Who are The Rubens? Are they a supergroup comprised of clones of American Idol season two winner Ruben Studdard? Are they very delicious sandwiches composed of corned beef and swiss cheese? Nope, they’re neither!
Instead, they’re one of the hottest acts to come out of the Australian music scene in recent memory, and a band deserving of your undivided attention. As the recent winners of the 2015 Triple J Hottest 100 countdown (beating out Kendrick Lamar for the top spot!), The Rubens have made a big name for themselves in their homeland and are sowing the seeds for world domination.
Their sophomore album ‘Hoops‘ (named after their hit single of the same name) was released last August in Australia to critical acclaim, and just recently was released in the states. A few weeks ago, we sat down with bassist William Zeglis of The Rubens to discuss the band’s rise, and what is coming in the year ahead. Check it out below!
AltWire [Derek Oswald]: You guys are in the middle of a tour with The Naked and Famous, and you’re actually set to travel to Toronto next date on the tour. How’s the tour been treating you guys so far?
William Zeglis [The Rubens]: Oh man, it’s been unreal. We’re always happy to travel to America. We’ve been here once before when we supported Grouplove, but we have a great time and everyone treats us really well. We’ve been playing some great shows and having a ball. So, we’re always happy to come to the States! It’s been great!
AW: And you know, it’s really been great to have you guys back in the States. I mean, the five of you guys came from a very small town in Australia with less than a thousand people. When you guys first toured the US a couple of years back, was it a huge culture shock? An adjustment from what you were used to?
William Zeglis [The Rubens]: Ah… definitely for myself, it was. Again, I’d only been out of my hometown a few times, to the next state maybe once or twice. You only judge America by television and media, so it was a big culture shock for myself. I was also rewarded, in a way. I’m a big fan of “Law and Order,” so, when we were in New York, it was like we could see it actually being filmed! So um, yeah, we were all shocked.
That is, except Sam [Margin], the singer. He traveled a little bit and lived in England for a little while. He’s kind of used to traveling, but for the rest of us, it was pretty surreal, and it still is. Like, I can see the “Hollywood” sign from where I am now and I still get a bit of a tingle when I look at it. It’s pretty cool, man.
AW: How would you compare touring around the US to touring around your homeland of Australia? Is it very similar or are there some interesting differences?
William Zeglis [The Rubens]: It’s a bit of pro and cons for both, I think. In Australia, it’s nice, because you kind of fly everywhere because the distances are so far between states. It’s on average 12 or 13 hours drive to the next state, so it’s easier just to fly. So, the travel time’s cut down a little bit, but then, there are not as many shows to play. So, in the States, you can kind of drive for a few hours and you’re at the next venue. That is cool, but again, people are people.
The thing I’m learning myself is that we’re not that much different; no matter what continent, country, or race you’re from. Everyone’s pretty similar and nice, so yeah there’s not that much difference. Well, I’d have to say that we have better food on the road when we’re eating in Australia, so that’s the thing that kills us here. If you’re doing a “van” kind of tour, the healthiest thing you can eat is Subway. It’s hard to eat healthy when you’re out of the big cities, in my personal opinion.
AW: Now, if I understand correctly, “Hoops” [was] just released here in the states earlier this month. Now that the record is out and fans are able to pick it up and listen to it, are you happy with the reaction you’re getting from fans out on the road in the US?
William Zeglis [The Rubens]: Oh definitely. It’s a spin-out to see [that] even though we’re a support band at the moment, that there are still a few people in the audience who know all of the words from the first album…the untitled album! That puts a smile on our faces. With “Hoops”, you can see that it’s getting into the traction and people are digging it. We’re just happy to see a couple of those people singing along in the crowd.
We’re getting a few people that come to the shows, you know, for us, and not just Naked and Famous. A few radio stations are playing us. We got played on an NBA basketball game the other night. So yeah, we’re just happy to be getting any type of traction here, because you know how big the place is and how lucky we are just to be here in general. We’re happy with the way things are going!
AW: Speaking of being lucky and gaining traction, I think it’s incredible when I read about how you guys got your big break all those years ago. If I understand correctly, David Kahne personally invited you to come all the way out to New York to meet with you and work on the debut record. When it came time to record this new record, you actually partnered up with him again. Recording and concept-wise, how do you think “Hoops” differs from your self-titled?
