photo: Shervin Lainez
Kalmia Traver is flowing through her apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, N.Y., moving and twisting and rarely still. She’s describing the shoot for “Cherry Blossom,” one of four videos she created over the summer with her band, Rubblebucket. The track is warm and lovely in every way—from the seesawing pianos and the Kinks-esque horn section to the ever-present timpani and the lyrics of adoration and appreciation: “You look exactly like a cherry blossom/ Swaying in the wind with a sunbeam in it/ I think I might just be that sunbeam/ Shining through your leaves/ Feeling mostly completed.”
The song feels like a little secret, something you’d play while standing in a crowded subway car and smiling to yourself, nodding along and tapping on the pole—whether you’re feeling like the cherry blossom, the sunbeam or both. In Traver’s case, there’s another voice singing exactly an octave below her—the co-conspirator, co-songwriter and co-founder of Rubblebucket, Alex Toth. For two decades now, the musicians have been sunbeams to each other, leading to five albums and five EPs filled with of some of the most curious, creative and genreless music that’s graced the pages of this magazine. And their latest record, Earth Worship, is their best, and maybe their most joyful, yet.
The pair’s imagination is on full display in the “Cherry Blossom” video, which they shot on a farm in upstate New York with director/ professional puppeteer Annie Horner, a crew of friends and some homemade milkweed bug and flower puppets. The clip is grainy and bright— like a proud dad filming his kids’ big production on family vacation in the 1980s. The bug sex in question isn’t graphic; it’s friends with cardboard bug outfits wrestling in a field.
“It’s a big old silly pile of fun,” Traver says with a smile. “I edited down everything we filmed and pretended I had discovered a bunch of archival footage hidden in a barn and was trying to piece it together a hundred years later— what a dream.”
Earth Worship feels like a strange, where’d-that-come-from dream—it’s filled with music that feels of a different universe entirely, delivered to us now, here on earth, and begging to be explored, if not rationalized. The sounds Rubblebucket captured on the album defy categorization; there are guitars, bass and drums, sure, but also old Russian drum machines, synthesizers, plastic saxophones, nose flutes, tons of horns and even, per the album’s credits, “space echoes.” It’s a party record for adorable aliens on a planet filled with flowers and fruits, that’s also meant to be enjoyed here by us mere mortals, finding through it harmony with the chaotic world swirling around us.
Toth and Traver wrote these songs to match their titles, not the other way around. They didn’t want an album of tree-hugging “go green” anthems, but rather to write music that explored how we relate to, and are indistinguishable from, the natural world—about how nice it is to take a walk outside when we’re perpetually running a marathon inside our heads.
Toth has long connected to this concept through meditation as well as music.
“When you’re quieting down, the ‘Me, Not Me’ dichotomy can soften and the edges melt,” he says from his apartment in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. “Like we sing in the title track, we’re exploring breaking up these patterns. Sometimes people think nature is over there, and I’m over here. But there is no separation between us and nature. It’s all nature.”
Traver and Toth both remember the exact moment they met, in slightly differing levels of detail. It was freshman year at the University of Vermont, at a time when that school’s musical community was still flourishing in the shadow of the extended jamband scene.
“I used to carry around this little wooden flute, and that year was also a deep dive into psychedelics for me,” says a grinning Toth, who today is just about a decade sober. “So I was either on mushrooms or had the flute or both. And there was Kal.”
Traver brings that meet-cute into technicolor.
“It was one of our first days of class, and he was standing on campus surrounded by all these other students, playing this wooden flute where you sing into it to create a buzzing sound. And he was just ripping it! All these kids were clapping along, and I thought, ‘Who is that guy?’ remembers Traver—who, to be fair, says she recently journaled about the encounter. “And we kept running into each other. Soon enough, we were placed in the same jazz ensemble and got to make music together.”
Whoever that guy was, Traver had found a twin spark creatively. Their friendship blossomed, fertilized by their shared love of music and passion for environmental activism. Toth kept it growing by gently pushing Traver’s leaves toward the sun.
