Drums & Tuba really is one of those bands that you have to see to understand. On CD the music is impressive, but when you actually realize that the band is just a drummer, tuba/horn player, and guitarist you might find yourself scratching your head in disbelief. What began as a project to do something new has turned into one of the more sonically interesting and incredibly unique bands on the circuit. Playing around 200 shows a year and constantly trying to develop their sound, Drums & Tuba can be a starkly different band from year to year. Their early material sounds only vaguely similar to the looped-out, layered sound that attacks the ears as we enter 2004. This is a band happy to reinvent themselves on a regular basis, and as they continue to master their gear and write wonderful instrumental songs with attention to real song writing, you may just find yourself asking why the hell more people aren't on the bus. Come along for a ride with drummer Tony Nozero as he breaks down the sound that is Drums & Tuba
Kayceman: I believe you grew up in Madison [Wisconsin]. Is that right?
Tony Nozero: Yeah.
Tony Nozero by Zack Smith
Kayceman: So what brought you to Texas?
Tony Nozero: It was the basic "went to high school in a small town and just needed a change." And I had heard Austin was a pretty cool music town and I was ready to get out of the cold. So I just sort of went for it, I didn't really know anybody, just kinda showed up.
Kayceman: Now I know that you met Brian [Wolff, tuba player in Drums & Tuba] while working at a health food store in Austin, but I'm curiou--what led to the idea for this unique combination?
Tony Nozero: Well, way back when Brian and Neal [McKeeby, guitarist in Drums & Tuba] played in a band together called Hominy Bob, so they knew each other. And at the time I was playing in a bunch of noise rock and math rock bands and just wanted to do something totally different. So me and Brian started playing together and he just brought a tuba and we pretty much started playing the next day. And the idea was to do something different than what we had been doing individually, and at the outset I think Brian was inspired by the New Orleans tuba thing and we started doing that sort of deal, just kind of funky street stuff. It quickly evolved and Neal joined up immediately after we got our grounding together. So he started practicing it and playing it and we added Neal and became a trio really early on, like a few months after Brian and I started playing. And ever since then it has been an evolution and lots and lots of practicing and trying things out.
Now specifically early on, based on people's preconceived notions of the tuba and your name, did you ever had any difficulty booking gigs?
Definitely. It was really hard. I booked the band for the first two years and it was always really difficult. I would always sort of have to kinda wing it and explain the band every time because nobody knew about us and people were kinda taking a chance with us. Of course I wasn't really asking for much, back then it was just like "give us a freakin' show and we'll have a good time." And I kind of made it so the club wasn't really taking a chance you know, we'd play for the door or a hundred bucks or whatever. So we continued to do that for a few years off and on. When we lived in Austin we didn't really tour very much, we basically just worked and practiced all the time and worked on our stuff. And locally it was pretty easy to get shows, I was in a lot of bands back then so I was always playing all over town. So we would work on our stuff and get crowds locally. But I still ran into that, where people are always asking me, "So Drums & Tuba, it's like a drum and a tuba?" "Well not really, you kinda need to see it and hear it."
I would assume that you get welcomed back pretty regularly, right? I would think that once you get in there the owners are pretty pleased.
Yeah that's kind of the idea. As far as the way we approached the whole touring concept was just like get into the club, play it, and even if it doesn't do well the first time or the second or third time... I mean some of these places we've gone back to nine or ten times and we're only now beginning to get people to come out. With the kind of music we do it's fairly experimental, it's not something that you can just sort of package, put it in a can and say, "This is indie rock. OK all the indie rock kids go to the show because it's cool." You know it's not really like that and we realized that early on and just decided to do the whole ground work, grass roots thing. And it works; I think anybody can do it.
Brian Wolff by Adam Myers
You have to be dedicated as hell, but yeah.
That's the key.
Now y'all have been together for eight years is that right?
We've been together almost nine years and we've been touring pretty hard for three and half years.
How would you say this intense touring schedule has affected you guys as a band, and individually, just as a person?
