It’s a rainy, Sunday afternoon in Vancouver, and I’m waiting under the shelter of the Commodore Ballroom for my interview with drummer Joe Tomino of the genre-bending metal band Dub Trio. Across the street, the usual riff-raff that cloaks Granville Street holds my attention until Tomino appears, apologetic for being a few minutes late. I told him it was no worry; The bums were entertaining for the most part.
“Did you watch the guy in orange? He’s the best,” Tomino points out. Sure enough, a manic, Jesus-bearded vagrant in orange is squawking like a chicken and hopping around on one foot.
Vancouver’s colourful street-life may leave me chagrined, but it’s all rock n’ roll to Tomino. Soon we are joined by bassist Stu Brooks, casually cruising up to us on his low, black bike (“We’ve got our own bikes on the bus with us for this tour,” Tomino tells me excitedly) and we’re off to a crepe café for some food, espresso, and Q and A. The service is horrendously slow and a bit rude, but the guys are content and relaxed. With Brooks’ wry smile and piercing eyes and Tomino’s affable charm, they seem like a pair of cool dudes, not harried musicians in the midst of a demanding tour (they are both the openers and backing band for Matisyahu).
Dub Trio has certainly been on the rise since their debut album, Exploring the Dangers of, hit the scene in 2004, followed by the acclaimed New Heavy and Another Sound is Dying. Each release cemented them as the pioneers of the dub/metal genre and the musicians (including guitarist DP Holmes) soon had their hands in everything, from appearing with Mike Patton’s Peeping Tom (their song “We’re Not Alone” is among the best on the album), to doing studio sessions with Mos Def and 50 Cent (among others), to now, where they are currently working with Matisyahu, doing double duty on a seemingly never-ending tour.
When our food and drinks finally come, it was time to shoot the breeze with the Brooklyn band.
You’ve been the openers and the backing band many times, just like you are tonight with Matisyahu. Is it difficult doing two sets after each other? It must be exhausting…
Brooks: We kind of go without thinking about it, I guess. I mean, what happens is that we do soundcheck, and then we have ten minutes to do a Dub Trio check, and then doors are open. Then we scramble to get some food, and then it’s like, already 15 minutes till we play. Then we’re on stage, play our set, and then 20-minute break. Next thing you know, it’s three and a half hours later, and it’s over. I’d say with including the Dub Trio 40-minute set, I start getting tired towards the last half hour of the Matisyahu set.
Tomino: You learn how to preserve energy though. Like, for me, I know when to give it and when to not, but it does get us warmed up for the Matisyahu set, like…we’re hot and ready. But then when we come out on stage and people who don’t realize that we are also the backing band are like “Where’s Matisyahu?!”
Tomino: And then we go, “Mwa ha ha.”
Brooks: There’s been a couple “Noooooos.” In Berlin, they were like “No, not you again!” Because we can be a little abrasive and they want their “King Without a Crown”.
So, a lot of people who are here to see Matisyahu groove might not know what to expect from Dub Trio. Do you see many confused people in the audience once the dub gives way to melt your face off metal?
Tomino: It’s funny because I feel like his fans are a little more receptive to us each time around. We’ve done so many opening sessions with him, and touring, and this is the third one, and people have opened up to it. People were actually clapping along to Dub Trio at this other show. Like clapping a beat, or something.
Brooks: A dancehall beat.
Tomino: I don’t think anyone has ever clapped along to Dub Trio before.
Brooks: Usually we get this (scratches head and looks confused) and then “You guys are awesome but you need a singer.”
So, was it a conscious decision when you first started to not have a singer?
Brooks: In a way. We were a rhythm section first, backing up different singers. We started Dub Trio as just doing it without a singer, just playing and improvising, any style of music, whatever we wanted to play. Doing small cafes around Manhattan and Brooklyn, and eventually a little buzz got around.
Tomino: It was just a creative outlet. We were in a band with a singer and we were like, “Let’s do what we want to do on top of this other thing that we really dig as well.” But with the other shit that we can’t do in the other gig. Because we hung out all the time, listening to the same music. You know, let’s make some music and play some fun shit that we like.
Brooks: It was more like a fun project, you know. That’s where the goodness in the music came from. There was not an intention to get a record deal or impress anybody.
Tomino: That was never the intent.
Brooks: I was just trying to impress Joe. Joe was trying to impress Dave (DP) and Dave was trying to impress me.
When you worked on your studio stuff for Mos Def and the like, would you work on it together or individually?
Tomino: I’d say primarily individually, like 80%. I mean, recently we do a lot of sessions together. Like we’ll produce somebody or play on someone’s whole record. But there is very little of the “Dub Trio” sound. We’d just be session guys who can do a lot of different styles and do them convincingly.
Do you enjoy it as just as much?
Tomino: Oh yeah, sure. Keeps things fresh.
Brooks: When you have a day off and you’re able to fill it by playing music, it’s going be a good thing no matter what it is. It’s always a learning experience, even if it’s “shitty.” If it’s garbage, it’s still a challenge to make it less garbage. But I’ve never played on any garbage (laughs).
Do you find it hard to connect with an audience because there is an absence of a singer?
Brooks: Oh, no. I’d say we connect even more.
Tomino: There’s one thing I’d say though, that keeps us from connecting. Sometimes when we go on tour as just ourselves, as Dub Trio, and we don’t always go out with a front of house sound guy and if that guy doesn’t know how to mix the band – and I’m talking just levels, not any trickery, because we do all of that on stage – if he doesn’t know how to produce it sonically, then sometimes there is a gap between us and the audience. Because that’s all we have is our sound. We don’t talk between songs… maybe at the beginning and at the end. But other than that, if it sounds proper, we usually get them listening. That’s the first thing, just to get them to listen. Because our sound is so dynamic, you know when it’s good when there’s a quiet part or a part that’s silent and you have 10,000 or 2,000 or 10 people and they’re silent – then you know it’s good.
So much of your sound on the albums are an ambient mix of echoes, noises and delays – how do you get that sound live? Do you ever face any difficulties?
Tomino: Well, everyone plays multiple instruments, in addition to just the bass, drums and guitar. Always a lot of pedals. Everyone has pedals. There are three keyboards on stage, a bunch of external microphones for effects, like delays and reverbs, like you were saying. Lots of multitasking and a lot of listening is involved, too. We recreate these songs that we record, but at the same time there is an element of improvisation that keeps it really fresh. In the truest form of dub, it’s improvising different versions of the same song every night. So there’s trickery in the form of effects and composition. We will change the composition around slightly every night as well.
With that said, can you just relax when you’re providing backing to Matisyahu, as opposed to acting as Dub Trio?
Brooks: It’s kind of the same. We apply the same trickery. What’s cool about Matisyahu is that he allows for a lot of space and openness with improvisation. The form can completely change spontaneously, and also there’s parts where we are allowed to take it out a bit and do dub to those sections. It’s all applied the same way, just different songs.
Tomino: Going into joining his band, we had similar concepts with the way of approaching music. There were two other guys we were playing with for a while, and now it’s just down to the trio. He’s even more open to embracing our idea and style of playing and applying it to his music. So it’s very similar, but musically it’s a little different. A little more inside, not as metal. But we still get to rock out. There are a lot more guitar solos with Matisyahu, so Dave gets his solos.
You guys toured as the backing band for Peeping Tom – are you involved in the next album?
Brooks: Not much. We were talking about doing some tracks for it, but it’s about finding the time.
Tomino: We are pretty busy right now. It’s hard to find time to be a normal person, let alone that. Nothing yet, let’s just say that. Our schedules don’t seem to cross very well. Whenever he (Patton) is in town, we aren’t, and vice versa. It’s too bad.
Is there anyone else you are collaborating with?
Tomino: We are doing some remixes here and there, but nothing serious at this time. It’s such an investment in time, because we have to immerse ourselves in someone else’s music. We are pretty lucky right now with Matisyahu that he’s pretty open with his thing and our thing. It’s a good situation.
Brooks: Yeah, ideal situation.
But you are working on a new album…
Tomino: Yeah, we did a new album. Just got mastered.
Brooks: Should be out for the European tour. We are doing a four-week tour there.
