After decades in the dark, Ruin reunites to bring the light
Philadelphia's legendary Buddhist hardcore outfit is back.
“It’s about life cycles,” guitarist Glenn Wallis says.
“You give away childhood things — your toys, your band — and you live your life. Then you remember the good times and what made you feel alive, so you do it again.”
With that, Philadelphia’s legendary Buddhist hardcore outfit Ruin is back. On Saturday, they’ll play Union Transfer, their first show in a decade and a half. Their original run was 1981 to 1987, when bands like Bunnydrums, Stickmen and Crash Course in Science played Philly’s (now-defunct) East Side Club, Love Club and Funk Dungeon.
“We were of that scene and apart from it,” says singer Vosco Thomas Adams. For a Philly hardcore act, they were pretty weird. “Ruin wasn’t an anarchy band, a beer-drinking, fun-loving band, or a politicized band,” says Wallis. Adams’ spiritualist lyrics were set to a sound that incorporated elements of folk, metal and Detroit rock a la the Stooges and Alice Cooper. The occasional Leonard Cohen cover would pop up in their live show. Ruin was always a band apart.
“Wearing white clothes exclusively on stage symbolized that,” says Wallis. “We’d start in total blackness with nothing but lit candles, then blasted out the stage with white light to go with the blaring music. There was a strangeness to us then — and, we hope, now.”
Sean Agnew, whose R5 Productions books the shows at Union Transfer, hopes so too. He used to play Ruin during his WKDU radio shifts. “They were on the infamous Get Off My Back [compilation], which everyone called The Philly Shreds comp,” he recalls. The last time Ruin played, in 1996, he says, “I couldn’t get into their reunion show at the RUBA Club because I wasn’t 21, so this’ll be my first time seeing them.”
Though the band — Adams and Glenn Wallis, plus his lead guitarist brother Damon Wallis, drummer Rich Hutchins, rhythmatist Paul Della Pelle and bassist Cordy Swope — had a relatively a short golden age, you can notice hints of their lasting legacy all over the music scene: The young punk band citing Ruin as an influence on Facebook, the bass player with a Ruin tattoo, the local film series playing clips of their old shows.
“There was definitely some envelope-pushing on our part,” Adams says of the Philly punk scene of the early ’80s. “We were a storm in their paradise, and they wanted that, I think. They probably felt restricted, being slaves to rhythm and melody and in we come with —” he takes a deep breath, “BLAGAGSHSHAHHG!
“I understand what they must have felt. Cordy and I, before we joined Ruin, wanted to get away from everything accessible, but couldn’t figure it out. That’s what Glenn and Damon were bringing.”
“Passion is everything,” says Glenn Wallis of Ruin’s rule-breaking ethos. “Form is a killer. It’s never about the proper notes, or being in key.”
The Wallis brothers were also responsible for the band’s Buddhist ideals. “Like the band, our belief wasn’t something we daydreamed — we put our bodies and minds into it,” says Adams. “It wasn’t an act,” says Damon Wallis. “It was how we lived and who we were.”
“We want to bring old Philadelphia into the now,” says Ruin’s manager Dennis McHugh. He booked this weekend’s gig, and his Creep Records will re-release the band’s original recordings — 1984’s He-Ho and 1986’s Fiat Lux — as well as a recording of Saturday’s show.
Back in the day, the band was courted by noteworthy labels, but ended up putting out records on smaller imprints like RED Records and Meta Meta. Though the band’s still happy with their original recordings and delighted to see them re-released as-is, they recall producer Marc Springer — who would later do work for Jon Bon Jovi — struggling to lighten the band’s dense tension during the making of Fiat Lux. “I wanted to sound like Metallica, he wanted me to sound like Van Halen,” says Glenn Wallis.
When the band broke up in ’87, it wasn’t due to dysfunction or creative differences. The guys just didn’t want it to become a grind.
“We were doing successful shows in San Francisco and talking with an agent,” says Glenn Wallis. “I remember her telling us, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing for another three years and you might break big. She meant that as encouragement, but to us, it was, like, ‘Three more motherfucking years of this?’ We were already headed into our 30s and just couldn’t see it.”
The reunited Ruin is working on new material, including a three-part mini-opus to open Saturday’s show. “It’s a punk suite,” says Glenn Wallis. “It gets shorter each time we rehearse it,” says Adams. Whether this Ruin stays for good or hits it and runs, no one knows.
“What I love about these guys now is what I loved about them then,” says McHugh with a smile. “Philly was a dark place, Taxi Driver dark. They brought the light. They can do that again.”
Sat., Aug. 31, 8:30 p.m., $20, Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St., 215-232-2100, utphilly.com.