It was only last year that Sam Margin was sitting in his bedroom in the rural New South Wales town of Menangle waiting for his younger brother Elliott to come home from school and work on a new song he’d just written. After recording the bones of the track on his laptop, Sam put it on a loop, walked out of the room, and left Elliott to jam on it for a while. The track was then handed to their brother Zaac and good friend Scott Baldwin to add their input. The song that resulted was My Gun, one of a handful of demos The Rubens recorded at home and put online in the hope that a few people might hear them.
What they didn’t expect was that this home recorded demo would find its way to the ears of David Kahne, a New York based, Grammy Award winning record producer whose impressive client list includes the likes of Paul McCartney, Regina Spektor and The Strokes. In France for an audio engineering seminar, Kahne met young Sydney engineer Dean Tuza, a friend of the band from their hometown who had helped with the initial home recordings.
“I heard The Rubens for the first time when Dean played a track for me,” says David Kahne. “It was ‘My Gun’ and I loved it right away. It had a haunting vocal, a great groove, surfy guitars and strong lyrics.”
The strength of those demos was enough for David to consider producing The Rubens’ debut album, even though at the time they had no record label and had only played a handful of live shows.
When Dean told Sam he’d played his music to David and there was a chance the formidable producer would work on the album, the then 22-year-old’s mind was blown.
“I told the boys and everyone was excited but sceptical at the same time and trying not to get their hopes up too much,” says Sam. “It was like that literally until they got off the plane in New York!”
“I stayed in touch with Dean and he brought Sam to NYC,” explains David. “We met up at my studio and saw eye-to-eye on most of what they were trying to do.”
Sam spent a month in New York trying to lock everything down and turn the prospect of recording with David into a reality. Meanwhile. Zaac, Elliott and Scott were back home working to save enough money to get to New York, should the plan all come together.
“I think the boys were just at home twiddling their thumbs and freaking out the whole time I was away, because there was nothing I could tell them other than, ‘I think it’s happening,’” says Sam. “I think mum saw that Zaac and Elliott were freaking out and she just had enough of them being at home, so she said to me, ‘Seriously, you’ve got to do something about this. They’ve got to go!’ So our parents loaned us the money, we booked the flights, and the boys were on a plane the next day.”
The Margin brothers have their parents to thank for much of their musical heritage too. Raised on a diet of Van Morrison, Fleetwood Mac, Tracy Chapman and Led Zeppelin as well as old soul, hip hop and gospel records, they were all ‘forced’ to play musical instruments at a young age – ‘forced’ meaning encouraged with chocolate treats. Sam and Elliott played piano while Zaac had a brief dalliance with the violin. Their parents, both teachers and piano players, have always encouraged their musical endeavours. Drummer Scott, the only trained musician of the four, is also a skilled pianist.
“We never really planned to start a band within the family but we’d all played in other projects briefly and had the same taste in music, so it made sense that we started something together,” says Sam. “We began writing and recording songs in my bedroom and once we had a few done, we realised we’d need a drummer to play them live so we gave Scott a call and started jamming.”
Scott, who was in the same year at school as Sam, was also their younger brother Jet’s drum teacher. The Margin brothers – three of six siblings – have an easy rapport, and those around them say they’ve never seen them fight, which is lucky, considering the conditions they lived under while recording in New York.
Holed up in a tiny apartment together in Manhattan, where the combination of construction site jack hammering and a neighbour’s penchant for ‘La Cucaracha’ provided a powerful wake-up call every morning, they were surviving on $10 each a day and sampling an array of New York’s finest hot dogs and burgers.
But despite their fast food diet, all four lost weight while in the US. Even Elliott, the slightest of the bunch, lost five kilos, leaving not a lot of him behind.
“We were walking 10 kilometres each day,” says Sam. “Our apartment was on the opposite side of Manhattan to the studio so we’d walk there and back. Then we bought skateboards so we could skate to the studio. It was the coolest thing skating down Broadway and down through Times Square at one in the morning after we’d finished up a session.”
As much as the night time skating adventures proved to be a highlight of The Rubens’ time abroad, it was also a skate boarding incident that saw Zaac, who was overseas for the first time, land himself in hospital with a ruptured spleen.
“It was horrible,” says Sam. “I thought he was dying.” “I thought I was dying too,” says Zaac.
Injuries aside, the band had an extraordinarily productive time in New York. The first five weeks were spent rehearsing and in pre-production.
“At night we would make computer models of the arrangements so that when we went in to record, we were perfectly prepared, and everyone was playing tip top,” says David Kahne. “We tracked in three days and then headed up to my room and finished the overdubs.”
Working with David proved to be a huge learning experience for the whole band – they’d never been in a proper studio before let alone worked with someone so closely on finessing their sound.
“We’d always have debriefs on the way home from the studio where we’d talk about parts we didn’t like and how we were going to tackle that and approach David,” says Elliott. “You couldn’t just say you didn’t like this thing and not have another option.”
“He’s a genius and everything he does is intentional,” explains Sam. “Every little quarter note he puts on something has a purpose and it needs to be there or it needs to be replaced with something or it loses the groove.”
“(After tracking) the guys headed back to Australia to tour, and I did the mixing,” says David. “We went back and forth until all the mixes were to our liking.”
While David was working on the record in New York, the band was back home playing sold-out shows across the country, including four shows at Melbourne’s Northcote Social Club and three at Sydney’s GoodGod Small Club.
One of their home recordings, a track called ‘Lay It Down’ had struck a huge chord at radio and found itself sitting at #57 in triple j’s 2011 Hottest 100 poll. With Sam’s soulful, bluesy vocals, Scott’s swinging, hip hop beats, Zaac’s swaggering guitar lines and Elliott’s organ tones, it’s a song that perfectly encapsulates The Rubens’ signature sound.
“I love the combination of deep rhythms, loud clanging guitars, powerful lyrics, and Sam’s haunting voice,” says David when discussing The Rubens. “It was so much fun to work with the band.”
With David Kahne’s skill and experience, the band’s undeniable song writing talent, and their desire to put themselves on the line all forming a powerful combination, The Rubens have made one of the most ambitious and exciting debut records you’re likely to hear for some time.