From Angels & Airwaves to Lauryn Hill to Glassjaw to Taking Back Sunday, Matt Rubano has all basses covered
After joining Angels & Airwaves in late 2019, having his first run of touring with the band cancelled due to COVID, writing and recording their anticipated sixth album amid lockdown, and not being able to step foot onstage in nearly two years, Matt Rubano finally got to experience the euphoric sensation of performing again with a headlining set at Lollapalooza. “I’m not gonna lie, I got a little choked up just walking out there and hearing people cheering and seeing their faces light up again,” he says. “It was zero to 60 really fast, with not playing shows in a while, and then taking on a big festival with 80,000 people. But the feeling was unreal.”
Touring wasn’t the only thing that impacted in his life due to the pandemic. The native Long Islander had made the move out west to Los Angeles not long before lockdown hit, which made immersing himself into the scene all the more difficult. “Luckily I have enough of a pre-existing community of friends out here, but before COVID I was going out to see music three or four nights a week just to take in the scene and connect with other players. But then it was all disrupted and became a stunted year when I couldn’t do much that wasn’t online. Now with the lights slowly coming back on, I’ll be able to get off my computer and out into this amazing music scene.”
Long before his big move and his current tenure in A&A, Rubano was already a bass sensation with an impressive list of credits. After attending Berklee College of Music, Rubano found himself kicking off his professional recording career by tracking bass on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998, which went on to sell over 20 million copies and skyrocket the singer into new heights of fame. For Rubano, it certainly boosted his career as well, as he went on to join alternative/emo rockers Taking Back Sunday in 2003 and saw wild success with them until his departure in 2010. From there he took on gigs in a range of genres with a slew of artists including Patrick Stump, Glassjaw, All American Rejects, Mary J. Blige, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and DJ Logic.
Matt’s most recent work with Angels & Airwaves, on their album Lifeforms , shows a new level of freedom that he’s found alongside his bandmates: frontman Tom Delonge (Blink-182), drummer Ilan Rubin (Nine Inch Nails), and guitarist David Kennedy (Boxcar Racer). Never one to bury his playing behind guitar riffs or linger on root notes, Rubano stakes his claim with bold lines even amidst the layers of synths and guitar dubs that fill out the album’s post-punk, synth-pop sound. “No More Guns,” “Euphoria,” and “Losing My Mind” display his ability to energize songs and let the bass stand out, without necessarily “steering it into solo bass album territory,” as he claims. But as compelling as his playing is, we’re hoping he eventually does steer in that direction.
Did the lockdown year make recording Lifeforms difficult?
Writing for the record started well before the lockdown, when demos were getting floated around between us. It gave the songs an extra period of time to marinate and change. I tend to get a little lost in the weeds of hearing numerous versions of songs with really small changes, and I feel that a lot of times, it comes down to the studio tracking part to make those decisions. The lockdown definitely allowed us to get the songs to a point where, when we did finally go in to record, everything was set in stone.
Was the album writing a collaborative effort?
Everyone pitches in ideas and whole demos of songs. We weren’t physically in the room writing together, so it’s more a process of showing each other full ideas. Tom’s writing really drives in his melodic and harmonic preferences. A song like “Euphoria” was really outside of the box for Angels, and when Tom showed it to me, I was shocked. He grows in really interesting directions. My part is largely gussying up bass-town however I want. I like when I’m creating within a finite space in a band setting, because then I know where the edges are and where I can try something a little different, but I felt like I got to play my ass off on this record. There were eight to ten songs total that we all made our instrumental contributions to, and then vocals were the final touch.
How did you approach your bass parts?
I like to be a bit delicate with my playing at first and get an idea of my space within the group. But I definitely always want to liken my sound to something that I’m into and then blend it into the specific creative space. I love taking a lot of chances with my playing and doing elaborate things, because I want to make it fun and contribute something to the band and not just hide behind chords. In this group, I look at it as, What can I get away with playing here? When I listen to demos I honor my first idea most times, but I’m always willing to let go of an idea and do the supportive thing when it’s called for. I’m always looking to satisfy my role and take care of business, but also my desire to play cool parts while not steering it into solo bass album territory. You’re always kind of in danger of that.
