When Burlington expats Alex Toth and Kalmia Traver first debuted their band in 2008, it was as the Boston-based ensemble Rubblebucket Orchestra. In the years since, the group has trimmed its name to Rubblebucket and relocated to Brooklyn. The pair also transformed the band’s sound from an unwieldy, progressive Afrobeat aesthetic to an equally unwieldy and at times indefinable form of indie dance pop that has more in common with Björk and tUnE-yArDs than Fela Kuti.
Along the way, Rubblebucket have become a staple of the festival circuit, highlighted by an appearance at Bonnaroo last summer. In the fall, they made their late-night-TV debut on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” Most recently, the band released a critically acclaimed new EP, Oversaturated, which Paste magazine tabbed as one of the top EPs of 2012, alongside the likes of Dirty Projectors, Dum Dum Girls and Punch Brothers.
Rubblebucket wrap up a remarkable year with a two-night New Year’s Eve run at the Higher Ground Ballroom on Sunday, December 30, and Monday, December 31.
In advance of those shows, Seven Days spoke with Toth by phone from his home in Brooklyn to discuss the evolution of Rubblebucket and the challenges of balancing art and success.
SEVEN DAYS: Rubblebucket’s sound has come a long way from the early Afro-funk “Orchestra” days. How aware of the band’s evolution are your nonlocal fans?
ALEX TOTH: That’s an interesting question coming from Burlington. We first went out to California for our first festival with an established sound that had already evolved over two and a half years. So the majority of people don’t know about our earlier roots. But in Boston and Burlington, there are still people who are shouting out “Scumbucket,” a hidden track on our first record.
SD: How does the new sound fit into the original concept for the band?
AT: I remember standing outside the Radio Bean after my, like, fifth Afro-Cuban or funk gig of the week, and I had this vision. I wanted a band that was totally a vague vision, a medium for the wildest ideas of my imagination. But something that could be successful, like Radiohead or Björk, artists that have crazy, unique, original ideas and take them really far.
SD: So it’s been a natural evolution?
AT: When Kal and I were in John Brown’s Body, this band, Boston Afrobeat Society, did some shows with us and they were doing this crazy Afrobeat stuff. To me it was like modern Duke Ellington. Like, if he were playing right now, his form of dance music might sound like this lush, hybrid Afrobeat thing. It sounded fucking amazing to me. So I started shifting my brain to incorporate polyrhythms around claves [percussion instruments]. But I knew I never wanted to stay in one place with it. Our ears are constantly evolving, and we’re constantly getting better at understanding aesthetics and where we fit into a wider context. But that was an interesting place for us to start. It got us right into the dance clubs, and it was really challenging, stimulating music for us.
SD: How did that morph into what the band does now?
AT: We started with these long, tribal jams that were really polyrhythmic, and from there we kept a lot of the same balances. But we wanted it to sound cool to us and be something that we’re down to dance to and listen to. So we kept shaping it. But I don’t really know. We don’t sit down and say conceptually we want to do this artist meets this artist. We follow our ears.
Sometimes I wish we had a more organized approach to writing. But at the same time, I’m grateful to have a band that we can just follow our ears.
SD: I imagine that could be an unwieldy process at times.
AT: It can be. In January will be the first time that we can take an indeterminate amount of time off from touring to write and record. That, to me, is extremely exciting because it will allow us to really let out all the stuff that wants to come out.
It’s so important to us to be forging our own sound and bring all of these ideas to the musical table. And I think that’s where some of the unwieldiness comes from. Trying to create something new, that comes with the territory. It’s almost a responsibility for us to really give ourselves the time to wield what is inherently unwieldy.
SD: The band has had a big year, playing major festivals, doing the late-night-TV thing, etc. Is reconciling that creative ambition with commercial realities something you consciously consider?
AT: It’s a dangerous thing to bring directly to a creative process. We want to be able to do this thing and survive off of it. So in that regard, yes, you want to balance out on some sustainable level. You want to get paid for your art. But that kind of thinking inhibits the creative process rather than facilitates some million-dollar idea.
SD: [Laughs] Sure. But at a certain point doesn’t that become the nature of the beast in the music industry, finding a way to maintain artistic integrity but also eat?
AT: Something occurred to me when I was reading a long interview with Radiohead. How did they have the balls to just go so deep and original, when they already had this major thing? Some artists recoil and get too bogged down by external stuff. And they talk about caring about nothing but the song. So I wonder if you don’t have to strike a balance. Maybe you just have to look deep within and follow your shit as soulfully and honestly as possible. And if you’re doing that, maybe the really awesome stuff just comes out. The truth might be that it’s best not to think of external stuff at all. As humans we arrive at stuff that other humans love because those messages are naturally compelling.
Rubblebucket with Marco Benevento, Kat Wright & the Indomitable Soul Band and DJ Disco Phantom at the Higher Ground Ballroom on Sunday, December 30, and Monday, December 31, 9 p.m. $17/20/35. AA.