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Diehard Profile: Kurt Travis (A Lot Like Birds, Dance Gavin Dance)

Photo Credit: Michael-Rex Carbonell
Photo Credit: Michael-Rex Carbonell

I finally get hold of vocalist Kurt Travis (A Lot Like Birds, Dance Gavin Dance) after two of my calls to him go to voicemail.

“Screening my calls?” I accuse, jokingly.

“Yeah (laughs). I was like, who do I know [with a number] from Hackensack, New Jersey?”

Travis is sitting on the other end of this conversation in Sacramento, CA., home to both A Lot Like Birds and Dance Gavin Dance, as well as his recently established record label, Esque Records. It’s this hyper-involvement in the music industry that’s got us talking. Between being a vocalist for multiple prominent bands, putting out his own solo project, being a band manager and now owning a record label, Travis fits the HXC Magazine “Diehard” description.

You’re going on the 10 year tour for Dance Gavin Dance soon, right?

Yeah. A Lot Like Birds is playing. A band I manage called Strawberry Girls (Tragic Hero Records) is gonna be on tour. I feel awesome about it. I feel super stoked. A Lot Like Birds and DGD haven’t done a tour in a while and it’s mostly A Lot Like Birds’s decision. We kind of wanted to branch out and play with other bands other than like the homie bands…But now that we got to do some other tours—we played with Enter Shikari and Stray From The Path and the whole Warped Tour thing a few years ago—it just seemed like a good idea to do another Dance Gavin Dance, homie tour.

So since you’ve done vocals for both bands, will you be making appearances for both bands on tour?

Yeah. I’m supposed to do three songs with [DGD]. I’ll probably do four. They’ll probably get me to do another one. Jonny (Craig, former vocalist for DGD) is doing the same thing, that’s why Slaves is on the tour. (Laughs) I think he’s gonna be doing a few songs as well. It’s gonna be an easy tour for Tilian (Pearson, current vocalist for DGD). Maybe we should get Tilian to sing on some A Lot Like Birds stuff.

dance gavin dance_tourflyer

You guys should just swap all your members.

(Laughs) Yeah, it should be really fun. I haven’t toured with DGD in a while and they’re always really fun to tour with. Ticket sales are doing really well, too.

You recently launched Esque Records, too.

Yes, literally like a month ago.

Why did you decide to start that up?

A lot of reasons. For one, I want something for when I can’t sing anymore. I don’t know when that’s gonna be, but you know, if my wife (Lauren Travis, web designer/public relations for Esque Records) and I have kids and I don’t wanna tour anymore…I’ve [also] toured so much that I’ve gotten the privilege to meet all these other bands and they always ask me, “Hey, what do I do to get big?” and I just kind of shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know, just keep doing what you’re doing.” So this is my way of helping other bands out and trying to get them where they wanna be. Also, when touring all over the country and even the world, you get to hear bands that open up for you. When I was younger I didn’t really pay attention much to it, but now that I’m getting a little older and I don’t drink and get fucked up as much, I’m actually paying attention to the talent that’s playing….and now I’m honestly listening to everything that people send me and show me and give me. And I just really want to help the music scene that has helped me. I figured a record label would be the perfect way to do it. Even though CD sales aren’t what they used to be in the decades before us, with the whole technology thing, I still think it’s a big representation, being on a record label. This band is on this record label. Well, why are they on that label? They take care of them and it’s like they’re part of their family. And that’s kind of what I want to have is a family of musicians.

“I just really want to help the music scene that has helped me.”

What kinds of bands do you want to support?

My first band that I put out, they’re called Floral, a two-piece instrumental math rock band. But honestly I’m looking for everything. I kind of want an element of each sound to be representing Esque. And that’s kind of why I named the record label Esque, because the word Esque [means] “to be like something”; my point being that if you’re a part of Esque records you are also like it, no matter what. Even if you are different, you are a part of it. But yeah, we have like, a throwback emo band, they’re called Lemix J. Buckley. We have a band that kind of reminds me of Lower Definition meets Chon, they’re called In Angles. I have an indie pop band called Rome Hero Foxes, and I’m looking to maybe sign a hip hop act. I love rap and hip hop and stuff like that. 

