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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.
For a few recent years, Drums & Tuba even had a booking agent who specialized in the burgeoning jam-band movement. For a group whose initial tactic was "to open up for as many bands as possible" (as they still do), it was still an odd fit. "We do a lot of hippie festivals and stuff. But I think we're kinda too far out there for that crowd. We get people dancing and doing their hippie thing. But we also get people who are really scared and freaked out by us." Don't fear the reaper indeed, especially one that scythes across so many fields and crops.
It obviously takes a certain hardheaded determination for these three musicians to strive so hard to put over something that could be racked any number of places in the CD store. Nozero believes it's because "I think we all are people that work really hard, and none of us likes to give up. That's definitely part of it. The other part of it is that we have this thing that we do, and it's just what we do. The music just comes from the three of us. It's not wine and roses all the time, but it's pretty special. And I think we all realize that. And it's so open. Musically we're able to do whatever we want to do."
Self-managed and for many years self-booked, Drums & Tuba simply don't consider "no" as a possibility. "It's like you get so deep into something that you just do it. You just don't really even consider if it's not going to work. You just bully through everything."
Eight years on, "we've been at it for so long that at this point we're able to write songs pretty easily and do our thing and make an OK amount of money." Which indicates that there may be other more intrinsic rewards to being the only rocking tuba band on the U.S. club circuit. "I think the rewards come from, first of all, just playing music, and playing music that you like, that you love," Nozero says. He also cites "the freedom we have. A lot of people in bands probably don't have the freedom we have. It's also performing for people and just rocking and kicking ass every night. Without it..." Nozero pauses as if the loss can be felt. "When I'm off tour I get really confused. Another thing, too, is just making something out of nothing is pretty cool. And just being able to pull it off. I get a little charge out of it."
Now based in New Orleans and New York, Drums & Tuba still get the sort of charge working with each other that once kept them literally playing all night for their own edification. "For us it doesn't matter where we are too much. We're always gone. And when we're there we're too busy practicing," explains Nozero. Which is why their New Orleans friends keep asking when the band will play for them. "It's like, why do a show, why don't we just practice for six hours today?"
As Drums & Tuba is an instrumental outfit, it naturally raises the question of whether they've ever considered working with... "A singer?" Nozero yelps. "A saxophone player? There's been a couple of things along the way. We almost did Adrian Belew's last album with him." And they've also pondered the notion of a project with fellow former Austinite and friend and Righteous Babe labelmate Ed Hamell (a.k.a. Hamell on Trial) for the "challenge of adapting to what someone else does." But for the most part, "it's something we've never really thought about much."
The most natural place for the music of Drums & Tuba would likely be on film scores, something that has yet to befall the hardworking trio. "Goddamn, we would love to," Nozero enthuses. "But we're so busy...We'd do it in a second. It makes perfect sense. Then again, we'd have to be in one place."
As he says this, the Drums & Tuba van has hit the interstate on the way to Michigan, adding yet more miles to the 263,000 to date Nozero proudly announces. And in addition to having the secret for putting over delightfully bizarre if confounding instrumental rock, he also wants to offer some automotive advice they've learned on the road.
"The oil change. People don't understand. The car will last forever if you change the oil on time," Nozero advises. "If there's one thing you take away from this interview, it's that you have to change the oil in your car." Sort of in the same way that musicians have to keep what they play fresh and inspired to keep at it so diligently with only small remuneration? "It's the perfect metaphor for this band."