Nathan Hubbard’s experimental North County quest

Nathan Hubbard is up for anything. A prolific composer and jazz drummer, he’s performed in highway underpasses and remote mountain roads. He’s built unconventional percussion instruments and written music for 17-member ensembles. He’s laid down funky beats as the drummer for local indiepop ace Rafter Roberts and crossed doom metal with bossa nova in an abstruse experimental outfit called Ogd_S(11) Translation Has Failed.

But for all the crazy projects this 37- year-old musician has tackled, nothing quite matches his latest venture. Since January, he’s been dropping one new album a month, each devoted to the famous landmarks and unknown history of his hometown, Encinitas. The project is called Encinitas and Everything After, and from what I can tell, it’s driving Hubbard crazy.

“I’ve been working on this for 15 years,” Hubbard says with a sigh, talking over lunch at Coop’s West Texas BBQ in Lemon Grove. “I have five hours of music. I was going to put it out entirely on a USB stick. Just, like, ‘Here you go!’ Then I realized, if somebody did that to me, I would never even plug it into my computer.”

Hubbard, an inventive outlier of the local jazz scene, has released three albums so far as part of the series. He’s got a fourth volume coming out before the end of the month, and, assuming all goes according to schedule, he’ll finish the series with a fifth album in May. He’s commemorating each release with a concert at the Taoist Sanctuary in University Heights (4229 Park Blvd); the next one goes down at 8 p.m. Sunday, April 27. (He’ll also put on a performance of solo drumming at Space 4 Art in East Village (325 15th St.) at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 26.)

The jazz of Encinitas and Everything After is decidedly avant-garde—you won’t hear any chill surf licks on these records. But the lush arrangements, wandering melodic figures and deep, whooshing rhythms capture the reflective vibe of the area, and some songs refer to things only a true-blue Encinitas native would recognize. In “The Greatest Story Never Told,” a cut from Volume 4, Hubbard teams up with members of his old high-school drumline to serve up the school’s marching-band cadence, a trademark rhythm passed down from classmate to classmate.

“I was born [in Encinitas], and I grew up there. I have a ton of family from there that goes back several generations,” Hubbard says. “I think I just realized at some point that I would be a different person if I grew up somewhere else. I would hear things differently.” He certainly looks the part, with his light-blue polo shirt, leather sandals and scruffy mop of dirty blond hair.

Hubbard now lives in Allied Gardens with his wife and two kids, but he spent most of his life in Encinitas. He grew up in a simple house on a one-acre plot just off Interstate 5, where his parents grew vegetables and raised goats for milk. (“I didn’t drink cow’s milk until I was 12 or 13,” he says.) His father, Don, was—and still is— in the sewer-building business, running a contracting company founded by Nathan’s grandfather in 1947, which laid down some of the first cesspools and waste-management systems in North County.

Reared on nature and industry, Hubbard shows a taste for both in his music.

When he performs solo drums, he explores a range of wild ideas and strange textures, using atonal plumes of noise and a workshop’s worth of wood, metal and skin instrumentation. Underscoring the music’s geographic nature, he sometimes performs in unconventional public spaces—in the mountains, in parking structures, even once inside a bomb shelter. Hubbard brings more melody and structure to his written compositions, but this music is just as in thrall with the Earth: The most alluring track on the second volume of the Encinitas series might be “San Dieguito River,” in which regal rhythms and murky woodwinds course along over 10 minutes like the winding waterway.

Due to their experimental, occasionally bizarre nature, the tracks on Encinitas and Everything After don’t always conjure stereotypical Encinitas images, like hidden beaches and a salty sea breeze. This disconnect hasn’t always gone over well with the locals: Once, Hubbard says, an old-timer on an Encinitas Facebook group grumbled about the project, wondering what it had to do with the sleepy beach town.

But Hubbard insists that he fits in with the city’s musical tradition. And as it turns out, Encinitas has been home to a surprising array of artists, ranging from jazz guitarist Peter Sprague to ’90s emo / posthardcore group Boilermaker to 20th-century avant-garde composer Harry Partch.

“Harry Partch fucking lived in Encinitas,” Hubbard says. “He lived down the street from my grandparents in the ’70s.

“Every time I think about Encinitas music, I think about Boilermaker,” he adds. “I think about Harry Partch. How did Encinitas affect all these people? I don’t really know. I don’t have the answer. But it’s interesting to think that all these people made music and were somehow influenced by Encinitas.”

Peter Holslin, San Diego Citybeat 4-23-2014


Nathan Hubbard: Encinitas and Everything After

Nathan Hubbard says, “This all happened by happenstance. I didn’t know when it would end.” The San Diego-based musician and composer is talking about a musical creation on the scale of a magnum opus, yet he is about as matter of fact about the effort as Michelangelo saying, “Okay, I just finished painting the ceiling!”Hubbard is characteristically low-key about his work, but what he is talking about is a collection of 25 compositions, totaling around five hours of music. Yes, that’s right, 25 compositions comprising five hours of music.And it is all just happenstance?

The complete work, taken as a whole, Hubbard calls Encinitas and Everything After. “I’ve written a number of pieces of music about different places I’ve been,” he says. “This whole thing, Encinitas and Everything After, started as me writing pieces about my hometown, Encinitas. It went from two or three pieces to 25 compositions. While I was working on this I thought that maybe I wanted to do a CD about San Diego, thinking about everything from Point Loma through the East County, but I realized that it was too broad a subject, and I just concentrated on Encinitas.”

