Do you get stage fright?
Travis Book: Not anymore.
Why do you think that is?
TB: Well, I’ve never really had stage fright – I used to have pre-gig anxiety. But I don’t know why I don’t get it anymore. I think it’s just that I know what I do is good. And it’s not for everybody, and I’m sure that people can be very critical of what I do. But I really like my music, and I trust the people that I play with, and I feel good about it. So, you know, again, if people aren’t into it, that’s totally cool. I’m less identified with the music that I play now – I think that may be a big part of it for me, personally, too. I feel less identified with it – it’s not who I am. It’s just a part of what I experience in the world. And if it doesn’t go well, that’s ok. If people don’t like it, then that’s fine, too. Because I think it’s all going to work out the way it’s supposed to.
Do you guys have a pre-show ritual that you do?
TB: We developed one lately. We’ll put our fists together and do a little, “Yeahh!” We all just try to get together and get on the same page. That’s about it – we don’t really do anything specifically. We have been trying to get everybody to get in a circle together and look at each other, and just tie our energy together real briefly before we go on. But that’s sort of recent – the last six or eight months, we started doing that. A recent development.
How did that start?
TB: I don’t know. Someone just did it at one show, and it was really fun. It just felt good to bump our fists – you know, like a bunch of guys, “We’re going onstage, we’re going to do this together. “ You know, you can’t go up there and do it alone, it takes every single person. So it’s like, “Put in the fists, look at all the hands.” You know? “See all your brothers around you. We’re all going to do this, let’s go do this.” And then we walk up onstage and we do it.
What gets you excited when you see what you consider to be a great performance?
TB: It’s just people who are totally original and genuine, just being themselves, playing music that’s true to their experience. And people that feel comfortable, because any time anybody’s at all uncomfortable onstage, it makes me uncomfortable. And it’s like a direct correlation: as uncomfortable as they are, is about as uncomfortable as I am watching them. And I also can’t watch people that don’t like each other, and I can tell – you can’t hide that. You can fake it all you want, but I see right through that. So I just want people to just be themselves, and do something original, and enjoy themselves, and be comfortable.
You must get to see a lot of music.
TB: I do, I see quite a bit of music, but I don’t see as much as I should. You know, I don’t really pass a lot of judgment anymore on music, because being a professional musician ruined my experience for a long time. I couldn’t just watch things and enjoy them for what they were. I was always trying to figure out what was going on, or learn something from it, and a lot of times, also, in bluegrass scene, I was being judgmental. And that’s because I was insecure, you know? I was watching other bass players and being like, “Hey, I can’t do that.” Or, “This is cool.” Or, “This is not good.” Or whatever. I was trying to identify it.
I think the shows that I like the best are the shows that I see that are my friends playing, people I have personal relationships with, because I have a real attachment to it. Just in general, it’s fun to watch people have a good time, but I’m getting better at just allowing music to wash over me, and not thinking as much about whether it’s “good” or “bad”. I tend to just watch people experience their own music. And that’s been really liberating.
But I don’t know, I don’t get as excited about music as I used to, because I kind of am into all of it. Like, I’m so psyched that people are out here picking, and I don’t really want to sit around and listen to a bunch of people play beginner banjo, but I also love it for a few seconds because it’s so cool to hear people figuring it out, because I understand the beginner mind. And I also understand what it’s like to be a professional musician – it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, there’s no magic there. We’re all human, and there’s only a few of us that are just absolute geniuses. So I like to watch people and, like, “Ok, cool, I like that music”, and then I go for a hike or do all the other things that interest me a lot.
Do you watch much video of yourself?