As a band it's been pretty good, it always helps playing for people just musically and working ideas out. The practice place is one thing, but then when you start performing this shit and going through it it's different. Certain things work and certain things kinda don't. And you start to hone in on what you as a band are really good at, which you don't always see at first. So it's been really good for that, just playing all those shows, you know we do almost 200 shows a year which is slowly getting a little less and less. At first it was like 250 for the first couple of years and it's a little less now. And it's helped in just being really comfortable on stage. We've played in all kinds of different situations now. You know--big festivals, tiny places where we have to scrap together a PA. And we still do that and then we'll go do like the Bonnaroo festival or whatever. We just kinda play all over. And that's really good for a lot of reasons and crosses over to personally and just keeping perspective and keeping your head on straight. You're able to deal with playing for ten people and still enjoy kickin' it and like playing the music because that's really what matters and if the ten people have a great time and love it then it's worth it. And then you turn around and play like a 5,000-seat arena opening up for some band and it's totally different. It's like you got a half hour you just play and do it and it's a big adrenaline rush and it's over before you know it. But it's all part of the journey and I think musically the three of us have really benefited from all the different situations year after year.
Neal McKeeby by Zack Smith
And it's affected our lives in other ways also. Just being on the road more than being at home, and a lot of musicians do that, and it's just a really different way of life. I think now we kind of have a handle on the balance, but I think at first it was pretty hard. You know you get off the road after being on for like three months and you're kinda clueless about what the hell you're supposed to do now. You get so used to the schedule and you're at home for a month and a half just waffling around going, "What the hell am I doing, who am I?" You know all this shit has been happening; all your friends are like three months closer and more experienced in their friendships and you sort of pop in and in a way it's great, but you also feel like you are missing out.
Tony and Neal by Jonathan Turick
Over the course of these past few years of heavy touring is there anything that sort of comes to mind as one of the most memorable experiences you've had?
There's been a lot. You know everyone once in a while someone will ask me that and I always tell myself, "Shit I'm gonna think about this and have an answer" but I never do. There's a couple, like we went to Japan and that was a pretty crazy experience... but that's definitely not the weirdest thing. This was way way back in the beginning we played in El Paso, we were the background music for the Mexican Lottery, "The Lotteria" sort of bingo game [we both start cracking up]. That was one of the great gigs that I came up with on one of our first tours.
Does the manner in which you guys play live, using live sampling, etc, does that affect the way you write material?
Yeah it does. It's become such a major part of what we do. At first it wasn't at all; we were playing for all those years without even doing any of it and at this point it's like though we do have songs still that don't have any samples or electronics they've become less and less. There's really only a couple songs that we still play without all the gear. So now when we write stuff we usually start with a stripped-down idea and add stuff because it's kind of what we do now. So it's definitely a part of the writing.
Neal McKeeby by Adam Myers
Have you met with any people who may call themselves "purists" or something, who don't dig on that and think it's crap?
Yeah, there's always someone. And I think all of us were that person to some degree at some point. It's just that constant technology thing. There's always going to be purists who say you suck because you use guitar pedals on a brass instrument. [Laughs] But it's like, you're fucking using electricity every day, why don't you go sit by your fireplace?!
I'm in the same boat.
But there are definitely ways to use technology; just because the shit's there doesn't mean it's going to be gold when you turn it on. And I think a lot of people sort of get caught up in the technology of it and they're like, "Oh yeah I can get all these crazy things and just turn it on and play and it's gonna be great because it's new and cutting edge." But you really need to treat this stuff with respect and use it appropriately.
Brian Wolff by Adam Myers
Moving towards Gas Up, Blow Up, it's not really studio record, it seems like it was sort of cut and pasted from a few different years, some radio, some studio. What was the thinking behind the album?
