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Against the Grain

Mark Rubin

By Andy Langer, Fri., Nov. 5, 1999

Against the Grain
Photo By Kenny Braun

Mark Rubin gives good interviews. He's unafraid to speak his mind and can provide history or opinions on the diverse set of disciplines he's involved in or been associated with, i.e. bluegrass, jazz, alt.country, film, public radio, and non-commercial television. Part Renaissance man, part neurotic outsider, he's definitely the only tattooed, 330-pound bassist in Austin prone to casually slipping Yiddish phrases into conversations. More than anything else, however, Mark Rubin is a Bad Liver. Think Bad Livers, picture Mark Rubin. It's become his identity, and for a band as historically uncommercial as the Bad Livers, having a loud but reliably insightful spokesperson is invaluable. All that said, it might come as a surprise that Rubin would end a recent phone interview with this warning: "I strongly suggest you avoid portraying me as someone with an idea. I don't have one. Period." Rubin's point, however cloudy as it may be, is that while he's the Bad Livers' bassist, co-manager, and goodwill ambassador, he is not, and has never been, the band's visionary. By Rubin's own accounting, he's never written songs, contributed equally to the recording process, or had a significant hand in shaping the Bad Livers' constantly shifting musical personality. It's not that Mark Rubin is a fraud. He's just not the Bad Livers' driving force.

"There is always going to be someone out there who thinks all this was my idea," says Rubin. "But in fact, they're not my ideas. I'm not the guy that has voices in my head keeping me up at night."

That would be the other half of the Bad Livers, Danny Barnes, the group's principal songwriter, arranger, and spiritual leader. As a matter of fact, the Bad Livers' forthcoming album, Blood and Mood, is virtually a Barnes solo album; Rubin says he's not sure he even played on it all.

Why has Rubin admitted this so readily, adding that he spent only two days in the studio for the band's second album, Horses in the Mines, and just a day on their third release, Hogs on the Highway? Why, after 10 years, is he so willing to discuss the Bad Livers' creative process and his marginal role in it? Perhaps because Rubin is the band's resident historian, and after a decade, this is as good a time as any to clear up any and all misconceptions. Could it be that Rubin recognizes the greatest contribution he can make as a Bad Liver is knowing when not to get in the way, or more succinctly, when and how often to step aside for Barnes?

"The Danny Barnes story is years and years of frustration, all based on having to work with other people," explains Rubin. "He just can't do it anymore. He's not an input guy. I've always been a bass player and a guy who plays in groups. I'm not a guy that comes up with songs. It just so happens that when I met Danny, I found a guy that plays really well and comes up with songs. What I bring to the music is the guy who stands there playing the songs live as Danny's favorite bass player. I make no claims of being a creator. If you knew the kind of hell Danny went though in his life to get to the point to do that, then anyone would step aside. I don't envy him one bit."

In turn, it's not hard to imagine that Barnes doesn't envy Rubin's role as the Bad Livers' spokesperson and businessman. According to Rubin, Barnes considers dealing with the music business on any kind of day-to-day level counterproductive to art. Therefore, it's Rubin who keeps a high profile each year at South by Southwest. It's Rubin who keeps his phone number listed. It's Rubin who does most of the interviews; 10 years ago, Barnes told Rubin, "You talk to all the Jews, I'll talk to all the Gentiles." While there are thousands of artists who find time to concentrate on the music by passing their business affairs off to a manager, the Bad Livers have always remained self-managed. Rubin says that's because he believes there's no greater advocacy then self-advocacy. Then again, Rubin also maintains that Barnes has played a larger role in the band's business direction than even many of their closest business associates know.

"A lot of people over the years have expressed awe or disgust with my business acumen, when really and truly most of the ideas I've had about Bad Livers business have come from Danny," admits Rubin. "I had a listed phone number and he didn't. It's a little like being White House spokesman. And that will come as big news for people that have done business with us who maybe thought, 'If I could just get around Mark and communicate with Danny.' A lot of our financial directions have been really sound, really wise decisions originating from his end."

