Rubblebucket is no stranger to upstate New York, and on Saturday, January 2, at Water Street Music Hall, the popular indie pop band makes yet another return to Rochester.
The band's trumpet player, Alex Toth, cites numerous sonic influences as critical to Rubblebucket's sound — from Fela Kuti and Afro-Cuban jazz to James Brown and afrobeat bands like Antibalas — but one ingredient remains the most important: "We throw a party," Toth says. "So that's important. Anytime we've withheld dance vibes from our set, like I'd say a song or two — it's not right. It's not Rubblebucket."
In the midst of touring behind the band's 2014 album, "Survival Sounds," and preparation for an upcoming album, Toth took time out to discuss divergent musical urges, the benefits of working with a record label, and the experience of touring during vocalist Kalmia Traver's recent, successful battle against ovarian cancer. What follows is an edited version of Toth's phone conversation with City.
City: Danceability has always been key to the music of Rubblebucket. Can you imagine playing music that didn't have that dance rock element? If so, what would it sound like?
Alex Toth: It's funny, 'cause as I was taking a pee this morning, I was imagining myself as an acoustic player singing songs, and actually wanting to do that, even though I'm not very good at guitar. I started a side project, a punk band [Alexander F] — it's not dance music, but it's danceable ... And everybody in the band has pretty versatile kind of interests and backgrounds. You know, a lot of us have played jazz. Kal [Traver] has a project where she does like drone stuff and sound collages.
I wanted to ask you about "Survival Sounds," released By Communion Records. As your first full-length album put out by a label, were you able to approach your music and accomplish things you may not have otherwise?
Specifically working with Ben Lovett [of Mumford and Sons] from that label — I don't know, I'd never had that kind of team surrounding the music. It was just cool to bounce songwriting off of this great songwriter, and try out whole new songwriting approaches that he was helping me with. He was encouraging me to write song-a-days. I wrote 50 songs for "Survival Sounds" in that period. That was the most songwriting I've ever done in a short amount of time. And that was amazing, 'cause I've come from a jazz background where I really focused on improvisation and this kind of sophisticated jazz language. I spent years studying and working on that, and not as much time on songwriting.
On the flip side, it's really nice — we're working on a new record now — and it's nice to not answer to anyone, you know, to make it entirely the way we wanna make it, and not feel like we need managers and labels to weigh in on how the music is supposed to sound.
Were there aspects of your music or creative personalities that producer John Congleton helped to bring to the fore on "Survival Sounds?"
What it kind of boils down to is that he really encouraged us to just follow our first instincts, you know, and to commit to ideas and believe in the ideas. It would be like, "Well, let's try it this way and have this option and this option and this option." And John's like, "No. You're overthinking it. Just go. Be bold." So that was really cool, and I've really taken that with me.
What was the real focus on "Survival Sounds?"
Lyrically, all the songs are about facing death and overcoming deepest-fear stuff. It was all written while Kal was recovering and when I quit drinking and stuff, so it's really about facing fears and demons.
Once Kal was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2013, as a band you decided to tour throughout her treatment. Can you talk about the reason for that decision, and how the music affected or was affected by that period of treatment and subsequent recovery?
I don't think I've ever told anybody this in an interview, but in the chemo room at Bellevue Hospital, there's like a square room, and there's about 30 people in the room all on these beds, getting injected with poison. 'Cause chemotherapy is f***ing primitive. It's just like, "Let's throw a lot of poison in your body to kill everything, including the cancer." And in Western medicine, they can't commodify holistic — they can't commodify eating well. There's no documentation, you're not getting handed a pamphlet of like, "Here's research that shows how eating organic and these types of foods and these types of foods and doing this and that will help combat the cancer." They're just like, "No, here's a bunch of poison."
But one thing they do say is "Carry on with your life." Because when you're going through that, it really zaps your energy. And it's really easy to get dark and just be like, "I'm worthless and I'm gonna die. Whatever." And so carrying on with your life — doing your job, getting back to work — is a very uplifting thing. That was probably the biggest reason. It's sort of like: don't let this thing stop you from doing what you do. 'Cause then you'll shut down even more ... Touring was definitely trying, but at the same time, can you imagine a more healing thing than like, you're bald, and you've been going through this stuff, and you stand on stage and you're singing — and people are dancing and smiling at you and handing you their love and giving you hugs? It's such a healing thing to do that.