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INTERVIEW : Ilan Rubin of Angels & Airwaves

Ilhan Rubin angels and airwaves AVA lifeforms interview skyway theater minneapolis music
Photo: www.theaureview.com

With their current tour hitting Minneapolis this week and the release of their newest album, Lifeforms, we had to sit down with Angel & Airwaves‘ Ilan Rubin for all the deets.

Check out the interview below to hear about tour, song-writing, whisky, and more! 

Angels & Airwaves are coming to Skyway this Friday on October 8th. Don’t miss out – get your tickets here!

Interview Transcript:

MIM: I’ve got a few things that I want to ask you about, and then I always like to field some fan questions before I talk to artists, just to get that insight there as well. So, we’ve got some of those prepped for you. I picked out the nice ones, don’t worry, nothing too scary there.

RUBIN: I was gonna say, that could be dangerous territory but, if you fielded the questions, I trust you.

MIM: I know, I got rid of all the inappropriate ones, all the irrelevant ones, we’re good to go!

RUBIN: Alright! 

MIM: Okay! So, you’ve got your new album, Lifeforms, out that just dropped a couple of weeks ago, so it is brand new and super fresh! From what I’ve seen, the response has been really overwhelmingly positive, I personally enjoyed it as well. But, what I want to know is how the writing process for this differed in light of the pandemic and writing things in that way. Did things change logistically? Were there different themes involved? How did that go for you?

RUBIN: Very good question. The thing is, is that the lockdown or quarantine didn’t really change the way the album was written because the biggest thing that has changed with how Tom and I write songs now, is that I live in LA and Tom still lives in San Diego. So, basically what happens now is Tom and Aaron, who is the producer as well as my brother, they’ll get together in San Diego because it’s where they both live.

They’ll hash out material, Tom will bring his ideas to the table, he will get everything out of his head. Aaron will help get all of that onto the computer and play around with things a bit. Once they’ve gotten it to a point where they feel good about it, then it is sent to me.

In most cases, the song is very fully realized, but it’s incomplete – usually missing a bridge, or there’s some production that is left open for me to experiment with. There are usually no harmonies on it, so I then go and add all that stuff. And then any sort of electronics or programming that was done in the demo phase gets re-done by me.

Once I’m done throwing all of my stuff in the kitchen sink onto it, I’ll then throw it back to them, they pick everything that they like, I then get it back, and then that’s kind of just how it goes. It really only takes a couple of sends back and forth before we go, “Okay, this is the song”. And then we kind of shelve it until it’s time to properly record it. By that I mean doing real drums, because at my studio I just have a little electronic drum kit that’s linked up to my computer for writing purposes or programming.

But, we’ll then go and record everything properly and that’s what ends up on the album. So, not much has changed in terms of quarantine – we just saw each other even less but that’s that.

MIM: But you were, in a way, more prepared than maybe other bands would have been, because you were kind of used to writing at a distance and you had that process already worked out.

RUBIN: Definitely. What is really convenient, and there’s great software now, where somebody can basically be streaming the live audio from their computer as they’re mixing it to somebody else. So, while they’re making tweaks in the studio, I can hear it if I need to or if I’m recording say, synths and stuff, because I have a lot of toys at my studio they don’t have down in San Diego, I can broadcast, they can hear the sounds that I’m doing, and then get the “thumbs-up”, record it and it’s very in moment surprisingly enough.

MIM: Awesome!

RUBIN: Yeah.

MIM: So, tour kicked off for you yesterday – it’s been awhile – how did it feel to be back?

RUBIN: It feels really good, I have to say. I don’t know if there’s slightly greater appreciation for playing, because we haven’t been able to do it for what feels like eternity, but it’s really good! Being on stage has always been really comfortable for me. The only thing I can say is that when we’re not on stage or say, the odd occasion where people might be waiting by the bus, or somebody passes you on the street walking somewhere, and they come up to you. I hate being rude, and I’m not signing or taking photos or something, but that’s when you are then very quickly reminded that, “Oh, wait a second, we’re still not in the clear!”. But, I wash my hands a lot, what can I say?