Tomino: Early fall, it’ll be out.
Another Sound is Dying is a lot more intense than New Heavy. Can we expect it to be even further cranked up on your new album, or are you going in a different direction?
Tomino: Kind of both. It’s cranked up a notch, like heavy, but there’s also a couple more experimental turns. That’s the thing, every record is progressive in the way of the style or the concept. We’re exploring genre, or incorporating genres we haven’t explored on other records. It’s heavy as well, in every sense of the word. Heavy.
Heavy with the dub, heavy with the metal.
Tomino: Yeah. There’s some experimental bits. There are some vocals on this record. Some by us (laughs). And there’s a woman, Sarah Parkington, who plays in the band called The Parkington Sisters. It’s really beautiful music by these five sisters that do this sort of string quintet, but they also play acoustic guitar with these wonderful harmonies. It’s only one song, but there’s a really nice texture. She does strings, too. It’s a fun record, you know. We banged it out really quick. We did it in what little time we had being off the road. We recorded it in seven days at four different studios. Just, like: ready, set, go.
Whenever I hear “Felicitation” (from Another Sound is Dying) I always imagine some epic onscreen event, like someone looking out a rainy bus window, full of heart ache, and then regret. And then at the end, ninjas jump on the bus and shit gets real.
Because your music is instrumental and emotive like that, do you ever think you’ll foray into the movie or TV soundtrack world and try scoring?
Brooks: If we had more time, we would be doing it.
Tomino: We actually had some offers recently.
Brooks: It’s a big interest for us. It’s just that, right now, touring is the priority. I think in the future we will do more of it which will allow us to not have to be on tour all the time to make money. Hopefully somewhere down the line we get a little balance, production and studio stuff and actual travel.
Tomino: You’ve got to really be in town for film scoring to make changes like that (snaps fingers).
Brooks: Their schedule is not flexible at all.
So, Joe, you have your own food blog and are quite the foodie…
Tomino: (laughs) I love food. And wine.
Touring the world is obviously a great chance to eat… a lot. Any culinary surprises?
Tomino: So many. It’s hard to break it down because I have been so into that for the last three to four years. I’m going to do another blog, this one about bread puddings. That’s kind of what I’m working on now. Bread puddings across America (laughs). I’ve got nine I’m reviewing so far. I’m trying to be less objective about it and just give the facts and less opinions, just put it out there. You know, I’m primarily a vegetarian. But there are some things I will cheat with and they are the worst things. I’ll do foie gras (laughs). I’ll do French onion soup. So I am on a constant search for French onion soup. And bread pudding.
Your fourth album is coming up, you’ve toured the world, you’re all pretty bad ass – do you feel like rock stars yet?
Brooks: Um, no. I don’t think that will ever happen. What is cool is that we are living the dream. I think there are a lot of illusions to that dream, though, like when you were a kid. Like the reality is, to be a bass player is to be the one that carries a lot of heavy shit. One that sits in a bucket seat – all day. There are some realities that no one told you about. What would define being a rockstar to you, Joe? What would be the moment that you would be like OK, now I’m like Michael Jackson?
Tomino: You know, that’s an interesting question. To me, and this is not really what I want it to be, but being a rockstar means obviously the fame and money but not having to worry about shit…not having to do a soundcheck and load in and worry about getting my food taken care of. But to me, some of that stuff is what is fun about the road. Searching shit out and not being afraid to leave my hotel room. That’s a bummer. I like being out and meeting people.
Brooks: I think singers are rockstars. That might be it, for me. As a bass player and drummer, we are just side players, you know?
Maybe you could feel like undercover rockstars.
Tomino: Undercover rockstars. Nice.
After the interview, Brooks leaves to help load in, while Tomino and I walk back to the Commodore. The rain has let up, which is good news for any biking excursions the band wants to go on. Sadly, they are already running out of time in the city. Right after the show tonight, they’ll be hitting the road to Eugene, Oregon, and places beyond.
As we part, we see the same crazy guy in orange again, only this time he’s being handcuffed by police and placed in a cop car. It seems like a flavorful bookend to the interview, but to these undercover rockstars, it’s just another day on tour.