Different Dimensions

Drums and Tuba

Like a steaming bowl of gumbo, Drums and Tuba's music is made from a myriad of interesting ingredients. And just as the hearty soup is a symbol of Southern Louisiana's cultural mélange, Drums and Tuba's musical parts interact with each other to create flavors and textures not found independently. Since it's difficult to describe the taste of a particular food without using blunderbuss adjectives such as tasty, spicy, or good, it's also tough to detail the music of Drums and Tuba without using broad descriptors such as different, complex, or good.

One way to characterize the music of this local trio, who've been together two years now, is to describe the players and their instruments: Neil McKeeby (guitars), Tony Nozero (drums and percussion sounds), and Brian Wolff (horns). While they aren't a power trio in the traditional sense, Drums and Tuba's music is produced by this vigorous trio of talented musicians. In fact, the term "trio" can be misleading when applied to the band given the fact that both McKeeby and Wolff play two instruments simultaneously. Without seeing them perform live, they can sound like a quartet, if not a quintet.

McKeeby's guitar rig consists of one guitar strapped over his shoulder with another guitar resting Junior Brown-style on a stand in front of him. And while every tune doesn't call for the enhanced sound and interaction of two guitars, McKeeby plays both together so naturally you'd swear he was trained as a pianist with the halves of his brain surgically separated.

This new playing style evolved as a way to play more expressively without being cliché. After hearing the now-over-used two-hand tapping guitar technique for the first time and Michael Hedges' sublime work with a harp guitar, McKeeby thought to himself, "Why not add a couple more fingers and play rhythm and something else." And after many long hours woodshedding, voilà: two hands, two guitars, two melodies.

Wolff, likewise, opens the band's musical options by playing, in addition to the tuba, the trumpet and the pocket trumpet. And Wolff, like McKeeby, pulls double duty on some tunes, mustering up plenty of lung power to blow two trumpets simultaneously. And we're not just talking about an occasional note here and there, we're talking about fully developed melody lines and harmony runs.

With these fellow musicians one might expect to find a drummer with Shiva's many arms playing both a drum kit and a xylophone, but Nozero shouldn't feel guilty that he "only" plays a drum kit. As any good epicure knows, too many cooks spoil the broth --quantity isn't quality. With two-thirds of Drums and Tuba occasionally contributing two musical parts, it's highly critical that the drummer lay down a stocky rhythmic foundation.

Nozero not only does this well, but instead of simply hunkering away at the plebeian snare/high-hat 4/4 combo, he seeks other tools such as frying pans and water willies as drumstricks to spice up the band's novel mix of time changes. The result: Instead of competing with the other instruments, the drum parts complement the floating guitar lines and meaty tuba parts well. But even within his role as a drummer, there's plenty of room for Nozero to try out new ideas. "With this band we just experiment," he says. "It's fun because in a trio there's so much room to do so. We play what we feel like and we have more freedom to define each of our roles."

Why do some musicians explore uncharted sonic and stylistic territory? Lots of reasons: A desire to create something new; perhaps a need to piss other people off. For Drums and Tuba, one of their earliest gigs reinforced their exploratory leanings by showing them what was possible with unique combinations of instruments played by artists willing to take chances. The scene: New Orleans about a year after the band, which originally started up as a duo (hence the name), started playing together as a trio. On that night, they opened a Rebirth Brass Band concert held in a warehouse. According to Wolff, "Phillip Frazier, the sousaphone [a close relative to the tuba] player for Rebirth, was asked about what he thought of our playing. His response was, `It's a little heady for me.'"

Instead of feeling dejected, the band prepared for their next gig. They were scheduled to play the following evening with a group of other musicians at an art gallery. To the band's surprise, Samurai Celestial, the drummer with Sun Ra's Arkestra, drove to New Orleans from his home in Knoxville, arriving at 3am. While Celestial was setting up his drum kit, a few other jazz luminaries such as Michael Ray and Henry Butler arrived. At one point there were two drummers and two bass players set up together. The trio couldn't believe they were playing for and with these musicians, but they gave it their best shot and the feedback was positive; Celestial sat the band down and told them why space is the place and how the new millennium called for a new music. Not bad experience for a newly formed, odd trio from Austin.

Perhaps another way to portray the band is to list some of the musicians that influence their composing and playing: Joey Baron, Sepultura, Sun Ra and Arkestra alumni, the Meters, Sonny Sharrock, Bad Brains, Eric Dolphy, Michael Hedges, Minutemen, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and John Zorn's Masada to name a few. Taking all these influences and combining them with their own creativity, Drums and Tuba create a musical rainbow that would make Sun Ra proud. Perhaps this is why most people, even after listening to the music for a while, can't seem to pin down the band's style to an established category, e.g., Southern boogie, swing, power-pop, or grunge.

So original are their pieces, in fact, that the influences heard are probably more dependent on the listener's experiences than on the band's heroes. Their compositions are wholly unique, forcing the listener to shake the dust off of their musical thinking caps. After one of the shows, an audience member came up to the band and made a unique comparison. Says Nozero, "He told us we sounded like Black Sabbath and Frank Zappa." Interesting, as neither band is known for its work with the tuba.

The band also gets occasional comments about their nonstandard time signatures. Oftentimes, people express their opinion of a song's timing as if they've just figured out the entire New York Times crossword: "That song was in 7/8!" The band, however, views their songs much more simply. As Wolff the tubador says, "To me, everything's in 1: If the song's good you don't notice anything -- it's just a song."

A good example of those songs can be found on the band's first full-length release, Box Fetish. In addition to being a good sample of the diversity the band plys live, the song titles also depict the band's healthy sense of humor. You can't take yourself too seriously with titles like, "Does It Suck To Be You?," "Gimpel the Fool," and "The Adventures of Poo-Poo and Pee-Pee."

Too often, great musical performances are recorded and mixed poorly. This is akin to viewing a painting with a stranger's glasses on; you can see the frame, but all the texture and subtlety are lost in the fuzziness. Thankfully, this didn't happen with Box Fetish, due mainly to the wizard work of recording engineer Jason Ward. Dealing with the typically low budget of a working local band, Ward's adept hands and ears helped produce an album that sounds better than many major label releases. Take, for example, "The Butcher," on which Ward captures the simultaneous guitars and muted trumpet superbly. Moreover the drums, notoriously difficult to record well, sound organic, well-distributed, and clean. Could Ward could be one of Austin's best- kept recording secrets?

When all is said and done, however, Drums and Tuba's music is just plain fun. The band's goal is to create entertaining music that's replete with interesting musical flavors, while at the same time entertaining themselves. "When the crowd's as loose as we are, it's really nice," says Nozero. "I like when people yell out things between songs instead of sitting there and studying the tunes -- that's cool."

"We want our music to be weird, but accessible," adds Wolff.

When asked what one tune might best represent the band's personality, McKeeby explains, "Hopefully, you could say any one of them." Just as one spoonful of soup tastes the same as a whole bowl, each of Drums and Tuba's songs tell a little story about the band, their influences, and their muses. While Drums and Tuba's unique hybrid musical style is not everyone's cup of soup, one has to admit that separately, all three musicians are unique and gifted. Together as Drums and Tuba, they form an original and fascinating combo that deserves a further taste.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle