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Constantly Creating

A Lot Like Birds Vocalist Kurt Travis Uses His Brief Downtime to Record Solo Album

The life of a touring musician can be grueling. You write and write and write some more, then you record an album and get it mixed, mastered and pressed. After all that, if you have any money left, you release said album and if all goes well and all your ducks are in a row, the next logical step is to leave normal life behind and hop in the van (or if you’re lucky, a bus or motorhome) and tour the shit out of the album. It’s a process that’s not cheap and not easy.

Kurt Travis, co-vocalist of Sacramento-based post-hardcore outfit A Lot Like Birds (and former co-vocalist of fellow Sacramento-based band Dance Gavin Dance) knows the drill all too well. “A Lot Like Birds doesn’t give me a lot of downtime, but when they do, I’m kind of thankful for it because then I can go forward with some solo stuff,” Travis recently told Submerge during an interview in his new downtown Sacramento loft. “ALLB was going to do this European tour and it ended up falling through. Immediately I was like, OK, I have this amount of time, lets bang out a record and lets go out on tour and sell it.”

Travis enlisted the help of longtime friend and former bandmate Zachary Garren (they played in DGD together years ago). Garren, who now plays in the instrumental band Strawberry Girls and lives in Salinas, Calif., would come up to Sacramento for a few days at a time and the two would write songs and work on the album’s pre-production. They were also sending song ideas back and forth even when not in the same town. Before they knew it, they were sitting on a full-length’s worth of solid material, had a label ready to release it (Blue Swan Records, a new label that is run by Dance Gavin Dance’s Will Swan) and a full-on tour booked to support the record, which will be titled Everything Is Beautiful and will be released sometime later in May.

As of press time, Travis and Garren had only released one song off of Everything Is Beautiful, a pop-y, upbeat ditty called “Brain Lord.” At last check, it had 16,031 views on YouTube after only being uploaded a week prior. With no plans to release any other material from the album before its full release, Submerge was lucky enough to get a private listening party where Garren and Travis allowed us to hear rough, unmixed, unmastered versions of seven of the 12 songs that will appear on the album. What we heard was not some half-assed solo effort from a lead singer who just wants to put something out for the fuck of it. What we heard was a focused, mature, surprisingly pop-friendly album that touches on surf-rock with lo-fi garage vibes, glittering and noodly lead guitar lines, lush layers of vocal harmonies with sprinkles of synth-y goodness. It’s light and accessible (we only heard one part with aggressive vocals, and it was more of a shout than a scream) without being overly cheesy. It’s an artsy pop album, if you will, and it’ll more than likely have you moving and grooving.

Check out an excerpt of our conversation and mark your calendars for Kurt Travis’ tour kick-off show at Luigi’s on Wednesday, May 14, 2014.

EDITOR’S UPDATE: As of May 13, 2014, Kurt Travis’ Everything Is Beautiful was available for streaming here.

Kurt Travis Submerge interview

Tell me a little bit about the album title, Everything Is Beautiful. What’s the reasoning or motivation behind calling it that?
Kurt Travis: With every release I kind of have a theme, because it’s fun. It’s fun to have a certain message. My first [album theme] being this little girl I knew, she was just learning how to speak, and I related to her because it was kind of like my first solo effort and the songs were very primitive. So it just kind of had this theme, that’s why I called it Wha Happen. She kept asking me that. For this [album theme], I’ve been under this impression lately. I’m very happy. I’m very creative. I’m doing really, really good. I’m having an amazing time with A Lot Like Birds and I’m having an amazing time writing my own stuff with Zach. The theme is Everything Is Beautiful because, well, it is. Just appreciating things that aren’t necessarily beautiful, but you watch them, and they change and your perspective on them becomes different. Kind of that sort of thing like, what is beauty, or what is art? I could get really crazy on you. We could talk about what is beauty and what isn’t beauty, but it would be wrong. Everything is beauty.

Would you say this is the most pop friendly thing you’ve ever done?
Zachary Garren: It’s definitely the poppiest.
KT: It’s the poppiest freaking thing I’ve ever done in my whole life, and you know what’s really weird is I was really trying not to. With this record I was trying to go for that like new wave sound…and it came out super pop-y and funky and groovy.

How does your approach to writing lyrics for your solo material differ from when you’re writing with A Lot Like Birds?
KT: They’re very, very different. Nowadays I’ve been writing very conceptually, not as song-to-song-to-song. But kind of an atmosphere or a story within that song, and kind of vicariously really, which is weird, because that’s something that I really don’t do. I usually write from life and sorrow and just, you know, therapeutically healing myself. I don’t really do that anymore. I guess I don’t really have the need to. I don’t have to be extremely worried about what’s going to happen next. That’s totally kept me up at night in younger years when it comes to music.

