Rubblebucket streamlines its funky sound while ratcheting up the fun.
Fluorescent streamers hang from microphone stands as eight musicians meld Afrobeat with New Wave dance-rock, and L.E.D. medallions pulse on their moving bodies. Out in the audience, volunteers hoist oversized papier-mâché robot puppets and dance the mess around.
Such is the crazy world of Rubblebucket, the Boston-raised, Brooklyn-based band that’s evolved from meditative trance jams to heady pop, from local bars to national clubs and festivals. “It’s our job to make people want to dance,” lead singer and baritone saxophonist Kalmia Traver says, though her group takes an increasingly broad view of how to accomplish that mission.
Once a horn-heavy outfit dubbed Rubblebucket Orchestra, the ensemble trimmed back the horns and tightened the focus on Traver as frisky frontwoman. In turn, the band paints more keyboard-dappled textures on its latest EP, Oversaturated, which dropped in September and favors ’80s-flavored contemplation over giddy parade-band rabble.
“I wanted to see what it’s like just writing songs that worked with piano and vocals, and [songs] would translate without all the bells and whistles,” says trumpeter/singer Alex Toth, who cofounded the group with Traver after the horn-playing couple spent time in the local reggae band John
Fans needn’t worry about Rubblebucket smoothing out the edges, however, as the band delights in funky spontaneity. “There’s a punky aspect,” Toth says. “If it starts to feel too polished or intentionally executed or over-arranged, that feels kinda gross to me. It’s important for the live show and the band to have some wiggle room to feel the energy of the crowd and play off one another.”
To that end, band members have long-jumped into the audience to fuel the party. Rubblebucket also has increasingly realized Traver’s dream to expand the sensory experience through visual elements. They range from her handsewn outfits (“It helps me get into character,” she says) to zany low-budget props designed by collaborator Neil Fridd of the Terror Pigeon Dance Revolt!.
“Neil does everything to break down the wall between the stage and the dance floor,” Traver says. On nights when Fridd is present, she says, “He’s on the dance floor the entire time, moshing and getting people riled up.”
When Fridd’s not around, his robot puppets remain, their giant arms swinging above the crowd—and even onstage. “We had interesting robot exchanges, getting freaky,” Toth says of their Nov. 14 show in Syracuse, N.Y. “A big, happy make-out session.”
The romance between Toth and Traver began when they met as music majors at the University of Vermont, where they graduated in 2006. “We were two little music dorks,” Traver says, “with our horns strapped to our bikes, riding up and down the hills of Burlington, Vt., playing every night with all these different friends.”
Their outlook at that time can be traced to what Rubblebucket has become today. “The two of us were all about improv then,” Traver says. “We were working on being really open, with big ears—and playful.”
By the time they settled on the Boston scene, the onetime “jazz kids,” as Toth puts it, expanded their world to Bob Dylan, Neil Young and the Beach Boys as well as Afrobeat and funk. “It’s an interesting journey to circle around this stuff and continue to seek out where we stand,” the trumpeter says. They found fellow adventurers for Rubblebucket with trombonist Adam Dotson, bassist Jordan Brooks, guitarist Ian Hersey, keyboardist Darby Wolf, drummer Dave Cole and percussionist Craig Myers.
“We’re a versatile bunch,” Toth says, “so it can be hard to stay in one place because we’re excited by a lot of different stuff. Now, with this totally globalized music culture, you can listen to anything at any time and be influenced.”
At the same time, local ties still bind the group, which was voted top live act at the 2009 Boston Music Awards. “I know so many faces in the crowd from those early days at Matt Murphy’s or Johnny D’s,” says Traver, whose band hits Royale on Dec. 5 with Reptar. “We really groove so much as a band in Boston.”
Rubblebucket plays Royale Dec. 5