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Rubblebucket’s Alex Toth on the power of jazz and mindfulness

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Rubblebucket’s Alex Toth on the power of jazz and mindfulness

Photo by Shervin Lainez

Rubblebucket, led by Alex Toth (trumpet, backing vocals, flute, percussion) and Kalmia Traver (lead vocals, tenor and baritone saxophones, flute), is a walking party. Guided by a bright and blaring horn section, they can bring tightly wound songs to wild, pounding crescendos. The band (of six to seven members, depending on the tour) has been releasing albums of funky, psychedelic, pop-rock with heavy Afrobeat and jazz influences for almost a decade now–their latest being Sun Machine, out Aug. 24. The album tackles the years of struggle the front duo has experienced over the past few years, from Traver’s survival of ovarian cancer, Toth’s sobriety, and their later choice to end their romantic relationship while maintaining the band. And it’ll make you dance.

While loading into the Public Arts venue in New York City Tuesday night for a show, Toth took a few minutes to chat with The Alt about Sun Machine, Rubblebucket’s creative evolution, and the band’s headlining gig at Troy’s Rockin’ on the River on Wednesday, Aug. 1.

The Alt: I wanted to start off by talking about your new album Sun Machine, that’s out in about a month. The text that’s on Bandcamp is really beautiful in describing what the album is about. Something that jumped out to me was the line calling it “a party album rooted in radical mindfulness.”

AT: Whoa! That’s a nice friggin’ quote.

ALT: Right? Can you describe what that ‘radical mindfulness’ means to you?

AT: There was a huge shift in June 2013 when Kal was diagnosed with cancer–and I got sober around that time. It was like, you’re faced with mortality and your worst fears. It made us reexamine our whole way of being. In the “following your dreams” saying, I feel like we’re really lucky to have a dream and have a calling. I know so many people struggle to have a calling. Once you find a calling, or if you get one, it can be very a challenging path with tons of obstacles but there’s something really beautiful about what that does because you have this immense love for something and there’s something really torturous that comes with pursuing it.

It forces you to, at least in our situation, live an examined life in a way. How are we living the world? How are we interacting with this calling of making music, trying to succeed and get heard by fans? Continuing to produce stuff and interacting with people both in and outside of the band?

The whole thing, for me personally, is it got me super into meditation. Some people think of living mindfully as going against the stream. It’s really hard to do. There’s been times where, as part of my practice, I go to walk out of a room and I’m turning a doorknob and I say in my head, “doorknob.” Every step that I take, I’m like, “left, right,” feeling the contact of my foot hitting the ground. I totally get lost in thought, I get stressed, I get upset, just like everybody else. It’s really hard to stay on that but between Kal and I getting on these healthier paths and then getting really into mindfulness, it had this side effect of totally deepening our music. Just in there being less fear in the creative process is huge.

It’s been an interesting series of cause and effect, I feel like most people don’t change until they’re in a great deal of pain. Pain is a great teacher. It’s like that Dalai Lama quote, “Your greatest enemies are your greatest teachers.” That was our direct experience in the past five years, spanning our Survival Sounds record and then even more further along with this record.

ALT: Jumping off of that, it sounds like some of this story has already been told in Survival Sounds. This is sort of reaching past it. Sun Machine covers a lot of time, a lot of emotions.

 AT: Yeah, Survival Sounds was the start but we were in the thick of a completely crazy transformation. That took a much more succinct switch, on a much more extreme level, when Kal and I broke up over two years ago. We started working on Sun Machine way before that and the breakup, in a way, almost unshackled the whole project. It was a deeper punch of, I guess to use the word in that environment, radical mindfulness.

We wake up every day–and by we I mean human beings–and if we’re employed, we go to work and we have the same routine. Without even thinking about it, you do the things you do. You stay in the relationships you’re in even if it feels like it’s not working. It’s safer to stay and it’s way scarier to shift the whole thing, but the sense of security is an illusion for all of us, you know? Anything can happen at any time. Something about that upturned everything and made it so that when we came back to this record, to work on it and finish it, I mean… it was the most emotional thing in my whole life that has ever happened, even more than that first thing. So when we came back, it was a choice. It wasn’t like, “This is what we do, so we’re just gonna keep doing it,” it was like, “Do we want to do this?” And when the answer was “yes,” it was a deeper “yes,” with excitement, a revitalization of the whole thing.

ALT: Just in listening to some of the songs that have been released so far, “Lemonade” really stuck out to me–just wondering whether it was really good for you two to push through together, as something therapeutic, or if it was really tough.

