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Brian Wolff rocks with his ramped-up tuba

Brian Wolff (with drummer Steve Garofano) took up tuba in his 20s and ever since has boldly broken new ground. Brian Wolff (with drummer Steve Garofano) took up tuba in his 20s and ever since has boldly broken new ground.
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / May 29, 2009
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Brian Wolff has played roughly 250 shows a year for seven years running, and invariably when he gets to a new club he's faced with the dreaded question: "So, dude, what kind of music do you play?" Wolff's response has developed over time.

Answer 1: A shrug.

Answer 2: "You've just got to hear it."

Answer 3: "I play the tuba but whatever is going through your head is not what it sounds like."

Answer 4: "Electronic industrial rock. With a tuba. And a lot of loops."

That last explanation is as good as it gets. Wolff, who uses his last name as his stage name and plays a sold-out show with Buckethead tonight at the Middle East, is shattering what one of his buddies has dubbed the brass ceiling. Against all odds, Wolff rocks the tuba. Armed with effects pedals, looping devices, a microphone lashed to his instrument's mouthpiece, a drum machine, and sometimes a drummer, Wolff goes where no tuba player has gone before: the dance floor.

Impossible, you say? Wolff defends his bulbous hunk of brass with zeal.

"It's a really misunderstood instrument," Wolff says. "The tuba has got a huge range, similar to the cello in that it's got a beautiful low end and also a melodic range. It's got five or so octaves, which really surprises people. It's a lot more versatile than most people think."

Wolff knew none of this 15 years ago when he stumbled into a music store in Austin, Texas, and fell mysteriously, irrationally in love with a tuba. He was not, he points out, a youngster. At 24, Wolff could carry a tune on the trumpet and trombone, but had never earned a penny playing music. So he did what any red-blooded American with an instrument he can't play and attitude to spare would do: He joined a punk band.

You wouldn't guess it to see the cords and wires and knobs that now surround him, but back in the '90s, Wolff was something of a Luddite.

"I used to be very anti-technology," he says. "I felt I could make any sound, and that all-natural was the way to go. It was a stripped-down punk-rock kind of thing. But then I booked a few shows down south with a British group called Spaceheads, which is a trumpet player and a drummer, and they use loops and stuff, and it was completely mind-blowing seeing these world-class musicians using effects. It wasn't a gimmick. It was in service of a musical idea."

Fully inspired, Wolff and a friend formed a duo called Just Drums and Tuba, soon adding a guitar player and dropping the "Just." The band cooked up an eclectic blend of vintage brass and modern electronics, and was soon touring the world with Cake, Primus, and Ani DiFranco.

"It takes a lot of guts to play tuba out in the nasty world of rock 'n' roll," says DiFranco, who signed Drums and Tuba to her Righteous Babe label in 2001. But Wolff would up the ante several years later, when the band broke up and he returned to his native New York, setting his sights on a still gutsier goal: to perfect a solo rock show. The concept drew mixed reaction from his loved ones. "They all think I'm the weird one anyway," says Wolff, who describes his family as "incredibly unmusical." But he does credit his father with passing down a lesson that has proved vital.

"My dad is never embarrassed. He taught me to do my own thing and to not care what people think."

What people think about when they think about the tuba are marching bands, polkas, and the dubious oom-pah sound. In that light, Wolff's radical embrace of the tuba's potential, above and beyond the music he makes, is totally rock 'n' roll. Or at least, Wolff notes, what rock used to be.

"Rock music used to be a dangerous idea, the idea that you're going to do something against the grain," he says. "That was a lot of years ago. Now our whole society is about getting something for nothing. Enter a singing contest on TV and a few months later you're a star. For me, it's about doing something challenging. The process is everything. Is it possible to run a tuba through a distortion pedal? I can't really find out at a music store."

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

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