‘It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll’ sang the legendary Bon Scott. Nobody, it seems, told The Rubens.
That or they’re harbouring the most well-kept shortcut to fever-pitch exposure in Australian music history. Their story is a PR man’s dream, the fabled rise of three brothers and their childhood friend raised in the isolated town of Menangle, NSW. They knock out a raw slice of bedroom soul which captures the attention and adulation of national youth radio, cue calls from internationally renowned producers, a label bidding frenzy and pending fame.
That would be the basic trajectory of The Rubens’ press sheet. That’s if they actually had one, of course. Never mind the official recording such bios are usually attached to. The Rubens, have neither. A fact that makes their swift stratospheric rise all the more baffling.
At the genesis of their home-grown success story is ‘Lay It Down.’ A confidently stripped-back dose of blues rock, its central vocal hook of ‘it’s you’ phrased with a bruised croon that rotates on a series of downward guitar stabs and slithering organ. Its heavy airplay on triple j enchanted listeners enough that it ranked just outside the top fifty of the station’s Hottest 100 music poll. An impressive feat for a song that isn’t even available on iTunes.
Similarly, they’ve managed to sell-out their homecoming tour, including four consecutive nights at the Northcote Social Club. Speaking to the group before they head on-stage for their third evening, the significance of their achievement is not lost on them. “Definitely, it’s crazy,” remarks lead guitarist Zaac Margin, grinning beneath his mop of shaggy blonde hair. “That all these people have come to hear our music,” adds organ-playing brother Elliott, “after hearing just ‘Lay It Down’ which was recorded in a bedroom – yeah, it’s crazy.” Squeezed alongside the brothers on a stooped couch is drummer Scottie Baldwinm, who says, “triple j has done a lot for us, which we’re pretty thankful for.”
“We didn’t have to push anything really…” Zaac ponders aloud.
“We haven’t had to do much,” concurs Sam Margin, perched adjacent to the trio on the arm of a second lounge. The band’s de-facto leader, he speaks with a calm, collected clarity. Though The Rubens have only officially existed for just over a year, Sam spent time previously as a solo artist. His experience shows in his down-dressing of the hype: “We’re not that well-known, people are just curious what it’s about. I think the fact that we went away to America to start our album, just as all the hype happened, it kind of left this mystery around us; this anticipation which helped us sell this tour. People want to see what’s going on. They’re not just sitting through all these other songs so they can hear ‘Lay It Down’ at the end.”
For better or worse, it remains the sticking point of every conversation concerning the quartet – were they surprised that it would come to define them? “We thought, ‘My Gun’ if anything, was going to be the single, but at that point we had no idea how we were going to get triple j to listen to it.” Alongside ‘Cowboy Song’, it was one of three tracks uploaded to Unearthed, but as it happened, “one day they picked ‘Lay It Down’ – we didn’t even know they were going to play it, that’s what they chose and they smashed it.”
It’s the kind of ‘big break’ story that has seen criticism steered at triple j’s, specifically Richard Kingsmill’s role, with Unearthed poised a gauntlet that ‘makes or breaks’ young acts with unchecked power. The quartet weren’t privy to the media coverage, having spent the better part of the year in New York recording their debut, but “fair enough” Sam admits, “I guess they do have a ridiculous amount of power in Australia of what bands break and we’re a great example of it; but I don’t see how that’s a negative. It could just be people who didn’t get that who are pissed off, the thousands that didn’t get picked up, but the reality is it would be even harder if it wasn’t for Unearthed. They still wouldn’t have made it. It would’ve been the same story, but they have someone to blame now.”
Is Margin senior saying that triple j simply accelerated their fast-track to success? When pressed, he cautiously counters, “Oh, I can’t say we definitely would have got this far if it wasn’t for triple j, it might’ve taken five years or we might not have ever got there; but we got a break. But it is definitely a way of fast-tracking your career; it skips a level. We skipped about twenty levels in the last year. We have played crappy, little shows… but we didn’t have to do it for years. That’s what triple j did for us. Within a week of ‘Lay It Down’ being played, we didn’t have to worry about that anymore.”
A similar level of luck surrounds the circumstances that found them winding up working in New York with heavyweight producer Dave Kahne, whose CV includes Paul McCartney, Regina Spektor and The Strokes. Originally they’d planned to record locally; “do it with Tunza [Dean, engineer] down the south coast,” explains sticksman Baldwin, “then he went over to France, on a scholarship, where he met David and basically dropped our tracks to him… the facilities we had to record. Just amazing.”
A mantra Kahne soon had the band reciting was “make your third album your first album.”
“He kept saying that to us,” recalls Sam, “because the third album is often huge, [going] stadium rock at that point. We’re not trying to do that, to a certain extent I agree, but then it still needs to sound like we’re new. It’s not going over the top, still keeping our roots but somehow making it stand out from all the other ‘first albums’ you hear.”
He plucks his words with consideration, but the impression that there’s an ambitious streak to their gameplan is undeniable. “I consider ‘Lay It Down’ the lo-fi introduction to The Rubens for everyone. We’re not trying to revive the blues with the same old instruments and sounds, put it to tape, we’re quite open to making it more ambitious and contemporary and now I’m thinking we have to take it up to the next level.”
Having already ‘skipped twenty,’ Margin begins to wax inadvertently about international success, “We didn’t get a big, heavyweight producer to not utilise him either; he is ridiculously musically talented. He knows how to work structures, make singles and make stuff work to translate to the American market. We were trying to do a lot of that as well, it was a big thing to tackle, but that’s the reason we went to work with him.”
As if on cue, Michael Gudinski, the legendary Mushroom records mogul himself, has crept into the room. Though already recently signed to Ivy League records, his presence alone confirms the intense interest in The Rubens crossing over to the mainstream. That they’re soon to outgrow their perception as a ‘triple j band.’ Despite the commercial ambition, the serious attention, the sell-out shows, the hyperbole and buzz – they’re just trying to, as they put it, “put a new spin on something that’s old.”
Seems hard to believe given their circumstances, but as the interview comes to close, allowing Gudinski full audience with the group; two members exit for the bathroom, inquiring aloud, “Who’s that guy?”
It seems they may still be just four lads from rural New South Wales after all. You can take the boy out of Menangle…
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