In a perfect world, Australian music fans likely would likely have been looking forward to celebrating the one-year anniversary of The Rubens’ fourth album in a matter of months. In a perfect world, many of those same fans would have counted live performances from the group as their musical highlights of 2020.
Of course, nothing ever goes as planned.
As we’re well aware, 2020 was the very definition of a terrible year. A global pandemic, countless deaths, an immeasurable amount of jobs lost, and livelihoods ruined. From the point of view of those within the music scene, the year was equally hellish, with countless folks out of work or forced to sideline themselves while we awaited a sense of normalcy.
One of the most notable casualties of a year such as this was The Rubens and their numerous plans for 2020. When COVID took hold close to a year ago, the band had been hard at work on their then-untitled new record. The single “Live in Life” had been released a few months prior, but details regarding their latest album were yet to be released.
Unfortunately, the biggest update that fans received came about in April, when the band revealed that not only had COVID necessitated the first postponement of their “Live in Life” tour, but that it had halted production of their album. “We were SO bloody close to finishing but for obvious reasons we can’t all get in the studio right now,” the group explained at the time. “So that’s been pushed back to 2021.”
As the year went on, singles arrived as a means of keeping fans engaged, as did music videos which captured the lockdown experience by way of using footage from fans. News of another tour postponement arrived as well, before it was revealed that The Rubens would indeed be releasing their new record in February of 2021.
Dubbed 0202, a fitting title to a “forward-thinking album for a backward year”, the record is finally released today. With five singles released ahead of time, and a run of intimate launch shows in New South Wales helping to underline the record’s release, The Rubens are undoubtedly back in a sense of cautious normalcy, though they aren’t taking anything for granted.
In anticipation of the record’s release, Sam and Elliott Margin spoke to Rolling Stone about the road that led them to their new record, including continual disappointment, musical experimentation, and the freedom of self-producing their first record.
Before we really get into the new album, I really should ask, how have you guys dealt with the last year? Did you manage to avoid the brunt of things?
Elliott: Well we had a tour that was scheduled for like midway last year that got postponed and rescheduled twice, so that was the “Live in Life” tour for our single, in like July and that got rescheduled for September, and got moved to April this year and became the album tour.
So for us, it’s just like, pretty much like everyone else, it was just us checking the news and checking if we were going to be able to go out and do our job and realising that we had to postpone again and again. So things kept getting pushed back, but we’d finished recording the record, so at least we’d done that part of it. But the rest of it was, yeah, pretty shitty.
That must have been a rough experience to continuously see the shows pushed further back.
Sam: Our expectations changed big-time, and it was more just like, anything that does happen will be amazing, but I’m going to mentally get myself there until I’m literally there, because things just changed so quickly. Like, state borders and everything… I mean, even our upcoming tour for this year, it’s going ahead, but you know, I’m still not letting myself go there until we’re right there. We’ve been hurt a couple of times in the last 12 months [laughs].
It’s been difficult just to see shows announced and then see them postponed.
S: In WA and other places, you have 21 days of no cases and your brain changes to like, “Alright, we’re out of this”, I think. Then inevitably there is a case and you just keep getting beaten back down every time. It’s funny how quickly your brain becomes optimistic.
Obviously, the record got pushed back quite a bit, but how far back did things begin with this record? First single “Live in Life” came out in late 2019, but how long beforehand had things been in the works?
E: We’re writing all the time, so technically we’ve been writing since Lo La Ru, the last record, but I think we did a writing trip to LA in…
S: Early 2019, I’m pretty sure.
E: Yeah, and that probably kicked off most of the writing for the record. Once a record comes out, we start writing right away, and to be honest with ourselves, the first couple of songs don’t make the record because they’re just us getting back into gear again. Most of the brunt of the record was probably written in early 2019.
How far along were you when COVID really kicked in? You mentioned being done with it, while a press release noted you were very close to being done, so how far along are we talking? Was it a case of mixing, or were there still things that needed recording?
S: We were mixing as we going. Often, we would get a song done, because we were doing a song at a time, and between touring we were sort of chipping away at it slowly. So, we’d probably mixed a lot of the songs, but we’d probably recorded all but two or three. All but two or three had been recorded, and maybe even mixed, so I’d say 80% of the record was finished when COVID hit.
“We’ve been hurt a couple of times in the last 12 months.”
E: Yeah, and then things started going a bit… I remember the last song – it might have been like, “Apple” – when we were in the studio, we were doing that one and it felt like we just got [it recorded]. Like, things started to lock down, but we were okay because we’d just put the final touches on.
