Rubblebucket: Party Like Your Heart Hurts
When Rubblebucket’s core duo consciously uncoupled a few years ago, the future of their band was in serious doubt. But instead of drifting apart musically, Kalmia Traver and Alex Toth channeled their recent breakup into a whole new set of survival sounds.
Kalmia Traver is sitting on a rooftop in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, setting her gaze several blocks away at a colorful, newly constructed building that obscures the above-ground subway train previously visible from her perspective. Alex Toth, her musical partner and bandmate in indie-dance collective Rubblebucket, perches on an ottoman he brought from inside his apartment—despite the slight drizzle of rain—and tries prompting Traver to tell the story of what he calls her first experience with “astral travel.”
Traver laughs and demurs, explaining that it wasn’t really astral travel. Toth grins and shoots back: “We don’t have to diminish it for Relix. It was astral fucking travel.”
The two musicians have known each other since meeting at the University of Vermont, where they played music together in various college groups and eventually started a romantic relationship before graduating in 2006. That aspect of their partnership ended in 2016—a topic that fuels much of Rubblebucket’s most recent album, Sun Machine—but despite that, and in some ways because of it, the band has received a new creative lease on life. Traver and Toth are both in top form, mentally and musically, after a few years of surprises and hardships that included, even before the breakup, Traver’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment as well as Toth’s newfound sobriety.
But back to the astral traveling.
“I was just sitting on that balcony down there with all the plants,” Traver begins, referring to the fourth-floor balcony outside Toth’s apartment—one that he and Traver used to share—and a time before the cancer diagnosis, on a day when guilt and anxiety over not being creatively productive had led her to smoke some especially potent weed to calm down.
“I was just relaxing, staring at the spider plant, and then the plant started having a very distinct personality,” she continues. “It was like, ‘Hey! How’s it goin’?’ And I was just like, ‘Woah!’ Then I went to the edge of the balcony, and it was mid-June but hazy, the dead of night, and all these lights were glimmering down in the backyard. I stood on the corner of the balcony, and it was like I was floating in mid-air, not connected to any buildings, and the backyards were so luscious and magical. I started squinting at people’s back-porch lights—they looked like little galaxies. Like a Hubble Space Telescope photograph—glowing, different colored orbs. I pretended I was in deep space for a second, and I allowed myself to really believe it. Then, all of sudden, the train went by, and I was like, ‘Dammit, it’s ruining my thing. No! It’s not; it’s actually making it more real!’ That’s the coyote element, the playful Loki spirit that always keeps things unexpected, and it was just the last piece of the puzzle—I was like, ‘This is really real! That’s just the silly, outer space coyote that’s flying through my head.’”
That night in 2013 was just the beginning of that unexpected element’s presence in Traver’s life, though. In that same month, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and told that her chemotherapy treatment would start later that summer—the day before her birthday. As if that wasn’t enough life-altering news, the same week as Traver’s diagnosis, she and Toth received word that Communion Records wanted to sign Rubblebucket to their first-ever label deal and release their upcoming album.
Soon after that one-two punch, Toth decided to get sober. And though he and Traver had been experimenting with an open relationship previously—a time that Traver calls “challenging but super enlightening” and Toth calls “song-generating”—the couple, in Traver’s words, “hunkered down and lived a very tight life” during the cancer treatment, and she credits him with being a stabilizing force that helped her though the sickness. Impressively, Rubblebucket released the stellar LP, Survival Sounds, in August 2014, just over a year after Traver’s treatment began.
At the end of that year, following a grueling world tour, Toth went on an 11-day silent meditation retreat in Canada which, to his surprise, led him to start writing punk songs for the first time, ideas that would eventually become his solo project Alexander F. Meanwhile, back in their Brooklyn apartment, Traver took advantage of the time alone and had her first major songwriting streak since her cancer diagnosis, matching Toth’s output with the songs that would appear on her own solo record under the name Kalbells. While those records wouldn’t be released until 2017, the solo writing sessions revealed new creative avenues to both Toth and Traver—something that would eventually help them create Sun Machine—but when they came together in the summer of 2015 to start writing toward a new album, things didn’t go as smoothly.
It’s not that the material wasn’t there—Toth says that the duo began doing “song-a-days,” picking topics and predetermined beats to produce daily song ideas, eventually leading to nearly 35 potential tunes by the beginning of the next year. But the musicians’ connection was strained.
“It was really hard,” Toth remembers. “We’d been together for around 10 years and to be always together for a decade—running a band, running a business—a relationship can only take so much, and I think it made it difficult to be in a room together working on music. Even recording Survival Sounds was hard at times. Relationships are very fragile, and they take a lot of work, even if there’s a beautiful connection and mutual appreciation and respect. It’s just so easy to wear them down because all people are a little bit mad—we’re all irrational. It’s hard to keep it beautiful, even if both people have good intentions.”
Traver and Toth officially ended the romantic side of their relationship in early 2016—Traver quickly interjects an exact date, March 15—but the creative aspect of their decade-long bond was still up in the air. In the months that followed, the two did what they could to continue working on the large group of songs they had amassed before the split—along with playing previously booked shows together—an arduous stretch that ultimately lead to Rubblebucket’s four-song If U C My Enemies EP, which was released in January of 2017.
“I wouldn’t say it was awkward because we’re so past awkwardness, but it was painful and tough,” Traver says. “But we wanted to work on the Enemies EP, and we always had so much music going. It was like trekking through the Arctic or something—we couldn’t turn back, so we were willing ourselves to go forward.” “There’s a lot of factors that were leading toward the break being a necessary thing for Rubblebucket to continue,” Toth offers. “Sometimes people stay together out of a resistance to change because it’s scary. Rubblebucket was always over our heads—in a way, it was like having a kid. It taught us a lot about compromise and sacrifice, but it also paradoxically held us there in unhealthy ways. That was a hard period, working in the studio on what would partially become Sun Machine, and those four songs for the EP were the ones that made it through somehow.”
“I used to be focused on trying to cater to what the world thinks a girl is supposed to look like and sound like, instead of just listening to my inner voice,” Traver admits.
A make-or-break span of time for Rubblebucket came after the release of If U C My Enemies. With plenty of material ready to be formed into a new, full-length LP, Traver and Toth found themselves wondering what the next step would be—or if there would be one at all. As Traver puts it: “It was like, ‘Well, if we’re gonna do anything, we gotta do something.’”
The two began to attempt regular writing sessions again, this time once a week at Toth’s apartment, focusing on enjoyable, post-production work like dubbing horn parts and synth lines, and the tracks slowly began to take shape, leading both musicians to realize that their musical chemistry and their band weren’t done for after all. Sun Machine was on the horizon.
“This album was really only possible from the shift that occurred within me—probably within Kal too—from the breakup,” Toth says. “That shift involved everything I define myself by. I could see it changing, and the idea of Rubblebucket not continuing was very possible. I had to come to terms with that and surrender to that idea. Personally, the breakup felt bigger than even getting sober. I said in a Facebook post: ‘It’s the biggest life event since being born.’ It was that significant to me. While it was filled with immense waves of grief and sadness, it was an unshackling of our whole approach.”
“I definitely saw that happening for you because we were communicating the whole time,” Traver replies. “I was almost seeing you become reborn, and I remember you describing these crazy feelings of total liberation. For both of us, the idea of having full command over our own sovereign beings—because we had been defined by this unit since college—was a revelation. For me, it was like one big moment along with the cancer. I was shedding this old, dead stuff that wasn’t useful to me and letting all these new sprouts grow. The breakup moment felt like part of that path, opening up more space for us to express our truer selves.”
Sun Machine is undoubtedly an album full of heartache, yearning and self-reflection, but it’s hardly a downer. Traver and Toth’s newfound personal and creative freedom led them to take some musical chances on these songs, but Rubblebucket’s upbeat, danceable core is decidedly intact, shining through on tracks like “Party Like Your Heart Hurts” and “Inner Cry,” both of which don’t pull any punches, emotionally or sonically.
At several points in the record, the band juxtaposes soaring choruses with subdued verses, as in the ethereal “Formless and New,” which sums up much of what Traver and Toth say about their heart-wrenching but transformative breakup with lyrics like: “I still wake up grabbing your space/ And I’m still stuck wondering which stairs to take/ And how to take them without making big mistakes,” followed immediately by “But it’s worth the blood/ To still be lost/ To still be free/ It’s worth the cost.” There is a clear sense of sadness and nostalgia here—but also a sense of hope for the future.
“Sun Machine feels a lot more like a party than Survival Sounds,” Toth says, noting that the newer LP has more of the “unformed, wild” nature that Rubblebucket started with as a “post-Afrobeat,” fresh-out-of-college party band. “We returned to what we were originally all about, yet with the much more developed aesthetics and songwriting abilities. Life just did a bunch of stuff to us, and that’s all in there. I think it’s really cool how we’ve been taking these hardships and using them as teachers and then figuring out how to put that into poetry and sound, and to make a feel-good record like that.”
Part of Toth and Traver’s ability to turn pain into poetry—and the freedom the two experienced with the creation of Sun Machine—comes from their background in improvisation. Having studied and played jazz while in college, both musicians point to specific moments in the new album that come from that influence, including on lead single and standout track “Lemonade,” a murky, loping reflection that features jazzy chords and an extended, loose trumpet solo from Toth. He also points to the track’s “Duke Ellington-esque” saxophone parts, along with Traver’s “free-jazz” sax solo on album opener “What Life Is.”
And while Rubblebucket’s driving duo draws from the band’s origins as a spontaneous, jazz-influenced, high-energy group, Toth and Traver also recognize the new tools—emotional and musical—that they have developed throughout the years.
“We just learned so much while apart from one another and developed our own identities that are separate from Rubblebucket,” Toth reflects. “And the result is that we come back to Rubblebucket way more equipped, way stronger, and with a deeper craft and deeper confidence.”
Toth also expounds on the idea of the “sun machine” itself. The phrase, which appears in “Lemonade,” is his and Traver’s invention, referring to what they call “emotional technology”—basically, the tools that people use to deal with the various difficulties life throws at them, like meditation, therapy, yoga or various rituals.
“You can apply these things,” Toth urges. “Whether Kal and I are going to continue to apply them in a diligent way is to be determined, but they’re available, and the thing about sun machines is that they allow answers to come to you that you couldn’t possibly think of. It’s just lighting up intuition and clarity by stripping away the toxic, dark jungle of unnecessary thoughts. Who knows where that takes us. The cool thing about it is, if the work is being done, then it gives us some space to be skillful with one another—not only in our relationship, but with everyone we encounter. It takes a lot of work, and nobody is going to do that perfectly, but big changes like breakups or things shifting away from what you were holding on to—‘I always wanted this! Why are you taking away what I want?’—are potentially a lot smoother.”
Traver even discovered her own kind of sun machine while writing for her project Kalbells. “I used to be focused on trying to cater to what the world thinks a girl is supposed to look like and sound like, instead of just listening to my inner voice, so my inner voice used to be neglected like how a child can be neglected,” she says. “While making the Kalbells record, I discovered that composing is just letting my inner, playful child speak and go crazy and do flips—and trusting that those flips will be the coolest and most unique thing that I can possibly contribute to the world.”
This article originally appears in the December 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.