Not your mama’s marching music
An eclectic NYC jazz trio called Drums & Tuba brings strange new sounds to Duffy’s Tavern
Most people probably associate tubas with high school bands. Marching music is usually where many first notice the fat, bellowing oompah of this deep-toned instrument—unless, that is, your tastes run to New Orleans jazz or symphonic brass.
But in recent years experimental bands have called on combinations of unusual instruments, often bringing traditional favorites into new electronic contexts to create fresh sounds—from groups within New York’s downtown Knitting Factory scene to the bluegrass of the Bad Livers from Austin, Texas.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the tuba has gotten some recognition from new breeds of musicians. And Chico gets a chance to become reacquainted with the instrument when an unusual NYC jazz/rock trio, Drums & Tuba, brings its genre-melding grooves to Duffy’s Tavern on Monday for an evening sure to challenge preconceived notions as well as entertain.
“It’s really hard to describe our sound to people,” says tuba and trumpet player Brian Wolfe from a cell phone somewhere in Tahoe City. “In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever heard or seen it properly described in the press to our liking. … We just have to go out and play [for people to understand].”
The trio originally formed in 1995, when Wolff met talented drummer Tony Nozero while making smoothies at “an unhealthy health food store in Austin, Texas.” Then called Just Drums and Tuba, the pair began performing on the legendary streets of Austin for tips and pocket change. After adding electric guitarist Neal McKeeby—whose rock style treads from prog rock and funk to surf and avant-punk (Minutemen/ Beefheart)—the trio shortened its name and began creating original compositions that were as heady as they were danceable.
After an ear-opening tour with electronic UK duo Spaceheads in the early ‘90s, the group began to veer into uncharted territory with loops and live digital samplers on the horns ("Spaceheads changed my opinion about using electronics with horns,” Wolfe says). The group’s latest album, Vinyl Killer, released last January, features a funky, danceable mix of genres and some amazing drum work. It garnered rave reviews across the country and was successful on college radio, peaking at No. 20 on the CMJ Top 200 chart. Duffy’s part-owner Doug Roberts, a horn player himself, was visibly stoked when he heard it and—apart from setting up a local gig for the band—was soon recommending it to mix-making friends
Of course, it always helps to have someone famous take interest in your group.
For Drums & Tuba, that came in the form of singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, who heard one of the group’s early recordings in Austin and promptly signed it to her own label, Righteous Babe Records, out of Buffalo, N.Y.
The group had been considering breaking up, with individual members moving in different directions geographically, but the DiFranco deal—she co-produced the recent album with Andrew (Goat Boy) Gilchrest—kept them together for a special tour that united the band under a newfound purpose and musical vision.
The New Yorker called the sound “highly infectious … loop filled songs laced with New Orleans-style grooves,” while the Austin Chronicle hailed its “unconventional melodies and snap-crackle-pop rhythms.”
“I don’t think our melodies are that unconventional,” Wolfe says. “The whole set is pretty much groove-oriented rock, so the melodies are conventional, though we handle them maybe in non-traditional ways. We don’t want the songs to be meaningless, you know? Most of the songs aren’t long extended jams. Our attention spans are too short for that. We just sort of experiment with things that keep us interested musically. It’s a little weird.”
Over the years the group has done some soundtrack work on independent films ("my friend tells me they play us on the Real World MTV show nearly every week,” Wolfe adds). They have also toured with numerous groups, from Rebirth Brass Band, Galactic and the Dirty Three to, most recently Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade, Kill Rock Stars’ Unwound and popular hippie trio Oysterhead (featuring Trey from Phish, Claypool on bass and hi-hat master Stewart Copeland from the Police).
“The Oysterhead thing gave us a lot of exposure to jam band fans,” Wolfe notes. “And those people are good fans. They’re open-minded, and when they like something they spread it around to all their friends.”
Consequently, at Drums & Tuba shows you’ll find an odd mix of punks, indie-rockers, jazz fans and jam band fanatics (or wandering Deadheads). Maybe even a local member or two of Brut Max getting down to the funky sound. Wolfe says the group will perform old songs in Chico as well as a smattering of new, as-yet-unreleased material.