QandA with Toubab Krewe’s Drew Heller

by Ryan Snyder

Toubab Krewe will play at Blind Tiger’s Walker Avenue location on New Year’s Eve. A planned grand opening of the new location has been postponed. (photo by C. Taylor Crothers)

Ashville Malian-roots fusionists Toubab Krewe are no strangers to packed theaters, smoky bars and the sweltering heat of the summer festival circuit. Having played close to a thousand shows since forming nearly six years ago, the band has had nearly every experience on the road that the touring musician can have. That is until they joined the live tour of the quirky kids’ show Yo Gabba Gabba last month as the musical guest. Drew Heller called it one of his greatest experiences as an artist, and recounts his time playing for arenas full of kids, along with the band’s upcoming show at the Blind Tiger and the possibility of making music with his brother Elliot, otherwise known as DJ Equal.

Y!W: I’ve got to say how much I love Yo Gabba Gabba! and the way it puts so much good music in front of kids. What was it like taking part in that tour?

DH: That honestly has been one of the tip-top experiences of being on the road and doing anything, period. It was so fun, such a creative group of people and artists from all mediums. They had a really amazing mix of energy, between the wardrobes and costumes, the production crew, sound, actors, artists, just everything that went into their live shows. It has kind of like being on Cirque Du Soleil. Leslie Hall is on the whole tour, and she’s awesome. Biz Markie was on every show and he’s so great with the kids. Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips was on one. I like the way they made all these silly, but great songs. I think Toubab’s favorite that we were always singing on the bus and trying to work up a rendition is “All Our Friends are Different, but We Love Them All the Same.”

Y!W: A little bit of a different crowd than you’re used to, I suppose.

Were you already familiar with the show?

DH: I became vaguely aware of Yo Gabba Gabba! while we were on the road during its first season. I don’t know that I would have become familiar with it otherwise, but I have totally become a fan of the show. I’ve found myself watching it on my phone just to see what they’re up to. It’s so great to be around kids. There are arenas full, who before they even have to suspend their disbelief, they have this full-on world of magic around them.

Y!W: How did you retool your sets for those shows? DH: They put us on this mobile stage behind this 50’ x 70’ LED screen, and the fourth song into it, spotlight would come on backstage, so we knew something was about to happen. All of a sudden the screen splits down the middle and the stage wheels out to the front. We go from not being in front of anyone to being in front of an arena full of kids like that. We had four minutes to play a song and get everyone up and dancing, and then the stage would wheel back behind the screen. We would wave to everyone, it would close and that was it. We’d do that twice a day, twelve shows. We’d also go out during the intermission and play drums with the kids, and get them dancing. We’re so used to nightclubs and theaters, more of a rock and roll kind of environment, but it’s a blessing for a major, new kind of experience come your way.

Y!W: What are the chances of that experience inspiring a Toubab Krewe kids album?

DH: You know what? Definitely. We’ve talked about that every now and then that it’s come up, because little kids really seem to like our music. It could be sooner rather than later, I don’t know, but I love the idea of working on a record with kids in mind.

Y!W: Either way, I hope we won’t have to wait another four years for your next release.

DH: I know, me too. I don’t think that will be this case this time. I think what has happened was that we put out our first record and actually had to plant the seeds to be able to stand still long enough to do this last record. We’ve basically done nothing but tour since the first one came out. It wasn’t until last year when we were finally able to commit to six weeks off the road. Even those six weeks where we recorded TK2, we flew out to Montana for shows, and actually played at the Blind Tiger. I think we’ve learned a lot in five and a half years on the road, and one of those is balance between live on the road and work off the road. My gut feeling is that we’re all aiming to have more of a balance between writing music and recording music. I’m also thankful for the experience of doing 200 shows a year for five years though.

Y!W: The Jonathan Scales Fourchestra are opening the Blind Tiger show for you. Being fellow Ashevillains, what’s your history playing together?

DH: We’ve never actually played with the full band, but we’ve played with Jon. The last time we played together, the song I most clearly remember was “Mali Sacho” which is a traditional Malian song, but we perform it pretty down-tempo. That has Justin on the kora, and I remember that it had this eerie quality that sounded so akin to the kora. It fills this similar realm because the notes resonate about the same amount of time the kora note resonates.

Y!W: Speaking of collaborations, your brother’s music continues to blow me away. What’s the possibility of one between Toubab Krewe and DJ Equal, or is that just too much of a stretch?

DH: Hell yeah. Honestly, that is so deep in my heart something that I want to happen. We’ve been busy and he’s ‘ber-busy. Literally as we speak, he’s boarding a plane to Australia for a New Year’s run. He’s always on the road, but I would love that. His musicality is so inspiring, it’s always such a pleasure to get together. We did collaborate for one track called “Wake Up and Let Go” for a benefit record that came out that had Umar Bin Hassan on it. I think it might still be on our MySpace page, like the rest of America hasn’t been on MySpace for years. As far as a full-on project goes, we’re all for it.

Toubab Krewe plays the Blind Tiger’s old location at 2115 Walker Ave. in Greensboro on New Year’s Eve.