What was your recording setup in the studio?
There were a few things going on in there that we were using for tracking bass. I had my Aguilar rig that was miked up; we had an Ampeg B rig, and then a bunch of DIs like my Rupert Neve RNDI. Then we did a bit of a shootout with my pedal sound and some plug-ins. There’s a mixture of all of those things going on throughout the record. There are tone changes from song to song, in my approach with my hands, or on the bass itself. Once I get everything dialed in, I just focus on my overall playing. I never want to get too lost in the woods with my gear stuff in the studio. I wanted to establish a cohesive sound for the record and somewhat stick to it. There’s a lot of synth bass all over the record and a lot going on, so I had a lot to mine around in my playing and make sure everything was sounding good on my end.
Which basses did you bring into the studio?
I always have my 1972 Jazz with me, because that thing records really well and is super easy to play. I had my Fodera, and a MIM Fender P-Bass that isn’t vintage or anything, but it sounds really good. Each of those made the record in different spots. I had other basses with me, but I really stuck with those. You can bring a ton of stuff to a session, but you know you’re going to end up using the same gear you always use.
Your main Fodera bass is pretty uncommon for the type of music you’re known for playing.
The bass-technician types of players typically gravitate toward those kinds of basses, and it definitely rips for that. Personally, I don’t spend a lot of time playing music like that, so when I first started talking to Vinny [Fodera] and Jason [DeSalvo], they wanted to make me something I could play a rock show with. I knew it had to be painted, because the natural-wood look doesn’t always fly in rock, punk, or heavy music. I learned that lesson because in my early 20s I was going to a ton of auditions and gigs with an MTD 6-string bass, and I just didn’t have it in me then to read the room and realize it wasn’t the right tool for what was needed — both musically and aesthetically. I wanted to take the opportunity to make something outside of what Foderas are typically associated with. That thing just looks amazing and sounds so good. I get tone compliments on it all the time.
Do you still have the 6-string MTD somewhere?
It’s sitting right in front of me as we speak. That bass is interesting because the serial number is 122, so it’s a really early model. I was taking a lesson from Bubby Lewis recently, and he told me I should call Michael and Daniel [Tobias] because they’d trip out.
How did you initially join Angels & Airwaves?
It was kind of out of the blue when they decided they were going to start up again in 2018. I had been doing a little more music in New York and wasn’t touring as much then, and it was one of those rad stories where I just got a phone call one day, and it was Tom. He asked what I was up to and if I was down to make music with him. All things considered, it was a very easy yes to give him. I hadn’t played with Ilan yet, but I knew everyone else in the band from previous tours, so it was a lucky role to get offered.
What is it like playing in a rhythm section with Ilan?
I’ve had no shortage of luck in playing with great drummers in my life, and that trend certainly continues with Ilan Rubin. For consistency and intensity and feel, it’s his effortlessness with those things that make him such an unreal drummer. I’ve been playing with him for a couple years now, and I think I’ve heard him make a mistake maybe twice in that span. I’m being literal. He plays so consistently and has such a pocket that it makes it so fun to play bass with him. When we get into little improvisations that develop over the course of a tour, I always know where we are, and he makes it so easy to lock in. And, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who pounds drums harder than him.
What’s it like musically working with Tom Delonge?
Tom has such an infectious amount of energy, and when he gets excited about something he’s working on, he is laser-focused until he gets it there. As for joining the band and fitting into the songwriting of Angels music, he had really felt like the previous bass stuff hadn’t had a big enough role, so he encouraged me to do what I wanted. When we warm up at soundcheck or we’re just noodling, he’s always listening, and he’ll take an idea and liken it to some punk rock thing, which will make me re-contextualize it, and ideas can develop from there. When you’re contributing something that’s working, he gets really into it. I’ve known him for a long time, as Taking Back Sunday spent a lot of time with Blink-182 over the years, and he’s always been a spark plug of energy. After all of these years of knowing him from afar, it’s great to be working on music together.
How did you land the opportunity to track on the iconic album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill at age 21?