I know that a lot of artists tried to adapt to the situation. Were you thinking of ways to overcome the situation before you realised it was just not going to happen?
S: We write separately anyway, so Elliott and I will begin the songs because we’re the lyricists. So we write and demo the songs ourselves. Generally that’s how it goes, anyway. And then we bring the song or the demo to the rest of the band and we’ll go from there. We’ll choose which demo we want to record and then go into the studio, and be in the same room as each other and have our process there where we record with Will [Zeglis], our bass player, who is engineering it at The Bunker in Camden.
And that was the way that we did it all in 2019. It didn’t have to change too much because we only had a couple of songs left to do when the seriousness of COVID had sort of it, so we were still able to do our thing and work within the guidelines and the laws of the time.
E: It’s Will’s studio, we’re not going into a commercial space. When we would go in there, it would just be us – members of the band – so we were never going over the limit of how many people can be in a room.
S: Scotty [Baldwin] might do drums, so we’d keep it limited in the room. We’d just do like, drums on one day and just be wary of not having people coming around to the studio. Only people that needed to be in the room were there, and it’s a massive studio so we were able to socially distance as well.
E: Technically we could do the next record the same and have it be COVID-safe.
It seems that might be a method a lot of artists take going forward, especially with some realising they can make a record with a far leaner team than usual.
E: I mean, everyone’s already making records on their laptops anyway, so it’s just reiterating the fact that you don’t need to spend big money to be in a big professional studio.
You mentioned you’re always writing. With that downtime where you couldn’t really do things, did you find yourself working on new music, or did you remain focused on the task at hand?
E: We were doing a bit of new music, and obviously setting up for the record. Sam, Zaac [Izaac Margin, guitar], and I, we started doing writing sessions with other artists as well – so writing for other artists. So, just linking up with young artists in the Sydney area and just having writing sessions with them and helping them do that, because we feel like we’ve been in it a while and we’ve written a shitload of songs, so it’s like, now we realise that’s an asset we can help other young artists with. So that’s been pretty cool.
Does that feel strange given where you started as musicians? Being able to go from the uncertainty of whether music was a viable option to now helping other young artists reach their potential?
E: Totally, and it’s just something that we’ve slowly realised. A few years ago, we started a night in Sydney for live music called Chucka Bucka’s, where we could put on artists that we liked in the area. And we started to realise that we’ve been in it a while, so we have some kind of knowledge we can pass on.
Then eventually we started doing Chucka Bucka’s regional tours and we would take those young artists out on the road with us, and we would start to realise that we can help out these people this way. It’s weird, because we’re a decade old as a band this year, and we’ve kind of only just realised that we’ve not only learnt a lot, but can teach a lot, and that’s cool.
It’s weird, once you get over the fact – or convince yourself that – “We’re not old, we’ve just been in it a while”, it’s fun to be able to… Especially the touring aspect, where we’ve been able to take other artists out on the road and you see how excited they are to go out and play their first live shows, even in just like, regional New South Wales, and it makes you excited too to do the same thing, because you don’t want used to it too much because you’re so lucky to do it as a job.
Going back to the downtime following the record being put on hold, I imagine that would’ve been quite devastating. Obviously there’s a lot of momentum that you lose, but also there’s suddenly a need to keep fans engaged, and if you haven’t got an album ready to go, you’re a little bit on the back foot. Was that something you were feeling?
S: It was something that we were definitely aware of. As things became more and more separated and we realised that we weren’t going to be touring in the way that we thought, and then the idea of pushing back an album we were so excited to hear… We were definitely aware of the fact that we were going to have to work a lot harder to engage with our fans and make sure that we care, and that we’re thinking of them, and that we know that it sucks.
There were different ways that we did that. We shot two music videos which involved fan content, which was pretty fun. The “Heavy Weather” video was the first thing we did with our friend Russell Fitzgibbon who did the album artwork as well; he’s an amazing creative. We got fans to send in footage of them, and he integrated that into the video.
Then our next video, which was “Time of My Life”, we did this kind of thing where we wanted to involve year 12 students because we’d been getting a lot of messages from our management through to our socials from kids struggling in year 12, and principals, teachers, and schools. So we wanted to involve them and we thought, yeah, same kind of thing – just send in videos of yourself having fun in year 12, and we were able to integrate that into the video for that one as well.
So that was one of the ways we were able to engage with our fans, and yeah, that was cool. It was tough though, it was tough trying to be creative and working out how the hell to reach everybody. Because usually what we’d do is just get on the road – every time we release a song, we’d get on the road and play that song. Same with an album, and not being able to do that, we were just like, “Shit”.
