Interview: Ruen Brothers bring '50s rockabilly to modern audiences with help from Rick Rubin and The Killers' Dave Keunig
Courtesy of Ramseur Records

When the legendary Rick Rubin advised the Ruen Brothers: "Do your thing and be yourselves," the English duo - whose moniker is a portmanteau of brothers Henry and Rupert Stansall's first names - took it to heart. They had been singing their father's favorites since they were teenagers, playing in working men's clubs and pubs around the North of England. Five years ago they made the move to London and while living in a one-room bedsit still worried about not having their electricity turned off, "Blood Runs Wild," a modern indie rock number with jangly guitars and vocals that hark back to Roy Orbison, made it to Zane Lowe's esteemed Hottest Record In The World.

"Those first few months where we hadn’t signed our record deal yet we would go back to play the working men’s clubs to make our money," explained Rupert, the younger Stansall. They were determined to play music that was honest to them and hope others would love it too. Thankfully, it did not take long before they found a fan in Rubin whose expansive work spans genres and decades, and includes classic albums from the Beastie Boys, Eminem, Jake Bugg and Johnny Cash

Rubin produced All My Shades of Blue, the Ruen Brother's debut album released last week. Recorded live at his Shangri-La studios in Malibu,  it includes unlikely fans of their music -  such as Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on drums and The Killers' Dave Keunig on cello. Rubin also introduced the duo to Lana Del Rey and they have written a track with electro R&B star The Weeknd

"All My Shades of Blue" the self-titled single is a standout and proves that stellar songwriting can cast off any stodgy retro shackles to find a modern audience. They will continue their U.S. tour on June 15 at the Mercury Ballroom in Kentucky before a fall tour supporting Cafe Tacvba. We got a chance to chat to each of the Ruen Brothers from their home - about working with Rubin, Del Rey and asked them who it is they dream of while singing the impassioned lyrics on the title track. 

AXS: What was it like working with Rick Rubin, knowing that he actually worked with Johnny Cash whose music has influenced you?

Henry Stansall: He’s a very lovely bloke. We were on the same page talking about the kind of album we wanted to make. It felt like a natural process and I think we made something cool together. It was fun, if not a little daunting at the start; we grew up listening to a lot of the stuff that he’s produced. When we heard he was a fan of ours and liked our stuff – we were like ‘oh my god Rick Rubin’s heard of us!’ And he thinks it’s cool.' That would have been enough. Then we went in to work with him at Shangri La, it was surreal.  

AXS: Why did you choose to go with this sound – technically you both have vocals that could translate to any genre but stylistically you have chosen to go down that path of '50s rock?

HS: This is what’s most natural to us. We grew up listening then playing music from other decades in our home as children. In our early teens, we were playing local pubs and these numbers from Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, The Rolling Stones; it was what people in our hometown wanted to hear. Our dad has this big record collection it’s what’s most ingrained in us. A lot of the melody lines, the structures got integrated into our songwriting. For the people that get it, that’s great! But we’re not trying to be this old thing, it’s who we are, what we do. We could throw some synths over the top, or put an 808 – but it would just be a lie. (laughs) That’s not to say that in the future we wouldn’t be down for experimenting and trying new things. The whole album was recorded live, not to click track. It’s a little unconventional compared to how music is recorded today; pretty much everybody records to click tracks. Everything’s tuned to the high heavens, everything’s sampled, everything you hear on our record is being played by a musician. It’s that organic, honest feel to it. And we’re proud of that.

AXS: Dave Keunig from The Killers played cello – who knew he even played cello - what’s the story there? 

HS: An old A&R guy we knew introduced us to Dave and we became friends. We hung out with him in San Diego for a bit and wrote some songs with him. We were having lunch with him one day and he said ‘hey, if you ever need a cello for anything, I can play the cello. I’ve never really had the chance to play it. I don’t think any of the other guys in The Killers know either.’ So I said ‘ok man, next time we need a cello, I’ll definitely call you.’ I remember we hadn’t spoken in a few months and one day I hit him up. He had just got his cello out of storage and the next day he drove from San Diego to Malibu to see us and played cello on “All My Shades of Blue.” He’s the nicest guy and really sweet. It was such a pleasure.

AXS: Surrounded by successful musicians, did you ever pause and think about what kind of career you would like to have? 

HS: At the end of the day if we get to wake up in the morning, play our music, tour and release new music  - if we can do that and not worry about buying a loaf of bread or turning the electricity on – that’s great! (laughs)

AXS: How did you write “All My Shades of Blue” and who do you 'dream about' when singing that chorus?

HS: The writing process is very much a team effort. We wrote that song on a cold, dark, snowy night in Nashville. We were with Angelo Petragalia (Kings of Leon)  who came up with some of the chord progression and Rupert came up with the line ‘all my shades of blue.’ He''s probably the best person to ask ‘who he was thinking about?'  (cheekily) He’s smiling and looking at me quite nervously. (laughs) 

Rupert Stansall: In all honesty, I wasn’t actually thinking of anyone…not that I can remember. (laughs) All I knew is we needed a memorable line that could describe an array of emotions – it can be almost applied to anything, not just somebody. 

AXS: More recently, you got to write with Lana Del Rey?

RS: When we showed Rick our new material, he asked us if we would like to meet Lana. The next day he set up a meeting in his living room. She showed us some song ideas on her guitar.  We just spent the one day with her - trading ideas and hanging out. She’s a very lovely girl. It was so very nice to hear her sing and play guitar in that environment; stripped back and raw, in that sunny Malibu environment. Rick thought it an appropriate pairing as Lana and us have that same appreciation for music from a few decades ago.

AXS: And the Weeknd – which is quite different music from yours - what was it like writing with someone whose music is from a different genre and era? 

RS: The process is easy if the ideas are good, regardless of the genre. We were on tour with George Ezra when Rick sent us an idea of his. It was drumbeat, couple of chords and The Weeknd was humming, mostly vowel sounds over it, the lyrics weren't finished. Again, Rick thought that the pairing would be nice. He did something similar with Aerosmith and Run DMC – making these matches across genres. We interjected with our own ideas without overworking it. Most of it was recorded onto our laptop in our hotel. We were never actually in the studio with The Weeknd but were constantly exchanging ideas; I guess that’s modern songwriting for you. What we came up was different and we asked Rick 'should we try to keep to the same style in terms of melody?' He said ‘do your thing and be yourselves.’

AXS: Will the song be released?

RS:  We know he finished up an album with Rick. He might have been experimenting with new material so we’ll see.

AXS: You guys started out in Scunthorpe, an industrial steel town that has seen better days and stayed in a bedsit when you got to London. When did it dawn on you that a successful career in music was possible?

RS: Many points along the past decade - be it creating a demo and the first wave of hype around it. Or being featured on BBC Introducing and getting Radio 1 airplay. Then signing a record and publishing deal. When we first found out Rick Rubin liked our work - that was astonishing! It was brilliant to then get the opportunity to work with him. Because we’ve always wanted to do this as a career, we just saw it as small steps going up this big ladder. I think the real the turning point was sitting in a bedsit and being on BBC Introducing – everything else that came along with that was just a bonus.

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