That was a really lucky thing for me where my friend Jamie Seagull was an engineer working at Chung King Studio in New York, and he was in a lot of the sessions for that album. I had just left Berklee and was going back to New York and was finding my footing by waiting tables in Long Island. He paged me — this was before cell phones, in the beeper era — and I called him on a break, and he said that the bassist tracking at the time wasn’t working and he had convinced her to meet me, so I quit that job on the spot. I told the manager that “this thing” happened and I had to go. It was a Saturday at 9:00 pm, going into a dinner rush with a packed dining room, and I just had to walk out. I went home, grabbed my bass, and went in and auditioned for Lauryn, and she liked it so we just started recording. It was one of those Jedi “believe in your training” moments for me. I was very nervous and there was an overwhelming crew of people in the room, but luckily I was able to come through.
What came next for you regarding gigs and opportunities?
At the time, the record hadn’t come out and blown up yet, so people just knew that I had played with Lauryn from the Fugees, and nobody really knew what to expect. No one knew it was going to be the mega-hit album of the year and beyond. I had gotten a gig in Boston as a sideman in a touring band that was kind of a hippie jam thing, and I was out on the road when the record came out. The whole world was flipping out when “Everything Is Everything” came out, which I played on. This was still before cell phones, so I was on the road with a backpack and my bass, and I’d call my friends and they’d tell me the song was everywhere and people were asking where I was. When I got back I started taking gigs that I wanted, and the doors opened a bit more to do sessions and meet more people. I did years of playing in bands, working gigs on Broadway and off Broadway; you have to do a little of everything to make it in New York. There are always ways for musicians to get by in the city. I was pretty damn busy back then, and then in 2003 I was asked to join Taking Back Sunday, and that made me reprioritize everything.
What was it like landing the Taking Back Sunday gig and experiencing the success that you did in that band?
I could recognize that playing in a band like that would be fun to do, but musically I didn’t know if I was the right person for it. Luckily they were in an open place where the best idea would win, and I dug that kind of freedom. I knew I’d be able to do whatever I wanted on bass. Knowing that it was going to be a big platform to write and express my playing made me really want to do it. I had been playing a lot of jazz and instrumental music before, so when we played our first couple of shows, everyone in the crowd was going absolutely crazy, and it reminded me of what drew me to playing music in the first place. Watching bands like the Chili Peppers in the late ’80s made me want to run around with my friends and have a good time. And musically, I took a lot of chances in writing pretty crazy bass parts in a genre where bass is typically a rhythmic component.
How did your time in TBS sculpt you as a player?
When you’re working with the same cats for a long time, there’s usually a prescribed space that your band exists in, unless you’re Radiohead or something. It’s all about reacting and responding to other people’s ideas in a complementary way that you don’t feel is limiting to what you can do. There are a number of different ways to make a statement when you’re recording on an album or on a track with people whose ideas you have to honor. It’s about building the house together, and TBS taught me a lot about playing supportive parts that are the skeletons of the songs that hold everything together.
How does it feel to listen back to the music of TBS now?
I haven’t given the music a listen in a little while, but just like anything that you ever play on during a time in your life — it really is a trippy snapshot of you as a player then. It always brings me back to my mindset of what made me conceive the parts, and you get to consider your own influences at the time. The cool thing is that I knew we were doing well back then, but I underestimated the influence that the band had. Hearing people still listening to that stuff and still carrying on the emo fascination makes me realize that that stuff actually did last and wasn’t just a moment in time kind of thing. People still hold that music dear, and it’s cool to hear the new wave of emo music and who cites the band as an influence.
You recently joined Glassjaw and played some shows with them. That music is technically and physically daunting on bass. What was that like for you?
Don’t let anybody tell you it’s easy. But that music is really fun to play. When I first started talking to [Justin] Beck [guitarist/founder], I immediately told him yes, and he was like, “All right, but do you want me to tell you when the shows are?” It didn’t matter, because I had always wanted to play that stuff. It was a trip to be playing parts with the dude who wrote them right next to me, and he knows every note that I’m supposed to be playing. It’s one of those things where, when you get to play with different bands, as I’ve been lucky enough to, it becomes about hearing yourself inside this thing that already exists and not fucking it up. That whole run with them was so much fun. I didn’t care where we were, where we were sleeping, or what we were eating, I was just counting the shows and enjoying my time doing it.
