The Rubens are Australia’s accidental pop stars
THE Rubens are a member of an elite club of Australian artists.
Their songs actually make it on to the ARIA top 50 singles charts in the streaming era, alongside Tones and I, Hilltop Hoods, Flume, Amy Shark and Guy Sebastian.
The alternative rockers, with their infectious pop hooks, have been cranking out what frontman Sam Margin views as accidental hits since forming a decade ago in Menangle, a semirural village on the outskirts of Sydney.
Margin and his brothers Elliott and Zaac and mates William Zeglis and Scott Baldwin started their musical adventure as thousands of pop aspirants do; by uploading a track to Triple J's Unearthed online hub of unsigned artists.
That demo recording of Lay It Down quickly migrated to high rotation on Triple J and became the first of a succession of Rubens songs to worm their way on to radio airwaves, streaming playlists and festival stages.
Their most recent hit was Live In Life, a song they released in late November 2019 to keep the fan fires burning while they worked on their fourth record, 0202, out on Friday.
That song is their third platinum hit after Hoops - which topped Triple J's 2015 Hottest 100 - and Never Ever (featuring Sarah). There have also been three gold singles - My Gun, Million Man and God Forgot.
Margin says Live In Life's success fuelled their creative endeavours as they crafted the songs for 0202 in The Bunker, a friend's underground World War II communications bunker in Camden, near Menangle.
It has generated more than 34 million plays on Spotify alone - any Australian track that busts the double-digit millions mark on streaming is a bona fide big hit here when up against the international pop heavyweights.
"It validated the way we were feeling about the songs we were writing. Live In Life was a song we recorded to hopefully keep fans happy while we figured out what we were going to do with the album," Margin says.
"It wasn't going to be on the album … but the fact that song is perhaps going to be our most successful one streaming-wise, on track to beat Hoops and everything, we weren't expecting that."
Following their 2012 self-titled debut, 2015's Hoops album and 2018 Lo La Ru, The Rubens took a vastly different approach to making their fourth record.
After every clutch of weekend gigs throughout 2019, they would assemble in The Bunker and pick a demo to work into a full song.
Margin says the approach afforded them the opportunity to experiment without the pressure of an album deadline, while also harnessing their live energy in their studio.
"We would play a run of shows and if we were all feeling energised, we would choose a song and just go and do it," he says.
"You are in a different mindset when you're touring, you're feeling often quite positive and happy about how things are going because you're in front of an audience a few times a week and seeing the results of your hard work on the previous album as you're hearing them sing all the lyrics back and you feeling like it's actually landing.
"So you come back with this positive energy and going into the studio with that feeling is something we haven't had before because usually with recording, we would have been off the road for a while."
Like many alternative rock acts, The Rubens began life with a line-up and sound represented by the holy trinity of guitars, bass and drums.
While their pop sensibilities have broadened and they have incorporated keys over previous records, the songs of 0202 have significantly more R & B and pop polish, as demonstrated on singles Heavy Weather and Time Of My Life.
Margin laughs when asked why synthesisers are still regarded as a mystical tool of reinvention for rock bands after more than 50 years of employment in pop music.
"I don't know, it's hilarious, isn't it? Back when we made our first album, we refused to put any anything that was not an organic instrument on there," he says.
"Since then, obviously bands like Tame Impala have become mainstream and popular and have probably softened the blow for everyone. People's ears aren't so shocked by interesting sounds any more.
"It's taken us a little time to get used to and get excited by using synth and drum machines and stuff that we swore we would never use."
Like every band on the planet, the pandemic shutdown of gigs scuttled The Rubens' touring plans for 2020.
Now they remain cautiously optimistic their album launch shows in April will proceed without a COVID cluster playing havoc with borders.
"I don't want to complain but I feel like we are seeing some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. It's not going to be how it was for a long while but I'll take anything at this point," Margin says.
0202 is out on Friday. For all tour dates, check out therubensmusic.com
Originally published as The Rubens are Australia's accidental pop stars