On paper, Rubblebucket could seem like a hot mess. But the idiosyncratic eight-piece band — born at the University of Vermont, nurtured around Boston, and subsequently transplanted, perhaps inevitably, to Brooklyn — has fused its own fashion of heady dance-pop that somehow just works.
On the strength of a style melding propulsive polyrhythms, syncopated horns, new wave-era art-school rock, and gleaming pop, all within a slyly psychedelic aesthetic, Rubblebucket may be on the verge of a breakthrough. But despite the band’s growing success, it’s a work in progress.
“We’re not a band that has come out of the gates setting out to make this sculpted, perfect conceptual thing. It was totally raw and evolving at all times. We’re just kind of learning and discovering what we want to do as we go,” says trumpeter and bandleader Alex Toth, on the phone from San Diego during a recent tour.
Rubblebucket plays the Paradise Rock Club Friday night, on the momentum of a new concert CD/DVD (“Live in Chicago”), its first appearance at South by Southwest, and a just-announced debut booking at this year’s Bonnaroo. On its last tour, it sold out shows from Vermont to San Diego, including New York’s Bowery Ballroom. Paste magazine dubbed it one of the 20 “best new bands” of 2011.
The band aims for a multi-sensory experience, recently adding several low-budget theatrical elements to its shows. Think the Flaming Lips, but less obsessed with irony.
“There’s so many elements other than the notes and rhythms you’re playing that go toward the audience's experience,” lead vocalist and baritone saxophonist Kalmia Traver says, in a phone interview from Brooklyn, “like the drinks that are being served, the outfits that you’re wearing onstage, the smells that they’re smelling. I think we have to be aware that we do have a little bit of control over all of those things, so why not take advantage of that and craft the audience’s experience even more?”
To that end, last year the group commissioned two 14-foot, backpack-mounted robot puppets (which audience members, sometimes recruited on Facebook, get to wear) and added simple but eye-catching touches like Day-Glo-colored streamers illuminated by black lights. For last fall’s tour, Traver quilted a stage backdrop depicting a psychedelic forest of pink and silver trees.
“The visual part is just as exciting, it’s part of the whole bravura,” Toth says.
After meeting in the jazz department at UVM, Toth and Traver started dating (they remain a couple) and playing in a series of bands. Following graduation they relocated to Brighton and then Somerville, picking up assorted gigs — most notably in the horn section of long-running reggae outfit John Brown’s Body.
Some of the jobs were more glamorous than others. Traver modeled for art students and performed radio hits at weddings and parties; Toth had steady work on the parade circuit with uniformed marching group Boston City Band and played Easter Sunday gigs in church ensembles.
Rubblebucket’s first show, as a between-gigs side project, was at Allston’s Wonder Bar in September 2007. By early 2009, Toth and Traver were ready to take a risk and quit John Brown’s Body to focus on Rubblebucket; later that year, they captured the Boston Music Award for best live act. Figuring it was the sensible business decision, the band relocated its home base to Brooklyn in 2010.
It’s released an EP and three LPs (the latest, 2011’s “Omega La La,” was helmed by LCD Soundsystem engineer and !!! producer Eric Broucek), but the band is best known for its concerts — sweaty spectacles full of energy. Toth and trombonist Adam Dotson (a New England Conservatory graduate) break into synchronized dance moves; Traver is in constant, frenetic motion while singing with an emphatic but airy delivery reminiscent of Björk.
The rhythm section of bassist Jordan Brooks, percussionist Craig Myers, and Berklee College of Music-trained drummer Dave Cole throbs like one multi-limbed organism. Amherst native Darby Wolf may hover with an organ accent or cut through the mix with a dirty synthesizer riff. Guitarist Ian Hersey, also a Berklee grad, specializes in elastic rhythm parts. It’s as if the neurotic energy of early Talking Heads was translated into a giddy, unhinged square dance.
Though it stands on its own, one senses “Live in Chicago” will prove to be a portrait of a band in transition, still growing into its own identity. The next goal, Traver says, is to “make a really great recording that’s meaningful to the world.”
“I’m proud of all the songs we’ve written and the recordings we’ve made,” she says, “but I don’t think we've tapped our true potential yet in the studio. I think that that’s our next big step, for sure.”
Jeremy Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin