Interview | Rubblebucket

Kalmia Traver

Kalmia Traver

Sprawling Brooklyn indie band Rubblebucket (at times spanning 8 members) have been lurking beneath the mass music consciousness since 2008, when they self-released debut album ‘Rose’s Dream’ – so well received was the record that the group began touring full-time, only pausing intermittently to release a further two albums, three EPs, appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, work with the likes of tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, and in the case of front woman and vocalist Kalmia Travers, receive treatment for and recover from ovarian cancer. To say they’ve had a busy few years is quite the understatement.

2014 sees Rubblebucket release their third full length record, ‘Survival Sounds’ – where a complex, clean, more mature sounding band seem to breathe their recent experiences directly into their writing, Travers’ literal survival roaring through every word, through every note. This is reflected in the album’s production, with mixing duties falling to John Congleton (St. Vincent, Angel Olsen), not to mention the record’s release on Communion Records, their first major-signing. All this hints at an impending major breakthrough – and we caught up with Travers to talk recovery, inspiration and moving into the big time.

You formed Rubblebucket after meeting Alex at the University of Vermont. What was it about each other that drew you together?
We met on the very first day of class. I remember seeing him from across the green, in the middle of a circle of kids, blasting away on some wooden flute. Needless to say I took a liking. We were friends and played in groups together for 2 years before we began to date. We always rode around town on bikes with our horns strapped to the back with bungee-cords. We were both wild uninhibited dancers (still are), and we created a mantra that became our little self-publishing company, Cantamos Sin Duda. We’re also polar opposites in many ways, so I think it was written in the stars. 

You’ve been touring consistently since 2008: does your creativity ever falter? Where do you see yourself in another 6 years’ time?
My creativity has morphed and evolved a lot. When I was younger I put more pressure on writing spectacular songs and music, and got super down on myself if I ever came up dry. Now I see creativity as an every-moment type of thing. I get my creative yayas in cooking and art, and dancing alone in my bedroom, and also in walking around the world and in conversation – it’s all an improvisation. Tour can be a real spirit killer. It’s amazing to spend 90 minutes per day in the middle of a sweating screaming throng of humans, but then there’s another 22.5 hours of time to fill, and it’s a very delicate balance, not to get crushed. I try to schedule rejuvenating trips in beautiful stimulating places (New Orleans and Joshua Tree desert of late) with people I love in my off time to open my spirit back up.

Rubblebucket’s sound is distinctive: what does your songwriting process look like?
This record was written mostly by Alex for several reasons, one being that I was pretty sick during a lot of that time. But we’ve always written together, often in adjoining rooms (the bedroom and living room) tooting melodies into our laptops, improvising and honing lyrics, and dancing out the rhythms. Once a demo is done we send it to the band, and then everybody learns the parts and tweaks them as necessary to pull it off live, and then we re-sculpt the demos in our respective living rooms/studios over and over until they’re basically full songs, and then we record it all over again in the studio.

Where do you find inspiration?
I love humor and playfulness – I think it’s central to my enjoyment of art-making. I like bending reality, interweaving the senses. I love the poetry of Pablo Neruda and I love the natural world infinitely. I’m always thinking about the line between humans and nature (if there is one), and chiaroscuro as a spiritual concept.

Survival Sounds is your first record for Communion Records, having been a fairly DIY band in the past: what initiated the move to the label?
We had been flirting with a few different labels, but none felt quite right, and we had no interest in practically giving away rights to the music we had been releasing ourselves for years just fine, thank you. Then communion exploded into our lives so suddenly and the love was really there. It felt exciting and palpable. They were completely supportive and generous, and wanted to be a part of the process, while still granting us total creative control. It’s been a joy working with them, and the opportunities and great new people we’ve met have been so fun and fantastic. For example, we got to go to Europe and the UK for the first time ever, literally a dream come true, a check off the bucket list, or what have you.

