by John M. Borack
The term “Beatlesque” is much more than simply head shaking, mop-topped rewrites of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” Rather, in the case of the Red Button, the term is more of a basic reference point, with Seth Swirsky and Mike Ruekberg assimilating their musical influences (including the Beatles) and creating something beautifully melodic and wonderfully evocative of the music of the mid-to-late ‘60s.
The latest Red Button release, Now It’s All This! (Beatle aficionados will recognize the title from a certain 1966 incident involving John Lennon.) is a two-disc, 33-song extravaganza that includes both wonderful Red Button albums (2007’s She’s About to Cross My Mind and 2011’s As Far as Yesterday Goes) in their entirety, along with six fantastic new tracks containing the same sort of vocal and melodic bliss that came before. The compilation is rounded out with four tunes dubbed “unplugged rarities” (three emanate from the second album, one from the debut) that showcase the songs in a more intimate setting. It’s all simply glorious stuff played and sung by two masters of the form, and is essential listening for fans of melodic pop music with an ear towards pop’s golden age.
I sat down with Seth and Mike recently for a freewheeling conversation that touched on a wide variety of topics – the new release, some of the old songs, what the future might hold for the Red Button, and more.
Goldmine: Let’s start at the beginning – how did the two of you meet?
Mike Ruekberg: My friend Dorian Crozier was producing Seth’s first solo record…
Seth Swirsky: …Instant Pleasure, back in 2004…
MR: …[Dorian] played some of it for me, and he figured it would be right up my alley since it was so Beatle-flavored. My initial response was to make fun of the Los Angeles-based singer’s overpowering English accent! And of course the songs were insanely Beatley, but they were undeniably strong, and I was already a big fan of Rufus Wainwright’s version of “Instant Pleasure.” I believe I referred to Seth as [a humorous-yet-non-PC moniker we won’t repeat here]. Turns out that bit of abuse got back to Seth and he thought it was hilarious; thus the seeds were sown.
GM: You each had written and recorded separately prior to the Red Button – what was the impetus for wanting to work together?
SS: We just hit it off on a bunch of musical subjects — and then we discovered a bit later, we hit it off musically!
MR: True, once we met in the flesh we did just hit it off. We loved so much of the same stuff, and with the same obsessiveness. And both of us being songwriters, it was only natural to suggest trying to write together.
GM: She’s About to Cross My Mind and As Far as Yesterday Goes are obviously informed by the work of the Beatles, and the two of you have a very Lennon/McCartney sort of musical synergy going on. Was this a conscious decision when you began recording?
SS: No. Our particular strengths just happen to dovetail kind of perfectly!
MR: Well, yes and no. As the legend goes, Seth sort of tricked me. I had moved to Los Angeles about a year earlier, with the specific goal of trying to write viable, current-sounding pop songs that could potentially be covered by up-and-coming singers. Seth (who, I like to remind him as often as possible, is several years older than me) had already been there and done that [Swirsky’s compositions have been recorded by the likes of Al Green and Tina Turner, among others]. He was much more interested in writing songs to satisfy his own musical urges, but I’d already spent my twenties doing just that (mostly with my band Rex Daisy), and had done the monogamous band thing, and had gotten lots of positive attention for all that. I came out here to try to sell my soul and make a buck! So we were at cross purposes.
One day Seth told me he had the perfect “assignment” for us. There was a British TV talent show (“Pop Idol” maybe?) and one of the front-running acts was a duo of lads that did very ’60s, Beatley kind of stuff. They were looking for material, and it seemed like an ideal thing for us to attempt. To this day, I don’t know whether any part of the story is true! But I never would have indulged in such shameless Merseybeating and English-accent-singing otherwise!
GM: Songwriting-wise, most all of your songs are collaborative efforts. Take us through how a Red Button song is composed. Do you both collaborate on the music and lyrics? How is a Red Button song fleshed out?
