Inside The Bunker With The Rubens And Run The Jewels

THIS is a long way from Brooklyn. It’s a long way from Sydney, too.

This is Camden, NSW, and I’m sitting outside a decommissioned World War II communications bunker with Hottest 100 winners The Rubens and one of the chief architects of Run The Jewels’ hectic hip-hop sound.

His name is Wilder Zoby and he’s spent the past few weeks holed up in a motel down the road. His brother Torbitt Schwartz – aka Little Shalimar – is on his way back to the US to have his gallbladder removed. It was his birthday a week ago.

“Thank god it didn’t flare up until the day after we finished [recording] more than we thought we would’ve done,” he says. “He’s not the first to tell me it’s the most excruciating pain in the world.”

I know what he means. I had mine removed when I was 23.

“Okay, so then you know exactly what the fuck we’re talking about. We would not have been able to get anything done if it kept flaring up,” he continues. “It’s not anything uncommon. It’s just a real shitty thing.”

“By party vibe I mean more like, ‘What are we going to have tonight guys? Red wine or beer?”

IT’S the final few days of the recording of The Rubens’ as-yet-untitled third album, and the mood in the camp couldn’t be more relaxed. When I arrive the band is sitting in garden chairs around a bonfire that’s burnt down to its last few embers. In front of us is a rusty old bus painted with hippy slogans like “Make love not war”, a nod perhaps to Camden Airport’s former life as an RAAF base.

They have a few friends over. It’s a beautiful day. There are boxes of pizzas lined up and the beers are cold.

It’s been like this the whole time apparently. The band – brothers Zaac, Sam and Elliott Margin, along with Scott Baldwin and Will Zeglis – feel very much at home here. Camden is just a short drive from Menangle, where they grew up, and this bunker has served as their rehearsal space for several years.

Will’s childhood friend Timmy lives here, and he’s turned the bunker into a world-class facility with a few homely touches and all the mod cons. Inside is a custom built studio: a control room on one end; a very long band room in the middle; and a little well-stocked bar that’s been more than adequately servicing what singer Sam Margin describes as the album’s “party vibe”. He corrects himself.

“By party vibe I mean more like, ‘What are we going to have tonight guys? Red wine or beer?’”

Are The Rubens growing up?

“We didn’t have money to buy beer on the first record,” says singer Sam Margin, laughing. “And it was maybe a bit too stressful to take our hands off the wheel for the last record. With this one I knew that if I went to sleep for three hours and someone’s working on the bass, I’ll wake up and some magic will have happened. And that’s totally new for me. Everyone just doing their thing – producers included – and having it come together perfectly.”

Wilder agrees. “We’ve exceeded expectations,” he says. “These are some pretty nasty fucking musicians.” He means nasty in a good way.

Bright Lights, Big City

THOUGH some may find it unexpected, The Rubens’ pairing with Wilder and Torbitt – who co-produced Run The Jewels 3, play in EL-P’s live band and have worked on every Run The Jewels album to date – makes a lot of sense to anyone who’s followed the band’s trajectory since their 2012 debut.

The self-titled album still sounds like a band reared on The Black Keys, but Sam Margin always had a soulful quality to his voice and the band have consistently professed a lifelong love of hip-hop in interviews.

Hoops’ was the moment those influences really came to the fore. A late addition to their second record, their 2016 Hottest 100 chart-topping hit was produced by Eric J Dubowsky, a Sydney-based producer who cut his teeth as an engineer in legendary hip-hop studio Green St in New York.

“They’re a rock band at the core, but they seem to have been influenced by hip-hop ideas and sounds. That excites me,” Dubowsky told me in 2016.

Run The Jewels 2 was actually one of the reference points for ‘Hoops’ when the band were recording the track in Dubowsky’s Sydney studio – but by this point, the band weren’t just fans of Run The Jewels. They were mates.

The Rubens hit it off with EL-P from Run The Jewels backstage at Laneway Festival in 2013. His entourage included Wilder, Torbitt and a friend named Shannon, who they stayed in touch with after the Laneway tour wound up.

“The initial bond came from travelling on that Laneway tour together,” says Wilder.

