The Handwerker Gallery was packed to capacity Friday night as The Tundra Toes took to the stage. To complement the already amped-up vibe, audience members were given handheld percussion instruments, which they shook and rattled to the beat. Despite the infectious energy in the room, however, senior vocalist and lead guitarist CJ Knowles said this acoustic performance was actually one of the more tame shows put on by the indie fivesome.
“At one point we were throwing handfuls of silverware at stuff,” Knowles said. “We want to make our live shows more interesting, but at the same time keep it musically up to speed with everything else we’re doing.”
While student bands are a dime a dozen on most college campuses, The Tundra Toes have a trick up their sleeve that keeps them from getting lost in the musical sea: Besides the expected instruments — drums, guitars and keyboards to name a few — they also use “found instruments,” objects not normally associated with musical performance. This has allowed the band to develop an original sound, which its members describe as “Hank Williams, Tom Waits and Modest Mouse having a snowball fight without gloves on.”
Knowles said the first “found instrument” was discovered during a rehearsal in the basement of former bassist Andrew Frisicano ’07. They were rehearsing their song “Local Meat” when they realized that something was missing. Knowles couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but said he felt like the song needed a more metallic sound. Frisicano then walked over to a big metal locker and started hitting it. It was exactly the sound they had all been looking for.
“So he took the door [off the locker], and the rest is history,” Knowles said.
Since the introduction of the locker door, The Tundra Toes have implemented quite a few unusual instruments into their music. Knowles said one of the hardest to learn was the musical saw, which he worked on mastering this past summer in lieu of not having access to cable or the Internet.
Junior Elysse Thebner, the sole female member of the band, learned how to play the melodica, a miniature hand-held keyboard that is played by blowing into a mouthpiece. Senior Dave Zacharkiw said he contributes to the band’s creative process by occasionally substituting his usual guitar slide with a cigarette lighter.
Most of the songs performed by The Tundra Toes are written by Knowles, with input from different band members along the way. Knowles said he does a lot of stream of consciousness writing, where he will sit down and just write six to seven pages of his thoughts, though he admits he usually only ends up with a few lines that are actually useable.
Besides performing at The Handwerker Gallery and at several house parties, The Tundra Toes have played at local venues like Castaways in downtown Ithaca. The band also has good standing at No Radio Records on Seneca Street, where storeowner Bob Proehl said he arranges for local bands to play in the store to show his support for Ithaca’s music scene.
“We wanted them to play in the store because CJ is a man with a mighty firm handshake,” Proehl said. “And sometimes [he] sounds like a young Tom Waits on amphetamines, which is indisputably a good thing.”
The titles and topics of The Tundra Toes’ songs tend to reflect the eccentricity of the band members. Such is the case with “Poor Taste in Footwear,” a happy-go-lucky song that discusses the importance of wearing boots in the snow.
“We’re not trying to make big statements about the universe,” Knowles said. “We’re just trying to say it’s not OK to wear suede shoes in the winter.”
The Tundra Toes have also developed a knack for arranging quirky covers. Their most popular, a laid-back rendition of Will Smith’s “Miami,” is a perfect example of how many of the band’s best songs have come about by accident. Knowles said he had written the music over the summer, but couldn’t figure out the right lyrics to match. His roommate was dancing around the house, listening to “Miami,” and he started plugging in the chorus out of desperation.
While Knowles acknowledges The Tundra Toes may not stay intact after graduation — Knowles, Zacharkiw and senior drummer Brendan Casey will all be leaving in May — he said they are planning to record a CD before they go their separate ways. He also said the band hopes to book mini-tours during spring break and immediately following graduation.
“I definitely want to milk it for all it’s worth ’cause this band has gotten really good,” he said. “When we first started we were just sort of messing around and having a good time, but as we stayed together everything got really polished. It’s been a surprise, a very pleasant one.”
The Tundra Toes will perform at 8 p.m. today at The Lost Dog Lounge, 106–112 S. Cayuga St., as part of the Buzzsaw TV launch party. Admission is free before 10 p.m., $5 after.