Of course the irony is that life as a Bad Liver has never been a financially secure one for either Rubin or Barnes. Without Rubin's side project, Rubinchik's Orkestyr, session work, production gigs, and radio/television jobs, or Barnes' solo gigs and self-released CDs, neither would make a livable wage. Nonetheless, nothing but the music itself says more about what makes Barnes, and Rubin in particular, tick than the way they've handled their affairs and presented the Bad Livers to the world outside Texas and outside the traditional acoustic music markets.

First off, touring the states for two years without an album is not something they advise at SXSW seminars. Plus, Rubin is quick to admit that nobody would have suggested making their initial release a cassette-only gospel set. But Rubin is also fast to point out that many of the Bad Livers' self-inflicted business wounds stem from the name itself.

Against the Grain

"When we first started playing regularly as the Danny Barnes Trio and had to come up with a name, everyone in the acoustic market -- people who probably thought of us the same way they think of the Threadgill's Troubadours -- thought the Bad Livers was an awful name, the worst thing we could do," says Rubin. "We thought, 'Great! That's it then.' But you don't name the band Bad Livers and play acoustic music in an unfriendly environment based on sound business practice. You do it out of spite and bullheadedness."

If that spite seems punk-derived, it's because it is. It was a mutual interest in classic punk that brought Barnes and Rubin together in the first place. It's also why neither thought twice about walking onstage in Metallica T-shirts and shorts, as well as the reason why they took the equally confrontational route of playing banjo-based acoustic music in punk clubs instead of traditional acoustic music venues. And while the dress and venue choices alone lifted the Bad Livers out of mainstream contention from the start, Rubin says it only took a few early concessions -- a gig at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and a tour backing Michelle Shocked -- to reinforce their choice of outlaw status.

"We wouldn't have lasted a decade if we'd have gone after a more traditional market," asserts Rubin. "The acoustic market is still hung up on rules -- you have to dress their way and have a certain amount of banjo jokes in your repertoire. And occasionally, Danny will hear about some other musicians that got some kind of break and he'll say, 'That never happened for me.' That's when I have to point out that we worked really hard never to be put in those kind of positions. We were always going against the grain. We often said that if people started dancing to our music we'd change the tune."

True to their word, the Bad Livers have changed tunes several times this decade, to the point where they'll enter 2000 with the thoroughly modern, sampled-based Blood and Mood. It's an album that will no doubt surprise casual Bad Livers fans -- folks who might not understand the Bad Livers' approach to bluegrass or acoustic music, but believe the reams of great press anyway. Not surprisingly, Rubin thinks much of the positive press the group has amassed comes from critics who didn't understand the band's music any more than the fans.

If the Bad Livers' morphing of traditional music and punk rock aesthetics was unprecedented, so were the band's early reviews, which skipped over their original material and covers of Thelonious Monk or Mississippi John Hurt tunes to applaud covers they could relate to: primarily Motörhead and Iggy Pop. It may have been a gateway to positive reviews and curiosity-driven CD purchases, but it also led to a decade-long battle with novelty status. While Barnes and Rubin prided themselves on having no schtick, some of their biggest fans considered their oddball rock covers just that.

"There were always a hardcore group of people who figured out from day one that we had no novelty factor and instead said, 'Oh, I get it. When they play these different kinds of music, they're lifting weights, exercising, and when they play their original compositions, that's when the engine is actually running,'" posits Rubin. "But we're as much to blame as anyone. I can't be seen complaining. If that was the handle it took to get us interest, so be it. To this day, if we died in a car wreck, it would say, 'An Austin, Texas-based bluegrass band known for their novelty covers of punk rock tunes.'"

Mark Rubin doesn't look at music in a linear fashion. His motto is borrowed from Raahsan Roland Kirk: "There ain't no bad music. If it's bad, it ain't music." It's why Rubin is widely regarded as both a musical snob and a man of diverse tastes. It's also why the Bad Livers could present Motörhead covers straightfaced, and also the reason why Rubin's popular KUT overnight program can present Charles Mingus, Captain Beefheart, Lee "Scratch" Perry, and Floyd Tillman in the same set. More importantly, Rubin considers musical value based on communicative possibility, rather than genre or delivery, which is why he dismisses his tuba playing in the Bad Livers as a non-significant factor in the band's lore.

