Sam Margin is chatting to me from the car. We have 20 minutes on the phone – no more – before the band head into rehearsals.
This is the word from The Rubens’ publicist, and I’m not sure I’d be prepared to stand in the way. Here is a band who are on a never-ending schedule, today’s rehearsals just another step towards that enticing but nevertheless nebulous goal of global success.
Ever since their single ‘Lay It Down’ came out of nowhere last year to become a Triple J favourite – ending up at number 57 on the youth broadcaster’s Hottest 100 poll – the four-piece have gathered what seems an unstoppable head of steam. Flights to New York have resulted, as did a working relationship with Grammy-winning producer David Kahne. Now, nine months later, the band find themselves with a self-titled debut album and a national tour to go with it.
“Obviously, with how things are going with our career generally, it’s amazing,” Margin says over the din created by his bandmates. Two of them – Zaac and Elliott – are brothers. “We keep getting good news every day and it keeps getting bigger and bigger, so obviously we can’t complain.”
Margin talks with the slack-jawed honesty of a man who still can’t quite believe what’s happening to him. After all, it was only last year that he was tooling around in his bedroom, writing songs for his brothers and good friend Scott Baldwin to jam to. It’s a tale full of good fortune, but The Rubens prove that even if you perhaps don’t make your own luck, you at least have to work tirelessly to turn it into an opportunity.
“Basically, I went over on the second or third of January. I spent three months there and the boys two months – they came a month after I was there. The start of February, I guess.
“The album was really written before we got to America. And it was just about taking what we’d written and making it bigger and better, and we obviously, hopefully end up on both commercial and independent radio. So it was just about keeping the soul of what we’re about, but also taking it to the next level. We’ve ended up with a result we’re really happy with.”
Life in New York wasn’t easy. The bandmembers were operating on an allowance of $10 each a day, and at one point Zaac ended up in hospital after rupturing his spleen in a skateboarding accident. But even trickier was the relationship with Kahne, whose resumé – which includes Paul McCartney, Regina Spektor and The Strokes – tended to intimidate this humble little band from Australia.
“There were a lot of ups and downs and it wasn’t really until the final day that we realised that [David] knew what he was doing,” Margin says with a chuckle. “We’re not really that talented musically when it comes to reading music and that sort of thing. We don’t know why we do things, we just do them; but he knows why and is really methodical. We couldn’t really work out why he was doing some of what he was doing and it was really stressful and we just had to have some blind faith. There’s a reason he’s worked with so many of these amazing artists and there’s a reason why he’s done so well. So we just had to trust him, and only now looking back we can realise, ‘Okay, that’s why he put that in there’.
“He’s kind of a nutty musical genius, and sometimes it was hard to get the communication right. With someone like that you have to learn how to approach situations and how to get what you want, and at the start we didn’t really know how to do it and we were intimidated. We were going to have to man up and say what we think, otherwise we weren’t going to get certain things right on the record. Basically with him, he does everything for a reason – every little hi-hat or accent he puts into it has a reason for being there. And if you’re not going to like something you have to speak up … We had to learn how to think in a different way.”
It’s a mark of The Rubens’ often precocious talent that they’ve come from a situation where they’ve been intimidated by the whys and wherefores of production to now talking about tackling the process themselves.
“Absolutely. It’s not that hard, once you’ve learned,” Margin says casually. “We’ve learnt a few key things from David, like making sure that the hooks aren’t too repetitive, and making sure you don’t repeat too much of a section if it’s too long – you’ve got to be happy to chop it down. There are little things we learnt from him that we can apply ourselves and get a good result, I think.”
The band have been learning how to play live also, and are looking forward to putting that practice to good use on their upcoming national tour. Hence today’s 45 minute drive from their rural hometown of Menangle into Sydney proper for another round of rehearsals.
“We’ve been playing our arses off ever since we got back from America. Our songs are pretty solid in our heads and we’ve become so much more comfortable playing them, so we can just enjoy ourselves onstage a bit more, and have a bit more crowd interaction.
“You can’t fake that,” Margin says. “As soon as you’re absolutely 100 percent comfortable playing a song [you can] rock out. It’s taken us some time to learn our songs. Because we’ve had to do everything so quickly and learn as we go, so it’s only in the past few months and Splendour In The Grass where we’ve felt like, ‘Yeah, we’ve got this’. I’m not worried anymore. I feel like we’re all on top of our parts and we can just enjoy ourselves.”
The summer ahead looks to be an endless one, with the band looking to lock in some festival slots as well as a bunch of shows in the wider region.
“We’re playing in New Zealand and Southeast Asia is looking pretty promising over the next few months too – and China. And then the start of next year will be when we start thinking about America. Obviously, though, we’re all about promoting the album in Australia for the next few months. Because we understand that everything that happens overseas will be based on what happens here.”
And for another band it might be a premature question, but for The Rubens it almost feels obvious: any plans for a follow-up album?
“Not yet. I’m a bit daunted by it,” Margin says. “If we were to force it now it would be a mistake. We’ve got a bit of time. But I’m well aware that soon enough there will be a deadline and the record label will be like, ‘This is when it’s coming out. Get going.’ So we do need to start thinking about that soonish.”
The Rubens’ Self-Titled Debut Is Out Now. The Band Play The Coolangatta Hotel Oct 11, The Hi-Fi October 12, And The Great Northern, In Byron Bay, Oct 13.