Your work with your other bands no doubt keeps you guys busy: Constant touring, writing, recording, doing press, etc. Why not just use your down time to relax? What is it that drives you to want to create music even during your little bit of time off?
KT: I think Zach and I will totally say the same thing. It almost feels the opposite, you know what I mean? If you’re constantly creating and you’re doing different genres and such, I feel like sometimes the more opposite the genre, the more I’m just secretly influenced by it because it’s completely different.
ZG: I just like to create a lot. Some days I’ll do way more than other days…
KT: When I tell him to write a song, he’s got like six the next day. By the time I’m done listening to those, he’s got two more. And then when we get to the studio he’s like, oh man, I got to relearn these. It’s like that show Heroes where the guy blacks out and just does some amazing shit.
ZG: Being a musician is different than working a 9-to-5 sort of job. It’s not easy, but it’s different. It’s still fun to a degree.
KT: Even if I didn’t write a record this last month and immediately go back out on tour, I probably would have worked an odd job for a month and did it that way. But instead, I made a record, and I invested money in the T-shirts I’m going to sell on tour, stuff like that.

So in a way, it’s kind of like an “in between job” that just happened to be creating a record?
KT: Exactly. When Joe [Arrington, drummer for ALLB and who also plays on Everything Is Beautiful] is home, he plays with like four different cover bands and makes way more money… I guess there is this mentality of like, work your fucking ass off, because we are privileged enough to be able to play music.
ZG: Creating music in a way is also kind of downtime. If you’re a musician, what do you do in your downtime from your job? You’re probably doing music. We’re just kind of having extra fun. We do it because we like it and want to try to keep getting better and hopefully making better stuff than we have in the past.
KT: The more you make music and go out on tour, the more you’re going to gain fans. At this point, I’ve been doing it for almost 10 years, I might as well just keep on. Kids still appreciate it and still buy the previous stuff and the new stuff. They’re still buying it, so…
ZG: It’s cool to switch it up, too, because this new album isn’t like anything we’ve done in a long time. It’s the most accessible kind of thing. There’s no screaming so it’s a more mature version of some of our past stuff.

With this album being so much more pop friendly than most of your guys’ past stuff, is it crazy to think that this could very well become the most popular shit you’ve ever done?
KT: It very well could be, although you never know.
ZG: It has the potential, but there are so many little things.
KT: I mean, my manager is Eric Rushing and he’s pretty freaking connected. I did my best. A lot of the times I’ve shown him stuff, and he’s like, “Dude this is fucking incredible, what am I supposed to do with this? This is the best song I could never do anything about.” So this record will definitely be like, “Here you go man, this is probably the most accessible thing you can get out of me, what can we do with it now?” And I think Eric can do a lot.
ZG: And it’s still creative music too, which is cool. This is going to be like our parents’ favorite record.

On the same day that you dropped the first single off your album, Jonny Craig and Tilian Pearson, two other vocalists with past or present DGD ties, also dropped new songs from their new projects. Was that just a big coincidence, or was that meticulously planned out by your management or something like that?
ZG: Not planned at all.
KT: Swear to god. Not planned. We wanted to put it out a couple days earlier, but it didn’t work out. That’s what happens.

Don’t you think in a weird way it might have worked to everyone’s advantage?
KT: Oh we loved it! We milked the shit out of it. It was crazy awesome cross promotion. I talked to Tilian, too. He was totally super happy about it, just like, “Oh my gosh this is going to boost everything!”

One question that I feel a lot of people are curious about is what your relationship is like with all those guys? Jonny, Tilian, all the other DGD guys… I feel like people think there is all this drama. Is there?
KT: No, no. Jonny was at the recent DGD show at Assembly, and I was at that show with Zach. I see Jonny at Ace or Assembly or whatever. I talked to Tilian after the show, shit like that, we were all talking and hanging out after the show. Everybody is just doing their thing. There’s a lot of shit you can check out from all of us, there’s just a big resume from all of us, and that’s really cool.

See Kurt Travis, Zachary Garren and their newly formed backing band play songs off of Everything Is Beautiful at one of the few remaining shows at Luigi’s on Wednesday, May 14, 2014. Also performing will be Hotel Books and So Much Light. Show starts at 7 p.m. and all ages are welcome.

Kurt Travis_s_Submerge_Mag_Cover

Dance Gavin Dance

No More Drama in the DGD

Dance Gavin Dance’s mélange of screamo and R&B has earned the group quite a following both here in their hometown of Sacramento and beyond. Though its members’ mean age is around 20, the group has already traversed the country six or seven times, most recently in support of Poison the Well. With just a few California dates to come (including Bamboozle Left in Irvine and four dates as part of the Artery Foundation tour that will bring Dance Gavin Dance to the Boardwalk on Apr. 19), the band is now ready to re-enter the studio with a new singer, Kurt Travis, in tow. Submerge sat down with Jon Mess (co-vocals), Zachary Garren (guitar) and Eric Lodge (bass) outside Sargent’s House of Coffee on Alhambra Blvd. and discussed the forthcoming album and the rift that caused Dance Gavin Dance and original singer Johnny Craig to part ways.

You’re going to be heading into the studio soon, right?
Jon Mess: Yeah, Apr. 20 [2008].
[Eric Lodge and Zachary Garren both laugh.]

4/20, huh?
All: [Laughter]
EL: That first day won’t be too productive.

Do you have a bunch of songs done already?
ZG: We have nine so far. We’re going to finish up the ninth one today.

