What hath Radiohead wrought? In the case of Drums & Tuba, the acclaimed British band has led the previously instrumental trio to incorporate vocals in its new material.
"We all went to see Radiohead on their last tour and it totally blew me away," says Brian Wolff, the tuba player for Drums & Tuba. "It made me feel like, Man, we ought to try to say something.'" He reassures fans that the songs don't sound like Radiohead, and that vocals are hardly a decision made to advance the band's career.
"Getting a singer, specifically a female singer, was constantly brought to us as a proper career move," he says. "The whole point of this entire thing was to actually say something; we were pretty clear with ourselves that we were going to do the singing or we weren't going to [have vocals] at all. It's not actually coming out, making a bold move and saying something if somebody's doing it for you."
Wolff is coming to New Orleans to join bandmates Tony Nozero (drums) and Neal McKeeby (guitar), who moved here in the last few years. They're playing a monthlong residency at TwiRoPa Mills to celebrate the band's 10th anniversary and work on the new material. While here, Wolff hopes to finish mixing the upcoming album with Andrew "Goat" Gilchrist at Truck Farm Studios. Wolff admits the main reason he hasn't moved to New Orleans is, "I have a really good apartment in New York, and I can't give it up. The price would go up $1,000 right away."
Adding vocals is just one step in the evolution of Drums & Tuba, a band that began in Austin, Texas, with, as the name implies, just drums and a tuba. (The guitar came later.) Wolff was in a ska-punk band with guitarist McKeeby before he decided to pick up the seemingly un-punk tuba. "I definitely picked it up because of ReBirth (Brass Band) at first," he admits. "I was really into Philip Frazier's whole deal. The Do Whatcha Wanna CD was around at the time. I'd heard that and was really into it. What I liked was that the band was really fun -- sort of sloppy, but really, really on at the same time. It felt to me a little punk rock."
When the band opened for ReBirth, Galactic's Ben Ellman asked Frazier what he thought of Drums & Tuba.
"He was very political with his answer," Wolff says. "He said, It was a little heady for me.'"
The minimal, brass band-inspired Drums & Tuba slowly incorporated electronics to become the best-known incarnation of the band. A typical track begins with a drum or guitar figure, which Wolff samples, manipulates, and loops, essentially adding another part to the piece. He then sends that sample or another one to drummer Nozero, who further manipulates it with the effects at his disposal. The result is a simple sound that grows more complex and dense over the course of the piece. The electronic manipulation starts with Wolff for personal and practical reasons.
"I got into it the most, but it helps that with a tuba, you only need one hand so I always have one hand free," he says. "It's easier for me to punch stuff in."
Like many punks, coming to terms with employing electronics took some adjusting. After all, the instrument of choice is usually the guitar, and the purist ethos and the genre's typical affection for rawness has tended to breed an anti-electronics attitude.
"Here is my reconciliation: I think I was just being a prude," Wolff says with a laugh. "The instrument is a means to an end. With an instrument, you're only limited by what you think it can do. I see electronics as a means to an end; if you have a sound in your head, you use whatever's available to create that sound. It's all worth it to me as long as it comes back to making songs as opposed to making sounds for sounds' sake."
With the new album and newer material the band's writing, that philosophy extends to the use of pre-recorded, triggered sounds. "I've started using triggered stuff, pre-recording us doing stuff and triggering it so that we don't have to build the song from scratch every time," he says.
"For a while, we were being purists and thought we had to sample everything live, in the moment, onstage, every time. At a certain point, we realized it would probably help the show if some of the songs just kicked in with a lot of loops and we didn't have to build it every time. Why are we doing that? Is it to prove that we can do it or is it because it'll sound better that way? I broke off being that purist guy who wouldn't pre-record anything."
That change may dismay those who discovered Drums & Tuba on the jam band circuit, where the band developed a following. "These days, there's a lot less improvisation," Wolff says. "We're trying to have tighter rock songs. There are sections where we'll mess around with stuff, but most of it's pretty planned out."
For reviews of CDs by Gwen Stefani, Nick Cave and John Lennon and reviews of DVDs by the Dead Boys and Wire, see "Opening Act" online at www.bestofneworleans.com.
- "Getting a singer, specifically a female singer, was constantly brought to us as a proper career move," says Drums & Tuba's Brian Wolff (right).