A Boy and his Tuba
Brian Wolff first discovered the tuba at a music store in Austin, Texas. It was the summer of 1994, one of the hottest July's on record. And Wolff, whether deranged by the heat or the instruments sumptuous curves and shiny bell, knew instantly and inexplicably that he would dedicate the rest of his life to the pursuit of Tuba Stardom.
Knowing little of the tuba itself, he had few preconceived notions of the tuba's roll in music and thus was under the impression that, as a creator of sound, the tuba had no limitations at all. Wolff quickly dove in, starting a band with old friend Tony Nozero. They called themselves Just Drums and Tuba. Soon they added a guitar player and summarily dropped the "Just" from their name.
The band developed a visceral blend of old brass and new electronics, and toured the world extensively with Cake, Primus, Ani DiFranco among many others, building a fierce underground following in the process. But as over 50% of the marriages in the United States are wont to do, Drums and Tuba eventually packed it in and went their separate ways. Determined to strike out on his own in pursuit of the aforementioned Tuba Stardom, Wolff conceived of a solo act appropriately entitled "Wolff and Tuba."
He returned to New York and barricaded the door to his apartment, emerging only after he had perfected a solo electronic tuba rock show whereby all sounds were produced by, with, through, and on the tuba. The music was created live by banging, beat-boxing, or singing through the tuba as well also playing the tuba in a more conventional manner. With the use of loop pedals, Wolff was able to tie all these disparate sounds together, forming music that was both out there (somewhere) and yet rooted in traditional song structures and strong melodies.
Wolff's friend David Harris once said there was a mythical brass ceiling in the sky that dictated how big a star you could become when you've dedicated your life to playing the tuba. Wolff has spent his career wrestling with those demons in the sky in a strangely bewildering but fulfilling quest to discover what wonders lie beyond the brass ceiling.
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It's well past 2 a.m., and the crowd at Pianos looks like a ragged band of refugees from an alcoholic front line. Up by the stage, a shirtless guy jumps excitedly up and down. To the side, a group of German tourists slug another round of PBRs and nearly knock each other over dancing. Others cluster around the back bar, knocking back shots. Meanwhile, a cracked version of Prince's "When Doves Cry" fills the room, with house beats clanging beneath the recognizable but distorted vocal line as a lion stalks a gazelle on a projection screen.
Onstage is Brian Wolff, who hunches over a bank of effects pedals while blowing and singing through that most unhip of high school orchestra instruments: a tuba. For a couple of years now, he has been a weekly fixture at the Lower East Side haunt, creating bizarre audio-visual concoctions, for a while by himself, but lately with a drummer, Steve Garofano, who pounds out the beats that Wolff loops after tapping the sides of his monolithic instrument.
Though Wolff isn't exactly unknown, (he was the tuba portion of the now-defunct Drums and Tuba, a trio that recorded a few albums for Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe record label, toured incessantly, and fell apart a few years ago, )he's had to more or less reinvent himself to go solo. He holed up in his East Village apartment and learned how to layer and loop himself until he sounded more like an electronic junkyard orchestra than a solo tuba virtuoso. During his first year at Pianos, he recalls, "It was me, the bartender, and the staff."
But lately, things have taken an encouraging turn. This summer, Wolff scored what qualifies as a Holy Grail for unclassifiable solo artists: the opening slot on Buckethead's summer tour. "It was awesome," he says. The audience, he adds, was made up of "serious, hard-core guitar geeks, but they're the perfect audience: They're super into music, and they get there super-early. And anyway, I can geek out myself! I'm not afraid of any kind of geek!" Back home in the Village now, he plans to record his fourth CD in a few weeks, the first to feature some of the bizarre-o electro-tuba-rock cover tunes, like "Eye of the Tiger" and "She Drives Me Crazy," that have become staples of his sets (his previous three discs featured bizarre-o electro-tuba-rock originals). It will continue to foreground Wolff's vocals though, distorted through a microphone on his tuba, a new and essential element for him. "I want songs," he says. "I don't want it to be just boring psychedelic jams."
His late-Friday-night slots at Pianos are usually overstuffed these days, and even though the locale and time slot ensure an audience mostly interested in itself and the drink options, Wolff doesn't mind. "I think people are more open to shit than we give them credit for a lot of the time," he says the next day over beers at an East Village bar. "Like, last night, some of those people, OK, they're annoying maybe, but that's what's fun to me. It's the challenge. Like, 'I'm gonna get you to stay and see something you would never go see! You would never choose to go see this! And yet, here you are!' "