How has the writing gone for the new album now that you have a new vocalist?
EL: We kind of write without our vocalists in mind. We like to incorporate parts for our vocalists, but like, it’s just the people in the band who play the instruments who do the writing, so it’s not really affected by the vocals or anything. So far it’s been going really good. We’ve been progressing pretty steadily. We’re really stoked on the new stuff.

How would you say you’re progressing? Which direction do you see the songwriting heading?
ZG: It’s more groovy.
EL: Each song is tackling a different genre or sub-genre, I guess you would say. But yeah, it’s definitely more groovy, more energetic.
JM: There’s a lot of different types of sounds.
EL: But it still sounds like it’s us. It still sounds like you’re listening to Dance Gavin Dance.

Jon, you’re one of the vocalists. Lyrically, how is the writing going for you? Have you written a lot of the lyrics yet?
JM: Yeah, I’ve got about five songs done. It’s cool. I don’t know how it’s going to end up, but I think it’s going to be a lot better than how I collaborated with our old singer. It’s a lot more coordinated, a lot more thought out. Vocally, I think it’s a little more together.

With Jonny leaving the band, it didn’t seem like a very neat breakup.
JM: There was definitely some drama there, yeah.

Why did you guys part ways?
JM: We just couldn’t get along with him at all. No one in the band liked being around him.
ZG: No one outside of the band even liked him.
EL: Ever since we started the band, we knew that we didn’t get along. We tried so hard–literally, so damn hard–for two and a half years. It just got to the point that the band was going to be done if we didn’t do something about it.
JM: It was affecting everyone to the point where no one wanted to be in the band at all, because of the way he was bringing everything down.
ZG: The way he was acting, his attitude…

I’ve heard the tracks that you guys recorded when Jonny was the vocalist. It’s a really aggressive sound. Did that animosity sort of fuel the fire at all?
EL: I think it more just motivated us. Like, we’ve got to write the best record that we can and show everyone what’s up. The aggression–I don’t know where that comes from.

Kurt’s the new vocalist, but was there ever an inclination to just continue with Jon as the sole vocalist–especially after your last experience?

JM: It was an idea, but that would be very much changing… Well, you’d have to change the music. It would just really change the whole band in a way. It would be hard to keep growing in terms of popularity and touring and whatnot. Because then we wouldn’t be able to play our old songs. I don’t sing like him at all. We needed someone who’d be able to sing the old songs. I can’t sing the old songs, and none of us could, so we just threw that idea out the window and didn’t discuss it any further. And I don’t know if any of us wanted to be in a band that was all heavy screaming and whatnot.

Before you were mentioning that the stuff you’ve been writing has been really groovy, and that’s the one thing that jumped out at me listening to the songs with Johnny’s vocals had a really R&B vibe to it. Is that something you’re trying to amplify more with the newer stuff?
ZG: I think that’s just Will [Swan, guitar]. He’s black. He said he’s been channeling his black side.
JM: There is a song that doesn’t have a name, and it’s called “R&B Song.”
EL: We have another new song that’s going to have a big dance crescendo.
ZG: I think we all sort of like that stuff anyway.

How long did you search for a new vocalist?
ZG: About a month I think.
EL: We knew about Kurt [Travis, formerly of Five Minute Ride], obviously. The day after it happened, we saw Kurt as an option. Our manager, Kurt is like his baby boy. Our manager said, “You know there’s Kurt.” We tried a couple people out, but none of them could come close to what Kurt could do, so it was a pretty simple decision.

Given the tumultuous history with your last singer, was Kurt someone you’d considered replacing Jonny with before?
ZG: I do remember once we’d discussed it.
JM: It was considered. We got to the point where we decided that it was better to do it now than have it happen on the road. But honestly, we didn’t kick him out. He quit, and then he wanted to come back; and that happened a lot. He would quit and then the next day he would say he was just kidding or something. This time, he did a series of events that were a big deal, and he quit, and we just said, “Fine, man. See you later.” A lot of people are saying, “You guys are so stupid. You kicked out your singer.” Well, he left the band, and we just said, “OK.” We didn’t argue. Maybe it was just a mutual thing. Then he wanted to come back. I don’t know. He was a little out of his mind.

You’re heading into the studio in April. Do you have a release date set for the album yet?
EL: It’ll be out Aug. 19 [2008].

Do you have a title for the album yet?
ZG: It’s sort of up in the air.
JM: I sort of wanted to have an end of the world type theme.

Does that fit with the lyrics you’ve been writing?
JM: I don’t know…
EL: We were going to have four-part songs about these paintings Jon had done [laughs].
JM: We have a bunch of ideas. We don’t know which ideas will come into fruition or whatever.
EL: It could be anything–continuing part threes and part fours maybe from our EP. Kind of like movies: sequel!

A sort of concept album?
EL: Yeah, but not a full concept album. Like some parts will be a concept, but it’s kind of random. We’re still working out the details.
JM: Or maybe it’s just a huge hype gimmick. There’s going to be a new CD, you like the first two, so maybe you’ll like the third part.

Also check out our interview with Will Swan from Dance Gavin Dance (June, 2009)

Also check out our interview with Jonny Craig (Dec, 2009)

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