Getting Deep and Melting with the Universe: An Interview With Michael Travis

Interview by Sam Cohen and Shaye Smith. 

EOTO burst into public existence at Sonic Bloom in 2006 and have viscerally captivated audiences ever since. The past few years have seen the duo (Michael Travis and Jason Hann also of The String Cheese Incident) reach the upper echelons of live music with headlining performances in world-renowned venues and an ingrained presence in the North American festival circuit. If you haven’t heard, every night is new with EOTO. Armed with a dizzying array of gear and technology, EOTO explores the many corners of modern electronic music with all-improvised sets that take the listener on an adrenaline-fueled journey through the endless possibilities of live music.

Keeping in mind the wealth of experience and knowledge of such an established musician, Sensible Reason sat down with Michael Travis at Summer Camp Music Festival this year to discuss not just the music, but how it relates to the human experience. Oh, and also his opinion on Krewella. We walked away with a bright and meaningful optimism after speaking with Travis and we hope everyone enjoys reading. Also, check out our interview with Jason Hann from Farm Fest last summer.

Sam: This is your seventh straight year at Summer Camp. What do you like about this festival in particular?

Travis: This is our seventh year at Summer Camp? Oh, my god. Well, it’s so nicely laid out and I love the people who run it. Jay and Ian Goldberg and Mike Armintrout and his team are so incredibly kind and humane. Sometimes, festival promotion can have a cut-throat, grimy, edge to it and these guys don’t have any of that, so I love that. I love how they take care of their musicians. They keep inviting similar kinds of bands, which is an interesting take on it. We appreciate it. Shaded camping is pretty nice too.

Sam: I see how they bring back the same acts on bigger and bigger stages.

Travis: Yeah, like this year’s set is insane.

Sam: So you are playing on the Moonshine stage this year?

Travis: Closing the Mooonshine, 11-1.

Sam: That’s a prime spot.

 Travis: It is a prime spot.

Sam: Any collaborations with Umphrey’s or Moe. or memorable sit-ins that come to mind?

Travis: Yeah, we’ve had some crazy Umphrey’s sit ins. One time in a little bar in Boone, North Carolina. It was maybe 2008. They were playing across town at a bigger club and most of them came and sat in. It was a pretty fun little moment. EOTO kind of feels new to me as I’m playing all of these instruments as compared to String Cheese, so it was exciting to have all of Umphrey’s sit in. And they know about improv [laughs].

Sam: I was wondering if you noticed how some people were mad about Krewella as the EDM headliner and if you have any opinion on the matter?

Travis: I have no opinion on Krewella. I never delved into them at all and I don’t really know anything about them. I don’t really keep up with the EDM scene much anymore, I kind of lost interest.

Sam: So what are you keeping up with now?

 Travis: Skiing. [laughs] I live right near a ski area, like half-hour away.

Sam: You must have a house in Colorado?

Travis: I live in Boulder.

Sam: For the EOTO and Friends shows, does the improvisational element work the same way?

Travis: There are a few ground rules. I do like EOTO and Friends shows when I’m in charge of the low end. In an improv setting, I think with my sense of pacing, well, our pacing, the kind of thing that can go south really quick is if you are grinding away on one chord forever and no one is doing anything. I kind of tell people, “We are going to move in circle of fifths.”  (A fifth is the most prominent, easiest note besides the note the song is in, and you can put the next part in that five and it will feel natural.) Also, some of the hand signals and what they mean, but it’s pretty wide open still. But yeah, ground rules like how we will move in circle of fifths, so watch me for when that is going to happen. I think compositionally and not solo-y. Those are the most prominent rules.

Sam: Are there any new artists you have been listening to?

Travis: New is a pretty relative term, a lot seems new now that I’m 50 [laughs]. There’s this guy Son Lux who has been blowing my mind. He’s an incredible cat. He’s done a lot of soundtrack work, I don’t think he’s “new” exactly, but he’s new to me. I played recently with David Murphy, he throws a jam session show every couple months and I was part of the last one in Denver. In that jam there was a guy named Jordan Linit who plays in a band called Analog Son, he can really fuckin’ play the guitar. And then Jaden Carlson, she’s something else. A 14 year old guitar prodigy, so she’s new. At 14, you have to be new [laughs].

Sam: Any new gear added to your set up since last year?