William Zeglis [The Rubens]: We were kind of green on the first record, so we didn’t really know how to make records or even really how to be a band properly, so it was all a massive learning experience. Back home, in Australia, in our home territory, the first album went really well. It went platinum and we had sold-out shows. The way David worked on the album, we kind of knew what it was gonna be like if we made another album with him. All we wanted to achieve was, “Hey, let’s stick with him again, because we had a good run, so why not try and do it again?”. I don’t know, we haven’t really talked about it, so there might be someone different, it might be him again. We don’t know.
We really liked the things he did on the first record, so we tried to do it again on the second album. Except on this one, we had a bit more of our flavor put in. We’d learned on the road, we grew as people, so it’s got a bit more of us on there. A bit more organic, I’d say, the second album, where we’d tried more guitar tones and getting drum tones right, because we had a bigger budget on the second album, so you can afford to spend a little bit more time in the studio. So, I think it was those things that kind of separated the second from the first album.
AW: Now, considering how big of a hit “Hoops” became from you guys in multiple markets, it’s actually crazy to know that it wasn’t a part of the original recording session, but instead was done after you guys had gone back home. What inspired the track to come about, and what was the process behind recording it?
William Zeglis [The Rubens]: Well, we had pretty much finished the album, and it was being mixed in the States. Elliott Margin had “Hoops” as a really rough demo. He was selling it to us, and we were like, “Man, this is a really good song,” and then it was passed on to the A&R people. The A&R people were like, “We think this could be really good. If you’ve got time, why don’t we just run into a studio right now and just do it?” So two days later, we were in a really good studio in Sydney, trying to get it down to make the deadline for the pressing of the album. So, we got it finished, and it was just a fluke thing that Elliott just had this demo of this song that everyone liked.
It was lucky because it had been our main song back home in Australia that really put us on the map again. So, we’re thankful for that. Lyric-wise, I’m not really sure. Elliott writes these lyrics, but it’s about going around in circles a lot, and about relationships, things like that. You might be in a tough relationship and then you want to end it, but you always get back together. It just goes round and round. That’s what I’ve heard him say. [Laughs] You can listen to the music a lot more to learn the lyrics.
AW: Now, when you guys first finished the track and decided to put it on the album and name the album after it, when it was done, did you have even the slightest idea that you guys had a huge hit on your hands? Did you ever expect it to blow up the way it did?
William Zeglis [The Rubens]: It was one of those things; we knew it was a really good song when Elliott had the demo. That’s why I think everyone rushed for it to go in the studio, because like, we didn’t think it would be THAT much of a hit, but we did think it was going to be a really strong song for the album. So yeah, we didn’t think it was gonna be huge, especially in Australia.
We hadn’t really gained that much traction here just yet, because it’s still fresh. Back home, we didn’t think it was gonna go as well as it did. It’s hard to hit platinum sales anywhere, and it’s hit platinum in Australia. We’re very thankful for that, and for winning the Triple J Hottest 100, which is a great award to achieve; as not many bands could do that. We’re still excited and over the moon about how well it’s actually gone. No one thought it was gonna do that well.
AW: I actually wanted to ask about that. Watching the video of you guys finding out you’d placed number one on the Triple J countdown was… pretty heartwarming. What was going through your head in the moments leading up to the announcement? As, you know, it kept counting down without your song being played, and what emotions did you feel the second it was revealed that you guys had beat out Kendrick Lamar?
William Zeglis [The Rubens]: [Laughs] Yeah, well, it was one of those things where we knew the song had gone, you know, pretty well this year. We thought, “Man, it would be kind of cool to get in the top 10, imagine that.” That’s what was in our heads, like, “top 10 would be awesome!” So, we actually had a gig that day, and someone from Triple J had rung up our manager and said, “Look, the boys are gonna place pretty high in the polls, we can feel it. You guys are close. You can come in, and we’ll interview the guys after it’s heading out,”.
No one knew, it was all hush-hush. So, we got in there when it was like, 20 or 15 or something, waiting for it to come down. We thought, “Any minute now, it’s gonna come down,”. We’ll do our interview, and it will be all fine and dandy. However, it kept going and going until the top 10… top 5… we’re in the studio just sitting there with the presenter looking at each other like, “This couldn’t be real,” like, we’re in the top 5 now. It kept going down and down, so with everything, we’re just getting more excited. We thought, “Aw, there’s no way it’s gonna be number 1 in Australia!”.
So, anyway, it gets down to number 3, and we’re like, “There’s only two songs left, it’s us and… we think it’s gonna be Kendrick,” How unreal is that? Then we heard Kendrick Lamar get played and we just broke out into a bloody frenzy. We couldn’t believe it. If you look at me on the video, I’m at the back. I still couldn’t comprehend it. They were jumping around and they were like, “Nah, maybe we’re not even in the Hottest 100?” [Laughs] Like, “Maybe we haven’t even got in!” It was too unreal. It was something that you’ll never forget, and we’re just honored to have won it.
