Q&A: Aussie Chart Toppers, The Rubens, Talk Working With Run The Jewels Producers on Forthcoming Album

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If you’re Australian, chances are you’re no stranger to The Rubens. If you’re not Australian, chances are you’re soon to be no stranger to The Rubens. Comprised of Margin brothers, Elliot, Zaac, and Sam, as well as their friends Scott Baldwin and William Zeglis, The Rubens took the number one spot at the top of 2015’s Triple J Hottest 100, arguably the highest achievement for an Australian-based music group. However, don’t be mistaken; The Rubens are no one-hit wonders. The band has steadily climbed Triple J’s Hottest 100 over the years, moving from number 57 to number 10, before inevitably claiming the top spot as their own. So what’s next in store for this Australian alternative rock band now that they’re looking out from atop this monumental peak?

Well, for starters, The Rubens’ third album is in the works, and it’s already beginning to take a surprising new direction from their past works. Teaming up with production legends Wilder Zoby and Torbitt Schwartz, collaborators and producers behind the one and only Run The Jewels, the next album is already poised to be something special. It’s no understatement to say that 2018 is bound to be a massive year for The Rubens. 

So, we chatted with Elliot Margin from The Rubens to gain some insight on working with producing legends, being one of the hottest names in Australia right now, and just what the future holds for The Rubens.

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OTW: Let’s start from the beginning. So, how did the band first come together? A large part of the band is obviously the three of you brothers, but did all three of you grow up playing music together?

We grew up playing music but not originally together. We got lessons on piano guitar and stuff as kids and then played in our bedroom separately as a hobby kind of thing but never actually thought about playing music together until we were older. We were working shitty jobs and were sick of pouring beers at bars or whatever. We decided to have a jam one day and then started writing songs. These things we grew up learning how to do, this could be a fun thing to do on the side. The band kind of kicked off from there.

OTW: Elliot, you’re the keyboardist, supporting vocalist, and a primary songwriter for The Rubens, what drew you to the keys in particular?

My mom forced me to learn an instrument when I was in Primary School. I just had a year of lessons on piano and I hated it, so I quit. And then in high school, I started getting into music more, listening to different bands, and having songs stuck in my head and just being like oh I just wish I could play that and be a part of this other side of music that I’m not really a part of without an instrument. So, eventually coming back with my tail between my legs to my mom and saying, “Hey I think I want to play piano again.” But for me, it was always piano. Sam and Zaac started on piano as well, but then they moved on to bass and guitar and stuck with those, but I was always more interested in piano, which worked out in the context of the band.

OTW: And looking back from your first single in 2011, “Lay it Down,” to now. How has the journey been thus far?

It’s been awesome. We’ve been really lucky in that things took off pretty quickly for us by releasing that first single. Especially here in Australia, we’ve got this great radio station called Triple J, which is a nationwide youth-centered station. They supported us massively even with our crappy demos we put online; they started playing them. Then we had people coming to shows, and we very quickly realized this is something we could do full-time. Everything that has happened since then has been a dream come true, being able to travel the world, record in studios we never thought we would stop foot in, let alone record an album in. Amazing.

OTW: You have this great R&B influenced style of rock. As a band who draws a lot of inspiration from hip-hop style beats, so what’s it like to get to work with Wilder Zoby?

It’s awesome. It’s funny the way it came about was really kind of unexpected. They were touring with El-P and his band when he was doing his solo stuff. We just hung out with them all backstage briefly, since we’re buddies on this little mini tour. Kind of didn’t really think anything of it, but we’d see him every now and then. Then we’re back in New York at the bar Max Fish, just having a beer with Wilder Zoby, but didn’t kind of realize what they also did was producing. So, hearing “oh Run The Jewels,” because they had exploded and became massive, and realizing wait maybe our buddies would be keen on producing us. It was kind of a natural thing, sending them a demo, saying hey this is what we’re recording, could this possibly work? And they said hell yeah. It just kind of happened. And obviously, they’re just such lovely dudes who we just love hanging out with. The Run the Jewels thing and them producing that, you kind of forget it being such a big deal; you just look at them as your mates that you hang out with in the studio and that you’re making music with, which is a good thing.

