It's a long way from Tub Ring to "Twilight" -- or is it?

July 6, 2010

Formed way back in 1992 as a high school punk band, the art-damaged Chicago collective Tub Ring really came into its own when Rob Kleiner came on board, fresh from following Mr. Bungle around, and bringing more than a bit of that group’s hyperactive genre-mashing and gonzo theatrics to his new endeavor.

Despite Tub Ring’s dedicated underground following, Kleiner, like most musicians these days, has struggled to pay the rent. In recent years, he’s made inroads into the world of writing for films and television, mostly working with small independent projects—until he co-wrote the song “What Part of Forever,” sung by Cee Lo Green of Gnarls Barkley fame.

The soundtrack album on which the song appears debuted at No. 2 on Billboard’s Top 40 album charts. And of course the movie, “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” filled theaters across the country with swooning ’tweens over the holiday weekend, topping the box office, and taking in a staggering $161.7 million—which probably represents more money in an hour than Tub Ring has made in nearly two decades.

I spoke with Kleiner last week, from his studio on the border of Edison Park and Park Ridge, just before the film opened.

Q. Rob, you’ve been on the scene for a long time with Tub Ring. How did you get into composing for film and television?

A. Well, we were doing hundreds of shows a year for the last ten years of my life, whether with Tub Ring or Mindless Self Indulgence, and you come home from tour and you don’t have a job. No job is going to let you go away for six months and come back, so I just decided to go all in: “O.K., this is how I’ve got to do it. Hopefully it pays off, and if it doesn’t, I’ll die trying” So I would come home from these tours and, in the same way an indie band gets on a label or gets management, I was hustling directors of independent films—just emailing them, trying to get their business. There isn’t a lot of money in independent art, so I was probably working for them for slave wages often. But I got a couple of nice breaks with cool directors actually hiring me and giving me money. That was going good, and whenever I could, I would license stuff to TV and the Web—any way I could make money.

You have to be a jack-of-all-trades, so I would invest all of this money into recording equipment. So I’m sitting there and I’m broke, but I’d invite other bands to come and record—you do whatever you can do to pay the bills. And I have been doing it that way, really hardcore, for the last five years. Think of it this way: You have to create enough art that is generating revenue to pay your rent and eat every month. How is that possible?  Just saying it out loud, I’m still not sure how it is possible!

Q. So how did the “Twilight” opportunity come up?

A. I am totally independent—I have no manager, publisher, etc. There is a buddy I occasionally write songs with—he writes under the pen name Oh, Hush!—who is a little farther in the game than I am; he does have a publisher that represents some people and is based out of LA. They wanted to have Cee-lo do a track on this soundtrack, and my buddy knew that was right up my alley. Gnarls Barkley is one of my favorites of the past five years; I love Cee-Lo’s voice, and I love everything Danger Mouse does. He knew that was really my forte, so he came to me and said, “I’ve got this great opportunity: My publisher wants a track for Cee-Lo. It would be in the ‘Twilight’ film.”  At the same time, this publisher probably gave this assignment to all of his composers—probably a hundred people.

Q. “Let’s see what we can get in.”

A. Right. I do stuff like this all the time. There are long shots where it’s like, “Wow, this is worth at least a try. It’s worth the effort.”

Q. Well, Tub Ring always has had this twisted, dark undercurrent to it. Is that why your friend came to you?  “Let’s see if we can give Cee-Lo something freaky?”

A. You know, I have been kind of on and off \in the last few years working on another kind of indie-soul-type project kind of modeled after Gnarls Barkley, so I think it was more in hearing me do that project, Edison’s Arm. But it wasn’t anything big; we weren’t playing live shows or anything. I found this amazing black male vocalist who could do the black dude lows and black dude highs—all this amazing soul—and I was inviting him into the studio to record as much stuff as we could. We were just throwing it out in the world and I was just softly trying to pitch it. Again, I’m not really a connected guy. But I think my buddy heard that stuff and said, “This guy would be a good guy to team up with to do something for Cee-Lo. He obviously gets that sound.”