Travis: No, not since last year. My favorite time to play with EOTO is when I haven’t added anything new. The comfort of having nothing changed allows my brain to really pour into it in an easy way so the highest parts of my creative essence can come out instead of part of my brain re-learning what’s going on. Somewhat recently, I got a synth called a Nova Bass Station 2. It’s awesome and burly-sounding.

MT eoto2Sam: Do you have a wife and kids?

Travis: Nope, neither. I had a wife.

Shaye: Have you just been married to your music and career?

Travis: Yeah, I think I’m kind of in a refractory, unraveling period from twenty years of really hard touring with all these different bands. It’s really coming around. You know, life’s crazy. Didn’t turn out the way I thought when I was in my twenties and thirties. And it never does.

Shaye:It’s kind of better like that though.

Travis: Yeah, you know. Considering I’m a white musician in America and I was upper middle class which is already a fairly good start at a good life, I’ve had some pretty ugly tragedies. I didn’t expect life to be such a stew of utter tragedy and beauty all mixed together in this huge swirling cauldron. I thought it was gonna be easier. In my early thirties when String Cheese was just cranking up, I thought I was the king of the world. Now I’m like… whoa. It’s crazy. Now, I’m getting spit out of a crazy ten-year tumultuous relationship and having no kids and sitting here by myself. I’m just learning about really being humble and spending a lot of time by myself, which I’ve never done.

Shaye: Well, you’re a guy so it’s not like your clock is ticking like a woman’s is.

Travis: I know, yeah, there’s not like a giant clock. It’s kind of like a small clock.

Shaye: You could be like seventy and have a kid.

Travis: [In an old man’s voice] “Here ya go, good luck with this, I’m outta here. You’re so cute, be nice to your mother…”

Sam: Any side projects in the works?

Travis: Yeah, I’m just kind of stewing with what I want to do. I did three different bands: evooa, EOTO and Zilla, where I pulled it together and took to the road and kind of just thrashed the living shit out of myself trying to make it successful. Definitely don’t want to go that route right now. I have a band called Snakes and Stars, kind of an indie duo. I play 8 string bass and it’s a lot of tech. We don’t have anything out yet, it’s still stewing. I have a solo DJ thing I also do sometimes under the name Michael Travis.

Sam:When you were growing up did you consider yourself part of the Deadhead scene or were you into a larger variety of music?

Travis: I did have a moment. I didn’t see a ton of shows, but at my first Dead show I ate acid and went with all these hippies because that’s what I was supposed to do. I ended up not freaking out, just hiding in a tree staring at people thinking, “This is crazy… What are they wearing?” It was like a huge sociology experiment. I was so blown away by the subculture that I didn’t even pay attention to the music. I do appreciate it though. There were a couple shows that were formative in my opinion of group rock improv and how it could work, and I did have some Jerry moments where I really understood his power. But it wasn’t a huge prominent part of my life, just a few years of college, ’86, ’87, and ’88.

Sam: What other music were you into back then?

Travis: I was getting into weird, new age music. Basically, I’d get super high and go out on these bike rides and melt with the universe. I just wanted to listen to music that made me feel like that. This artist Mark Isham, he’s a pretty famous film composer now, but he put out an album called Vapor Drawings that just blew my mind. Then, I slowly got into jazz and jazz-fusion stuff like Weather Report. But in high school, what was I into… I tried to be weird in high school. I listened to Laurie Anderson. She put out a song called “O Superman”.

Photo by Brian Spady © Spady Photography

Sam: What skills or characteristics do you think are most important for someone to be successful in this scene and the music industry in general?

Travis: One of the huge things that worked for me, and it’s kind of more of an esoteric or spiritual concern, is painting a thorough picture of what you want your future to look like, including all the details. When String Cheese was touring around in a little van in the mountains in Colorado, we said, “You guys, we can sell out Red Rocks, we just have to envision what it looks like, what it smells like, what you’re wearing, what everyone looks like around you.” Look around the stage and see everyone on stage. Pre-envisioning the future really calls it in; I’m a firm believer of that. Painting a picture really thoroughly is a detail some people skip over. I knew what everything looked like, what everyone’s amps would look like, the whole thing. That’s pretty esoteric.

Sam: I really like that answer, honestly an even better answer than I expected. Really good advice. So I was going to ask you more about other musical projects but you already gave us some insight into what you’re working on…

Travis: Yeah, I’m just feeling this huge shift of not caring about performing or being a musician as much anymore you know. I would love to be able to retire… except for String Cheese [laughs]. That’s my goal.