SS: For the most part, I start our process off by sending Mike a bunch of either completed songs or song snippets. He chooses which ones he loves and wants to work on. The ones that aren’t complete, he then dives into. It may need a verse or a bridge (or both!) and/or lyrics. That’s how our “marriage” works.
MR: The formal Red Button Method frequently starts with Seth playing me or sending me lots of bits of song ideas, like he mentioned. Some bits are just tiny scraps, others are entire verses and choruses. My first job is as Gatekeeper/Quality Control. Some ideas I dismiss out of hand (luckily Seth’s ego is strong and he also trusts my judgement, so he never gets too bent out of shape), some I file under Solo Seth Material (these songs tend to be about butterflies, rainbows, and objects sitting on tables), and some bits just instantly excite me and make me want to write the rest!
Sometimes Seth will show up with a finished song (as with “Ooh Girl” and “Sandreen,” two of my favorite RB songs that I had the pleasure of not having to write!), and I just know it’s already perfect and done. And sometimes, we sit in a room with guitars and pianos and just play and sing to each other until I start cackling. Once I cackle, it’s the official sign that a Red Button song has been born.
At the risk of belaboring the Lennon/McCartney thing even further, I will say that my contributions to lyrics almost always land on the more cynical side, and Seth’s lean toward a more flowery, Donovan side. I’ve always blamed this on the fact that Seth is a dyed-in-the-wool Baby Boomer, and I’m a cranky Gen X-er. It’s an oversimplification, but it’s pretty accurate, too. In writing Red Button lyrics, I also try to make sure we’re justifying the song’s existence – that even if it’s light Merseybeat, it’s still about something and it’s still expressing something real.
GM: To me, it seems as if the second Red Button record is a bit less overtly Beatlesque and moves into more sunshine pop territory. Do you think this is a fair assessment?
MR: Yes, indeed! Both as co-writer and as producer, I had decided that for As Far as Yesterday Goes, it would be fun to try and indulge in some more sunshiney, ’70s-singer-songwriter- flavored stuff, in addition to the Merseybeat that just seems to fall out of us naturally. I’m not sure if fans of the first record were as excited about that direction as we were, but I still think those songs on the second record are among the best we ever wrote and recorded.
SS: What’s consistent is our love for melodic, mostly three-minute pop songs of the ‘64-‘74 era. We never said, “We need a 1971-style, singer-songwriter-type song.” We just recorded the songs that we loved the most.
GM: While we’re on that topic, which songs are each of your favorites from the first and second record and why?
SS: My favorite Red Button songs are “Picture” (especially the last minute of the unplugged version), “Genevieve” (again, the unplugged version), “Tell Me It’s Over” (from the new record), “She’s About to Cross My Mind” and “It’s No Secret.”
MR: My favorite on She’s About to Cross My Mind is “She’s Going Down.” It’s one of the first things we ever wrote together, and sonically it just came out exactly as I had envisioned it. I’m also especially proud of those lyrics. And of course “Cruel Girl,” because it was written so organically and demanded—demanded!—to be sung in my most shameless Lennon circa 1964 growl.
On the second record, my favorite is “Easier.” I’m not sure if anyone else likes it [chuckles], but I’m just so proud of it as a song. It was a real co-write, totally organic, and I think it’s very “grown up” and complex, while also being melodic and easy on the ear. I also love “Picture,” because it’s got a real natural Seth-Mike back and forth structure. I’m proud of “Picture” as a producer; I just think it came out sounding great.
GM: Moving on to the new stuff that’s contained on disc two of the new compilation – how did you choose which songs to give the “unplugged” treatment?
SS: Again, it was just the ones we loved most. We’re both adamant about not recording just “filler” songs; it was always important to make each one special. It’s how we perceived the Beatles’ records: you never skipped over songs—well, rarely. We wanted listeners—and ourselves!— to put on our records and they would, hopefully, force you to listen all the way through because you were singing the songs!
