THE RUBINOOS: An EXCLUSIVE Q&A with Jon Rubin, Tommy Dunbar, and Chuck Prophet!

SPAZ: FROM HOME is just about to be released. How are you feeling about the album and the reaction you’ve had to it so far?
JON RUBIN: I love the record and the way it was recorded and I think it sounds exciting. I am completely blown away by both fan reaction and the reaction from people less familiar with The Rubinoos.
TOMMY DUNBAR: It might be a little early to gauge the response, but I’ll say it was super fun making the record! Writing with Chuck Prophet was a total pleasure, and the rehearsals were a joy as always. But what really set it apart for me, was that we got to set up and play in a really great studio, with minimal overdubs. Also, Chuck introduced us to our wonderful engineer, Mr. Paul Kolderie. It’s a rare thing to be able to only worry about playing and singing, at least these days.

SPAZ: This is the first time you’ve worked with a high-profile label in the U.S. (Yep Roc). How did that deal come about?
JON: Two words: Chuck Prophet. He has been our champion through the entire process.
TOMMY: Chuck introduced us to Yep Roc, and them to us. I really didn’t know how it would be to work with them, but they’ve been great. Their enthusiasm has exceeded my expectations. I mean, they’re a real record company! Who’da thunk?

SPAZ: The album was produced by Chuck Prophet (Green On Red/solo). How did you hook up with him, and did you know him personally before you decided to work together on FROM HOME?
JON: I have known Chuck for years but hadn’t really hung out with him until this project. I think all this was driven by his co-writing with Tommy (not specifically for The Rubes) and his fandom for The Rubinoos. We got to know each other a lot better as the project progressed.
TOMMY: We’d known Chuck peripherally from growing up in Berkeley. Chuck played in a band called Bad Attitude, and we’d see him hanging out at Subway Guitars occasionally. But we didn’t know him well. Fast forward a decade or two, and I started receiving mix tapes from Gary Phillips, our mutual friend (and producer of the Rubinoos’ first couple albums.) Every time there would be a Chuck Prophet song on there, it would be something great! That kid is making some really good records! Anyway, I saw that Chuck was playing somewhere near Sacramento where I live, so I went to the show. It was really, really good. We chatted afterwards and left saying, “we should write together sometime”… This happened a few times and so we finally put a date on the calendar to write. We wrote two songs (which both appear on the new album) and we were off to the races. A bit of a drive between Sacramento and San Francisco, but we managed. Chuck introduced us to Yep Roc, they offered us a deal, and suddenly we were planning an album!

SPAZ: The album has a warm and spacious feel to it although it retains the classic Rubinoos sound. Did Chuck encourage you to play a little looser on the album?
JON: I think the main thing different about this album is that we rehearsed our asses off preparing and we played together for the tracking. This is something we have not had the luxury to do since the first three albums. Chuck was very adamant that I play guitar on the tracks. I haven’t done that since the second LP. Preparation leads to a more relaxed atmosphere and the option to take chances and “loosen up” if you will. Our vocals will always sound like The Rubinoos but I am very happy Chuck encouraged a lot of risk taking.
TOMMY: If by looser, you mean more like a real band playing live, then yes. The fact that we had an actual budget meant that we could put in the time to really rehearse until the songs were ready, and then go into the studio. When everyone has really worked on their parts, and we really have the vocals down, then going into the studio is much more like trying to capture a performance. And that’s what we got to do on this record. Minimal overdubs!

CHUCK PROPHET: They were always tight but loose in the right places. We just needed to get them into a place where they could all play together. And hear each other. That’s where all those conversational things start to happen. You can hear it on their early records where a drum fill would take over where a vocal stopped. A four-piece band. There’s nothing like it. You didn’t long for more. They didn’t need overdubs. You could close your eyes and see the band.

But making a record old-school like that in 2019 actually takes some doing. Although they’ve cobbled records together in Pro Tools studios over the years, and those records are great. It took some doing to make this happen in the tradition of what I consider to be the classic Rubinoos records.

