The Rubinoos
and Chuck Prophet,
The TVD Interview & Premiere, “Phaedra”

Power pop stalwarts The Rubinoos first emerged at a high school hop in Berkeley, California nearly a half century ago. With a couple of career defining albums on Beserkley Records, the band brought vocal-rich tunes and a penchant for covers that would try the patience of the most open-minded rockers.

Still, their version of Tommy James & the Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now” got some traction in 1977; their 1979 power pop original “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” proved so catchy it landed Avril Lavigne in court for maybe borrowing too much of it for her 2007 single “Girlfriend,” and they did the title song for the film Revenge of the Nerds. Over the years, they wrote and covered songs from “Rhapsody in the Rain” to “Hats Off to Larry” to “Yo Ho,” the Pirates of the Caribbean amusement park ride theme.

Sporadic recording followed a 15 year hiatus, but now one of their biggest early fans, Chuck Prophet, has teamed up with them for their new album due in stores on August 23 via Yep Roc, From Home, with every one of the tracks co-written by the prolific Prophet with the band’s Tommy Dunbar.

And though there are no covers this time, there are some shout outs to some of the acts that fueled their early love for rock ’n’ roll, from the DeFranco Family to the Troggs to the Honeycombs. The Vinyl District is proud to premiere one of its tracks, “Phaedra” a pean to the ancient goddess that also has roots in a classic 45, Lee Hazlewood’s “Some Velvet Morning” with Nancy Sinatra.

We talked to the band founding members Dunbar and lead singer Jon Rubin, as well as rocker and producer Prophet, in a California conference call about the single and the new LP, their love for the old Cruisin’ albums, and that time they got booed at a Jefferson Starship show at Winterland.

What was the origin of “Phaedra”?

Chuck: I think one of the things that was kind of a challenge about writing this record, is that we’ve got guys here that are a certain age. The first couple records had songs like “Can I come over tonight…will your parents be home?” They seem unseemly.

Jon: We can’t sing those songs any more.

Chuck: So, we figured out songs where we can thank the goddesses and address the boy/girl thing in more of a mythical way.

Tommy: It’s funny you mention Lee Hazlewood, because that’s where I got the name from. It was like, that’s a cool name.  

A couple of other songs on From Home name check influences in “Do You Remember” and “Honey from the Honeycombs.”

Tommy: It’s funny, the band will have been playing together in some form for 50 years come 2020, and to me Honeycombs records aren’t nostalgic in that we still listen to that stuff. But “Do You Remember” was a lot of—I remember Chuck picking my brain. “What did you do on…” “Oh, yeah, that was off of Kings Road.” “Do You Remember” is very much a history of the band.

Chuck: And also what made “Do You Remember” work for me, is that very much like The Beatles, Tommy and Jon would sing almost in unison just because they got more power. Like if you listen to the early Beatles, Cavern Club era, John and Paul sing together and they have the power. By the time they get to Abbey Road, they’re almost like a prog band, you know what I mean? Everyone is off doing their own thing. It’s a special thing when Jon and Tommy sing in unison in a four piece band. And I don’t even think there’s a couple of minor overdubs on “Do You Remember.”

Jon: In the early days of The Rubinoos, Tommy and I used to sing together all the time. I mean, on tons and tons of songs. And a lot of that was inspired by The Beatles because we thought by the two of us singing together, we came up with third lead vocal voice.

How did you come to know The Rubinoos, Chuck? You were a fan as a youngster?

Chuck: Absolutely. I don’t know how many times I saw The Rubinoos when I was in high school, but they definitely played in my high school. And they were really the first band that I saw that were making their own records and writing songs. They just seemed very grown up. I thought when I went out into the world there would be more bands like The Rubinoos, and it turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong.

It seemed like a different band from the start, when at the time of acid rock and a year after Woodstock, you were based in ’50s novelty songs and doo wop. How did that start?

