Music : High-school confidential

With a new album, Marcus Rubio makes his teen-chamber-pop move

It’s not easy to put a band together when you’re a teenage prodigy whose musical heroes include Leonard Cohen and Jon Dee Graham. Musicians in your age group are befuddled by your reference points, while older musicians don’t necessarily feel comfortable playing with someone young enough to be their scion.

Marcus Rubio: A teenage prodigy skilled on the guitar, violin, mandolin, and saxophone.

Marcus Rubio, a 17-year-old Churchill High School sophomore, addressed this quandary with the opening lines from his 2005 debut CD, My Head Blew Up (and turned into the sky): “Well, I’m the kind of man/that can’t keep a band for too long of a while/and when I do/it’s as dysfunctional as the Beach Boys’ recording of Smile.”

Be that as it may, Rubio’s creative drive is too compulsive to allow such obstacles to slow him down. Over the last year, he’s built a cult following for intimate solo performances highlighted by Rubio accompanying pre-recorded loops of himself on violin.

Rubio’s musical knowledge is prodigious by any standard, and when you consider his age and inevitable shortage of disposable income, it’s a bit freakish. He recalls significant milestones in his life by what music he was absorbing at the time. For instance, he identifies a school-band trip to the 2005 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California as the occasion when he “really got into the Violent Femmes.”

Rubio credits his parents for sparking his interest in music by introducing him, at a tender age, to classic-rock artists such as the Beatles and Pink Floyd. At the age of 13, he purchased a copy of Wilco’s masterwork Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. “I can easily say I had a religious experience listening to that album at the time,” Rubio says. “It just blew my mind. I thought, ‘Wow, you can make music that is so intense and powerful, but you can still be really quiet and pretty and melodic.’”

While attending Eisenhower Middle School, Rubio went through an all-consuming alt-country phase and played with a cow-punk band called the Applesauce Brothers. He also began to follow the Swindles, one of his favorite local bands, from gig to gig. He eventually befriended Swindles guitarist Joe Reyes and let him know that he’d love to work together on a recording project. To his great surprise, Reyes readily accepted the suggestion. Working at Reyes’ home, they crafted My Head Blew Up, with Rubio handling guitar, piano, bass, mandolin, synthesizer, alto saxophone, and percussion, and Reyes filling in most of what Rubio couldn’t handle.

“One of the things I was really happy about was that he was really open and accepting to my ideas,” Rubio says. “Joe was the perfect guy with me. If there was something I wanted to do, he allowed me to do it and he really helped me with everything.”

Rubio speaks in a high-pitched, quavery voice and frequently punctuates his statements with nervous giggles. His equally high singing voice falls somewhere between Sean Lennon and Poi Dog Pondering frontman Frank Orrall. In other words, it’s an acquired taste, but it suits Rubio, because it provides an aural reminder that for all his precocity, he’s still a kid in the process of figuring out the mysteries of life. He gets through that process with wit and relentless sincerity, simultaneously sounding like a lovestruck romantic and a bookish science student.

Marcus Rubio
Erik Sanden

Sat, May 6

Red Room
1903 S. St. Mary’s

For example, he sings of his longing to be teleported, because it would allow him to hold his loved one in his arms. At the same time, he has some justified technological anxieties: “Don’t want to end up like the guy in The Fly movie.”

For his soon-to-be-released sophomore album, Rhapsody in Plaid, Rubio again worked with Reyes, but the results differ drastically. The first album is a fairly straight-forward rock collection, but Rhapsody is a quieter affair that deploys each instrument for maximum emotional impact. Between records, Rubio devoted himself to the violin and began to develop a talent for string arrangements. “It went from being a folkie record to being a really lush chamber-pop record,” Rubio says.

Rubio’s ability to master new instruments in a short time is very nearly matched by his manipulation of literary devices. He’s even willing to employ one such device while comparing himself to another: “I was just an allegory/from a romance story/that was supposed to represent something more.”

Rubio, who confesses to being a worshiper of Franz Kafka and J.D. Salinger, already has a third album written, a semi-autobiographical, conceptual work about a character named Pillows. “A few weeks ago I was really going crazy with it. I was coming home every day and working out string arrangements, ’cause I want it to be really lush sounding. I’ve been listening to a lot of Sufjan Stevens and a lot of guys who are into really big arrangements.” At this point, Rubio is so prolific he has to slow himself down, to allow one album to be digested before he makes his next move. And while he’s become more confident in his role as a one-man-band, he’s not quite free of stage fright.

“When I first started playing out at open-mic nights and even my own shows, I’d be a nervous wreck,” he says. “And I’m still a nervous wreck before a lot of shows, just because I get all kinds of paranoia. I’m quite the neurotic human being.”

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