Sam: Well, I think that makes sense, considering your career.

Travis: Yeah, and that may change again, but I just need a breath. I pushed it way too hard. I don’t think I’m built for that kind of thing, but I did it anyway. As compared to BB King, he’s just… that’s his whole thing. He did 340-350 shows a year for fifty years.

Sam: Wow, did not realize that.

Travis: I think he averaged over 300 shows a year for fifty years. [Laughs] which makes me look like a pussy, I did 200 shows a year for twenty years, big deal.

Shaye: Was there any one defining moment that you would say sums up who you are as a person?

Travis: Interesting, nice question. Well, probably the first time I ate mushrooms. I mean, if I’m being honest. I remember that moment up on the hill. In the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles where I grew up, there was a half-built building with scaffolding all over the outside. I remember standing, looking over the valley after I’d been tripping for hours, and I was like, “My entire experience used to be the pathways and the tubes of this scaffolding.” I’d come to a corner and I’d either have to turn left, right, up or down, and those were my four choices. Then I looked out across the entire San Fernando valley and realized that now this was my field of experience. Out of the tubes, a previously described life, going left, right, up or down, (the one most people were operating in) was just obliterated. I remember that so clearly. I was 19 and it just rang out so, and what it did to my life was unbelievable. It could have easily been the moment that made it possible for me to be a musician and pursue that goal. It was a huge moment that propelled a broader potential, perspective or take on any given scenario. It would lead to broader apparent futures, like allowing myself to think of being a musician as a reasonable pursuit, as opposed to freaking myself out or not thinking I’m good enough. That was a huge defining moment, not sure if it was the biggest but it was the first to come to mind. I do think those medicines, specifically mushrooms, acid, marijuana and especially hash oil, really present a whole other arm of being human that many people will never avail themselves to.

Shaye: It gives you a new aerial perspective on life.

Travis: Yeah, you get a focal length that’s farther away. That was a huge moment.

Shaye: Any other experiences that have changed you personally?

Travis: I had a very tumultuous relationship that ended two years ago that really changed me, with a woman named Shaye, actually. It was hugely transformative.

Shaye: I think that tends to happen. Other people are mirrors of ourselves, even if there are things you don’t want to see.

Travis: Oh, yeah. She was the biggest and most profound in that way, tearing down all these weird walls I had and this weird, late-forties mid-life crisis. Disgusting, drug addled, alcoholic… she helped me make it apparent. I don’t drink or do party drugs anymore and a lot of that is because of her. It’s a huge change. The first time I lived alone was after we broke up, so that’s a lot of big shifts.

Shaye: Those are all good things though, or lessons.

Travis: Yes, even though it was a very tumultuous relationship, I think she is my greatest spiritual teacher, what she wrung out of me.

Shaye: As long as you take something away from it, it can be a good experience, I think.

Travis: Yeah, and that’s all up to the human, right? There’s always a lesson available in every experience no matter how weird or tragic. It’s all available as a learning experience depending on how reasonable you can be with viewing it properly. Wow, we got deep all of a sudden. That’s great!

Sam: Thank you, that was a great interview. We are really pumped to see you guys perform tonight!

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Photo: Aspire to Inspire Photography and Spady Photography.

Never seen EOTO? Catch one of these upcoming shows;

June 26th – Electric Forest – Rothbury, MI
July 10th – Mishawaka Ampitheatre – Bellvue, CO
July 11th – Boulder Theater – Boulder, CO
August 6th – The Werk Out Music & Arts Festival – Thornville, OH
August 7th – 515 Alive Music Festival – Des Moines, IA
August 8th – Moonrise Festival – Baltimore, MD
September 4th – Electric Zoo – New York, NY
September 17th – Symbiosis Gathering 2015 – Oakdale, CA
September 24th – Mantrabash 2015 – Ferguson, NC

Sam Cohen

Sam Cohen’s desire to put the indescribable into words led him to his role as a music editorialist and social media manager for Sensible Reason. He joined the team in early 2014 after graduating from Northwestern University with a B.A. in Radio, Television and Film. Sam has produced big budget music videos, ran successful marketing campaigns and currently works in the digital marketing department of the nightclub Output. When he's not avidly exploring new music and festivals, you can find him studying intellectual property, internet, and media law at Brooklyn Law School. Join him on Twitter: @SamCohen913

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