Reuben and the Dark – ‘I feel like my best music is still ahead of me’

Words: Miljan Milekić

The first time I ever heard Reuben and the Dark was back in 2019 when I saw the video for his song ‘Weightlessness,’ and I was instantly hooked. Not only that the song was amazing, but the video itself had stunning visuals and some good skateboarding, courtesy of Reuben Bullock himself. After all, I did find it at The Berrics. Fast forward to 2022, and we meet again. We made a move across the Atlantic to find our new home in Canada, while Reuben and the Dark released their brand new album ‘In Lieu Of Light,’ once again showcasing everything I love about the band. On March 22, the band will kick off their Canadian tour in Quebec City, taking it all the way to Victoria and Vancouver. The timing was perfect to sit down with Reuben and talk about the upcoming tour, ‘In Lieu Of Light,’ his love for skateboarding, growing up in Calgary, and his recent move to Joshua Tree.

Reuben And The Dark 2022 / Photo: Carly Foulkes

First of all, how does it feel to be back in the Canadian snow?
Reuben: It’s been an adjustment for sure. (laughs) It’s cold. It was cold in the desert too. We actually got snow when I left, but not this cold. But it’s nice to be back, and it’s nice to be back in the Canadian music scene too. I feel like it’s been a little while since I’ve jumped into it.

On this tour, you will be bringing your brand new album ‘In Lie Of Light.’ How does it feel to finally bring this record to Canada? What are your expectations from this tour, and how did people react at the shows you played so far?
I’m excited about it. It’s the longest we’ve waited, from releasing an album to touring it. And because of how things happened with Covid and travel, and trying to book a tour again after you haven’t in three years, it’s a lot of details. But I’m really excited to play it. We’ve kind of rearranged a lot of it to perform live, because this album was written almost as a solo album in my house in Joshua Tree. The band played on it, but we didn’t really bring it to life the way that we have with other albums. So it’s been fun to get into the studio and rehearse with the band. We’ve played probably seven or eight shows, and it’s really cool to play all the songs live. A lot of people know all the music already, so it’s been pretty fun to show up to these cities and have people sing along to songs that we’ve never played before.

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So, what can you tell me about the record itself? How long was this one in the works? How did the writing process work for this one, with everything you mentioned?
Reuben: It was different. Every album is personal in different ways, but this one felt really personal because of how the songs started. I was doing these Instagram Live videos during Covid. I would wake up at sunrise, and I would just play piano and play around on my guitar. I would tend to wake up maybe an hour before I would actually do the video, and I would just play something. Almost every morning, I would write one or two things and then just test them and play them to a live audience on Instagram. I think the majority, probably 90% of the songs on the album, started like that. They all started with these little piano motifs or lyrics that I would sing.

I could see people react to them on the screen, and then I would maybe move forward and keep writing those songs, the ones people would say stuff like – “I love this,” or “This is beautiful.” It was something I was just doing for myself, really personal, and then watching it react with some people. So, the majority of it was written by myself in my studio, and then some of the band were able to fly down, and we worked on it. And then, we took it to Calgary and finished it. I think it’s all really reflective. A lot of this stuff was me trying to find some positivity in a time that was pretty messed up for myself and a lot of people. And that’s, kind of, where the title ‘In Lieu of Light’ came from. When things are like that, the songs could be a way of cutting through a lot of the darkness.

That’s interesting because I was always curious about your creative process. From what I understand, you are the one bringing out the idea, and then bringing them to life with the rest of the band. But do you usually have the whole vision set up before bringing it to the other guys, or do you just bring some rough sketches? Or it just depends on the song?
Reuben: It’s different every time. There are a couple of songs on this album that I did just totally on my own. We probably did more than 20 songs on this album, and a lot of more band songs didn’t really end up being on this album for whatever reason. We went through it all after it was recorded, and I kind of picked all the ones that really felt like they belonged on this album.