Well, I think the idea of it was that we have so many songs and bits and pieces that we still really liked but just never made it onto anything. Like a couple of those songs like the older ones were on one of our first tapes, we used to make cassettes. So it was just that we have so much material and we are always working on new recordings but we weren't quite ready to put out like the next stage of Drums & Tuba as far as records go. All of our records sort of go somewhere from one to the other, and having been sort of undecided on which record to really do for the next one, because we weren't quite ready yet, we did this one instead just to have something new on tour. And that's another thing: we tour so much it's nice to have something new for people. You know you hit the same city twice, sometimes three times a year, it's nice to have new stuff. So that was kind of the idea, and it's pretty under the radar, it's just available on the website and at shows.
Yeah, I've really been diggin' it. And it seems to have some type of consistency or some type of flow to it, although it wasn't done in the traditional way. Was there any means that you guys used to get that feel?
I know what you mean. It definitely makes sense as an album, which is kind of strange since it is from all over the place. It kind of happened by chance, but there was also more stuff that was available at the time, and those songs pretty much made the cut and then we spent a long time just figuring out the order and stuff like that. But it's pretty cohesive, especially considering that some of the shit was from like '95, you know, six years from some of the other stuff.
Tony Nozero by Zack Smith
How about the last track, "Hi Hello, It's Tony"? What's that all about?
That is Andrew Gilchrist, Goat Boy, the guy who basically recorded and helped mix our last two albums. He just sort of made that song out of an answering machine phone call I made to him and Ani [Difranco] a while back. I just sort of left this message that I didn't really think much of, but for some reason they loved it and thought it was really funny. So he just ended up making this entire song out of it. He had like this 15-minute version of it or something and it just went on and on forever and ever. And we all thought it was pretty funny, the fact that he spent however long it took to do it. So we told him to chop it down, and it didn't even get as short as we wanted it too.
It works well as a last track.
Sure, so we told him to just put it on there otherwise it will never see the light of day.
Now honing in on your drumming specifically, I did an interview with Stanton Moore a while back and he speaks incredibly highly of you incidentally, but it seems that he has had rather large impact on you as a drummer. Would you say that's accurate?
He's been a big influence on me for sure. We've done a bunch of shows with Galactic; he's a good friend, a fucking amazing drummer, just killing. I'm definitely influenced by him, his playing and his approach. He does a little knob twiddling, which I do, and some of that live sampling stuff.
Stanton Moore by Jaci Downs
What other drummer past or present, or even musicians in general, have really influenced you heavily?
There are a lot of drummers that I love. Most of them are rock 'n' rollers. That guy Matt Chamberlain is really great. It's kind of weird, I mean there are lots of heavy hitters, guys who are in all the drum magazines and stuff, and I sort of pay attention to them but not really. Like Mike Portnoy or whatever the hell his name is. I don't really read that shit, I basically get more inspired by people that I meet. There are a lot of indie rock drummer guys I kinda know from playing with and I'll pick stuff up from them just by watching them. I don't really sit around and cop licks like a lot of people do, but I think naturally if I'm really into something I listen to it all the time and it will eventually come out. Like you know how you used to listen to The Police all the time, but it's like I don't sit around and transcribe Stuart Copeland's drumming, I just don't. But every once in a while there is a snap and crackle that comes from that.
What about any of the younger bands out there today; is there anybody that is really turning you on that wouldn't be in the major magazines? Or maybe what have you been really listening to lately? I'm just curious where you are coming from right now.
Yeah. Well I'll just go through my little records here. In the van there is: Interpol, Cornelius, that's actually some good shit. Have you heard Point? Cornelius, Point, that's a pretty cool record. He's a Japanese kind of knob twiddler guy. Prefuse 73, everybody knows that shit...
It's damn good though.
Yeah it's good. There was actually a band from Memphis I came across that I liked a lot, Bloodthirsty Lovers, they're pretty cool. Mars Volta, I kinda listen to a little more of the rock kinda stuff. As far as other bands, we've been touring with That 1 Guy, and it's usually just us and him on a lot of shows so I haven't really seen a lot of new bands recently.
That 1 Guy from DrumsandTuba.com
It's tough when you're touring heavily.
