Music Issue > Music Issue
The Accidental Engineer
How Mark Rubinstein stumbled into a career making other people sound good
It’s unlikely that any San Antonio musician has been in close proximity to fame more than Mark Rubinstein.
He played piano at a New York reception for Bill Clinton, provided musical entertainment for Liza Minnelli’s bridal shower, and engineered sessions for everyone from Cher to the Backstreet Boys to Natalie Cole.
When Rubinstein talks about his musical experiences, however, you always get the sense that celebrity holds little currency for him. He speaks with more enthusiasm about his production work for the San Antonio band Buttercup, or his collaborations with Matt Dunne and Joan Carroll in the offbeat jazz group The Accidental Trio than for meeting TV actors and world leaders.
As Dunne, his longtime friend, points out, Rubinstein is one of those musical figures deeply respected and admired by his peers, but unacknowledged by the general public. The miracle of his career is that over three decades he’s made the transition from snotty, teenage punk rock to intricate, avant-garde theatrical explorations of Weimar-era Germany (his recent gig as musical director for the off-Broadway musical The Blue Flower), with stops along the way at every imaginable genre. And he never seems to break a sweat.
“Mark’s versatility as a musician, and his flexibility, is amazing,” Dunne marvels. “He has the ability to fit into a really wide variety of settings and he always plays with good intelligence, good taste, and good rhythm. It’s really rare that someone can play convincingly in a bunch of different styles, and he can do that.”
With his burly frame, short black hair, mustache and chin beard, the 42-year-old Rubinstein looks like the long-lost sibling of Pere Ubu singer David Thomas. A San Antonio native who grew up near Alamo Heights, he took piano lessons as a child, but at the age of 14 he abandoned any concerns about musical training after purchasing a copy of the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia at a local Stop -N-Go. “I took it home and thought it was the best record I’d ever heard,” he says.
In early 1980, Rubinstein, his older sister Denise, and their friend Mark Semmes formed The Rejects, with Rubinstein on drums. They played their first gig at a long-since-defunct King William bar called The Friendly Spot (opening for Los #2 Dinners), and quickly recorded a three-song EP, Back to School, for Closet Records. One of the first punk releases to come from the San Antonio scene, it boasted Rubinstein’s “EEG,” an example of his youthful fascination with mental disorders, which he credits to the Ramones and his father’s career in psychiatry.
“The way we’d write songs was to try to find chords that sounded bad together,” he says with a laugh. “That was our punk ethos: ‘Well, that wouldn’t work. Let’s do it.’”
While Rubinstein speaks with affection about The Rejects, he doesn’t own a copy of their EP or any of their rehearsal recordings, and doesn’t seem particularly interested in tracking down any of that material. He says he can’t remember the lyrics to any of their songs and adds, “Most of them were dreadful and deserve to be forgotten.”
After the band fizzled out in 1983, he began to demonstrate his musical versatility: playing keyboards and guitar in a top-40 band called The Automatics and handling bass for New Acoustic Unit, a group that included six-string master Sergio Lara.
It was a subsequent gig playing accordion for the Infidels that pushed him conclusively into a producing and engineering career. While the band cut a record at Elephant Tracks with Joe
Treviño, he took on co-production duties. From there, he began to get offers from local musicians to work as a record producer.
In 1997, Rubinstein moved to New York, where he became an in-demand studio engineer, handling a variety of sessions at KMA Music. He also fell in with songwriter/heiress Denise Rich, who became semi-notorious in January, 2001 when Bill Clinton — the beneficiary of massive political contributions from Rich — pardoned her estranged husband Marc, who’d emigrated to Switzerland to avoid prosecution on multiple counts of tax evasion and fraud.
Rubinstein ran Rich’s recording studio for a couple of years, and got a close-up perspective on the astonishing range of her famous friends.
“There were always strange guests at
Denise’s house,” he says. “I’d be down in the studio working and Denise would have guests to dinner and she’d want to bring them down and show the studio to them. One night I’m in there working and she walks in with Mikhail Gorbachev. Another night, it was Denise with John Glenn and his wife, and Kim Cattrall and her companion. A group that had absolutely nothing in common.”
When the people who ran Rich’s office realized Rubinstein played piano, they began hiring him to perform at various parties she threw at her two-story penthouse overlooking Central Park. At a gathering in honor of Bill Clinton, Rubinstein received a quick demonstration of the president’s vaunted magnetism. “He came over to the piano and shook my hand and said, ‘Nice music, son,’ or something like that. What they say about how charismatic he is, is totally true. He really did fill the room.”
If anything, Rubinstein’s work schedule in New York was too active. He once worked for 36 hours straight on a session, and found himself so consistently busy that burnout had set in.
“I loved living there, but after September 11, I thought it might be good to get out,” he says. “I’d started seeing someone who lived here and we’re living together now.”
After returning to SA in 2002, he set up a Pro Tools LE studio in his home. He took an active role in helping Buttercup develop its multi-textured pop, and he gushes about the band’s unbridled commitment to their music.
“They never quite got into fistfights about arrangements and song stuff, but it was that close, they were that passionate about it. I thought, ‘That’s cool. They’ll go to the mat for their music.’”
Between handling engineering projects, teaching the art of recording to UTSA students, playing accordion in the Accidental Trio, and contributing to the odd theater project, Rubinsten rarely has time to concentrate on his own compositions. And when he does, he stresses about not having a job assignment.
“It’s sort of the curse of always seeking work,” he says. “Usually what happens is I start something, hit a wall, and put it away and never finish it. I’ve got tons of unfinished stuff.” •
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