"In a lot of the reviews, there's always been this interest in the fact that I play the tuba," says Rubin. "It's not a schtick or some kind of novelty to whip out the tuba. If my tuba gets damaged, which has happened, I play the same tune on the bass and it doesn't make me any difference. To me, if I'm playing the tuba, electric bass, or beating on a hollow log -- if I'm communicating -- it's all the same to me."

To understand Rubin's nonlinear approach to music is to also understand not just why the Bad Livers were comfortable playing to punk crowds, but also why he feels confident enough to produce Polish fiddlers, film scores, and Santiago Jiménez Jr. Not surprisingly, the roots of Rubin's approach reach back to a childhood household full of recorded and live music, and parents who'd originally met in the University of Arizona marching band. In Stillwater, Oklahoma, the senior Rubin played baritone sax in various community bands and served as director of the Oklahoma State University honorary marching band fraternity.

"In other words," chuckles Rubin, "he was the king of the band geeks."

Rubin and Barnes with Bad Liver-for-a-day Bob Grant
Rubin and Barnes with Bad Liver-for-a-day Bob Grant
Photo By Todd V. Wolfson

When Rubin was six, his father experienced what the musician describes as a "strong religious experience" that renewed the family's ties to Judaism. The resulting 100-mile treks to a synagogue in Oklahoma City led to hours of AM radio -- exposing Rubin at a young age to bluegrass, gospel, country, and blues.

"Later, all my friends thought I was weird, because I thought Howlin' Wolf was punk rock," says Rubin. "I'd be playing 'Smokestack Lightning' and saying, 'You thing Nick Cave is spooky? Check this out.' It was sort of a combination of my musical upbringing and my religious upbringing, like, 'I don't need a priest. I talk to straight to God.' I didn't need a lame version of blues. We have old blues records, we don't need Johnny Winter. We have Muddy Waters. Muddy Waters is good -- you don't need the middleman."

More importantly, even after Rubin's father moved the family to Norman for a gig as the director of the University of Oklahoma's Hillel house, the youngster's religious upbringing forced him to learn quickly about outsider status; as one of the few Jews in Norman, a photo of a young Mark Rubin lighting a menorah in a Boy Scout uniform was an annual reminder in the local paper that he was different.

"Growing up as the town Jew singles you out, immediately," states Rubin. "You have to be very careful, because anything you do will reflect on your entire tribe. I'm certain the first black families that moved into the suburbs felt the same way. You get a sense of otherness. I don't think it ever left me. But it also taught me how to answer questions, like, 'So tell me, why did the Jews kill Jesus?' I've been able to stand my ground and talk to strangers about awkward situations for a long time. That's why my phone number is listed."

Not surprisingly, Rubin also felt alienated in high school. Between his father's death and the fact that he considered his intellectual background wasted in classes taught by gym teachers, Rubin felt like dropping out of high school altogether and forgoing college. The only thing that stopped him was the high school symphony and his teacher's encouragement that he could eventually become a professional, perhaps even world-class, tuba player. The other reason to stick around Oklahoma was its emerging punk rock scene.

Punk may have hit Norman late, but it hit hard -- mostly because it was geographical necessity for bands making cross-country tours. Between 1982-'83, Rubin saw underattended sets from Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen, and Black Flag -- some of whom came back to Rubin's place to sleep and shower. At the same time, reggae acts that Louis Jay Myers had convinced to stop in Austin at Liberty Lunch were also stopping in Norman, including Eek-a-Mouse and the Itals. As is almost always the case, an influx of touring talent stimulated the local scene. And while punk may have led Rubin to abandon the tuba for an electric bass, his first moderately successful live outfit was called the Legendary Street People Reggae Band.

"It was a funny sight, because a couple of us were punk rock dudes," recalls Rubin. "I had the shaved head, black T-shirt, and combat boots. It was weird, but it made us all pretty good money."

By 1987, Rubin had had made enough trips to Dallas and Deep Ellum's Theatre Gallery to have made a few contacts and slip into the scene just before Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians brought it national attention. He quickly fell into the experimental post-punk crowd that included bands like End Over End, Three on a Hill, and the Reverend Horton Heat, but he rarely played live. Instead, Rubin established a reputation as a middleman, networking with bands that had stayed on his couch in Norman and thus landing gigs for Dallas bands across the states. Even after a few stints as a road manager, returning each time to his phone job at Rainbow-Ticketmaster, Rubin couldn't quite parlay his efforts into a gig of his own.

"People would tell me that I play bass better than the bass players I was road managing, but nobody there really gave me a break as a musician," says Rubin.

Seven days after he decided to buy a stand-up bass for $100 in a classified ad, Rubin got his first real offer: a slot in Killbilly, a rock-bluegrass outfit that fit nicely with his re-emerging interest in bluegrass.

Against the Grain

"Unfortunately, the more I learned and studied about bluegrass, the more I recognized that none of these guys knew how to do it," says Rubin. As fate would have it, he stuck it out just long enough to welcome Killbilly's latest banjo player, Danny Barnes. "It was like, 'OK, here's a guy that's done his homework. He really knows how to play. I'll watch him.'"

It didn't take long for Barnes and Rubin to realize that they shared some musical vocabulary -- names like Richard Hell, MC5, and Roky Erickson.

"We were a little more punk rock than the guys in Killbilly," says Rubin. "They were more into Elvis Costello -- skinny ties and such. Danny was old-school, although he got out of punk rock before Black Flag happened, which was my bread and butter. But we could really relate to stuff like the Vibrators. And when was the last time you met a banjo player that knew the lyrics to the MC5's 'Sister Ann'? When was the last time anybody met a guy who could play banjo like that?"

In 1989, Rubin left Dallas for Austin on the promise that Barnes could get him work. As it wound up, more often than not it was the banjo player's bassist in the Barnburners, J.D. Foster, that passed work on to Rubin -- including a gig backing Toni Price. A year after Rubin's move, the acoustic trio, which included guitarist Rich Brotherton, broke up, and Rubin got a call from Barnes for a pick-up gig.

"Danny had some dates still booked as the Barnburners," explains Rubin, "so he would just call up two musicians he admired and play a gig with them. It was a pretty great concept, and he put together some really interesting little bands."

Although Barnes was happy with the trios he'd assembled featuring Rubin and fiddle player Ralph White, it took a little push from the bassist to get the Bad Livers off the ground. As legend has it, Rubin was in New York at the 1989 New Music Seminar, and he and Townes Van Zandt had caught a show from a new-country "buzz band" that Rubin describes as "New Yorkers in cowboy boots and bolo ties." They were so awful, says Rubin, he was inspired.

"I remember walking over to the pay phone and calling home. Danny was just going to bed, and I don't know how coherent I was either. I said, 'Hey man, look. I'm taking the temperature here and this is all crap. None of this is music. None of it is good. What we're playing down there is really good music. I think we have a shot. And hey, Dan, would you like to stop hustling around and form a band? Can we really lock it down when we get back?'

"He said he'd be really be interested in talking about it, and that's how I remember it. I remember hanging up the phone with purpose."

The greatest irony, Rubin says, is that from the very beginning, he and Barnes made the mistake of assuming the music business was fueled by musical quality, not stage fashion and shiny guitars.

"In a lot of ways, I was really naive," snorts Rubin. "I don't say that in a negative way, just as an explanation for why we made a lot of decisions we made. Danny used to lecture me all the time about how nothing matters except what was coming out of the speakers. How it sounded. That's what's important. Are we in tune? That, in a nutshell, has always been our operating system -- the software. But evidentally, that's not the path to financial success in this business. Danny and I, as musicians, have done what we had to do. But as businessman, we've done a major disservice to ourselves. Being concerned about the music has been a liability in a lot of ways."

Against the Grain

In February 1998, the Bad Livers nearly broke up. The normal reasons bands fold up shop weren't an issue; Rubin says he and Barnes have always been close enough to order for each other at restaurants. Rather than personality differences, the Bad Livers faced breaking up under the weight of their financial liabilities.

According to Rubin, a 10-day summit at Barnes' home in Washington state yielded this conclusion: Barnes' household was thriving when the Bad Livers were working, and on the verge of collapse when they weren't. There were also creative differences. Whereas the Bad Livers act as a partnership because Barnes believes there's more power in shared vision than one that's singular, Barnes was definitely moving in some experimental directions he felt might be better explored solo. What would that mean for the Bad Livers?

