An Interview with Rubulad's Chris Thomas and Sari Rubinstein
April 5, 2002

The walls of Rubulad have a peculiar archeology. Every square inch is covered with scraps of paper, textured fabrics, shiny baubles, little lights, or rough paintings. From that chaos of decorations you can start to read the history of the space. A banner reminds you of heaven and hell, a piece of tinfoil recalls the Kiss party, a xeroxed hunk of cheese has something to do with cats and mice, and there's a candy cane from Christmas. There's art everywhere. Urban folk art. A diorama in the window-well outside the bathroom. A topiary rabbit at the front door. A big tree that begs you to climb inside. You see all this at once, jumbled and confused, overwhelming, the same way you remember the parties.

In 1993, Chris Thomas and Sari Rubinstein took out a lease on a 5,000 square foot basement on the south side of Williamsburg. Along with Chris and Sari, there were about a dozen other people in on the deal, most of them musicians and artists. They planned to use the space for band rehearsals, maybe recordings. Before that, it needed to be cleaned out. An art collective called Lalalandia had used the space for a few years prior and thrown a few parties. The three largest rooms were mostly full of industrial junk.

In the next couple of years, Rubulad -- named after the letters that correspond to the space's phone number -- would feature elaborate theme parties. They were all promoted word-of-mouth and always well attended. Eventually, about five years ago, the parties began to occur more regularly. More recently, they've happened every three or four weeks. They're now so crowded that it can be difficult to move from room to room at 3 in the morning.

It's sort of hard to say what makes the parties so good. At first you think it's the space, wonderful and baroque. Then you think it's the people, who dress up, follow the themes, and wear costumes. At one point you start to be impressed by the performers: the DJs, a puppeteer, some guy showing old films, a groovy band that gets everyone dancing. And finally you realize that there's a consistency to each party that isn't an accident, and it's the people who host it who give it that consistency. In a way, Chris and Sari are pretty much responsible for all of it, or at least for setting the framework that allows it all to happen.

The current Rubulad will end soon -- possibly even after this weekend. You can read the details below. I wanted to write about my favorite Rubulad party but I only remember pieces of them now. The fake French band. The weird girl with the crazy eyes that I danced with at every party and never talked to. Coats. The time I danced until they sent me home. How bad the morning sun stung.

I realized that it would be more appropriate and infinitely more informative to print what Chris and Sari have to say about Rubulad and its parties. The following interview took place at a quiet cafe in the West Village. It's another in a series of Nonsense interviews with normal people, just like you, who make New York a better place to live. It's been edited to make all of us sound smarter and more eloquent than we are in real life.

NONSENSE: How did the parties at Rubulad start?

Chris: I can't remember.

Sari: You remember.

Chris:We had a party. Our first party was called Happy Land 2. Happy Land was the name of a social club in the Bronx where I think in the late 80s a horrific fire had broken out. It was a jilted lover thing; they threw a Molotov cocktail or something. It was an illegal party club and all these people died. A lot of people.

Sari: Like 98 people ...

Chris:It was really harsh. So our first party was called Happy Land 2.

N: When was that?

Sari: 1994. It was a carnival party. And it was really difficult because all of these booths had to be manned and everybody was performing. We had to switch every 20 minutes.

N: Why a carnival party and not just bands or whatever?

Sari: I have no idea.

Chris:It's hard to remember. I think I might have been on drugs back then.

Sari: Well, for sure we were all really grouchy about performing in New York.

Chris:Oh, right.

Sari: Which was pretty grim.

Chris: It's such a big, fat waste of time to lug all your equipment around to crappy clubs and get abused there and not make any money. We thought we could put on our own shows.

Sari: At that time I was lucky enough to be in a band that was kind of popular [The Gamma Rays]. We would even get paid and get artistic control at the clubs and we were still really frustrated. We decided that we'd just do everything ourselves and be able to set up everything in advance. And during that time I read an article by Gerard Cosloy ...

N: The guy who ran Matador records?

Sari: Yeah. And it was all about how badly bands get fucked. And he was like, "I don't understand why bands don't do this themselves and do their own shows." I said, "Yeah! He's right." We were already half way into doing that, but I felt really inspired that somebody from outside thought that was really worth doing.

N: How do you guys get away with it?

Chris:Back in 1993 on the south side of Williamsburg nobody really cared what was going on. Nobody was paying attention.

N: I've always assumed that you were paying off cops.


Sari: No.

Chris:They never asked. I mean, I would if they asked. Buy protection? Sure.

N: Did the party just make sense immediately?

Sari: It was Day-1 attended by people we liked. We figured there must be a need for it. And because of what had happened in New York -- the cabaret laws.

N: Wait, what?

Sari: Well, first of all, in the olden days of New York they had bands and dancing. Dancing and performers of every kind -- spoken word, circus, whatever -- in the same venue. Places like the Mud Club or Danceteria had a lot of different spaces and a lot of different installations and all kinds of different people went.

And then this weird thing happened when it suddenly became all giant discos and little rock bars. And those people never went to the same place anymore. It seemed like when we started doing Rubulad that people really wanted to be in the same space. They wanted to watch a band and go dance. And be happy.