 AT: It was therapeutic in that, at that time, there’s that grieving period post-breakup. I was writing songs every day and that was just such an amazing catharsis. A lot of the songs birthed a whole new project for me which is called Tōth–just my last name–and that’s very different than Rubblebucket. There’s strings and it’s sparse and very emotional. It’s not party music, but it’s very stripped down so that it can be adapted in many different ways and one of the songs that came to me in that time was “Lemonade.”

I realized as I was writing it that I was writing it as Kal’s perspective towards me, in a way. But it’s also just a song. It may be based on emotional currents that were happening but, you know what I mean? I don’t know if Kal and I ever rode around in rollerblades. We since have, because we’ve used it in a couple of music videos, but that might be more of a metaphor.

ALT: Well, that’s something that’s cool about your music. You can tackle something like this but it’s always very danceable. Was there a specific thought process behind maintaining that style?

AT: Kal and I first met in 2002 or 2003 in Latin jazz combo [class]. We were in Afro-Cuban folk bands and funk cover bands. We were obsessed with jazz, we’d have crazy dance parties to Thelonious Monk solos. Our partnership really started in the Dominican Republic. We were there on a trip studying merengue rhythms. Our whole history together is around dance music. Rubblebucket is decidedly our dance project. We started out way more overtly into Afrobeat and then transitioned and evolved the sound. One of the reasons I really love Sun Machine is because it feels way more unabashedly funky than Survival Sounds, for example, but there’s heartfelt, very emotional and sad songs and I love that contrast.

 

ALT: What has it been like over the years, to be able to integrate those really strong influences into popular, modern indie and rock music?

AT: I was listening to this really cool Duke Ellington record while we were on the road, Echoes of Harlem, and just thinking, “What would happen if Duke Ellington was still alive?” Because that was the popular music and it’s insane. The harmonies and the instrumentation are so complex and yet, it’s popular party music. It’s dance music but it’s impugned with so much pain and so much soul, so much sophistication. Like, damn. That can exist.

I feel like The Talking Heads and Beck, certain things that Kal and I are both really into, can accomplish that, where just the sound of the recording, the instrumentation, and the aesthetic are bringing you into a space you’ve never been before. They’re challenging you. It’s a surreal thing and yet, there’s something completely human to it as well. It’s a hard thing to do and I think that’s what we’re always striving for, to make fresh stuff. When I was in high school, I was a wayward kid getting into lots of trouble and then I found jazz. It was almost religious. It became my whole identity and the whole thing about jazz–at least from Miles Davis’ perspective, who is one of my heroes–is to find your own distinctive voice, not to repeat the past, not to be derivative.  

In terms of how it feels to be that band, it’s every feeling. There’s the euphoric feeling when it’s all working and there’s the times when you feel like you’re lost or you don’t quite have it right. “What is the sound supposed to be?” But especially with us having these side projects–I have a punk band that released a record last year and now I have this really folky thing and Kal has this really quirky synth thing–it really helps us focus.

ALT: And what’s interesting about the show you’re playing, Rockin’ on the River, is that both of the openers play to your individual side projects. Now that you’ve explained Tōth, that sounds a lot like Onlyness, and I know Kal has toured with And The Kids as Kalbells.

AT: Yeah, that’s awesome.

ALT: Something else Rubblebucket has become known for is your high energy stage presence– taking people out of their comfort zone and being really interactive with the audience. Does that shift according to the venue? Do you guys have a preference in terms of how you can interact with people?

AT: It’s interesting that you say taking people “out” of their comfort zones because in a way I kinda see our jobs are taking people “into” their comfort zone. I guess it’s all semantics. I think we, going back to the radical mindfulness thing, are functioning in default mode. We think we’re choosing left or right thing but we’re actually just always chasing pleasure and avoiding pain. Getting what we need to do done so that we can make a living and conforming in X,Y, and Z ways so that we feel safe. It creates so much tension so going to a show, that’s our chance to let loose and feel the edges of who we can be. We can express ourselves and communicate, be in a community.

You put in your headphones and it takes you to another place, it physically relaxes you. I think by us being wild and expressing ourselves in strange ways that come to us, being comfortable to be really “out there” in our movements and really play shows other people, “Oh yeah, I’m silly too.” The hope is to be maximally freeing and to encourage oneself. We like to stir up the energy, open people’s minds a little bit.

ALT: Have there been any onstage moments that you’ve noticed have really blown people away?

AT: It’s really fun to watch a transition in a show, especially in an audience that isn’t familiar, say we’re playing a festival or opening for somebody and there are some Rubblebucket fans there but mostly not. That’s happened all the time over the years and it’s been amazing to watch the audience be like, “What the fuck is this?” to “I kind of like it,” to “I’m dancing and I didn’t even realize it!”

Rubblebucket plays Rockin’ on the River at Riverfront Park in Troy with And The Kids and Onlyness at 5PM.

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