story by Amanda Staples // photos by Remsy Atassi
Last month we met up with Detroit’s rising indie rocker Ian Ruhala at Subterranean on the first night of Hala’s summer tour.
How do you think living in Detroit has influenced your sound?
Detroit basically right now is kind of in a lull, but there's so much going on that you can kind of get lost in it. It's the kind of place where you go to a gig on the weekends, you work throughout the week, and that's kind of the extent of that for a lot of people. It could easily be how it's going to be for me for a couple of years or whatever, but there’s a really good hip hop and rap scene, EDM is a scene that so many people are in to it, then there's a great rock and garage rock scene too.
Where do you think you fall in all of that?
I don't know. I want to say I kind of mesh well with the rock kids. There's a lot of really good bands that are just doing rock and taking their own spin on things and I feel like I fall into that category. A lot of those kids, they dabble in other musical genres and they aren't pigeon holed into one category and that's what I find really beautiful about the scene and the people that I'm friends with. My friend Liam is in a band called Legume and they kind of are just all about playing high energy shows; lots of reverb, screaming, and occasional expletives… It's beautiful, it's great. There’s another band called Brother Son that's really good. There’s just a good atmosphere of a lot of kids just wanting to party and play rock music and that's what I love about it.
Do you think that you're going to stick around in Detroit for a while ?
Yeah, I think so. I'm going to school, so I'm kind of stuck because I go to Wayne, but I went to LA this summer for my 21st birthday. I thought I’d go over there and live the LA life for a little bit, just to see how it is and if it’s something I want to pursue. I thought it was cool and all, the weather is absolutely fantastic, but everything is really expensive and you’ve got to pay a lot of money to have fun. In Detroit you can spend five bucks and get a couple of forties, you can get a coney, hang out with your friends. It's great. You can just do things on the cheap.
What are you studying right now?
Communications, which is hard to believe. [laughs] I don’t know, it's kind of one of those things where I like music and I like doing it… I love doing it, but you know, I’ve got to have a plan B in this time... I’d like to be well rounded. I would like to be a toolbox of a human, but without being a tool.
Do you record all your music yourself?
And how many instruments do you play?
Like six or seven, probably decently.
When you are writing a new song, what comes first: the chords, lyrics, melody?
Different things come at different times. Most of the time the chords come first. Usually I'll be playing acoustic guitar and just strumming it Kumbaya style and just figuring out what feels good. And then after that the lyrics kind of fall into place. I like holding on topic or seeing how I feel. I saw this documentary with the director Harmony Korine and he was saying when he is initially sitting there to write, he can't be writing a movie about war and violence in the comfort of his mansion home, in his nice house; he’s got to be kind of in the thick of things. That really spoke to me in the sense that when I'm writing, I can't be writing a sad love song unless I felt it or I’m going through it; I can’t write a song about friendships splitting apart and just like evil people and bad stuff unless it's happening. I like to make myself as uncomfortable as possible in order to write. I feel like that makes things happen a little more abundantly.
How did you first get your music out to the masses?
I had a record label and they put it up on Spotify, but you know, what’s really crazy and what has been the most insane thing about this whole year is that in the beginning of the year, my song, “What Is Love? Tell Me, Is It Easy?,” was at around 200,000 streams. I was like, “Oh, that's cool. I'm fine if it never goes up from there;” and then it got playlisted, and this song had already been out for two years. I'm thinking, “What's going on?” And then I keep looking back, I'm at 800,000 streams, and then a million, and now it's almost at 2 million and I’m like, “What the fuck is happening?! Thank you Spotify gods.” Then this big YouTube blogger Emma Chamberlain put my song in her video and people were texting and I’m like, “That’s fucking crazy.”
A lot of your sound and photos, and just the media that you put out seems very analog.
And I record only on a computer, I'm fooling everybody. So…that’s a beautiful thing.
I originally found your music on Spotify recommended through Mac DeMarco and Homeshake stations and you were categorized with them.
I feel like everybody, absolutely everybody that's making music on their own right now has taken something from Homeshake or Mac.
What's your inspiration or feelings towards them?
I mean, Salad Days is like the New Testament from my life, and then Currents by Tame Impala is maybe the Bible. That's putting it into a religious sense. They’re what I always go back to when I'm like, “Does this sound terrible? Am I doing this right?”… I can check back in with those records. I was playing drums for a band called Mango Lane and we actually got to open for Homeshake when they played at El Club.
You’re fairly young into your career, do you have any role models or any musician friends that are helping you navigate this new territory?
