Harrowing from the vibrant streets of New Orleans, Buskers-turned-international-phenomenon Tuba Skinny have just released their newest album Owl Call Blues in time for their Australian Tour this October. Starting in Adelaide, Tuba Skinny are heading to Aus on the back of their sold out 2013 tour. From hopping freight trains to best busking spots in New Orleans, Trombone player Robin Rapuzzi spoke to us about all things Tuba Skinny, including their album that was recorded in Tasmania, and their favourite old time songs to play.
Would you say that your sound is very indicative of your hometown of New Orleans?
The music we play is inspired by the music and culture of New Orleans, yes, but not necessarily the sound of New Orleans. We play old jazz and blues, but not necessarily in the New Orleans style. None of us are from N.O. originally.
Apparently you used to Hop freight trains and busk, what was that like?
We still busk. Busking is essential to the group. I don’t think we’d be together if we didn’t still busk. Hopefully while we’re on tour in Oz we will busk. Most members of the band used to hop freight. I tried a number of times but to no avail. All of us in the group have lived very eventful lives full of travelling one way or another. I believe it is the travelling and pressure of travel that makes us concentrate on the music we love so much. When you’re on the road, you have endless amounts of time to learn and be thoughtful and grow individually as well as with the pack of people about you. Whether you’re hitch-hiking, travelling by train, or rubber-tramping you get to see the country from a different perspective, a behind-the-scenes perspective amid so much industrial turmoil and modern grief, you find beauty. Pure freedom.
Do you enjoy the autonomy of being able to just play on the street and not have to be confined to stage performances?
Oh yes. We enjoy the acoustic side of life very much. Playing on the street allows us to meet all sorts of people: rich, poor, crazy, etc… We can survive enough by simply taking up shop on a corner anywhere and doing what we do… not to say it will last, but, busking is a way of life we’re passionate about. I’ve been busking since I was 16 or 17 and haven’t stopped since. I believe our hearts are invested in the nature of the street. It’s where we learn best and, of course, we’re in control unlike that of some stage performances. Say we have a weekly gig somewhere and the owner changes the schedule on us and tells us to play and dress a certain way and wants to cut our breaks in half… busking involves none of that.
Where’s your favourite place to play on the streets of New Orleans? (Or anywhere in the world!)
Royal Street is the best street to busk on in New Orleans, because it’s the only street in the U.S. that shuts down to pedestrian traffic in the daytime as long as it does. Many towns in Europe have pedestrian malls we can busk, but Royal St. is so unique. There are genuine characters walking up and down that street any given day of the year. Also, the police in N.O. do not bother performers as much on Royal as they do elsewhere in town, so we’re kind of safe to do as we please as long as we don’t play too loud, so that the shopkeepers complain. I guess my second favorite place to busk is in Seattle, Washington at the Pike Place Market. It’s where I grew up, and despite the permit you’re supposed to pay to perform there, I like it just enough. There are many outside markets Across Europe that are perfect for groups like us or a lone clown to play in. Some markets, if you’re lucky, will gift you fresh fruit and vegetables as tips.
You’re back home at the moment, what do you hope to do before you tour again?
I hope to practice my instruments and get some good writing done and catch-up with friends. Tonight I was hanging out on Frenchmen St. studying some drummers and their techniques, which is good, so I’ll have a lot to think about while on tour. I also need to work in my neglected garden. It’s gone to pot so fast. The fishing is wonderful in Louisiana, so maybe I’ll go catch a redfish just before a storm.
How do you decide on what songs to play and record? Is it a group decision?
It’s a group decision. It always is. Tuba Skinny is a miniature political system of majority rule. We discuss ideas with each other either on the street or over dinner. We have listening-parties throughout the year to discuss what we’re interested in and where we want to go with our music. It’s very organic. We’re very fortunate to all be so interested in the same kind of music and to have met each other when and where we did and with a travelling itch and desire to busk.
What is your favourite old time song to play together?
Hmmm, tough question. I’d say we’re all pretty excited about the song Gimme Some, which was performed by Clarence Williams the composer and Margaret Webster, blues vocalist. The song was also sung by Bessie Smith who has influenced Tuba Skinny in many ways.
Would you expand on the band and add on any more instruments, or are you happy with the balance you have now?
We have had an extra reed-player join us a time or two, but I believe we’re all most comfortable with the set up we have. Just enough and not too much. We have the essential three-voices of a jazz melody ensemble as well as the high and low ends of guitar and banjo, bass drum, tuba and washboard.