Jon: Tommy’s older brother played in a group called Earth Quake, and that was Tommy’s gateway drug to music. The thing is, when Tommy and I became friends, we would go after school to his house, and Tommy’s brother Robbie and his older sister Mary had stacks of 45s, and we would sit there and spin them continuously.

That was sort of our first exposure to oldies. And a lot of things that drew me in, and I think Tommy as well, is that we found the stuff to be pretty funny, because a lot of that ’50s stuff had a lot of novelty record-ish stuff about it, and I think that was a big draw to younger kids to get into that stuff, and we just loved it. And then Rob gave Tommy a collection called the Cruisin’ albums, and it was basically radio airchecks from each year starting from 1956 to 1964, something like that. And we listened to that. And once we heard those, we totally got into pretending we were DJs and playing stuff all the time.

Tommy: And memorizing all the DJ patter.

Jon: And of course all the songs. We were so into it. Then we met this guy named James Gangwer, who played in a band and was older than us. And we went over to his house, and he had this gigantic record collection—45s. And he goes, “Oh, you need to hear this.” And he started playing us rhythm & blues and rock ’n’ roll stuff that we’d never heard before. And we would go there every day and make him play records until he kicked us out. This was for years.

Tommy: And transferring all of his stuff to cassette. Then we would have all of that. It was like going to school. It was really fantastic.

Jon: One of the things I always like to bring up because basically at the time there were hardly any reissues, and there were no oldies stations. It would be like, we would go to thrift stores and dig through the 45 bin and just buy as many as we could—anything that looked like it might be a rock ’n’ roll record. We had no idea. “Who are The Turbans?” “Buy that!” It was a lot more challenging and a lot more fun than to just go to iTunes and being able to pull up anything.

Tommy: It was really like treasure hunting. There was a place called Don’s Swap Shop out in Concord, California, that sold 45s, and what was great about that place is that he was this old Navy guy with tattoos and everything. And we’d go in there and he’s selling modern Bee Gees 45s for like a couple of bucks, but then you could get a Tommy James single for 10 cents. All these old things that he didn’t care about because “that was just crappy pop music,” you know.

How did your own writing develop?

Tommy: I had actually been writing songs since I was about eight. Horrible songs, but just continuing on. And I was just always wanting to get anyone to be in a band. The reason Jon and I started a band is because we were doing all this DJ spinning. We went to free school in Berkeley, an alternative school where you didn’t have to go if you didn’t want and there was no grades and all that stuff. The first one was the Hop. They needed a band to play, and that’s why we started the band. That was our first gig. That was December 18, 1970.

And you were how old?

Tommy: Thirteen and fourteen.

The music you were doing must have stood out at the time. Did people come expecting to hear progressive rock?

Jon: You know, Berkeley was really odd. At that particular time, it was over the place—funk and hard rock and blues rock and progressive rock and jazz. It was all this weird mish-mash. Most of our peers and contemporaries seemed to be doing jazz and funk. And we were odd for the fact that we got into the oldies thing, which of course really is R&B, but we didn’t think of it that way.

Tommy: In some ways, we were looking down our noses at it, sort of laughing at it, but really came to respect it as we started trying to play it and realizing—wow, we don’t sound as good as the record, because we were into things at the time like Jethro Tull, and of course Hendrix and stuff like that. So these really twangy parts on these records, like say, the solo in “Peppermint Twist”—in a way you’d look down your nose on it and say, “Listen to that guy’s guitar tone!” But then you try playing the song. We were kind of laughing about it, but you know what? The record really did sound better than we did. There was something about the groove that we’re not quite getting. So it taught us a healthy respect for stuff that previously we sort of have been thinking of as joke music a little bit.

Jon: A lot of the draw for us, certainly for me, is that novelty records and a lot of old rock ’n’ roll sounded to me like novelty music, you know lyrically or whatever.

Tommy: And we were very into Ruben & The Jets and into [The Mothers of Invention’s] We’re Only In It for the Money at the same time, equally.