Hubbard is a percussionist, confessing that he “likes to hit things with sticks.” Besides performing on drums, he plays other percussion instruments and often invents and improvises tools and devices that produce intriguing sounds when rapped or struck with a drumstick. He also plays vibraphone. As a composer, he comes out of the jazz tradition that produced Charles Mingus, Carla Bley, and much of the music of Charlie Haden and the Liberation Music Orchestra. One of his compositions for this current project, titled appropriately enough “Encinitas and Everything After,” features an angular and crisp theme, while “Clock Noticing the Few Moments Left” has a much more languid and looser sound. Almost all of his pieces feature sections in which the musicians solo, sometimes at length. Hubbard wrote some of the compositions for chamber ensembles, while others were realized through electronic means, using synthesizers, tapes, and other gizmos found in the music studio.

Hubbard enlisted a number of ensembles that he formed or with whom he has been associated with over the years to perform the pieces of Encinitas and Everything After (hereafter referred to as EAEA) including Return to One, the Skeleton Key Orchestra, and his Nathan Hubbard Octet.

As stated above, Hubbard grew up in Encinitas, the beach community about a half hour north of San Diego. Graduating from San Dieguito High School, he studied music at SDSU, UCSD, as well as Palomar College. But his first interest and involvement with jazz goes back to when he was a student at Mira Costa College. From his jazz studies class at Mira Costa Hubbard started playing in Return to One. Originally a traditional straight ahead jazz ensemble, Return to One developed into a much more avant garde organization through the years. The band started experimenting, using tonal centers instead of the chords usually employed by jazz performers. They also experimented with all the other mechanics of making music. Odd time signatures were incorporated or sometimes time signatures were abandoned completely. Solo lengths were sometimes extended well beyond the standards used by most jazz performers.

Some years back Hubbard shared with me some of his musical compositions. A number of them looked like what you’d expect sheet music to look like, with clefs, time signatures, and notes on a staff. But the lion’s share of Hubbard’s compositions seemed more akin to an art experiment. Some were made of graphs, like what you’d see in a scientific paper on quarks. Other notation looked like the quarks themselves. I remember Hubbard showing me one composition that was a series of boxes with key signatures written in the boxes. He explains that this method of composing gives the musicians a great deal of freedom to improvise, which is something that he likes to emphasize.

Hubbard wears wire rim glasses and has slightly curly blond hair that is sometimes long, sometimes short. Sometimes I’ve seen him with a beard; other times he is clean-shaven. Often while performing or conducting one of his compositions he takes on the look of intense concentration, as though he is contemplating a particularly thorny question. And during performances, when he speaks to the audience, he is characteristically low-key. Occasionally he hears something in the music or catches a joke, and a smile flashes across his face.
Hubbard confesses that, like most of us, he needs a deadline to put the final touches on a project. Perhaps that explains the length of time it took to realize all the compositions for EAEA. Without a deadline or record company breathing down his neck, from beginning to end this musical collection took a total of 15 years to complete. Even still, some of the final details were not realized until the last minute. The final notations for some of the compositions of Volume II of EAEA were penned the same day as tracking and mastering for the final CD.

Deadlines are one thing, but maybe it took Hubbard a decade and a half to complete this particular project because he is just so darned busy. He has recorded and released nine CDs as a leader or band member and has recorded an equal number of disks as a collaborator. He has toured for the last 15 years with various ensembles throughout most of California and appeared in major cities throughout the United States, such as Seattle and Boston. He has even performed in that very close but very far away city of Tijuana.

Hubbard teaches and has conducted workshops and lectures at USD, the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla, San Diego State, and other institutions throughout Southern California. And for the last 20 years he has been one of the musical performers in productions of Kiss Me Kate, The Pirates of Penzance, Cats, and dozens of other musicals and light opera. He has performed or collaborated with Mark Dresser, Vinny Golia, Mike Keneally (yes, that Mike Keneally), Bert Turetzky, and many more noteworthy musicians.

Five hours of music is A LOT of music, perhaps only being outdone by Wagner and his Ring Cycle for sheer length. “Originally, I was going to release everything all together on a USB with 13 gigs of audio, but I figured that putting it out that way, nobody would listen to it,” says Hubbard. He decided on a more copasetic manner of releasing this music to the world, gathering together about an hour of music on a compact disk and releasing one disk every month for five months.

He started releasing the disks in January of this year. Each release occurs with a concert in which all the music of that CD is performed live by an ensemble. All the releases and concerts are held at the Taoist Sanctuary in University Heights, right above Frank the Train Man. At the release in March, while dusk settled outside and a few traffic noises drifted up from Park Boulevard, Hubbard conducted and performed with an ensemble of 11 musicians. Besides some masterful soloing, what I remember from that performance were the timbres of the bass clarinet, the soprano sax, and the two double basses. Besides hearing the musical ideas, it seemed as though Hubbard wanted to direct the attention of his audience to the sounds of the orchestra itself, not just what the music sounded like but what the instruments themselves sounded like.

Last month Hubbard brought his ensemble Translation Has Failed, which incorporates textured rhythms and spoken word into their performances. And this month The Scorpion Decides will perform the last of Encinitas and Everything After on Sunday the 25th. The concert starts at eight and five dollars gets you past the door. The Scorpion Decides is a smaller ensemble, a quartet that features extended soloing.

As I finished talking to Hubbard he grew a bit philosophical. The project has taken up a great deal of his life over the last 15 years. He has spent untold hours writing, arranging, and recording, and he is still trying to find out what would compel him to write five hours of music, 25 compositions, about his beachside hometown of Encinitas. These questions cropped up with the beginning of this project and are ongoing for Hubbard. “The whole time I’ve been involved with this, I’m figuring out why I’m doing this, why it’s important,” he says. “Your hometown defines how you view the world. Your hometown defines what you do.”

And that is hardly happenstance.

Paul Hormick, The San Diego Troubadour May 2014