Everything is bigger on Funeral Sky. Reuben & the Dark’s debut full-length on the juggernaut indie label, Arts & Crafts, features the band unfolding with luxurious ease, sprawling across majestic, new landscapes and enormous, gospel-tinged re-imaginations of older favourites. For an artist that has been toiling for four years, making the journey from playing empty cafes on a Saturday night to selling out the Gateway at a recent Calgary stop on a North American tour, Funeral Sky represents validation, accomplishment, a milestone achievement that not only marks how far the band has come, but how much more they have laid out in front of them.
Reuben & the Dark’s story has been one of relentless work leading to almost unlikely success. The first break happened when Bullock had a chance encounter with Florence and the Machine more than two years ago in a Mexican resort town. A relationship with drummer Chris Hayden soon blossomed and Hayden became the band’s mentor and producer, forging a connection that, to this day, continues to inform the band’s musical progress. On the strength of that endorsement, the Dark started to criss-cross the continent every season, seemingly going from tour to tour with few breaks in between. This arduous schedule solidified the band as a live presence as the songs took a life of their own onstage each night: the quintet continues, even to this day, to rework and rearrange songs so they remain fresh and indicative of their collective mindset.
In February of last year, at Music Calgary’s inaugural SoundOff! event, Reuben & the Dark confirmed news that they had been signed to Arts & Crafts, a string of new additions to the Toronto team that demonstrated that the label was reaching far and wide across the country in search of new talent. With institutional support from the label, the quintet began the long process of preparing their proper full-length album under the label’s banner, recording the 11 tracks that would end up on the album over a period of just under two years, reworking and re-recording songs that didn’t feel up to par with unwavering direction.
“Summers blend into years of just being in a van with friends and enjoying where you’re at. The moment this record comes out on vinyl and having it in my hands has been a dream of mine.” — Reuben Bullock
“We really put high expectations on [ourselves and Funeral Sky] and didn’t stop until it started feeling right,” says Reuben Bullock. “I’ve never put much thought into recording, ever. The other stuff we did,” referencing the rest of the Dark, including Shea Alain, Scott Munro (who is no longer with the band, focusing instead on his other project, Viet Cong), Distance Bullock and Dillon Whitfield, “was always kind of in the moment — it was always how that song felt in the moment, which is why a lot of it was life off the floor.
“Some of this record is still live off the floor, but this time, we really thought about the songs and how we could do them justice, or if we could go and work with someone else that had a vision for that song. Like, ‘Rolling Stone’ wasn’t supposed to go on the record at all, we had scrapped it,” he laughs. “Then, we got signed to Arts & Crafts and they were like, ‘Oh, what happened to the song? We really liked it.’ We didn’t want to record it again — we had tried it once and it just didn’t have the same kind of feeling. It wasn’t going to go on the record at all, but that was the beginning of re-recording Funeral Sky.”
The process of recording and re-recording Funeral Sky, chasing an ineffable sense of perfection innate to each song not immediately evident from the outset each time, spanned several studios across the country and took them almost two years to complete. At the end of it all, the goal was to produce a cohesive album in which older songs, like “Bow and Arrow” could stand side-by-side with newer tracks, like “Devil’s Lament.”
“We tried to look at it as a cohesive, beginning-to-end effort. The timing is so skewed on it, too: we pulled songs from the first ones I wrote to some we wrote in the studio at the end. We tried to make it all feel like a record,” Bullock confirms.
Still, the band relied on intuition and feeling, rather than a cold sense of calculation, when putting the album together. Bullock readily admits that there was no master plan for Funeral Sky, no overarching storyboard that dictated the ebbs and flows of the album.
“There was no real thought, I didn’t map anything out: it came down to what felt best and what we were inspired to record or re-record. What felt the most natural is what represented the band at the time,” he says, noting it became a shifting target as the band itself grew, matured and evolved. If anything, Reuben & the Dark have had to learn how to take a step back since singing with Arts & Crafts and consider the larger picture — “An artist’s instinct is to finish something and show it off. But, to be able to have a career and have any kind of success, you need a strategy,” he says — setting a roadmap to maximize their reach and continue growing their still-young fan base.
That being said, Bullock’s mind is already racing far beyond the May release of Funeral Sky. An upcoming headlining tour of the States in June, starting with Field Day in Toronto in June, will serve as the first leg of support for the album, a process that will continue throughout the summer festival season, a stint at Austin City Limits in October and, potentially, some European dates in the fall. In typical fashion, as if they’re allergic to any real downtime, Reuben & the Dark are getting ready to sit down as a group and write new songs — together, this time, rather than Bullock bringing in the core of the idea upon which they can build — and get to work on some new material. Still, Bullock is careful not to lose sight of it all.
“If everything ended today, I would definitely be content,” says Bullock with a satisfied smile. “We definitely got to do some sweet stuff. Rewinding to four years ago, playing solo at a cafe to five people, coming to February and selling out Calgary, we’ve done so much… Being able to play places like New York is a dream, places like LA, Philadelphia, Chicago, places I’ve always wanted to go and play.
“Summers blend into years of just being in a van with friends and enjoying where you’re at. The moment this record comes out on vinyl and having it in my hands has been a dream of mine. A lot of bands do it and it’s not a crazy thing, but having that in my hands and having that Arts & Crafts label on it is a dream. Looking back on it all and smiling is crazy.”
Reuben & the Dark will release Funeral Sky on May 27 via Arts & Crafts.
By Sebastian Buzzalino
Photos: Lucia Graca