Ruts DC Interview – Segs Jennings and Dave Ruffy
20th October 2012
Foreword: This interview took place the week after Mac the Hackâs Ruts DC interview, although neither of us knew the other would be interviewing the band. I have avoided repeating any of the stuff covered in that interview as much as possible, but there remains some good stuff here, particularly about how the original Ruts operated and some talk of the future of the band. So if you wanna learn about the importance of Tamla Motown, Devo, Star Wars and, er, Laurel and Hardy to the legacy of this most excellent band- read on!
When finally the surviving Ruts, Segs Jennings and Dave Ruffy, are assembled in the same York pub in advance of their Fibbers gig tonight, thereâs an easy-going good-natured vibe mixed with a pinch of leg-pulling which, while in keeping with the back-in-the-day hi-jinks the band were known for, belies the seriousness of their current endeavour. To wit: the continued resurrection of Ruts DC. âJust have that checked for drugs, will you?â asks Segs, eyeing my digital recorder with mock-suspicion. Tonight, the band will play one of a steady stream of gigs which they are undertaking in advance of the imminent release of their Rhythm Collision volume 2 album.
When first floating the idea of a piece on Ruts DC in the form of an interview, Leigh Heggarty, current Ruts DC guitarist, chuckled that things âkinda take their own time in Ruts-worldâ. Given that Rhythm Collision Volume 1 came out thirty years ago, Leigh seems the master of understatement.
One of the things which fascinated me about the band over the years is that musically, for a punk band, the Ruts were very sophisticated. As well as the seemingly effortless fusion of punk and reggae, there were complex time signatures, lengthy instrumental passages- instrumentation and inventiveness which seemed outside the confines of the âpunk soundâ at the time. Was there a conscious effort to do this or did it come naturally?
Ruffy: âEveryone in The Ruts really liked music. Before I was in a band with Paul, he used to live in Anglesey. I used to run a record shop and I used to drive down there for the odd weekend and take some latest releases, well before punk rock. I remember one of them was Laurel and Hardy, Blue Ridge Mountains, Jeff Beck records, I think possibly even âNight At The Operaâ. I thought âthis is quite interestingâ. Malcolm had an eclectic taste, Iâve always had an eclectic taste. I just like good music. Segs was into a lot of soul music. And it was just kind of good music. What we took out of the whole punk rock thing was the total âcan doâ attitude. But we didnât want to just copy everyone else. We just wanted a chance to put our own stuff in a way that would fit in with what we were feeling. And we built up a following fairly quickly and we just wanted to include what we liked. So it might be Devo and Captain Beefheart, Kraftwerk and reggae …â
Segs: ââ¦Parliament even. Because Iâd met him in the record shop. Iâd started off with reggae, soul, Tamla Motown, my sisterâs collection. Because theyâre singles, you know- love a single! And then from there I kind of went a bit indulgently into jazz-rock, because it came from the funk thing. And I was going out and buying little funk 45s- because I was a bit of a soul-boy really. And then Iâd go in his shop, âcos he had the cheapest imports in the City of London. So I bought a couple of Parliament records when they was first coming out, and then one day I walked in and he had this shirt with âRamonesâ across the front that heâd had made himself. And he went, âHave you heard these?â, and I went, âNoâ. It was 1976.â
â1975!â corrects Dave.
â1975. And he was like (sings) âBeat on the bratâ¦â and I went, âThatâs fuckinâ brilliant!â Because the jazz-rock thing had gone so indulgent. It was like, âwhat the f-?!â (throws hands into the air), sort of sitting there going, âYou know what? Iâve just had a line of speed- this is fucking crap!â And then the Ramones came out. And then the next step I remember is Anarchy In The UK coming out on EMI. And he said, âDo you fancy coming to a gig?â, and we went to a gig, (to Dave) -was it Edgar Broughton or something like that? And we couldnât find the gig. Anyway, we ended up going to see Star Wars! And that was a friendship fused, really. And because he was in the record shop, he started ordering all this punk stuff- Gary Gilmoreâs Eyes, all the early stuff that was coming out. Then I met Paul, and they were doing Hit and Run, and Iâd go along as the worst roadie in the world. I used to buy a bit of dope off the bass player and go off and try and sell it somewhere. It was just- my Dad was dying, it was 1976, and it just saw me through all that.â
âAnd I remember going on some fucking trip- I canât remember where we went- but we went to the seaside somewhere with Paul Fox, and the soundtrack was Parliament. So all the (Ruts) time signatures and that, it wasnât trying to be clever. It was literally, for me, it was my first time through and Iâd just joined.â
Youâd just started playing bass, hadnât you?
