May 23, 2024

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Interview with Michael Rubin: Blues has resurgences: Video, new CD cover

Interview with Blues harp player Michael Rubin. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take off? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?

Michael Rubin: – I was in West Orange, New Jersey until I was 8.  Then it was Pittsburgh, PA, until 12.  Finally, Marin County, California (the home of the BLUES!) until college.

My mother (RIP) played guitar, piano and sang. We would sing around the piano. She could read music, but not improvise.  I always enjoyed it.

When I was 15 I got my first harp and knew it was my thing right away. I didn’t realize people made a living at music until I was 18.  By the time I was 21 I decided to give it a go.

JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?

MR: – I have really strived to come up with an original style. Being innovative is very important to me.

I listen to older harmonica masters and learned countless solos note for note in an effort to understand tone, timing and phrasing but also to be clear on what came before me so I could pay tribute to it but also strive to find something different to do.

I also played many styles of music professionally and dug just as deep into learning jazz saxophone solos on both diatonic and chromatic harmonica.

JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?

MR: – From 21 to 33 years old I would practice from 5 to 8 hours per day. At 33 I turned my attention to building a teaching business because I met my wife and we both wanted children.  As much as I enjoy performing, being a full-time performer requires a lot of time away from home. I continue to perform, but just a few times per week. To have a successful teaching business takes up lots of my time and practice shrunk to around an hour per day.

Currently I am mostly focused on songwriting, double stops and bending on the chromatic harmonica and understanding jazz.

For harmony I suggest the basics of theory. For rhythm, a metronome and the Louis Bellson book Modern Reading Text in 4/4 time.

JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any charges or overall evolution? And if so why?

MR: – It is my intention to change my style as much as I possibly can. Although this is my first album where I wrote the songs, I have put out countless albums where I am a bandmember. Listen to Foscoe Jones, The McMercy Family Band, Sick’s Pack, Kalu James, Dylan Blackthorn, The Susquehanna Hat Company to get an idea of how I’ve changed stylistically.

As to why, I think remaining the same would give you no reason to listen to me twice.

JBN: – How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

MR: – For both recordings and performances I find preparation to be the best method for helping with stamina, physically and spiritually. In Austin, it is common for performers to arrive one minute before a gig. I try and arrive at least 30 minutes ahead of time. I am clean and sober, so that probably helps. I walk an hour a day.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2022: I’ll Worry If I Wanna, how it was formed and what you are working on today?

MR: – I love that the album is done.

Seriously, I love that each song can be taken very lightly or very seriously. The seemingly silly opener, Little Rabbit, at first glance seems to be just an opportunity to make double entendres. Listen closer and you can hear a song about identity and one that pokes fun at the machismo of the blues. Chain Letter Blues appears to be about superstition, but if one can listen all the way through, they can hear me rail against indoctrination of children via fear.

I first became aware of songwriting due to my mentor in college, Rick Estrin, of Little Charlie and the Nightcats. He taught me a boatload about harmonica, but is also one of the greatest songwriters ever.  His songs are funny and it led me to find many funny writers in blues and elsewhere.

I have been writing songs ever since but when I turned 50 it became clear to me that if I did not make this album soon, I might never.

So I took my best three songs from the past 30 years and wrote 6 more and hired the best players and engineers I could and got her done.

I highly recommend completing your dreams. Life keeps going after a dream completion, but I don’t have to wish about putting out an album anymore.

Now I get to wish about my second album. I am writing songs regularly.

New CD – 2022 – Buy from here

JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album?

MR: – There is a band in Austin that is the longest running blues band, The Little Elmore Reed Blues Band.   It has a rotating cast of players, but a regular member is Mike Keller, the guitarist.  He is my favorite guitarist in Austin.  He spent some years in The Fabulous Thunderbirds.

The band has a harp player/guitarist/singer Josh Fulero who had produced some great albums for my friend, harp player/singer Greg Izor. Greg suggested Josh as a producer, and I thought that would give me a better chance of getting Mike to say yes.

It turned out Josh and I worked very closely and well together and he and I are now friends. He plays some percussion on the album.

Josh rounded up bass player Mike Archer and drummer Mark Hays, also from The Little Elmore Reed Band, as well as Mike.   Having a band that had years of playing together under their belt was a good move.

The keyboardist Emily Gimble shows up on four songs, but we especially called on her due to her history in country music because of my song Old Rodeo Dreams. She happened to win best keyboards in the Austin Music Awards this year as well as Texas musician of the year. My old bandleader Dr. Sick, the fiddle player currently with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, played on the New Orleans inspired song about livestock, Go Milk Your Own Cow.

I have been in a gospel band for 15 years named The McMercy Family Band. They do fantastic 5 part harmony vocals. I got them to sing backup on Old Rodeo Dreams and Chain Letter Blues.

Matt Smith was the recording engineer at 6 String Ranch Studios. I had just finished making an album with Dylan Blackthorn there titled Small Flames. I liked him and the sound of the album.

