When fans exit a show by the likes of OK Go or Sufjan Stevens, they rave about the live performances, about the swath of balloons and jubilant confetti. There’s another live act whose name isn’t discussed on the regular, but whose live shows go twice as hard, three times as loud, and four times as fun as anyone else on the scene: Rubblebucket. If the name rings a bell, you’re paying attention. The afrobeat art rockers won a Boston Music Award for Best Live Act of the Year in 2009. And think—that was before they had the funds to get as crazy as they do now.
When Alex Toth and Kalmia Traver graduated from UVM, the musical couple wanted to write music for a living. They immersed themselves in afrobeat. They roped a large band together that emphasized horns—bandleader Toth on trumpet, backing vocals, flute, and percussion; Traver on lead vocals, saxophones, and flute; Adam Dotson on trombone, backing vocals, flute, and keys; Ian Hersey on guitar and backing vocals; and additional touring members. They set up a stacked list of shows. Right from the start, Rubblebucket diversified itself at a time when every band in Brooklyn chased punk rock paths or indie rock tropes.
“When we started out, we had no clue what we were doing,” says Toth. “I don’t know what our goals were other than to make it work. In 2009, we did 135 shows. It was totally unstrategic; we brought sleeping bags, a big bin filled with spices, rice, and oatmeal, and we would ask for a place to crash each night while onstage at the show. It would be nine or ten of us in sleeping bags. We would wake up, make group oatmeal, and when we got to the venue, we would use a portable stove to make rice and beans. It was insane.”
Sometimes that crashing involved staying at a brewer’s house in Grand Rapids and getting annihilated so as to be able to fall asleep. In St. Louis, it meant blocking out the sound of kids partying with drugs as they tried to fall asleep. In New Orleans, well, Toth can’t bring himself to explain what went down there. Even now, staying at hotels gets stale, so Rubblebucket sets up stays at friends’ places to both see the places it travels through and to remain well rested to give its shows the energy they need.
As easy as it is to default to the band’s uplifting performances, what truly sets Rubblebucket apart is its music. Their songs explode with energy like the members poured fistfuls of Pixie Stix into their mouths and laced Nerds Ropes through their teeth. The band’s newest EP, If U C My Enemies, pops with bubblegum riffs, and Traver’s voice scales new falsettos with glossy grace, bringing the band to new heights only it could scale. That’s what Rubblebucket succeeds at, and live, that music becomes infectious as ever. Any sadness in your body melts away.
“We’re getting deeper into the craft of songwriting and production,” says Alex. “If there are simple theatrics, we want to increasingly immerse listeners in it so that it becomes a big part of the experience. We’re just around, if not already, at 10,000 hours of playing. We keep getting better at performance and understanding the canvas that is the stage and how to make the connection between you and the audience more powerful. Back in the day, our performances were more chaotic, but now we’re becoming aware of our movements, choreography, and organics in a way that sharpens the show.”
It’s didn’t come naturally. Working towards shows like Rubblebucket’s is a process. “When I was younger I wanted a tons of spectacle — which is exciting to want a performance because not that many bands do it, so it’s exciting to break that barrier, to have robots dancing in a crowd — but it’s about balancing it. Sometimes my favorite shows are where we fly somewhere and don’t pack anything; it’s just a pure performance,” says Toth.
“I think the best way to improve your live shows is to, as individual performers, playing as much as possible. Obviously it’s nice to play a ton of shows with one band and the band gets tight, but when there’s seasoned performers in a band, it’s entirely different. I started a garage pop band and our very first show was completely slaying because we were all in other bands. Do as many open mics, jam sessions, and shows that you can play. You learn about that connection, and you learn it fast.”
Even for him, reaching a point of comfort within the bizarre took (self-employed) training. “When I became comfortable dancing with my friends in public—like any type of dancing, as silly or as crazy as I wanted to—and I became comfortable with my body, I was so much more confident,” he explains. “Before that breakthrough, I was so nervous onstage.”
Back in the day, the band brought low-budget, 15-foot robot puppets on tour, complete with light-up vests, that the members danced with in the audience while balloons rained down around them. A few years later, it dragged a flower alien costume on tour for audience members to slip into and dance onstage in.
“On as low a budget as possible, it’s trying to eject new things into the set,” says Toth when asked about said creations. “When we stopped using the robo-puppets at the end of 2013, that wasn’t a strategic thing. At 2 AM on New Year’s Eve, someone yelled, ‘Kill the robots!’ The next thing I know, the robo-puppets are in the parking lot during the blizzard and people are mafia-style kicking the shit out of them, so the robot era was done.”
Now, it’s gearing up for a tour that brings crazy visuals best left up to the imagination. “The extra new transformation [Rubblebucket is going through]—songwriting-wise, aesthetics, performance—occurred when we played that seated show at Radio City Music Hall,” says Toth. “That would have made me so incredibly uncomfortable, to play for a seated audience, a few years ago. We’ve gotten the music to a point where that level of attention from the audience, knowing the music is engaging enough, was cool. The very next night, we played a gnarly set at a festival at midnight—the total opposite vibe of Radio City—which was a great feeling to see we could do both.”
So what’s next for a band that’s mastered the art of live performances? That’s simple: raise the bar even higher. Rubblebucket hopes to have its own Stop Making Sense show, namely so props and choreography can expand upon the new songs it’s prepping to unveil. But Toth has other ideas in mind.
“I want to play with physics!” he says excitedly. “What if we rig refracted lighting to heart monitors or get into some interesting technology that we can use at the shows? I don’t know how to explain it except ‘physics.’”
Toth wants the shows to go to the next level and so do fans. Looking at the band’s trajectory so far, it’s clear Rubblebucket will do exactly that.
RUBBLEBUCKET, SAM EVIAN. FRI 1.20. PARADISE ROCK CLUB, 967 COMM. AVE., ALLSTON. 8PM/18+/$20. CROSSROADSPRESENTS.COM