Now or Never
Husband-and-wife duo Rue Royale pinpoint the last sane moment to bail on grown-up life and hit the road.
By Miles Raymer
February 14, 2008
Rue Royale, Horse in the Sea, Kyle Andrews
Sat 2/16, 8 PM, Subterranean, 2011 W. North, 773-278-6600 or 866-468-3401, $8.
On their MySpace page, Rue Royale still list Chicago as their location, but two months ago this husband-and-wife indie folk-pop duo gave up their apartment in town—they’re staying in a friend’s living room in Barrington, and before that they were crashing with another friend in Palatine. They’ve sold or given away about 80 percent of their stuff, including their two cats and most of their furniture, and they’re about to quit their jobs. On Saturday they’ll play a local release party for their new self-titled full-length, and then in March they’re embarking on a seven-week European tour they booked themselves. They’re also arranging a tour of the States that will start when they get back. They aim to find out if they can do indie folk-pop full-time.
Quitting your job and selling your stuff so your band can tour is not the sort of behavior you expect from married people making decent money in white-collar jobs. Ruth Dekker and her husband, Brookln, were securely on track to be a comfortable middle-class family a few years from now. Ruth, 27, works in remittance processing at a bank. Brookln, 28, works freelancefor a company that provides audiovisual services. They’ve been together seven and a half years and married for almost five. Though Brookln, who was raised in Saint Louis, played the Christian coffeehouse circuit in his teens and met Ruth, who’s from a small town in England, while she was touring with a choir, they’ve only been making music as a couple for about two years. “We’re both musicians,” says Brookln. “That’s one of the things that drew us together originally. Her parents kinda were always trying to pressure me to do something with her, but I wouldn’t because I thought, husband-and-wife bands—it’s so hard to do that in a cool way.”
Eventually, though, familiarity and convenience trumped those concerns. “One day I was just like, ‘Come in the study,’” he says. “‘I’m playing this thing on the guitar. Let’s see what we can do.’ That day we put together a song called ‘Even in the Darkness’ that we put on our EP, and it just kinda happened naturally after that.”
Rue Royale, "Walls"
“We were both surprised that it actually sounded . . . ” says Ruth, then pauses. “It wasn’t cheesy.”
Within a week they’d written a couple more songs and set up a MySpace page. They released the EP Brookln’s referring to, The Search for Where to Go, in May 2006.
Given that what makes people musically compatible is as big a mystery as what makes them click romantically, Ruth and Brookln have been reluctant to tinker with their success by sharing the songwriting with a third party. “Two reasons come to mind,” Brookln says. “Logistically it’s so much easier with just two people. . . . But also you have this sort of emotional tie you have with your songs, and writing a song with your spouse, it’s almost like an offspring of sorts—and to let someone else into the creative process with that, to me, I don’t think I’m ready for that.”
The Dekkers’ friend Aaron Stampfl, who plays keyboards with the Ultra Sonic Edukators, recorded piano parts for both Rue Royale releases and sometimes joins them onstage (he’ll be part of the release show, for instance), but he doesn’t exactly write what he plays—they give him a sketch or a general outline and he fills in the details. Stampfl’s bandmate, USE drummer Aaron Mortenson, added percussion to the EP, but Ruth took over that job for the full-length. And at shows she and Brookln usually split it: he plays kick drum along with his guitar, and she handles shakers, a snare drum, and other odds and ends, including a set of bells she uses to play skeletal versions of the piano parts.
By confining other musicians to peripheral roles, the Dekkers preserve the domestic vibe you can also hear in couple bands like Mates of State and the Like Young—a kind of easy, comfortable intimacy that makes it feel like the songs were written for an audience of one. The music is delicate, usually consisting of little more than acoustic guitar, piano, and Ruth and Brookln’s paired vocals. This is only partly a deliberate aesthetic choice, though. “When we wrote those songs for the EP,” says Ruth, “we were actually living in a small little apartment . . . the woman upstairs was a nightmare, and if we made any noise she’d like freak out.”
“Cursing at us,” Brookln says. “Kicking the floor.”
“So we actually kinda wrote them kinda whispering them, and it created this intimate, quiet, hushed thing, which sounds really weird,” says Ruth. “But it’s the creative space they came from.”
The Dekkers count among their influences several artists I go out of my way to avoid—Coldplay, Sufjan Stevens, the Doves—but they seem to have borrowed only their finer qualities. The songs on Rue Royale are full of the sort of quiet tension that Sufjan and the Doves only nail a couple times per album, and though I can hear Coldplay—or Radiohead via Coldplay—in “These Long Roads,” there’s a haunted ache in Brookln’s lead vocal that Chris Martin seems incapable of projecting. The interplay between the vocal parts (and between the guitar and piano) triggers a hard-to-define sensation, something like the voyeuristic tingle you get when you realize you’re intruding on something private, and it keeps me coming back to the track to feel it again.
Rue Royale’s music may be self-effacing—it hardly reaches out and smacks you—but their commitment to it is anything but diffident. Their European tour plans are certain to push them into debt, and though Brookln has been promised he can go back to his job if the band flops, Ruth doubts she’ll have any such luck. All the same, they’re convinced this is the best time to take the plunge. “I think it’s one of those things,” Ruth says, “where . . . 27, 28, you get to a point where you’re like, Are we gonna keep messing around with it? Are we gonna give it a go? Are we gonna just do it, and if we end up in the hole even more that’s OK? . . . I don’t want to regret not doing it, so we gotta do it now.”
Brookln sees the window of opportunity to pull off crazy-sounding schemes like this closing fast as family life encroaches. “Us leaving our jobs,” he says, “and going on this European tour that we probably can’t afford to go on seems like it’s not pragmatic, but we’re a married couple . . . we gotta think about potentially having kids one day, we gotta think about her family in England—when are we gonna move over there to be closer to them? So it’s actually a planned move. We really, really want Rue Royale to work. But if it’s gonna work, this stuff better happen pretty quick.”