For Rubulad, I was asking myself where I wanted to go. And my dream place to go out was someone's house, so it would feel comfy. I wanted to go to a house party that had performers. The clubs had become really impersonal. I wanted to feel the hand of the hosts at the thing.

N: How did you two become the figureheads of the party? Has it always been that way?

Chris:Yeah, I guess. Sari really instigated it.

Sari: I had some kind of epiphany about not chasing something in the above-ground world.

N: Explain please.

Sari: I don't know. Something happened in me that I no longer wanted to be in a band that wanted to be famous and go on tour. I just wanted to do something that was ours. I guess it was firmly planting myself in the underground, not after some kind of success that my parents would like.

Chris:As a result we're completely broke.

Sari: That's true, but we have such a rewarding life. We are so blessed every day.

Chris:I forgot about that.

Sari: I don't know. I feel lucky.

N: What do you think makes the party good?

Chris:I think it's the people who go to it.

N: Then how do you keep it from being overrun with yahoos after eight years?

Chris:I don't know. But it might have something to do that the only advertising we do is all word of mouth and mailing lists that people can sign up for at the parties. And there's a core of pretty fun Brooklyn party people who like to come out and their friends and their friend's friends. It's those people who make it good. It could be a disaster in spite of our best efforts.

Sari: And that people are good enough to do things and participate and do spontaneous performance. And I think another part of it is that there is a lot of different stuff going on. So you can go into a different room if you don't like the thing that's going on. You can go there with your five friends and have five different experiences based on what room you go into at what time.

And there's a lot of work. Stuff that's made by people's hands. We think about what people would like. I think about it 24 hours a day. I dream about what stupid backdrop to hang up.

N: What have you specifically tried to avoid?

Sari: I like it to be fun, and I like it to be friendly. So we've tried to avoid attitude. Like a some-people-are-better-than-other-people attitude that goes so hand in hand with New York nightlife. Williamsburg definitely has its own aesthetic. It definitely had its own kind of chic.

N: Like what?

Sari: I don't know. Thrift store-cardboard box chic.

N: What happens at Rubulad that somebody who just shows up at a party doesn't see?

Sari: About two weeks of work. There's a lot of decorating, a lot of scrounging of stuff. I like for people to come in there to work and everything be set up for them -- to make it easy for them.

Chris:A lot of schlepping.

Sari: And there's a lot of detective work. Like if you want to have something like a square dance then you have to find square dance callers. We used to have all kinds of weird scrounging for sheets for puppet shows. We would call every hospital in New York and every hotel, trying to get someone to give us sheets.

N: I guess you have to coordinate staff too.

Sari: Yeah. There's a lot of people who work there.

N: How many?

Sari: It varies. Eight on the doors. Sound. Six bartenders ... Put up and take down ... Coat check ... There's got to be 30.

N: Do you ever marvel at the fact that you're employing 30 people, and that you're paying even more when you add performers?

Sari: We're proud and we make a really big effort to pay everyone. Sometimes it feels like we're just processing money.

Chris:Most of it goes to overhead. Performers, staff, materials, phone bills, rent, whatever else. There's a pretty small slice of that pie left after everybody gets fed.

N: How do you pay performers?

Chris:It's all sort of on-the-fly. We don't make guarantees.

N: I don't hear a lot of complaining.

Sari: That's because people are used to getting nothing.

Chris:You definitely get twice as much playing at Rubulad as you do for playing at Brownies.

Sari: But I never feel like we can pay people enough. It's very frustrating. It's because we have so many people performing in one night.

N: Does the party pay the rent?

Sari: Part of the party pays part of the rent. The people who have space in Rubulad also contribute. And that also pays part of the rent. It's more than doubled since we moved in.

N: So what is the future of the space?

Chris:It's kind of unclear. Our lease was extended and we are operating under that extension, which is due to end. We are looking around at other spaces, and if anyone knows of a space, please get in touch. Maybe we'll take a break, but I don't know where we're going to put all this stuff. It's full of stuff. We're looking at this place in Bushwick ...

Sari: We're going to try to not take a break.

Chris:We don't want to pay to warehouse all that stuff.

Sari: We will have to move sometime. Maybe not April 15. Hopefully it will be to some place bigger and better.

N: What else do we need to talk about?

Sari: I don't know. Is this interview boring?

N: It's not. It might be boring to you because it's just stuff that rolls off the top of your head, but no one else sees what goes on at Rubulad. And besides, never underestimate the power of editing.

Sari: We should talk about how anybody can do this. And they should. Here's some tips: Anybody can go in and get a temporary beer and wine license from the New York State Liquor Authority. It costs $25. It's not scary.

N: What else? How do you find all the performers? What if I don't know any DJs or bands or whatever?

Sari: Ask people. Talk to people. Go out to see things. And when you see things you like ask them to come to your house. There is an audience. Put stuff that you genuinely think is great, and together we can bypass the entire club and music industry. Take the art directly from the people to the people. Now I'm getting political. But it can be done.



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