I know you first as a musician – specifically as a keyboardist and trumpeter. You have been playing music since you were a child, right?
Yes, I’ve been playing music since I was very young. I grew up on a farm and in our home there, my family had an old upright baby grand piano. When I was a toddler, I would crawl over to the piano and pound on the pedals. This would shake the sound board enough to make some noise. My mom eventually figured out that I was interested in the instrument, so she popped me in my high chair and sat me in front of the keyboard. I would happily plunk away for hours on end.
Wow! That’s amazing. And kind of adorable (smiles).
Yeah, I think I have improved a bit since those days (smiles), but we’re not sure since we can’t find the cassette tapes that contained my recordings that were made on our small Fisher Price recorder.
Aww… haha (smiles).
I love how it seems that you chose the instrument, and your mom saw your interest in it and just encouraged it, rather than you being pushed into it. I think forcing kids to take music lessons can sometimes actually make them lose all enjoyment in it.
Yes, well I did eventually start taking piano lessons in grade 2, and was off and on with them throughout my grade school days. I always enjoyed improvising on the instrument and creating my own music…often much more than practising what was assigned to me by my various teachers. As such, piano, has always been my first love and I can still entertain myself for hours on it. I just love being able to create lush harmonies and lay creative melodies over them.
I think that is what is missing in many formal music education programs- encouraging students to improvise and create. But it’s great that you just seemed to have a knack for creating on your own. Did you do this with the trumpet as well? How did the trumpet come into your life?
I didn’t start playing trumpet until grade 5, but I stuck with it throughout high school and then studied it formally in university. Trumpet is very different than piano, but I love it too. You’ve only got one note at a time, but because it’s small and handheld, you can move around with it a lot, which I like. I love the freedom it gives me to move around the stage, and it definitely lends itself well to dance moves, choreography and all the funk music I’m into these days.
Speaking of dance, I know you are dancing a lot of hustle these days and that you took that up not too long ago Did you take any sort of dance classes as a child as well?
No, I didn’t take any dance lessons growing up. Between my two sisters, I was exposed to just about every dance style there is, but I never actually tried them myself. It really wasn’t until last year (2016) that I started exploring Hustle dance and taking lessons. It has been fun to learn because the footwork isn’t too complicated. I also really love the community and the fact that it’s a partner dance. I love being able to connect one-on-one with a partner and speak a language together. Dance is very synonymous to music that way.
I have friends who think that because they are adults now, and don’t have a background in dance from childhood, that ‘it’s too late’ for them to just pick it up now. What are your thoughts on this?
I would agree and disagree with your friends. Some dance styles, like breakdancing for example, are very demanding on your body. I’m no dance pro, but I feel like learning how to do a head spin when you’re over 30 and without having dance experience, may be impossible. Similarly, becoming a top ballerina in your 40’s might not work out so well either. There is a certain expectation to be youthful, for the most part, for commercialized dancing for sure.
Outside of the commercial dance world though, and I mean the “dance just for fun” world, I don’t think there’s any age limit. For me, without any previous dance experience, I’m still able to find tons of fulfillment and enjoyment learning Hustle.
What made you choose hustle dance as a new activity?
It’s really all about the community for me. It’s all about sharing what we are good at and celebrating each other’s strengths. We appreciate everyone’s uniqueness and enjoy growing together. I have to admit, I was a little intimidated by more advanced dancers when I started, but that’s just part of life. We’ll always encounter situations that make us feel insecure or “not worthy,” but at the end of the day, you have to take that step, suck it up and do it. Each time I do that at a dance, I’m building more confidence in myself for trying all kinds of things and taking bigger risks, not just in dance, but in life in general.
Nicely said. I also like the way that what we can learn from dance can roll over into other areas of our lives.
Yes. And there are so many dance styles out there to choose from. Regardless of your age, I think everyone should experience dancing. Some will find more fulfillment dancing solo, and some will enjoy partner dancing more. Whatever floats your boat, dance should always allow you to express something in yourself and exercise your creativity. I believe the only way to stay truly fulfilled is to stay creating…whatever that looks like for you.
It would be a shame if your friends didn’t try dancing because they feel too old. Who’s to say it wouldn’t allow them to be more creative, fulfilled, and just feeling better about themselves all around!
I agree. Dance can contribute so much to a person’s life.
I think the assumption from most people would be that having a background as a musician would give you a bit of an ‘advantage’ in learning dance. What is your experience in regards to this? How has your music background impacted your learning to dance?
I think my music background has definitely made learning Hustle easier than if I hadn’t had any musical background. At first, Hustle was tricky because the footwork goes to a 3-count, when all the music goes to 4-count. As such, the dance is always syncopated and seemingly off the rhythm. That said, it’s always on beat. Meaning every step happens with the pulse of the music. At first, I would always want to start moving on the first beat and stay in line with the music. But with time, I was able to learn to just feel the beat and step with that instead.
