Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Jun 15th 2011 11:00PM by Lonny Knapp
Courtesy of 'Spookey Ruben's Dizzy Playground'
For the last decade, Ruben has been releasing consistently weird and wonderful recordings on his own Hi-Hat Recordings label. He is one of Canada's most daring and eccentric artists; it's really too bad his conservative countrymen give him little love. Spinner hung with Ruben to learn how his flagging music career transformed the composer into a promising avant-garde filmmaker and why his new record left him feeling like an explorer on a failed expedition.
Your latest release, 'Shackleton,' is a four-song collection inspired by explorer Ernest Shackleton, who made a failed attempt to cross the Antarctic in 1914. How does his career parallel yours?
We both set out on an impossible mission [laughs]. When you are a band leader and you are on tour, you have to keep morale up. He was the master of that. He ultimately failed in his mission, but his success is that he never left a man behind -- I admire that.
When you released your debut there was a ton of hype but then you kind of disappeared for a while. What happened?
Since my first album, I've only had issues with labels and licensing deals. For instance, after my first deal collapsed, I sent a record to Zomba Records in Germany. The A&R guy called me directly and I did the deal myself. At that time, the label was huge; they had Tool and Britney Spears, and I thought, "Oh my God, here's my second big chance!" So I set up a tour, but when I arrived in Berlin, on the first day of the tour, they tell me the entire label went under -- it has just never ended.
Your independent label, Hi-Hat Recordings, is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Considering all the headaches you've had with major labels, is it refreshing to operate on an independent level?
No, I miss being signed. Musicians say they don't need A&R and record labels and all that s--- but I do [laughs]. I'm not an A&R guy and I never wanted to be the president of a label; I don't walk around saying I'm the CEO of Hi-Hat Recordings -- I'm a musician and a composer -- I'm doing it out of necessity.
European markets have responded well to your music while it's been a tougher sell at home. Other adventurous Canadian artists such as Peaches and Gonzales had to go elsewhere before establishing successful recording careers. Do you think Canada is too conservative to support more experimental musicians?
I'm a Canadian citizen but I grew up in Germany, Holland and the US. Growing up, I followed Rush, Saga and Voivod -- Canadian bands that have a presence globally and are musically adventurous. So, I had this skewed idea of what Canadian music represents. When I moved to Toronto and put out my first record, I really though it represented the spirit of Canada. When people didn't see that way, it really bummed me out.
In the face of overwhelming indifference, you keep pushing the boundaries. After 15 years, what drives you to create music?
That's a good question. Everyday I wonder, "Why do I even bother?" [laughs] When I was younger I had more raw energy; I wouldn't give up. I'm the same person I was then, but now I'm just a little slower. Artistically, I'm equally as weird, but everything just takes longer.
Speaking of weird, your web series on Exclaim TV 'Spookey Ruben's Dizzy Playground' is really out there. How does emerging as an avant-garde filmmaker fit into your career plans?
It's something I've been developing for a few years, and right now it's my main focus. As much as I envy bands that can make a living on the tour circuit, and as much as I envy that path, I'm thinking, "Hasn't that been done?" There has to be another way to make a living as a musician besides being in a pop band and going on tour. For me, the show is the solution to all my problems.
On the episode 'The Adventures of Spaghetti Cowboy,' Feist appears as a mustachioed cowboy, and in the 'Omen of the Goblet' Broken Social Scene's Brendan Canning shows up as a cell phone-wielding knight. How do you get musicians to come on your show and act goofy?
No matter how serious an artist is, given the opportunity, they are eager to step outside of that. The spirit of the show is to do something that is totally out there, and we make it as free and unconventional as possible. We just have fun, and if we are having fun, perhaps people will latch on to it. So far it's been quite successful and bands are now approaching us.
I heard that your dad was a rocket scientist, and now your music makes so much more sense.
[Laughs] Yeah, he worked on the Space Lab and Space Station. That's why I moved around a lot as a kid.
Did he ever tell you to get a real job?
That's a good question. I think he doubted me. He thought if I was going to make it as a musician, I would have to go get a degree in music composition. The thing is that my parents do support me, they definitely don't get it but they think it's cool.
You are set to play NXNE. After so many years in the industry, what do these types of music festivals offer?
In many cases, festivals are overrated. It's kind of sad that bands will come so far to play at a music festival but they end of playing at 7PM on a Sunday at some bowling alley -- if anything, it's a resume booster.
Spookey Ruben plays the Bovine Sex Club on Wednesday, June 15