Catching Up With Marcus Rubio
After a near-decade in San Antonio actively recording, performing and programming his works with various projects and outfits, composer and multi-instrumentalist Marcus Rubio, the 2012 Current local artist of the year, moved to the Los Angeles area late last summer to pursue an MFA in Music Composition at the California Institute of the Arts (commonly called CalArts). Current writer James Courtney, who chose Rubio’s “None of the Birds” as his pick for last year’s finest S.A. album (Rubio’s other 2012 release, “Hello Dallas,” shared first place) described Rubio in a review of that album as a “local music gadfly,” an indicator of the now-relocated Rubio’s consistent presence and prolificacy within the San Antonio scene both solo and with bands or ensembles including The Gospel Choir of Pillows and Cartographers. Rubio has also written about music for the Current, and now does so at notable webzine Tiny Mix Tapes under the pseudo-pseudonym “M Rubz.”
Catching up with Rubio, who in March disseminated a cassette of minimal, echo ‘n’ hum drone titled “h_h” via Already Dead Tapes, it was immediately evident that he remains prolific as ever out in LA, as he discussed a number of recent performances, as well a host of recordings planned for release sometime in the next year.
“One is entirely done and is called “Rooms.” That’s a particularly weird one, very much the result of doing a lot of field recording, learning new electronic music software, and playing guitar with the shoegaze band Vinyl Williams for a couple of shows,” Rubio said. “A lot of it was the result of recording these insane electronic improvisations and then chopping them up into songs. It’s this strange sort of laptop-based shoegaze pop. For me, it kind of represents the coalescing of the ambient pop songs on “h_h” and everything on “Hello Dallas.”
Another record, which Rubio explains is more “conventional” pop in terms of the instrumental palette and song structures employed therein, is now in process. Two newer tracks posted on Rubio’s SoundCloud, “Break Your Back” and “Pro-Comic Haircut”—tagged as “drone pop” and “shred pop,” respectively—will appear on the record, as will several extremely short, “miniature” guitar pieces interspersed like connective tissue between longer tracks.
“I’ve been collaborating with a lot of folks from CalArts on the arrangements,” Rubio said of this upcoming, more overtly pop-oriented collection. “I’m really trying to make [this record] the synthesis of all the things I love musically. Recently, I’ve realized that my experimental compositions and my pop songs really just can’t exist without one another.” Revealing some of his influences while illustrating this stylistic marriage of the avant-garde and the more accessible, Rubio said, “I may write suites for portable fans, but the ideas behind that are just as tied to My Bloody Valentine as they are to Graham Lambkin. Similarly, a song like ‘Break Your Back’ is just as indebted to Rhys Chatham as it is to Wilco.”
Indeed, Rubio has written suites for fans—the literal, air-blowing-appliance sorts of fans, that is. Readers can view an excerpt of a performance of the third movement of one such 45-minute suite, as well as examine the notation of that same movement and come to their own conclusions, one being that Rubio’s imaginative and earnest attempts to explore this infinite dichotomy between the truly out-there and the somewhat conventional are what lend his work its particular sheen. As Rubio himself put it, “A lot of my recent experiences have essentially made me realize how I can combine the disparate things I love into one coherent thing.
“I’ve been fortunate to get to play these free improv nights alongside folks from Califone, Akron/Family and Megafaun, and hearing and seeing the way all of those guys combine their love of folk and pop with really noisy abstract textures has been super inspiring,” Rubio continued. “It’s made me feel much more competent and self-assured about what I’m doing. I study with Ulrich Krieger at the moment, too, and he’s this amazing dude who plays sax with Lou Reed and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, and I’ve just basically been showing him the songs for [the pop-leaning] record and his support and guidance on the material have been invaluable. It’s almost like he’s a producer.”
Enrolling in CalArts’ MFA in Composition program, and consequently moving to LA, were decisions Rubio was increasingly keen on as he realized that like-minded composers and favorite artists of his, like Julia Holter, were alumni of the same program, and others, like Michael Pisaro—with whom and Rubio and others played a show in April — were faculty.
“The first composer I distinctly remember recognizing as a CalArtian was noise musician John Wiese. I’ve been a fan of his for years and I guess that was the original impetus. I got the impression from people like Ulrich Krieger and the alumni you mentioned [Holter, Nite Jewel, John Maus, et al.] that I would be able to really explore whatever I wanted stylistically, and so far, I have,” Rubio said.
The “strange West Coast pop mysticism,” in Rubio’s words, that is found in the oeuvre of composers
and artists from Van Dyke Parks and the Beach Boys to Jon Brion and Ariel Pink (another CalArts alumnus), was also part of the allure motivating his move. “I know LA gets a lot of hate but I pretty much loved the city instantly. There’s an unbelievable wealth of things going on here culturally and the geography and topography of the land is kind of unbelievable too,” Rubio said. “I love that I essentially live in a desert but that I can drive 30 miles and be next to the ocean. And then there are the mountains which you’re just basically surrounded by all the time. It’s kind of a nice change from Texas in that sense.”
Although he is away, Rubio’s contributions to experimental-leaning music still stir in San Antonio. In late March, the SOLI Chamber Ensemble premiered a piece he composed for amplified violin and effects pedals at Trinity University, where Rubio studied composition as an undergraduate, and at
contemporary art house Gallery Nord. He hopes to take his eponymous pop ensemble on tour in the near future. In the meantime, those interested in Rubio’s recorded output can also anticipate more instrumental ambient material, another vein Rubio’s been tapping lately.
An album of “digitally processed guitar music” called “In Heaven Everything is Fine Because Heaven is a Place Where Nothing Ever Happens” — “Probably one of the more overtly pretty things I’ve written,” Rubio said — will come out via Portuguese label Test Tube sometime in 2013. If the title, a synthesis of “Eraserhead” and Talking Heads, is any indication, then fans can expect yet another showcase of a skill Rubio is gradually honing: the mapping of special sonic coordinates amidst territory both tried and true but also seldom, if at all, really explored.