September 4, 2012


You Need to Know: Dark Synth-Pop Duo New Look

Ben Miller Cole
Ben Miller Cole

Every Tuesday, You Need to Know spotlights a rising artist we know will blow up big. Listen now. Thank us later.

“It just sounds better. There’s no debate about this.”

Adam Pavao, one-half of Brooklyn (via Toronto and Berlin) soulful synth-pop duo New Look, is drinking a beer in a Clinton Hill, Brooklyn café, explaining why the group eschews digital programs for vintage analog sounds. His musical partner and wife, Sarah Ruba, glass of rosé in hand, nods in approval. “The actual physical interface of analog synths and a mixing console can’t be beat during the creative process,” says Ruba.  “I just couldn’t use software. With analog, even though the performance is technically the same, it never sounds the same. It makes it way more special and more organic.”

Utilizing mixing equipment from the '70s, synths from the ‘80s and effects from the ‘90s, the duo’s eponymous debut album (recently released on !K7 stateside after an European release last year), is a dark, sleek suite of songs, with Pavao’s cold, metallic production crashing up against Ruba’s gorgeous, breathy vocals. It’s paradoxically inviting and distancing, recalling both New Wave groups like Berlin and chanteuses like Sade. There’s both a spiritual and physical connection with the latter, as Sade member Stuart Matthewman collaborated with Ruba and donated some of the band’s gear to the duo. "He let me bring my stoner band down and we recorded in his studio for a few weeks," says Ruba.

Having met in 2004, Pavao and Ruba fell in love and began recording at the same time. Mock the “You complete me” line from Jerry Maguire all you want, but for the duo, musically at least, the sentiment was accurate. “I was 18 when we met,” says Ruba, who was a big band/jazz vocalist before linking up with Pavao. “I wanted to write songs [with my former bandmate], but it was just noodling on top of his material. It wasn’t enough.” While Ruba was channeling singers like Jeff Buckley and Chet Baker, Pavao was producing experimental electronic music. “I was missing Sarah, but I didn’t know that. I’m always inspired by the person I’m working with.”

Does being married make it easier or harder to be honest with each other?

"We can really hurt each other's feelings or get into terrible arguments," Ruba says. “In a marriage, you're vulnerable all the time. It's the same in a creative relationship. It's the same give and take, being patient with each other, all that relationship advice. It all applies."

"The fights are nothing personal, though," Pavao is quick to add. 

The duo recorded New Look over the course of three years thanks to a combination of perfectionism (Pavao is a consummate collector of vintage recording equipment) and the pair’s nomadic lifestyle, now tempered by a full-time move to Brooklyn. While your favorite band is worried about acquiring the latest gear, Pavao and Ruba revel in their traditionalism, viewing the aging of their instruments as a positive. “As the synths get older, they start to get a little…funny,” says Pavao. “It’s for the better, though. They start doing their own thing. It’s like another member of the band.”

For her part, Ruba, who admits to holding back a little on the band's earliest tracks "for fear of sounding too cheesy," has shunned her self-consciousness. "I remember saying a lot, 'Is that too emo?' Now I let how I feel come through in my vocals. There's nothing wrong with some soul."

New Look, "The Ballad"

New Look, "Numbers"

New Look, "Janet" (cover of Janet Jackson's "He Doesn't Know I'm Alive")