Any post-hardcore acts you think you want to sign? Since that’s where you came from as a musician.

There are some post-hardcore elements in In Angles. I manage a band that’s very post-hardcore, they’re called Adventurer, but they’re on Blue Swan Records and that’s kind of a sister label to us. They’re actually the first band that I started managing before I even thought about a record label. I got them signed to Blue Swan Records, and their demo is coming out pretty soon.

So you’ve been in a ton of bands, you manage other bands, you’ve started a record label. What keeps you so motivated to be so involved in the music scene?

Honestly, it is hard to stay motivated. It’s hard to keep the excitement level of anything going. You know, when you’re a kid, you get a new toy, you like it, like a Transformer—I loved my little Transformers when I was a kid—but they’d end up being at the bottom of the toy chest in a week. It’s hard to keep that spark alive, but honestly it’s the bands that I work with. I love every single second of music that they play and it really, really, really excites me to hear new music. So that always recharges me if I’m feeling frustrated…Also [the] fans. I try not to look at comments online just because it gets too overwhelming, but every now and then I’ll look up and see what they’re saying about my solo record or something like that and I’ll see a lot of good comments and it helps me get through it. It really does. This nice lady, she sent me a long Facebook message on my band page and just talked about how I got her through, and when times were hard for her she turned to my music and so that really keeps me going. Hearing things from people and seeing how much I’ve impacted other people. It’s very, very energizing and gets me right back on track if I’m in a slump. Music is definitely the thing that I think I’m supposed to do with my life. It’s been hard financially, mentally, even spiritually sometimes. Weird shit goes on and you just don’t know what to do, but at the end of the day you can look back on what you’ve done and be proud of it. Or even cringe, too. 

What are some cringeworthy moments for you looking back?

Oh god, they’re everywhere (laughs). Mostly my very first band, my high school band. I can’t even listen to that whole thing. I was in a band called Five Minute Ride. We actually got pretty big. There’s a lot of kids that still know about that band. I actually got the gig to sing for Dance Gavin Dance because of my old band….So even though it was cringeworthy, it definitely opened some doors for me. You know, you’re always more critical of yourself than other people are but it really is pretty bad (laughs). I used to sing kinda low because my voice was already too high and my band was like, “Dude, you’re singin’ way too high. You need to have a lower, grittier sound.” ‘Cuz it was like, the late 90’s and we really didn’t know what was gonna be popular. It’s weird, it’s super weird (breaks out into laughter).

What about some of your favorite moments?

Oh my gosh. There are so many. That’s the cool thing about having opportunities to tour around the world. I feel like I’ve lived a couple lifetimes already. I’m 31 years old, so I’ve got plenty more to go. But I really enjoyed the last European tour that I did with A Lot Like Birds…So yeah, looking back on the memories, just being able to sightsee with my homies, you know being able to go to like the Eiffel Tower. Those are some really cool memories. I still haven’t gone to Japan. I really wanna go to Japan. I’ve got a frickin’ Totoro tattoo on my arm. I’m really, really about Miyazaki films. But looking back on it, the memories, the sightseeing, being able to hang out with my bros–priceless. It really was.

esquerecords

Interview condensed for clarity. 

Interview with Chris Murray of Illuminate Me

Photo Credit: Evan Dell Photography
Photo Credit: Evan Dell Photography

The last time I interviewed vocalist Chris Murray and the rest of Illuminate Me I made them do the ice bucket challenge outside of the New Jersey venue Dingbatz (#sorrynotsorry). This time around Murray was a safe distance away over the phone, but I still got to ask him questions about new single Lost Art,” his battle with Facebook, and the chaos that is an Illuminate Me live performance.

