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Hala (pronounced haw-luh) is the performance moniker of Detroit-based musician Ian Ruhala. Ruhala’s music is at once precise and playful, skipping breezily between decades and their attendant musical aesthetics while executing them with care and sincerity. On his studio debut Red Herring, Ruhala elevates this formula, applying his genre-agnostic blueprint to a set of songs that comprise a no-concept concept record: a varied LP which explores the tragedy and comedy—often, both at once—that color and confound the modern 22-year-old’s existence.
To execute his wide-lens vision, Ruhala worked with producer Ryan Hadlock (The Lumineers, Vance Joy, Ra Ra Riot) at his legendary secluded Bear Creek Studio in Woodinville, Washington. Apart from strings—played respectively by longtime Brandi Carlile collaborator Josh Neumann and Andrew Joslyn—Ruhala wrote and performed each instrument on the record, including guitar, piano, bass, drums, baritone ukulele, xylophone, vibraphone, and all vocals.
The result is a coming-of-age record from an artist recognizing that cohesiveness need not only be expressed in structural sameness. It can and should be found in other experiences, in the complex, poignant, life-and-death fleetingness of a three-and-a-half-minute pop song. Or better yet, 12 of them back-to-back.
BOYO’s new album Where Have All My Friends Gone? and its titular phrase reflect the sentiments of loss, isolation, and confusion the Los Angeles-based and bred multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Robert Tilden experienced while a 2017 health scare turned his world upside down. Just as his career was beginning to pick up speed, following a handful of years making self-released tapes, singles, EPs, and a pair of well-received full-lengths (including his 2016 debut LP Control), Tilden began experiencing random, unexplained seizures and spent more than a year under the care of specialists who experimented with different powerful medications for an undiagnosed brain condition, leaving his career—and health—in question.
In 2018, Tilden was finally diagnosed with an acute form of frontal lobe epilepsy, was prescribed the right daily regimen of pills, and has been free of seizures ever since. Slowly, life became less of a daily crisis, but the experience left him alienated by medically-induced, uncontrollable mood shifts. The isolation had taken its toll. Finding himself alone for much of the time, Tilden seized the opportunity to make a record entirely on his own. Working mostly in his bedroom, he found comfort in the work of songwriters like Bradford Cox (Deerhunter/Atlas Sound) and Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse). Fusing those artists’ ability to turn the bleak into beauty with his own newfound focus on songwriting and production, the foundation of Where Have All My Friends Gone? was formed.
For Tilden, the making of Where Have All My Friends Gone? was a cathartic journey that not only helped his mind and body to heal from an intensely turbulent health scare but also restored his faith and trust in his artistic sensibilities. BOYO has come out from under an avalanche and grown expansively to make the album of its career. “The experience shaped my perspective but it inherently shaped the album as well,” Tilden says. “I use music to work through my problems and things I don’t understand, so this record has been a one-sided therapy session in a way. It doesn’t have to be this brooding, dark thing; it can be more connective.”
Following a period of releasing songs that seem to have been lumped into the “bedroom pop” world—at once a somewhat fair descriptor but not necessarily faithful to all BOYO encompasses—Tilden resolved to try something different. Finding inspiration in the freshness he felt during some recent “play what I want to play” sets, Tilden holed up in his home studio in West Los Angeles for two weeks in the late summer of 2019. Despite the laid back environment, he attacked the music with a renewed zest and recorded the majority of a new album in that short time. He was reinvigorated by a return to his earliest musical influences and, viewing them through the new lens of his life experience, was able to fall back in love with his own process.
As with most of BOYO’s recorded output, the fuzzed-out guitars take center stage—a quality Tilden calls “me searching for a My Bloody Valentine guitar sound that doesn’t sound like guitars.” Perhaps Tilden’s biggest strength as an instrumentalist is his self-awareness and ability to play to his strengths. “I know my limitations as a musician and I try to get around them. I almost play a character when I hop on the drums; on guitar, I close my eyes and pretend I’m Kevin Shields for three minutes and do the lead, then I pretend I’m Albert Hammond Jr. for three minutes and do the rhythm. I’m trying to be a soup of all my influences.” The album was co-produced by Tilden and engineer Chad Copelin (BRONCHO, Sufjan Stevens), who did his own mix on individual tracks after Tilden composed and recorded each one. Tilden calls the end result “a marriage of our mixes and a blend of our sonic sensibilities.”
Where Have All My Friends Gone? opens with the driving “Dogma,” a fuzzed-out guitar jam laced with big-picture imagery about protecting yourself at all costs. “Backseat Driver” displays BOYO’s fascination with a Ween-like pitch warp, and although the song’s steady drum pulse and acoustic strumming feel as if you’re hearing them through a funhouse mirror, the sounds are infectious and highlight Tilden’s ability to create a riveting earworm. “That song is basically about someone in your life telling you how to live,” he says. “It could be a metaphor for medication as well, and for people who didn’t understand what I was going through insisting on telling me how to behave.” The album’s title track came to Tilden like a mantra as he watched the classic film Raging Bull. As the music chimes while steadily ebbing and flowing like a sun threatening to break through storm clouds, the singer repeats a pair of couplets loosely borrowed from the film’s battered boxer antihero, which mimic the anger Tilden felt during his illness.
“Since making this record I’ve reconnected with a lot of people and I’ve come to realize that my friends are all right here. In the end it wasn’t my friends who were gone—it was me, to some degree. Maybe that’s a dark takeaway, but when you look around and wonder where everyone is it’s easy to point elsewhere and place blame on other things. But sometimes you’re on your own island, and I needed to make this record to get off that island.”
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