Now Bear This: Drums and Tuba demonstrate proper touring form.
Not Your Mama's Marching Band
Even after 10 years together, Drums and Tuba is still striving to perfect its sound. Results thus far have been inspiring.
By Peter Koht
For the electronically infused trio of Drums and Tuba (guitar being left off the marquee), crisis has played a huge part in the development of the band's sound. First forming on Sixth Street in Austin as a street performance duo, the ensemble has morphed over its decade of existence to incorporate all kinds of electronic accoutrements, a full-time guitar player and even vocals.
"We are all dysfunctional freaks, but we make it work," says guitarist Neal McKeeby, who first joined the band after playing with tuba player Brian Wolff in the Austin rock band Hominy Bop. "At first it was a little weird trying to figure out where the guitar fit in. I try to not come up with something that isn't so busy and is more bare bones. I don't know if I actually do it, but I think about it. That is the thing."
The band's latest bout with dysfunction had nothing to do with their quest for artistic clarity. It came in the form of a Category 5 storm named Katrina, which leveled the group's current hometown and nearly swallowed up the newly purchased home of drummer Anthony Nozero. "He is right by that canal that flooded the Lower Ninth Ward," McKeeby told Metro Santa Cruz last week from New Orleans. "He was one block away from destruction."
The band has avoided homeless-ness, but given that "80 or 90 percent of the city is evacuated and not around," there is talk of relocation. In fact, McKeeby is contemplating moving back to Brooklyn, where the group once made its home and first attracted the attention of a singer named Ani DiFranco from Buffalo. Signing the band to her Righteous Babe imprint rescued the band from a burnout-inspired breakup.
Finding inspiration in the Afrobeat sounds of Fela Kuti and the sonic possibilities of looping, the hard-touring act refocused itself and began to show the world that the tuba can in fact anchor an ensemble that plays more than Sousa. Employing samplers and looping boxes allows the band to create all-encompassing canvases of sound. According to McKeeby, with the recent addition of a mixing board to the rig, "we don't have to stick with the same loops for the whole song. We can take things in and out and manipulate it. It does definitely affect the songwriting."
But all things in Drums and Tuba are up for debate. As far as electronics go, McKeeby is brutally honest. "We often talk about ditching it. We often go over a set of our stuff and say, 'It's all so dense.'"
McKeeby also uses this adjective to describe the band's latest recording, Battles Olé. Featuring finely crafted, Byzantine song structures and a surfeit of overdubs, the record is epic in both its scope and its creation. While the band is made up of improvisational geniuses, the record was the product of two years in the studio. They took a leisurely approach to the sessions. "We weren't watching the clock. If we didn't like something, we could go back and change it, which sometimes isn't so good. The jury is still out on whether this was a cathartic experience."
On the level of the listener, the record is extremely satisfying, yet the material is old news to the band. In fact, they've already got a slew of new tunes to take out on the road. "I am sure that you've talked to other bands where this has happened. You take so long to make a record and you mix it and it gets duplicated and you get copies, but you are already on to new songs. That has always been the Catch-22 of recording. It takes so long to record it that we are always onto the next step."
Drums and Tuba plays Thursday, Nov. 10, at 9pm at Moe's Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. Tickets $8/advance, $10/door. Temple of Funk opens. (831.479.1854; www.moesalley.com)
Send a letter to the editor about this story.