âWell, yeah. I didnât play bass. I played a bit of guitar. And they said, well, you can be the bass player. Because Ruffy had played bass on the firstâ¦lobotomy and all that. And I was there and they said, âWell, weâre thinking of taking this seriously. Ruffyâs gonna go back to drums- do you want to play bass? Youâll have to get your hair cut, though!â Because I had a bit of a David Essex style. And for me it was just like a creative opening. And then suddenly, weâve got to write some songs and the riff to âIn a Rutâ came out. We all used to write together, youâd write one thing and go, âIâve got thisâ. Foxy was such a great, great teacher and also a great man, that heâd say, âOh, thatâs good.â He wouldnât say, âWell, I write the songsâ, heâd go, âFucking great! Thatâs a nice riff- how about we go here?â It used to be so magical, the way it worked.â
To further illustrate the organic nature of the Rutsâ song writing process, Segs goes on to give an oral/musical description of how songs would come about.
âSo, something like Savage Circle- I was into Beefheart, and then (sings bassline)duh ding duh duh dum, der dum dum! and heâd go âRight!â (mimes drums) Dig digga digga digga!, and weâd just be off! And then Paul (sings offbeat guitar riff), would just be off. Weâd never go for the norm, me and him, because weâd been listening to Devo or something. Heâd be playing something (mimes complex off-beat drum pattern)â¦â
Ruffy: âWe had a place, didnât we? We had a squat in South London where we used to keep our gear. Malcolm and Foxy lived in West London and we lived in South East London and we used to have a place where we could play. So if we had these little things we could go and work out. Every day we could go and work out little bits and play every day.â
Segs: âSo something like Dope For Gunsâ¦â
Segsâs enthusiastic vibe is infectious. Iâm at it now. Yeah, I say, thatâs got all that start/stop thing. I start to sing the guitar riff.
Segs: âWell that was all Devo.â
Ruffy: âIt ainât half hard to fuckinâ play! Jesusâ¦â
Segs: âWe were just trying to be our version of Devo!â
Ruffy: âI think the good thing about the Ruts legacy was that it wasnât one bloke sitting there with a concept going, âOh my god, today Iâm gonna write a thing.â It all came together in an organic way. In a real way. And thatâs why I think the old songs still stand up- because they were written in a very honest way about what was going on at the time. I think thatâs why they still have a ring about them.â
Paul Fox used to use all these wonderful effects on his guitar as well didnât he? Analogue delay and the like?
Ruffy: âHe used a WEM copycat.â
Segs: âBecause he loved Jimi Hendrix. So, Hendrix, he used to tell me, used to use an Echoplex, which you couldnât get hold of. So he used a WEM copycat and he used this chorus.â
Ruffy: âPaul Fox, when he was young and he lived in Anglesey, he was like a big fish in a small pond. He was into rock and roll, he was, âIâm the hippy in a bandâ, not that he was a hippy in that sense. He didnât think that day one was â76. He already had a history. He was rated as a good guitarist, and he became better. He was a great arranger.â
Did you just carry on doing the same thing on becoming Ruts DC? Listening to Animal Now it seems even more musically complicated…
Segs: âItâs a bit too fuckinâ complicated!â
Ruffy: âWhen Malcolm got illâ¦ he was our mate and he was doing smack all the time and we said, we canât keep waiting for him to do it. And heâd travel to gigs with a hollowed out heel. Heâd buy his Chinese rocks from a certain famous bass player and hide âem in his shoe.â
Segs: âHe had a secret compartment in his brothel creeper.â
Ruffy: âAnd it just got worse and worse. So we just said, well the only way we can do this is to just say âWeâre leaving, and weâre carrying on.â So we did.â
Segs: âIt kind of almost worked. We almost got back together as the Ruts because he wanted to do one last gig. And then he just fucked up reallyâ¦â
Ruffy: âWhat happened was, we said âWell, weâre gonna do this on our ownâ we had a few tunes weâd been working on. Heâd never show up for rehearsals. It was painful. He was our friend. And because he was doing heroin- you can never trust a junkie. Because theyâll tell you anything you wanna hear…â
âWe said to virgin, âWeâre gonna do some demosâ. They said, âAlrightâ. Meanwhile, Malcolm had gone into rehab. Weâd booked the virgin barge in Maida Vale to do these demos of our new songs. Malcolm had come out of rehab on the Friday and we all went out together, somewhere out in Clapham, to a club. And Malcolm, he was a bit weak, he said, âI want you to play on my recordâ. It werenât like âYeah, weâre all great.â But it was a tentative thing. But we said âWeâre gonna carry on doing our demosâ because you canât just say, âOh, right, weâre back onâ. This was on the Friday. Saturday, we stayed up all night. Worked Sunday. Came back to our house early on Monday morning. Weâd arranged to meet Virgin at two in the afternoon. We get a phone call about 11am saying that Malcolm was found dead in his bath. So weâre like, âAh. OK. Well, thatâs kinda weird.â Because we were really in shock. So we went to Virgin with our new recordings. We went, âDo you want the good news or the bad news? Good news is- hereâs new songs. Bad news is- Malcolmâs dead.â We thought, âWhat we gonna do?â We didnât really know what we were fucking doing. We were grieving, really.â
