Let's face it -- the tuba isn't exactly a sexy instrument. When one thinks tuba, among the images generated are: polka, old men (detail: old men wearing black knee-high socks and bad plaid shorts) and flabby, elongated cheeks. Just how the New York-based trio Drums & Tuba produces such layered, groove-laden music from just guitar, drums and tuba is an enigma even to the band's members. Yet since 1995, drummer Tony Nozero, tuba player Brian Wolff and guitarist Neal McKeeby have been honing their amalgam of post-rock/experimental/marching-band funk. Though Drums & Tuba isn't completely alone in its instrumental endeavors, its is a peculiar slice of originality. Meaning: No other rock band puts such a non-rock instrument front and center. But, somehow, it works.
"I have to say I'm still shocked by the fact that people like it," Wolff admits, via phone from Nozero's apartment in Queens. "I don't think we had any intention of becoming a band and making it work. It's really fascinating when some old union worker will come after us and say, 'Hey, I didn't hate that.' I think they're pretty confused. I sort of translate it as, 'You know, I really have no idea what was just going on up there and what you're doing, but I think I liked it.'"
Drums & Tuba is far more than the sum of its parts. Through knob twiddling and deftness at the mixing board, Wolff morphs the sound of his tuba, while at the same time sampling guitar and drums. The resulting tuba sound can be more distorted than a kaleidoscope in a hall of mirrors. The mixing board, and Wolff's proficiency with it, allows Drums & Tuba to emit infinite possibilities from just three instruments.
"The setup is basically this: There's guitars and drums and tuba, which is miked," Wolff explains. "I just run that signal through lots of guitar effects and delay machines. I have a mixing board, and I mike the other instruments. I sample stuff as people are playing it. We usually start with a drum sample, just because it's easier to follow. So we'll sample the drums and then add on a tuba bass line to that, and then I'll run the tuba through some effects so it sounds like a keyboard or something. Then I'll play over the top of that."
Ultimately, Wolff's tuba is to Drums & Tuba what the sax is to Morphine, or what the trumpet is to London drum-and-trumpet duo Spaceheads. Not surprisingly, both bands come up in the course of conversation with Wolff and Nozero; Wolff, especially, pays homage to Spacehead Andy Diagram and his "trumpet through electronics." The comparison is inevitable, and the band does well to acknowledge the similarity, even naming the first song on Vinyl Killer (its latest CD) "The Diagram."
Though Wolff's tuba does attract attention, he is by no means the front man. Nozero's lively, polyrhythmic drumming and McKeeby's technical prowess on guitar (he plays two at once) round out the trio, and each member is indispensable. Upon forming the group, however, Wolff and Nozero were a duo going by the no-explanation-needed name Just Drums & Tuba, playing on the streets of downtown Austin, Texas, where they were living in the early '90s. Realizing they were missing an important element, they invited McKeeby to sit in.
"I think we all just kind of have an exploratory nature," reflects Wolff. "It's all about making sound, but sometimes we get trapped into thinking, 'This instrument is supposed to do this specific thing.' I think we've tried not to create a sound of any kind. We just get together and whatever happens, happens. If people like it, they like it. If not, oh well. We're lucky enough that it seems like people have liked it."
The two most important people who like it are folk singer Ani DiFranco and her husband, Andrew Gilchrist. Cultivating a friendship with DiFranco and Gilchrist, also a producer, means that Drums & Tuba has been exposed to larger, more diverse audiences than would be expected from a rock band featuring a tuba. After spotting a Drums & Tuba disc at Waterloo Records in Austin, Gilchrist contacted the band about opening for DiFranco on tour. Though Wolff was living in New York, Nozero in Chicago, and McKeeby in Austin, the three soon decided to invest wholeheartedly in the band. Nozero and McKeeby relocated to Queens and Brooklyn, respectively. As a result of the association with DiFranco, Vinyl Killer was released on her own Righteous Babe Records.
"It's been a continuous pleasant surprise to me in that it seems to go over to a wide range of people," Wolff says. "It's not a specific type of music. It's not a punk-rock scene, it's not a groove scene, but yet those guys will both come to shows. It's kind of interesting to watch the audience and see people who would never normally be at a show together interact with each other."
Vinyl Killer is the trio's fourth full-length album and amplifies its darker, Tortoise-like gift for meaningful experimentation. As Wolff emphasizes, Drums & Tuba believes in song structure and avoids self-indulgent improvisation. "We definitely have a map," says Wolff. "We're not entirely into jamming. I'm a firm believer in songs. The music is really out there and all, but it's not interesting unless it's a song."
Thus, Vinyl Killer has a strong rhythmic backbone and is propelled by Nozero's tight, near-tribal pounding; rarely does the album stray into ostentatious noodling. Wolff's tuba alternately oompahs, lays down the bass line, sounds like another instrument entirely, or, occasionally, makes you forget it's even in the mix. The typically brisk "No Accommodation for Buffalo" features Wolff on trumpet, adding lickety-split flourishes to what sounds like a four-piece band with a brass section. Though the song clocks in at more than eight minutes, instead of feeling labored, it stays fresh for the duration.
Released in January, Vinyl Killer shows the band's growth since 1999's Flatheads and Spoonies, but especially since The Flying Ballerina, released in 1998 (both on My Pal God Records). Vinyl Killer is smoother, more jazz, funk and electronic melding of parts together. A track such as "Topolino" would fit perfectly on Tortoise's TNT, with its fluctuating muted horn, gentle melodic guitar and steady build to the climax. "Eli" likewise builds steam, being coddled along by McKeeby's inquisitive guitar. "Royronus" and "Prince Meets the Phantom" are not unlike Five Style with a tuba: fun, boisterous and funky. "The Donkey and the Walrus" starts out like a Primus romp, but shifts into an original sci-fi tuba/surf guitar mystery. Great talent is clearly at work here.
Surprisingly, a live performance is just as exciting as a Drums & Tuba record. Wolff's configuration of cords, pedals and machines looks a mess, but inspires awe when put to use. Nozero pounds like a madman, and McKeeby is known to stick a butter knife in the neck of his guitars. When asked to describe the dynamic of him and his bandmates, on and off stage, Nozero laughs heartily at such a seemingly innocent request.
"Wow. That's such a girl question!" Nozero blurts out. "It's fascinating because I don't think any of us know."
Wolff is on the other end of the line in seconds. Like tag-team players, Nozero and Wolff trade off on questions. It seems evident at this point what the group dynamic is: cooperation and chemistry. In his candid way, Wolff tackles the "girl question" with wit, first describing guitarist McKeeby as a nerd dedicated to his strength.
"I would say that Neal is -- I don't think we'll all get upset at each other for these answers -- but he's like, really geeky," the gregarious Wolff reveals. "I have never met anyone who is more dedicated to just playing his instrument. Neal, like, stays in his apartment most of the time and practices. And it really shows, because he can do anything on the instrument. Sometimes we'll work on him to let it out, musically, but also dynamicwise because Tony and I are really opinionated and usually in different directions. Neal, we'll have to sort of bang him over the head to get him to say what his opinion is. He's very introverted in that way. I just talk all the time. I like for us to just express ourselves and get it all out there.
"Tony's more of the darker type. He's very punk, maybe," Wolff says tentatively, eliciting another huge laugh from Nozero, who is listening in the background.
"That's the thing that keeps the dynamic working, is that we're all generally pretty honest about ourselves to each other," Wolff adds. "We all understand what our limitations are as people. We're able to express that so we don't end up killing each other. We all know we have these things that get on each other's nerves, but that's okay because nobody's perfect."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.