Elliott Margin, The Rubens

Playing the tracks live is the ultimate pay-off for everything ...

Elliott Margin and brothers Sam and Zaac have come a long way from the days of rolling up to gigs in the back of the family van and performing their sets while their old man waited in the car. These days, you’re more likely to find the boys recording in New York, selling out shows around the country and heading off on massive album launch tours. But it seems they haven’t lost any of that good ol’ country humility, admitting they often still pinch each other in disbelief. The Margin boys from Menangle – now joined by Scott Baldwin and Will Zeglis to form The Rubens – will be bringing their tunes north this weekend when they play the Amphitheatre stage at Splendour in the Grass. The setlist is sure to be packed with gems from the upcoming album Hoops, which will see them return for northbound gigs in Brisbane on October 23 and Coolangatta on October 24 this year. The Weekend Edition put in a call to Elliott this week to talk pre-show rituals and drunk performances.

Having three brothers as bandmates must mean you have some great musical memories from childhood to share?
We used to have an orange Kombi van and I have memories of driving around that and Dad putting on Van Morrison, R.E.M and Fleetwood Mac, and us just hanging around in the back, having a good old time going on family trips. Lots of good music, thanks to our parents – they influenced us well with that, we were lucky.

Can you remember the first time you heard one of your songs played on the radio?
Yes I was at a friend’s 18th birthday and I got a text from Sam saying we were about to be played on FBi radio station in Sydney, so I went out to the car and sat in it by myself and listened to the song. It was awesome! I walked back into the party with a smile on my face, quietly smug.

Your parents must be incredibly proud now?
Yeah definitely, they love it. It’s such an awesome thing for them to be able to come to a show. They came to the album launch in Sydney last Tuesday and it was a great feeling to be able to put on a performance and have them in the crowd and know how proud they are. Especially at the start, they encouraged us but you could tell deep down they were like, “Well just remember it’s very unlikely that this is going to happen”. But they supported us the whole way. Dad would drive us to gigs and wait in the van while we played, then we’d come out with all our gear and he’d drive us back home again.

What a sweetheart!
Yeah I know! So it’s good that now he can come to bigger shows and just enjoy it, he doesn’t have to drive the van. He can have a glass of wine and just relax.

Your new album Hoops will be released in Australia on August 7. You wrote it in Wollongong, did pre-production in Byron Bay and recorded in New York; what made you choose each of those places?
Wollongong is only about 40 minutes from our hometown, so we wanted to get a little bit away so we could focus but not too far that we couldn’t see family and friends, and have our downtime. We loved being on the beach and going for a swim to wind down. And for pre-production, we could have done it in New York again like we did for the first album with producer David Kahne, but we thought why not change it up? Why not bring him over here and do it in a different setting and see how it works out? It was great, we rented a house together in Byron and we got to work on songs every day. We probably only went to the beach twice while we were there because we were working quite a lot – David’s a workaholic! We’d get up and just get straight into it, but it was a great setting to be in.

The dance moves in the new video for ‘Hallelujah’ are sensational! Whose idea was that – does the band usually get much say in what goes on in the videos?
We usually pitch the song to people and see what ideas they have, then sift through them and see what we like. But we weren’t feeling a lot of the ideas we were getting from directors for this one. Because we’re not directors ourselves, it’s hard for us to explain to people why we don’t like certain ideas and then try to tell them what we’re looking for. We don’t know, we’re just waiting for something that feels right when we read it. Then all of a sudden, we got an email through with an idea for the video and we thought it was awesome. It was simple, it’s only a three-minute song so it’s hard to tell a narrative in that short time and it’s better to keep it a bit abstract and engaging, but at the same time you’re getting across some sort of message so people can interpret whatever they like from it. It just grabbed us. We were very lucky in the end because we were getting a bit close to deadline – we filmed it in one day over the weekend in Melbourne and then a few days later it had been treated and it was out on Monday. It was a crazy turnaround! 

