When Vex Ruffin dropped his self-titled debut album on Stones Throw in 2013, the optimism and euphoria that usually comes with releasing a record was quickly quashed. “I toured Europe off it and nothing really happened so it was kinda a bummer,” says the Chino Hills, California-based Ruffin, whose self-taught style blends punk’s DIY ethos with hip-hop’s sample- and loop-digging culture to create songs that are eerie, yet funky, and topped with his own hypnotically sullen vocals.
Dismayed with the lack of reaction to his album, Ruffin halted his musical ambitions, went back to his day job at UPS, and consigned himself to the graveyard shift.
But during those late-night grind sessions, ideas started to form in Ruffin’s head, and he began to use the monotony of his job as inspiration for a new record. Appropriately titled Conveyor, the vibe of the album starts out deliberately gray and gloomy—a palette mirrored by its cover artwork—and opens with our bleary-eyed protagonist literally driving home from an 11-hour night shift at work. As the songs chug along, Ruffin’s loop-based beats interlock like cogs in an all-consuming machine, until a form of acceptance comes with the album’s closing title track. “I guess it really doesn’t matter,” Ruffin croons, before realizing, “I guess what really matters is what’s inside.” It’s a deft end to a project that, listened from start to finish, reveals itself to be a subtle masterwork of mood.
Now happily released from his day job duties, we spoke to Ruffin about getting musical ideas while being stuck at work, collaborating with old school hip-hop personality Fab 5 Freddy, and how the cult ‘80s Death Comet Crew album inspired his own music.
After returning to your day job, when did you start thinking about recording again?
Honestly, I wasn’t getting enough sleep so I was kinda miserable, and I was feeling down about the first release and things were kinda changing for me, but I just decided maybe I’ll record an album. That’s how I made Conveyor. I was recording every chance I could get—whether it was 10 minutes a day or an hour—and I wasn’t really sleeping so it was tough.
How did you deal with your first album not doing what you wanted it to do?
It sucked, man. You know you have expectations, then it doesn’t really go your way, and then having to go back to my normal job, it was just like a lot to absorb. In order to cope with it, I started recording this album. That was kinda the inspiration—I got it from working the graveyard shift.
What was the graveyard shift like?
Ah, man, I worked for UPS—I worked in the airport type work, so sometimes I’m inside the building like the hub—and I was working overtime, so sometimes I’d start at five o’clock and work all the way to four in the morning. It’s airport work; it’s dark and people are moody. Your sleep schedule is off, like even if you try to sleep during the day you can’t sleep right. Everyone’s on edge. But I’m not doing that any more!
Did you begin to get musical ideas while you were working?
Yeah, I did. I listen to a lot of music at work with my headphones on and I got a lot of ideas for a lot of stuff. A lot of it happens at work, like these ideas start popping up and there’s a lot of downtime, too. So I’ll write ideas down in my phone, like certain words. Then sometimes I’d record before work, and sometimes I’d just skip work like, fuck it, I’ve got an idea so I just wouldn’t show up. It’s hard for me to sleep, it’s hard for me to wind down, so I’ll just record.
What was the first song from Conveyor that was written this way?
I think it was “3 AM.”
That’s the song where you’re talking about driving home after work after an 11-hour shift, right?
Yeah, that shit’s real. I was literally driving home, smoking cigarettes—everything I say in that is real. It’s pretty much just real shit!
Did “3 AM” set a tone for the rest of Conveyor?
Yeah, I think so. I already had the sounds—the music was already in my head and I knew where I wanted to go—but as far as lyrics, “3 AM” started that.
How would you describe the overall concept of Conveyor?
It’s about being stuck in a loop, like that feeling of being stranded and trapped, and then it builds up and breaks you down but there’s something inside of us and you follow your heart and stuff. That’s what it’s about, pretty much.
How would you advise someone to go about breaking that loop?
Man, doing what you love. There’s that gut feeling to follow your heart, so do something that makes you happy, man.
You mentioned listening to music while at work. What sort of things were you into while recording Conveyor?
I was listening to a lot of electronic music, this old Death Comet Crew album, a lot of mixes, a lot of electro, jazz, psych-rock, noise.
How did you come across the Death Comet Crew album?
It was Peanut Butter Wolf. One day we were at his house and he pulled the record out and was like, ‘Hey, listen to this, man, check this out.’ That’s how I found out about it, with Rammellzee and the Ike Yard guy [Stuart Argabright].
What was the appeal of the Death Comet Crew record for you?
It was just different. I just got hooked right away. Like Rammellzee, the first time I heard him, it’s kinda like hip-hop but then it has that kinda dark edge to it. I’ve never heard anything like it before.
I guess this would be a good time to talk about how you got Fab 5 Freddy to appear on your own album on “The Balance.”
Right! Yeah, actually originally it was just me on the song and then Wolf had the idea of having Fab 5 Freddy on the track. We didn’t really think he would be down to jump on the track, but then a few months later he said he was down after at first being like ‘Whatever’ about it.
Did you give Fab 5 Freddy much direction about what you wanted him to do on the track?
No, I didn’t even really meet him. He recorded it in New York and we just let him do his thing, like do whatever. We just kinda wanted that old school Fab 5 Freddy vibe, that ‘Change The Beat’ type of thing. And he did it.
How does it feel to have someone like Fab 5 Freddy on your album?
It’s super surreal, totally. I still can’t believe I worked with him. I think he made the song better, he really brought it. I liked the song before he added to it, but he really brought that downtown vibe, that ’80s New York vibe to it. I think I’m really influenced by that era.
It also seems like a lot of your music is based around loops.
Right. Nowadays it’s mostly me making the beat first. I sample a lot, so I just find loops then I play around with the vocals. That’s about it. But I don’t record all the time any more ’cause I have kids and all of that, and I’m the type of artist that has to wait for that wave to come—and then I ride the wave. I actually recorded Conveyor a couple of years ago, so I’m over it in some ways. I mean, I’m happy with it. But I feel the next wave coming, so I think I’m gonna record the next album soon. I have some ideas in my head.