Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Reuben and the Dark: From skater-poet to singer-songwriter

Reuben Bullock traded his board for a guitar

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Expect to see Reuben and the Dark's Funeral Sky on a ton of best-of lists come December.

The debut album from the Calgary indie-folk outfit, led by singer-songwriter Reuben Bullock, is a collection of soaring, cinematic songs replete with heart-string-tugging harmonies -- the kind that should have no problem finding their way into movie trailers.

And that's not out of the question, either. Released at the end of May via Canadian indie heavyweight Arts & Crafts, Funeral Sky is the kind of career-making debut that will no doubt net some Juno and Polaris buzz.

For Bullock, the album's release is the culmination of more than year of hard, slow work. Funeral Sky was pieced together from several different recording sessions, including a couple with Florence and the Machine drummer Chris Hayden -- whom Bullock had met and hit it off with while vacationing in Mexico -- and Stephen Kozmeniuk, who has worked with the likes of Madonna, Nicki Minaj and Kanye West.

"We worked with this producer who had produced songs for Madonna and Kanye -- and we're a folk band trying out these songs we'd recorded on a $10 tape machine in a bandmate's basement," Bullock says with an incredulous laugh.

Bullock has no regrets about the piecemeal recording process; each song was given the treatment it needed. "I wanted it to be strong," he says of the record. Bullock figures the band had almost 20 songs they had to whittle down to 11.

Not all the songs were written for Funeral Sky; some had been self-released in various forms over the years. "We had a chance to put out these songs and give them a bigger life. Two of my favourite songs -- Devil's Time and Bow & Arrow -- are older. We had some success with Bow & Arrow in that fans and friends were familiar with it. We err towards being an alt-country band when not enough thought goes into arrangements. I'm always a fan of songs you can't put a genre on -- you just think of them as good songs."

Bullock, 29, demands a lot of himself, a quality that almost took him pro as a skateboarder.

He began skateboarding when he was 11; by his teens, he'd caught the attention of sponsors, but not necessarily for his technical ability. "I think they saw a guy who really pushed himself," he says. "I had a fearless approach to the way I did things. I felt like an imposter around all these people that had honed ability.

"I feel the same way about music. The other musicians I'm around -- even in my own band -- exceed my technical ability. It really comes down to caring about what I do."

Bullock didn't pick up the guitar until he was 21 or 22, but when he wasn't popping ollies, he was writing poetry.

"I went nuts with it like any 16-year-old that gets obsessed with something," he says. "I filled journals and journals with poetry that resembled lyrics. But I never shared them with anyone."

Eventually, however, Bullock wanted to bring the performative aspect he loved about skateboarding to his writing. "I picked the guitar up out of necessity, to get words off of paper. Once I figured out how to play two chords, it gave writing a completely different meaning."

Unlike a lot of young singer/songwriters, Bullock didn't have a long list of musical or literary influences during his formative years.

"I was on my own little island," he says. "I thought if I read too many books or listened to too much music, I'd start writing like my favourite author or my favourite band. I had to write like I was the only one doing it. I was more inspired by their depth of thought and their passion."

While Bullock still skateboards, music has won out.

"I broke a lot of bones and I realized how much I'd put into it," he says. "It's very limited in terms of skill set. Music is part of a bigger culture. There's a bigger picture. Music started feeling more honest (than skateboarding) as a full-time pursuit."

And, with a proper debut on their hands, Bullock and his bandmates are well on their way to making music full-time. "We want to see this thing through," he says.

Right now, he's looking forward to a stretch of tour dates that lies ahead. This summer will be spent on the festival circuit, and will see them play the Winnipeg Folk Festival, Osheaga in Montreal, the Squamish Valley Music Festival in B.C., and Austin City Limits. "What we're doing this summer is a dream of mine."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 10, 2014 C3

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