I've been doing this since 2014 when I was 16, so I feel like maybe I’ve found some routes myself to pursue music I guess. But earlier this summer, I went on Anna Burch. She's amazing; she's a great singer/songwriter from Detroit. She is kind of like a sister to me, a little older than me and she's seen everything, been everywhere. She’s done a lot of touring in her life and is just extremely wise, just agreat person to talk to and pick her brain. So I feel like that was a really beneficial experience for me; you know, packing up in a van with her and a couple of other people and just going and doing it. It was second nature to them, but to me, I was like, “This is fucking crazy man.”
Is there anyone you'd like to collaborate with? Who would that be?
Me and Anna talked about doing a Carly Simon cover. I'd like to do that and see that through. I'd like to get into that Steve Lacy crowd, The Internet and all that stuff. They always put out groovy tunes and Steve Lacy does all his records on his iPhone. I feel like that speaks to kids that make music in a small space or at home or in a minimalist kind of sense. It'd be cool to see what he does.
What’s your favorite city to go to on tour?
Probably Chicago, honestly. I've always said that; every time I come here there's something magical about this place. It’s so close to Detroit, it's like a nice vacation spot. When I was younger, I'd always come here and go to a Cubs game with my aunt. She lived down here for a while, so I would spend time at her place and just fool around the city. Every time I come here it feels like a second home.
What do you think about Chicago’s music scene?
I love Chicago. There’s a lot of great bands here. This is the best musical scene, I would say, in the country right now.
Why do you say that?
You’ve got Twin Peaks, Whitney, Post Animal; you've got a hub of young kids that are just doing it, and there's nobody pulling their strings and telling them what to do and there are no boundaries that they're given. They have creative freedom and a lot of label backing but it's not just about money. There’s a lot of great venues here… Chop Shop is right there and then Sub T the next block over, that doesn't exist in Detroit. I don't really know of anywhere where it's that accessible.
What’s your most memorable story on tour?
Probably when we went to Brazil when I was 18. Honestly, it was such a life changing experience because I was on this label that put out my first EP Young Alumni and I just graduated high school. They were booking this tour to go to South America and my parents were skeptical and I was like, “No guys, it’s straight. Let's go get our visas and let's do this thing.” So we ended up not practicing really intensively because we thought it was going to be just like one of those situations where we're going to get kidnapped and this is going to be the end of our lives, because it was just such a strange concept for us to go down there. I had only been making music for a couple of years. We did 13 dates going from São Paulo all the way down, and it was strange because the shows were at smaller venues, but they were probably the most pack shows I've ever played in my life. They are so hip to music down there and they are just the best people. It's beautiful.
Where do you see Hala going, and what would you like to do?
I’d like to do some festivals. I’d like to come back and play the roof of Sub T, but I’m just kind of letting it go, taking it all in…. this is cool, this is happening, people are listening to my songs on Spotify; Spotify has been a lifesaver in that sense. It's directed so many kids to not only my music, but it's opened up a completely new world in music making and launching your product.
Do you want to stay independent for a while?
Not really. Everybody’s all caught up in like, “I’ve gotta be indie, I’ve got to be doing it all myself.” Once you get to a certain point, you’ve kind of got to ask people for help, and if a label came to me with something decent and they said, “I’m going to put your stuff on vinyl” or do it up right and help you out, I mean, it would be stupid to say no to something like that if it made sense just because of my own stuck-upness just being like, “I'm from Detroit, I’m in an indie band... DIY, bro.” There's a time and place for that and to appreciate that stuff. That's part of the roots and that's what you’ve got to do to come through to see the other side, but if the opportunity arose, I would be like, “Yeah, why not.”
What do your parents think about everything?
My parents actually are extremely supportive. They are my rock. My dad plays guitar and when I was a kid I watched him play left-handed. I picked up the guitar and held it like him. Now I use the same picks as him and play left-handed too. I idolized my dad. He was in a classic rock cover band in the metro area, he loves Skynyrd; and my mom is really into music too, she's more into The Smiths and The Cure, kind of 80s stuff. I grew up with them just bombarding me with great music and then by the time I was like 14, 15, I was playing shows. This morning I woke up at my parent’s house because we'd all kind of rendezvous there, and I got a letter from my dad and it was just him saying, “Go do it, man! Live the dream… Rock'n'roll!” And I was like, “Fuck yeah, dad, you’re the man. You’re the best.”
Catch Hala in Detroit or the next time they roll through Chicago, and give them a listen right here (or, on Spotify!):