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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.

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Interview condensed for clarity. 

Bring Me The Horizon: The Latest Face of Wheaties?

bmth_throne

A very wise man once said, “I spent my high school career spit on and shoved to agree/so I could watch all my heroes sell a car on T.V.”

For almost 10 years these words sung by Gerard Way in My Chemical Romance‘s 2006 track “Disenchanted” have rung in my ears.  At first I thought I was so attracted to these lyrics because they were the words of my hero telling me how life gets disappointing as you grow up.  It’s emo, and a fact we hear constantly as we get older, but I took it to be more of a thematic message, rather than a literal one.  Who knew that by 2013 I’d watch my hero allow my favorite band to break up in order to actually sell his own botched image of David Bowie-meets-David Byrne not only on T.V., but on billboards and bus stop benches like some forgettable basketball player on a box of Wheaties. To me, Gerard Way, like so many artists before and after him, had sold out. And now, in a post-My Chem world, I am forced to sit back and watch the rest of my musical heroes follow suit.

When it comes to selling out one must ask two things: First, what exactly is selling out? And second, who actually does sell out?

Selling out is a common idiomatic pejorative expression for the compromising of a person’s integrity, morality, authenticity, or principles in exchange for personal gain, such as money. —Wikipedia

Selling Out: To compromise one’s values and/or aristic [sic] vision in order to gain fame and/or monetary profit. Commonplace in today’s musical society. It is rare to find a successful musical artist who has not “sold out”, however, this is not to say that they do not exist. —-Urban Dictionary

Sell Out: To betray one’s cause or associates especially for personal gain—Merriam-Webster

As many of you may have heard, it was recently announced that the deathcore-turned-alternative-rock band, Bring Me The Horizon has left the independent punk label Epitaph and signed to Columbia Records, a major corporation of a music label. By the definitions above–having altered their sound to reach a wider audience and appeal more to the levels of rock being released today while leaving their small time, more avant garde sound in order to do so– BMTH have seemingly sold out.

With the release of their upcoming record’s first single “Happy Song,” fans can see that the transition from deathcore found on staples such as Suicide Season and There Is A Hell… is no longer rooted in the same artful direction as their clean vocal heavy Sempiternal. It is now almost exclusively pop rock with an accented aggression on several musical notes. Gone are the days of frontman Oli Sykes screaming “Crucify me!” and in place are those of him melodically encouraging us to “sing a happy song,” because sometimes rainbows and butterflies make your day much better than well thought out religious imagery used ironically in songwriting.

Okay, so maybe I’m a little biased. However, the proof is in the pudding. With the release of (what is technically considered) the first purchasable single off of the upcoming record, old school fans were even more blasted by the change of BMTH’s direction with”Throne.” Though it upholds strong connotations image-wise to their deathcore days, it is almost a direct rip off of mid-2000s Linkin Park. With accented screams, electronica highlights, and catchy, melodic vocals, metalcore fans were left in the dark and feeling almost betrayed by BMTH.

Sure, many bands “evolve” or “mature” and change up their sound, but it seems as if the introduction of keyboardist Jordan Fish is what really did BMTH in.  Though his efforts greatly helped bring BMTH out of their shell on 2013’s Sempiternal, his continued presence in the press when concerning this record is rather alarming. Rolling Stone labels him as the “keyboardist and primary songwriter” in their latest and only article ever concerned with BMTH, ineptly (yet maybe appropriately) titled “Ditching Metalcore.”  As Fish upholds himself as the voice of BMTH after his work with the band for only one released full-length, it becomes worrisome. Oli Sykes has not been present for the majority of interviews since the release of “Happy Song.”  So, is Jordan Fish taking over the band and corrupting it into a commercialized redundancy of old school alternative rock or is this actually Sykes agreeing to sell out and abandon all that he stood for previously?

But it’s not necessarily fair to blame Bring Me The Horizon for selling out.  We cannot blame a band for going against all that they were when we, the public and music consumers, are the ones who potentially could have forced them into the environment that led them down this path. With a decline in record sales and the need for radio-publicity to spark interest in artists, major labels can expand the horizons (no pun intended) for a band confined to the minute exposure and monetary limitations of an independent label. This generation’s need to consume music for as cheap (or sometimes as free of cost) as possible is what is deteriorating musicians’ abilities to live through their work on smaller labels. But is it worth an artist’s musical integrity? Let’s look at some examples.

Exhibit A: Fall Out Boy.

For many, Fall Out Boy is the poster child of modern day “punk” or “alternative” selling out.  But when exactly did they get flack? Somewhere in between the release of their chart topping full-length From Under The Cork Tree and the release of “Take Over, The Break’s Over,” a fun single off of their follow up Infinity On High where they call out all of their haters. People were angry at the guys in FOB for at the time signing to a label like Island Records (a sub-label of Universal Music Group).  Though in retrospect, it is safe to say that while fans may have been disappointed with their signing to a major label and slight departure from their original underground sound, they still remained in the vein of the sonic aesthetic presented on the lesser known Take This To Your Grave.  Even while boosting their careers on major labels, it wasn’t until their latest record American Beauty/American Psycho  came out that they truly departed from all forms of rock or punk in favor of commercial pop.  As of right now, it took them their entire musical career (and a four year hiatus) to actually sell out artistically.

