By Jim Schutze
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By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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By Alice Laussade
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On one hand, Drums & Tuba are just your typical rock power trio, slogging it out 200 or so dates a year on the road. There's guitar, drums and, well, on the other hand, a tuba. And no singer. Yet it's still rock and roll, if also a whole lot more.
The fact that Drums & Tuba can rock is underscored on the first track of their latest album, Mostly Ape, when the guitar riff from Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" pops up its natty little head for a few bars. As with any rock band (and especially with the Zep), there's a mighty bottom and deep furrow of a groove. Yes, the tuba, best known for its Oktoberfest oompah charm and foghorn tone, colors in the bass end of the spectrum. And yes, one can also tag Drums & Tuba as funk, new wave, no wave, jazz, electronic, punk and even a jam band, though their music is like a Zen koan by being all of the above and none of it all at the same time. It's music you can trip to but don't need hallucinogens to help.
Like the best music, Drums & Tuba are better heard than described. When drummer Tony Nozero is faced with an imaginary pistol to the temple and asked to tell how he describes his band to anyone who asks or face a bloody demise, he still can't help but falter for a bit.
"Oh shit," he laments on his cell phone as the Drums & Tuba van heads out of Cincinnati for Ann Arbor. "I would say...What do I say? I say, uh, it's considered rock and roll, groovy with a tuba. Instrumental electronic rock, kinda groovy. If someone comes up to me and asks, that's what I say. And I also always say that you have to come see it."
One might say that Drums & Tuba make soundtracks for films yet to be made, or maybe cartoons yet to be inked, given song titles on Mostly Ape like "Magoo," "Elephants," "Superbee" and "Goose Geese." It's music so vivid that lyrics would be at best an afterthought that just might not fit. Yet with only three instruments (and occasional samples and loops), there's an almost orchestral musicality to this odd and charming outfit that started out in 1995 playing the streets of Austin.
At the time, Nozero, guitarist Neal Keeby and horn player Brian Wolff were pretty much typical band dudes, slogging it out by night in various groups and toiling by day, as Nozero and Wolff did, at Whole Foods Market. Then Wolff bought a tuba, and the three started a band. "Brian had just gotten his tuba, and we started playing together the next day," Nozero recalls. "He could barely play it, but it was fun. And we kept playing together and working at it and writing songs and trying shit out. At first it was just, like, let's make some music and see what happens. And it's actually still like that."
In those days, the trio would set up at 2 a.m. on a hillock in an out-of-the-way corner of the University of Texas campus that had electric outlets and favorable acoustics and play until dawn. The playing took precedence over everything, including just how their threesome might fit into the musical world. "We never really thought about it. We spent so much time practicing and playing that we didn't care," Nozero says. "We do a lot of practicing--just spending hours and hours and hours banging stuff out in the practice room. Actually we've always done it that way and still do it that way."
They've also spent the better part of the past eight years on the road, finding an audience for a sound that challenges the all-too-common description of eclectic. The idea was "to just get in front of people, do our thing and see what happens. We still do that," Nozero explains. "We used to sleep in the van every day. In the beginning it was totally broke ass. We were playing for gas money and getting parts for the van from junkyards."
A move to New York City won them a weekly gig at The Knitting Factory, the downtown art music mecca where the Drums & Tuba sound made perfect sense. And when the owner of an Austin studio where Ani DiFranco recorded hipped her to the group, they gained a seemingly unlikely fan and supporter who started taking the group on the road and later signed them to her Righteous Babe record label.
"When we open up for her, her fans just go ape-shit, and they just love it. I think it's that they're just so excited and really hyped up to see Ani, and they buy tons of our stuff," says Nozero. "But that doesn't really translate to our shows. But occasionally we'll get the Ani fans who will come to see us, and they're like, 'Wow, that was fucked up.'"
Then again, even the band's own fans find them something of a tabula rasa. "We get people who come up to us who say, 'Oh, you sound like Black Sabbath.' And someone else will be like, 'Oh, you guys sound like the Meters and Fela [Kuti].' Everyone brings their own past and what they've listened to, and they kind of work it into our scenario. It's pretty strange. That probably comes from the three of us listening to different stuff and coming from different places," Nozero says.