Jon: That’s right. It was like the Cruisin’ albums and We’re Only In It for the Money were the two.

Chuck: I think the thing that made you guys stand out was that Earth Quake was a Humble Pie kind of a band. You guys were into singing. You were a singing group.

Jon: Listening to so much doo wop really influenced our style because it also led to us listening to Motown, and then the Jackson 5, and Jackson 5 vocal arrangements had a big effect on Tommy and stuff.

Tommy: And the Beach Boys of course.

Jon: But all that stuff was invaluable because we were trying to copy it.

Tommy: Right. Like trying to do the Impressions’ “It’s All Right,” and thinking, “Their vocals sound better, what are we doing wrong here?” I mean, trying to cop all these records with all these background vocals on them. I mean, the same with “Peppermint Twist,” or “Book of Love” by the Monotones was one of the first things we tried to sing three-part. It was like, “Why do we sound so shitty?” What are we doing wrong?”

It seems like you were doing the kind of pop at the time that maybe your peers might look down on—like the DeFranco Family.

Tommy: We kind of looked down on it too. It’s kind of the reason we started doing “Sugar Sugar,” in some ways because we just thought it was the worst. Our friends wound up being really pissed off when we played it, and there were actually people in our band who refused to play in the band because we were going to play “Sugar Sugar.” Like, “My friends are going to be there. I don’t want to do that.” Then were found out how much fun it was to play that song, and what a great song it is! Listen to Wilson Pickett’s version. A lot can be done with the composition.

Jon: You also learned to not only appreciate it on an artistry level but more, I just started liking the stuff. And growing up I really loved novelty records and I loved Top 40 radio. I mean, I listened to it all the time. I mean, “Heartbeat – It’s a Love Beat” is not too far from a Tommy James record six or eight years earlier. I just love that stuff. I still listen to bubblegum music and like it a lot. It’s something about the way it was formulated.

Chuck: I can totally vouch for that. Because when Tommy and I were writing these songs that became the record, at one point I wanted to check in with Jon and see what he was listening to. Jon lives down in LA and he’s always been a hero of mine and I wanted to write songs that we’d get excited about recording, and I had a conversation with him and said, “Jon what have you been listening to lately?” and he said, “Well, I’ve been listening to a lot of Montovani.” And I was like, “Okay…” These guys are just jokers. I guess they’re just dyed-in-the-wool jokers.

Eventually we did get together and we recorded some demos over at Kelley Stoltz’s garage, and Jon gave me a ride home. We had a great day and we were having a lot of fun, and as soon as he turned the key in his rental car out comes Montovani. I’m like, this crazy son of a bitch actually listens to this shit for pleasure! When no one’s around! So I vouch for how crazy they are and how they follow their hearts. I think that made The Rubinoos stand out in the early days—what their influences were and how they just wore their influences on their sleeves. It was punk rock before there was such a thing.

Jon: The thing is, both Tommy and I love the Sonics, we love the Ramones, we love a lot of punk bands, and I love the greatest R&B singers of all time, I love them. I love Hendrix. I love a lot of the psychedelic rock.

Tommy: Leslie Gore.

Jon: Our taste really is pretty broad. But I think what The Rubinoos do is fairly focused. We don’t get too tangential.

Do you want to defend the Montovani at all?

Jon: Well, “Moulin Rouge” was really the one. You got to get into that. No really, I like the Tijuana Brass and Mancini. I really love late ’50s and ’60s instrumental music. I listen to it to relax and for pleasure a lot. So yes, I will defend that. But once Montovani was in the ’70s, it was horrible. Once he started covering “The Way We Were,” it was like, please, never again.

Chuck: I can also tell you that when Tommy and I were working on a melody or the harmony or something, Jon would say, “I don’t know if that would really fit,” and Tommy would say, “It’s like Montovani—as long as you’re moving in the right direction, the notes hardly matter.” You could break the sound into math if you want, but I don’t know how entertaining that will be for you.