‘Hoops’, the most recent track from the new album was released this week. These little snippets are sounding incredible – are you champing at the bit to release the whole record?
Oh I can’t wait! It’s been such a long wait for us, really. A whole lot of writing and then recording and then going back to songs and reworking them and pulling our hair out. We’ve definitely been a lot more involved this time because we like to have control and we do have a say in everything, so we definitely stepped up to every decision. So it’s stressful and scary at times, you doubt yourself, but now it’s all coming to fruition and it feels awesome. It’s such a good feeling.

When you’re making those tough decisions, do you generally all agree or is it a battle of opinions?
We pretty much come to an agreement on everything. Choosing the songs on the album did get a bit hard. For the first album, we had 15 songs as a band when we went in to record and we cut it down to 11, so that wasn’t too hard, but this time we had about 35 songs and had to cut it down to 11 songs. So different people had different opinions on what songs should have made the album and what fit, but in the end it was just about us sitting down and listening to it over and over again, and compromising here and there when we could, and then it just came down to a democracy. In the end, we knew there were a lot of good songs that didn’t make the album so we can go back to them one day. Everyone was happy knowing that one day those songs will see the light of day.

It’s a good problem to have!
Yeah exactly, instead of saying “Oh shit, we need more songs” or “Every song is terrible”!

Do you have a favourite track we can keep an ear out for?
I think at the moment it’s ‘Hoops’. Just because that’s the most recent one, I think it was written in March maybe. We thought the record was finished, we were getting mixes back of everything else, and then ‘Hoops’ came up and we were like, “Oh man, this definitely needs to get on there”. It wasn’t recorded in New York, it was recorded in Sydney because we were all back home and we just needed to get it on there. Because it’s so fresh, I think it’s generally still everyone’s favourite.

You’ll be doing another massive tour to launch the album, how do you find life on the road?
It’s always exciting and everything is new, it’s just a buzz. It’s such an awesome part of the job – it’s our favourite part of the job, really. Recording is really good but you can get a little bit stressed out, stuck in a hole for 24 hours just hearing the same thing over and over and over again. But being on the road and playing the tracks live is the ultimate pay-off for everything.

Do you guys have any kind of pre-show ritual?
We chill out, we try to watch how many beers we’ve had – there have been times when we’ve had a few and then it’s just terrifying when you’re on stage and you realise that you had three or four too many beers and now you’ve got to really concentrate to play the show correctly! We do have a little thing we do behind the stage where we do a huddle and then we pass a kiss on the cheek around the band and give each other a pat on the back before we walk on.

You formed the band with your brothers in high school; what was your childhood dream before that?
Yeah I had a couple of piano classes in primary school and I hated it, mum had to give me a lolly every time I went to make me do it. So I gave that up and then took it up again in high school when I started to get into music seriously. I always did drama as a kid, so I always wanted to do acting in some sort of way. Mum was a drama teacher and I enjoyed that. But in a way I’m still performing, so it’s a good outlet for that I think.

We’re looking forward to seeing you guys at Splendour in the Grass this weekend, you’ve been on the bill so many years in a row now!
Yeah this will be our third time. We played 2012, 2013 and then we were off last year because we were writing at the time. It sucked because it meant we missed Outkast, it was heart-breaking, they’re one of our favourite bands.

You’ve also scored a great time-slot this year.
Yeah we’re playing Friday night 6:15 pm on the Amphitheatre stage, which is wicked – we’ll get the sun going down, get a big old light show and hopefully a good crowd.

Will you be catching up with many other bands at the festival?
Yeah, we’re definitely looking forward to seeing Tame Impala, Pond are always awesome and Mark Ronson. It’s good to have a vague idea of who you’re going to see and then wander for the rest of the time. You’re not going to have a very good time if you’re sticking to a schedule!

What would you say has been one of your musical highlights so far?
That’s hard, there have been so many milestones and then lots of little things that have happened that are awesome. Any time we get to travel anywhere, be it Darwin or New York or wherever, it’s just such a wake-up to step back from it all and see what we’re actually doing – this is our job! We get to fly around the world and play shows to people and then have people listen to our music, it’s just awesome. There are so many moments like that; it’s a really great pay-off and a way to make you realise how lucky you are in the job that you have.

That’s lovely you still remember to step back and appreciate it all.
Yeah, I think because none of us ever thought this would happen, we’re able to pinch each other and say “Well look how lucky we are – this is ridiculous”!


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