MIM: You gotta! Yeah, it’s important! I know that from a fan perspective as well, and as someone who works in the music industry doing journalism and stuff, that it has been very emotional to be back. So, I can’t imagine it being your whole career and finally just having that back again, so it’s very cool.

RUBIN: Yeah! What was crazy for me personally, when the pandemic hit, I was pretty much slated to have my busiest year yet. The fact that it went from everything to nothing – obviously it was disappointing. But, it wasn’t one of those things that I got down about because it was like, “Hey, this is what everybody’s going through.” I really just made a conscious effort to make the most out of all this time that I inherited because I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have some type of schedule or some type of deadline. I hate to say that I enjoyed it a bit, but being introverted and highly motivated to do stuff on my own time – I really make the most out of it. 

MIM: Yeah, something in the universe said you needed that break, I guess.

RUBIN: It was all for me!

MIM: Yes, all for you, but now we’re back! Just going back to the live performance aspect, are there any songs that you as a band really like and want to play live, but can’t because you’ve found that they don’t translate well to a live audience?

RUBIN: Definitely. I would say that might be more so from earlier material – it’s hard to say. When you don’t have that much of a back catalog, so now I’m talking about before I joined the band which was in 2011 or 2012, you really have to play most of what you’ve recorded when you have one or two albums out. When I joined, the third album had just come out, so that was probably the first time the band really had the ability to be picky and choosy.

You obviously have to play the singles that people came to hear and see, but when you add two more albums on top of that and a couple of EPs, we’re talking five albums and a few EPs, there is a lot of material. You can kind of get overly comfortable and be like, “I don’t know how that one is going to turn out live, why don’t we play that one?” 

But, with all of the new material that we’ve played from the latest album, it has all gone quite smoothly. We have made decisions like, “Why don’t we leave that one for another tour because we’re already playing five new songs.” or whatever it may be. Don’t quote me on that, because I could be wrong.

MIM: I’ll count on Friday!

RUBIN: I haven’t counted. But, then there are songs, like, we just started playing Automatic, during the tour – we didn’t rehearse it once at rehearsals, go figure, which is not surprising. But, that went way smoother than anybody could have anticipated. It’s a really good, simple song.

Anytime we play something new, you see that glimmer of possibility from the first kind of rusty, sloppy run-through and go, “Okay maybe we’ll play this a few more times and it’s gonna feel good.” Automatic was pretty instantaneous and every time we’ve played it since then it’s just felt really good and as if we have been rehearsing it for a while. Sometimes it’s just easier than others, but it’s not like we’re playing Bohemian Rhapsody or anything – you know.  

MIM: That’s fair! Yeah, I always wonder about the curation of setlists and the balance, and I’m sure, like to your point, the more albums you have, the harder it is to please all of the fans, and there’s a wide variety of fans there too, so I get it.

RUBIN: Yeah – and I don’t get involved. That’s all Tom.

MIM: Oh, you stay out of it completely?

RUBIN: Oh yeah. I’ll let them decide what songs to play, I’ll make sure they’re good, like we’re good to play them, and that’s that.

MIM: Probably the best approach, if I’m being honest.

RUBIN: I stay out of everything that I can. I like to choose my battles.

MIM: Yes, you’ve got to be precious [mindful] with your energy, I get it! So on the topic of fans, I do see that you also recently introduced a fan community, Empire Club. How has that been going and what’s it like to connect with fans in that way?

RUBIN: It’s been going well! We haven’t been able to meet-and-greets, for obvious reasons. But we have been doing these soundcheck parties where groups of people get to come in and watch us fumble through a few songs and make sure everything’s working, but aside from that before the tour started, we each did something.