Last year was a big one for you guys: even though you’ve been around for a while, it’s like last year everyone finally sat up and took notice. What was it like opening for Mumford and Sons and being on Jimmy Kimmel? Do you notice your audience evolving as you become more well-known?
Last year was crayyyyyzzy! It was such a whirlwind of band excitement, mixed up with some of the most challenging moments of my life. This year I feel we’re finally tasting the fruits of all that insanity. The late-night TV thing was the most nervous I’ve ever been in my whole life, and I’m so glad I got that out of the way. In some ways I think we’re a band that’s ready for bigger things like this to be happening, because we’ve grown ourselves slowly and steadily over years, and made most of the common mistakes in a lower-pressure environment. When I played sax with Mumford and Sons and stepped onstage last summer in Troy, OH I had never seen that many hands in the air at once (roughly 60k x 2!) and the fact that I didn’t faint is thanks largely to the fact that I had years of stepping onto fairly big stages under my belt.

Also, of course last year you were diagnosed with ovarian cancer – this must have been a massive blow.
The word blow is not one I’d have thought of on my own to describe that experience, but now that you present it, yes, it really works, but not in the traditional sense. I did sustain some painful injuries from surgeries and chemo, and had an incredible amount of work set out for me to recover emotionally but what stands out in my mind more now, a year later, is what a wonderful teacher it was. I had so much love and support flow in from all corners of my life and my heart was nearly exploded with joy and hope. I will never forget that feeling, while I’m sure I’ll eventually force myself to forget the feeling of chemo (It’s literally the worst! Why remember that?!). I’ve heard that galaxies are actually spiraling waves of compressed air (the same thing as compression waves which make up sound and music) hitting giant gas clouds and triggering them to collapse and become stars. I feel that the cancer hitting me last summer knocked out a bunch of old useless energy and tightened up my whole spiritual ship, and let me be a star. So yes, it was a blow! I should also note that it had a similar effect on our band. Getting through this together has brought us all a lot closer and expunged some of the old lingering dysfunctional knots, and having an album to work on simultaneously was very therapeutic. Hence the name Survival Sounds!

How have you managed to get through it? How are you at the moment?
I’m doing great now. Better than ever. I’m 100% cancer free, and had a fertility sparing treatment so still have me lady parts (mostly). I’ve always wanted to have a baby, and for a while I had to go through the fear of that not happening. Probably the deepest fear next to death. Still living in close quarters with that possibility, but now I feel more equipped to handle it, after all that we’ve been through, and made it out alive. 

Do you feel your music (or approach to making music) has changed since the diagnosis?
I feel more powerful and efficient. I have a new sense of time dilation, and can do more faster if I want to. That sounds crazy! But it’s basically true. Performing has become way more fun. I’m much better at being in the moment, and being thankful for everysinglehumanbeingbeinginthebuilding!

I find Survival Sounds a little more ‘grown-up’ than your previous records – but also perhaps a purer snapshot of who you are as a band. As though some frills have been trimmed back. How have you seen your own evolution as a band?
It is definitely a snapshot of who we are, who we have been this last year. I see our evolution as a natural maturing process. It’s interesting because we probably weren’t supposed to last this long, starting out as a group of scruffy music school nerds in dad’s Volvo playing the same New England bars on a closed-circuit for several years straight. Somewhere in there it clicked and we didn’t quit. We’ve all grown so much together, been through the fire together, and learned from each other. Those guys have taught me most of what I know about rock and roll. I do see this album as a culmination of all our years and our greatest powers combined. The sound is darker and more bittersweet, but in it there’s an obvious desire to touch people and make a life out of music

What music are you listening to at the moment?
Lucky Dragons, the entire discography on repeat.

What has the response to the new album been like?
It’s been purely positive and supportive from all of our friends and family, and the entertainment industry community, and that’s what I care about most. I’m proud that I’ve reached a point where I truly have no desire to read reviews, positive or negative. Because it’s so easy for a reviewer to spend a couple hours placing judgement on something I spent 2 years of hard work and infinite love on. And the purpose of the review is not for me the artist to go through the ringer, it’s to guide listeners. I’ve found through years of experience that people come listen to us because they’re attracted by the sonic force, not necessarily because they read a favorable newspaper article. All that being said, I think the world at large is liking it, so hooray!!!

What’s next for Rubblebucket?
We’re launching into an extended life-on-the-road segment, 10 weeks total, which is the longest we’ve ever done. I’m definitely nervous about it, because tour is always physically and emotionally taxing. But I’m also very excited to be out in the middle of America rabble rousing with some of my best friends. We got our top picks for opening bands this fall and they’re all killer. After that, a Europe/UK release tour and the rest is in the dark for me, but I like it that way.

Annette Barlow

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