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Rubedo Embraces Chaos on Vaca

Rubedo’s Vaca is a tribute to Mars Volta keyboardist Isaiah “Ikey” Owens.
Rubedo’s Vaca is a tribute to Mars Volta keyboardist Isaiah “Ikey” Owens. Jackie Zoeller
A cop once pulled over Rubedo guitarist Alex Trujillo. The van he was driving, full of instruments, inspired the officer to ask what kind of music the band plays.

“Psychedelic rock,” Trujillo said.

“Do you have psychedelic mushrooms? Meth?” the officer asked. That led to a search.

Now Trujillo knows better. When cops ask, he instead likens Rubedo to AC/DC, and officers usually end the conversation with something like, “Keep it alive. I’m gonna cut you loose. You guys travel safe.”

Rubedo’s three members have known each other since they were kids, and sitting around drummer Gregg Ziemba’s kitchen table on Denver’s west side, the 31-year-olds are quick to finish each other’s sentences, breaking into bouts of laughter.

“The truth of the matter is we fucking love AC/DC, so we’re not lying,” Ziemba says.

Like his bandmates, the energetic, lanky, all-elbows drummer, who also plays in Wheelchair Sports Camp, seems to love every musical genre: rock, hip-hop, jazz, punk, whatever. Unlike some musicians quick to pooh-pooh chart-toppers, Ziemba finds inspiration in those, too.

“We don’t ever restrict ourselves on where our influences come from,” he says. “If we’re listening to some really mellow ballad or some John Coltrane thing and we want to do something like that, we can go down that road. We don’t box ourselves in on any level.”
Rubedo’s music is a testament to the act’s motley source material. While the musicians have an elevator-pitch-friendly description of their genre — “transgressive synth pop” (they laugh when they say it) — and their music is all over the map, it’s anchored in rock, despite the bandmates’ squeamishness around what that implies.

“There’s so much testosterock,” Trujillo grumbles. “I like to fucking rock hard, too, but I don’t feel like that. I feel like you can still rock really hard, but let’s play some major chords. Let’s play something bright.”

“Bright” would be an oversimplification of Rubedo’s sound and lyrics. The band’s second studio album, Love Is the Answer, is loaded with affirming mantras, while Vaca, the record the act will drop at the Bluebird Theater on Saturday, January 6, remains optimistic while wrangling with grief.

Frontman Kyle Gray, a scrappy, soft-spoken poetic soul who turns into a fire-and-brimstone preacher on stage, writes lyrics that he’s willing to sing with heart a million times. “The words, the lyrics, are extremely positive but super-real,” Gray says. “That’s really important for me that we keep it positive. But we don’t do pie-in-the-sky positivity. No — it’s dirty. It’s dirty to be alive. The process is the alchemy of cleaning it up.”

Alchemy, the art of turning certain metals into gold, matters to the bandmates. The act is named after the Latin word that describes the final stage of alchemy, during which gold is made.

Gritty joy infuses more than the bandmates’ music; it shapes how they record, play and tour — all of which was jump-started by Mars Volta keyboardist and producer Isaiah “Ikey” Owens, the musicians’ friend, occasional collaborator and producer, who died in October 2014. Vaca is partially Rubedo’s tribute to Owens.

Ziemba was a devout Mars Volta fan long before Rubedo formed in early 2010 — so devoted that when a guy at a party said Mars Volta’s live show sucked, the drummer fought him.

It was that zeal that took Ziemba to the Old Curtis Street Bar in November 2009, where Owens’s band Free Moral Agents was playing. Ziemba invited the outfit to crash at his house. He cringed when he had to confess to Owens that his wi-fi password was “Mars Volta House.”

The two struck up a friendship when Ziemba asked about the jazz influence in Owens’s music. Owens said he didn’t work hard enough to say he was jazz-inspired, but he took the compliment to heart when Ziemba compared the keyboardist’s riffs to those of jazz legends Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp.

The budding friendship motivated Ziemba to reach out to Trujillo about forming a new group. They tried out different formations and discussed bringing on their childhood friend Gray, who had been hitchhiking around the world and sleeping outside. Before they could approach him, he called them out of the blue and said he had a dream that they would form a band — so they did.

Rubedo played its first show in January 2010. Owens, eager to help his new friends, offered the band support, helped them book tours, played gigs with them and produced their records at Jazzcats Studio in Long Beach.
Ziemba recalls thinking: “Man, all my dreams are coming true,” and he owed it, in no small part, to Owens. “He gave us the push from the start. We were like, ‘We’re going to do this seriously. We know this guy. We’re going to fucking do this!’”

Owens’s surprising death hit Rubedo hard; the bandmates backed off of songwriting, temporarily abandoned plans to write and record Vaca — which Owens was going to produce — and shifted their focus to touring.

“I usually ride pretty positive,” says Ziemba. “I’m a very happy guy. But that definitely threw me into a depression that I’ve never dealt with before…. No wonder we were so fucking lost.”

Rubedo returned to Jazzcats, the same spot where the bandmates had worked with Owens. This time they worked with Owens’s friend and Jazzcats owner Jonny Bell, who brought a more hands-on style to the recording process.

Ziemba says they found the process therapeutic, and the songs on Vaca show that. Half were written before October 2014, and the other half reflect on Owens. A few dive into nightmarish sonic territory. Most are comforting, though sad.

“It’s chaos,” Ziemba says. “I think that’s what our band embodies. To have true chaos, you have to have a positive and a negative and all these kinds of things.”

Rubedo, with iZCALLi, Saturday, January 6, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $13, 303-377-1666.

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris