If there was any justice in the world, Toronto’s Spookey Ruben would’ve become a weirdo superstar in the mid-’90s, around the same time it was actually still possible for eccentric bands like Primus and Ween to sell millions of records and gain some mainstream recognition for their offbeat brilliance. Ruben came on the scene with a similarly brilliant debut album in 1995 called Modes of Transportation Vol. 1 that should’ve achieved Chocolate and Cheese-level notoriety. But the album came out on the crap-tastic TVT Records, a label that has screwed up the careers of everyone from Nine Inch Nails to Lil Jon over the years, and that was apparently no less kind to Ruben. For reasons we haven’t been able to discern, they decided to release his second album, Modes of Transportation Vol. 2, only in Japan, which had the not surprisingly effect of causing him to drop off most folks’ radar everywhere except Japan. Well-played, TVT.
Fortunately, Ruben has persisted, continuing to release new music through his own label, Hi-Hat Recordings. He even managed to get back the rights to all (or at least most) of his old TVT material, and has plans to do a 20th anniversary reissue of Modes Vol. 1 later this year, along with a new album called Modes III that he just successfully funded via Indiegogo.
Ruben got his start playing guitar in D.C. area punk and metal bands as a teenager, before moving to Toronto to go to film school. His hardcore roots occasionally surface in his solo stuff, especially when he lets rip on the occasional shred-tastic guitar solo, but mostly his music exists on a folk/pop/psych-rock axis somewhere between Ween and XTC. It’s catchy and polished, but always takes unexpected twists and turns, either with goofy lyrics, cartoon sound effects, unexpected stylistic shifts, or even just in the way Ruben’s melodies often cut against the grain of his chord progressions, making tunes that are at once bright and oddly dissonant, like Beach Boys songs heard from a passing train.
Last year, Ruben took time out from his solo work to front a power-pop band called AAA Battery. They did a song called “Jenna” that’s not really that weird, but the video is fun.
He’s also been putting that film school experience to good use with Spookey Ruben’s Dizzy Playground, a comedic short film series that has guest-starred folks like Ariel Pink and Feist. They’re all pretty hysterical, but our personal favorite is “Natural Born Grannies.”
We’ll leave you with two videos from Modes of Transportation Vol. 1. First up: his catchy, keytar-fueled ode to fast food, “Wendy McDonald.” Bet this is Zayde Buti’s favorite Spookey Ruben song. Don’t stop watching before the xylophone solo or you’ll miss out.
Next: The song and video that’s probably Ruben’s masterpiece, “These Days Are Old.” Remember, before you judge: Everybody in the mid-’90s had bad hair.
Many thanks to Sarah Dukakis at Hi-Hat for sharing Spookey with us.