We have the habit of calling all musicians "artists," but a pretty small number of them actually create something I'd call art. Most are entertainers, for sure, and talented no doubt; but bursts of true creativity in musical spaces that never existed before are rare. Enter Drums & Tuba. I saw them again last night (14 May 2004) at Maxwell's in Hoboken after missing out on their live shows for a couple years, and, using a nearly empty rock club as their canvas, the trio painted a truly artistic four-dimensional soundscape. Maybe it wasn’t an out-and-out masterpiece, but it was a mind-enhancing article of originality that had my pulse racing and my nerve endings frazzled.
Photo by Adam Myers
It isn't necessary for a work of art to be completely under-appreciated
at first, but it certainly can be the sign that the artist is doing something
right. This is rarely acknowledged in the music world: small crowds lead to
the assumptions that the music is not worth it. But risks must be taken by both
the musicians and the audience and although there were barely 30 people in the
room (itself an under-appreciated venue in the tri-state music scene), each
one of us was rewarded with a fantastic 75 minutes of near-genius.
For the uninitiated, Drums & Tuba is actually drums, tuba, and guitar, although
their music reaches much, much further than that. Each trio mate is also surrounded
by a fair amount of electronics with wires, buttons, knobs, and otherworldly gadgets
running in and out of their rigs. Each player, therefore, spends time playing
his instrument as well as looping, sampling, constructing, and totally deconstructing
both their own output as well as the playing of the other two. The result is probably
some of the best use of digital effects you will ever hear--powerful, deeply layered
walls of sound. Much of these electronics run through Brian Wolff, who
is the Tuba from the band's moniker, but like all things with D&T, there’s so
much more to his presence. The two large boxes in front of him seem to do the
lion’s share of building the edifice of each song, layering sound upon sound in
perfect synchronization, providing a whole-greater-than-the-sum effect on what
three men can create.
The show began with some glorified tuning-up from the band, mostly
driven by electronic samples from all three that sort of set the mood immediately
as a morose introspective sort. Suddenly--BAM!--the band locked into a riff.
Oh, what a riff! It was as if they had found a single Jimmy Page line from a
mid-era Zep tune--maybe not even a full riff, just a small portion--and culled
out all of its hidden psychedelic juiciness. My ears immediately started bleeding
the good stuff and I would have been content if they had just laid it on this
riff for the next two hours. Like all Drums and Tuba music, there doesn't seem
to be a melody to it, nothing to latch onto, no hook, and yet it reverberates
in weird places like your fingertips and nostrils. Then the riff changed either
abruptly or subtly, I don't remember which because I was having too much fun
getting into the next place.
This was how the whole first two-thirds of the show went. It
would seem like the band was going nowhere with each tune, in a very good way,
just deliberately hanging on one recurring theme over and over like a hypnotist
swinging a pocket watch. "You are getting sleepy… you are getting verrrry
sleepy… you are getting very… WAKE THE FUCK UP!" Then you were wrested
from your dream and slapped silly with something even more engaging than what
you were engaged with. But there is so much more depth to it than that; they
don’t just hang on a single theme over and over at all. Instead they build ever
so slowly. Sampling, looping, re-sampling, splitting apart, phasing, and de-phasing,
until guitar chords played five minutes ago are mingling with a tuba part from
3 weeks ago that's playing backwards mixing with a sampled electronic drum beat
that's all in the background of what’s actually being played right now (which
is pretty sick in its own right). It gets dizzying just trying to figure out
where all the sound is coming from and my brain just did me the favor and stopped
worrying about it and just started flailing my body around mercilessly.
Drums and Tuba is a play on "drum 'n' bass" of course,
but the music is really in its own place. I'd love to say it’s a cross between
“who’s-its” and “you-know-who” but I can't do it. It's dark, minor key stuff
that somehow finds a way to elate. It’s thick and soupy and rich like chocolate
cake you can only have one bite of, but you gobble it all up anyway.
The funny thing about that first two-thirds of the show is
that I'm not sure the band ever developed any semblance of melody along the
way. It was almost purely rhythmic, relentless pounding, all orchestrally percussive.
This all stems from guitarist Neal McKeeby. Guitar players can become
great for several reasons--McKeeby is great because he truly plays guitar like
he invented it. While his ability to melodicate and solo would eventually pop
up late in the set, his playing doesn’t necessitate these things. 99% of it
is just violently strummed chords, oftentimes hitting both the guitar strapped
around his neck as well as a second one on a stand in front of him held down
with a rope and electrical tape. Sometimes he'd use his fingers or his palm
or a pick or a slide or a butter knife or who knows what. If you think about
it, music is really just sound made interesting and much of Neal's playing personifies
this notion, and personifies the band. He didn’t carry the music; he was just
laying bricks of sound in that wall that is the Drums & Tuba sound.
There is an old story about the Aquarium
Rescue Unit that tells of when confronted with a particularly small audience
in the old days, they would just play as "out there" as they could until almost
everyone was driven off. Those that remained truly understood and would get
the goods. Drums & Tuba play for themselves as well--they didn’t acknowledge
the audience until it was too late to sway them one way or another. The small
band that remained was treated to a fantastic performance, though. At a certain
point in the set, the mood seemed to change. I don't know if they had moved
on to material from a new album or what, but what had been an even-keeled mood
in the room was suddenly ratcheted up a notch. The music was all running together
for me at this point, so it'd be difficult to pick out one "song"
from the next, but I'll try anyway.
First McKeeby started lighting it up with ferocious playing
on top of the now standard foundation of music. It was around this time that
I realized that he had been holding back the whole set and that everything was
better off for it. How refreshing! Next came the true masterpiece of the set.
As is standard, the base of music was developed first, with Tony Nozero
setting the stage on the drums and Wolff turning the knobs until the song had
thirteen legs to stand on. Then he put down the tuba, that tomato paste of the
D&T sauce, and picked up a trumpet. Riff, sample, riff, sample, riff, sample,
riff, sample, rinse, repeat… bit by bit until he had formed a one-man section
of echoing, cosmological coronet that would've had Miles Davis blushing. This
built up and up with more layers and then Nozero brought it down. It was a bit
awkward as I struggled to sense where they were taking it. Then from absolute
zero sound they went in an entirely new direction, rebuilding it, stratum by
stratum each member locking in both their playing and their looping. What had
begun as a shoulder-shrugging silence was suddenly a giant tidal wave of orchestrated
sound. As it crashed over my ecstatic ears the intergalactic trumpet section
came back in and the two diverging paths of music recombined flawlessly. I was
OK, next tune, and they're singing? Kind of a miss there, but
I enjoyed the effort, maybe if I could have caught the lyrics, but it was closer
to scream/chant than actual singing (from Nozero, who still impressed by playing
as well if not better than he had been all night while taking the microphone).
As they hit the hour mark, the set was winding down and they decided to finish
it with another highlight. At long last, they played a song with an actual,
honest-to-goodness melodic hook to it. Neal played a run that would make teenage
boppers blush in its sweetness. Of course, this was still Drums & Tuba, so by
the time it was sampled, drawn, quartered, tarred, feathered and squished under
an atmosphere of sound it came out a bit tortured. But what do you expect? These
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