On the one hand, Drums and Tuba are just your average rock power trio, logging 200 or so dates a year on the road. Typically, there's guitar, there's drums and, well, here's where the analogy starts to fall apart. Instead of a bass, there's a tuba, and instead of a singer, there's nothing. Yet it's still rock and roll, if also a whole lot more.
The fact that Drums and Tuba can rock is underscored on "Brain Liaters," the first track of their latest CD, Mostly Ape, when the guitar riff from Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" pops up its natty little head for a few bars. As was the case with Zep, there's a mighty bottom and a deep furrow of a groove. Only it's provided by a tuba.
Yes, the tuba, best known for its beery Oktoberfest oompah charm and foghorn tone, colors in the bass end of the spectrum for this band. And yes, one can also tag Drums and Tuba's music as funk, new wave, no wave, jazz, electronica and punk. You could even call them a jam band. But in every case you would be both right and wrong, for Drums and Tuba are like a Zen koan: They are all of the above and none of it all at the same time. It's music you can trip to but don't need hallucinogens to trip to.
Put the proverbial pistol to drummer Tony Nozero's temple and ask him how he describes his music, and he still can't help but falter for a bit.
"Oh, shit," he laments on the cell phone as the Drums and Tuba van rolls out of Cincinnati for Ann Arbor. "I would say What do I say? I say, uh, it's considered rock and roll, groovy with a tuba. Instrumental electronic rock, kinda groovy And I also always say that you have to come see it."
One might trot out the rock-crit cliché that Drums and Tuba make soundtracks for films yet to be made. More originally, and perhaps more accurately, it could be said that they make scores for cartoons yet to be inked, given song titles such as "Magoo," "Elephants," "Superbee" and "Goose Geese." Throughout, the music is so vivid that lyrics would be at best an afterthought, and with just three instruments -- augmented by occasional samples and loops -- there's an almost orchestral fullness of musicality to this odd and charming outfit.
The band got started eight years ago. At the time, Nozero, guitarist Neal McKeeby and horn player Brian Wolff were pretty much typical band dudes, slogging it out by night in various groups and toiling by day, as Nozero and Wolff did, at Whole Foods. Then Wolff bought a tuba and the trio started jamming.
"Brian had just gotten his tuba, and we started playing together the next day," recalls Nozero. "He could barely play it. But it was fun. And we kept playing together and working at it and writing songs and trying shit out. At first it was just like 'Let's make some music and see what happens.' And it's still like that."
In those days, the trio would set up at 2 a.m. on a hillock in an out-of-the-way corner of the University of Texas campus that had electric outlets and favorable acoustics. They would jam until dawn. The act of playing took precedence over everything, including just how the threesome might eventually fit into the musical world.
"We never really thought about it. We spent so much time practicing and playing that we didn't care," says Nozero. "We do a lot of practicing -- just spending hours and hours and hours banging stuff out in the practice room. Actually, we've always done it that way and still do it that way."
They've also spent the better part of the last eight years on the road, finding an audience for a sound that challenges the all-too-common adjective "eclectic."
Nozero explains that all they ever wanted to do was get in front of people and see if their creations clicked. Early on, the going was tough. They slept every night in their van, which they kept running with junkyard parts. Almost all of their gig money was spent on gas to get them on down the road.
The band's career took off after they left Austin. A move to New York City won them a weekly gig at the Knitting Factory, the downtown art music mecca where the Drums and Tuba sound made perfect sense. And when the owner of an Austin studio where Ani DiFranco once recorded hipped her to Drums and Tuba, the band gained a seemingly unlikely fan and supporter who started taking the group on the road and later signed them to her Righteous Babe record label.
"When we open up for her, her fans just go apeshit and they just love it. I think it's that they're just so excited and really hyped up to see Ani, and they buy tons of our stuff," speculates Nozero. "But that doesn't really translate to our shows [without Ani]. But occasionally we'll get the Ani fans who will come to see us, and they're like, 'Wow, that was fucked up.' "
Then again, even the band's own fans find them something of an empty slate. "We get people who come up to us who say, 'Oh, you sound like Black Sabbath,' " Nozero notes. "And someone else will be like, 'Oh, you guys sound like the Meters and Fela.' Everyone brings their own past and what they've listened to, and they kind of work it into our scenario. It's pretty strange. That probably comes from the three of us listening to different stuff and coming from different places."
It obviously takes a certain stubbornness for these three musicians to strive so hard to put over something as difficult to pigeonhole as this. "I think we all are people that work really hard, and none of us likes to give up. That's definitely part of it," Nozero explains. "The other part of it is that we have this thing that we do, and it's just what we do. The music just comes from the three of us. It's not wine and roses all the time, but it's pretty special. And I think we all realize that. And it's so open. Musically we're able to do whatever we want to do."
Eight years on, the members of Drums and Tuba have made it into what passes for the middle class of musicians. Nozero says they've got the songwriting part pretty well nailed down, and adds that they now make an "okay" amount of money. Which indicates that there may be other, more intrinsic rewards to being the only (non-New Orleanian) rocking tuba band on the U.S. club circuit.
Nozero cites a few -- first, there's the act of playing music that you love. Second, there's the freedom of being in a band with no genre restrictions. Third, he enjoys the day-to-day work of the tours. Nozero stammers as he ponders the prospect of not touring. "When I'm off tour I get really confused," he says finally.
And then there's a couple of other things -- the artistic impulse of all those who create, be they painters, sculptors, poets or members of tuba bands, and the freedom that gift can be exchanged for. "Just making something out of nothing is pretty cool," Nozero says. "And just being able to pull it off. I get a little charge out of it."
The natural place for the music of Drums and Tuba would likely be on film scores, something that has yet to come the hardworking trio's way. "Goddamn, we would love to," Nozero says enthusiastically. "But we're so busy. We'd do it in a second. It makes perfect sense. Then again, we'd have to be in one place."
As he says this, the Drums and Tuba van has hit the interstate on the way to Michigan, adding yet more miles to the 263,000 Nozero proudly claims. And the keeper of the secret for putting out delightfully bizarre instrumental rock has one final piece of advice for young bands, one gleaned from years of hard work on the road.
"The oil change," he says flatly. "People don't understand. The car will last forever if you change the oil on time. If there's one thing you take away from this interview, it's that you have to change the oil in your car."
Sort of in the same way that musicians have to keep what they play fresh and inspired to keep at it so diligently with only small remuneration?
"It's the perfect metaphor for this band."
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