While on tour in 2013, Rubblebucket singer Kalmia Traver was diagnosed with first stage, clear-cell ovarian cancer. For most people, that would signify it was time to take a break and try to recover. But Traver isn’t “most people.” She underwent and completed treatment while on tour. It’s been two years now since the tumor was removed.
“It was a crazy year,” she recalls via phone from a Rochester tour stop. “I was diagnosed in mid-June and we had a few shows planned but nothing big. I played those shows and we booked a very small tour for the fall. In between the chemo treatment, I played those shows. I was done with chemo but I had no hair. We played earlier sets, and we had a lot of days off. We made it work. That was so transformative, but I’m so glad we did it. It was really exhausting, but we showed the world that we could do it and to see the world come out and pour their love on us, that was the single most healing moment of my whole journey. I’m so glad we did that. I can see why people want to keep it private. It’s jarring and super terrifying. I’m glad I went public with it because I couldn’t have gotten better without everyone.”
Formed back in 2009 in Vermont by trumpet player Alex Toth and Traver, Rubblebucket, which now calls Brooklyn home, plays a cool combination of jazz, funk and rock. The band’s horn-driven style of music has a unique feel to it as Traver’s high-pitched vocals have a Bjork-like quality to them.
She and Toth have played music all their lives, but they first met each other while attending the University of Vermont.
“We were both really into music all throughout our childhoods and high school,” she says. “We were music majors and we met in Latin jazz ensemble. It was the first day of classes, and we’ve been buddies ever since. We both played the horns. We both used to ride our bikes around campus holding our instrument. It was funny because we would ride by each other and say ‘hi’ because we were the only kids riding around with our instruments.”
Inspired by a video she saw of Dizzy Gillespie wailing away on his trumpet, Traver says she picked up the saxophone simply because it wasn’t the instrument of choice for most girls.
“I didn’t want to play flute or clarinet because that’s what all the girls played,” she explains. My family was really supportive. My uncle Mark gave me jazz CDs at a young age. I loved bouncy funky stuff. I couldn’t get enough of it. I loved jazz so much that saxophone came natural. There weren’t that many women playing saxophone back then. But I’ve met so many contemporary players. There must be a slew of women who thought it would be cool to play saxophone.”
After college, the two teamed up with the regional reggae act John Brown’s Body.
“It was very educational,” Traver says of the experience. “We were just out of college. We had no road experience. It was a dream come true in that sense to go straight from college to a tour and become a professional musician. Those guys are road warriors. They’re a little bit older than us and they showed us the ropes. It was through that experience that we could take Rubblebucket on the road. It gave us the courage to start our own thing when we saw how it worked from the inside out.”
The turning point for Rubblebucket came when Alex wrote the skittish tune “Came Out of a Lady” and the band played the ska-inspired song in Ithaca before a sold out crowd at the jam band club Castaways.
“The crowd just flipped out, and we thought we were onto something,” says Traver. “That was the biggest evolution moment for our sound. It was something between pop and lots of horns and we’ve taken it from there. It’s been a lot of work to figure out what makes a good lyric. I’ve never been lyrically minded.”
As much as the title of the band’s latest album, Survival Sounds, might suggest that Traver’s brush with cancer was the inspiration for the songs, she says that Toth wrote the bulk of the album’s songs.
“I was down for the count for most of the writing,” she says. “Alex wrote most of the record. He decided to quit drinking leading up to that. He had a life realization and needed to do that. All of the music was written after that went down. It’s all about life and death. It’s about really intense life shit. I’m glad we have that stuff to look back on.”
A song such as “Middle,” which commences with thumping drums before an undulating guitar riff kicks in, has a great mix of instrumentation that suggests the band has emerged into something even jazzier.
“I remember I did the demo for the song on Garageband,” she says. “I had these big thunderous drums. We went to the studio and had a hard time playing it live. We put it aside. We were working with John Congleton who’s a master as getting the gnarliest, huge dirty, rock ’n’ roll sounds. He produced some of our favorite records by the Swans and Vincent and these huge sounding records. We were jumping up and down because it sounded so amazing. We built it in post-production. We just let the rhythm section play for five minutes and then chopped up what they did. It’s hard to pull off live. The ending is so shimmering and it’s my favorite part on the whole album. It’s exciting for us to reach those heights in the studio. We haven’t had a successful moment like that in the studio. To have a thing that’s so cool on tape that you don’t want to touch it live is pretty cool.”
Survival Sounds represents the group at its peak and will be difficult to surpass with a follow up. So has the band started thinking about the next album?
“Yeah, we’ve been thinking about it a lot,” Traver says. “We ended up with so many songs. We wrote a lot and it’s all over the map. We picked out the best set of songs that work together but we still have so many. We’ve been writing up a storm. Alex and I have both been writing for side projects. Alex just started a punk band. We’re juggling a lot of sounds. After this summer, we’ll take a break and dive into the next record.”
Rubblebucket, Vacationer, Pretty Little Head, 9 p.m. Friday, May 22, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., 216-321-5588. Tickets: $13 ADV, $15 DOS, grogshop.gs.