OTW: Can fans expect a particular sonic or thematic shift on this new album?

In a way. We’re still so deep in it. We’re getting mixes back at the moment. It’s kind of hard to step back and look at as a whole. I mean it is a progression in this kind of thing that we’ve been going. The first record is bluesy rock centered; the second one was probably a little bit more R&B and this one’s an extension of that. “Million Man” is a really good indicator of where the rest of the rest of the record is headed, as well. That’s our first single the record, so it doesn’t make sense to kind of show people what the rest of the record isn’t going to sound like and the vibe it isn’t going to have.

OTW: You’ve done a lot of the songwriting for this forthcoming album. What’s your and the band’s songwriting process like?

It’s funny. We don’t really write the songs together that often, because we’re kind of shy when it comes to ideas. We’re all friends and brothers, we’re pretty vulnerable when we’re bringing new ideas to the table. So, it’s kind of like we’ll flush an idea on her own, just on logic or riding program or something on your laptops, and then head out and try and make the best possible version of what we feel the song should be ourselves before handing it over to the rest of the band. Then showing the rest of the band, “hey what do you think of this idea?” That’s when we sit down as a band together and kind of make it a Rubens track from there on. We tried the whole jamming in a room together and trying to create a song as a band from scratch. Our attention spans aren’t good enough. We just end up playing Led Zeppelin covers or putting our instruments down and leaving because it’s just like fucking too hard.

OTW: Are there any particular inspirations or influences present on this forthcoming album?

I’m not sure. It’s hard to know because I’ve been listening to so much different music, and it’s hard to identify what has influenced you. There’s a lot of awesome music that’s come out last year and this year as well, but what’s probably inspired us not in the sound of music or anything. I think probably last year Chance the Rapper’s album was a big one, because it was kind of going back to Kanye’s gospel, chantilly elements, which was a big thing for us. Like oh shit that’s a really cool way to do it, to use these kinds of elements. A lot of good hip-hop recently has been really inspirational.

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OTW: It was about three years between your first album and your sophomore album, and this album had a relatively shorter turnaround time. Was the writing and recording process significantly different this time around?

Yeah, so in between the first and the second record, we decided to go rent a house on the beach around where we lived and the plan was to stay there for a couple of months and write the album together and then go somewhere else record and it. That’s kind of when we learned we don’t really work well together as a band, because all it was was just us going down to the beach having barbecues drinking beer. We would try and jam or write songs, and it would turn into us playing covers and stuff. That’s probably one of the main reasons why it took so long between the first and second albums, because we were just having too much fun living by the beach drinking beer. This time it was kind of all right becauase we know how we work best. 

We work best individually fleshing out our ideas, bringing them to the band and then making them happen. So, we love being on tour and we hate having too much downtime in the studio sitting around twiddling our thumbs, so let’s just any chance we have in between chores and random shows here and there, write and write as much as we can. So we’re still fleshing out as many demos as we can, but doing them much much more quickly and being diligent and treating it as a job where it’s like any downtime you have you’re working on the next record. It’s not like a job as in it’s taxing or boring or waking up at 9am and being like, “Oh I got to go to work and work on these tracks.” It’s still super exciting, you kind of have that goal alright we want to get this record out as soon as possible, but we want it to be the best record we’ve done yet, so let’s just work hard and make it happen.

OTW: Tell me a little about topping the Triple J hottest 100. What was that experience like?