Jon: The type of music that has not been a huge listening experience for me was the modern Eagles-influenced country. I’ve never really warmed up to that too much. But  most everything else, I listen to. Even rap and hip hop. I realize it’s not made for me but I’ll still listen to it. Getting exposed to all that stuff, it’s wonderful. Little things creep into your singing style, or into the way you’ll interpret a certain song and it still eventually comes out like The Rubinoos. At this point, it always astounds me when we get together and play, and we’ve been learning a new song or something. And suddenly, oh, it just sounds like us at this point. We really actually have a sound, and we have a way that we do stuff.

Tommy: It’s pretty inbred.

Jon: And a lot of it has been influenced by a world of music. And I love so many different styles.

Tommy: The other thing as far as bubblegum-ish stuff… there was an aspect where we felt like we were being rebellious in a way. Growing up in Berkeley, it was a way of being rebellious, because we saw how it pissed people off. I mean, doing “Heartbeat – It’s a Love Beat,” even though I love that song, it was sort of a double-edged thing—we were laughing at it, and we knew it pissed people off. The same thing with doing “The Pepsi Generation.” We used to end our set with “Memphis Soul Stew” from King Curtis. We’d medley into “The Pepsi Generation.” It would really piss some people off.

And it’s wonderful. When everybody is pretty much ignoring you, because you’re doing these tepid originals or whatever, and you play something like that and you get a big reaction, and everybody’s booing. That’s something that makes the hair on your neck stand up.

Wasn’t there a famous uprising once when you played “Sugar, Sugar”?

Jon: It was at Winterland. We were opening for the Starship. So we’re playing our set, doing our first batch of not incredibly impressive original stuff. Then we get to “Heartbeat – It’s a Love Beat,” but because the audience was so not into pop music, they didn’t even recognize it enough to be angry about it. Then we did “Sugar, Sugar” and Jonathan Richman came up and danced the Archie in the spotlight and it was on the big screen above the band.

Tommy: We should also mention that our bass player, who Jon had tried to give a haircut to and failed and had to shave his head at a time when everyone had hair down to their ass, was wearing a baby’s bonnet on his head. But Jonathan was the thing that pissed them off the most.

Jon: Yeah, Jonathan up there dancing the Archie; the crowd then was “What the fuck?” They start getting really hostile, and really booing, and really angry. And we kind of managed to get through that one, and then we got to the last tune, which was “Memphis Soul Stew” medleyed into “The Pepsi Generation” commercial and the crowd just loses it.

They start hurling anything they could get their hands on, and everyone was giving us the finger—6,000 people giving us the finger, and we had never played before more than 200. It’s our biggest gig, and they are just incredibly pissed. It was unbelievable. So we leave the stage, and we actually finished the song, which I can’t believe. We took our lives into our hands.

Tommy: We did not get booed off stage.

Jon: We held our ground. But 6,000 people, just a roaring boo. What I really remember from that is being fully shell-shocked going backstage, and I run into Grace Slick and she just was so incredibly nice to me and I will love her forever for that. She came up to me and said, “Don’t worry, don’t care what those people think. You guys are going to keep going, you’ll be great.” She gave me a little hug and sent me on my way. That’s my big memory of being backstage, seriously shell-shocked.

Chuck: I have heard Jonathan Richman tell this story with great pride. And the way he tells it, that after the band was over, Bill Graham came out and said to the crowd, “Everybody settle down. That was everything that I hate about what’s happening in rock music right now!”

Tommy: He said, “You’ll never play for me again!”

Jon: I would like to say, this all relates back to Frank Zappa. A lot of this. He and his sense of humor, and his irreverence was incredibly influential for us. And us doing “Pepsi Generation” medlied with “Memphis Soul Stew” definitely comes out of Frank doing psychedelic rock into doo wop into “Happy Together” with Flo and Eddie. I remember seeing the “Live at Fillmore East” tour with the Mothers and half that set is them dropping hints that they’re going to play “Happy Together.” It’s sort of their whole thing. And Zappa’s audience was forced into liking that.