“Heavy Weather” did feel like something of a prescient song, given the events of last year. Of course, I’m assuming that was just pure coincidence.
E: I feel like with every bit of music released during the pandemic you could find some kind of new meaning for the song – from any artist.
With things are looking cautiously positive, the album arrives this week. It’s a rather standard question, but I assume you’re feeling somewhat excited to finally get it out in the world at long last?
E: Yeah, it’s weird as hell. I’ve got a bunch of the vinyls sitting at my house right now, and I just want to go and show people; open up the cover because it just looks so cool. We’re very, very proud of it, and just so excited to release it finally.
It’s an amazing record, but what exactly is it that makes you so proud of what you’ve created here?
S: I think the fact that we essentially produced it ourselves, which is something that we’d never done before. On the last record, we had two amazing producers from the states come over to our studio in Camden, and Will engineered it, but they were still there to do the producing. This time around, I think we accidentally fell into the self-producing thing because we found ourselves… In between touring, back in 2019, we had a few days here and there where we had time and we had demos, and we thought we should go and record these songs.
And we didn’t want to try and make our schedule line up with a producer; we were just going to go and do it ourselves with Will engineering at The Bunker. Then, any additional production that we felt we needed at the end of that song, we would send it off to another producer and they would do some additional stuff.
So that’s what we did with “Live in Life”, and we just felt that it kind of worked, and I think we accidentally found ourselves in the album recording phase. We were probably a few songs in and realised that we’d already produced – ourselves – three songs or something, and that this is going to be part of the album, and this is how we’re doing it.
And we were like, “Okay, we all good with this? Okay, let’s keep going.” It was really fun, and we had a guy called Rob Amoruso come on, and he was amazing. We would choose a demo, go in and record it ourselves, do as much as we could – often get it very close to being finished product, and then we would listen to it as it was and then decide who we thought would suit adding the final touches.
There was Rob Amoruso and another guy called Konstantin Kersting, and they did the bulk of the initial production, and then we did another song with Eric J. So it was kind of cool that we would work, and do as much as we could on our own, and if it needed something, we would send it off. But the bulk of the work, and the time spent in the studio, was us and us only. It was a beautiful way to do things, and it never felt stressful – to me, anyway.
Was the idea of handling production yourself somewhat daunting? Obviously you’ve been at it before and know what’s going on, but without that close guidance the whole way through, it’s easy to see how that could be a daunting prospect.
E: I remember the feeling of being in the studio when we first started working on “Live in Life”… We’ve been in plenty of studios or with lots of different producers, and you leave a lot of the decision making up to them. Even just from, “What is the first thing we’re going to record?”, and that decision is up to them, and “What drum take do we think works?”. You kind of realise that, “Okay, that person isn’t here”, so we all have to put on that producer hat and all take charge and control at the same time.
So that was a little bit scary to realise that not only are we the musicians, but that we’re the leaders in the recording process. Then I think for us, the point where we realised that it worked and that we’re allowed to do it was when we released “Live in Life”. We released “Live in Life” not thinking it would be part of the record, just like, “It’ll be an in-between single that will tide people over until whatever it is we do with the record”.
And when people really responded to that track, it was kind of like an affirmation that we were allowed to do that, we were allowed to be producers and make this machine work ourselves, and put out the music ourselves. It was scary, but I think having that immediate response and reaction from people was what gave us the confidence.
“When people really responded to that track, it was kind of like an affirmation that we were allowed to do that.”
S: The way that we’d done records in the past, and I think it’s a traditional way to do it, is that you decide on up towards 15 songs that you want to record from a bunch of demos, and you work that out with your record label, management, amongst yourselves, the producer might have a say, and then you decide on the 15 songs you’re going to record for an album. You block out three, four months with this [producer], you go somewhere or they come to you, and you just get stuck into making these songs.
Doing it that way is super daunting, and I think the fact we didn’t have to do it that way when we were producing our first album was very lucky for us. I think that would’ve been extremely daunting, but the way that we did it was that we’d pick a song at a time, we’d have the energy and we’d be excited by that song, and then we’d just go in and record that song and add that to our album.
We’d recorded five songs, and we decided that, y’know, next Wednesday was good for everyone [to record], we’d choose a song, and then we’d record it, and then we’d have six. Then we’d come back a week later and do it again. Towards the end, I guess, we had to think about curating those songs and making it into a body of work that made some sense, but at the start of that whole process it was never daunting because we were just recording one song at a time and making songs, individually, sound as cool as possible.
The Rubens have an incredible resumé so far: there’s a Gold album, a Platinum album, numerous singles, a Hottest 100 #1, and albums in the top five of the ARIA charts. It’s incredible stuff, but looking at where you were when you started recording music, did you think you’d find yourself making an album such as this?