"I really supported him playing solo gigs and releasing solo albums," says Rubin. "I could sense his frustration and the fact that I couldn't always share all of his vision. It was better for him to have some other outlets than keep it pent up."

In truth, Barnes was simply following Rubin's lead.

"My life is an outlet," he states. "Look at my fucking Web page. What is there that I haven't done that I wanted to do?"

At this point, Rubin can tick off sideman, producer, bandleader, music supervisor (The Newton Boys), radio deejay (KUT), and television host (AMN15). Better yet, Rubin says most of the projects he's involved with, either as a producer or sideman, have come seeking him, often with fair wages attached. Then there's the really fun stuff, like a 1998 gig on D.C.'s National Mall where Rubin played alongside five of the country's best living klezmer players. Even so, Rubin is fully committed to a project he admits he has less and less to do with creatively, the Bad Livers.

"I'm a Bad Liver by trade, not a sideman or producer," says Rubin. "It's my day job and I love my day job. It takes precedence in my schedule and over anything else. It's the only absolute in my schedule. All these other things are to bide my time in between."

In truth, the Bad Livers aren't just Rubin's day job, but also his biggest crutch, meaning there's safety in knowing he can always fall back into the fold. For example, Rubin admits that in midst of his most complicated recording project to date, supervising the re-recording of standards from the Twenties for The Newton Boys, there were several times he wished for his own termination from the project so he could go back to full-time Bad Liver status.

"I remember working on that movie, and everyone in that room, God bless them, wanted a career in that field really bad and would do whatever it took, even if it meant fucking up this film," remembers Rubin. "If it meant keeping or advancing their career, they'd do it. Well, that doesn't fit in with my world view. My idea was, 'Hands up in this room -- who doesn't care if they never make another fucking film the rest of their goddamn life?'

"I was gonna make decisions based solely on the one film we were working on. You're not supposed to do that. I was able to do that because, A., I had the director behind me waving a big stick, and because, B., I could always get in the car with Dan and play music. The day job was still going to be there. I kind of approach it that way with everything I do."

Against the Grain
Photo By Todd V. Wolfson

Looking back, Rubin considers The Newton Boys soundtracks one his greatest professional and personal achievements. After all, director Rick Linklater and 20th Century Fox were taking a big-budget gamble on a soundtrack virgin. In the end, Rubin managed to stay true to the movie and the original source music, while also assembling an almost all-Texas studio dream team that featured locals Erik Hokkanen, Elias Haslanger, Mike Maddux, Floyd Domino, Carl Sonny Leyland, Guy Forsyth, and the Jim Cullum Jazz Band. Even after Rubin caved in to the studio's request that he add "jive-ass vocalists," the album flopped at the cash registers. The fact that the film stiffed too didn't help, but Rubin is convinced that the soundtrack wound up too true to the film and too challenging for public consumption.

"Some of the musicians on that stuff say it's the most musically and artistically satisfying work they've done," claims Rubin. "But I guarantee you I ruined my reputation in the film community to where I will never be asked to do it again. I could care less. I was under the impression we were there to create some art. Maybe what we should have done is put on bullshit cowboy outfits and had a Buck Owens cover band. People can understand that. It's easily marketable."

If Rubin seems hurt by the failure of The Newton Boys soundtrack, it's because he is. For a guy who claims not to have many ideas, The Netwon Boys featured plenty of them. It hurts to have those ideas tank commercially, admits Rubin, nor is it the first time: Industry and Thrift, the Bad Livers' fourth album and the one Rubin says he had the largest part in making, is also the band's worst-selling effort to date. Whereas Rubin's sole job in the studio is typically, as he says, "just to put enough of my stink" on the album, Industry and Thrift reeked of Rubin. Typically adored by die-hards, the commercial failure of Industry and Thrift made Rubin even more comfortable stepping aside in the studio -- to the point where it's questionable if Rubin played on the forthcoming Blood and Mood at all. Whether he did or not, argues Rubin, isn't really the issue. The issue, he says, is that Danny Barnes had the opportunity to explore a new Bad Livers concept -- a modern, sample-based recording.

