Published on BLURT – Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Brooklyn indie rockers aim for the ultimate song.
BY ANNAMARYA SCACCIA
“Brooklyn’s so incredibly green and gorgeous right now, so it’s actually nice to stay home,” says Rubblebucket’s lead vocalist/saxophonist Kalmina Traver of the beautiful splice in the drab weather that’s pummeled the east coast for the last few weeks.
Talking from her home on the borough’s Bushwick-Bed Sty border, Traver is taking this day in early June to soak in some relaxation. It’s a much-needed break for the hyper-excited, quick talking 27-year-old, who, along with her band mates Alex Toth (trumpet/vocals/hyper-kinetics), Adam Dotson (trombone/vocals), Dave Cole (drums), Darby Wolf (keyboards), Craig Myers (percussion), Jordan Brooks (bass), and Ian Hersey (guitar), spent most of the “dark and depressing” winter working on their latest record, Omega La La, which dropped late June on Sin Duda Records. According to Traver, in addition to the multitude of album work that needed attention, the Brooklyn-based outfit drove excessively through the sleet, snow, and cold of winter between their homes and the studios where they pieced Omega La La together – those being the Manhattan-located Plantain/DFA Studios and DFA producer Eric Broucek’s studio in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint section.
What resulted from these nearly three months of craftsmanship, which included writing (some of which took place before landing in Brooklyn in March of last year), artwork, and “all the technical stuff,” is an overwhelming and audacious record that diverges from their projected musical norm. The record is an outpouring bombast of exceedingly optimistic rhythms, one that ameliorates the waves of electric harmonies and eclectic art-rock chords from 2010’s self-titled effort and Triangular Daisies EP. It’s a difference in sound that Traver openly acknowledges – according to the Burlington, Vermont native, Rubblebucket traversed news lands, ambitiously searching uncharted rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic territories that extend beyond “the standard rhythms you’re used to.” It’s magical, if nothing else.
In a way, such exploration seems effortless when the pretense of stringent practice is removed from the equation. The band barely rehearses because, Traver says, tranquility and errand-running take precedent during downtime from their busy lives and hectic touring schedules. Plus, she adds, they only really get together for shows and recording since they all reside in different cities: New Jersey native Toth; Dotson, Calif., native Cole; Brooks, Hersey, and herself all live in different parts of New York City; while Myers lives in his Burlington, VT hometown and Wolf lives in his hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts. Except for “Worker,” every track on Omega La La was played extensively on the road for over a year before they were recorded (“Worker” manifested during post-production and after partial recording). So the stage is really their practice space, where their “music comes to life.”
This musical turnabout is also thanks to Broucek’s golden touch. According to the frontwoman, the seasoned producer, whose repertoire includes LCD Soundsystem, Cut Copy, and Hercules & Love Affair, brought to the record a sound that beholds his heart – evident most, she says, in the drums and “the way he produced them and the choices he made.” It also didn’t hurt, at least metaphysically, that his studio was equipped with an outboard mixer that didn’t save presets. So when they mixed a track, which took a little less than a day for each, that was that. The only way they’d revisit a song, she says, is if they absolutely had to and, if that was the case, it meant back at square one. “That was actually a little nerve-racking but that’s the way he works. That’s what he really wanted to do and I ultimately am really happy with how it came out,” says Traver, adding that Broucek “brought a sense of continuity to the album” she thinks may have been amiss otherwise.
His influence on Omega La La could be heard in another way as well: the consuming presence of synths. The amount of synths used for Rubblebucket’s latest was more than ever before, a product, Traver claims, of both self-intention and a great deal of instruments at the DFA compound. “[It] literally had more synths than I can count,” she says. “They are all these incredible, really hard-to-find, vintage, beautiful, in pristine condition [synths]. That in itself was a certain sound to our record.”
But Omega La La‘s variants expand beyond lack of rehearsals and legendary producers. It also has everything to do with Rubblebucket’s evolution. Whereas previous records Rubblebucket would draw from their Afro-beat influencers, particularly the burgeoning American Afro-beat movement of recent years, Omega La La leans more towards hard-lined art-dance and electro-noise funk taking hold of the east coast.Plus, she says, the troupe purposely focused on writing songs that, while still “people-friendly” and “dance worthy,” could also be potentially radio-friendly. It’s a calculated change, asserts Traver-a band phylogeny they’re excited to hear.
Even though this sonic shift is deliberate, its title, Omega La La, was delighted mishap. While brainstorming, Traver decided that “la la” needed a place in the title somehow. And, in the process of jotting down her ideas, her finger slipped on the keyboard, unintentionally typing out the symbol for the Greek letter “Omega.” So she threw “omega la la” into the hat. The consensus was “it sounded really cool.”
What was mere happenstance, however, turned out to be far more symbolic beyond initial comprehension. According to Traver, the troupe let “omega la la” simmer for some time before deciding its permanency as the album’s title. And it was during this time that Omega La La‘s veritable truth revealed itself – they learned that, among the many synonyms attached, “omega” can mean “the ultimate.” Couple that with “la la,” which Traver translates as “singing a song,” and you have “the ultimate song.” “I think that kind of fits because I think [Omega La La] is the furthest we’ve gone in a song direction rather than just long jams or instrumental stuff,” she says.
While this is, of course, just another manifestation of Rubblebucket’s ecstatic, off-beat creativity, you can’t help but wonder if a little spiritual intervention was involved. All things considered, doesn’t the true meaning of anything unveil itself most when one’s open to possibilities rather than desperately seeking an answer? “There’s so many different ways that cool ideas can come into your life and it’s good to just be open to all of them,” offers Traver, preferring to let those “cool ideas” develop on their own, in their own terms, instead of doing everything with “big intention.”