Q. How did you set about co-writing the tune?

A. The song starts out with an acoustic guitar and whistling. My buddy came over and basically played me the riff, and two seconds later, I was whistling that hook. Honestly, it just took us an afternoon to write the whole thing: lyrics, vocals, everything; it came together really quick. When we were done we were like, “Yeah, it’s a good song. Who knows?  There are a lot of great writers probably taking stabs at this.” But later that day, his publisher was going, “Wow! Amazing!  I’m going to show it to Cee-Lo.” Two days later, Cee-Lo is re-tracking my vocals.

Q. Songwriters have told me that sometimes they work on a tune for five years and it never gets there, and sometimes a great one comes in a few hours.

A. Absolutely. Proof positive of that right there.

Q. So you didn’t get to meet Cee-Lo? He recorded his parts on his own?

A. Correct. All the music was recorded at my studio, but he sang the vocals in LA. I should also add that my non-musical friends and family don’t really understand the complexity of how cool this was: They did not remix my track. They basically took my stereo mix of the song out of a home studio. They pay people tons of money to tweak stuff like that, but they were totally happy with my mix, and they were buying the track next week. They didn’t touch it.

It’s one of those things you always wonder: “Is my stuff good enough to be major?” I’m always on indie labels, and I like what I’m doing, but does it compare to that stuff?  Why are these people making so much money and I’m making so little? [Laughs] I feel like my product is good, but you doubt yourself. It was vindication for sure.

Q. What does it feel like the day they send it back to you and you hear Cee-Lo Green singing on your song?

A. It was so amazing! If they told me, “Write a song for Celine Dion,” I would do it, but Cee-Lo is actually someone I love. For that to be your first foray into writing for another artist, someone you love and a high profile single, it’s really overwhelming. I think I spent the next ten minutes screaming out loud. Then it was twice as cool to see him perform it on Leno. It’s one thing to hear his beautiful voice on record and see my name in the credits, but to actually see him singing the words I co-wrote coming out of his mouth on TV was out of this world. I almost started crying.

 

Q. Are you going to go out at midnight on Wednesday and see the movie with the 13-year-old girls?

A. I don’t know. I actually haven’t seen any of them up until last week; I had a double feature one night and caught up. I don’t think I can stay up until 2 a.m. I’m not a party animal youngster!

Q. You’re about to be exposed to the biggest audience of your career, mostly ’tweens, a demographic you never tapped with Tub Ring.

A. Definitely not!  Not in a million years. It’s such a weird thing. You also have people who are Tub Ring fans who are like, “F— you! Why would you work for ‘Twilight’?” Come on, man, are you kidding? I think I’ve built up enough cred over the years. Can you let me have this one?

Q. Do you think this song will lead to more?

A. I’m hoping. It seems like it is. What’s kind of nice about being in the position I’m at right now is that since I didn’t have a publisher or manager or agent, I’m in a position where I accomplished all of the stuff those people would do for me by myself. So now I can let those other people maybe come to me for a change, instead of the other way around. I publish all of Tub Ring’s stuff under my publishing company, and that brings in maybe $200 in royalties a quarter. Now my publishing company is worth more having this title, so I’m in a good position. The financial stuff is nice, but hopefully it’s also going to open doors for me to work with a better caliber of artists.

Q. People have illusions of grandeur about how much money can be made writing a hit song. I don’t want to get too personal, but how much did you make with this project compared to, say, six months of touring?

A. It would probably take a lifetime of touring for me to equal it! It’s ridiculous. The thing about the industry is that if I would have done this 10 years ago… It’s good money now, but 10 years ago it would have been indescribable. For songwriters back when people actually bought records… I didn’t really know how the numbers worked until now. But it’s a good pay-off now—at least my Discover card will be happy.

Q. And there is a new Tub Ring album coming for the fall?

A. Yeah, August 31st. I think it’s officially our fifth, but we also have b-sides records, a DVD unreleased thing… I quit counting.

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