"When somebody comes up with a concept and is really enthused about it, it tells me they really believe in it and are really going to bust their ass on it," says Rubin. "That's positive energy, and as a producer and a guy who makes and plays on records, I see that as worth harnessing. It's like, 'Get in there and do it then.' Part of my job in the studio is to set up the situation where that can all go down, as a producer or as Bad Liver I'm setting the ducks in a row. It's like being the set-up man for the clean-up batter."

For the next few months, Rubin will be setting up the band's label Sugar Hill for the backlash that's sure to accompany Blood and Mood. Even though Rubin claims it's the Bad Livers' most commercially viable and potentially radio-ready album yet, it's not hard for him to imagine cries of "sellout." Will the same batch of music critics that typically write about the Bad Livers feel threatened if major magazines like Rolling Stone or Spin embrace the move toward the mainstream? Rubin doesn't know.

"I'm going to have to do a lot of interviews with this record, and what I would hope is that it's just accepted as a record, as a work of art," says the bassist. "If there's an agenda involved, it was only to make a record the way people make records these days. Not the way a lot of old hippie journalists think people make records now, but the way the kids are making records now -- the way the Eminem record got made.

"That's the way we made this record, and they're already wanting to talk about the mechanics of it: 'What exactly are you sampling?' And I'm like, 'Sir, I don't think you're qualified to ask me that question. And who fucking cares?' It doesn't mean anything. That's going to be the big hurdle. They'll ask if we turned our backs on acoustic music. My answer is, 'Well, that brings up a lot of issues, like when were we ever a part of acoustic music?'

"We'll start there and go downhill."

Whether Blood and Mood winds up well-received either commercially or critically, it will undoubtedly provide a new platform for Rubin to underscore his greatest strengths -- public speaking and his nonlinear approach to music. Rubin may not have had much to do with its recording process, but it looks like Blood and Mood carries his stink anyway. After all, what's more nonlinear than a sample-based Bad Livers album?

"With Hogs on the Highway, we said, 'Let's make a record the acoustic market will understand,' but we're so fucked up and convoluted on our own little asteroid, that's certainly not what came out," laughs Rubin. "Those people still couldn't understand what we were doing. And now that Danny's been listening to Roni Size and Master P, at least in his world view, he's thinking that's the kind of record we just got done making. Well yeah, but no. What we came up with is not always what we thought we had, but it's always very interesting and very good. One thing I can say about being a Bad Liver is that we've never been disappointed by our recording output."

In truth, Rubin isn't disappointed about much at all these days. These are good times: His latest Don Walser compilation awaits release, his homespun label is off to a fast start with the critically acclaimed Barnes, Hokkanen & Rubin aka the Mad Cat Trio, and his contribution to the Austin Music Network, Breakin' In, is widely regarded as the local music channel's best product. Promoting the new Bad Livers album will add more miles to the van and more clips to the press kit than even Rubin would like to admit, but he's clearly as enthusiastic about the Bad Livers and his other projects as he's ever been.

Besides, 10 years ago, only a handful of people imagined the Bad Livers' or Mark Rubin's particular brand of local notoriety would last five years, let alone a decade. Rubin admits he's maybe overthought much of his career and has often failed to "bust a check for all that brainpower," but the Bad Livers bassist is obviously at the point where he's beginning to see the psychological payoff of a day job almost completely devoid of compromise.

"Somebody once told me, 'The thing about the music business is you will compromise, but you get to choose your compromises.' The fact of the matter is that we never really addressed that. We've been in a lot of denial for many years. Ergo, we're a critically adored band that sells far fewer record than our press kit would suggest. We don't make the big check that people who play more formulaic, readily identifiable forms of music do. And that's okay. Every decision we've made got us to that point. I have no complaints. Hell, careers have been made with a lot less." end story


The Bad Livers play tonight, Thursday, at Antone's. Danny Barnes plays solo at Flipnotics, Friday, Nov. 5. The Mad Cat Trio, aka Barnes, Mark Rubin, and Erik Hokkanen, also play Flipnotics, Saturday, Nov. 6.

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