Brian Ruryk: Almost Thinking

Navel-Gazers #52 is an interview with Brian Ruryk who is going to talk to us about Almost Thinking. A relentless 30-track long barrage of sounds, it feels in some ways like even more than 30 tracks, since each of them - many of which are under two minutes long - seem to consist of their own little sub-fragments which are lodged there within, like some kind of musical clown car. It’s certainly a work which plays with my head, as after the first listen I had recalled - erroneously - a sound collage album of almost exclusively electric-guitar noise. It was only upon revisiting ‘Almost Thinking’ that I got any kind of handle on the actual breadth and range of sounds represented here: there are what sound like radio samples, vinyl scratches, junky clatter, incidental noise, tape loops, electronic blips, white noise, traffic sounds… and there are lots of voices - none of them jump out to me as being Brian Ruryk himself but who knows? What I love about ‘Almost Thinking’ is the paradox that on the one hand this is something which comes across as completely spontaneous and thrown-together, but by the sheer number of edits - and there are surely hundreds - it just can’t have been. Or can it? Well, why wonder - only one way to find out, let’s talk to Brian.

AC: Thanks for joining me on Navel-Gazers! Before digging into ‘Almost Thinking’, I’m curious about your history. Your Bandcamp says you’ve been “clueless since 1982” and I can find evidence of your music going back to the 80s. What were you up to in 1982 and how did you get started? Can we hear any of that earliest stuff anywhere?

Brian Ruryk: My father worked for a company called Dictaphone, and he would bring these office dictating machines home and I would play with them.In fact, I had one in my bedroom beside my bed, and it just became a normal thing for me to record things and play them back etc. These machines used plastic belts as a recording medium , and over time the belts would get damaged and creased and this would add to the sound, it’s something I really noticed and kind of liked. Later I got a cassette recorder and started bouncing between it, and the dictaphone. So primitive overdubbing etc. ? Also the machines didn’t run at exactly the same speed so this would become a factor that Iwas attracted to, you get the picture right ? Anyway, I used to make a lot of recordings, I also started playing electric guitar when I was about 16. I didn’t own an amplifier so I’d plug it into my parents stereo, and got all sorts of crazy sounds that way. All of my electric guitar friends seem to be doing the same thing. I Noticed the differences in sounds from different speakers and stereos etc. 

 It was fun and we didn’t have much else to do so we did that kind of thing a lot. We sort of became experts at doing things the wrong way, we didn’t have clue, and it was amazing ! This was the mid seventies so that’s where it started I guess.

By 1982 I was releasing and selling home dubbed cassettes etc, also I had been playing in bands and playing live….I think by then, I had already opened for Killing Joke at a fancy rock club etc. Before that I’d had a band called the diners club, which was kind of “no wave”.

We were on a local weirdo compilation tape called Urban Scorch…in my opinion, we were the worst thing on the tape. It was a live recording that captured us at our worst, hahaha. ; Oh well, a guy named Dave Howard was also in the band. I think he later tried to become famous as the Dave Howard Singers.

There may be a few copies of the early cassettes floating around, but it’s not stuff I’m proud of, actually I hope those cassettes ended up as aggregate for roads and buildings, or something. Incinerated at least….I’d like to find and compile some of the early dictaphone /cassette bounces perhaps, that might be fun…who knows.

AC: Were you playing solo at that time, in live settings? I’ve seen some video of your performances and it looks quite intense. How do you approach playing live versus recording, are you trying to create the same kind of experience or is it a different thing?

Brian Ruryk: These days I’m trying to create exactly the same experience live as what's on the cassettes. The process for each is the same in that I'm auditioning sounds and their relationships etc., either accepting them and building or discarding…but when I'm playing live the whole thing is expedited to the nth degree. 

Shows can get pretty physical, I throw objects, or bounce them off my guitar, sometimes I fall off of my chair, or my guitar gets unplugged, my mixer falls over etc. So there’s an element of hazard that I try to engage with. These kinds of things determine what I can do or what I might want to do. There’s usually debris all over the floor, it’s a mess. Also, I’m really not comfortable being the centre of attention, so I'm way out of my element, sometimes my hands shake so badly, I can hardly play. All of these things impact the results when I play live.

Brian Ruryk: The tapes on the other hand are usually done at a slower pace, there is a calm consideration, mics are placed in seemingly ideal positions (usually), there’s an awareness of the stereo spectrum. I can make changes and tweaks after the fact etc…I take advantage of recording realm stuff I guess. Also there is very little anxiety.

Apart from a few interruptions, I’ve played solo since 1982 or so, but it has changed a lot since then, like I rarely improvised in those days.

AC: That’s interesting how if you’re trying to match the pace of the cassettes, it pushes the live performance in that direction.

Brian Ruryk: Yeah trying to duplicate the stuff on the cassettes is something I do, but I do it knowing that it’s impossible, so I’m always expecting failure. When you’re performing you tend to accept the results regardless of what happens, so sometimes things sound great sometimes not, it often feels like I’m in a battle though, like I’m fighting air and gravity ...I suppose this could be contributing to my performance anxiety…I’m not sure. However It’s not always this way sometimes it’s fun.

AC: Let’s talk about ‘Almost Thinking’. Apparently it was made in 2015, but sounds almost like it could have been made anytime. What’s the background?

Brian Ruryk: Almost Thinking was made out of recordings I had collected over a few years prior to 2015. I was also thinking a lot about the primitive bouncing I was doing in my early teens, and tried some of that again. I found it gave me a certain sound and proximity to the source material that was attractive and useful. I guess doing everything on a computer was proving to be too easy? I needed obstacles and limitations ! So I embraced the primitive, but honestly only when it seemed appropriate, and it ended up playing a big part.

The album consisted of a 7” lathe cut picture disc; 2 Cdrs; a photocopied image pasted onto a used record cover; old DVD covers I found in the garbage etc. Maybe the project was about recycling ? You know….recycled sounds; recycled ideas; recycled materials etc. I usually work intuitively, so I wasn’t thinking about any of that at the time, but in hindsight hmmm.

It took me a long time to get the 7” to sound OK, the guy who was cutting the discs was adding eq without my knowledge and it always came back sounding wrong. I also had to remix it in mono, but the cdrs still had the stereo versions, so there were two versions of some of the work, as the formats were impacting the material to a degree. In addition, the 7” had two holes so the listener had the option to use the “wrong” (un-centered) hole and get that warpy wowwy effect, that obviously impacted the original audio dramatically, so there was that too.

I think I made about 20 copies and they sold pretty fast, I also remember giving a few to friends for free. I’m sure they ended up up in the trash the next time they moved or something, I’m such an idiot sometimes.

AC: I wonder if we could just dissect a track here to decipher how it was made, let’s take Superstar Cafeteria, this is a 2:45 minute long track which I swear must have at least a hundred different sections: there’s a sped up acoustic guitar, a part with a guy talking gibberish, a moody keyboard section, a sample of some 90’s rock, a disco dj of some kind… the thing is, none of these last more than a few seconds! How exactly do you string everything together? How long does it take, relative to the length of the resulting piece?

Brian Ruryk: I just listened to Superstar Cafeteria for the first time in 9 years and unfortunately can't remember all the details. I’m pretty sure that some of the guitar edits were done in real time, on two cassette decks while adding live playing on top…the results were probably put into a DAW session then further worked over. So it sounds like live improvisations; including real time edits; added to other similar scenarios, creating a sequence on a computer ? In general I think that’s how I worked at the time. The cassette machines were probably cheap ghetto blasters with pause buttons. Typically I would’ve kept listening to each part, adding and subtracting, moving things around until they sounded good. Quite straight forward when you boil it all down I guess. Technically it's a bit like writing an essay. It could've been worked on for a period of months.

I can guarantee that the equipment was all ultra cheap sourced from, thrift stores; the guitars not tuned, everything barely functional…i was probably on my knees in an uncomfortable position, the cassettes were almost certainly recycled from thrift stores…i can remember recording over a Cure album and getting a lot of mileage out of that.

It was fun listening to it after all these years, so thanks!

AC: Who is the woman talking about food on Loblaws and Led Zepplin?

Sound Studio 80s
Brian Ruryk: I'm not sure who she is, but I found her on a tape I had lying around, I'm not sure where it came from, or when it was recorded. I'm assuming a train ?

But I really love the mood of her voice, that combination of boredom and irritation mixed with civility ?  I wonder how she is doing these days. Maybe she found a new job.

AC: Generally speaking, how do people react to your music?

Brian Ruryk: I find it difficult to determine how people react. After I finish playing in public, there is at least polite applause, however I really don't know how to interpret that. Occasionally there is enthusiastic applause, I guess that’s a better reaction ?

Recently I played a show at a jazz festival, and there was a part in the performance where I was throwing objects and letting them crash on the floor. There were a few audience members that found that hilarious I guess, cause they were laughing loudly. I really don't know what was up with that, as I was doing it cause I thought it was totally appropriate and sounded great, I wasn't trying to be funny, so who knows ? Of course people come up after and say they liked it, whatever that means, or they appreciated it in some way, they buy a tape or record…so there's that. There was one recent performance where someone said they thought it was a great show and everything, but asked me what it all meant ? I couldn’t think of an answer…

It’s difficult to know how people react to the recordings, I assume they listen to them before they make the purchases, so I have to believe they “like” the recordings in some way, or perhaps they like the way they look, not sure…I get very little feedback.

AC: Well this is one of my favourite recordings so there’s a bit of feedback for you!

What’s next, any current projects you’d like to mention?

Brian Ruryk: Generally more of the same, but specifically I’m working on a cassette that will come with a book containing photos and text. I’m also working on a feature length movie called Too Stupid To Have A Good Time, which is sort of a vanity documentary, it’ll feature video from over twenty years of travel and performances etc plus interviews and stuff. It was started in 2006 and will be complete by 2026 or 2027.

AC: Sounds tremendous! I'll be keeping an eye out. Thanks for talking to me.

Brian can can be found at

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