The following is Part 1 of my conversation about performance with TRAVIS BOOK, upright bassist and vocalist for Sugar Hill recording artists The Infamous Stringdusters. I spoke with Travis in Lyons, Colorado on July 25, 2010. More recently, the Stringdusters earned a Grammy® nomination in the Best Country Instrumental Performance category, for their recording of “Magic #9″ from their latest album, Things That Fly.
This interview will be posted in three weekly installments. In this installment, Travis discusses the elements that contribute to the Stringdusters’ dynamic and highly entertaining live performance experience. — VA
When did you start getting the sense that you wanted to perform? How did that realization come to you?
Travis Book: I don’t remember a specific moment, but I do remember just sort of an underlying need for attention. And also – and it’s something that I’ve worked on, because it was difficult in my life – sort of a need for drama in my life. I think I started by acting out in class, and acting out at home. I wasn’t a really difficult kid, but I was an only child, so when I went to school and I got to be around kids, I found that when I was funny, and made an ass of myself, really, I got a lot of attention – both positive and negative. I think when I was in middle school I had detention, like, thirty-seven times I had to stay after class – and I think I may have had a crush on the teacher and not realized that’s what it was. But I’d say that was the first time that I can think of myself really craving attention, and feeling comfortable when people were paying attention.
I’ve found that some performers are incredibly shy, and the stage is the only place where they feel like they aren’t shy. It sounds like that’s not the case for you – that you don’t have any problem being the center of attention, just in general.
TB: No, and I still get into it in varying degrees. But it was something, I think, that grew out of a lot of insecurities I had.
TB: That’s a good question – just wanting to be accepted and have friends. And when you’re the center of attention, you’re The Man, you know? And I think that was mostly it – it just felt good to have people laughing and enjoying themselves. And being able to share that – that was something else, I think. I maybe didn’t realize it, but it’s always been really appealing. The thing that I liked so much about music, when I got into the music scene, was that, you know, I could hang out in the campground, and it wouldn’t necessarily be a performance, but it was like this shared experience with the people who were hanging out and watching. And people would coast in, and all of a sudden if a jam was really happening, and we were really doing something compelling musically, or if we were sort of performing a little bit, you’d get done with the song and you’d look around and there was people five deep and they were cheering because there was something sort of magical that happened there. And that’s not necessarily performance, but it was this sort of shared experience, which is a big part of my performance – trying to share something and make everybody a part of what’s going on.
I’ve often thought that it’s kind of a primal thing, like the cave dwellers sitting around the fire passing along the oral tradition, the enhanced experience – or the sharing of the common experience, the lore, the wisdom.
TB: Absolutely. And when I first started playing, I would learn tunes from older guys. And I was hanging out with guys that were fifty years old and retired and super-wealthy, and there were thirty-year-old dirt-bag ski bums, and we were all part of the same scene, and we all had this really common thread – which is a beautiful thing about bluegrass and acoustic music, and just the music scene in general.
Are you intentionally the front man of the Stringdusters, or did that just sort of happen?
TB: It just sort of happened. And some shows I’m more the front man than others. We have a really organic approach to the entire experience. We just try to be sort of present, and if you feel like getting up there and saying something, you do, and if you don’t, then that’s fine also. We used to do what most bluegrass bands do, which is talk between every song. We stopped doing that. We make chunks on our set list and we try to run the songs together, because the music is what’s really most important, and then when we actually say something, it can be something that’s compelling, and we can use it as a tool to sort of accelerate the energy in the show. Whereas, a lot of bluegrass, you get this tune rocking and the fans are loving it, and then you stop, and you’re, like, “Heyyyy, so-and-so’s from Denver…yaaaay!” And then you’ve got to start all over again. So, we’re using the talking as either a way to make it a low point, or as an opportunity to push it even higher, to get people really excited and engage them and communicate in a very real manner. And I think some of the guys in the band are more comfortable with that than others, so it’s just sort of been a natural progression for us.
One thing I love about what you guys do is how things are so fluid up on the stage, how you’re like a constantly shifting amoeba up there. How did that come about?
