Sam Margin forms his thoughts carefully and with a vague air of bewilderment. It’s exactly how a rock singer should talk.
After all, that regular ritual of ours – gathering in large crowds on beer-soaked carpets to repeat an artist’s words back to them at mass volume – is a peculiar habit, no matter how often we do it. And The Rubens’ frontman Margin understands this exactly – it’s not that long ago he was on the other side of the barrier. If he sounds a little lost, it’s because now he’s the bloke at centre stage.
“The first time that we ever had people at our gig, I remember, which was after ‘Lay It Down’ got played [on the radio], there were people singing there and that was just a freaky experience. I couldn’t imagine getting used to that,” says Margin. “When you think about it like that and you map it out, we’ve been an extremely lucky band to end up where we are now.”
It was only two years ago that Margin and his brothers Elliott and Zaac were sitting in their bedrooms in rural Menangle, fiddling with some demos on a laptop. “Just like, little concepts,” he says. “We actually wouldn’t even have brought our drummer [Scott Baldwin] on board yet.” Fast-forward to 2013 and a 21-date headline tour around the country including two dates at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney, The Rubens’ biggest engagements yet.
“To be playing the Enmore… I remember seeing The Shins there and I was way up the back, and I was like, ‘Man!’ I wasn’t even in a band at the time, but I was like, ‘I have to play here’… The fact that I am is just stupid. It feels weird, it feels like I’m not appreciating it as much as I should – like the old me back then would want to slap me and be like, ‘Wake up, this is amazing.’ But I guess it’s because of the natural progression [of our career], we’ve slowly built up venue sizes and you get used to it, you get ambitious and you want to play the next venue.”
Margin has witnessed first-hand exactly where ambition can take you. In March, The Rubens opened Bruce Springsteen’s shows at Hanging Rock in central Victoria. “The guy’s a freak,” Margin says. “He’s just absolutely loving what he’s doing still – you can tell.” Margin didn’t get the chance to meet the Boss, but even standing among a crowd of some 17,000 people, he reckons it doesn’t matter. “It’s such a personal show; it feels like you met him anyway.”
So while the Sydney dates might be a big deal for The Rubens, the singer-guitarist is sure he can handle the pressure. “Even though the Enmore will be the biggest headline shows we’ve played, I think I’m just going to enjoy it, I’m not going to let my nerves ruin it for me.”
The Margin brothers’ musical project started in far humbler surrounds – Sam even met drummer Baldwin as a classmate at the same Menangle high school where his parents both taught – but their break came through a fortuitous meeting between a friend, Dean Tuza, and the renowned New York producer David Kahne (Paul McCartney, New Order).
Soon after, Sam Margin was on a plane to the States; the rest of the band followed a month later for their first-ever stint in a proper recording studio, where they cut their self-titled debut album. Joining them was Will Zeglis, an acquaintance who “just wanted to hang out” and ended up playing bass with the group (now, Zeglis is a full-time Ruben himself, making them a five-piece).
“I’d heard things about producers who’ll just sit there on the couch and just say, ‘I don’t like that’ – be very vague, and that’s not what we needed,” Margin says. “We needed someone who could really direct us. Our songs were already written – it wasn’t about the song writing, it was about developing us into a live band, helping us consider our parts a little more. [David] just refined the record, you know?
“When I’ve been talking to people in the industry and explaining to them how we made the record, a lot of people seem surprised by the fact that we locked ourselves away for a month with David; we spent a month [just] doing pre-production in the States. Just pulling apart the songs, learning them live, putting them back together, playing them, changing the tiniest little things – like whether the hats should be slightly more open on this one bar. I think that kind of consideration of every little aspect of the song is going to continue on through our career. I’d recommend that to anyone.”
After spending the first part of the year gigging around the UK, Europe and the US – The Rubens have already turned heads overseas, thanks in part to some well-received shows at South by Southwest in Texas – Margin is looking forward to a return to local stages and familiar audiences.
“It was healthy going [overseas] and being brought back down to earth,” says Margin of winning over new crowds in smaller venues. “It puts you in your place and makes you realise that you’re not that big, you’re just starting out … [but] it’s going to be really nice to play to people who’ve heard the songs, heard the whole record.”
BY CHRIS MARTIN