How did your time studying at Berklee College of Music further your playing?
I was there for three semesters, from 1995–96. I wasn’t even the best bass player at my high school going into it, and there are some major players there who were just such forces. Even if you do show up and have your shit together, the biggest thing I took from it is that you have a few thousand kids from all over the world there that are so talented and at first, it’s terrifying. There are people your age standing in front of you shredding and killing it, but I was able to suppress the dread and have it be inspiring for me. And you make so many friends there, too. That’s where I met Steve Jenkins, Stu Brooks, and so many people I’m still close with today. You meet all of these people and then you head out into the world together, and you’re bound to meet again in one form of the music world or another. For me, it was shock therapy. I realized that I needed to start practicing all day, every day. Back then I had no clue — I just knew that I wanted to play bass and get better. But dude, meeting Billy Mohler at Berklee was such a trip. He was already a great jazz player, and he was 18. Some people want to form a hierarchy of all of the best players, and that’s the popular clique, but Billy was always such a kind dude and was so fun and chill to be around. His enthusiasm and passion for music was contagious, and still is.
Who are your greatest bass influences?
In the beginning it was a very intense couple of years going from listening to all of the late-’80s to early-’90s alternative bands with Flea from Chili Peppers, Les Claypool in Primus, Norwood Fisher in Fishbone, and Eric Avery in Jane’s Addiction. Then I started wanting to figure out who those guys were being influenced by, and that led me to discovering Louis Johnson, Bootsy, Larry Graham, and all of those legendary players. Of course, Paul McCartney, John Paul Jones, and all of the classic guys were big to me. And that led me to start listening to jazz and Jaco and James Jamerson. I was always aware enough in listening to those greats to want to figure out what I can take from them and what my voice was going to be as well.
You play predominantly fingerstyle, but you do have a lot of techniques in your tool belt.
Unless you specialize in the athletic solo-bass arena, there are very rarely calls to come in to play a busy, syncopated slap thing, or a harmonically complex tapping part. One or two times, someone’s said, “I dunno, maybe try the thumb thing.” Even then, they’re not talking about going off on sextuplets. That’s something that’s always interested me from the time I was younger and was discovering the bass, and it’s stuff that I’ll always work on. With so many bass players around inspiring me at all times, it’s hard to watch Michael Manring and not try to figure out how the hell he was doing that the next time I sit to practice. I’m a curious musician in that way.
How and when did you first start playing bass?
I was probably about 16 or so and I was mostly hanging out with my friend Dave and his brother Mark [O’Connell], who went on to become the drummer for Taking Back Sunday. Dave played guitar and Mark played drums, and I realized I should get a bass. I hopped in a car one day and just bought one. I don’t even remember what model it was, but it was red. By the time I was headed to Berklee, I was playing an Ibanez Soundgear. I took the long road to playing the traditional tools like Jazz and P-Basses. In the beginning I wanted to just hang out and play, and then I got more and more into it.
Why bass? What resonates with you about the instrument?
One of the things that I remember about the very first time I ever played an electric bass guitar was that it had a physical sensation. It was bigger, and I could feel it vibrate against me. You give the low E a thump for the first time, and it’ll change your life. Even today, the idea of the physical sensation of playing this thing that you not only hear, but also feel, is exciting. And of course, as it relates to music, bass always has stood out to me as the thing in every genre that carries the sound. Jumping from genre to genre of music, the bass changes rather drastically, but its role is fundamentally the same. I still just really love standing in front of a bass cabinet and playing loud and feeling the ground shake beneath me. –BM
Hear Him On Angels & Airwaves, Lifeforms 
Bass Fodera Custom 4-string, 1969 Fender Precision, 1972 Fender Jazz, Fender MIM Precision, Music Man Caprice, Alleva Copollo Precision, Fodera 5-string, MTD 6-string
Rig Aguilar DB 751, DB 810 Cab
Effects Noble DI, Wren and Cuff Elephant Skin
Strings DR Strings
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