So, for example, I at one point got into a sort of like not a message board, but kind of like a livestream like this where I saw what everyone was asking in terms of questions, and I just talked to people from all over the world for about an hour. It was a technological failure at the beginning, which was very embarrassing because I pride myself on being pretty tech-savvy. But it was like 10 minutes of like, “Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?”.

MIM: Oh no! Well, it makes it more authentic, I guess.

RUBIN: I blame the platform because I know what I’m doing – clearly! Like right now you can hear me, I can hear you, we’re recording this! But other people in the band have done other things, I’m sure they’ve done that as well. But everyone just figures out what they’re comfortable doing. But I know they (the fan community) also got different forms of the album or something – don’t quote me on that because I’m not sure – but I know there were something special for them in that department – maybe getting songs earlier than the rest.

MIM: In terms of the live streams, and Q&A’s and things like that, setting your personal troubles with that platform aside, is that something that you plan to continue doing in the future now that live music is more accessible, or was that more of a response to not being able to connect in the way that you wanted to?

RUBIN: I think it’s a great thing to do regardless. For the last couple of months leading up to the tour, I was doing something on my own accord called “Whiskey Wednesday” where I would just go live on Instagram drinking a different whiskey every week, and just talking to people. It’s fun and people enjoy it. I just think it’s a great way to talk to people and it also makes people feel good that they can be in direct contact with a musician that they enjoy or talk to someone who’s a part of a band they like –  it’s fun. And I can talk about myself all day long so there’s no problems there.

MIM: Do you have a favorite whisky that was featured on one of those Whisky Wednesdays?

RUBIN: I did like an Aberfeldy, which was one I hadn’t tried up until then. Unfortunately I had stopped doing it because I could not commit to doing it every Wednesday, because as it is I have no idea what day it is right now. There’s this weird thing that once you play your first show, reality ceases to exist and it becomes a series of “get off the bus, waste a day, play a show”, which is what it’s all about, then you get back on the bus and you do it all again the next day. You never know what day it is. 

MIM: Well, I’ll give you a hint – you should be having whisky today. I’ll leave it at that.

RUBIN: It’s a little early! And that’s another thing I don’t want to sit there drinking whiskey and then be like, “Okay, I gotta go guys, gotta go play a show!”. But thanks for the hint, I appreciate it. 

MIM: You betcha! I know you’ve gotta get back to the tour and prepping for the day, so I’ll jump into some fan questions real quick.

RUBIN: Go for it!

MIM: So, a lot of these were fielded from Reddit – we’ve got a lot of committed Reddit users! Skate144 wants to know why you chose to join Angels &  Airwaves in the first place. Knowing that you’ve got a background in being involved in a lot of different groups, what drew you to this project, and what makes it special?

RUBIN: Tom asked me really nicely! I’m kidding.

Basically, it was at a time where I had the time to do it and I think it was a great sort of “stars-aligning” situation. Tom and I are both from San Diego, so we had mutual friends, mutual associates if you will. And it was at a time when the original Angels & Airwaves drummer was no longer with the group for one reason or another. Tom and I just got on the phone together and spoke.

I suppose what was interesting about me to him, is that he was looking for somebody to be more collaborative than just playing drums. I think he had just gotten to a point where he wanted to spread his wings a little bit and try expanding upon the music. My being a multi-instrumentalist, and having solo music where I wrote and sang everything, was very appealing to him. So, everything just kind of lined up. We’re both from San Diego, we know some of the same people, he was looking for more than just a drummer, and I had the time to do it. So, I’m glad it all worked out that way.

MIM: Cool, well the fans are too!

RUBIN: Good, thank you!

MIM: Yes! We’ve also seen in the past that Angels & Airwaves has been referred to as a project instead of just a band, it’s more than just a band. Where do you think it has evolved from when you first started with it, versus where you are now?

