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Friars Interviews

Tommy Dunbar and Jon Rubin
The Rubinoos

friars appearances :  25/03/78

The Rubinoos (pic from Rubinoos website)

Going for some 40 years now, classic power pop band The Rubinoos came out of the Beserkley scene in the 1970s that also saw the likes of Jonathan Richman and Greg Kihn get noticed. Always a great band, their first headlining gig outside of the States was actually at Friars Aylesbury in March 1978. Many will remember their hit version of I Think We're Alone Now and also the single Boyfriend.

We caught up with two of the band who have been there for the whole journey, Jon Rubin and Tommy Dunbar.

Welcome to the Friars Aylesbury website! Great to have you on board. 

Tommy Dunbar: Thanks! 

40 years into your career, I notice that you use Rolling Stone magazine’s quote of “unlistenable trash rock quartet” on your website’s home page. Clearly tongue in cheek gentlemen……that wouldn’t be my description! 

Well, thank you again! We always loved that quote. If I saw a review like that I'd have to check out the band! Unlistenable, that's a pretty strong strong warning! Don't go near it! Completely toxic! You'll be sorry! 

I think many people won’t have realised that the Rubinoos history can be traced back to 1970 and were involved more or less form the start with Beserkley with the likes of Jonathan Richman and Greg Kihn? 

Also, my brother Robbie's band Earth Quake, who were really the band the started the label. Earth Quake started Beserkley after being dropped from A&M records. Jonathan came out from Boston and Greg came out from Baltimore to be on the label. The Rubinoos in contrast only had to take a leisurely stroll across town! 

Jon Rubin: I think the time and place were really special. There was a dearth of independent record companies and the Bay Area had a really vibrant live music scene. Initially, Beserkley was a promotional effort to get Earth Quake a major record deal. Somehow it morphed into a real company. We were the youngest band playing the clubs at the time and the only pop band. It didn’t hurt that Tommy was the younger brother of Earth Quake’s Guitarist Robbie Dunbar. So we were signed. Being radical Berkeley kids the idea of a non-traditional label really appealed to us even if we might have been better suited to a major.

As a very young band at the time, you seemingly weren’t too dispirited at having various things thrown at you supporting Jefferson Starship in 1974? Seems a bit harsh, what was the cause of that, it couldn’t have been the music surely? 

Hey, we were happy to be getting a reaction! Actually I think it was the music. It was Sugar Sugar and The Pepsi Generation that set them off….our original songs got no such reaction, so we knew we had to work on that…. 

“Sounds of the City” was Bill Graham’s way to promote local groups. He would have a big local headliner (like The Starship) and several smaller bands from the area. We were 17 years old and had never played before a crowd of more than 200. Winterland held 6,000. We figured we would do the same things we always did. Play the songs we liked and make fun of stuff. Our bass player came out wearing a baby bonnet. We were greeted by indifference until we played our cover of The De Franco Family hit “Heartbeat It’s A Lovebeat.” The indifference then started to turn a little hostile. Not discouraged we plowed on with a cover of the Pepsi Generation theme followed by Sugar Sugar featuring Jonathan Richman dancing The Archie on the Diamond Vision. Needless to say the audience went mad and pelted us with anything in reach. My girlfriend had brought my mother and some guy next to them was screaming “YOU SUCK!” My girlfriend told the guy to “shut up, this is his mother” and kicked him in the shin. Backstage we were offered a deal with ABC Records on the spot. It was pretty hard on a group seventeen year olds to be hated and booed by 6,000 people but it was a loving type of hate…not! 

Probably best known in the UK as a power pop band gaining much airplay in the late seventies…we caught you at Friars Aylesbury in 1978 on the Beserkley Records package tour and more importantly I believe the Friars appearance was your first gig outside of the US. What were your memories of that time – you obviously thought you should have made it much bigger in the UK. You wouldn’t be alone! 

Oh, I don't know that anybody should make it big anywhere. Think how insufferable we might be if we'd had major success. It was really fun hearing our songs on the BBC though! For that matter, just getting to hang out in London while recording our 2nd LP was a thrill.  

Wait a second…we weren’t big in the UK? I was so psyched to be going to play anywhere outside the Bay Area. It was, what I thought anyway, the beginning of our meteoric rise to the top. I just remember having the best time playing in the UK. The whole punk thing was happening and even though we weren’t part of that we loved it. We got to go to play at all these places that were legendary to us like The Marquee Club and The Cavern. We were in the land of The Beatles, The Stones, the Sex Pistols…Hell Yes! 