AW: Now, this is a question I actually kind of added last minute when I found out–because, originally, I was going to be speaking to… I think his name is Scott [Baldwin], the drummer, and then it was revealed I’m speaking to you–I’m actually a bassist myself, so I’d like to ask you a question: what is your gear comprised of in the studio and on the road?
William Zeglis [The Rubens]: I’m a gearhead. I really enjoy collecting gear and hearing about other people’s rigs. I do a lot of research because I’m an engineer as well. I’m actually a studio engineer, so I like to have things a certain way. On the record, I played a [Fender] ’68 P [Precision Bass] with flatwounds on there, Thomastik flatwounds, so there’s a little of that old-school Motown sound on the record, and I used a B-15 Ampeg [amplifier], head for it.
I was happy with the tone, but when it went to mixing, it kind of got lost in the background a little bit. So, I swapped to a [Fender] Jazz Bass, because I wanted it to “poke” a little bit more and not be so “wide” and “fat” like a P is. I’m going for a focused sound now, and I’m also using my “secret weapon”. That weapon is a Boss CS-2, the Japanese compressor.
AW: Oh wow.
William Zeglis [The Rubens]: Yeah, and it does this really amazing trick. I had a thousand-dollar foot compressor and all of this crazy stuff! I’ve gotten rid of it and went to a $120 Boss compressor. A Japanese one. It makes it sound like your fingers are doing electric shocks. The attack is so powerful and punchy. I’ve never heard anything like it before. So, I use that first in my chain, and then I go into an EQ pedal, where there’s a trick they used to do in the Motown era. They’d always want the bass “bigger”, but the needle would jump off the record; because it was too much or, they couldn’t push it enough.
What they ended up learning was: if you take away 100Hz and double it with 200, the bass just doubles in power without doing any volume changes. So that’s what I do with my EQ pedal. I take away 100, and double 200. My bass is more “forward” in the mix now, and with that compressor, it’s the best combination I’ve had so far. Jazz Bass, compressor, EQ, and then I run a Boss Octaver sometimes, and a chorus pedal, and that’s… pretty much it. For now, it goes through an Ampeg.
There’s something about an Ampeg, I can’t get away from it. Even though they break down all the time on the road. You’ve gotta have two on the road. One’s always gonna go down. So… yeah, that’s about it. I could talk to you for hours about these amps!
AW: As you implied earlier, with this album, you guys went into the studio more experienced and informed than on your debut with a wider selection of songs to refine and record. Considering you learned a lot between your self-titled album and this album, what lessons would you say you learned in making *this* album that you think you’ll carry into the next record?
William Zeglis [The Rubens]: That you have to trust yourselves with certain decisions because no one really knows what’s gonna happen at the end of the day. For example, our record company back at home didn’t think much of “Hoops” at all. They knew it was a single, but they didn’t think it was gonna take off. They didn’t wanna release it as the first single, blah blah blah. We’re the ones going, “This is gonna be the song!”. So, if it wasn’t for us believing in our own music to release, that never would have happened.
There was a whole team of people working on it, and they all agreed. So, that’s the thing… we’re believing in ourselves a lot more, and that’s what happened with the record as well. With guitar sounds, or whatever, we’re just confident that’s what we wanna do. That’s how we want our music to be portrayed. We just had more confidence in the music and believed in it a lot more. Those were the main things.
AW: Well, really, it does seem like you guys are on the good path. It seems like the only way to go is up from here. Going forward, what can fans expect from The Rubens in 2016?
William Zeglis [The Rubens]: Well, hopefully, we’ve finished an album or we’ve nearly finished an album. We’re starting to talk about it, as every band does. Hopefully, our live shows become better and, we continue to grow in that aspect; because we’ve got some big shows coming up in Australia, too. We’re playing small arenas now back at home, so we kind of have to step up. Hopefully, we bring that back to the States. The experience that we learn in Australia, hopefully, we can bring it back and our live shows can be just as good here. That would be the main things for 2016, that our live show’s hopefully developed, and… new songs!
AW: Awesome! Well hey, I hope you guys have a really good show in Toronto tomorrow and thank you so much for taking the time out.
William Zeglis [The Rubens]: That’s alright, man! No worries! Any time, you just call us up. We’re happy to work and work hard, man, so thanks for an awesome interview. I appreciate it.