Tommy: It was like, “What the fuck? I”m liking The Turtles?”

On the new record, were the new songs things you had for a while, or did you and Chuck just write them all new?

Tommy: Really just stuff Chuck and I came up with it. We wrote about 25 songs or something. When we started writing, we weren’t necessarily writing for The Rubinoos but it soon became apparent that some of the songs would be perfect. Chuck introduced us to Yep Roc, and the whole thing became, “Let’s do a record!”

Chuck: For me, writing these songs, all the clues and everything we needed to know were embedded in those first two Rubinoos records. They made a bunch of great records subsequently, not always with [current members] Donno [Donn Spindt] on drums, not always with Al [Chan] on bass. But I felt like the path forward was really in those first two records. So I really did ask Tommy a lot of questions. And Tommy’d say, “Oh, we were into this Jackson 5 thing here and we were trying to this kind of thing.” He also told me that one of the things that made those two first records great is that they rehearsed every day after school.

Tommy: For me, that was a huge part of it. And doing this record with Yep Roc gave us the ability to do all these rehearsals. It’s just huge having a band rehearsed to the point where you say, “Put a microphone in front of it, it’s ready,” as opposed to a catch-as- catch-can style or—how did you put it, Chuck?—just people staring at the Pro Tools screen, like there’s all this editing going on. This was the opposite of that. And one of the things I really appreciated that Chuck asked us to do, was, for me, he said, “No, no, you’ve got to play the guitar solos while you’re doing the track,” which I don’t think I’ve ever done.

Chuck: I just wanted to give them back the courage of their own convictions and get as much Rubinoos personality on the record. And let me tell you man, on a personal level, it’s really easy to get cynical about how records are made, it’s really easy to get cynical about new music, but when we were in the studio, and The Rubinoos were four guys singing around one microphone, I mean, there were receptionists in the studio that were coming in. They were coming into the control room because it was really exciting. And I hope that comes across when people hear it.

Tommy: Exactly. The four of us singing together feels like this real thing. Whereas, for a lot of years we’ve been doing things like me and Jon stacking the vocals, which we can do, and that works and that’s fun in its own way, but it is not the same as singing with four different voices, and where you rehearse those voices to the point where it’s ready. We’re not getting to the studio saying, “Who’s singing what part?” It’s a very different thing.

Jon: To give you an example, when we go out and tour, we try to do like 10 rehearsals before every tour. We did 30 rehearsals for this record. And we could have used more in my opinion.

Chuck: I listened to a great deal of those. And I brought a notebook—being the producer kind of guy and taking notes. And my notes ended up being the music that they referenced as the four of them were in a room together. So I have a great playlist now with Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band doing “Love Land.” Little bit of Montovani in there. And a lot of stuff that would really blow your mind in terms of what it is they draw from. That was just endlessly fun for me.

Will there be touring with this album?

Jon: We certainly hope so.

Tommy: Yeah, we have a European tour starting in January, and we’re hoping to add as many US dates between the release of the record and then as we can. That is certainly our goal.

Would you tour with them and your Mission Express, Chuck?

Chuck: Anything’s possible. Personally, I make a policy of not being blown off the stage by the opening band, so I’d have to go on first.

I hope you’ll come to Washington, DC if you tour.

Jon: We are definitely looking to do a DC date. We haven’t played there since the Elvis Costello tour in ’79.

Tommy: We like to think every 40 years, we’d be there.

Jon: We didn’t want to burn out our audience. We didn’t want to over-expose ourselves.

Tommy: We want to play a different generation every time we play there.

Jon: Two generations.

Tommy: We want to play for the grandkids of the original kids we played for.

The Rubinoos’ From Home arrives in stores on August 23—on vinyl.

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