Initially, Al and Donno were happy for the band to use session musicians in the interest of efficiency as the band had done here and there in the ’90s. Al said, “I can come in later and overdub my vocals.”
It took some convincing to get it through everyone’s heads that the goal was to make this record like the first two records. I had dogged Tommy for the details on how those records were made again and again. Tommy repeatedly reminded me that the band was so incredibly well-rehearsed that by the time they got in there they were ready to chew through the tape. And Tommy pointed out that a setback for them since the ’90s was that when they would stack his and Jon’s vocals in the interest of getting it done, it wasn’t ever the same. Like the Beach Boys, you need all that color in there. That would include Mike Love. So, to have Donno’s voice in there along with the other three really made it sound like the Rubinoos. And that was the goal. To own it. To embrace anything that sounded like the Rubinoos. More than sounding like the Rubinoos. The goal was to be the Rubinoos. The band worked hard at that stuff. To reiterate, Tommy was saying that when they moved to L.A. they lost something . . . because it wasn’t the four voices anymore. They fell into Tommy and Jon multitracking voices. And it wasn’t the same. Donno has a rough kind of growl to his voice and can go really high, and he is sort of the Mike Love ingredient. You can’t take one card out of the card house. Take it out and the whole thing crumbles.

There were a mess of living room rehearsals and full-band rehearsals and vocal rehearsals. And Jon got back on electric guitar. Even as he kicked and screamed that he sucked. There is a distinct feel to his eighth notes. There’s no substitute.

I took notes. In fact, for the first rehearsal I went up to Sacramento and we rehearsed in Tommy’s basement. Jon, Donno and Tommy, and Al . . . and me. Literally knee to knee. Just a couple guitars and Donno beating time with sticks on his knees. And we mowed through some 13 new songs, and it was kind of amazing.

With Tommy at times breaking into these kind of what I call Ferrante and Teicher elevator music versions where he’d play the melody on guitar as well as the chords, which kind of burns the melodies into your psyche.

They had already worked out the three- and four-part harmonies to most of the songs, and there were times when it just sounded like a record. BAM! POW! Very exciting.

Anyway, the thing I love about the Rubinoos is that they were always true to their school. I am not necessarily a Power Pop nerd or candy boy. But I think what made the Rubinoos – and Jonathan Richman as well – my heroes is, to me, they were true to their school. They are just a few years older than me. I saw them when I was in high school. And what I saw was a band laying it on the line by playing the music they loved onstage.

And in that respect, they were totally fearless.

There were other artists I saw around that time like Sammy Hagar or Greg Kihn. They were good in their own way. But in other ways, they were just selling cheeseburgers. There wasn’t anything dangerous about what they were doing. Everybody loves cheeseburgers.

As far as the songs go, when Tommy and I wrote the record I knew that all the clues and signposts we needed to guide us were imbedded in those first two records. And if we followed those clues logically to their conclusion we could make a great record.

And I think that’s what we did. We might have even written a song that can knock “Hard to Get” out of the set after some 40 years!

As I often say, in 2019 we are living in difficult times. I mean, as far as new music goes? Spend enough time in studios with the Tape Op magazines lying around and you’re forced to watch these young engineers tune the vocal with some software with all the passion they would put into playing Dungeons and Dragons online. Do that enough and it can make you cynical about the process. And it can make you very cynical about new records.

But when these four singers stand around one mic and blend themselves? Wow. It’s something else. Everyone sits up in their ergonomically designed studio swivel chairs and leans into the speakers.

What they do is magic. And my job was to capture as much of that magic on tape as we could. It really wasn’t that complicated.

SPAZ: Did you already have a stockpile of songs ready to go when you started planning the recording of the album or did you write this batch specifically for FROM HOME?
TOMMY: No stockpile of songs, just songs that Chuck and I had been writing over the last year or so. We probably wrote 25, and then ran them by the guys in the band to see what clicked.