Really, these happy accidents seem to be a part of the collective’s core existence. After all, they chose the name Rubblebucket because of pure chance too. Myers, a veteran stone mason, would always ask for the rubblebucket, an oversized vessel used in construction to collect – you guessed it – rubble. He found the term to be “the funniest word ever” and amusing for a band name, so when he was offered a random gig at an art show one night and needed an appellation, he used Rubblebucket. And, according to Traver, that not only was the night she first met him but also when the band really started, so it stuck.
But these unforeseen but deeply emblematic occurrences transpire even without some semblance of intent. Take this for example: According to Traver, what inspired the lyrics on Omega La La is nature, be it the environment itself or humanity’s connection to it (she wrote most of the songs with Toth, while Dotson penned a couple as well, including “Raining,” originally titled “Raining in Brooklyn.”) For her part, she admits she finds herself continually drawn to apocalyptic themes, particularly the fear of the world ending, pointing to “Rescue Ranger” and “Breatherz (Young as Clouds)” as audible evidence. “To put it more rationally, global warming and everything freaks me out. Our world as we know it is sort of ending, and that’s a [point] of inspiration for me because it’s constant. It never ends. I feel like I’m seeing more things every day that [are] exploding, mind-numbing, and scary. You can definitely hear a lot of that in our music,” she explains, all the while loud, bombastic sirens blare beyond the windows, almost silencing her voice.
But there’s another element present on Omega La La that happened to be absent on previous outings – the sound of Brooklyn, of which Traver says Broucek helped add to the record. Before the bulk of the crew moved to the flourishing borough over a year ago, Rubblebucket was absorbing its exciting musical acumen. It’s part of the reason they moved from Boston, where they lived for two and a half years, to be close to the artists that truly inspire them, like Dirty Projectors, Sufjan Stevens, and MGMT. “I don’t know if actually I can say there’s this dividing line [of] all of a sudden we’re here and our music has changed but I have heard a lot of people say our record sounds more Brooklyn-y,” she says.
What exactly is the Brooklyn sound, though? For the leader of the eight-piece, it’s a fusion throwback of 1980s electronica, disco, and synth-pop with threads of avant-garde, noise and drone, which she expresses love for with elongated enthusiasm. “What excited me about Brooklyn is the quality of music and musicianship around here,” she says. “There’s so much of it, and even though it can be so diverse and so different, it almost always got something really cool. I can tell people are really passionate about working on their craft.”
“For me, it was just to be in a city in general because I’m from Vermont and it’s so different,” she adds, noting that, while she loved both Vermont and Boston, Rubblebucket was on a “trajectory towards New York City, where everything is larger than life. We just wanted to be in this really dense musical and art scene and try to throw ourselves in to the thick of it.”
For Rubblebucket, relocating to Brooklyn was just a natural progression from what they achieved as a band in Boston. And so far it’s proven to be a smart move. While the Northeast is where they laid the general groundwork for the collective, focusing on non-stop touring and fanbase build-up, it’s in New York where they have access to a swarm of resources that allowed them to kick their work into high gear. Since moving further down the east coast, Rubblebucket has landed “a lot of cool opportunities” including recording sessions, and has started creating music videos. Last summer, they filmed the video for their single “Came out a Lady,” and recently premiered the video for “Silly Fathers” on Stereogum (the one for “Down in the Yards,” which will feature New York-based dancers, is set to release this month). She considers videos to be an “awesome” creative outlet; an extension of the artwork she crafts for Rubblebucket’s screen-printed t-shirts and DIY album covers.
“It’s so easy [in Brooklyn]. Everyone here is so game to be creative, and I think there’s a real hunger in general to get involved in things,” says Traver. “The video as an art form is becoming more important than it ever has been. I’m just witnessing this happen [for] the past couple of years with these crazy big montage videos that Lady Gaga has been putting out and MIA. It’s really so exciting.”
Their videos are also a translation of their rumbustious live shows. With a minimal budget, Rubblebucket has procured different visual elements and techniques to experiment with on stage, including props of the neon and comical variety (yellow streamers, forest backdrops, and ghost outfits for fans-turned-dancers). It’s just the beginning, she says, but they’re thrilled to flesh out. “It’s just a whole new element to the creativity. It’s your job but it basically makes it more fun.”
As Rubblebucket’s frontrunner, Traver embraces the possibilities of a phenomenal, visually-invested live show. It’s important for her, and her deep-rooted love of music, to turn a simple gig into a literal “departure from the world” because, she claims, only a handful of professions have the purpose of spreading happiness. So channeling that energy, that exodus from the material sphere, and turning it into an all-out sweaty dance party where people “leave the room just wanting to make love” is the ultimate goal. “I think that really enables people to believe it more and get invested more.”
No wonder, then, that Encore magazine has compared Rubblebucket’s music as something akin to yes-wave , which it described as “an opposition to the ‘90s ‘No’ wave, mainly consisting of people who are virtuosic on their instruments and focus on harmonious creations.” And for Traver, who’s heard the term thrown about but can’t pinpoint the first moment it went from lips to ear, it means encompassing and appreciating positivity and silly gestures without fear. “It’s not a very descriptive category but from everything I’ve heard, yea. I’d be happy to call myself that if an actual movement emerged,” she says.
“That’s who I am. I’m such an optimist and it pisses people off sometimes but I like it.”
Rubblebucket kicks off an east coast tour this weekend. Tour dates at their official website.