Out in front of Rubblebucket are trumpeter Alex Toth and saxophonist/vocalist Kalmia Traver. The couple shares a similar vision and passion with the music they're making -- it's obvious in the way they move together onstage -- but they're vastly different in approach.
Alex was born to be a bandleader. My first experience with him, before I knew his name, was years ago when I was interviewing a band backstage at Nectar's in Burlington, Vt. He barged in with his trumpet in hand and told the band point by point what was missing in the music they were making and what was wrong in their approach. He, or the band he was criticizing, didn't intend to play together that night; he would just always carry his instrument with him everywhere he went. I didn't think much besides, Wow, the balls on this kid. He's intense.
That might result in being a little difficult to work with from time to time (I've heard that from a few musicians), and Rubblebucket has gone through a few personnel changes since forming in 2007, but by no means is that a bad thing. His intensity is matched with as much passion for the music his band is making. When you see him perform and move on stage, his presence alone makes everyone step it up and sound better. When Alex mentions in this interview that he had a huge personal breakthrough listening and dancing to James Brown when he was in high school, it comes as no surprise.
Kalmia is much different, but her energy is just as infectious. Since Rubblebucket formed, she's blossomed into a confident, killer frontwoman. She exudes an undeniable hipness, by simply not caring if she's perceived as hip. She's original, moves and sings like nobody else, and has her own style. There's nothing cliché about her as a performer, and it's been amazing over the course of three years to see her just let herself go deeper and deeper as a vocalist. And she can pick up her sax and crush it. She speaks of creativity coming from all forms; gardening, painting and cooking all add to her instincts as a musician.
With Rubblebucket's self-titled album (released last fall), you hear a band that is in full-evolution mode and not looking back. As I discuss with both Alex and Kalmia, this is a band that is naturally progressing, working hard on the road with all its rewards and struggle, and you hear that come through in the their music. Their first album, Rose's Dream, was a fantastic display of deeply layered grooves. On the new record, everything gets a little deeper and edgier. From the way they push the groove to the lyrics, you can hear all the passion and the struggle. They've been tried, but they're growing fast and furious.

Conversation with Alex Toth
Listening to the latest record, Rubblebucket, I feel like the language of the band has become more expansive.
Define expansive.
In a couple different ways. In terms of composition, I think there's more variation. And I'm relating this back to your previous album (Rose's Dream). I feel like the charm of the band, the energy and the rhythm and all that is still there, but it's definitely getting a little more spread out. Maybe it's the way you guys move together. That was just my one impression in terms of composition. The other thing is, lyrically, maybe it's a little bit more real because you're on the road a lot and trying to make it happen. There's that struggle, and you're constantly having moments where you triumph, but it's hard work.
I have been working off of this super hyperkinetic energy that goes in and out of me. It's been a part of me for my whole life. The moment I had the idea to start Rubblebucket was when the Lazybirds weren't available for a gig. Alex [Budney, talent buyer] at Nectar's put me through for July 28, 2007. I was like, "That jam session last month was awesome. Let me book a gig and force myself to get a band and a set of music together." And from that moment it's been this constant train. From that moment, it's been this nonstop fire in the face of whatever. I'm so passionate about this being the thing and believing really hard in it and seeing the music develop so nicely over time. It's been really encouraging.
But with Rubblebucket, we were sitting on it for over a year because we recorded Rose's Dream after being a band for a couple weeks, and all this music, we'd been just playing it and not having a chance to record it and put a full album together until last March. Everyone in the band is really pumped about this record. I think we have more of a defined challenge as far as who we are. This music is somehow more who we are than Rose's Dream, which was… there's a charm to it that was clearly an Afrobeat mashup. And to me, Rubblebucket, it's… totally Rubblebucket. We always dig the groove. We think it's a lot tighter on this album. It's hard to have an objective view on our own work, but I guess I see what you're saying about the spread thing. We've definitely been exploring a lot of different elements. It's definitely the beginnings of a progressive and searching band as far as our sound, but always striving to focus it more and more.
That's what I was getting at. You're really finding the band's sound, as opposed to the first record. And what I was saying about the struggle, that adds to the depth of the material you're writing.
Yeah. I think the writing… I don't know how it reaches people on the outside, but from our point of view the writing is a lot more evolved and the record is an evolution, and I feel it's more mature and developed and deeper songwriting than the other album. I know there's definitely a hell of a lot of contrast between Rose's Dream and Rubblebucket. And we saw this as we evolved our sound. We watched this happen -- from the first couple months of Rubblebucket being a band to having these really creative takes on Afrobeat, and then just having the Afrobeat thing and that kind of innocence, but not having fully developed. There's also a difference in how fans react because there's probably people out there who absolutely love Rose's Dream that might not be as into Rubblebucket, and vice versa, because I feel like it is a contrast. I can see losing some fans and gaining new fans as we progress. I think that's perfectly natural.
That seems to be a common thing with most musicians as part of their evolution. They gain and they shed fans based on how their sound evolves. And then, of course, there's a core group who really get it. That's a healthy side of growth. I just couldn't imagine you, from what I know of your music, ever not being that way.
Yeah. I want to make the best music possible. And I think being on the road nonstop… it sort of was a necessary part by having gigs and juggling the John Brown's Body thing, and needing John Brown's Body to do this full-time was a necessary part of keeping such a large band together. Like have a focus for all these musicians. I often use the analogy that it's like herding cats. Musicians are like these cats that will stray in all these different directions, and to get them focused takes a lot of work. There's different things that pull people together. Now that we've got three excursions from the Northeast under our belt, we're like, "Whoa, we currently have a band that's really devoted and really talented." Now, we're just going to write and just dig into the music, and basically make further hopes of making really honest music with a lot of integrity. I think it's important to spend time off the road and go back to the lab and make the most bangin' stuff you can make and just keep discovering more. I think if you're on the road all the time and writing here and there, it's more difficult to have a cohesive and really deep thing.
What do you think is happening on tour? What kind of experiences are you having onstage with the band? Like on the nights when it's really hot?
On the nights that it's really hot, it's interesting to blend songs from Rose's Dream and songs from Rubblebucket and then add new songs. It's really exciting when you feel a turning point in a crowd that hasn't heard you before, when all of a sudden they're fully with you. We are kind of reaching out there because we're doing stuff that's unfamiliar to a lot of ears, and it's really amazing to have everybody together. When the audience has their arms in the air, screaming stuff out, stuff that is relatively new or old, you can feel the band get so inspired by it. That's when the most spontaneous stuff happens. There's a wide range of people that are coming to our shows, and it's interesting to see the different responses.