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Interview: Mike Rubin of The Inoculated Canaries

Following my review of The Inoculated Canaries’ latest EP, Trying Times, I felt it was necessary to gain further insight into how this band, and piece of music, came to be. The New York-based alternative rock outfit had gone through a slew of incarnations, all led by founder Mike Rubin. At present, the most solidified lineup consists of Rubin on vocals and lead guitar, Dylan Gross on bass, Bryan Sweeney on keys, and James Terranova on drums.

I caught up with Rubin, who was open to discussing his formative exposure to music, the evolution of the Canaries’ line-up, as well as a track-by-track description of their Trying Times EP.

ME: Growing up, what was your first exposure to music that really resonated with you?

Mike: I can remember that moment specifically. I was about 11. My dad was like, “Well, I think you’re just about old enough to listen to Pink Floyd’s The Wall.” It was the two of us in a dark room, and we listened to it – without saying a word to each other – from beginning to end. I was like, “That’s really a guitarist that I’d like to emulate.” I’d played Guitar Hero and that was fun, but I had also taken up guitar at the time. And since that day, Pink Floyd had become one of my most favorite bands.

ME: What did you initially like about Pink Floyd, and how did they help develop your musicianship?

Mike: A couple things. First off, the space. You listen to stuff nowadays, and I think it’s a reflection of the fact that people have really short attention spans. Every couple of seconds, someone is singing, or something is happening. You don’t have much space in these songs to just sit back and think about what you’re hearing. Whereas with Pink Floyd, it was such a different time in music.

They also approached writing so differently. Take a song like “Echoes” for instance; it’s 23 minutes long! Can you imagine someone doing something like that today? It’s ridiculous. But that’s one of my favorite songs of all time.

ME: At what point did you set out to pursue a music career?

Mike: I don’t really know if I woke up one day and decided that. I think it was a slow transition from when I started, to joining a band with a couple of friends, having that band fall apart, and then actively going and making a new one. I’d started writing songs, then once I had them, I had no one to hear them. So, I tried booking shows to do that, but I found simply getting people to hear original music was hard. You end up having to play covers – like Led Zeppelin songs, for instance, since I know Led Zeppelin – and then sneak in your own songs here and there. I don’t know if it was a hard vine, so much that I just woke up one day and found myself in the middle of it.

ME: The Inoculated Canaries formed back in 2010. How were those early days? I understand it took a while before getting a solid lineup together.

Mike: Yeah, absolutely! It started with a lot of unofficial members. It was me on guitar (I wasn’t singing at the time), this kid Zach on bass, and we had this guy who, coincidentally, was named Jacob, as our drummer, for like two weeks. We rehearsed twice, and then they decided they didn’t want to do it, but I really liked the band name. So, I found some other people, some of whom ended up sticking. That time, it was me, another kid named Zach, Fred Leighton – who was with us for a really long time, and Lucas Tuo on bass. Then, one kid moved away, so we had to find a replacement. The kid who was our bassist ended up being our singer, and we got another bass player. There was a period where we had two female lead singers. One of the singers started dating our drummer, and the other started dating our bassist. Then, they broke up and everyone left, and it was just me and Freddy. We’d gotten James, who’s still in the band, then Freddy went away to college and didn’t want to do it anymore. It was hard, because every time we’d put a set together, we’d only have a few shows before someone would leave, and then we’d have to restructure everything.

It was a bit of an uphill battle, but I feel that this particular iteration of the band with myself, James, Brian Sweeney on keys, and Dylan Gross on bass – those guys and I work well together. There’s a period of time where I’m spending 12 to 13 hours with them anyway. It gets to a point where you can predict what they’re going to do.

Especially with James, I can just tell what he’s going to do before he gets to do it. I’ll give you a perfect example. In rehearsal, there’s a game we play to try to mess each other up, as hard as we can. We’ll do “Money” by Pink Floyd, and James would start playing in four, while the song is actually in seven. So, we’ll be working around it, and he’ll just look at me and keep playing it the way he’s playing (laughs)! I know the little things he does, and I kind of know where he’s going to put certain accents. Since James and I have been at it for five years now, we’re at a point now where I’m in his brain and he’s in mine. Brian and Dylan too, even though they haven’t been in the band that long.

