On paper, it was unlikely Gabby Relos and Josh Rubeo would end up in a band together. Relos was a college soccer player from North Jersey, who didn’t pick up a guitar until she was in her teens.
“It’s the same commitment, but it’s not as physical on your body,” says Relos about the switch from soccer to strings.
Rubeo, meanwhile, had been playing music since starting violin lessons at five years old while growing up in suburban South Jersey.
“I was not athletic at all,” says Rubeo. “I’ve played music my entire life, I’ve played in orchestras, and two other bands before this. Playing music and playing instruments is all I’ve ever done.”
Different corners of the state, disparate childhood interests, and yet, here they are—Relos (vocals and guitar) and Rubeo (bass) comprise two-thirds of the Cherry Hill trio Afloat, with Chris Cortes on drums.
Rubeo and Relos met at Rowan University when they were student workers at the school’s music studio. They started playing music together when Relos’ senior group project fell apart and she needed musicians to help her complete the work—Rubeo was there to help.
“We recorded our first EP as my college capstone project and then started playing shows,” says Relos. “I was like, ‘Oh this is cool, do you guys still want to continue playing?’ It was never like, ‘Oh, I’m starting a band,’ it kind of just fell into place.”
It may have seemed wholly organic, but the music program at Rowan has proved to be fertile ground for South Jersey bands and has provided the tools for bands like Afloat to succeed.
“We got a lot of cool opportunities by going there,” says Relos. “You meet a lot of people who want to do the same thing as you, which can be overwhelming, but the opportunities we had were amazing. We got to record for free at Rowan’s studio, and we got to play SXSW for free.”
Afloat’s self-titled EP was recorded at Rowan’s music studio, and, like many other college experiences, is something of which the band is proud, but also serves as a measuring stick for their growth.
One of the more popular songs on the self-titled EP was “Haze”—”a song I wrote on a limb,” says Relos. “I really like how it came out. It came out kind of indie and chorusy, and not something I would usually write.
“A lot of people have been asking us to play ‘Haze’ at shows, but we don’t play it live anymore,” says Relos. “I still feel connected to that song, but as musicians—I don’t want to say we’re better than that song, but we grew out of it.”
After their self-titled EP, Afoat released another EP called Never Me Always You, which happened to be Rubeo’s senior capstone project.
While at this point the band was living in Philly, things weren’t always sunny for the band and it was hard to stay afloat.
“That album was really hard because I was working multiple full-time jobs on top of being a full-time student, and Gab was working multiple jobs as well,” says Rubeo. Relos worked at Sam Ash, a recording studio, and Miller’s Ale House, and Rubeo was working at Whole Foods, was a blackjack dealer, and worked at a recording studio.
To make matters worse, the studio they were recording in flooded, and they lost three months of recording time.
The trio experimented with bringing in a second guitarist, but in the end it was too much all at once. With their core lineup, in time, they finished.
Afloat continued to play shows up until the very last day the world was “normal.” On that Wednesday night when it was announced that the NBA was suspending play, and a worldwide lockdown was imminent Afloat was playing a show in Philly.
The trio took advantage of the massive amount of free time that the COVID lockdown provided. For Relos that meant working on lyrics, and her vocals.
“Over COVID I improved on my confidence singing; I feel like I’m in a better headspace now,” she says. “I only started singing because I had to sing the lyrics for my project, and no one booed me so I kept going. I just feel more confident playing now.”
Afloat did release new music during the lockdown as well: “Can’t Slow Down” and “Moody.”
“We did a lot of stuff that we never did as a band during COVID,” says Rubeo. “The content of the songs are pretty much the same, but we feel like we are more mature. We are sinking into our abilities and writing better.”
Afloat’s more mature sound is evident in the song they released in late July, “But I’m Not.”
“The song is about feeling indecisive in a way,” says Relos. “Oh I’m indecisive about this situation and I want to do it. I know how the situation will turn out, but I want to do it anyway. Like the lyrics, ‘I don’t know if I’m wrong or I’m right,’ it’s about feeling very iffy.”
The trio recently started to play shows again, and during COVID they practiced how to improve their stage presence.
“For the first time during our practices we focused on performance and crowd interaction,” Rubeo says. “If we have to talk, we’ll talk about something, but we’ll just get through it. Now we’re strategizing and looking at our songs, and looking at what the best songs for the crowd to sing along to are.”
“Hearing people singing your lyrics back is such a good feeling,” says Relos.
Relos admits that she had some stage fright getting back on stage for the first time. “Damn, I talked a big game over lockdown. My fans want me to deliver, and I hope I don’t sound dumb.”
Afloat has plans to write more music, and play more shows in the fall.
They recently played shows in West Chester, PA and in Clementon down in South Jersey, they are playing a house show in Glassboro on Sept. 18, and will be playing at the Grape Room in Philadelphia on Oct. 22.