CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Travis Book of The Infamous Stringdusters – Part 2 of 3

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources

The following is Part 2 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.  The Stringdusters earned a Grammy® nominationin the Best Country Instrumental Performance category, for their recording of Magic #9″ from their album, Things That Fly.

This interview is being posted in three weekly installments.  In this installment, Travis discusses getting into the zone, both as an individual performer and as a band . — VA

How do you experience the audience as a performer?  What does that energy feel like to you?

Travis Book:  It’s like a two-sided coin, where the audience is all of the experience on the one hand, like the most important thing, and then on the other hand, they kind of don’t matter at all.  And what I mean by that is that I don’t really take responsibility for their experience, and that’s the part of the coin where they don’t really matter – they don’t really matter to my experience.  They do affect what I do, because I do want to entertain them, and I want them to enjoy themselves.  And on the other hand, on the other side of the coin, they are every bit of the experience.  The more the audience is open and is with us and is present in the moment, the less they’re thinking about another show they saw that was better, or the band before that was better, or what they wish we would be playing – the more they’re just there and letting it wash over them.  And that might be talking to their friend, or it may be dancing.  It may be singing along, or it may be getting a beer.  But the more that they can just sort of be there and be enjoying themselves and just being in a positive head space, the better it is for us, and it’s everything for us.

We sort of stopped playing sit-down shows, because people would get in these comfy theater chairs, and they’d be totally digging it, but we couldn’t tell at all and there was nothing coming back.  You’d get done with a show and they’d stand up and they’d clap and they’d want an encore and they’d buy lots of records, but the whole experience wasn’t the same as when people are doing what they really want to do.  And a festival’s a prime example – at a festival, people can just sort of do their thing.

I taught this thing called “Getting Comfortable Onstage”, and I tell people, you know, you really owe it to yourself to figure out what you want your music to be like, or what kind of statement you want to make, and rehearse that, because that’ll help ease your nerves – being prepared is one part of it.  But then when you go up onstage, you have to understand that as long as you’re doing what you set out to do, or, rather, as long as you’re being present, playing music or acting or anything, you have to believe that what you’re doing has intrinsic value.  And if people don’t get it, if people bring their preconceptions in, or if it just hits them wrong, there’s nothing you can do about that.

I tell my students, if the audience doesn’t like it, well, fuck ‘em.  There’s nothing you can do about that.  The only thing you can maybe do is you can sell your soul to the devil of kitsch and cliché, and you can try to fire people up in some way that you’ve heard before, but if that’s not genuine to your experience, there’s nothing that you can do about the audience.

So that’s a really roundabout and confusing answer.  On one hand, I need the audience, absolutely, to be a hundred percent on the same page with me for us all to have a great experience, for it to reach its true potential.  But if the audience isn’t with me, if they don’t get it, it doesn’t really affect me anymore.  And that has been a revelation.  I mean, that’s just sort of a life philosophy, you know?  If people don’t like you, well, it has nothing to do with you.  And it’s absolutely the same thing when you go to perform.  As long as you’re true to who you are, if they don’t get it, that’s totally fine.  To each his own.

You’re in a situation where I would imagine that generally you’re showing up where people are psyched to see you, where the table is set for you in a nice way?

TB:  That’s true.

And it’s nice to get to that point in your band’s career.

TB:  Yeah, it’s easier to feel this way when you know that the people that hire you know what they’re getting, and most of the people that come to your show know what they’re getting.

You’re not struggling to win them over in any way.

TB:  We still play a ton of free shows in parks, or we play to tons of people that have never heard us before.  We’re just starting to get where people even know who we are.  But there’s still a lot of people out there that have not heard our band.  So there are still times where I have to combat that need to make people like it, or feel the pressure of having to succeed, having to play a great show.  Sometimes the shows aren’t that great.  But I always have a really good time.  That’s the only thing that I can control – I can prepare, and then I can have a really awesome time.

How easy is it for you to access the zone as a member of the band, and how easy is it for the band to access the zone?  Is that something that you can bring on, or does it just happen and you just have to enjoy it when it happens?  The more you tour together and play together, do you feel like more of that is within your control of bringing it on?

