As Nat and Rob Rufus began separately penning songs for Blacklist Royals' new album, Die Young With Me, it quickly became clear that the musicians shared a thematic mindset. The twin brothers, who have played together in bands since they were 13 years old, both found themselves circling around the same experience, compelled to finally excise their demons in song.
The experience was this: When Rob was 17 he was diagnosed with a rare form a cancer. He spent nearly three years in the hospital, rotated in and out of surgeries and treatments. One of his lungs was removed and numerous side effects lingered. Once Rob was well, supported the whole time by Nat, the brothers moved from their hometown of Huntington, West Virginia to Nashville to begin Blacklist Royals. The group, bolstered by new members, released their debut album, Semper Liberi, in 2010 and toured for three years extensively, playing with bands like Less Than Jake and NOFX and performing at Warped Tour, The Fest and SXSW. As the musicians came off the road and began writing, they found themselves centered on the theme of childhood sickness. As the narrative themes shifted, so did the songs themselves, and the band took an evolutionary leap forward - one that simultaneously restructured its lineup. Blacklist Royals, again, became two brothers struggling to prevail through less-than-ideal circumstances.
"When we got done touring for our first album and we started pooling our songs together they were all revolving around one topic, Rob having cancer and our lives at that point and everything surrounding that," Nat says. "Instead of shying away from that subject, which is something we've done in the past, we decided to make the entire record themed around it. Everyone else was road-weary and wanted to bow out. It was really important for us to make the record regardless."
"We toured so much on that first record and when you live on the road it pushes you to grow up," Rob says. "That subject matter was floating around in our subconscious. After three years of touring together it was on both our minds. And we're twins so we just work on the same level."
The first song that emerged for the truly autobiographical album was the title track, "Die Young With Me," a propulsive, garage-inspired rock song. The grit and candor of the brothers' collective experience surges through the chorus, expressing the genuine emotion of what it means to be young and sick. "Once we had that one done it was the trigger for the rest of the songs," Nat says. "We knew it was something unique and what we should be doing. Everything else just fell in line around that song."
The duo wrote and demoed the album initially in 2012, at that point unclear whether it would actually see the light of day. They sometimes thought about ending the band and moving on, overcome by the roadblocks in their path. But hope prevailed, mostly because it felt important to see the album through. The musicians were compelled to share this music and refused to be haunted by the idea of "what if." After several more tours throughout 2013, in North America with River Boat Gamblers, Swingin' Utters and Face To Face, Blacklist Royals found a new record label to call home. Rob and Nat flew to Los Angeles in early 2014 to finally record Die Young With Me with producer Ted Hutt (The Bouncing Souls, Gaslight Anthem, Lucero).
"I think Ted really helped take the vision for the album and push it where it should be," Nat says. "We wanted to pull things back and get to the core of the record as opposed to piling sounds on each other. We wanted to make the record sound honest and upfront and let the songs come through. It has its own vibe and own world where the listener goes when they hear it."
"We wanted to strip it down and make it true enough so we could make as honest of a record as possible," Rob adds. "Almost to the point of being unnerving."
The resulting 11-track album reflects that sense of honesty. Rob and Nat, who shared the responsibility of writing the lyrics, recount their experiences and those of the people around them, capturing the anxiety and tragedy and overwhelming hope involved with any life struggle. It's about wanting to give up but refusing to ever quit in the face of an obstacle. The music itself is infused with a bluesy undertone, refracting the melancholy themes through musical highs and lows that defy genre categorization. All of the musicians' inspirations converge in the songs: "Out In The Dark" has a surging Americana tone while the rollicking "Hearts On Fire" is a blood-pumping, dirt-rubbed rocker and "Missing Something" embraces an introspective folk sound. On the other end of the spectrum, "26 and Gone" draws back the instrumentation to sparse indie rock ambience, allowing the song's mournful lyrics to stand out. Ultimately, the connection between Rob and Nat underscores the music itself.
"It was supposed to sound like two brothers in a room playing music together," Nat says. "That's what the whole record is about - two brothers who stand side by side and don't give up. I think that's something anyone can relate to regardless of their specific struggle. The record is about this really heavy idea. It's like opening a diary for everyone to read. But you also get it off your chest and it gives you this connection to the fans. It's been therapeutic."
"The songs were written about a struggle I went through and it was a whole other struggle to even make the record happen," Rob says. "We went through so much and went broke and it seemed bleak, but we kept pushing through. It was the two of us with these songs so once we finished it was a real relief. We felt like we had summed up a chapter in our lives and now we can move on to the next one."