Chandler Travis is on tour. This is not at all unusual, as he has been a traveling “writer/song-singer” (his words) for the better part of 30 years, with varying levels of success. He’s slipped in and out of various bands and guises, from the Incredible Casuals’ straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll to the eclectic, experimental Chandler Travis Philharmonic, and his more subdued though no less peculiar solo recordings. It can all get a bit confusing to the newcomer, but there are a few accessible entry points. Travis recommends Let’s Have a Pancake, the Chandler Travis Philharmonic’s first record.
“There’s something about a band in its honeymoon period that is always special,” he says. “My favorite Casuals record is probably That’s That, again the first one.” He is in this regard absolutely right, as Let’s Have a Pancake is a minor classic, featuring many of Travis’ strongest songs played by a skilled band more than willing to follow him down whatever twisted paths he chooses. There are moments of Latin rhythm backed by Dixieland horns, accordion-based ballads that open with funereal horns, and plenty of the off-kilter humor that informs Travis’ best work.
Over his lifetime in the music business (in addition to the bands helpfully listed above, Travis runs his own record company, Sonic Trout), Travis has lived through to the seismic shifts we’ve all observed from the sidelines. What is the biggest single change he’s noticed? “Records disappearing comes to mind,” he says. “When I was growing up, we went through Elvis then the Beatles. Everyone was on the same page. In the ’60s, when ‘Satisfaction’ or ‘Lady Madonna’ or ‘Sunny Afternoon’ by the Kinks came out, everyone was buying that record. Now, it’s much more segmented. It’s great for variety, but something about the communal vibe is gone from it.”
These days, he says, it’s easier than ever to put your music in front of masses of people, but considerably harder to get anyone to care. “Music seems to be much less a central part of people’s lives. When I was young, if you went to a store you didn’t necessarily hear music there. Now if you enter a restaurant or an airport, there’s music. They’re throwing music at you at all times, and I think it devalues music in general.” But Travis keeps on toiling against that apathy, largely because he can’t seem to stop. “If you need to do this because it gives you joy, you stick with it. It’s a tough way to make a living, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Most of the world is doing some occupation that means nothing to them, so it’s an honor and a joy to do what you love. But if you want to raise a family, good luck.”
Travis and his longtime partner Steve Shook performed under the Travis Shook and Club Wow moniker for the better part of the ’70s and ’80s, opening for George Carlin for a decade. “We did that for so long, you get into a little routine,” Travis says. “When we first met George we were all young, doing the crazy stuff that people did in the early ’70s, but we worked through that. We opened for him for 10 years exclusively. You meet a lot of comedians who are doing their act all the time, even offstage, and George wasn’t that. We shared a lot of interest in record collecting. He was an easy person to be around, a straight shooter.” In an age where comedy and music are intersecting in more and more fascinating ways —see David Cross’ Let America Laugh, The Best Show on WFMU, or the Comedians of Comedy for the modern incarnation — it’s interesting that these guys were blending absurdist comedy and rock n’ roll 30 years ago.
These days, Travis keeps busy with yet more side projects. His garage rock project, the Catbirds, has a solid EP under its belt and a long-player scheduled for release soon after the current Philharmonics tour comes to a close. And he continues touring. “Art is not a career designed for getting rich,” he says. “We were lucky enough that for a few decades we could make a decent living, but now it’s back to normal.”
Normal, of course, being a relative concept.
The Chandler Travis Philharmonic plays Le Bon Temps Roule on Friday night and Chickie Wah Wah on Monday.