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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Interview with Steve Drinkall
Via email, June 2000
Sixpence None the Richer would be considered by many to be the break-through artist of 1999. However, while “Kiss Me” was paraded on air waves all over the world, another success-story was quickly unfolding in the land down under. Much like Sixpence, the journey of Aussie band Rhubarb was a long one before they finally made their break. It occurred in mid-’99 when the foursome won a local band competition, which resulted in heavy radio play and the release of their first album, Kamikaze. Since then, the band has garnered several major awards, three singles have been released, and a fourth one is planned in a matter of weeks.
Rhubarb’s origins date back five or six years. Brothers Steve and Dave Drinkall played instruments since the start of high school, but the band thing really started happening when their cousin Paul Harvey moved over from Brazil. After that, Steve Drinkall says, “...it was a matter of finding the best drummer we could and then getting into it.” They ended up enlisting good mate Ian Buchanan as fourth member of the band.
Rhubarb is one of those names with absolutely no meaning. Explains Drinkall, “We argued a while about potential names and then we thought the only thing that makes a band name good is the music it represents.” Rhubarb is proving to be a great band name.
With an utterly meaningless name and four able members, Rhubarb were at the stage where most bands start thinking about releasing an album. Rhubarb, however, spent their time playing live, building a relatively small but enthusiastic audience.
The big break came for Rhubarb half-way through 1999 through “Unearthed,” one of the most important band contests in Australia. The winner from each of numerous competitions held in various spots of the country is guaranteed radio-play on Triple J, the national alternative radio station. The bands are also given a free recording of their song. Without ever thinking they really had a chance of winning, Rhubarb entered Brisbane Unearthed with their song “Zero.” They won.
The winning of Unearthed came at a great time for Rhubarb, who was about to commence recording their debut album. Suddenly, their music was being heard over national radio so they released singles. “Zero” enjoyed minor success, but their follow-up single really found its place on airwaves. A catchy two minute song, “Exerciser” easily wound itself into the top ten of Triple J’s charts. “Pennywise” was released next, with moderate airplay. At present, Rhubarb busily promotes the latest single, “Nice Girls,” with a national tour.
The success of Rhubarb did not end at winning a competition and radio success. At the annual Sunnie Awards, a prestigious Australian awards, Rhubarb took away awards for “Album Of The Year,” “Best New Talent,” and producer Caleb James (from Battered Fish) won the “Producer Of The Year” award. They’ve been invited to appear on popular national TV shows and recently signed with Roadshow Music, part of Warner Music Australia. Rhubarb has also been granted the opportunity to play for the ONYA! Awards in Los Angeles, USA.
All this has brought the four married guys of Rhubarb to a point in their musical career where they need to either give Rhubarb their all, or stick with their other jobs. Dave and Steve Drinkall already work full-time in the band, whilst Ian and Paul hope to become full-time musicians sometime this year. Of course, if they are to devote all their time to Rhubarb, the four guys have to earn their living doing the “band-thing.” For Aussie bands this inevitably means taking their music to the world (the “world” meaning the U.S.). So far, the band has received quite a bit of interest from overseas, but is still holding out for the right label. Drinkall says, “We are looking for a label that can cater for both (Christian and secular) markets overseas. We don’t want to be classified in either market exclusively.”
One of the greatest advantages Rhubarb will have as they prepare for the task of conquering the world is their outstanding live show. After all, they did spend five years playing live before ever even releasing a song. Often, this meant playing small gigs, at youth groups and the likes. However, Rhubarb has played their fair share of big concerts, having opened for such acts as Jars of Clay, Creed and Delirious? but are not dazzled by the headliners. Drinkall explains, “…it really just means that the stakes are higher. With a big crowd you will either win a lot of fans or lose a lot, you still just have to play really well regardless of the size of the crowd. The best thing about playing with huge bands is that you get to go to the concert for free.”
Anybody coming back from a Rhubarb gig will agree that they are great performers. How do they do it? Steve views it this way: “I just try to think of every gig as potentially our last and I go for it. If you watch the great performers like Paul Colman or Hunz (Beanbag) you get the feeling that there is nowhere else they would rather be than onstage, and so I guess that’s where we’re headed.”
