Somewhere in South Vermont—not far from the university where Rubblebucket songwriting couple Kalmia Traver and Alex Toth first met about a decade ago—there is talk of foam vaginas.
“We talked about building this ‘Love Tunnel’ that came out of the stage—basically a large, papier-mâché/foam vagina—and we’d run out of it at the start of the show,” Toth says over the phone on a rare day off at Traver’s parents’ house. Meanwhile, upstairs, Traver is working on tunes that will inevitably become Rubblebucket’s next EP, coming out September 11. “We’ve also been talking about mummifying me onstage, and before an appropriate lyric or trumpet line I’d break out of the toilet paper sarcophagus or whatever and triumphantly play the part.
“Basically, the more wild, ridiculous the idea is, the closer we are to achieving the vision of Rubblebucket.”
The popsteady Brooklyn nine-piece’s recent Live In Chicago CD/DVD catalogs a single energetic night of last year’s second nationwide Omega La La tour. But in the neon-and-LCD-strewn footage you’ll see none of the robot puppets or flapping rainbow parachutes that have since come to characterize Rubblebucket’s dynamically wonky live show. As Rubblebucket gears up for a string of summer festival gigs and another live show transformation, CMJ asked Toth about how the band’s wild ideas evolve (TP entombment included), which family members showed up boozy to a recent Manhattan gig and whether or not we can expect to see any foam vaginas and papier-mâché robots share the stage in harmony at upcoming Rubblebucket performances.
When I saw you at Bowery Ballroom your parents were there. Your mom danced right past me with beer! Is that normal?
[Laughs] I’m from New Jersey, and my mom works there but is also in the city all the time. She brought a whole crew out for that Bowery show. She got like a bus to come from my hometown, and like, my old art teacher was there and my Uncle Peter, who’s basically the last vestige of the hundred-year-old Flynn family flower-selling business. I was really happy that my mom did that. But it’s kind of weird; we’re playing music right now that’s totally inspired by the function and dysfunction of my family, and to have them be there is trippy. Like, we’ve been debuting songs that they don’t even know are about them [laughs].
How has your family’s dysfunction inspired your lyrics?
Last fall when we got off our second of two national tours for Omega La La I felt really, really out of it physically, but I was in this writing zone, and I knew it was time to top what we’d already done. I’m at my Aunt Eileen’s house, and she’s got a piano there, and as I’m writing she keeps coming in with Post-it Notes, and she starts popping around and being like, “OK, what’s this song about?” And I was like, “Oh my god. She’s in total manic mode.” My aunt’s like totally going crazy and impeding on my writing process, but I ended up getting some valuable lines out of it. So she’s there at the Bowery show while I’m basically singing about how, “Eileen has lost her head again.” [Laughs] She was thrilled to make it into a song, even though it was about her being crazy. Earlier in that same song there’s a line that goes, “My Aunt Gracie has dementia/Never met her and stood me up,” which actually happened.
Please explain how a dementia-afflicted aunt stood you up.
I’m named after my grandfather Al Toth, who died when I was like two or three months old. His father came from Hungary. My dad is really terrible at staying in touch with that side of the family, so a few months ago I tried reaching out to Al’s sister Gracie—my great-aunt. And apparently she has dementia, but she and her daughter wanted to meet us in Edison, NJ. There’s a Flynn flower shop out there, so I went with my sister and my dad’s sister and got some family flowers and went out to Edison, and they totally stood me up! We’re waiting there, and we called, texted—nothing. Aunt Gracie stood us up.
At that same Bowery show you said you couldn’t bring out the “Love Tunnel” because the last night’s crowd tore it up. What happened there?
Neil Fridd of the Terror Pigeon Dance Revolt who made the robot puppets for us talked about building this “Love Tunnel” that came out of the stage—basically a large, papier-mâché/foam vagina—and we’d run out of it at the start of the show. I think the Flaming Lips had a vagina that people would run out of?
They sure did.
Anyway, we had this idea of a “Love Tunnel” where it would kind of accordion out. You’d set it up, and it’d fold out, and people would run around it. But the problem is you need four people to operate it, and when we’re in a club room where you have a tight sold-out show there’s just no room to have that heart-pump circulation without really good coordinating. So the first night we tried to use it, the “Love Tunnel” was literally a third of the size of the whole dance floor. Then in Burlington, VT, we busted it out, and the audience proceeded to basically turn it into a large parachute. The poles got torn out, and it just lifted above the whole audience’s head and started pumping. I took a video from stage—it was actually pretty great. But since then we haven’t really used it that much. It takes us long enough to set up the LEDs, build the robots, and then we have to find volunteers to operate them.
So the robots are always played by audience members?
Yep. It’s hit or miss, whether people are drunk or they know what’s going on in robot land. Sometimes before we go on I’ll try to find a couple of people who look bright-eyed and seem to be dancing to whatever music is happening, so I know they’ll give the puppets some energy. You’d be surprised by how many people don’t want to be the robot puppet. But every night I kind of recruit a couple of people and give a five-minute orientation about how to put them on and all that.
What live elements are you working on for bigger summer shows like Camp Bisco?
We’re thinking about a whale raft. It’s this large raft that [trombonist] Adam [Dotson] and I would literally surf on the crowd with these papier-mâché whales on either side of it like we’re literally in this ocean. We’re also talking about a pillow jumpsuit as a safe alternative to crowd-surfing. When we played at Brooklyn Bowl in August 2011 I was dropped on my back and had to go to the emergency room, so now I meditate every time I crowd-surf to telepathically tell the crowd, “Do not fucking drop me.” It’s not exactly rockstar [laughs], but if I’m gonna go ride the wave then I’m gonna be careful. But with a pillow jumpsuit that wouldn’t be a problem! We’ve also been talking about mummifying me onstage, and before an appropriate lyric or trumpet line I’d break out of the toilet paper sarcophagus or whatever and triumphantly play the part. We’ve also talked about cardboard cutouts of the band starting the show with our new live album playing through an iPod, then we attack the cutouts and take over the parts.
If you had an unlimited budget for Rubblebucket shows, what would you do with it?
Pay all nine members of our band enough so that they are totally making a living and comfortable and not below the poverty line [laughs]. But after that I would probably commission visual artists and physicists to do something really innovative with light and sound. It would probably involve dressing up the whole room so that the entire space is immersed and connected to the vibe we’re trying to put out. Maybe there’s sound-sensitive panels that change color with the music or something. It would involve commissioning some genius physicist. A really good high school friend went to MIT, and I was hanging out with some of those kids, and they’re fucking crazy! They’re molecular biologists and physicists, and they were having these long talks about the nature of light versus the nature of sound and human perception. It was just mind-blowing. I’d like to surround myself with people like that as well as visual artists and just come up with something brilliant to tour on. And now that I’m talking about it, thank you for that question, because that’s what I’m gonna do.