Vanilla Means Never Having To Say You’re Chandler Travis

The Noise (Boston): Cover Story, February 2010

by Joe Coughlin

There’s so much constantly going on with this guy, there’s barely enough room for his own words here. Conveniently, he was pretty economical with ’em anyway, which is bound to happen when you’re distracted from writing your next boatload of killer songs (and the writer’s dictaphone largely shits the bed). It ended up being fairly accurate to downplay that whole angle anyway, as the volume and quality of it all truly does speak for itself, but all quotes are Chandler’s.

Most, uh, topically, there’s the recent solo disc, After She Left, an unplugged-type thing of quieter stuff, a gently stunning meld of melancholy and chin-up/ feel-good sentiments (review in November ’09 issue). It closes with the gorgeous and heartbreaking “Goodbye,” a tribute to his old pal George Carlin written just after his passing. I pompously asked Chandler to expound on the artistic/ academic differences regarding presentation vs. desired audience perceptions of the solo stuff in contrast to his more barrelhouse methods in the louder settings: “I’d like to do more of ’em.” Well, awrighty, then! There are many such prior solo outings in various formats, including a supremely twisted retardo-romp as the insane character Lippy Blappinklappy (search YouTube for “Bongo’s Summer Cottage”).

But he’s probably best-known (right this sec, anyway) for the relentlessly prolific Chandler Travis Philharmonic (one year saw nearly two dozen live releases with only a few takes of anything repeated among ’em). Often and unfairly labeled as strictly-about-the-zany, the rotating cast of monster players can, and do, perform every kind of music known to humanity, and quite a few that aren’t. Laughter, tears, rump-shakin’ and head-scratchin’ are just a few guarantees at their multicolored blowouts, not to mention train-wreck mashups such as “In-a-Gadda-da-Brown-Eyed-Girl” or, say, some impromptu klezmer/ dirge mutilation of “I’ve Been Workin’ On the Railroad.” They’re finishing up a live-in-the-studio disc, “which has only happened, so far, for the first four cuts of Let’s Have a Pancake!, literally having everyone there and playing together. We’ve got like, seventeen songs.” (Tentative album titles are Blows and James Brown.) Add that to their several overstuffed studio releases alone, and it’s more than most bands produce in two or three times that kinda lifespan.

One of the great things about these records is that the studio takes are often miles from what you’re used to seeing live. For instance, the song “Fluffy” features, in place of the usual instrument solo, a voicemail message left for Chandler by Mr. Carlin, ranting in complete alien gibberish. And it actually works rather nicely. (It should be noted that it was years before I even realized that the song—a fawning paean to its subject’s pearly teeth, gleaming hair, and regular bowel movements—isn’t about a girl, but a dog.) A more recent golden moment was seeing them in New York, where they had the chrome-plated balls to do their song, “Fuck the Yankees Anyway.” Stripped-down versions play smaller venues, and there are duo and trio spinoffs as well. Asked about these more intimate settings, connecting with an audience in that non-party atmosphere, Chandler elaborated, “It’s a fun way to go.” He also wishes to give more serious props to all his cohorts, especially the long-time vets. “I wouldn’t be here without ’em.” I can vouch for that. The fact that so many have made the treks from all over, learning that many songs, for so many years, for standard club pay, speaks volumes for their dedication to the common vision. Being a fan has its perks, too. Stalwart show-goer Fred Boak became their merch guy, and is now an official member as Chandler’s singing “valet.”

“And the next [project] is some kind of a pop album. The working band name is either the Buzzards, or Princess Sally Muffin and, you know, we’re accepting advice.” Members are perennial cohorts Rikki Bates (drums) and Dinty Child (you name it) along with Steve Wood (guitar maniac of the Greenheads). Wood was a partner with Chandler in the short-lived (1992 and ’93) band Lester, a kind of less-bitter Replacements, who made one self-titled disc and played just a handful of shows, the one I saw being as fine a display of lunkhead bar-rock as I’ve ever witnessed. Songs, chops, brains, humor, and attitude galore.

Then there’s the Incredible Casuals, who, between full-lengths, EPs, singles, limited cassette-onlys, and tracks on compilations, have averaged four or five releases per year since 1981. For 25 of those years, they’ve played the Wellfleet Beachcomber every Sunday for the entire summer season, and this past year sold out virtually every one. Prior to even that was Travis Shook & Club Wow (they’ve used various names), who even appeared on the Johnny Carson show a few times. “One time, Pat Boone was also a guest, and we spotted him at rehearsal and played our rendition of an old weird B-side of his called ‘The Wang Dang Taffy Apple Tango Mambo Cha Cha Cha,’ which caused him to fall on the floor.” The song remains a staple of the Philharmonic’s live set, sung by the increasingly fetching Rikki.

Virtually everything mentioned so far here comes out on the Sonic Trout label. It’s run by Chris Blood, who’s released two sets as the White Prince, wherein he gleefully destroys such dreck as “Let’s Get Physical” and “We Built This City,” backed by the Casuals, who appear as the Brain Bats of Venus (members: Follicle Blocky, Candy Chartreuse, Bib Whiz, and Remedios the Beauty).

There is, of course, a very small amount of cross-pollination, but even if, say, the Philharmonic do a Casuals or Chandler solo number (or any way you mix it around), the versions are entirely retooled into whole other animals, sometimes barely recognizable, but always just as effective in their new approaches. Consider also that each of the acts listed here boasts not just many hundreds of originals between them, but probably just as many obscure covers that are whipped out at whim. (A fave of mine is “Softly in the Night,” by the Cookies, who were Ray Charles’ backup singers.)

You’d think that’d be enough for the average genius to relax and rest on his laurels a bit, but fuck that. He just scored a musical stage play, Boyce & Melinda Peterson’s Investment Strategies for the Post-Money World!, which was held over in Truro (MA), will have opened in Boston by the time you read this, and is booked for a run in Seattle some time after this spring. The Boyce and Melinda characters have become money gurus after failing as musicians. It’s a fake investment seminar set in the year 2020. “The future economy has collapsed entirely, and President Palin has gone into hiding.” It was written by Chandler’s pal Gip Hoppe, who requested numbers parodying country music, Celine Dion, Metallica, Bruce Springsteen, and more. The cast members sing to backing tapes. I was able to hear a demo of sorts, an arresting Prince-like ’80s synth-and-funk-fest called “Stimulus Package.” I had no idea it was Chandler singing on it (let alone a male) until we spoke. If the rest of these decidedly-not-piss-takes are remotely as engaging, the soundtrack is positively screaming for a release of its own. I implored him to pursue this at all costs: “Hm, yeah, well there’s an idea.” Honest to Christ, I don’t think it actually occurred to the guy. His mind was on the next day’s rehearsal and a few thousand other ideas.

Asked about dealing with so many personalities among his various lineups and the according quirks, tastes, and preferences brought to the table: “One of my bands, unfortunately, is a democracy.” Given said avalanche of styles, I resorted to the dreaded “what are your influences?” routine, expecting a glib, toss-off answer, but Chandler didn’t hesitate: “Terry [Adams, of NRBQ]. He’s the best. The best keyboard player in the world, as far as I’m concerned, and an amazing showman.” The two are now in talks about doing an actual 7-inch vinyl single, material as yet undecided, maybe joint compositions, maybe one song each, maybe something else.

Oh, yeah, and that decade-or-so-long-running Cape Cod newspaper column as Thurston Kelp (tons still available online). And there’s probably a lot more I’m forgetting offhand, but there’s scads more info on all this and more here:

Vanilla Means Never Having To Say You’re Chandler Travis