As young men, in shock and grieving for their friend, they were about to suffer further at the hands of an intransigent music industry and a seemingly less-than-sympathetic Virgin Records. Ruffy continues:
âWe came up with Ruts DC but the dynamic was completely different. The thing about the Ruts was it was greater than the sum of its parts.â
Segs: âWe went to America (with Ruts DC), which was great, but was a strange thing.â
Ruffy: âAfter Animal Now, we had a big row with the record company. So we parted company. We thought, âweâll tell âem to fuck right offâ. So they stopped the tour support, impounded our gear. But we thought that because we had a publishing deal, weâd done very well because weâd had some hits. So we thought, âFuck the record company, weâll carry on on our own with our publishing money.â
Segs: âSo we went to the publishers and they said, âGreat! We think itâs the best thing you can do. Start your own label, weâll stick right behind you, we love you guys, letâs check your figures out.â And they said, âYeah, youâre actually in the black so weâll give you support, you do your own thing.â Next day, we got a call saying, âSorry, Virgin records have put all that money you owe them, which was seventy five grand at the timeâ¦â
Ruffy: âWeâd signed a cross-collateralised deal. So they said, âYouâve got no money.â We had nothing.â
The story continues with the band going to America and finding an audience there (including a young Henry Rollins and Dave Grohl) which treated them really well. This was something of a welcome relief, as Ruffy says, âIt was harder in England, because we were under the microscope.â
Crucially (and ironically), on returning to the UK they found that what bit of money they did have came from their first single, In A Rut, which had been released independently on Misty In Rootsâ People Unite label. This money was used in the recording of Rhythm Collision Volume 1. (Ruffy: âWe had a couple of ounces of grass, a couple of ideas and a lot of spirit!â). That record, Ruffy points out, âkept us alive for a couple of years.â
The wilderness years for the Ruts began with Segs moving to Paris and Ruffy, in his own words, becoming âa touristâ; âI worked with everybody in the world, basically. Upped me game as a drummerâ.
A discussion follows about the formation of Foxyâs Ruts, the band Paul Fox formed prior to his diagnosis with cancer which was not altogether welcomed by Segs and Ruffy. MactheHackâs interview touches on this in greater detail, but suffice to say that when I mention that I had been taken to task in some quarters for not mentioning Foxyâs Ruts in my review of the Ruts DCâs recent Rebellion spot, Segsâs response is immediate, tongue in cheek to a degree, but nonetheless laconic: âFuck âem.â
They tell me about the almost accidental nature of how the band came to record Rhythm Collision Volume 2 over the period of a couple of years, how this led to last yearâs dates supporting Segsâs âother bandâ, Alabama 3, and how the positive reception from those gigs led to Rebellion and beyond. They hadnât originally planned to play old Ruts material but say that the time seemed right, stressing that they are really proud of it and âare really loving doing it.â
Segs: âWhich is why, for me, doing this now is a full circle. It was a huge scar, for all of us, and this is me dealing with it. I think for Ruffy as well, getting those old songs out. We werenât gonna do those songs. But we are, and…â thereâs a pause as Segs considers the significance of doing the old stuff for the first time in over thirty years, â…I think itâs good to bring them out now.â
Dave is at pains to point out that they donât need to do it from a financial perspective, this is no dodgy cash-in on past glories. Both are constantly busy in other areas (Dave is currently Dexyâs touring drummer, Segs still works with Alabama 3). All that aside, Ruffy states that itâs âvery empowering, playing music that youâve written yourself.â
Talk turns to the current line-up of Ruts DC, which has come together since much of Rhythm Collision Volume 2 has been recorded. Special mention is given to guitarist Leigh Heggarty:
Ruffy: âHeâs a monster player. We could never find anyone to do that job as well as that. He nails it. He knows exactly what it isâ.