“Alex was supportive of me from the very beginning,” she remembers. “In my dorm room one time, we listened to a band practice recording and I’d taken a baritone sax solo. He said, ‘That’s so beautiful, you’re incredible.’ And that reflection helped me believe in myself and say, ‘Oh, I am!’ After our freshman year, I was a counselor at a farming summer camp. Before we left campus, he gave me a piece of paper that had all 12 major and minor scales listed. It was to keep me practicing. I said, ‘OK,’ and I did it.”
In the years that followed, their connection evolved into a romantic one that lasted for nearly 12 years. They formed Rubblebucket as their shared creative outlet, performed together in the New England reggae act John Brown’s Body for a while and watched as their band’s network of collaborators grew to include Mike Gordon, Marco Benevento and many others.
After some early recording efforts, the ensemble dropped their self-titled, hornladen art-pop crossover in 2009. Toth’s current Brooklyn apartment became their home and songwriting space. With 2011’s Omega La La, Rubblebucket grew into a buzz-band on the festival circuit and their headlining shows started blossoming into dance parties as free and expansive as the music itself.
However, their story wasn’t all sweet nectar and buds turning into flowers; Toth’s struggles with substance abuse led to him become sober and devote himself to a series of intense spiritual practices. Traver fought and defeated cancer. And throughout the writing and recording of their 2018 album Sun Machine, the longtime couple very consciously uncoupled. They’d spent over a decade together, working through codependency issues that, slowly but surely, led each to experience a rebirth.
Coming off their touring cycle for Sun Machine, it was clear that Rubblebucket needed to be reimagined—for the mental health and happiness of its core creators. And so the two musicians spun off into their own orbits, unsure if gravity would eventually pull them back together to make music once again.
“I was less than a year sober and struggling, and these punk songs started popping into my head. It was my first experience of making stuff and not understanding what it was,” Toth says.
In 2017, the year before Rubblebucket dropped Sun Machine, he released Alexander F. And then, during Rubblebucket’s time apart, he developed Tōth, a solo project focused on gorgeous, sun-dappled dream pop and minimalist rock; check out “Song to Make You Fall in Love With Me” if you’re ready for a deliciously melancholy daydream—or maybe a good cry.
Traver was experimenting as well. She formed Kalbells as a solo endeavor, though it naturally developed into a full-band outlet that allowed her to dive even further into her avant-garde pop interests.
“I didn’t have any plan to release any new songs. It was the first time I’d written anything not specifically for Rubblebucket,” she says.
As they both explored their newfound independence—musically and personally— Toth and Traver were intent on expressing kindness and compassion toward each other and themselves, even through periods of true uncertainty about the future of Rubblebucket. By 2020, they’d evolved into something new, which was really something old—friends.
“It’s been difficult but beautiful. From Sun Machine to now, and through the pandemic, Kal and I have experienced being friends again. We finally got to experience more moments of pure friendship outside of our music collaborations and our romantic connection. We started arguing and high fiving again,” Toth says with a laugh.
In 2020, the still-healing duo launched an experiment with 30 musician friends. As a distraction from the pandemic—or to draw inspiration from it—they kicked off a song-a-day challenge. Each day, everyone would write one song, and post it to a shared Google drive to be enjoyed by the group.
Traver and Toth had already discussed the lyrical conceit of “earth worship.” They’d also discussed Toth’s newfound appreciation of disco—spawned by the bicycle-disco parties that took off in New York City during the summer of social justice protests in 2020. Those two pillars gave them some guidelines as they dove into the song-a-day idea independently.
A month following the challenge, Toth and Traver did a second take, with new rules: Each day, they’d pick one of the other’s songs, and add their spice to it, on their own. For years, they’d collaborated in more traditional ways—sitting together and writing—but everything was new now, and it was time to experiment.
“It was a way to really get our wires to intermingle,” Toth says. “To pass these songs back and forth, it felt really potent. And the song-a-day method has been revolutionary and radical in my life; there’s something really intense when it needs to be today—there’s a deadline. You’re bypassing fears and doubts and preciousness, and you’re forced to document the moment and be spontaneous. It’s propulsive, and it has really changed my life as far as songwriting.”
He continues: “Kal and I have been writing music together for 20 years. And sometimes in-the-room collaborations are weird. When you’re with close family, you can have done all this work on yourself but, when your sibling does something that upsets you, suddenly you’re 15 again, regressing decades of development. We have that power over one another.”
By the end of that second week of songwriting, the longtime collaborators had created 14 new numbers together, separately, celebrating how human connections can often mirror similar patterns in nature. Then, in the spring of 2021, Rubblebucket—Toth and Traver, along with multi-instrumentalists Sean Smith, Ryan Dugre, Jeremy Gustin— decamped to the Catskill Mountains and set up shop in engineer Eli Crews’ Spillway Sound studio. For eight blissful days, as the band describes them, Rubblebucket laid down the drums, bass, horns and synths of Earth Worship, pushing their sound into a distinctly art-disco direction.
While tight, refined songwriting has long been a pillar of Rubblebucket’s music, the band has also become known for their cosmic studio adventures. For Earth Worship, they sonically left the planet— exploring each song with an open mind. Toth had set some musical guidelines; he selected a series of disco-style drum machine tones to give the songs a unified feel. But from there, they sprouted in every direction.
The title track is a slinky dance jam with a mischievous, grooving bass line and squirming baritone sax behind Traver singing winking lyrics like, “I’ve been coming a thousand years/ You could call me the endless fuck” and more serious ones such as “I would like you to break up these patterns.”
“Sweet Spot” is pure pleasure—funk guitar, mesmerizing bass, punchy horns, echoing trumpets and harmonized “mmm hmmm’s.” When Toth and Traver together sing, “Will you come and dream with me/ Where zeros are infinity?” on “Zeros as Round as the World,” they sound like they’ve got the whole band levitating a few inches off the ground, vibrating in a state of euphoria. On that track, Traver even swapped her saxophone for a Yamaha Venova, a plastic instrument that blends the sound of an alto saxophone and a student-model recorder.
“It sounds microtonal, like it’s between notes,” she says. “We were going to overdub it with real horns, but we couldn’t make anything as weird or unique as this.”
On the Traver-penned, Toth-sung “Sexual Revolution,” Rubblebucket explores the wave of sex positivity that’s lifting our society out of outdated gender and sexual norms—set to an infinitely echoing saxophone and percussion.
“It’s amazing to see society’s awakening,” Traver says. “There’s so much more support and less taboo around sexual and gender expression, consent, queerness, and healing sex addictions and codependency—which I’m working on healing right now. Intimacy and healthy relationships are so hard to figure out, and we’re all doing it together through our culture right now.”
Both in the studio, and during athome recording sessions held later that year, Traver and Toth reveled in layering these songs with unexpected sounds, creating twisting, turning and insanely catchy songs that sound effortlessly playful and positive.
“This is my favorite part of the work,” Traver says. “I could just live in the studio and play around with sounds, recording and rerecording and rerecording. I love being inside a song and playing with it. We set up a space, and then get to create within that.”
While Earth Worship is filled with songs celebrating the unity between our inner lives and our outer world— “Rain Rain Nature Rain,” “Morning in the Sun,” “Mockingbird”—one track feels like the truest representation of where Rubblebucket exists in the universe today.
Toth wrote “Geometry” as an ode to the friendship that he and Traver have rediscovered, a musical and spiritual partnership that seems to transcend the labels of bandmates, exes and former classmates. The tune is also an ode to sacred geometry—the patterns of lines and curves found in nature, the lines we extend to reach and connect with those we love.
The gorgeously minimalist song, which rests on a meditative two-note bassline, has both singers intertwined, calling to each other: “When you talk to me, I start to believe I can believe in myself/ When you’re far out to sea in your personal hell, draw a line to me and I’ll draw a line to you/ Let’s make geometry.”
“It’s a great skill to collaborate with tons of people, but when you feel a certain chemistry with someone, where you finish each other’s sentences—that’s super rare,” Traver says. “We share a telepathic kinship. That is something to treasure. And we’ve found a way to honor it.”