician. Wherever they’re travelling there are lighthouses along the way, landmarks hinting the guys are sailing in the right direction. Their LA Historic Park show where their mums saw them play live in America for the first time and met them offstage, cheeks streaming tears of pride. Then there was Coachella 2019. “They just looked like fucking rockstars, and they’re owning it, carrying themselves with the confidence and openness to step into that big role,” recalls Cassian, watching them from the wings of the massive stage. “They’ve always been really ambitious, but there was a new level of it, and respect for it and taking it seriously, and willingness, that I think came with being in LA.”
Then, on April 4th of this year, the three nervous Aussies sat at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, and for the first time in three attempts heard their name called out to capture the Grammy for Best Dance/Electronic Recording for “Alive”.
“When it was called out it was really weird — just the name, hearing it was like a lucid dream. Like, ‘Wait what?’,” Lindqvist recalls from his beautiful new home in San Diego that he shares with his wife and infant son. “One of the things I experienced when we won was so much emotion and gratitude for the fact that we won it now and not when we were nominated for ‘Underwater’ and Solace. Of course I would’ve loved to have gotten a win there, but what this represents in terms of the time period, in terms of how the song came about, in terms of what we’ve done as individuals and as friends and as a band and the changes we’ve made… Whether it’s the song, whether it’s selling out A-B-C shows, all of those things feel like high fives, because we are moving in a really positive direction as a band. And that made me really emotional; I was like, ‘Oh, I’m so happy we got it now!’, because had we gotten it three years ago it would’ve meant something very different.”
Another sign. Another mariner’s quadrant displaying the boys are sailing in the right direction, another reaffirming constellation in the clear night sky.
At least I’m alive, believe me
I’m coming back again
I wanna make it right
“In the music industry it’s always like the band blows up on their first album, and then sophomore syndrome, it just fades away,” adds Cassian. “But their journey has been the opposite: everything’s been organic, there’s been a real culture. They’ve figured out how to keep it all together, keep the vision united which is the hardest thing, adds Cassian, who has enjoyed a unique front row seat to the Rüfüs story over such a long period of time. “For all artists it should be so amazing and inspiring — like you don’t need the number one instant hit, all the stuff the industry tells you you need. You just need to do good music, be consistent and just try to keep getting better and you’ll be alright. And they’re evidence of that.”
Watching the boys recall hilarious anecdotes from their Venice days, it’s impossible not to recognise the sense of comfort you see in well-established friend groups. There is an ease to these guys; you can’t help but like them. There’s a feeling they’re on the other side of something big, perhaps even traumatic. But they’ve emerged from the storm, headed to something even bigger. A schooner that has weathered a hurricane, emerged from the darkness and Himalayan-sized waves by the seat of their pants. Not sure how they’ve survived, but they have. The horizon is clear. Dawn has broken over the bow of the Rüfüs Du Sol — perhaps with a gilded gramophone carved on as a nautical figurehead, but you get a feeling they were headed that way long before any award show. Perhaps they’ve figured out some kind of cheat code to touring band success, one ginger shot, one ice bath, one breath at a time.
“We’re not alone in the process,” Lindqvist tells me as he wraps up our Zoom call. “That’s the biggest gift that we have. When I look at other solo artists, I’m like, ‘Oh, how sad to have this wild ride of an experience and to not get to share it with people!’, because it’s hard to know whether it was real,” he relates wistfully, smiling. “Whereas I can look at the guys and go, ‘Yeah, this, these things happened.’ And I really love that.”
This cover story features in the June 2022 issue of Rolling Stone AU/NZ. If you’re eager to get your hands on it, then now is the time to sign up for a subscription.
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