Recently, Murray has attracted some serious attention in the underground community for launching an online petition against Facebook’s current advertising policies. The petition, which now has nearly 50,000 signatures, calls for common sense action: “We want Facebook to remove having to pay to reach fans and followers.” Murray’s views are shared and supported by many, including bands like A Lot Like Birds and Scale The Summit, who have also found paying for followers they already have to be frustrating.

When I spoke with the vocalist, he had just been told his meeting with the social media mega-giant had been rescheduled. “I would love to keep on getting higher up into the higher representatives in Facebook to someone who can have a serious conversation with me about it,” he says, getting the sense that he may be given the bureaucratic runaround. “If anything, there has to be some sort of change done to where people can just get their stuff reached out to their own fan base in a more fair way. What they’re doing right now is just making people pour money into a social media account that already has people connected to it…I don’t get it.” He adds, “I get if you want to pay for followers you don’t have and you want to get more followers, that makes sense to me completely.”

Artwork by Daniel Wagner, D-Dub Designs
Artwork by Daniel Wagner, D-Dub Designs

“I would love to see bands who get weird get more notoriety”

Connected to the Facebook problem is Illuminate Me’s new single, “Lost Art.” “Can you hear me? / Am I getting through?” are the first lyrics of the unforgiving track, and amongst other issues, speak to the apparent voicelessness of bands online.

“I feel like a lot of bands and a lot of artists–and not even just art, but small businesses for example–they really don’t get their voice heard because of this, because we’re being so limited. Granted, I understand we can get on Instagram, we can get on Twitter, we can get on wherever else that’s not Facebook, but Facebook is the main social network and that is the place to be if you want to connect to the right people. So in a way it is a call out to that situation.”

“Lost Art” is about more than just Facebook, however. Being forced to pay for the attention of your fan base creates other troubles for an underground music scene; namely, the concept of “image” in a scene that is supposedly meant to avoid that altogether.

Murray notes, “I feel like there’s more of a pressure nowadays, especially with the whole idea that we have to put money into making people be aware of us. There’s a lot of pressure now to all flock to the same image or style. I just see so many bands that look and sound alike. It’s cool to see that if you like what you’re doing and you’re happy with what you’re doing, by all means do what you do. But a lot of bands do it for the sake of people paying attention to them. You could try to be a little different.”

A bit dismayed, he adds, “I feel like the creativity spectrum is becoming more slim.”

Illuminate Me live; Photo Credit Rhia B Photography
Illuminate Me live; Photo Credit Rhia B Photography

His observation reminds me of a line from HXC‘s recent interview with Davey Muise of Vanna, in which Muise expresses the same frustration: “If you’re reading this interview, your beanie sucks, your hoodie sucks, nobody cares. Just listen to the music you want to listen to.”

Murray laughs. “Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. This environment [is] to be self aware that we are outcasts, that we aren’t supposed to be part of society. It’s not supposed to be a trend, but I guess once you have major record labels looking at ‘Oh wow, they’re making money. Let’s bank on this and let’s make it a trend,’ it happens that way. But my favorite bands are the bands that continue to be themselves and not fall into the whole trend bandwagon. Vanna is one of them, for sure.”

He counts out other bands that inspire him: Every Time I Die, Glassjaw, At The Drive In.”I feel like that whole kind of era of music is over and now we just see bands that are like ‘How heavy can I get my breakdown?’ [laughs] I mean, I’ve heard a breakdown before, can we try something else?”

Then he concedes, “But at the same time, we have breakdowns in our songs. We’re not the most original band. But I think as long as you’re self-aware of that, then you’re not showing a false side to you. I feel like a lot of bands who come out and say ‘We’re the voice of a generation’ or ‘We’re changing the game,’ and then you listen to them and you’re like, ‘Oh wow, not really…’ As long as you’re not saying that then you can do whatever the hell you want. But if you have these bold statements like ‘We’re revolutionary,’ then I’m gonna call bullshit.”

Delving deeper into the meaning of “Lost Art” Murray says, “I would love to see bands who get weird get more notoriety; people [to] kind of, like, appreciate the art a little bit more, but at the same time I can’t tell people what to do or what to think.”