What’s the bands favourite track on your new album Owl Call Blues?
I can’t speak for the entire band on this one, but my favorite tune is Willie the Weeper. I’m really proud of that one.
How is Owl Call Blues similar/different to your other albums?
Owl Call Blues is similar to some of our other albums as it was recorded live and at home, but it is different because of it’s recording qaulity. Our friend, Max Bien-Khan, recorded the album with his equipment over at Shaye and Erika’s home and did a superb job. Recording older styles of music can be difficult to get just right, and without losing the quality and sense of room, live-space older records have. I am pleased with how the washboard came out on this album as on most albums I’ve played washboard on, the instrument comes out poor, too quiet or incredibly loud! I remember one album the board just sounded like sleigh-bells or sand shaking in the background.
What was your favourite place in Australia last time you toured here?
My favorite place was Mullumbimby because the lush bush was so green and beautiful to look at and the fog would rise so perfectly in the morning at eye-level and the beach wasn’t too far. But then again, nothing beats the quirks of the motel we stayed at in Woodford one year. That town was so inspiring. It’s really hard to say. I also fell in love with Tassie all over again the last time we were there and recorded Pyramid Strut. Can’t beat a town with such good fish n chips and a killer museum. And the kids there know how to get down.
What are you most looking forward to when you come back to Australia?
I’m looking forward to drinking fresh fruit juice and eating mangoes, great Thai food and a head-first dive into shark infested waters. Also, everytime we visit Oz, we meet so many cool musicians. I look forward to seeing old familiar faces too. My Aunt lives in Perth as well. I haven’t seen her since I was very young, so it’ll be a treat to catch up with her.
What are you planning on doing this time round that you didn’t get the chance to do?
Well, like I said, we’ll be playing in Perth and it will be our first time. I believe that is the only territory we haven’t visited yet.
Last time you were here, you recorded your album Pyramid Strut in Tasmania. What was that experience like compared to where you usually record? Did Australia influence you in anyway during your recording?
Recording Pyramid Strut was far different than any recording experience I think any of us will ever have again as the space in which we recorded was very beautiful and sacred. A man named Chris Townsend had us over to his home outside of Hobart in the middle of Virgin Tassie forest. He welcomed us and let us camp out on his property in some old fruit-picker shacks as well as recorded the album in it’s entirety. It was a pleasure to work with him and get to know his style. Normally, we just record our music at home with blankets hung on the wall or a mattress leaned up against a corner to act as a sound barrier. I’m sure the shear beauty of jungle around influenced us as well as having the time and space to do it. Often when we record, we don’t give ourselves that much time to get the job done and it can feel rushed. In Tassie, we recorded I think it was over 20 tracks the first day and a similar amount the following day. Recording on that property allowed us to discuss a lot of everything and everyone’s own ideas about the album. We also got to goof off a lot too and cook good meals.
What can Australian audiences expect from a Tuba Skinny performance?
They can expect a lot of new songs and fresh material we’ve been working on since last we visited. They can also expect a new member to the cast of Tuba Skinny, Greg Sherman of the Drunken Catfish Ramblers, who sings on a number of tracks with Erika as well as by himself. Should be a jumpin’ time full of brass and raw instruments shaking a leg on stage. Audiences can also expect a number of swing dancers to show up to some of the performances. I can’t promise but I imagine they will come and put on a show themselves. If you like early blues, ragtime or early jazz, you should enjoy the show.
Thursday October 2 – Governor Hindmarsh, Adelaide, SA
Friday October 3 – Mullumbimby Civic Hall, NSW
Saturday October 4 – The Zoo, Brisbane, QLD
Sunday October 5 – Caloundra Music Festival, QLD
Monday October 6 – Caloundra Music Festival, QLD
Thursday October 9 – The Heritage Hotel, Bulli, NSW
Friday October 10 – Gearin Hotel, Katoomba, NSW
Saturday October 11 – The Basement, Sydney, NSW
Sunday October 12 – The Basement, Sydney, NSW
Sunday October 12 – Six String Brewing Co., Erina, NSW
Thursday October 16 – Theatre Royal, Castlemaine, NSW
Friday October 17 – Melbourne Festival, VIC
Saturday October 18 – Melbourne Festival, VIC
Sunday October 19 – Melbourne Festival, VIC
Wednesday October 15 – Republic Bar, Hobart, TAS
Visit the Tuba Skinny Facebook page for info on tickets in your state.
Crow Jane Medley performed by Tuba Skinny yesterday.