Segs: âHe (Leigh) was very integral in getting all this together, because I first started sitting down with him, working out the songs, when Ruffy was away. Heâs a real good sounding board. When I got the lyrics wrong, which I did quite a lot, he didnât say anything. I only knew I was getting âem right when he kind of smiled. When I was singing the right ones Iâd look over and heâs got a smile on his face! And thatâs as far as he gets to correcting me!â
Rhythm Collision Volume 2 will be released very soon. Itâs taken a while as they all have âcomplicated livesâ, with their other commitments. How that will work now that things has changed so much since they were last putting out Ruts DC material. Is the industry on its arse?
âLetâs say itâs changing. Itâs on its arse in certain ways. Iâm sort of dancing on its grave really. Because itâs fucked a lot of well-meaning musicians.â
Ruffy sees parallels with the very first Ruts release to nowadays:
âWhen we first started out and when Misty In Roots brought In a Rut out, Iâd been in retailing before. We had a thousand copies pressed. I went down to Geoff Travis, Rough Trade at the time, and he bought five hundred for cash from me. I thought, âfucking great.â And I said, âBoys, we should just be indie. There ainât no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Itâs kinda bollocks. It ainât gonna last. But the other two really wanted the whole thing, so we went with it. And here we are, full circle. Weâre gonna put it (Rhythm Collision volume 2) out on our own label.â
Iâm about to ask what happens next, but Ruffy, in full flow, pre-empts the question.
âI wanna get this out of the way and move on and record some stuff with this band. Weâve got a really good musical thing.â
Will any new stuff be dub-heavy or perhaps more rock-orientated?
Segs: âThe closest we go to a rock sound (as Ruts DC) in the past was Animal Now. It isnât my favourite album. Itâs a bit overcomplicated. Itâs tortured with grief. Now, I feel completely different. I find it easier to write lyrics on dub âcos itâs my thing. But I kind of feel a bit of a leaning to doing some rock riffs. If we/I/Henry Rollins can write some good tunes and get an inspired moment…I just think the songs have got to be really good.â
Ruffy: âItâs got to be roots, really.â
Segs: âWhat weâre gonna come up against is…when you play these (old Ruts) songs again now, you realise what great songs they were. And the other thing is that theyâre all great subjects; Jah War, Dope For Guns, Babylonâs Burning, Staring At The Rude Boys- all great subjects. They reflected what was going on then and gave some people some hope. So weâve got to write stuff about now. And it seems that no-oneâs really writing stuff that means much, anymore.â
Again, question pre-empted, I show them the last question on my list: how important is it to still have a message?
Ruffy: âVery. We have to be kind of roots. We have to be about something. Like rockabilly is, like ska and reggae is, like punk rock is- it has to be about something. All our future music will have to mean something. Because thereâs no point otherwise.â
Segs: âFor me, lyrics have to be important enough to wake people up and go, âyeah, actually- youâre right.â
Segs goes on to tell the story of a bloke who spoke to him at the Ruts DC gig the week before. The guy told Segs that he had a hard time growing up as a black youth in Sunderland, but that In A Rut being released on a black record label gave him hope and indirectly led to him meeting other like-minded people. Segs had relayed this story to Chris Bolton, who was Misty In Roots manager. Chris Boltonâs response had been: âWell- we have to pass the baton on.â
Maybe the likes of In A Rut is just as poignant now as it was back in the day, even though weâre now all middle-aged, rather than raging young punk rockers?
Segs: âIf you look at (the fact) that it talks about suicide and getting out of a rut, of course itâs as poignant. Because as you get older you still go through those fuckinâ things where you go, âWhatâs the fucking point?â Anger may disappear with youth, but your hopelessness doesnât.â
The mixture they currently do of old classic SUS with new dub tune Smiley Culture is a spine-tingling way of updating the old with a new twist in that respect.
Ruffy: âIt is for us as well. I get fairly nervous, myself. But I really love it- weâre doing stuff way out of our league, three part harmonies and so on. And when it works, itâs a really nice thing.â
Itâs time to get to the gig, so I thank them for their time and the good-natured gallows-humour returns as Ruffy explains heâs off to the gig âwith me heroin in me shoeâ.
Reflecting on our conversation later, I muse that I probably spend too much of my time these days (for a forty-something father of three) pondering what Punk Rock means in 2012. But I found talking to these particular old punks genuinely uplifting and inspiring. Before the interview, Segs was talking about the importance of working with ârighteousâ people. An unsurprising sentiment, given the treatment the Ruts received from the industry the first time round. Dave Ruffy used the word ârootsâ more than once in describing the Ruts DC modus operandi. Perhaps thatâs what punk is now and maybe thatâs how it will remain valid way into the twenty-first century. Thereâs certainly a righteousness about Ruffyâs and Segsâs way of taking care of business that seems pretty fuckinâ Punk Rock to me.
Ruts DC- Roots rockers, righteous people. Passing the baton on.