After Dark: Hard-touring Rubblebucket is headed our way
05:00 AM, Dec 27, 2012
Alex Toth was working on a new song last week. A sad folk song, he calls it.
Generally speaking, sad folk songs are not what you’ll hear when his band, Rubblebucket, comes to town Saturday to play Water Street Music Hall. It’s an indie-pop dance band. Afro-pop rhythms, Rubblebucket likes that stuff. “My dad had pretty cool taste in music,” Toth says. “He was a free spirit in college, he did things a lot of people did in 1969 and ‘70. Open-minded listening experiences, with open-minded friends.”
The nut does not fall far from the tree. Rubblebucket is an open-minded listening experience that gets its open-minded friends moving, thanks to a compelling female lead singer, giant robot puppets and a hot horn section led by Toth on trumpet.
One of the cool albums that Toth’s father introduced him to was the Don Ellis Orchestra’s Electric Bath, which in 1967 with its Indian influences and oddly tuned instruments forced the jazz world to rethink the potential of big-band music. It’s not generally remembered today, but Electric Bath was named the 1968 Down Beat magazine album of the year. “When I was in college, the music everyone else was blasting was Green Day,” Toth says. “I was always not listening to the popular music; I was blasting this 25-piece band playing everything in really weird time signatures. It was a great record, sorta accessible, but really tweaked.
“Don Ellis Orchestra and James Brown. That’s a cross section of what I’m about.”
Of course, the cross section reveals more than experimental jazz and sweaty dance moves. You can groove to the effervescent “Came Out of a Lady,” which Rubblebucket played this summer during its national TV debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live, with its whistles and whizzing synthesizers and African polyrhythms. Or you can thoughtfully ponder the opening line: “I used to wish that I was never born …”
“Came Out of a Lady,” Toth explains, began as a birthday song. But it evolved into, he says, “about being saved and being given meaning in your life, by finding that person that balances you out. I think everybody on the planet goes through an incredible amount of suffering, just from being alive. Just the personal and social struggles, whatever it happens to be, everybody has had periods where they say, ‘I wish I was never born.’ The song is just a way of saying you were born, and you were saved.
“If I hadn’t found Kal, and if I hadn’t found music when I did, I would be passed out in a gutter somewhere.”
Kal is Rubblebucket lead singer and saxophonist Kalmia Traver, who’s standing next to Toth during his phone interview, washing dishes in their Brooklyn apartment. They met at the University of Vermont, played in bands and traveled together to Puerto Rico to study traditional music there. In 2006, Toth was recruited to play in the reggae band John Brown’s Body, and soon pulled Traver in as a sax player. It was a learning experience, not only in how to tour relentlessly, but also “the use of horns in band like that,” Toth says. “A nice synthesis of stuff. Is it as reggae horn section or a Motown soul thing? Jazzy or Balkan?”
Then, after three years, Toth and Traver left John Brown’s Body to launch their own musical odyssey, Rubblebucket.
It’s not an easy voyage. They’d hit the road for 135 shows, “the majority of which were pretty mediocre, as far as attendance and stuff,” Toth says. “And with a nine-piece band, I was going insane trying to keep it together. We’d be in Colorado, or some place in the Midwest, and what’s the return? At least we did get to be a really good live band. But we almost considered not being a band after that.”
So he took the advice of a cousin, “a culture marketing genius guy, telling me to get back to the lab. He said, ‘Tour less, man. I know it’s fun to perform, but it’s time to go to work on a new album.’ New music is the lifeblood of any band. You have to keep revitalizing what you make.”
It’s time to revitalize again. Rubblebucket will stop touring for the bulk of 2013. Maybe Toth will get a job in a coffee shop, just so he can “do it with some measure of sanity.”
“We’re about ready to take a bigger break than we have ever taken, go even deeper into the lab,” he says. “We need to just disappear and take a break, for breathing purposes. Give us the time to make this thing very well-crafted.”
In January, Rubblebucket will share studio time with Antibalas, a veteran Brooklyn soul and Afro-beat band. “I don’t think Rubblebucket would have been possible without Kal and I freaking out to Antibalas in college,” Toth says. “I don’t think Vampire Weekend would be possible without Antibalas.
“It’s hard to have perspective when you’re out in the field, going to another venue in Oxford, Miss., or wherever. Then you get back to Brooklyn and it feels really good. Everywhere I go, people know about the work we’ve been doing. And that makes it better to connect and collaborate.”
Home means “connecting with friends we haven’t seen in a long time, going out to hear music,” Toth says. “We’re in bars and clubs and theaters 150 nights a year, and then we go home go and still crave that beer-stained scent.”
Home also means reconnecting with the popular culture, for better or for worse. “When you’re on the road four or five months at a time, you don’t watch much TV,” Toth says. “We just watched three seasons of The Walking Dead in five days.”
He’s catching up on the news as well. It’s creeping into his writing. The sad folk song he’s working on? “That Connecticut thing is really devastating,” Toth says. He’s just a couple of degrees of separation from a musician who lost a daughter. And another musician whose wife was killed at the school. It is a world out of balance. “I was just reading something on the Internet about what it takes to own a vehicle in this country,” Toth says, “versus what it takes to own a gun.”
The working title of that sad folk song is “American Song.”