Yeah it's really hard to stay on top of that stuff when you're on the road all the time. Like I'll pick up a magazine and it's like, "Who are all these fuckin' people?" You have to make a real effort to stay on top of it, go to the record store and try to listen to stuff.
Now in thinking about your music again, there seems to be almost an inherent humor to it. And I'm curious if that's something you guys think about, or have ever heard before?
Yeah there is definitely some sort of "you know, I know" kind of stuff going on. We definitely don't plan it out, I think its just sort of all the way we are, our sort of personalities coming out here and there.
Yeah, it definitely doesn't sound contrived or anything.
It's weird--we have a lot of different musical personas in a way. Like we can get really heavy and we have songs that are really serious and dark, but we don't really take ourselves seriously. We take what we do really seriously and we are really dedicated, but we are not going to pose for a picture all serious and pissed off... we're kinda funny [starts laughing] and I think that comes through. And especially the older you go with the records they just get goofier and goofier.
Tony from DrumsandTuba.com
And I think that's sort of what I'm referring to as well.
It's fun, you know. Basically we try to have fun with what we do.
And that's apparent, it comes through. And I think that leads to people enjoying it as well. Like you said when people do take themselves so damn seriously it's like, "come on bro, get over yourself." Now you guys are working on another album, is that right?
Yeah, you know, we have a bunch of projects on the burners. There's one recording that is pretty much finished that we need to put some finishing touches on, but all the tracks are there. And there's that group of songs that will be an album, I don't know when; possibly this spring, maybe even later. There's a live album we are kind of working on putting together. And we are also working on an album with That 1 Guy, the four of us, a little collaboration. And besides those three things we have tons of other shit. Like a lot of other songs we need to put down. It's kind of daunting when you line them all up, there's probably like four or five albums in there that need to be made.
Brian Wolff by Zack Smith
The first one you were talking about, is that like a more traditional studio album?
Yeah, exactly. The only thing different about it is that we went into it with no material at all. And that's the first time we've ever done that. So we basically wrote everything and played it through and arranged it all in about a week, and that was great. We definitely made a decision to go and try something we've never done before.
Have you been pleased with what's happened with it thus far?
Yeah it's been really cool. It's definitely a lot different than the rest of our stuff. It's definitely a departure from the last album, Mostly Ape; it will be a pretty stark contrast from that.
Did you have somebody outside produce it?
No, we did it with Goat.
Goat Boy from DrumsandTuba.com
A lot of people speak highly of him.
Yeah, he's great. He used to be our soundman for a couple of tours, then he started working for the Neville Brothers, which is what he's doing right now. And every once in a while he'll do sound for us if we're in the same town, or if he can make it to Austin or whatever. We try to keep him in the fold. You know, he started out as just kind of a big fan and since then he's just sort of become part of that whole thing. Even when he's not here we call him and yell at him.
What do you have in mind besides albums and touring, are there any other concepts for the future, or things you want to see Drums & Tuba achieve?
There are a few things. I think we're not going to travel as much in the next few months. And just sort of try to get back into the practice space. And a lot of people are like, "Man, you guys are crazy, you guys play so damn much." Like this tour is 78 shows or something, which is a lot. But in the same way it's just not the same as the three of us just working in a room. There's a lot of down time. There's only like an hour and half of music every night and that goes by in like 20 seconds. So coming up I think we are really going to try to work on the next level of what we're doing, and I think we're all pretty into that concept. And playing a few shows here and there, just to keep our chops together.
Tony Nozero by Adam Myers
If I was going to explain what you sound like to somebody who had never heard Drums & Tuba, how would you explain it?
Well I would definitely say you have to see them to really get it. A lot of people say that to me, "Oh I heard the record, but then I saw you guys and I finally get it now." Which doesn't really help somebody if they ask you that question, "Well, you just gotta see it." People ask me that all the time, and at this point I say, "It's instrumental rock with electronics and live sampling, and it's got a lot of energy."
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