Aussie band adapts to U.S. music scene

The Rubens find themselves starting from square one in the states.

Grouplove played at Union Tranfer on Sept. 28. Australian-based band The Rubens opened the show. | ANDREW THAYER TTN
Grouplove played at Union Tranfer on Sept. 28. Australian-based band The Rubens opened the show. | ANDREW THAYER TTN

It’s Saturday, Sept. 28. A line has formed around the block of Union Transfer. At the front of the line is Jadian, a young adolescent Grouplove fan with her mom. They’ve been waiting since 3:45 p.m. Grouplove will eventually take the stage at 10:15 p.m. sharp.

This is the type of adoration that The Rubens, one of Australia’s freshest musical exports and Grouplove’s opening act, are accustomed to feeling.

In Australia, The Rubens debut self-titled LP went certified gold. However, since the Sept. 10 release of the album stateside, the band has yet to taste a similar level of success.

“I’d say pretty much non-existent in the states so far,” Sam Margin, the group’s guitarist and frontman said in relation to the record’s reception in the states.

Off the strength of its lead single “My Gun,” the bluesy, soul-influenced quartet quickly became a household name in the Australian pop scene. While most early 20-somethings were still figuring out the intricacies of writing a rent check, The Rubens were opening for Bruce Springsteen. Unfortunately for the band, the song title has proven contentious with U.S. radio stations.

“We’ve had big issues with radio stations and any company at all in general getting on board with a song titled ‘My Gun,’” Margin said. “Because—if it was five years ago, people wouldn’t care because it wasn’t such a political topic. People were still shooting each other in America, but right now it’s become a very political hot potato thing.”

The Rubens, a group comprised of Margin brothers Sam, Elliot and Zaac, along with childhood friend Scott Baldwin, would hit the stage around 9 p.m.. To the tune of The Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter,” The Rubens sauntered onto the stage to a polite but subdued round of applause. After ripping through the new record in almost its entirety, The Rubens exited, this time to a noticeably louder reaction.

“In Australia, it’s all done,” Margin said. “We know we’re going to walk out on stage and we’ll get a big cheer and we’ll get to work the audience with our songs. Coming back to people who don’t know the songs you can’t work the audience in the same way, you gotta win them over song by song. It’s a completely different deal.”

The Rubens are glad to be paying their dues in the U.S. This can largely be attributed to the amount of success the group experienced early on in Australia.

“It’s fun playing the smaller shows again and playing the club kind of thing, which will always be fun for a band ,” Margin said. “And the challenge is there, which is cool. I’ll probably get bored of it eventually if it doesn’t start to kick off for us at some point.”

Grouplove plays at Union Tranfer on Sept. 28. Australian band The Rubens set the bar high with a vibrant set, despite its smaller following in the U.S. | Andrew Thayer TTN
Grouplove plays at Union Tranfer on Sept. 28. Australian band The Rubens set the bar high with a vibrant set, despite its smaller following in the U.S. | Andrew Thayer TTN

After forming in 2011, The Rubens were quickly discovered by the Australian radio station Triple J. The doe-eyed four-piece quickly became a band that occupied Australian airwaves. The chance to record its first full-length with acclaimed producer David Kahne in the United States soon followed.

“It was really scary [working with Kahne],” Margin said. “And it made it hard for us to start off with. When you’re working with a producer you really have to—there has to be a huge balance I think. Not between power but direction and the way the record is going. If you don’t have any balls, which we don’t—we didn’t have any balls at the start, the producer—just because they’re a producer and they have to, their whole role is to get the record going, they will suggest things, and because he worked with Paul McCartney and stuff, we would just say yes to everything.”

Not long after the Kahne partnership began, The Rubens struck a deal with Warner Bros. records in the U.S.

The Rubens are currently wrapping up their first full U.S. tour. Its first trip stateside as a band was over the summer, as the group played a number of U.S. festivals, including a performance at Bonnaroo. Similarly to its tour with Grouplove, much of it was spent winning over American fans.

“The tent was full by the time we finished which was really cool,” Margin said. “We probably had five rows deep at the start waiting for us to play of people who knew who we were and the rest were just people who came along and liked what they heard and stayed.”

The Rubens are a group that’s hard to quantify. Although The Black Keys are commonly used as a reference point to describe their sound, a moniker that Margin is quick to frown at, the band is mostly without contemporary influences. This can largely be attributed to the fact that the Margin brothers grew up in Menangle, Australia, a rural town with a population of roughly 500.

“I think being more isolated from the Sydney vibe—because Sydney has this kind of hipster kind of thing going on,” Margin said. “And I’m sure if we’d grown up in the city we’d be influenced by that. But we never grew up around that, we didn’t go to gigs from an early age like a lot of people do when they’re in that kind of trendy city scene. So I think we weren’t influenced by anything, it was kind of more the music we listened to, the music that our parents listened to: blues, rock and Zeppelin and more old school stuff like Otis Redding.”

David Zisser can be reached

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