I think many reading this will possibly best remember you for your version of I Think We’re Alone Now but your I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend single and Back to The Drawing Board album resonates much more with me and I still remember it now hearing it for the first time. The Boyfriend single gained considerable airplay and didn’t somehow give you a huge hit record here. That must have been hugely frustrating given that you had been building a following in this country steadily over the preceding year or so? 

I guess it should have been frustrating, but I don't remember feeling that way at the time. We just knew we were getting to play over there, and we were having fun making records. In hindsight, we were pretty dumb about the business. I still wouldn't hire any of The Rubinoos to run a business or anything come to think of it.  

Yes, hugely frustrating. Our record company president in the UK was on drugs, useless and I heard embezzling from the company. Boyfriend was the #4 airplay record of the year 1978 and never got into the stores.

That building up in the UK and Europe included appearances on just about every important television programme going (including the legendary Old Grey Whistle Test) which for the time was no mean feat. How did the rest of Europe take to you at that time? 

I remember the audiences being pretty enthusiastic in The Netherlands and Scotland (my peeps!) as well. It's funny because punk was really big at that time, maybe we were thought of as new wave, I don't know.  

We did really well in The Netherlands and Belgium. We had a top ten in Holland. We sold well in Scandinavia but never played there. Back then we never made it to the southern European countries that we are popular in now.  

You secured what must have been a high profile support slot for Elvis Costello in the US around 1979/1980 – how did this go and did his audiences take to you? 

The tour went surprisingly well, except we all tried to poison ourselves by eating fast food every day while traveling in a Winnebago. It was great to hear Elvis every night, we were all big fans. Similar to going to Europe, we were just excited as hell to be out on the road on a real tour. But the audiences were great, giving us encores pretty much every night. Elvis may have had the angry young man stance, but his music really was pretty pop, with actual melodies and all…. 

We were given the slot apparently because we were perceived as a successful US band and Jake Riviera thought it would look good to have us opening for Elvis. We did really well on that tour, 55 shows in 65 days with encores in all but one city. I think Detroit was the biggest accomplishment. We started playing and two eggs hit the stage. I looked at Tommy and said “the rest of that dozen is out there.” We did our best to be moving targets for the rest of the show and got one of the strongest encores of the tour. 

To me it seems that record companies and PR just were unlucky for you in the late 1970s – releasing records and distributors going bust and the like – I guess the frustration was incalculable? 

Well, I think every band has a sob story. I've always felt like we were pretty lucky to go tour the world and make records. Why should the world owe me a living just because I write little pop songs and sing and strum? If I'd cured cancer and never got any kudos, then I might have a reason to gripe. We're still making music and having fun with people we love, so what's to complain about? Another thing I'll say is that I know a lot of bands that signed with major labels and had a producer completely disfigure them. Like you'd hear the record and never know it was the same band! At least with Beserkley we got to pretty much record what we were doing at the clubs, you know? We could have had a much worse fate! 

I did not slit my wrists and I did not become a junkie or an alcoholic. But it certainly did harsh my buzz. One of the benefits of being young and naive (read stupid) is that you don’t realize how fucked up things are and think you can just move on to the next success. So I didn’t really get how bad the damage was until later. All that said we were incredibly lucky to have had any success at all. 

Why did the third album take so long to come out (The Basement Tapes) – over ten years between creation and release?

Well, after we left Beserkley we went in and recorded what would later be The Basement Tapes. We immediately put into play that savvy business acumen I referred to earlier. We sent demo cassettes to several labels and nobody signed us, so we thought that was that. So we just kept playing till we had a couple of really bad weeks playing in a casino (The Pine Cone Lounge at Del Webb's Sahara Tahoe). That was not good for morale. We kept recording and sending new demos to our friend Marc Nathan in Los Angeles. I think he'd finally figured out that the only way to get us to stop pestering him was to become our manager and get us a deal. He suggested we move to L.A., which Jon and I were up for, while Donn and Al (our drummer and bass player) thought better of. So Jon and I moved to L.A. and were a duo for the moment. 

Actually the third album was Party of Two, our Warner’s record produced by Todd Rundgren. I would really like to forget that record. I think it hurt our career more than the label problems. Basement Tapes was demos for the third album that was never made. We put it out on cassette when we did our 10 year reunion show. A label called One Way heard it and made us an offer. It was released 14 years after it was recorded. It also made Billboard’s top ten critics pick for that year.

How did you get involved in making songs for Revenge of The Nerds in 1984? 