And how has dance affected your being a musician?
Dance has affected my musician life by giving me a whole new set of priorities. I have fallen in love with Hustle and want to see this dance grow everywhere. The thing I love about it is that Hustle can be danced to contemporary music, making it very accessible to anyone, really. Unlike Salsa, Tango, Foxtrot or other ballroom styles that fit with very specific music genres, Hustle can be paired with just about anything you hear on the radio these days.
As a songwriter, it has given me more focus for my direction and sound. I want to write more music for my band The Phonix, and my overarching goal is that it be good music for hustling to. The dance just makes me feel so good, and I’d love for more people to experience that too.
Your enthusiasm for this dance can really be felt in your recent song “Work it Out” –which is actually about Hustle. It’s fantastic! I’m assuming your cowriter and the other musicians don’t dance Hustle, though. So how did they connect to this idea that I’m assuming was yours initially?
Every song comes alive in different ways. Some with longer roads than others. “Work It Out,” took over 15 months to finally be finished. And I can’t really say that my cowriter, or anyone in the band for that matter, “connects” with the idea of the song being about Hustle, but they still like it. I worked with our lead singer, Brandon Thornhill, to create the initial versions of the track. The first set of lyrics were a typical guy sees girl in club scenario. They were alright, but both of us felt that the lyrics needed a little “something.”
Oh, I see. So it wasn’t actually about Hustle originally? You weren’t even learning the dance yet?
No, I wasn’t. But about 6 months after our first write, and several versions later, I started dancing hustle.
Oh, wow! I had no idea that the song had begun before your dancing experience.
Yes, but after a few more months of playing the track live with the band and getting more tired of the song and lyrics, I decided to go back to the drawing board and rewrite the music. This time, I was very much writing with the end goal of this being a hustle worthy track. After updating the music and being happy with the result, I turned to the lyrics and completely rewrote them about hustle. I was just loving the dance so much that I thought, “How cool if we could have a Vancouver-made Hustle anthem for our community here in Vancouver?!” I wasn’t sure it if would hit with everyone or not, but I figured I’d give it a shot.
A song about your favorite dance. Such a clever idea. And it went over okay with your cowriter?
Brandon liked the rewrite of the lyrics as well as all the musical changes, so that was enough to put the song forward to the band to get it to the press.
I think it takes a lot of patience and understanding to recognize that these kinds of projects take a lot of time to finally come to fruition. Some people give up because they find that long term commitment into it a little daunting. What is it that keeps you motivated to continue growing these projects?
I’ve heard it said that you have to write ten songs to get one good one. And then once you’ve got one good one, you have to rewrite it at least seven times to get it right. I believe we were on the seventh or eighth version of the song “Work it Out” at one point. And then, on my own, I took the music from that back to the drawing board and changed almost everything except the bass line. Then I rewrote the lyrics with the Hustle theme.
With that in mind, being patient and enjoying the ride is really important. At the end of the day, with both music and dance, I think the point is just to have fun. I try not to make songwriting any different in that regard. Have fun with it. Laugh it off when you create something you think is crap. Just keep going. Even crappy songs may have ideas in them that you can harvest for a masterpiece later. Nothing is ever wasted. Be willing to suck and find partners that don’t mind sucking with you (smiles).
What do you look for in songwriting partners?
With songwriting, each song involves a varying process. Everyone I have worked with has different strengths, a different timeline and different work ethic. I think with collaboration, for me, it’s just important to find partners that are excited to write. Attitude is everything to me. Plus, I am lucky to already have such a great band to put this together with.
Are we going to be seeing more originals by you and the band in the future?
Oh, yes! I’m working on several songs as we speak. And The Phonix has three more tracks that will be coming out at various intervals throughout the summer. So you can stay tuned though our Facebook page and all social media for those releases. Much more funky dance music is on the way!
Yay! I’m really looking forward to hearing more of your music (smiles).
I also hope to have an album together by early 2018. It’s definitely where I want to focus my musical energy right now. I want to go places with the Phonix! Europe is definitely on my radar (smiles).
To hear more from Reuben and The Phonix live band:
The Phonix plays at the backstage lounge every other Thursday evening.
Their complete live show list is on their website The Phonix
“Work It Out,” plus their future releases, will be
on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, and iTunes
More links to “Work It Out”:
Note: The Phonix is also on Patreon. One of the perks they offer is access to their “Songwriter’s Vault.” Reuben has documented, in detail, every version of “Work It Out” for anyone who is curious to see exactly how the song progressed from the idea in its infancy to a recorded track.