ME: With you and James, it’s like one of those inseparable chemistries – a Pete Ham and Tom Evans, or McCartney/Lennon partnership.

Mike: (Laughs), yeah! That’s funny, because he’s my best friend in the whole world but also my arch nemesis.

ME: Onto your new EP, Trying Times, when did the process really begin to take shape?

Mike: That was the last iteration of the band, funnily enough. It was myself, James, and a keyboardist/bassist named Jeremy Kaplan. Good kid, it’s just that he left for college in Boston and was like, “Hey guys, I can’t be around,” which was fair. Anyway, it was the three of us, and we locked ourselves in the basement for a week, and we did the entire EP in that week. My mom would slide food to us under the door, and we wouldn’t go outside. It was the longest I’ve been without seeing sunlight. It does weird things to your mind, but it ended up helping us make those songs in a short amount of time. It was really that week that we’d spent writing together. And it’s interesting, too, because just about a week or two after we’d met Jeremy, he was still kind of a stranger to us. But after delving into some of the emotional places we had to in order to write music, we got over that, you know? I’m really happy with the way it came out, since it reflects a lot of what we were thinking and feeling at the time.

ME: I like in general how it’s an improvement from The Blue Laws. While The Blue Laws was good for that era, I feel that Trying Times showcases a lot more stylistic diversity. A clear factor I also notice is in the production values. Can you tell me a bit about how your sound evolved between releases?

Mike: Both EPs had different lineups, actually, and I was the only one in both. The Blue Laws had myself and Freddy (James wasn’t in the band yet). Our drummer at the time was Brian Kerwick, and he had left for college in Georgia, which is why he couldn’t stick around. He was a fantastic drummer. Then we had Lucas, who was our bassist, then our singer, then our bassist again – go figure (laughs).

For Blue Laws, we did it in a really swanky studio out in Glen Cove. We were young. I mean, how nuanced can you be when you’re like 13, 14, writing songs? I’m satisfied where it was at, and I like listening back to the songs. But sometimes I’m just like, “Man…” Like when you’d listen to “Prisoner,” my voice is about an octave higher. I’m still a little kid (laughs)!

So, we did the tracks live, and we had a great engineer named James Medellin. We were all very inexperienced; it was our first time in a real studio. We ended up finishing writing the songs the night before we had to record them (laughs)! We were little kids and this was still fairly new for us.

But after going through a journey of a writing 20-30 songs, throwing some out, keeping some, going through lineup changes and two or three different producers, we’d ended up with myself, James and Jeremy [for Trying Times]. Our new producer was David Caggiano, and as soon as we met him, he just got us like nobody else could. He’s an “old soul rock n’ roll” kind of guy, but not too old that he’s unwilling to try new things. He’s very funny, too. He always dresses the same. He’s a very consistent man. He wears black sneakers with high socks, and always shorts no matter the time of year. It can be like -400 degrees outside and he’s in shorts. He always wears a Jets jersey and a black skull cap. And he stays up until four or five in the morning, so he’s got huge dark circles under his eyes which make him look like he’s got eyeliner. It’s super metal.

He’s also the greatest guy to hang out with, has such a good ear, and really makes the sessions flow. One of the things that we believed in, and that he totally understood, was that we don’t just want to write something, record it, and put make up all over it, to the point where it doesn’t sound like us. What you hear on the record is essentially how we sound live. The only thing that was overdubbed was keys and bass – since Jeremy couldn’t play both at the same time – and vocals obviously. But the guitar, drum, and keyboard tracks were all cut live. It all felt very natural. We also went through many vocal takes and tried to avoid using Auto Tune or anything like that.