RUBIN: Well, what’s interesting, crazy, and impressive about that is that there are things that I’ve heard Tom talk about seven years ago, eight years ago, that are starting to see the light of day and have been starting to come to fruition over the last few years. What may seem like a far-fetched idea, or something that’s very difficult to pull off, regardless of how long it may have taken, he’s doing it all. I obviously take no credit for that, but Tom is great at pursuing multiple projects but somehow making it feel like it’s part of a whole world. So there’s definitely a lot of stuff to dive into if you want to get that rabbit hole. I just focus on the music personally.

MIM: Then I can ask some more music questions that are a little easier for you to answer. During the recording of Lifeforms, and I know that mentioned that you’re not really as involved in that initial process and that it gets sent to you later, what song on the record changed the most from conception to the final product?

RUBIN: Probably No More Guns.

MIM: Ooh – my favorite one!

RUBIN: Oh! Good, good, good! It’s funny, that song initially sounded very “Monkees”.

MIM: Really?

RUBIN: Yes. Not saying anything about The Monkees here, but it was really close to something, and some people feel a little more sensitive to that than others. I am very sensitive to that, where I’m like, “We can’t do that, it sounds too…we got to figure it out!”. Really, what is most important with Tom, when it comes to writing, is that he needs to feel comfortable writing a melody over something and melodically inspired because that is the most important part of the song. Once he’s gotten that out, I can then take what’s beneath it and do what needs to be done.

In this instance, I had to make it sound less like The Monkees. So I was thinking, “What can I do to this, given the tempo?”. I’m not anti-The Who, I’m just not a huge Who fan, but I can see this being successfully pushed into that direction. At least from a bass point of view, because it is very bass-driven, so that’s what I did with that. I took it from The Monkees to The Who, Tom pumped it up past that, and it was very different from its initial idea – musically, the melodies were all there as what Tom wanted to write. But I politely put my foot down like, “We’ve gotta do something else.”. 

But, there’s an instance of, “I should have chosen a battle that I did not”. When we put out Euphoria, people kept honing into that damn synth sound when the band kicks in, like “This sounds like Rush!”. It doesn’t, but it’s the same sound, and Tom loves that sound. I’m like, “There’s a whole galaxy of synth sounds, we can find another one.” and he said, “No, that one’s rad.” It was also rad in 1980 when it opened up an album on a classic song. But when we do it, people are going to be like, “That reminds me of Tom Sawyer!”. The two songs sound nothing alike, but people’s ears go, “I’ve heard that before!”.

MIM: Yep! Especially if they’re not musically-trained ears.

RUBIN: I should have fought harder on that one.

MIM: Well you can tell Tom that Katie from Music in Minnesota liked No More Guns better, and that’s the one you had your opinion on, so, some leverage.

RUBIN: I will! And he does as well!

MIM: Does he?

RUBIN: Yeah, he does as well, so it worked out. I never go in there with a wrecking ball like, “Ooh, we’re going to have to change all this and that.” I’m there to enhance and finish writing the song, like I said, in most cases the bridges. He may get bored of the song where that needs to be written and that’s where I take over and I write the bridge and finish up the final structure of the song. I never make a change drastically unless I feel it, like, “We gotta do something about this.”.

MIM: That’s interesting. The fans have a lot of questions about your involvement. They were really concerned about where you are allowed to put input in. So they’ll be happy to hear that you’ve got quite a bit of leverage there too.

RUBIN: But, I use it wisely.

MIM: Yes, yes.

RUBIN: There’s no ego when it comes to me adding or changing things. It’s either, “I see what you’re going for, and this is what we need me to do to get there.” or an instance like this where it’s like, “We can’t do that, and I’ll find the answer, but that’s not it.”.

MIM: Yeah, all for the sake of just composing the best stuff that you can. 

RUBIN. Yeah.

MIM: Makes sense. Alright, one more question for you and I’ll let you get back to it. Another Reddit user, I’m not even going to try to pronounce their name, would like to know what you like about the style of the music that you’ve helped create with Angels & Airwaves, specifically within Lifeforms.