E: When we listen to the first record and then this record, they sound so different, and there’s so many sounds on this record and records in between that we would’ve said no to on the first record. Just because we felt like, “We’re a guitar band, we do some key sounds, but the rest of it, we just write blues rock”. But we’ve kind of had a journey where it’s like, we’re four albums in, we’ve tried so many different things, and we’ve realised we are allowed to experiment and try new stuff.
So the trajectory does make sense from record to record when you look at them in order. I think for us, when you start out making music, you don’t start out to be a certain genre. You probably write a song, and put it up on a website like Unearthed and then you realise you have to click what your influences are, what genre you are, and you’re like, “Oh, okay, I’ll pick whatever we think we might be”.
“Eventually, if you’re comfortable enough to have some kind of freedom in your creativity, you realise you don’t have to be a rock band.”
Then you might get written about in the media and they peg you as a rock band, and you’re like, “Alright, we’re a rock band”. Eventually, if you’re comfortable enough to have some kind of freedom in your creativity, you realise you don’t have to be a rock band, you can try other stuff and I think we’ve come a long way in being comfortable in our place in music.
When “Muddy Evil Pain” was released, it was described as “essentially a folk-gospel song blended with heavily distorted pulsing synths”, and noted as something you “never would have considered doing on our first record”. Is that more of a case of musical evolution at play, or is it having more confidence to attempt new things?
S: I think so, I think that our music evolved naturally and then we got a confidence boost now and again when a song that we might’ve been slightly nervous about releasing did really well. And that maybe subconsciously freed us up to continue to experiment. I think when Elliott wrote “Hoops”… Thinking about that song now, it doesn’t seem like it was anything that crazy, but at the time, with the expectations of what The Rubens were and what we worried about our fans thinking – although we loved the song, it was a bit of a departure, and there were new sounds.
Then with it doing so well, it freed us up to do the same thing again. The expectations that we had for it, versus the success that it had, it freed us up to continue to continue experimenting and writing songs in a genre that we really want, and using sounds that we really want and were excited by. I think “Live in Life” happening the way it did was the perfect time for us when it came to this album being made. We had a bit of success and a confidence boost with this song, and we could just continue with some confidence and being excited by the new direction that we were headed.
From my own point of view, it feels that while each album expands upon the last and continues an evolution of your sound, 0202 has moments that feels quite in line with the sound of the first album. Is that something that you feel as well?
E: I think that’s true, we’ve gone to using some acoustic guitar and stuff which we kind of didn’t touch on the last record. Or maybe on any of the records, actually… But I think it might be a part of feeling comfortable in experimenting, and also feeling comfortable in using things that you began with. Not feeling like you have to abandon influences you had in the beginning.
For us, we’re still just trying to write music that we like, that we want to listen to, and that excites us. It doesn’t mean we have to eventually give up guitars completely, and eventually Scotty will just be playing a programmed kit or something, we still know where we came from, and we still love R&B, blues, and soul, but to keep it interesting for us – and for fans – we want to keep on experimenting.
S: I think when we did that first record, we sounded like that because it was completely natural. Then after that, that’s when you start to question who you are, because there’s expectation on you all of a sudden. There’s expectation from different places, like record labels in America, and [it also comes from] what you’re listening to at the time. I think we were much more influenced on our second album than we had ever been.
“We’re still just trying to write music that we like, that we want to listen to, and that excites us.”
But I think that one in particular, we were influenced by what we were listening to and I think less so on the last record, and I don’t think we were listening to music at all when we made this record, or trying to be like anything in particular. And I think that’s probably why we’ve naturally come back to using sounds that we would’ve gone straight to on the first record. It’s maybe where we’re comfortable.
That does answer my question as to whether there was a sound you’d been trying to capture with album. Especially since they were created rather individually, it likely means there’s no singular thread running through the whole record.
E: We don’t do music conceptually. We don’t sit down and be like, “We’re going to tell this one story with all these songs”. We treat songs as individual little projects, and try to make each and every one as good and interesting as possible, and every band member had their own unique way of playing their instrument, and once that all gets added, it becomes a Rubens song.
So it’s not about trying to make things sound a certain way. Zaac’s guitar on this record is going to sound different to the last record because his pedalboard looks completely different now, and he’s trying new sounds. It’s still Zaac’s playing and stuff, but he’s experimenting, and I’m experimenting using different synths and stuff.
S: We were conscious of the song that we’d just recorded. It might be that we’d record one song a week and then we’d take a month off, but we were still very aware, and constantly listening to everything we’d done on this record.