I like to take something as close as I can to the finish line, but leave enough space for the band to come in and really bring it to life musically. I tend to stop with my acoustic guitar or piano and vocals. And then I like to have them come in and paint everything. This one was similar to how other albums have worked in the past, but two of the guys came to my house, and we really dug in and created a lot of the sonics very early on. Like for songs such as ‘YES,’ ‘Traveler of Swords,’ and ‘Little Sunrise.’ Those were the very first ones that were recorded for this. And that set the tone for how the rest of the album would start feeling, too.

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One of the things I always loved about every record of yours, is the perfect balance between old and new. I feel like every record is bringing a sense of familiarity, but on the other hand, it always sounds fresh and offers something new. How challenging is it to keep doing it without getting stale or repeating yourself?
I don’t know if it’s super intentional ‘cuz I’m not someone that is always trying to push the boundaries. I just try to write songs from the heart. I try to capture the feeling. It may sound strange, but I think that we’ve been lucky to not have one song get really popular. I think that when that happens, it becomes very difficult not to try and copy the formula. If we had one song that was just massive, I think that in the back of my head, I would be like – “Okay, I need to keep trying to write songs like that.”

But because that hasn’t happened, I still feel like I’m experimenting every time I make an album. I want to try a whole bunch of different kinds of songs because it’s natural to me, and that probably helps keep it fresh and unique. Then, on the other side, I feel like I still have all of my best work ahead of me. I feel like all of the best songs I’d ever written – I haven’t written yet. So I’m constantly chasing it. I feel like they’re all still ahead of me. I feel really good and proud of this album, but I always feel like – “Oh, the next one is gonna be the one.” I feel like I’m just beginning.

Reuben And The Dark 2022 / Photo: Carly Foulkes

I know that you are an avid skateboarder, and you have as much passion for it as you do for your music. So, how did that happen for you, especially growing up in a city like Calgary? I know that Canadian winters can last a while, and aren’t really skateboarding-friendly.
No, not at all! (laughs) I got into skateboarding when I was 12 or 13 years old, and I just did it straight for ten years. I didn’t do anything else, just constantly filming video parts and shooting interviews and stuff for magazines. It was my world. I got sponsored when I was around 14. I think I got sponsored around a year after I started skateboarding. So I would go on all these trips. I think I fell in love with it because it was something so personal. It wasn’t like an organized sport. I loved how it felt like this crazy lifestyle that no one understood. At the time, it was very subculture.

No one in my school understood how complex my life was. I would leave school, and I would meet a photographer and a filmer, and we would go to a handrail. I would just suffer, mentally and physically, for hours to try to get this thing that didn’t make sense to anyone else. People would be like – “Why are you jumping down these stairs and risking?” But for me, it was so important, and I was able to be so focused on it. I would totally disappear and get lost in it. It was definitely my passion in a very singular way. But after a lot of injuries, I kind of had to sidestep. And that’s kind of when music came in.

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Do you think your skateboarding ever influences your music? Do you think that the skateboarding attitude of doing your own thing, and doing it your way helped you shape yourself as a songwriter, and find your own style in the music world?
Reuben: I think I used all my focus and experience from skateboarding to put into music. Like, the first music video I made was with a skateboard filmer. And it was like the same thing – we would scout a spot and hope security wouldn’t shut us down. But instead of doing a skateboard trick, we would film a music video. It’s the DIY attitude in skateboarding – you have to just make it happen. I definitely took that attitude into music, and I was like – “All right, I’m in control of this. I’m gonna make this happen. How do I do it? I’m gonna book my own show. I’m gonna write my songs. I’m gonna figure out how to record it. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m just gonna figure it all out as I go.” I absolutely took that from the skateboarding mentality. I was never out of skateboarding, but I’ve been doing it way more recently. Really digging back in and connecting with a lot of people I grew up skateboarding with. Connecting with companies and friends doing some cool things in skateboarding, especially in California.