RUBIN: I’ll give a pre-answer to that because I know it’s geared towards Lifeforms specifically. Honestly, I think what I’m most proud of is the fact that Dream Walker was a definitive change in era, which I’m not just saying because it was an album that I was a part of. But I also think it was the first time that Tom was really truly willing to say, “I need to do things differently than I’ve done them.”. Because, he’s written a hundred songs, probably more, between Blink, and Angels, and Box Car. And, it’s very easy to fall into, I don’t want to say a format, but just a style. There is a comfort in writing something that sounds like something else you’ve done that’s been successful, which he’s got plenty in his back-catalogue, of course.

But, Dream Walker really marked a period of maybe writing a song that could have gone on another Angels album, or even potentially a later Blink album, didn’t seem satisfying. I was like, “We need to do something else.”. It did feel like a bit of a struggle at first, and there was a bit of discomfort kinda breaking out of that comfort zone. That’s just the way life works, not everyone is eager to. And I’m not eager to just jump out of my comfort zone generally, but musically, I like to constantly be expanding.

I can’t write a song that sounds like one of my other songs because I immediately think, “What’s the point?” and I find it uninspiring. So, when we first got together in a room, we both had guitars, and we were both playing something, I was very quick to be like, “But that sounds like this other song.” or “Those are the same chords as this other song.”.  Honestly, most of the time he didn’t realize it, so it wasn’t even like it was something he was going for. Hands go to a certain place, melody goes to a certain place, there it is. Like I said, there was a bit of push-and-pull there whereas by the time we got to Lifeforms, it seemed the idea of doing things differently from track-to-track was very comfortable.

That’s why Lifeforms I would say is even more diverse than Dream Walker, because the comfort in terms of experimentation, and the gates had opened, seeing what else was out there. The only song that truly has its foot in the door of the past is Rebel Girl, in terms of chord structure. It is what it is – C, G, F – he’s written plenty of songs with that.

But melodically, it’s a bit different. There’s some other nods to some Angels stuff, like in the bridge of Timebomb, which would probably be one of the bridges I didn’t write because it’s more of a breakdown – it doesn’t go anywhere musically, it kinda repeats the intro. But it has these accents that are kind of like Dry Your Eyes, from one of the Love albums. The rest of it I think is very different, and it would be nearly impossible to say, “This song sounds like that one.” in terms of the Angels & Airwaves cannon, if you will.

MIM: Sure. And all yet so cohesive at the same time. So just impressive that you’re able to weave those all together in that way.

RUBIN: Well, thank you.

MIM: Yeah, absolutely.

RUBIN: So I should get on Reddit at some point. It’s something I never look at, but I should.

MIM: I don’t know, that’s where I always field the die-hard fans. Like they always have got some really good content.

RUBIN: So what do you do? You go to Reddit.com and just type in Angels & Airwaves or how does that work?

MIM: Yep! You’ve got your own subreddit there and there’s people pretty active there.

RUBIN: Alright. I’m gonna check that out. I’m gonna modernize myself I guess.

MIM: Ooh, an anonymous entry, they’ll have no idea! Alright well, with that I’ll let you get back to it. I know you’re busy, you’ve got a show tonight but I really appreciate you making the time, it was a pleasure.

RUBIN: Thank you! Are you going to the show?

MIM: Yes! I’m not sure if I’m working it, or just going as a fan yet, but I will be there.

RUBIN: Okay, well, regardless, say hello, and I hope you enjoy it!

MIM: You betcha – I’m really looking forward to it!

RUBIN: Sorry for rubbing my eyes – I’ve been awake for about an hour.

MIM: I’ll edit that part out.

RUBIN: No, that’s okay. Just put the skin-softener on me.

MIM: Ha – you’ve got it!

RUBIN: Well, thank you very much!

MIM: You betcha! Have a great rest of your day – and I’ll see you Friday!

RUBIN: You too! Thank you, take care! Goodbye.

Katie Ahrens
Author: Katie Ahrens

Written by Katie Ahrens

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