Face it — there's no pure rock 'n' roll anymore. But it could be argued that there never was any in the first place; that the genre was the bastard offspring of mismatched parents looking for kicks in the backseat of America. Even the purest forms of rock music, by anyone's definition, are mash-ups or half-breeds at best. But if you insist on seeking out some semblance of purity, you have to look to bands that adhere to rock's attitude and non-conformity. Modern bands that may not immediately fit your definition of "rock," but which sprang and continue to spring from the loins of the music's seminal rebellion.
Brooklyn-based Rubblebucket is a frenzied eight-piece rock 'n' roll phenomenon, and a perfect example of what I'm going on about. Its influences are diverse, its lineage is deep, and its sound — a combination of bass, guitar, drums, B-3 organ, horns, percussion — is epic.
The band's polyrhythmic world-beat thunder and wailing wall of soulful brass is countered by elements of New Wave (to be exact, 17 percent of the sound is New Wave, according to bandleader and horn player Alex Toth), synth-pop, and funk. It's all topped off with a vibrant vocal quirk and an element of unconventional indie-pop sweet and sour, resulting in a band of remarkably impure purity and a uniquely indefinable sound.
"Not to be cheeky," says singer/saxophonist Kalmia Traver, "but we don't really call our style anything. We don't walk around discussing what our sound is."
Toth doesn't cop to what Rubblebucket's sound is either, but is willing to shed a little light as to what the members do to arrive at it.
"It's a dangerous world to be too articulate at this stage of the game," he says. "What's the saying, 'Like dancing about architecture?' I will say that if I have a straight soul or rock song or pop song in front of me, I think, 'How can I fuck this up a little?' But usually it isn't that simple."
Rubblebucket's dynamics, though conventional to this mortal coil, are ensconced in arrangements that are about as focused as a 5-year-old with ADD and a box full of chocolate crayons. Forget lines; Rubblebucket frequently colors outside the pages.
Born in Burlington, Vermont in 2007, the band's chemistry was immediate — to the band, originally known as Rubblebucket Orchestra, as well as to audiences. By 2009 it had established itself throughout the Northeast and Midwest, and was earning nods from national press like Relix and SPIN magazines. Rubblebucket has since gone on to accolades from more big-time rags like Rolling Stone and Paste, as well as the independent media of the towns du jour. Not bad for a band that considers itself still somewhat larval.
"With art and music, it's always a work in progress," says Toth. "If you knew how it was going to sound before you thought of it or started working on it, there would be no point. It's a constant search for poetry, answers, sounds, and dance beats in life, I guess."
Toth and Traver are both college-educated musicians — they can read the dots — which flies in the face of Rubblebucket's impish joy and attitude. The band supersedes convention in spades...or, well, buckets.
"It's real fun to try and break the rules," says Traver. "That's what rules are for. I don't really try, I just follow my ears a lot and, I don't know... That can lead me down bad roads, too. But if it sounds good and I'm enjoying it...I think across the board it's danceable music, or music you want to move your body to. And it's harmonically exploratory, thinking outside 1-4-5."
"Writing music is a lot of fun," says Toth. "Sometimes you get stuck and it can be frustrating, but I feel absolutely grateful for having the opportunity to do what we do. If something's messed up but it sounds cool, then it's 'right.' Right is right even if it's left or messed."
It's a creative process that Toth sums up esoterically: "Synapses into little idea bursts, sending executive orders to the brain to press an instrument's keys, or sing or just visualize music. Maybe you play around with it for a while and then you do your best to capture it."
This is probably most evident in the band's live show, as it plays before the swirling throngs Rubblebucket draws night after night. Live, though the songs are already written, a spontaneity still prevails. The result is music that is tight but not torqued, polished but with a patina that persists. The driving rhythms drive the whole affair while still leaving room for the more gentle lilt of the band's melodic textures.
"We started out being into funky, Afro beat, sprawled-out jams," Traver says. "We've gotten a lot more into writing songs with pop-music structures and rock 'n' roll textures. We've started writing more 'song' songs. But it's still the same in a lot of ways. I think that we're just trying to express ourselves more and more and we're evolving. I know more about rock 'n' roll than I ever did."
Early 2013 will provide some down time for the band to hit the studio and squeeze out another album. This will be No. 6 — an impressive feat for a band with an exhausting tour schedule that hinders uninterrupted stretches in the studio to a certain degree. Traver can't wait.
"We're going into a period of writing and recording, which we're really excited about," she says. "We haven't had pure time off to be creative. We have a bunch of new songs we haven't been playing. We haven't really had time away from the road."
Rubblebucket wraps up its touring insanity with its Rochester show this weekend. It won't be the first time the band has had the chance to drive Rochester fans bananas.
"Lovely people," Toth says of our local crowds. "Screaming, singing, dancing, freaking. We love Rochester so much."