We were aware that the last song’s snare sounded like this because we thought it should sound like this, and then on the next song, we’d be aware of what the song sounded like to make sure we weren’t repeating ourselves. We wanted cohesion, even though we were recording weeks apart or months apart. We were still super aware of the stuff that we were building on.
I do think that one of the best examples of making lemonade out of lemons is the album’s title as well. I’m guessing there was a working title for the record beforehand, but this seemed to just so perfectly present itself.
E: There was no working title, I don’t think. We were trying to come up with a title for this for ages, which we do for every record; it’s like the last thing we think about, “What are we going to call this body of work?”. For us, when we were recording the songs, we’d just keep on throwing around ideas and then eventually Will came up with 0202 for the backwards year.
We laughed about it, then everyone kind of thought about it, and was like, “Actually, that’s really good…”. Then it was like, “Sweet, no more deliberation,” we knew it was the right name for it. It felt like it put the stamp on it.
Now with the album out this week, you guys have been doing a few shows around New South Wales. How have they been going for you? It’s obviously one of the first live runs you’ve had for a while, so how have the fans been receiving them?
S: It’s been amazing, but anything would be amazing to us right now, if I’m fair. But I’m pretty sure that these shows that we’ve played – any year – would objectively be awesome. It’s seated; that’s fine, we’ve played other seated shows before, but the fact that we haven’t played… You write a song, and even though it’s coming out on a record, you go and play it in front of an audience.
But the fact that we’ve got three or four songs that no one’s ever heard live, and we’ve never played for anyone live, adds to the excitement from us and them. I think everyone is excited to be back at a show – as excited as we are to be there. You can’t help but have a good time with everyone in the room. And it’s a limited capacity thing, which is fine. I don’t know, I could do this for the rest of the year. Although, I am exhausted [laughs].
The album tour also arrives in April, and those shows have obviously been pushed back quite a lot. What do you feel the environment of these shows is going to be? Just a chance to finally get together, or do you think the pressure’s on since they’ve been such long-awaited dates?
S: We might put pressure on ourselves. I just want to live up to the hype, and it’s added a bit of to the shows, the fact that we’ve been like, “Sorry guys, we can’t do it; sorry guys, we can’t do it”, and now that it’s actually happening… But that’ll just translate into pure energy on the stage, and… yeah, it’s going to be sick.
The Rubens’ 0202 is officially out now via Ivy League Records.
The Rubens ‘Intimate & Local’ Album Launch Series
With special guest Stevan
Friday, February 12th
Dubbo Convention Centre, Dubbo, NSW
Saturday, February 13th
Port Macquarie Glasshouse, Port Macquarie, NSW
Saturday, February 20th
Anita’s Theatre, Thirroul, NSW
The Rubens ‘Live in Life’ Australian Tour
Supported by Alice Ivy
Saturday, April 3rd
Crooked River Winery, Gerringong, NSW
Thursday, April 8th
Fortitude Music Hall, Brisbane, QLD
Friday, April 9th
Moncrieff Entertainment, Bundaberg, QLD
Saturday, April 10th
Highfields Tavern, Toowoomba, QLD
Friday, April 16th
Enmore Theatre, Sydney, NSW
Saturday, April 17th
Bar On The Hill, Newcastle, NSW
Wednesday, April 28th
Riverlinks Westside, Shepparton, VIC
Friday, April 30th
The Forum, Melbourne, VIC
Wednesday, May 5th
Whitestar Hotel, Albany, WA
Thursday, May 6th
The River, Margaret River, WA
Friday, May 7th
Freo Social, Fremantle, WA
Sunday, May 9th
Wintersun Hotel, Bluff Point, WA
Friday, May 14th
The Gap View Hotel, Alice Springs, NT
Thursday, May 20th
Altar Bar, Hobart, TAS
Friday, May 21st
Altar Bar, Hobart, TAS
Saturday, May 22nd
Saloon Bar, Launceston, TAS
Sunday, May 23rd
Forth Pub, Forth, TAS
Wednesday, May 26th
The Leichardt Hotel, Rockhampton, QLD
Thursday, May 27th
Seabreeze, Mackay, QLD
Friday, May 28th
Otherwise Bar, Townsville, QLD
Saturday, May 29th
Tanks Arts Centre, Cairns, QLD
Wednesday, June 9th
Beer Deluxe, Albury, NSW
Thursday, June 10th
The Whalers Hotel – Warrnambool, VIC
Friday, June 11th
Torquay Hotel, Torquay, VIC
Tickets on sale now via The Rubens’ website