“As long as you’re an open person and a decent person that builds camaraderie. If you’re all out here together, trying to make the crowds happy together, you realise you probably have a lot more in common than you think you would, regardless of the genre of music you’re out there doing.”

Whenever The Rubens were in New York they’d hit up Shannon for a drink, and things would generally end up at a celebrated bar on the Lower East Side called Max Fish. Wilder – who used to work as a bartender there and now owns a stake in the bar with his brother – describes the venue as a “cultural hub – as corny as that sounds”.

He says the bar’s bright lights break down barriers and creates genuine connections between patrons, most of whom are involved in the arts. More importantly, those lights keep the “douchebags” out. “Lot of real motherfuckers are hanging out in there, because they don’t give a shit about the bright lights.”

Sam eventually popped the question at a Run The Jewels after-party at Max Fish in February

Wilder: “Sam came up to me and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to do a new record, would you and your brother be willing to work with us?’ I told them maybe. My schedule is open and I like to work, but I’m not going to waste your time, and I’m not going to waste my time, so before I give you an answer right here, I would need to hear some demos, or hear something. Because if it’s not anything that I could contribute to, I don’t want to.”

The track he sent was called ‘Million Man’.

“We didn’t have money to buy beer on the first record. And it was maybe a bit too stressful to take our hands off the wheel for the last record . With this one I knew that if I went to sleep for three hours and someone’s working on the bass, I’ll wake up and some magic will have happened. And that’s totally new for me. Everyone just doing their thing – producers included – and having it come together perfectly.”

“Yes, it’s a different process than working with Run the Jewels. But I quite often think of most music as building a house. One brick at a time.”

‘Just A Feel’

WE’RE back in the bunker as Wilder cues up ‘Million Man’ on a pair of studio monitor perched in front of the band’s growing collection of gold and platinum records.

The song opens sparsely – Sam’s naked voice, some keys, a few clicks – before the harmonies and a huge fuzz bass kicks in. There’s a sense of relief that Sam isn’t rapping and it’s not a hip-hop song, but I’m also struck by the space in the track’s arrangement and the type of bravado bands have when they’re three albums deep and more sure of their sound.

“I’m not into overkill,” says Wilder. “I’m a student of Miles Davis and space is really important.”

“We’ve exceeded expectations. These are some pretty nasty fucking musicians.”

So what drew Wilder and his brother to this song in the first place? “Just a feel,” he says. “It was something that I could– I didn’t have to struggle to think, ‘Could I do something with this?’ … When I heard it, it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, for sure.’”

‘Million Man’ was written by keyboardist and main songwriter Elliott Margin, who had a sense he had come up with something special. But he’s eager to keep a lid on things until the song comes out. “I think when people started hearing it then I felt like I could call this a good song. Otherwise, it’s kind of hard to tell when you’ve got something [good], or you don’t want to jinx it.”

Sam is slightly less guarded about its potential. “I had my friends dancing around my apartment. My Scottish friend Mike jumping around saying, ‘It’s a hit, it’s a hit!’ I think he’d had a few, but…”

Did Sam have the same feeling about ‘Hoops’?

“I’m not– we don’t want to jinx it because ‘Hoops’ did very well, but when I heard ‘Million Man’, straightaway I was like, ‘This is a good song.’”

IT’S the final day in the bunker before Wilder heads home to mix the tracks, or “fuck things up a bit”, with his brother. And while spirits couldn’t be higher – there’s already talk of a low-key beer and red wine wrap party later tonight – there is some trepidation about how this collaboration may be perceived by people outside the band.

“The first thing that people hear is Run The Jewels and then The Rubens. It sounds like it’s going to be some crazy mashup,” Elliott says. “But I mean, it’s not like we’re rapping.”

Wilder is a bit more philosophical. “It’s all just music man. I don’t see Run The Jewels as definitively ‘hip-hop’ … I would like to think that we pushed the envelope on what is conventionally thought of as hip-hop.

“Yes, it’s a different process than working with Run the Jewels,” he continues. “But I quite often think of most music as building a house. One brick at a time.”

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