A friend of ours (Scott Wilk) had been asked to record the theme song which was written by The Payne Brothers. He thought that he wasn't the right guy for the song, but suggested us to the people making the film. Apparently, they knew of us and said yes. So we went in and recorded the song with our friend Charles Judge doing the keyboard programming. The film makers were trying to get Thriller by Michael Jackson for use in one scene, but apparently the asking price was somewhere around the budget of the whole film, so they asked us if we had anything in that vein. I just happened to have a cassette in my pocket of a super rough version of a song Charles and I had written called Breakdown, they thought it sounded acceptable, and since we only wanted bus money and a sandwich, the deal was done.  

Is there anyone else more appropriate for that song then The Rubinoos?

You took a sabbatical from The Rubinoos for some time from around 1985. What brought this about? I know you were working in different projects such as The Mighty Echoes but it was the success of The Basement Tapes that brought The Rubinoos back wasn’t it? 

Well, Jon and I continued to record and do various things, The Mighty Echoes being a constant. I moved back to Berkeley and was playing in a sort of Rubes offshoot called Vox Pop with Donn and Al. It could have just been The Rubinoos, but Jon was in L.A., kind of a long commute for rehearsals! At some point we decided to do a "reunion" show and we thought we'd make a cassette to sell at the show, which was The Basement Tapes. Somehow, the cassette got in the hands of One Way Records on the east coast and they asked if they could put it out. This time we held out for 4 bus fares and 4 sandwiches, so that was that. Then a label called Big Deal Records (also on the east coast) contacted us about a bunch of other recordings we had and that led to them putting out Garage Sale. That was sort of a collection of odds and ends. I should mention that the other big event to get us off our duffs again was when the amazing and talented Kevin Gilbert offered to produce a CD for us, it got us moving! That was the CD Paleophonic. 

I think Basement Tapes was a spark but really it was recording the album Paleophonic that got us going again. That CD was produced by Kevin Gilbert, of Tuesday Music Club fame, and he brought a whole lot of energy to the project and kicked our ass into gear. We then were asked by David Bash to headline the first IPO festival in 1999. We were seen by a fellow named Hiroshi Kuse and he picked up distribution of Paleophonic in Japan. We started playing a little more often.  

Plus you brought out an interesting covers album Crimes Against Music about 10 years ago. Was that just for fun? There’s certainly an eclectic selection from there from Elvis Costello to Flamin Groovies and more points between! How did you choose what to cover between you? I guess you had your lists and took it from there? 

Our friend Hiroshi Kuse at our Japanese label Airmail Recordings had heard versions we'd done of Brandy (Looking Glass) and Cruisin' Music (The Raspberries). He asked if we would make an all covers CD for Japan. Sounded like fun to us, so we made a list of songs to consider. Each guy took the list and put check marks next to the songs he thought were a good idea. Any song that had more than one check mark was pretty much on the record. I was interesting to figure out which songs to stay faithful to the original and which to mangle beyond recognition…. 

Hiroshi Kuse asked us to record a covers album and we thought it would be fun. I seem to remember we had everyone pick 50 songs and then compared lists and any song on all the lists got on, then on two lists, then on one, then on none. I don’t know who picked “Up In A Puff Of Smoke.”

Are you allowed to talk about or make any comment on the Avril Lavigne ‘Boyfriend’ case? If so, what is your perspective on it?

I can't talk about it, except to say that we're happy with the way the case was handled.

I admit I have plagiarized her hair colour. 

You’ve been playing again of late in places as far apart as Spain and Japan and I know you are planning to play Spain again next year – what is it about these places that makes them so special?

Well, besides the fact that we love both places, and it's really exciting to go there and play, they actually seem to like pop music there! But the main thing is, they ask us to come play, so we go! 4 plane fares and a cup of ramen, or a plate of paella, there seems to be a pattern forming here…..But seriously, the people who bring us over have treated us so well, and have become really good friends too, so we are thrilled to go.

They’ll hire us. I don’t know what it is about Spain and Japan but the people there seem to have a deep feeling for (dare I use the phrase) Power Pop. I can’t explain it. The audiences are much too young to have heard us the first time around.

Leading from that, what does playing live after a long career still mean to you? 

Mostly it just means having fun doing what we do. Rehearsing is super fun, and playing in front of audiences that actually know our records is still kind of mind-blowing. For me personally, traveling and making music with 3 of my best life long friends is amazing. Basically, I just feel incredibly lucky. 

Going on tour now is like going to Rock Star Fantasy Camp. It’s like “Oh shit, I still get to go do what I love to do with my best friends 30 years after the peak!” It doesn’t get much better than that.

Thanks for talking to the Friars Aylesbury website – best wishes to you all. 

Thank You!

This interview and its content are © 2011 Mike O'Connor/ and may not be used in whole or in part without permission. 


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