TB: We started out as a bluegrass band, playing in front of six microphones, you know? We started to think the sound would be better, and it would be cooler, if we could be plugged in, because mics have feedback issues and that sort of thing. So we started plugging in, and we were still using mics and we still had monitors on the floor, but you have to stay close to your monitor to be able to hear. So we figured out that in-ear monitors would be better, because we could hear better and there wouldn’t be feedback issues. So we got those, and then the dobro player, once he found he had good pickup tone, he ditched his mic – and all of a sudden he could move around. And I was already moving around, because I had my pickup on my instrument, and I had my microphone in the instrument. And so even though the bass is hard to move, you can actually move. I wasn’t grounded to a microphone and I wasn’t dependant on that monitor, right? So we realized that once you started ditching the mics, it cleaned up the stage and it allowed us to move around, and because we weren’t trapped to the monitors – we had the in-ears.
So ditching the mics became our mission, and about two years ago we got our sound guy who travels with us, and all of those things came together and we started playing without microphones. And therefore all of the normal rules of where you would normally stand, all of a sudden you could basically stand anywhere, unless you went to sing. And it allows this really amazing thing where, you know, if you’ve got six guys standing at the front of the stage and one guy goes to take a solo, you may not have any idea who it is, unless you can immediately identify the banjo or the instrument that’s playing. So now the singer, the center of attention, is encouraged to stand up at the front and everybody gathers around them. And it allows us to hear each other and play with each other, and it makes things much more interesting. And it makes it easier for the audience to know where to send their attention.
So the long answer to your question is that it happened really organically and sort of by accident. And we realized not long ago that it was super-cool. We started doing it just because it was fun to engage your energy with a different person onstage. And I noticed that people tended to pay attention to what I was paying attention to, you know? And if I zone out, people zone out, and if I look at them, they look at me, and if I look at the soloist, they look at the soloist. It’s not that everyone’s paying attention to me, but, you know, you’re sort of sweeping around the stage and someone directs your attention somewhere, and then you get tuned into what you’re supposed to. So it just sort of happened naturally, and I think it’s one of the best things we’ve got going for ourselves right now, that the stage show is so dynamic and different and interesting every time.
Do you feel that the individuals in the band are all on the same page in terms of performance styles, and if so, what do you think it does for you as performers and as a band to be on the same page?
TB: I think it’s everything, and we haven’t always been on the same page. We’re more on the same page now than we ever have been. That is to say, when we started out, everyone had all this different experience. We had all kinds of experience playing onstage, but not together. And we didn’t really know what it was going to take to make us successful, or even what we were going to be like when we finally put ourselves together – what we were going to turn into. And so everyone’s personalities changed. I think being in a band has challenged us more personally than it has even musically. And obviously it’s challenged us musically – we’ve all done more growing musically in the last five years than in the prior fifteen – but personally, we’ve all really come around to finding a really peaceful way of being together and communicating,
There’s times where I almost feel it’s almost like we’re a monastery. You know, we had a couple days off, and we were hanging out in this beautiful place, and there’s guys sitting up on the porch hanging out, there’s guys doing yoga down in the yard, there’s a couple of guys meditating, a few guys playing music, and everyone’s really relaxed and open. And when we can go onstage and everyone’s got that same attitude that, you know, the most important thing is that we have a good time together and we respect each other and listen to each other, then it becomes really good and we become more of the same person. So our personalities have become really similar, and we all want the same things out of the show.
When we started out, there was a real big thing in bluegrass – you have to play well, and there was this expectation that you’re going to sound a certain way and that you’d be competent in your instrument in a certain way. And we were fortunate that we could sort of hang with any bluegrass band. But it was almost like we were as tight as Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, but we were as loose as Yonder Mountain String Band. Or the Grateful Dead or Phish, maybe, is an even better analogy – a band that was open to new experiences but also could play together, and knew that when it was time to play we could play.
So it’s been an ongoing evolution of how we play together and how we listen to each other. But learning to respect each other, ultimately, is the most important thing. It makes it really easy. When your focus is on listening to and loving the people you’re onstage with, then you don’t really have to worry about performing, because that’s the best kind of performance you can give as a musician – just to be present and enjoy yourself.
I’m always talking to my clients about being present, and working with them on relaxation techniques and ways of re-gathering your focus and “being here now”. And it really shows when that’s not the case.
TB: Right. I tell my bass students, playing music with other people is a lot like meditation, where your attention will waver from where it’s supposed to be. You know, thoughts arise in meditation, but you don’t harp on yourself for having thoughts. When you recognize you’re thinking, you just bring yourself back to the present. It’s the same thing with music. When you recognize that your attention is too much on yourself, when your attention is somewhere other than what’s happening in the moment – who’s singing, who’s soloing, what’s going on in the audience, any of those things – your attention can be a lot of places other than be in the present, but you just bring yourself right back there, and then the music all of a sudden will just sort of congeal.
To be continued…