So you’re sitting there wondering, what on earth does Rhubarb sound like? (Link here to the review) Rhubarb plays progressive, moody pop rock with the occasional punk tune thrown in. Innovative and mature, Kamikaze is all that most debuts aren’t.
Sadly, Kamikaze is only a little over thirty minutes long. Produced by Battered Fish’s Caleb James, and engineered by Mark McElligott (Beanbag, Powderfinger), Kamikaze is somewhat of a triumph as an indie recording.“ Kamikaze for us was a total learning experience and I must say a very rushed and stressful one too. It was the very best we could do with the time and resources we had available and we are pleased with the result...” Apparently, for Rhubarb, being “pleased with the result” is enough to win them awards. “We are sure that the next Rhubarb album will be a definite step up from Kamikaze.” Fans are already pleased with the new Nice Girls E.P./single. Steve also hints at a new album on the horizon.
Much like Sixpence, Rhubarb do not find it necessary to put an overt Christian message in their songs. In fact, Steve hesitates to call Rhubarb a Christian band. “In my understanding a Christian is someone who follows Jesus. All of us in the band are certainly trying to do that but I’m not sure if a band can be a Christian.” Why do we in the CCM industry seem to place so much emphasis on the Christian-ness of a band? Do we ever complain that Bob the accountant isn’t producing Christian numbers and figures? or that Mike next door isn’t shoving Bible verses down the throats of his customers at Target? Steve expresses, “I know what people are saying when they refer to us as a Christian band but I think the terminology is unhelpful.” He also explains that while he hopes people will take interest in the band’s lyrics, that is not, nor ever has been, Rhubarb’s primary goal. “We all joined a band because we loved music and we wanted to hang out together...”
Steve explains that while they certainly do deal with faith-related issues in their lyrics, they generally write about their whole life experience. This mentality shines through on tracks like “Holiday” where we hear of the writer’s craving to have a holiday and just get away from the hectic life he lives. And then there’s “Nice Girls,” which expresses the feelings of someone about to go on a date. Of course, there is the thematically-connected trio consisting of “Want Me Back,” “Lead Me” and “Waiting For Me,” which all talk about giving yourself over to God, and allowing him to lead you in life. Sure, the message isn’t spelled out word-for-word, but Rhubarb are not targeting their music at the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys audience. Their music is very much for the mature of heart and head.
Rhubarb is one of the numerous successful bands coming from the Brisbane, Australia scene. Think of Battered Fish, Dumpster, and Beanbag: they all come from Brisbane. Why is this scene becoming so successful? Drinkall explained the success of the scene. “...the bands are very intentional about working together. I guess you have to when you are in a city like Brisbane. Not too many really influential people in the music business live in Brisbane so by the time these people see you in Sydney or Melbourne you have kind of refined your act a fair bit. We had been playing up here for 5 years before anyone down south heard of us so we came as quite a shock to them."
“There are also a few key individuals in Brissie who you can trace lots of the success stories back to. Some of those include Caleb James (Battered Fish), Jeremy Bennett, Dave Drinkall (Steve’s brother), Grant Nelson (Dumpster) and Michael Mullins (Beanbag) to name a few.” There is also the highly successful record label, Toupee Records, with Jeremy Bennett doing a fine job at the helm. Beanbag and Dumpster were both signed to Toupee before they ever were heard outside Australia. Rhubarb will undoubtedly soon join the list of overseas successes coming from Toupee.
The success of Rhubarb has been a joy for Aussie Christian music fans to follow. The plot continually thickens. Their signing to Warner Australia came about during the writing of this feature while “Nice Girls” is trying to match the heights that “Exerciser” achieved. A year and a half ago, you would be a rarity if you had heard of Rhubarb (unless referred to as a type of vegetable). Now, people are surprised when you haven’t got a clue who they are.
In an interview with CRAM
Magazine in late 1998, Dave Drinkall stated, “I suppose it feels like
we’re at the end of a really long driveway. Like we’ve been putting along,
and at the end, the gate might be closed and we might me stuck there--we
might just stop. I’d like to think that we’re just about to get out there
and do something, though.” For their appreciative passengers, this driveway
connects directly to the highway of success.