So, I think it was a combination of us spending time writing, being critical of our writing, and just avoiding the easy route – recording everything one at a time, and having it sound very isolated. Are you a fan of classic rock?

ME: Yeah, of course!

Mike: So much of the greatness of those records comes from how natural they sound. It’s real! You can tell there’s a person behind there feeling something and grooving that you just don’t get when you artificially manufacture it.

ME: Yeah, I can tell that live aesthetic is prominent. For example, even as early as “Count Me Out,” it’s like you guys are simply gathering for a fun jam session.

Mike: Yup, that’s just what it was. The room was completely dark, except for a lamp between the three of us. We were in a triangle, facing each other, just playing as hard and loud as we can. It gets to a certain point when you record where you listen to the click track through your headphones, and it sort of becomes the instrument. For some people who aren’t used to it, it’s difficult. But eventually it becomes another member of the band. With James especially, and I give that boy props, he can follow a metronome and plays with time like nobody I’ve ever seen. For everyone else in the band, it’s real easy to follow the drummer. So, much of the grooviness is due to James. The space was awesome, and we had access to a really nice snare to get some solid, beefy tones out of the drums. We went to the studio about 10 in the morning, and left around 8 at night, just setting up the drum sound. Then, it was just, “Play the song five times. Done. Cut. Next song…” I think that was the only way we could have gotten it done, because it only took us maybe five days to record it, with overdubs, vocals, and everything.

ME: The music video for the song has an interesting concept about it, as you have yourselves covered in neon body paint. I’m wondering how it felt to wear it over the two-day filming span. On one hand, you’re like, “Wow, this is pretty cool,” while on the other, you’d probably say, “Ok, I want out now!” How was your experience?

Mike: (Laughs)! I think it was different levels for everybody. Me, I’m kind of a ham. I love doing crazy stuff and being in crazy colors, so I was loving it until probably the end, when everyone was just sweaty, and the paint was running into my eyes. But I didn’t mind having it on; I thought it was a lot of fun! Brian was kind of the same way. Dylan, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with it from the beginning. The three of us had to hold him down and someone else painted him; he absolutely wanted no part of it. James was just his usual self. So, I think some of us didn’t want to do it, but I had a lot of fun, and so did Brian. Here’s something we learned when you use glow in the dark body paint, even when you wash it off: Two days after you have it on, and you go under black light, you’ll still glow. We definitely had fun with that at our job. We’re all music teachers, and we had work the next day, so we showed up with a black light, walked up to some kids and were like, “Wanna see something crazy?” It was pretty funny (laughs)!

ME: I’d written a review for the EP a while back, and I felt that as the EP progresses, each song deals with some type of loss, but with a gained sense of insight toward the end of it. Can you tell me about how each song came to be?

Mike: Yes, I’ve seen it. I’ve heard a lot of interpretations, and I think yours is definitely the most positive. The interesting part is that in “Shipwrecked,” the main character dies at the end, so there’s no real triumph on the last track (laughs)! What we’d really set out to do was make the songs sound completely independent of one another, to showcase a range of music we’re capable of. My feeling is if we’d stuck to one genre, and then ventured out and did something differently, the fans would get mad. So, I was like, “You know what? Let’s just knock that off the table right away and do as many different sounds as we can on our first EP. That way, if we do anything that sounds like this next time around, it still sounds like the old stuff.”

We also wanted it to be cohesive thematically. “Count Me Out” is about a societal loss of power, how people think America is losing its way, and we’re all going down a rather scary path, so I think you’re right about that. “Take A Look Around” is definitely about a loss of faith. With the money part, though, I don’t think of it being as important to the theme. It’s in there lyrically, and that’s what got me thinking about the song. What happened (in real life) was I had gotten back from work, with my paycheck after two weeks. On my way home from work, my car started steaming (laughs)! I literally had to hand my paycheck over to the mechanic, since that’s exactly how much it costs. I was sitting in my room and was just like, “Man, I should write a song about it!”

