"Nobody knows -- that's part of what makes this whole thing so horrible."
That's what Brian Wolff of Drums & Tuba said a week after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, reflecting on the devastation. He was worried about the condition of the city that has become home base for the band, and the destruction hit close to home because drummer Tony Nozero's house is right next to the Industrial Canal, the one that was breached, resulting in the flooded Lower Ninth Ward.
A month later, Nozero reports that his house survived in pretty good shape. As it turned out, his house in the Bywater is on the opposite side of the Industrial Canal from the breach, but nothing on television news gave him reason to believe anything other than that his house was gone. Eventually, friends used a spare key and called him from his living room, reporting that the house was fine, though he thinks the roof was too flimsy to escape hurricane winds undamaged.
"When all of this was going down, I was assuming the worst," Nozero says while driving through Pennsylvania. "'All right, if I lost everything, where am I going to put my head?' When I found that headspace, I was okay with it. When I found out maybe it wasn't so bad, then I wondered, 'Now what do I do?' It was almost more complicated. 'Am I supposed to stay there? Am I sticking it out?' "
Adding to his unease is a kind of survivor's guilt -- he knows that friends in the same neighborhood suffered serious damage, while he got off lightly. Drums & Tuba's new album, Battles Olé (Righteous Babe), was produced by the band and Andrew "Goat" Gilchrist in his Bywater studio, House of 1000 Hertz. Though only a few blocks away, "Goat's studio got totally messed up and was under four feet of water," Nozero says. More than that, though, he says, "The hardest thing for me is the neighborhoods and the people and the community that are completely changed forever."
Drums & Tuba has had an interesting, slightly distant relationship with New Orleans. It has been based there for the last three years, but it has never played seriously around the city, nor has it relied on it for gigs. The Rebirth Brass Band was an early influence on Drums & Tuba because of the almost punklike, inspired sloppiness of Rebirth's playing, but the city's brass community has been slow to embrace a band composed of drums, tuba, electric guitar and a battery of electronic devices. At last year's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Drums & Tuba was invited to play, but the band performed on a stage in the New Orleans Fairgrounds' paddock, secluded from the rest of the festival. The crowd that filled the paddock saw a set that referred to New Orleans music but was never bound by it, drawing from Led Zeppelin, electronica and most anything that has happened in the last 30 years of popular music while never sounding completely like any one thing.
While N.O.'s traditional audiences are just discovering the band, Nozero makes no bones about his love for the city, particularly now.
"I went through moments when I just wanted to ride my bike through town," he says. "I didn't realize how much New Orleans had become a part of who I am." That passion informs his thoughts about the city's future, the sort of thoughts New Orleanians form and re-form three or four times daily. "I have a feeling [that] once stuff gets going, it's going to be really intense. Once the ball gets rolling, people are going to embrace it like never before because they realize how much they love what is New Orleans."
Drums & Tuba was already on tour when Katrina hit on August 29, so like many displaced New Orleanians, the band members tried to piece together what was happening by watching TV and listening to the radio. "Those first few weeks were excruciating, not knowing what was really happening," Nozero says. The band has satellite radio in the van, so he, Wolff and guitarist Neal McKeeby listened to CNN, ABC and NPR all day. "When we got in a hotel, we flipped on the TV automatically." Like many evacuees, they found much of the coverage useless as CNN and MSNBC seemed to crib together bits of footage from the past few days, mixing old with new and creating confusing montages. Instead, they found themselves scanning the backgrounds of shots looking for street signs that might help them identify where the devastation really was. In the end, that didn't even help. "I finally saw my house was okay in a satellite photo of the city," Nozero says. Being away from home has been difficult, but it has also been a blessing. "I'm glad I had something to do," he says. Working has brought him in contact with friends and fans, so he hasn't been as lonely as many evacuees, and he has the opportunity to practice his art.
Drums & Tuba has just gone through a period of reinvention. The band has been known for starting with something simple, looping it, manipulating it, then adding the manipulated part to the mix alongside whatever else the band might be playing. That process would continue until a musical piece grew organically into a rich, dense thing with more parts than instruments onstage. Battles Olé reflects the band's growing impatience with having every piece build slowly; its tracks are far more immediate, with a distinct art-rock feel. That doesn't mean songs have become poppier -- only one clocks in at under five minutes -- but the first few minutes aren't used to set up the sound. The album also features vocals for the first time, and since Nozero's voice recalls Richard Butler, "Four Notes of April" sounds like it would be right at home on the Psychedelic Furs' debut album.
"We were feeling a little cornered by what we'd done," Nozero says. They now play only a handful of songs from Battles Olé reworked for the live show, and are already playing primarily new material written since the album was recorded. "We've been lucky," he says. "Our audience craves new material."
Still, thoughts inevitably turn back to New Orleans. For now, it's difficult for the band to know about the future of its relationship with the city. New Orleans has been its base of operations for the last three years, but as is the case for everyone else who lives there, Katrina has made long-range planning difficult.
"If it's possible to live down there, we'll probably be using it as our base, but who knows?" Nozero says. "I haven't been back, so I have a hard time seeing into the future. I want to get back and help do something. My house and my zone are the least of my worries. I don't think it's going to suck in the long run, but I think it's going to be a long process."
While on the road, the band isn't playing up its New Orleans connection. It doesn't deny it, but nobody wants to be treated like poor babies, and after a while, telling hurricane stories becomes tiresome, no matter how well-meaning the person asking for them is.
"I've told the story about 100 times in the last month," Nozero says. "When you get tired of telling it, you find yourself watering it down, then realize, 'Wow, it sounds like I don't give a shit.' "
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