It’s the creativity, work ethic, and just not paying attention to everyone else who can’t understand it. And I have rarely met a skateboarder who was not involved in some other creative work, whether it’s music, arts, or something else.
Reuben: Oh, yes, I connect with that so deeply. I remember moments when I would be laying on the ground, face down on the concrete, bleeding at the bottom of a set of stairs with a handrail. And then people would be walking up and down the stairs and looking at you like you are just a totally insane person, unable to comprehend why you’re doing that. And for you to be able to push those people out of your mind and understand that you’re doing it just for yourself… I think that’s why it’s easier for people to move into the arts and do other things that people would look at and be like – “That’s madness. Why would you ever do these things?”

The music you make is not traditionally associated with skateboarding, as it doesn’t rely that much on speed and aggression. I can’t really hear it as a soundtrack for hitting the rails, or for a skatepark session, but, I can totally imagine cruising down a long road in a sunset, or under the night sky with it in my headphones. Do you ever skate to your own music? And what do you usually listen to while riding?
Lately, I’ve been hanging out with some people from the crew around Nyjah Houston, and he listens to a very specific, electronic, kind of, motivational techno music. And I was skating this rail, not too long ago, with Becker Dunn, he’s on Disorder, the company that Nyjah owns. And he does the same thing. So, I was stressing and struggling with this thing, and he put this music on, and I just got lost in it. It’s like the fear went away, and I was able to really lock into what I was trying to do.

I don’t often listen to music when I skateboard. I like the madness that goes on in my head. But moving forward, I’ll probably listen to more of that music ‘cuz it takes you into a trance. Especially when you’re doing things that are high-stress or high stake. Something big enough that if you fall, you can really hurt yourself. You have to move your mind out of that mentality, or it’s just impossible to be comfortable. So yeah, maybe some ambient, uptempo, electronic music, just to go into a trance-like state. (laughs) To not think about all the fear that’s involved.

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So, a while ago, you made a switch from Calgary to Joshua Tree in California. What made you make that decision, and how did it all happen?
Reuben: Well, I’ve been spending a lot of time there. We play in LA a lot and have to do a lot of things there just for the industry. And maybe six or seven years ago, a friend of mine, said he got a house out in the desert. I didn’t really know much about it, but he said to stop by and stay with him next time we’re coming through LA. So I did, and it turns out it was Joshua Tree. I’d never heard of it. So, every time I was in LA, I would come out and stay with him. And then I started flying down there between tours and whenever I had time. I just really connected with the area for some reason. It’s just really beautiful and strange.

Then we were on tour in early 2020, and it got canceled because of Covid. We were supposed to be on tour for about six or seven months, so I had packed up my apartment. I just put all my stuff in a storage container. And when the world shut down, I’d been spending so much time in Joshua Tree that I just decided to drive back there. Then, I ended up finding a house that was really affordable, and on a whim, just bought a house on five acres. And just stayed because everything stopped for two years. So, I’ve been there for almost three years now. I literally got there three days after the lockdown and stayed until now. It was a sweet coincidence that it was one of the best places in the world to be during all that madness because it was already so isolated. It felt like normal life out there.

You managed to create your own little world, with your home studio and backyard skatepark. How does it feel to be able to look at it every day when you wake up, and to be able to do what you love? How much does that setup help you with your creative process, knowing that you are able to do things the way you like them, whenever you like them, and not depend on anyone else? And especially during the lockdown?
I was perfect. It saved, it saved me for sure. Being an artist, it’s hard enough as it is, especially when all of these things change. For me to be able to have that property out there and the little skate park, for my mental health, it was nuts. Full paradise. I feel so lucky to just have gotten in at that time. I learned how to do all of the building on my own. I did all of that stuff for barely any money. And it’s so surreal. To wake up and be able to work on music, and then, needing to take a break, skateboarding in a skate park that’s right on my property. And the Joshua Tree sunsets are the craziest in the world. It’s such an inspiring place to be. It’s crazy that not a lot of people can live there. It’s like 45 degrees seven months a year, but I love it.

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