Exhibit B: Breathe Carolina

Not really punk or hardcore, but still relevant. Breathe Carolina left their minor label in order to sign to *DING DING DING* Columbia Records, just like Bring Me did.  Now, how did that work out?  After one album, Hell Is What You Make It, the electro-duo had a top radio hit with “Blackout” and a self-proclaimed total loss of creative freedom.  Eventually they would depart early from the label to return to a minor league with Fearless Records and even lose founding member Kyle Even.  The sole remaining member, David Schmitt, luckily just decided to grab a backing band and continue on his own with the release of the highly successful record, in both the alternative and EDM scenes, Savages.

So what is it about Columbia Records that was so daunting?  Why haven’t bands like PVRIS or A Day To Remember chosen to find major labels when their sounds are actually marketable to the mainstream?  PVRIS purposely chose to sign to the metalcore label Rise Records, even though they are a pop-synth trio.  A Day To Remember opted to self-release their latest record Common Courtesy rather than be tied to or bought out by any label, even though half of their careers they have gotten flack for “selling out” despite remaining decently in the underground. Why can All Time Low‘s hit singles and chart-topping records go platinum while they perpetually remain on Hopeless Records? There is an element to selling out rooted in the very base definitions above, but there is also a more personal element of selling out that rests on whether you compromise the artistic integrity of your music in order to gain a profit. Whether Bring Me The Horizon will entirely sell out is still yet to be determined, though unfortunately it seems that with “Throne” and “Happy Song” the band that I loved for being so harsh and out of the box will now be known to the general public alongside old Muse tracks and new Arctic Monkeys on top rock radio. But only time will tell.

Marquis Green of Triforce Studios

Marquis Green

“The most annoying sound in the world is your own phone ringing,” Marquis Green laughs as his home phone shrieks its way into our interview. While the incessant alarm of one’s phone is sometimes enough to warrant throwing it across the room, what Green admits has him most troubled these days is the current state of the music industry, most particularly, the hardcore scene. A quick Q&A about his business, Triforce Studios, quickly evolves into a manifesto on the over-saturation of media, the under-appreciation of local bands, and what he wants to do to bring about change.

Green began the NYC-based Triforce Studios with friends Daniel Briones and Peter Lanza in 2012. The name, which owes itself to the trinity of founders and not, as many happily assume, to Legend Of Zelda, quickly came to represent more than just a recording studio. The endeavor branched out into the realm of cinematography and even music lessons, filming live shows and taking professional grade photos of both local and well-known acts.  While Triforce has showcased names like Our Last Night and Crown The Empire (live video “Menace” below), Green reveals that this is not where his passion lies.

“As far as bigger acts go, I personally try to stray away from working with them because everybody wants to work with them,” says Green. “I feel like to put my work out there that way isn’t going to make much of a difference.” Instead, Green prefers to work with lesser-known bands for the reason that the word ‘local,’ like the word ‘scene,’ has become stigmatized. Having worked with bands like Call It Home, The Machinist, Illusionist, and Young Graves amongst others, Green laments the fact that the local bands who work so hard to get noticed are far less likely to be. “You don’t hear the locals anymore. You hear the word ‘local’ and it’s like, “Oh man, shitty EP production, terrible merch, bad image.’ It’s so negative.”

According to him, this is is partially why many are quick to eulogize the hardcore scene as if it were a thing of the past. “There are too many bands and there are too many promoters and there are too many things that are over-saturating this scene in particular. I feel like a lot of bands don’t get a voice because there is always someone else willing to play that same sound cheaper and look better, look the part. It’s not really allowing the music to be heard firsthand. I think that over-saturation is what’s making people feel like the scene is dead, because in a sense it is because it’s becoming numb to good music.”

Chasing Safety
Chasing Safety; photo via Triforce Studios

Yet Green also claims that the future does not have to be so bleak and believes in his and Triforce’s ability to help change the music climate for the better. As he talks about the future remolding of the company, he does so with a surge of energy in his voice. “We’re going to start packaging media for bands on our featured artists list and then we’re going to give that to them to use to promote [themselves] to labels,” he explains. “We wanna be that line where people say, ‘Oh, you’ve worked with them before? We need to take a closer look at you.’”

So where does this need to help musicians keep their drum heads above water come from? With the mantra of the Studio being, “Triforce is for the people, by the people, and it will always be that way,” one has to wonder why these democratic ideals are so important. The answer lies in Green’s own failings as a musician.

For All I Am
For All I Am; photo by Triforce Studios

“I have failed multiple times trying to get into the industry, and not because of me. I believe that now that I know the business from the inside, trying to make it and seeing other things drag you down, I know what tools need to be there for you to get an extra foot in the business. That’s why I enjoy working for the people, because I know what it’s like to be you. I know money is always tight and I know that opportunities don’t always come. I want to be able to audition some opportunities for you that you might not have gotten.”

The injustices Green speaks to resonate with a fundamental tenet of HXC Magazine: Never separate the audience from the show. Noting a distinct separation between “The People” and the institution that the music business has become, Green holds fast to the idea that improvements can be made; that the term ‘local’ doesn’t have to be blacklisted as long as the right steps are taken and the right elements put into place for change.

“That’s the urgency we need for the scene,” he claims, and his phone yells out one more time.