TB: Yeah, I’m just not interested. I guess I should probably watch – it would probably help my performance, for sure, to watch myself. And I tell my students to listen to themselves and watch themselves. I’ll listen to myself sometimes, but I don’t really watch myself. Because I’m conscious of becoming sort of like an “actor” – I try not to act. I’ve done some of that onstage. Like, I had a philosophy at one point of, even if I’m not having a good time, I’m going to act like it. And that was part of my path to learning how to just have a good time all the time, but it was really uncomfortable for me to be faking it – it felt sort of unreal. So I don’t really watch myself anymore – I don’t think about it. I don’t consciously try to perform like anything, I just try to pay really close attention. And it always makes me so happy, it makes me smile to watch people enjoy it. And listening to my bros absolutely rip – because they’re so good, you know? – that makes me happy enough, and that’s the performance, just me being present.
You do look very happy to be there, and you have a really comfortable manner. You’re very grounded, but you’re not stuck or static or closed, you know? You’re grounded but you’re flowing. Do you experience that? Do you feel like energy’s flowing through you?
Do you consciously notice that, or is that just how it is for you?
TB: Yeah, I think I notice that sometimes. But it’s also just how it is, I think.
Has it always been that way for you?
What do you think accounts for that coming to be?
TB: Life experience. Self-evaluation. Learning to move through the world. Increased understanding, or an interest in understanding how this all works, how best for me to move through the world, what I’m called to do – all those things, all that sort of self-evaluation that everybody’s got to do at some point, you know?
Some people never do.
TB: Yeah, some people never do, and that’s probably too bad. But I think that playing music, and the experience of being onstage, and life, have really sort of joined – it’s all sort of the same thing. You know, teaching people how to play bass has taught me a lot about the interconnectivity of everything. The mind is such a tricky thing – you’re mind’s got a mind of it’s own, and it does whatever it wants. I’m treating it like it’s a tool, sort of like my bass is a tool and it’s something that allows me to play music. I’m not necessarily “Bass Player”, that doesn’t define me, it’s just something that I do to express music. And ideally, my brain is just something that I use to function and to create things and to do things, but I don’t need it all the time. Getting it to turn off and be able to just kind of accept that when you label things as good and bad, it just raises problems and you set up a dichotomy, and then you have to decide which side of the fence you’re on or whatever. It’s sort of like, there’s no reason to have a good or bad show, you just go have a show and let it be what it is. And learning that about life has taught me that about music.
And also, I went through some really hard times where I had really bad shows, and I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t having a good time, and it was mostly just sort of a lack of perspective and presence – I wasn’t really paying attention. I sort of had my mind somewhere else. I was thinking about things – thinking about how nice it would be to be at home, or thinking about the guy who’s asleep in the front row of the bluegrass festival, or whatever it was – little things that would take me away from what was the easiest thing to be tuned into, which was just what was going on. And not being concerned about what’s coming – just sort of go up there and do your thing.
How do you get that to happen for you in the studio?
TB: I don’t play well in the studio. I don’t know, the problem with that is it’s all so permanent – there’s people listening, there’s so much pressure. Even though live shows are recorded, I still feel like I’m going to play it and it’ll be over, and it’ll just be sort of gone. I don’t get a lot of session work, partly because I’m just like a dude, I’m not like a crazy-good bass player. The studio isn’t my favorite place in the world.
Is there anything you want to improve in yourself as a performer?
TB: Yeah, I want to improve as a bass player. I’d like to be able to sing a little bit more consistently, too. But as far as the way I feel onstage, the things I say, stage presence – all the stuff that’s performing that’s not musical – I want to continue to grow as musician, but I haven’t had a bad show in, like, six months, because I have an awesome time. And it seems like the audience is pretty much right there with me. So I think what I’ve got going now, I’m satisfied with it. It’ll change. It’s an ongoing experience to practice – being onstage and being comfortable and playing music is an ongoing practice. So I’m sure it’ll evolve, but I’m not trying to do anything different at this point. And that’s because I feel so comfortable doing what I do, that I don’t want to change it necessarily.
TB: Cool. Mission accomplished!
Thanks again to Travis for taking the time for this in-depth conversation about performance. I highly recommend to my readers that they experience a Stringdusters show. Please also visit the Stringdusters’ web store or your local independent music store to check out the Stringdusters’ band and solo recording projects. – VA