LAUREN BC’S INTERVIEW WITH P:B’s THE LIVING EARTH SHOW GUITARIST TRAVIS ANDREWS
How did music find you and become a part of your life?
I have the distinguished honor of being part of the generation between X and Millennial, so like most musicians with that story, I watched a lot of MTV growing up. I started making a habit out of it during kindergarten. I also thought guitars looked like swords, so that tapped into every red meat part of my brain as a kid. My mom taught Jazzercise and my dad played Gordon Lightfoot songs on a grandpa’s (acoustic) guitar, so I had a parental one-two punch of delightfully oddball music rituals in my home. I got a guitar around that time, too.
Do you play classical guitar, electric, or both? Since you play in a very broad range of styles, how do you incorporate each instrument into your music?
Yes, I play both. I started out on electric guitar when I was 7 and was further encouraged through a jazz-oriented public high school. I wanted to play guitar in college, and I knew UW had a nice classical program. I scrambled to prepare and picked up classical guitar as a senior in high school.
I got into college, dropped out, played in bands, then went back to finish my undergrad degree. At that time I had the feeling of serving too many masters, so I decided to pick one thing and get as good as I could at it. I chose the classical thing and wound up at the [San Francisco] Conservatory. Once I graduated from there, most of the calls I got were electric oriented, so I fell back into that really hard. There were like 40 nylon-string students at a time at the Conservatory, so just to get work I felt I had to differentiate myself by playing electric. By the time I started working with Andy, no one wanted nylon from me, so playing electric had already become this self-perpetuating thing. I’ll still sometimes take gigs just to play classical, though.
As a band-playing electric guitarist, I noticed that you’ve been a part of of an eclectic collection of bands. Which projects and groups have you been a part of, and which are you a part of now?
In 2012, both Andy and I tried to play in as many bands as possible. It’s almost like buying a bunch of lottery tickets: you figure one of them’s going to hit. But we’ve since streamlined. I have a thrash band with a friend I grew up called Freighter. Andy has a cool solo percussion record coming out.
A little before that, I was playing in a chamber prog group called miRhtkon, which made the craziest kind of buzzed out Zappa-esque music I’d ever heard. Even though it feels like that band is done playing, those were some of the funnest gigs in the most exotic locations I’ve played in my life. I had a lot of fun learning that catalogue, and enjoyed the people.
Currently, Andy and I play together in an alternaqueer rap metal band called Commando. We treat that as a separate group where the hierarchy is a little different because Andy runs the band, which is cool to operate with a new dynamic.
I’ve read a lot of praise and diverse, far out descriptions of TLES. Could you describe the group from your perspective and explain what it means to you?
It’s an experimental music collaborative. Collaboration is one of the things that’s become central to what we’ve done in the past couple years and what we’ll do in the next five. It’s a really important aspect in defining our niche, because even if we say TLES is classical music on the wrong instruments (percussion and guitar), we often feel like we don’t fit into the classical music circuit. Even if that’s the tradition our ensemble plays in, it has always caused some cognitive dissonance when we’re described as a classical music group, because people think of our combination as sharing a genre with the White Stripes or Black Keys or something. There’s a lot of infrastructure for ensembles like string quartets — but those aren’t gigs we can play. We identify as experimental musicians because of the level of risk that we take, and the stuff we do is usually completely untested when we take it up.
How did you meet your other musical half (of TLES) Andy Meyerson?
I met Andy at SFCM, but we didn’t play together until the year after I graduated. Andy was doing really ambitious projects like Bone Alphabet, which is this incredibly difficult Brian Ferneyhough solo. I’d seen him drafting it on graph paper late night in the cafeteria and already knew he was doing crazy stuff. He’s really cool and a total go-getter, too. When he was a new student at the Conservatory, he would always want to come hang out and go get drinks and talk. I don’t think I took his ambitions too seriously at that time. Nor did I realize that he wanted to play play. Now it’s been nonstop working together since we decided to continue as a duo, and I’m very grateful for it. I think initially he wanted have mixed instrumentation, but I couldn’t wrap my head around having a bunch of people to coordinate with, so it’s just us.
I read that you memorize all the works you perform, which is unusual for an instrumentalist. How long does it take, and do you have any tricks?
It used to take us a long time. We tried to memorize music by rote before we developed any memory tricks. A lot of our techniques we use now are actually borrowed from Moonwalking with Einstein, a book about the author’s experience with a US memory championship. It discusses a technique called “memory palace,” which engages visual-spatial reasoning. That could be walking in your childhood home while placing chunked-together objects around it called “person object actions.” You create a kind of a fake synesthesia to correlate a group of measures to a sensory message that feels/looks/sounds/tastes like that object. You could envision a chunk of music as your mom eating cottage cheese in a hot tub. That mental image is going to trigger some sort of extra sensorial memory. Those ideas really helped when we were working on the Ferneyhough — that was a full-time job for a couple years because we couldn’t figure out how to do it. Now we can memorize something that’s eight minutes within a week if we’re really motivated. It just took a lot of trial and error.
What has been your craziest, most favorite performance?
The first thing that sticks out in my mind is when Andy and I wound up playing the national anthem for the first home game between the Giants and Dodgers at AT&T Park. There were 44,000 people or something crazy like that — and we were playing the national anthem on bongos and guitar. David Tanenbaum, my teacher, was part of that ensemble too, which was an added layer of cool. That gig was bizarre and I actually couldn’t believe that it had happened for a few days afterward. We had a lot of fun writing grant proposals that year, because we got to list our audience numbers as 44,000.
A second would be last year, when Andy and I played 90 minutes of quarter-tonal music at the New Music Gathering. It was really challenging for us technically, and the music was psychologically intense. I had a friend tell me “I feel like my face is melting off. Like Pandora’s box in Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He wasn’t being pejorative — that was the desired effect. We wanted to do something really large-scale and ambitious, so that was definitely a standout moment.
Where is your favorite place to hang out in the city?
What is something nobody else knows about you?
Well, I will say that I love mustard but I hate eating it. I love the principle of it.
*Photos of Travis Andrews (top to bottom) by:
- Natalia Perez (Travis Andrews, costumed by Christian Squires for Do Be)
- Natalia Perez (Travis Andrews and Andy Meyerson, costumed by Christian Squires for Do Be)