Taken from the band's Facebook
Photo taken from the band’s Facebook

“I thought he literally lost his eyeball!”

If there’s one band who likes to get weird during a show it’s Illuminate Me. A standard practice for the band, for example, is to take the entire drum kit off the stage and reassemble it on the floor in the center of the crowd, standing on top of the instruments and then just kicking the pieces all around the room. But with such an animated live show comes a poor track record for self-preservation. I recall one show (picture above) to Murray in which he apparently fell through a ceiling during their set.

“Oh yeah,” he remembers. “That was the one at the indoor skatepark right? Across the room from where the stage was there was this little room that has a ceiling that you can get on top of that’s like, inside the skatepark. So during the last part of our set where we take the drums down, we take them apart and get into the crowd…I climbed up there on that ceiling thinking ‘Oh, this will be able to support me,’ and right when I put my foot in two or three tiles just came crashing down.”

“I had to pay for that,” he recounts.

The list of mishaps doesn’t end there. Murray reminisces about a show in Georgia that quickly got bloody.

“Our drummer at the time—it always happens at the end of our set—he was like jumping off the drum set and our guitarist was spinning around or something, and I guess they just collided and our drummer got hit right on the nose right in between his eyes by the guitar stock. There was blood everywhere. He actually passed out for a good five seconds. Everyone in the room including us were just dead silent just like ‘Shit, is he ok?’ He got back up and he tried to get on the drums and everyone was just like ‘Nah dude. Just end it.’ We ended the set a bit early. Our bass player at the time [Kevin Hatton], he came up to me and he was like ‘He got hit in the eye! His eye’s falling out!’ and I was like ‘No fuckin’ way!’ So I go run to see if he’s alright and he just got hit in the nose. ‘I was like dude! You scared the shit out of me I thought he literally lost his eyeball!”

Murray insists that a crazy live performance is what makes Illuminate Me the band it is, and as someone who has seen them live, I completely agree. You don’t really know Illuminate Me until you’re in the same room with them, watching them topple their own merch table out of excitement.

“Personally,” he says, “I think we got even crazier with the new sound. We just played this show not too long ago and our guitarist, he like, hung upside down from the ceiling. He jumped—I think he cut his foot open?—there was just blood all over the fucking stage. I looked at me and there’s just blood all over my shirt—I guess I cut my thumb open [too]—and there was blood running down my shirt.”

Illuminate Me do the Ice Bucket Challenge
Illuminate Me do the Ice Bucket Challenge

Despite the bloodshed and the aggressive sound the band have become known for, the new album is set to take them down a slightly different path musically. According to Murray, “Lost Art”sets the tone for half of the album, but the other half “might catch people by surprise.”

“It’s definitely not heavy,” he says. “Our last album [I Have Become A Corpse] was mostly…we slammed out song after song just fast, heavy, angry, pissed off, and now we’re like ‘Okay, let’s take a step back and look at what we have and let’s try to add in a new element to what we’re doing.’ And that’s what we did. It’s progression.”

While picturing what a not-heavy Illuminate Me song might sound like is a bit like trying your hand at a Rubik’s cube for the first time, Murray sounds excited by the prospect. The new album, he says, will probably be released by the end of this summer. Let’s just hope they survive their own set long enough to play the new material.

DIY: Dead or Materialized

DIY

If you want something done right, do it yourself; unless, of course,  you can’t afford it.

The majority of hardcore and punk was founded on a DIY ethos, something that HXC has taken to heart and pursued itself.  However, in a world filled with YouTube stars and not-so-independent indie labels, it’s kind of hard to remain loyally underground when you can Google a band’s Facebook page and follow them on Twitter.  Everyone has an agenda, everyone has a way to be heard.  That’s why people make music. That’s why people write.  That’s why we put it on the internet, so people will find it.  The most DIY thing you can do nowadays would ironically be to keep everything you do to yourself because otherwise you’re helping fund major industry ploys like various social media outlets as the internet continues its shameless take over.