[Regarding faith,] I went to Catholic school growing up, so I’d developed an intrinsic dislike for organized religion. Nothing makes a kid dislike church and religion more than going to Catholic school. It’s a fact. They just shove it down your throat, and I don’t want to get to get on the soapbox about it, but I’d experienced some stuff that really turned me off about it, so I thought of including that also.

With “Jericho,” it’s funny. Obviously, it’s a reference to the Bible – you have the passage to Jericho which is a very dangerous trade route with a lot of bandits on it. Weird how I talk about disliking religion to immediately referencing the Bible (laughs)! But also, every time we head to the studio, each band member has to take Jericho Turnpike. That’s where the title comes from.

What “Jericho” is about is an older man. It’s an older man in purgatory, and his version of it is a cheap hotel bar on the ground floor. Nothing really happens, you know? He just kind of wakes up in his hotel room, washes his face, looks in the mirror and says, “Man, I don’t look exactly how I thought I did.” Then, he goes down to the bar, and just has to drink. The bartender says, “Hey man, we’re a bunch of old guys figuring out how to breathe,” which is ironic, because they’re all dead.

I don’t know if you’d get that from the song, but I like my songs to be broad enough so people can make it personal to them, rather than the songs having a specific meaning. “Ya Mad” is mainly about issues James had been having, but that’s really a discussion over a beer (laughs)! With “Shipwrecked,” we’d worked on that song previously with another producer, but we weren’t super happy with it, so we shelved it for a while. We really liked the song, though, so as soon as we met Dave, we’ve got to record this. At first, we were a little hesitant, but I’m really happy with how it came out. It’s about a guy who’s stranded on an island – his whole crew is dead and it’s just him. He’s going crazy from this mountain of loneliness. It drives him nuts to the point where, just to establish some form of contact, he starts arguing with past reflections of himself in the water. Then, he loses faith, and then he dies (laughs)!

ME: Overall, do you feel the EP best represents what you’d intended?

Mike: Oh, absolutely! I’m super happy with how it turned out. With The Blue Laws, I can’t stand “From You.” I absolutely hate that song, and I wrote it (laughs)! But with this EP, every time I listen to it, I honestly can’t decide which song is my favorite. At one point, it was “Count Me Out;” at another, it was “Take A Look Around.” “Jericho” is our most popular song on Spotify, and people are really big fans of the acoustic version. Every time I listen to “Ya Mad,” it always puts me in a good mood, and I can’t help but laugh at the content, because I know what it’s about.

And the Little Mermaid comes out of nowhere, too – that was Jeremy’s idea. He was like, “Check this out, let’s put the Little Mermaid in there and see what everyone says!” (laughs)!

Again, I’m super happy with it, and if people don’t like it, whatever, but if they do, that’s great! I think Frank Zappa said it best, “I write what I like to write, and those who listen to it, listen to it.” And if you like what I do, I’m going to make as much of it as I can.

ME: Lastly, anything you’d like to say to your fans?

Mike: I’m just grateful for anyone who listens to anything I write. I’m some guy who goes around, is cynical about things, and puts that to music. To anyone that digs it, all I can say is that I’m humbled. In one day, our Facebook went from 700 likes to 1,500. We also have 30,000 views on the “Count Me Out” video. It’s insane for me to fathom that almost an entirety of Madison Square Garden’s worth of people have seen that video. It’s gotten beyond the point where there are actual people listening to this stuff! It’s mind blowing! God, just – thank you; I love you; good night!

The Inoculated Canaries Socials:

Facebook|Official Website

About Jake Kussmaul

I come from a family who is passionate about all things music. I learned to sing at an early age, and by 13, had my very own Fender Strat guitar. I tried my hardest at learning all that I could. Because I was born with cerebral palsy, I had to teach myself an adaptive playing style. I learned to write and record my own music, despite these difficulties. In college, I started making great use of my writing abilities by reviewing music, as well as copy editing. I guess it's best to stick with what you know, while welcoming a fair challenge at the same time.

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