Lars Gorranson from Outrageous Sounds did the mastering.  I was referred to Lars by harp player Kurt Crandall, whose new album Starts on the Stops was being made pretty much side to side with mine.

The cover art was by McMercy Bandmate Dan Grissom who is a famous graphic artist in Austin, having worked with such little bands as Metallica.

Josh Fulero took the back cover photo.

Blues harp players Justin Norton, Charlie Musselwhite and RJ Mischo provided the liner notes and 2 back cover quotes, respectively.

Betsie Brown of Blind Raccoon is my promoter.

JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

MR: – You would have to define the word soul. If you are talking about a spirit somehow connected with our bodies guiding our decisions, I do not believe in that idea. So to me, once you accept that the limitations of the body do affect what we are able to accomplish on an instrument, intellect is 100% of what makes music.

If soul is a synonym for feeling, then to me feeling is expressed by little changes in timing, dynamics, rests and attack. This is a big part of music. No matter how well thought out a musical line is, it will sound completely different every time.

If you are asking do I write out my solos or do I “just feel it” and improvise, mostly I write places I want to get to and from but how I get from here to there is improvised. Some solos, especially in live performances are completely improvised and some are completely detailed ahead of time.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?

MR: – One of the ways I stay sane as a performer is by releasing myself of all debt owed the audience. If I don’t feel like playing, I don’t have to.  If I am mid performance and feel like stopping, I can.  I don’t have to play well and I don’t have to connect with anyone.

Making that decision long ago really helps me to give each performance my all and connect with the audiences as much as I can, because I know it is my choice.

As a singer, I am a very good harmonica player. My ability to convey emotion with my singing is really about inflection.

There’s little musical expressiveness I can do.

On harmonica, every emotion is at my fingertips and I can express myself easily. Sometimes all I am expressing is excitement, but on a sad or angry day I am able and generally willing to let it all hang out.

JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?

MR: – My second gig ever was for one of the biggest audiences of my life. My high school band found each other in a Jewish youth group. There was a Festival in San Francisco celebrating Israel. After our first gig at a dance for 30 high schoolers, word spread like wildfire and we were called to play the festival.

During our second song in front of a few thousand people, the drums began to fall down. We made it to the end of the song, but it was close.

My Sophomore year in college I put together a blues band. We had one practice when word got out and we were invited to play a party in a dorm room with a big living room. The students who lived in the dorm were trying to get released from their lease but the school wouldn’t let them. Armed with four songs we began to play 3 hours worth of music. I had been listening to blues and knew lots of lyrics, so I kept it going and also discovered that not all blues songs were a 12 bar form. There were literally people dancing on the ceiling.  In terms of popularity, I went from zero to hero in one night.  The college still refused to let the students out of their lease so the following week, we did it again, this time  with 8 songs. They were kicked out.

Once Cyrille Neville hired me for a big show in front of thousands of people. There was no rehearsal.  During one song, I was playing harp off mic to try and figure out what to play and nothing was working. I created my saying, “when you can’t play, dance!” I played the few notes I found that worked and danced my heart out. Of course, it received the biggest applause of the night.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in blues when most of standard tunes are half a century old?

MR: – Blues has resurgences. When I was a teenager, MTV was important. I watched, along with everyone, 6 hours of videos a day.

I had never heard of blues, but I knew The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, ZZ Top and George Thoroughgood and the Destroyers were different than all the other bands.  I knew they were similar to each other and I knew I loved them.

Put some money behind a few blues heroes and watch the blues rise again.

JBN: – John Coltrane once said that music was his spirit. How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?

MR: – I do not believe in the supernatural concept of a spirit. If you want to get metaphorical with the word spirit, I am all about that.

I believe we create our meaning to life. For me, I like the phrase “After the ecstasy, the laundry”.  I fight for my dreams and occasionally succeed, but I want to remain grounded enough to remember that I am a person who needs to do the dishes and respect and be giving to others. My spirit is metaphorically the part of me that is striving towards these goals.

JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?

MR: – I would make streaming companies pay reasonable royalties.

JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?

MR: – I am searching for harmonica players that are on the cusp of my awareness and trying to listen to the majority of their output to see if I am a fan. Lately, it’s been Big Harp George and John Nemeth, both great players.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

MR: – Search for individuality and identity. I have heard enough people emulate the old masters. This theme runs through my playing and songwriting. Also, I hope to help people embrace their shadows.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?

MR: – Chicago in the 50s and 60s. It was harp heaven.

JBN: – So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…

MR: – Who are your heroes and why?

JBN: – Blues legends: Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williams, Ma Rainey, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Willie Dixon, Bobby Blue Bland, Ruth Brown, Albert King, Lightning Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James and John Lee Hooker!!! Why? because each of them is unique!

JBN: – At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?

MR: – I would hope someone becomes aware of my album and enjoys it.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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