MR: Anyone who’s ever mixed a record knows that there’s a moment toward the end of each song’s mix where you turn off the drums and admire all the intricate arrangement stuff and harmonies and think about how brilliant you are! [laughter] And you think, “Gosh, wouldn’t this sound delicious without all that banging and pounding?” Or maybe it’s just me? [more laughter]. These were a few of the songs that really seemed like they’d benefit from the drumless approach. And since there’s no “official” drummer in the ‘Button, there was no one to complain about it! Wheeeeeee!
GM: Seth, is that you playing drums on the six tunes that form the new EP?
MR: All drummers on all Red Button recordings are, for their own safety, in the Witness Protection Program, and the less we say, the better.
GM: In that case, let’s move on. How did you hook up with Jem Records?
MR: I have no idea. That’s all Seth’s department. I just hide in the studio.
SS: I got a message from [Jem Records’ Managing Director] Marty Scott on Facebook around the time my last solo record, Circles and Squares, was out last year. He said he was a fan and also a fan of The Red Button. He asked what we were up to and that led to this retrospective. He’s been a joy to work with—always encouraging and positive!
GM: What was the thought behind releasing the two-disc package with both old and new tracks, as opposed to just putting out a new LP?
MR: We work very slowly—or at least I work very slowly, because my wife and I have a toddler—and to finish a full-length LP before 2020 just seemed unlikely. If Seth’s answer to this question differs dramatically from mine, just assume I’m lying.
SS: We felt that, because we put out records every few years, that many people may not have heard our first two albums. We thought this was a great opportunity to give our fans some new music and hopefully, gain some new fans as well.
GM: Songs such as “Behind a Rainbow” have a winning teenage lyrical innocence to them. Is that tough to pull off considering neither of you have been teens for quite some time?
MR: Ha! Sadly, it couldn’t be easier to pull off. Do any of us ever really outgrow the heartache and melodrama of our teens? For me at least, there’s a deep well of teen angst to plumb anytime I need to. I also think the genre helps—once those Rickenbackers start plunking, and the drums start bashing, our inner adenoidal teens can’t help but burst forth!
SS: The melody dictates the lyrics. [“Behind a Rainbow”] had such a bouncy, fun feel, that it lent itself to that kind of a lyric. I think I wrote the hook at Mike’s house one day and sang the words “behind a rainbow” or something like that. He then took that and wrote a perfect lyric behind the feel. If it’s a song about the proverbial “dream girl,” no, I’ve never felt self-conscious about that. I just sit down with a guitar or piano to sing whatever comes to mind, and what feels good—and girls always feel good. [smiles]
GM: It’s been six years since the release of As Far as Yesterday Goes, so it’s great to have some new music from you guys. When were the six new songs written?
SS: I don’t know exactly when, but over the past two years, for sure. We don’t work fast, because, as i said, we like to get it really right. Our standards for ourselves have always been high.
MR: Yes, [the new ones were written] over the course of the last few years. One at a time, as is our method.
GM: Seth, you co-wrote the gorgeous “Solitude Saturday” with Rick Gallego from Cloud Eleven. How did that collaboration come about?
SS: Thank you! I had that chorus since the early ‘90s, but could never find a way to finish it. I had a few of these pieces lying around and wanted to see if Rick may have an idea on some of them. He co-produced my second solo record, Watercolor Day, and he had already taken one of my pieces, “Amen,” and written a terrific verse. (It was the last song on Watercolor Day.) I just loved what he did with “Solitude Saturday” — I was so happy the song had a chance to “live” because it was completed.
MR: Isn’t that song lovely? Another fun one made more fun by the fact that I didn’t have to write anything.
GM: Final question – what’s next for the Red Button?
SS: I think we’re done. Thus, this record —Now It’s All This!— is actually, that: all of our work. I am so proud of it and so happy to be able to have recorded all these songs. It’s one of my life’s proudest achievements.
MR: As far as more new recording, we’ve never, ever made any plans for the Red Button. If the songs start to happen, and if our inner pimply-faced teenage selves start to demand expression, we may just have to start up the old machine again.