Let’s look at DIY as the mindset of finding funding, promotions, gigs and profits all on your own in an attempt to 1.) avoid the corruption of your art by industry heads or 2.) because you simply don’t have the proper financial backing to pay for the industry established services you need.  In the end, DIY keeps things local and directly in and of the scene they spawn from.

“My name’s Blurryface and I care what you think.”

This line is sung by Tyler Joseph of twenty one pilots on their latest single “Stressed Out.”  While twenty one pilots is far from hardcore, from punk, and from being a band I’d ever admit to listening to regularly, this song has some serious significance in the modern music scene and beyond.

Beginning with the tell-tale tragedy of being incapable of making something original in modern music because every chord progression, lyrical concept, rhyme, and reason has been exhausted time and time again, Joseph extends his song’s meaning to life in general.  We all begin as innocent, imaginative kids chasing our dreams only to get suffocated by the millennial dilemma of needing to make money just to survive.  Can you really compromise your art for cash? Do you have to? The idea of “originality” is now determined simply by who can do what’s been done before better because we are no longer in an age of “do it yourself” but of “do it better.”  And in the end, once we all get wrapped up in that school of thought, are we even the artists we started out as to begin with? “My name’s Blurryface and I care what you think.”

Perhaps “do it better,” or DIB, really is the future of music. DIY is now just a part of the major production of it all. We have seen multiple times how a DIY aesthetic can make or break a movement, early punk and hardcore being the most prominent flag ship examples.  However, there are numerous other music realms that have greatly benefitted from the DIY momentum.  EDM, dubstep, house, and basically the entirety of contemporary electronica is rooted in self-serving, SoundCloud blaring, warehouse playing DIY promotions.  Who needs a label and a studio when you have a laptop, social media and a solid wifi connection? The same can be said of the major indie revival that has been taking over the airwaves these last five years.  Many cool cats and Brooklynites have been able to get their sound out simply through connections and home studios, thus growing into their own, as we saw with Bon Iver and Grizzly Bear, among many, many others.

And of course, in the hardcore, metalcore and punk scenes of today, DIY is blazing through at rapid rates.   Beartooth and Vanna are playing house shows.  Terror is refusing to use a producer on their latest album, The 25th Hour. FrnkIero andthe Cellebration‘s debut record, Stomachaches, was recorded in a basement in full before a label ever saw it. The Ongoing Concept are hand making all of their instruments for their upcoming record aptly titled Handmade.

So is this the future of the music industry? Finding ways to bypass the enormous fees people lose from having to pay venues to play or sell merch?  Finding ways to bypass the ridiculous costs of working in a studio?  Finding ways to bypass the very nature of affording instruments (why not make ’em yourself)?  Perhaps.  And truly, I find this to be a rather endearing sentiment.  But, naturally, there’s a catch. Major labels are picking up EDM artists.  Grizzly Bear will remain decidedly broke if they simply bank off of their own touring and record sales for income. Vanna is playing house shows between dates of large venue tours. FrnkIero andthe Cellebration have the clout created by Frank Iero’s time in My Chemical Romance to get them noticed more. And in the end, these great sentiments and artistic routes are merely artists finding ways to do things better than the ways of the set systems, better in favor of the artist, not the labels or iTunes or Spotify, etc.  Unfortunately, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and other promotional platforms are benefiting and–in the vein of Facebook–profiting off of these promotions seemingly done on the artists’ own.

“When I grow up I’m going to be an artist and not a cover girl.”

–“Cover Girl” by The Ongoing Concept

“Out of student loans and tree house homes we all would take the latter.”