SPAZ: The album opens with the Garage Rocker “Do You Remember.” From there, the album incorporates a lot of influences including Glam (“Rocking In Spain”), Pure Pop (“Honey From The Honeycombs”, “Phaedra”, “Miss Alternate Universe”), ‘70s Soul (“Do I Love You”) and even a few lovely ballads (“Heart For Sale” and “Watching The Sun Go Down”). Were all of these tracks written with a certain ‘sound’ in mind or did they organically evolve into their finished form?
JON: Songs find themselves with repetition. The more you play it the more apparent the direction becomes. I don’t think we always had a preconceived notion of how to approach each song but we are always The Rubinoos.
TOMMY: If by a certain ‘sound’ you mean the production, then I would say no. I mean, when you’re writing you just kind of throw ideas out there, sort of a “free write” and when something catches your ear, you follow it. Your antennae might tell you that it reminds you of a Hollies song, or a Stones song, or whatever as you’re going along. A basic style that might pull you in a direction. But it’s usually not, like, “let’s write something that will be a Phil Spector sound”, or a “Grass Roots sound”. That sort of thinking usually comes (if at all) later. That can useful in arranging, asking yourself, “what would the Motown guitar player do?” “What kind of drum fill would Dave Clark play?”. That’s more arranging than writing though. Personally, I think people do a bit too much of that, instead of just listening to their own instincts. Not everything has to be a reference to what has come before! But that can be fun too. There are no rules….

SPAZ: Were there other songs recorded during the sessions that didn’t make the album?
JON: There are a few songs that will come out as bonus tracks at some point. It’s very hard to make the cut when you have so many well written songs.
TOMMY: Yes, there were three others (one being a cover of Gene Pitney’s “It Hurts To Be In Love”.) I’m sure they’ll all wind up being released at some point. Maybe as bonus tracks.

SPAZ: When the four of you get together to rehearse and record, does the chemistry come back instantly or does it take a while for you to connect again?
JON: Instantly, no question.
TOMMY: Oh man, our main problem is that we wind up yakking and swapping stories (did you know that Eric Clapton was the xylophone player on ‘Kick Out The Jams’ by the MC5?!”) as much as playing! We’ve been out on quite a few tours, mainly of Spain in the last couple of decades (Spanish tour number 15 coming up in January!), and we always rehearse before any gigs. So, we do see each other, just not as much as we’d like. It’s always a party. So, yes, the chemistry is always there. And personally, it’s just such a joy to play and sing and hang out with those guys.

SPAZ: Jon and Tommy formed the band nearly 50 years ago yet the joy and passion is still there and evident on FROM HOME. How do you keep things so fresh and exciting after all these years?
JON: What’s that TV show? Arrested Development! I love nothing more than to go to rehearsal with my best friends for the last 50 (and 40) years. We always laugh our asses off and we have a great time playing together no matter what we are doing. I just love it…
TOMMY: It’s not hard to keep things fresh when it’s the funnest thing you do! My spell check says “funnest” is not a word, but I disagree! Funnest! Funnest! Funnest!

SPAZ: What’s next for the Rubinoos?
JON: Touring, touring and more touring… and then relaxing. Next year is our 50th anniversary and we hope to release a definitive box set of the first 2 LPS (and maybe more).
TOMMY: We go back to Spain (there’s even a song about it on the new record!) in January 2020. Probably London as well. We hope to play in lots of new places as well if they’ll have us. Maybe even in the U.S. – stranger things have happened! Also, talking about more house parties, since we love doing those. Can we raid your ‘fridge? We’re all crashing at your pad!

SPAZ: What are you currently spinning on your CD and record players? (Can be old or new)
JON: Song right now: “Pretty Flamingo” by Manfred Mann. General listening: ‘60s Instrumentals and movie music ala Mancini, TJ Brass, Kaempfert, Morricone, etc. and LSUG (Little Steven’s Underground Garage) in the car.
TOMMY: Hmm….My favorite new band is Pyramidos. They’re from Japan but sing in Greek, and they have the greatest YouTube videos. Who else? A guitar player from Israel named Aris San who was big in the ‘60s I guess. Moved to New York and opened a nightclub and met tragedy. But plays guitar like a bazouki, really great! On my turntable? WPLJ by the 4 Deuces, the 45 is sitting there as we speak. I’m always listening to Italian pop records from the ‘60s by Mina, Gianni Morandi, Nico Fidenco, Sergio Endrigo, don’t get me started! I’ll drag you down into the Italian pop vortex!

Thanks to Jon Rubin, Tommy Dunbar, and Chuck Prophet
Special thanks to Steve Dixon and Dave Rayburn

(Yep Roc Records)