Wendell Culbreath is proof that even old dogs can master a new trick. For two decades Culbreath, a.k.a. The Dubber, played lead guitar in a series of bands. He didn't so much as sing in the shower. But thanks to a fortuitous event, The Dubber ended up embarking on a career as a singer-songwriter.
Except Culbreath sounds like no singer-songwriter you know. His smooth, sonorous speak-sung vocal style evokes Gil Scott-Heron, and his stylistic smorgasbord piles everything onto one plate — R&B, reggae, jazz-funk, hip-hop, and roots. Meanwhile, his subtly intricate guitar-playing recalls Bad Brain's Dr. Know at his jazziest.
"People try to categorize it. No one can, but they seem to dig it," Culbreath says. "The music is a stew. It's a reflection of everything I like, and I like all kinds of music. Even in the bands I played in, it was sort of like that."
The tracks off of The Dubber's 2010 album, Global Warning, range from the jazzy, dub-infected, Middle Eastern-tinged instrumental "I Love L.A." to the ska-funk "Back in the Days" and the brilliant "Death Angels Blues," which works a smoky, late-night groove. All in all, there's a laid-back vibe to the entire enterprise, like if Jack Johnson fronted Living Colour.
The connection to the Black Rock Coalition champions is no mistake. Culbreath came of age in the early '80s, and he was drawn to the same funk-metal-hip-hop blend as Living Colour, 24-7 Spyz, and Fishbone. Sometime along the way, Culbreath and a friend from North Carolina moved to Long Beach, Calif., where they started the prog rock group Frija with drummer Marshall Goodman (Long Beach Dub Allstars).
"Within a couple years, we had major record labels courting us. Things were looking good," he says, but they took a turn for the worst when their singer died and the band dissolved. "What was really weird was once that happened a lot of bands that used to open up for us like Korn, Rage Against the Machine, Tool — that's the era we played in — and right after that happened it was like the floodgates opened and everybody got signed."
Culbreath regrouped and started another band, Backlash, with Goodman. They also got off to a good start. Within a couple years they were generating some heat, but things went south again. Culbreath made one more go of it in a reggae band, only to see the outfit flounder and dissolve. In 1999, he returned to his hometown of Washington, D.C. and wound up helping a friend with some songs she was doing for a local showcase.
"She kind of got cold feet, and just as a joke really, I said if you go and do your songs, I'll do my songs, just to make her feel comfortable," he says. "So we do the show and she does her songs and turns to me and says, 'Here's Wendell Culbreath. He's accompanied me and now he has a couple songs,' and everyone started clapping. I was like, well, OK."
The Dubber had a couple songs that he'd been fooling with for some years — songs that seemed too personal or ill-fitting for his bands. It was the first time he'd ever sung in public.
"That was the most nerve-racking part of it all. The guitar part I could handle, but me singing in front of people?" he says. "But people dug it. When I got done with the song and opened my eyes, I spoke to myself at that moment, 'I could not have planned this any better.'"
That planted the seed, but it would still be a couple years before Culbreath began to pursue the singer-songwriter thing seriously. People at his performances kept asking him if he had any music to sell, so he recorded an EP in 2004, which would provide the core material for his 2005 debut EP, In The Temple of...
Culbreath rededicated himself to music after a trip to Seattle, shortly after cutting the EP. He had vacation time from his barista job at Starbucks and decided to take that time to see how the people liked him in a different city.
"That week I went to every coffee shop open mic throughout Seattle and I was selling CDs. I couldn't believe it. I called my boss from Seattle, and I was like, you need to send me my check. I'm not doing this anymore," he laughs. "I was planning on being there maybe a week and ended being there almost a month. That's how good it went."
Since then, his music has taken him across the country and to Europe. Along the way, Culbreath has honed his idiosyncratic, highly percussive performance style.
"People wonder if I use looping pedals, and they are surprised when I tell them I don't," he says.
Culbreath is presently in the studio putting the finishing touches on his still-untitled third album. He expects to have it ready for release by the beginning of June.
These days, the thing that tickles him the most is that after all his struggles to make it as a musician, his career as a singer-songwriter has come together like a happy accident. "This isn't what I planned on doing," he says. "It's just something that happened."