–“Stressed Out” by twenty one pilots

The major problem with going DIY in today’s world is expressed perfectly in these paralleled lyrics.  The mentality and sentiment to be a true artist is stronger than ever, but so are financial pressures. Living in NYC, one of the major cultural hubs of the world is hella expensive.  For $1,500 a month you can find yourself in an apartment the size of a closet with a job that allots only $30,000 a year before taxes.  That math doesn’t quite add up.  Student loans are increasingly sought after leaving art kids who have spent their whole lives being told to go to college in immense debt with nothing but low income, entry level jobs to look forward to in order to offset it. These financial realities are forcing the movements of various musical scenes out of major modern cultural hubs because no one can afford to actually be located in these places like they were back in 1979.  The Bowery is now a hip and almost bourgeois section of Manhattan, no longer the artist slums of the city. Brooklyn is the most expensive neighborhood in America. To be DIY nowadays, you  have to have a trust fund or those crappy minimum wage gigs in which you can actually fund all of the stuff your labelless music can’t and pay for people to see your band’s Facebook posts. You really have to suffer for your art or move somewhere cheaper yet less opportune.

Jay-Z’s catastrophic self-supporting streaming service, Tidal, is simply the latest example of a DIY facade in the industry.  Instead of marketing Tidal to the artists who desperately needed that kind of self-serving support and funding, however, it immediately became an elitist platform.  Madonna, Jack White and Beyonce were all names included on the promotional roster, however, bands like Vanna, The Ongoing Concept and FrnkIero andthe Cellebration were not.  In fact, it would make more sense to see Gerard Way’s solo project appear on this streaming service’s campaign rather than Frank Iero’s simply because Way is backed by a bigger label and therefore is a bigger name in the modern media’s eye. (Staple Records vs. Warner Bros. Records; Warner Bros. will always win.)  By carving out a niche hole, the entire notion that musicians can survive off of their work is still being dominated by the “giants” in the industry who feel they have some semblance of a say on who should and should not be promoted.  Jay-Z is helping to create a hierarchy that will rule out any artist in need of a more profitable outlet than Spotify or Pandora.

So where do we go from here? Yes, in many instances, bands like twenty one pilots can be hated for their quick ascension and immediate backing by “scene-driven” powerhouses like Alternative Press and Fueled by Ramen, but at the same time, we are still watching people like Pete Wentz extend the grappling hook to struggling artists to make it big, to bring them up to a mainstream level instead of reaching out to names already on par with the pop culture greats of today, unlike Jay-Z’s actions.  Without Wentz, the world wouldn’t have Panic! At The Disco the way they are known.  There potentially wouldn’t be a surge in pop punk or as significant an emo revival.  While this is still in a sense “selling out,” it is the lesser of two evils.

“Wake up you need to make money.”

–“Stressed Out” by twenty one pilots

“Don’t be the print of someone else’s painting.”

–“Cover Girl” by The Ongoing Concept

Is there a way to stay original and make money without selling out? Can you truly do it on your own in today’s world? While twenty one pilots may have been picked up by Fueled By Ramen, at least they were not completely overtaken by FBR’s parent label Atlantic Records.  There still is a sense of obscurity around them, obscurity, however, in a way that is still boosting them to the tops of festival line-ups and tour bills.  The Ongoing Concept, however, will go down in a history recorded by low budget bloggers and retrospective hardcore fanatics for making all of their instruments by hand, yet chances are they will not make it to radio play or ever grace magazine covers.

But then again, maybe there is hope.  Kory Grow and Grayson Haver Currin over at Rolling Stone seem to like Beartooth and Marmozets, respectively, enough to have given them print coverage–even if it was in the form of a blurb.  So where is the line drawn for acceptably selling out?  Fall Out Boy was right when they said, “This ain’t a scene/It’s a goddamn arms race.”  It all depends on what bands find the right weapons and how/if they choose to use them to get places.  Until then, I’ll stay happy in my DIY realm with a bartending gig to fund my writing.  The Ongoing Concept will continue to shine in their niche scene with their skills in both instrumentals and woodshop.  FrnkIero andthe Cellebration will still have way more communal gigs in dingy basements than Gerard Way could ever hope to accomplish playing his large venue shows.  twenty one pilots can continue to ride their wave and Jay-Z can make attempts to support his elite and shut himself off from the rest of the industry all together.

So I ask you, where did the DIY party truly go? I think I would like to be a member of that secret Facebook group.