A fan once tweeted one of the best descriptions of Rubblebucket’s music I’ve ever read: “Listening to Rubblebucket is kind of like dressing up as a starfish and cartwheeling down a rainbow.” Soaring vocals punctuated by guaranteed-to-get-you-dancing horns and percussion are kept rooted by thoughtful yet quirky up-tempo lyrics. Their recorded albums, as impressive as they are, really exist to justify their live shows, which leave concert-goers sweat-drenched, smiling and giddy.
Rubblebucket’s co-bandleaders Alex Toth and Kalmia Traver started playing music together as undergraduates at the University of Vermont, and two years after graduating in 2008, they self-released their first album Rose’s Dream. Since then have gained a considerable and growing following across the country, including right here in Iowa City. I chatted with lead-singer and saxophonist Traver and trumpet player Toth while the west coast leg of their tour was hitting high gear.
Little Village: I saw your tour kick off show in New York, back in October … Afterwards you told me, “Man, I just had one of those moments where I felt like ‘I don’t want to make music anymore.’” All creative types have moments like that … how do you push past that?
Alex Toth: At a certain point, you have to remember that it’s your job, and that you have to be committed to it and dedicate a certain amount of time each day to working on it, to writing, to going into the studio and trying new things. Once you get moving, and a natural flow takes over and you find your groove, [that kind of] moment will just take over and it will be there. You can take a break, get some exercise, do some yoga, that kind of thing, and come back to it after a while, maybe even work with other folks …
LV: In the past, you were personally handling almost every aspect of the business of the band yourself, but now you have people for a lot of these roles. What’s that like, having more people involved in the day-to-day as the band’s success has continued to grow? Is it a relief, to step back and delegate, or is it just that many more people you feel like you have to be responsible for?
AT: It’s important, at a certain point, to be able to step back and just let go, and let other people handle these things. I used to handle every single element myself: booking, promotion, we have to wake up at this time and be here at that time, all that. After a point, it really cut into my ability to really just focus on the music …
2013 was a big year for the Brooklyn-based band. They had a busy summer touring season, including opening for Mumford and Sons, filming a special for PBS’s Infinity Hall Live and releasing a new EP, Save Charlie. In the midst of it all, this past June, Traver was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She completed chemotherapy in September and the band hit the road a week later for their fall tour.
LV: [Recently] you made a very public announcement that you had been diagnosed with cancer. You just finished chemo, and are now on the mend … What role, though, has music itself played in helping you recover and giving you the strength to fight this illness?
Kalmia Traver: Besides [music] being my whole life? That’s an interesting question, on a lot of levels, because I feel like when you have cancer it puts everything into focus and you have to ask yourself, “Am I going to keep doing what I’m doing?” And “Is what I’m doing what might have lead to this?” And you have to decide. And for me, making music really is my life, and to go out there, on tour, now, even if it might not be the 100 percent healthiest thing—it’s what I do. It’s where I’m happiest, and having that creative outlet, and being able to connect with our fans and play music and sing and dance—that’s so important to me. Being put in this position, with this Wow! Huge illness! is a time when I had to ask myself: “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?” And the answer was always, “Yes.”
LV: Have you heard from other folks who’ve had cancer or faced other big challenges in their lives who you’ve inspired? …
KT: Not so much yet because we’re only just now getting back on the road, but I did hear from a lot of people who had had their own battles with this illness and they inspired me so much. If there’s people out there that I’ve inspired as well, then I’m grateful for the opportunity to return that energy because, you know, that’s what’s it’s all about.
LV: I’ve been a fan … even my 74-year-old mother liked you when she saw you on Jimmy Kimmel’s show [in July 2012]. When your new video … for Save Charlie came out, it premiered, of all places, on NPR’s website. How has your audience changed or grown over the years?
KT: Yeah [premiering on NPR] was really cool, and I think [our audience] has grown, over time. We always had a certain following, age-wise, but that’s growing as we tour more … It’s great to be able to connect with so many different kind of people, who all really just want to dance and have a good time and it doesn’t matter really who they are, or how old. As long as they want to really enjoy themselves, we’re happy to play for them and grateful for the chance to do so.
LV: What’s next? Your last two releases, Oversaturated and Save Charlie were both EP’s, but I know you were focusing on writing a whole bunch even before this cancer thing. Can we expect a new full length album out sometime soon?
KT: That’s the plan. We were working on a bunch of stuff, and still are, but the EP’s are a great way to get something out there to our fans and connect with them in between larger projects and we can’t wait to get a new album out with just a ton of fun new songs.
The good news is that Iowa Citians don’t have to wait to hear their fun songs: Catch Rubblebucket when they play Blue Moose Tap House on Friday, Dec. 6.
Yale Cohn really likes talking with people, and he probably woke up earlier than you did today.