Sunday, May 10, 2009

Gutbucket makes a modest proposal

I recently spoke with Ken Thomson and wrote this feature up for The Racquette. I did a bit of graphic design myself for the layout and I am pretty proud of it.

The word "gutbucket," although now a somewhat obsolete term, might conjure up the image of a clunky, homemade washtub bass and the raw, raucous early New Orleans jazz associated with it. NYC-based band Gutbucket stays true to the barrelhouse implications of its name, but tends to avoid being pigeonholed by any genre-specific stereotypes. Gutbucket has brought its musically rabble-rousing sentiments into the 21st century through a unique juxtaposition of every genre from jazz to punk to neo-Classicism. They have declared musical warfare, "destroying walls between art-rock, avant-squonk, and mathed-out prog," so they say on their website bio.

Breaking musical assumptions

The quartet consists of Ken Thomson on saxophone, Ty Citerman on guitar, Eric Rockwin on bass and Adam Gold on drums. Just reciting the instrumentation, and calling it a quartet, probably brings some assumptions to mind. "People have a sense that if there's a band that's saxophone, guitar, bass, drums-if you tell them that's what the band is and that it's instrumental, they have a certain guess or expectation for what that's going to be and they're thinking jazz; they're thinking people kind of standing still and looking a little bored, and being really, like, overly intellectual. I guess what I love to do with Gutbucket is not do that. Really, do my best to make it a show. Really try to connect with people with instrumental music, which is kind of a hard thing to do because it's not always clear," elucidated Ken Thomson, saxophonist of Gutbucket.

With their rebellious approach to instrumental chamber music (literally, music to be enjoyed in an intimate setting), the gents of Gutbucket risk alienating haughty classical music lovers and young punks alike. That is a risk they are willing to take. Thomson clarified his goals, "I want to…kind of bring instrumental music and instrumental music with a saxophone into places, into people's heads, where they kind of wouldn't expect it and in a way they wouldn't think about it." Gutbucket accomplishes the unexpected on every record, sometimes with "rabid genre-switching" (as Thomson called it) and other times by juxtaposing asymmetrical rhythmic meters. One thing is for certain: Gutbucket's music will take you on a veritable rollercoaster of sound.

Gutbucket has something to offer to every open-minded listener. Their music exists at the juncture between jazz, rock, punk, classical and avante garde, and doesn't even stop there. It is clear that they are picking and choosing from a smorgasbord of sonic delights, confirmed by Thomson, "when we are all together, we rarely agree on music we like to listen to. In the van, it really just runs the gamut of any kind of music that you can imagine." Combining so many different elements can harm a band striving for a solid, homogenous sound, but that is not much of a concern for Gutbucket. For Gutbucket, the basis of their sound lies in their ability to constantly change and not feel restricted by musical assumptions.

A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal, Gutbucket's fourth studio album, marks another chapter in the band's 10-year history. As a band that adapts to new styles as often as they change meters in their music, Thomson revealed that, "at some point we try to document a period by putting a record out." Therefore, a new record isn't only a culmination of the band's hard work, but, more significantly, a benchmark in the band's ongoing musical saga. With that in mind, it is interesting, and fitting, to examine how the band has evolved between records.

The most notable change on this album is the inclusion of several slower songs. Thomson explained the reasoning behind pulling back on the reins: "With Adam [Gold] joining the band on drums (and he's been in the band a couple of years now) there were some things that we felt like we were inspired to do, like doing things that are slower. On this record is more stuff that actually is not at a break-neck pace the whole time. That's also something that was kind of exciting for us to explore." On A Modest Proposal, the true surprise is the presence of those slow songs, which were few and far between on previous albums.

Three out of four members of Gutbucket are active composers for the project. Ken Thomson ranked the prominence of each composing member: "The biggest writer for Gutbucket is Eric [Rockwin] our bassist. He is incredibly prolific and he just goes through these spurts where, in a month, he'll push out like five or six tunes or something like that," which the band then has to work through; "our second biggest writer is Ty [Citerman], our guitarist, and I'm the third biggest writer in Gutbucket." Each composer has refined his individual style to the point that, "the three of us are getting more and more distinct as songwriters," said Thomson, who is now able to identify the composer just by hearing one of Gutbucket's pieces.

What's in a name?

The seemingly asinine song titles (such as "More More Bigger Better Faster with Cheese," "I Am a Jelly Doughnut [Or a Commentary on U.S. German Relations Post WWII]" and "A Little Anarchy Never Hurt Everyone") do sometimes have deeper meanings, but, as Thomson so aptly pointed out, "not everything needs to be so serious all the time."

The importance of Gutbucket's song titles is rooted in the group's lack of a vocalist/lyricist, explained Thomson. "Most people, if they write a song, have got three minutes of lyrics in which to deliver a message, and we have five words or something like that. We definitely think carefully about what we're calling things. Sometimes it's really just us having a good time, and other times it is relevant, or sometimes it's just a feeling…that you have during the song," elaborated Thomson. He went on to say that most often, the title comes after the fact. The song titles serve as a reflection of the original intention of the pieces, whether those intentions were based on a sociopolitical issue or just for fun.

Gutbucket's album titles bear significance as well. In case you were wondering, the album name, A Modest Proposal, is indeed derived from Jonathan Swift's 1792 essay of the same name (a satire in which he suggests that the impoverished Irish eat their own young to survive). "It's also alluded to with the cover, a bird feeding a bird to its child. Our drummer Adam [Gold] realized that the songs are basically about food, politics, and children. We were trying to come up with something that would work as an overarching idea for the title, and Eric suggested A Modest Proposal. We thought it was perfect," recounted Thomson.

Hearing is believing

Because the music of Gutbucket does not easily lend itself to literary branding, there's no better way to familiarize oneself with their sound than listening. To hear some tracks from A Modest Proposal, visit the band's myspace at For general information about the band, go to their website, To find out more about what Ken Thomson does in all of his "spare time" (playing saxophone and clarinet with The World/Inferno Friendship Society, being part of a kid-friendly band-that has appeared on Nickelodeon-called The Dirty Sock Funtime Band and composing for offbeat chamber collective Anti-Social Music, to name a few) visit his homepage at

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