Come again? You blew up a gas station?
Nozero, the drums portion of the trio Drums & Tuba, is trying to explain how the band's latest release came to be titled Gas Up, Blow Up.
Simple. He blew up a gas station.
"I was in New York delivering for a place that made fountains and shit out of stone," Nozero explains. "It was January, just the worst weather ever, [and] I had over a ton of rocks in the back of this truck. I was going just a little too fast."
Nozero attempted to pull off the highway to refuel at a filling station when his van hit a patch of ice, slid into the gas pump and burst into flames.
"It was insane," Nozero says. "I ran out of the van and tore across the parking lot and jumped over a fence [thinking] the whole freaking block was going to go up."
The whole block didn't go up, but the gas station did. From the safety of a snowbank across the street, Nozero watched the commotion from the inferno he had created.
"Still had a coffee in my hand," he says. "Looking at this scene of black smoke and fire and my van ... oil all over the place."
We've heard of a band blowing up, but come on. Not that Drums & Tuba has quite reached rock-star status. Even though the band has been taken to the bosom of Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe label, its three members still work part-time jobs to pay the rent when they aren't on the road. The rock-hauling gig was something Nozero had landed to score some extra cash between his band's epic tours, a schedule that averages more than 200 shows a year.
Luckily, Nozero shares the driving duties with his bandmates, guitarist Neal McKeeby and tuba, trombone and trumpet player Brian Wolff. The group has logged thousands of miles crisscrossing the country with its own brand of instrumental chaos since forming in Austin, Texas, in 1995.
The members of Drums & Tuba relish life on the road, but as their progressive sound quietly builds a grassroots following, they get closer and closer to actual homelessness.
"We all used to live in New York, and we'd sublet our places and hit the road and then come back and then leave again," Nozero explains. "That got old. I was just, like, forget it -- I'm just going to move out completely. I didn't have a place for probably eight months, just kind of scraped stuff together in between tours. That got old."
What hasn't got old is the Drums & Tuba sound, which is predicated on constant reinvention. Comparisons to other bands are common, but it's hard to make sense of those analogies when the other artists are spread all over the music map. It won't help to scan the audience at a typical Drums & Tuba show, either. There are the indie lovers, the math-rock nerds, the prog-rock heads, the jam-band hippies, the jazz aficionados, the electronica enthusiasts -- all united under one sweaty roof.
A typical Drums & Tuba production begins with Nozero laying down a funky groove. Then Wolff will sample it, loop it and add effects. Wolff uses the tuba for low-pitched bass, loops it, then uses his other horns to register an array of melodies. McKeeby adds oddly textured chords and single-note lines, sometimes playing two guitars at once, often in opposing rhythms. Each member of the band utilizes a vast array of effect pedals, and Wolff continues to loop and fade the music from a mixing console so that the trio produces the sound of a six-person band.
If it all seems a little too brainy, think again. A Drums & Tuba audience can easily become a heaving collective of shaking asses and moving feet, a prog partisanship of guys and dolls getting their groove on.
Nozero does come from a riff-oriented, math-rock background, but he balances an assertive, post-Zeppelin brontosaurus stomp with a jazzy looseness, his left hand skimming the snare in free rhythm. It's mathematical, but it doesn't feel like homework.
Two guitars, loads of effects and no vocals might reek of gimmickry, but it all coalesces seamlessly onstage. A typical set contains peaks and valleys and skewing angles, but there is a consistent thread running through the songs, a hard-to-pin-down style that can be described only as Drums & Tuba.
The band got its most important musical kick in the ass when it discovered the magic of implementing loops and electronic squawk during a 1998 tour with the Spaceheads, an ambient trumpet-drums-electronic duo from Manchester, England.
"They were just fucking blowing us away every night," Nozero says. "It was like, 'Oh, my god, these guys are so great!' They really pushed us, like, man, we gotta really start throwing down!"
But with its three members living in different cities, the band began to fragment. Drums & Tuba was on the verge of splintering for good when the band got a phone call shortly after the Spaceheads tour. Ani DiFranco was on the line.
"She used to record in Austin," Nozero says. "I think she just kinda was pokin' around and saw Drums & Tuba."
DiFranco asked the band to open a handful of shows. The few shows grew into two tours.
"After that, it was, like, wow, maybe we can actually do this," Nozero says. "So we really started buckling down."
DiFranco and her husband, Andrew Gilchrist, recorded the band's fourth album, Vinyl Killer, and its follow-up, Mostly Ape, at their Buffalo, New York, home. Now comes Gas Up, Blow Up -- all bankrolled by the Righteous Babe.
A number of other projects sit on the burner. There are plans to record a double album with eccentric tour partner and one-man act That One Guy. A live album is in the works, and another album is effectively finished and awaiting release. The surplus material comes in handy for a group of road warriors who frequently hit the same city on opposite ends of the same tour.
"A lot of bands will do a record a year and tour [another year] on the record," Nozero says. "We're just way too ... energetic for that."