It was nuts. it was just crazy. it’s a really big thing here in Australia. I think it’s actually technically the world’s biggest music pool. It’s a summer thing, so there will be barbecues and everyone will have the Triple J hottest 100 playing, listening to the countdown and make bets on who’s going to be the number one. Then all of a sudden we’ve got a song that’s in the running and people are making bets thinking it could be us near the top. Meanwhile, we’re telling ourselves no, we’ll basically be in the top 10 or whatever, but we’re not expecting anything big. Then when we’re listening to it and it does start eventually count on to the top 5 top 4, 3, 2, surely not and then they play it. It’s such a nice thing as well, where it’s voted by the public. It’s about as direct recognition or confirmation that that people are listening, that people care. It’s not an institution giving out awards or a board of executives picked you out and said good job kind of thing. It makes you feel good, warm, and fuzzy.

OTW: After topping Triple J’s hottest 100, was there ever any worry of oh well what’s next? What do we do from here?

Yeah, I think you’d be crazy to say that those thoughts don’t go through your mind. How do you top that kind of thing? We know that in this industry there’s a lot of luck in certain things happening and there’s a lot of hard work on the other side, so we know we worked really really hard to get to this point, to make this happen, and we were very lucky that the music we made connected to a lot of people. So, we just keep on doing what we’ve always done and write as much music as we can and rehearse and play as many shows as we can. Hopefully, that connects with people and you keep on growing and expanding as a band and connecting with more people. That’s all we really want to do - get our music to as many different people and keep on playing as many different shows as possible. 

OTW: So, ultimately how do you view success for you and the band?

I feel like success for us was when we got to quit our day jobs to do music full-time. That’s a massive thing, especially in today’s climate. To be able to do your passion as a full-time job in any art form is ridiculous. When are you flying to another country and they hand you that little card where you have to fill out your date of birth, where you live, and then you get to the occupation part and every time I answer musician. That’s fucking nuts. That’s crazy. We’re lucky enough to say that yeah I’m a musician that’s what I do for work. It’s ridiculous. All these other things that happened, getting higher up on a festival bill or getting X amount of album sales, are base level measures of success, just knowing that this is your job now, this is your full-time thing is nuts.

OTW: You’re currently preparing to return to North America in the spring for your upcoming tour. What new things can fans expect?

We’re definitely going to be playing some of the new album. That’s for sure, Obviously price we’ve been playing these last few records for X amount of years now, so we’re super excited just throwing new tracks and revamping the set. Three albums in, you start to realize that’s your set can now be just the hits, with no filler, really just fuck people up and get them song after song after song after song after song after song. It’s just going to be awesome. We started rehearsing for that and it sounded pretty good, so super excited to get that underway.

OTW: Any places you’re particularly excited to visit again or the first time?

Yeah, this is a big thing for us, because we haven’t done an extensive amount of touring internationally, I remember looking at the dates the other day and just everywhere man. it’s so exciting for us. We’ve played shows mainly in LA and New York, because that’s the hot spots that bands usually hit, but everywhere in between is just so exciting for us. We’re going to Boston, Vancouver, Philly. There are so many different dates. I try and think of the movies that I know that are based there or the types of foods we’ll get to try, and it’s super exciting.

OTW: Any New Year’s Resolutions?

I’ve never had a New Year’s resolution. I think if you’re living your life and making important life-changing decisions or just good life-affirming decisions around New Year’s Eve it doesn’t mean you’re a shitty person for the rest of the year and only respecting and considering your actions when the New Year comes around. I don’t know; it doesn’t make sense to me. I will say that, not a really a resolution, but a goal is to play as many shows as possible and to get this new music to as many people in the New Year as possible, because it’s a goal to get this little baby of ours out into the world.

OTW: If there’s one thing you’d want the world to know about your band, what would it be?

That we are just the best band you will ever see live, and I would like people to know that.

OTW: Who are your Ones To Watch?

Rex Orange County. He’s featured a lot on Tyler the Creator’s new album and I just heard his new single on the radio, “Loving is Easy,” and I was trying to stop my car to Shazam it, because it sounds so fucking good. A lot of people are watching him right now, but I agree. Everyone should be watching him. 

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