ABOVE: RUBBLEBUCKET. IMAGE COURTESY OF SHERVIN LAINEZ
When you speak to both of them at the same time, you start to realize it's no wonder Kalmia Traver and Alex Toth lead the dynamic octet that is Rubblebucket—they feed off one another's energy. Their music is so much a part of them both that they have difficulty describing it in words. "It's sound," Toth said, with Traver throwing in "colorful" as her attempt.
Traver and Toth met at the University of Vermont, did a stint with John Brown's Body, and finally decided to be Rubblebucket full-time in 2009. Lately, the horn-players have had an especially busy year—not only recording and writing their new EP, Oversaturated, with the "dream-catcher" Ryan Hadlock, but also working with Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs and Foster the People; playing Bonnaroo, All Good, and many other music festivals; appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live!; working on an Arthur Russell cover for the Red Hot Organization; and flying every weekend with no time scheduled for sleep. And the year is not up yet: this fall, they will co-headline a tour with Reptar to promote Oversaturated.
Interview caught up with Rubblebucket's Traver and Toth during their much-deserved month off.
MOLLY ELIZALDE: What changed between your original name, Rubblebucket Orchestra, and Rubblebucket?
ALEX TOTH: I'd say a lot, because [Rubblebucket Orchestra] was when we were just, like, feeling, doing it as a band. It was a part-time thing and we were just doing it on the weekends. It was totally a project vibe. Like, "Let's just experiment, have fun." Not too serious. And then we started doing it full-time. Musically, it got a lot more focused and distinctive. It just felt necessary to create a separation between [Rubblebucket Orchestra and Rubblebucket].
ELIZALDE: So, what would you say led you to what you created on Oversaturated?
KALMIA TRAVER: Well, I think we had a big breakthrough when we wrote and put out the song "Came Out of a Lady." At the time, that really stood out in our set. It's the most pop-y, bouncy, marketable, I guess, song and we felt really inspired by it. We wanted to do more like that—more songs that had structure lyrically and musically. And I think from there, we wrote the album Omega La La and you can really see the progression after Omega La La with Oversaturated. It's totally going in that direction, like, more things like "Came Out of a Lady" but still keeping what we've always had which is interesting harmony and playful, I don't know, colorful... Colorful times. [laughs]
ELIZALDE Mm-hm. [laughs] Kalmia, you described Omega La La as "the ultimate song" once. What would you say Oversaturated is to that description?
TRAVER: With Omega La La, the title of the album would translate to the ultimate song—not that it is the ultimate song in the world or whatever. I don't know, maybe we're getting even more ultimate than we were. [both laugh] [to Toth] You had an insight the other day that has actually been sticking with me a lot, which is that, intrinsically, we want our music to be loved by a lot of people. And that's a whole discussion on its own: do you want to appeal to everyone or do you want to just find your niche and your tribe and "f you" to everyone who doesn't like your art, and follow your heart? But then [Alex] was saying that bands that we really look up to who are totally fulfilling themselves artistically but who are also reaching a humongous audience—for example, Radiohead and Björk, to name a few who are leading the charts—but also a lot of bands these days are just being deeply creative and doing crazy stuff that normally wouldn't be accepted on pop radio but now is. In a way, I think you sort of have to start out following trends—or not following trends, but doing what people's ears want to hear, and once you have a group of people who know who you are, then you can start experimenting and doing crazy things and I think we kind of did it backwards.
ELIZALDE: Your live shows, I think, really show your personality. What is important about the energy and connecting with the audience that affects your music?
TRAVER: I've come to realize that going and doing a show is, like, going up close and touching people that I don't do in my normal life, and it's really powerful. It feeds a need that I have—I think that we all have. I sit all day, working and thinking about this project in my room and getting my life organized and writing music and doing everything for the show. And when I'm at the show, it's suddenly so much more real and awesome.
TOTH: Yeah. Especially when we started out, that was, like, the most intuitive thing for us, was to play live shows and to engage with people that way. But I, personally, have been getting to the point where I love performing but there's a whole other side to it, of being off the road. You can't really write music on the road. And as we've gotten a bigger fan base and more recognition for what we're doing, being off the road is really nice because there's another space involving forming ideas and letting your imagination go and concepts bubble up. I don't know, that's so powerful and moving to me, and just knowing that there's going to be an audience for those ideas. So I, personally, would love to, in the near future, to tour a hell of a lot less and work a lot more on song-writing and our concept and our productions.
TRAVER: I mean, at least for me, though, [the live show] is a permanent installation in my life. The times that we have had building this up from the ground up and just playing to empty rooms and forcing ourselves to feel really hard, feel the humanity all around us.
ELIZALDE: Yeah, how would you say that that affected—I mean, both of you said two different things about the live-show experience—but for each of you, how would you say that affected the writing of Oversaturated? Because didn't you write it during a very heavy touring period?
TRAVER: Yeah, we did it all since January when we've had tiny breaks between touring. So, yeah, I mean, the writing happened earlier, in part.
TOTH: Yeah, well, we had done a couple of tours on Omega La La in 2011 and we got off the road in November. And it's like, "Okay, it's time to really dig in and write." We constantly had these little seeds, these little sketches, these funny little Garage Band ideas. And, actually, "(Focus) Oversaturated" was a funny little Garage Band idea. I was just sitting at the keyboard, I don't know when it was, I think it was probably in November. We were off the road.
TRAVER: I don't even think we were in writing mode, though. We were just hanging out.
TOTH: Yeah. And I was, like, really manic and I was like, "Focus, oversaturated. Focus, oversaturated. Focus, oversaturated." And then I'm like, "I've got to go to the store."
TRAVER: But, I think you were like, "Can you write a song about that real quick?"
TOTH: No, you were, like, "I'm going to write a song called ‘(Focus) Oversturated.'" [Traver laughs] And I came back and I'm like, "Whoa, this is awesome." Kal's like, "I don't know. Whatever." And it wasn't until we had time to actually record an EP that that demo came back out and we developed it more. But the other stuff was written between Thanksgiving and after Christmas and New Year's. So, I was around my family a lot and so a lot of the stuff was inspired by being around them and thinking about relationships and love and where I come from. So all of the songs, kind of, have this theme about the struggle of maintaining relationships and relating together.
ELIZALDE: Do you want to talk about your robot puppets?
TOTH: Sure. This really crazy kid, Neil Fridd, he has this band called the Terror Pigeon Dance Revolt. In 2011, every second we weren't on the road we were either working on songwriting, or that year it was just tons of video stuff. We have four music videos, and we worked with different directors for each of them and this one kid told us about the Terror Pigeon Dance Revolt.
TRAVER: He used to tour with Neil, and that was our first ever connection with the Terror Pigeon Dance Revolt. But then we ended up doing a tour with those guys. [Neil] spends, like, half of his set time actually just setting up for the set instead of playing for a half an hour.
TOTH: Yeah, he makes the venue as his own space. And we're always trying to make the show more immersive and visually an extension of the music and totally shake people up. So he made us the robot puppets and these LED light vests.
TRAVER: He's basically just our constant collaborator. I feel like he's just come on—he does all of his own tours, as well—but he's come on to help us whenever he has free time to be our party coordinator. And he'll come to shows whenever he can with his group and, literally, be a party facilitator.
TOTH: And my thing with the robot puppets are, like, they're a really fun event but I'd like to retire them sooner than later, and do some event continued on that path but something that's even more connected to the music. Less, kind of, like, spectacle, you know? One thing we're talking about is getting these heart piñatas and aggressively breaking hearts on stage during our new song "Pain From Love." [Neil] has got a constant stream of ideas. We ordered, like, a disco-ball roto-sphere thing and these lasers.
ELIZALDE: Cool. Is that all going to be on your fall tour?
TOTH: Yeah. Heart piñatas... We'll see.
TRAVER: Maybe some of the shows.
TOTH: Yeah. I don't know how much a heart piñata costs, do you?
TRAVER: You can make it. I can make a heart piñata.
TOTH: Maybe we'll make our own heart piñatas.
ELIZALDE: I'm sure you can look that up: how to make a piñata.
TRAVER: Yeah. I used to make piñatas when I was little. Oh! Alright, I know what to do. You could just get a heart balloon and cover it with papier-mâché and then cut off the top, fill it with candy—we shouldn't do candy, though. [gasps] We should do magic moonrise fruit leathers. I made my own fruit leathers last summer.
ELIZALDE. Oh, really? Cool. How do you make fruit leather?
TRAVER: You just need a dehydrator and then you just make, basically, like, applesauce and add whatever flavors or other stuff you want and then you dehydrate it.
ELIZALDE: Are you going to make mass amounts of fruit leather for your tour?
TRAVER: I guess so. That would be too nice, though. I think, like, you can't bring anything nice with you on tour because it always gets destroyed. And that probably applies to whatever you give to the audience. I feel like a lot of them would just get stepped on. So maybe we should just get Smarties. Smarties are the best candy for piñatas, anyways.
ELIZALDE: Yeah. But I know your robot puppets go through the audience. How—
TOTH: They are audience members. Every single show, I have to recruit. I walk around when the doors open and I look for people, they have to be a medium-build, at least, because those things are heavy. And I look for people that are emitting a nice energy about them. Like, they're dancing to the house music or they have a robot puppet aura. But it's hard. People you think are going to be good end up getting really drunk and then who knows what's going to happen.
TRAVER: We haven't had anyone fall over, though.
TOTH: We've had the arms come off all the time. Sometimes you, like, you explain the whole thing to somebody and then they get out and they just, kind of, stand there. [Traver and Elizalde laugh] It's like, "No. You have to go crazy." I don't know, it's pretty absurd but I love that. I love the absurdity.
RUBBLEBUCKET'S NEW EP, OVERSATURATED, IS OUT TODAY. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.