TB:  I see it as a practice, just like music is a practice or yoga is a practice, and it’s ongoing.  And it gets easier to identify the things that keep me from that space.

What are they?

TB:  Self-doubt.  Or expectation.  Or over-indulgence, you know?  I used to party really hard when I played, and I don’t as much anymore because it has the potential to sort of turn on me and make me real self-conscious.  It’s really just self-evaluation – it’s not being able to sort of be the listener.  Whenever I get outside myself, it’s really easy.  It’s sort of a tough question, but I think those are the things that get in my way.

So how do you experience the zone?  What does it feel like to you when it happens?

TB:  It’s just effortless – that’s the best way to describe it.

Do you appreciate it when it’s happening?

TB:  Oh yeah.

And do you notice a difference in how you’re working with your band mates when it happens?

TB:  Yeah.

Do you feel like it’s kind of a contact high?  Do people catch it from each other?

TB:  Absolutely.

What is it like when that happens?

TB:  These are good questions – these are hard to describe!  I don’t know how to explain it.

I can tell you that everybody I interview struggles with questions about this topic.

TB:  Yeah, this question is really hard!  I don’t know, because when I’m in it and I start to think about it is when I leave it.  So I’ve always just sort of tried not to worry about it too much or think about it too much.  Can you re-phrase the question and give me another crack at it?

We were talking about the contact high version of the zone, where somebody in the band gets it, and then someone else catches it from them, and then the whole band is in it.  And you as an individual can get in the zone, and then you might be able to do things that you didn’t even know you could do.  But it also seems like the band as a whole can get into that space.  How does that happen, and what does it feel like when it happens?

TB:  There’s sort of almost like a hierarchy of needs when you’re onstage, like being able to hear what you need to hear, or if you can’t hear what you need to hear, total acceptance of not being able to hear it, putting that behind you.  Any other things that could stand in your way, any other issues like someone else being in a bad mood, or someone not listening – I mean, for me, I’m in the zone when I’m listening, when my attention is completely outside myself and I’m the observer.  The best seat in the house, that’s how I like to see it.  And I think that the band can only achieve that when everybody is listening, and it’s hard because some people think that that’s more important than others, and some people, it’s more natural than others to participate in that way – to sort of drop their preconceptions about how things should go, or worrying about their instrument or their hands, or any of that stuff.

That’s part of the hierarchy – you have to be able to not worry about yourself physically, or your mental space.  The thoughts sort of stop, and it just becomes presence and observation.  And when I’m really feeling it, I’m able to feel like I’m playing my ass off, and singing exactly what I would want to sing, and I’m not even doing it – I’m watching myself do it.  You know, there’s been a few times when I’ve been on the stage, and I’ve literally felt like I was in the audience.

I know exactly what you mean.

TB:  And when I sang, I was blowing my own mind.

Yeah.  “Look at that guy!”

TB:  “How am I doing this?  This is so sick!”  And I was looking out into the audience, and they were, like, “Yeah, this is ridiculous!”  And I was, like, “Yeah, this is awesome!”  I felt like I was standing next to them, and we were looking at each other like, “This is sick!  Yeah!”  You know, we were hanging out.  Because I’ve been that guy in the audience, right?  So I think that’s when I feel like I’m in the zone, and I don’t know how I get there – I always just try to appreciate wherever I’m at, at the time.

It’s sort of like varying degrees.  For me, I get a little closer as my needs are met.  And sometimes I walk onstage and we just start, and we’re all sort of there, and it’s like a miracle, you know?  But other times, you have to try to bring some of the guys in.  Someone’s head’s a little behind, they’re a little too much in their own brain, they’re thinking about their instrument, so you’ve got to go over there and kind of engage them, bump into them, smile at them or something and be, like, “Dude, you’re not with us.  Come on, man, come over here and hang out.”  And that’s partly what the moving onstage does – you’re moving, you’re thinking about your spatial positioning, it distracts you from playing, so then you can just play, and you’re listening, you get by someone and listen.

To be continued…