Cris Cohen: What stands out in your mind when you think about the recording of the album “Let The World Decide”?
Kyle Travers: Definitely the time put in. We worked really hard on this. We used the Prince method -- it is what we called it -- where we tracked every idea that we could come up with, and then listened back and decided what was good, what was bad, what actually added to the song, what took away from the song. It was definitely an intense effort… and that's a different way than we did the last record.
It was also our first time recording at Echo Mountain Studios, which is a very fine studio here in Asheville, North Carolina.
Cris: Especially on this album, sometimes you have what sounds like three songs in one song. I'm curious how much of that is planned and how much of that is inspiration?
Kyle: I'd say about 60% planned, 40% inspiration. One thing we wanted to do with this record was capture our live personality more than we did with the last one, and in order to do that we had to open up some room. For instance, the extended guitar solos on “Do Confide” and “Individuals” -- kind of the middle section -- that's us just venturing into our own improvisational territory and seeing what we can muster up, which is something we're known for doing live, and we wanted to be able to capture that on a record.
Cris: And along the lines of solos, one thing that really stood out to me in videos of your live performances was when you go back and forth between using a pick and not using a pick within the same solo. What drives that and how hard is it to pull that off?
Kyle: Well, it's become easier over the years. I think being raised in western North Carolina had a big influence on that. There's the flat picking technique, which some of these guys can play lightning fast with a pick, and some of my blues influences as well played like that. But then also as time went on I got into more of the finger-picking style and also slide guitar. Two of my main influences (with that were) Duane Allman and Derek Trucks. Neither of them uses a pick when they play slide, and it kind of gives it a more human tone, a softer edge to it. So when I'm playing a solo at any given time, I try and be spontaneous about it. And sometimes that involves harnessing more of that flat picking style or that aggressive blues picking style, or more of the finger touch. (It depends) on where the band is taking me, because they kind of guide me around in the solo, so to speak. I'll adjust my technique to match them and hopefully fit the improvisational effort we're trying to put down.
Guitar Parts That Are Like Vocals
Cris: On the instrumental “Ursa Major” the guitar parts are really like vocals. You could almost imagine there were lyrics that you are channeling through your guitar. How has your guitar playing been influenced by either your vocals or the vocal techniques of other people?
Kyle: That song is written by Josh Clark, our bassist, and he is an incredible songwriter. He's able to add that vocal touch to any instrumental he writes. He uses a loop pedal and he puts down his bassline and kind of writes a vocal-sound line to begin with, with his bass guitar maybe an octave up, using another pedal so he can find the harmonic response to the initial baseline or melody he set out to do. So he wrote that melody and I kind of just added harmony to it.
But as far as my personal influence from singers, my father introduced me to all sorts of great soul singers: Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Otis Redding. I think it's almost subconscious. All those years being a kid and him spinning these records over and over again, it kind of just comes out in your playing. I don't know if it's as much of a conscious effort as kind of just happens from hearing these soul singers. Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder and just the licks they kind of sing with their voice. When I'm just winging it, playing the guitar, they kind of come out for me at times.
Cris: There is some really interesting musical conversation between you and Josh on this album. Traditionally the bass player locks in with the drummer and it's the two of them having this really symbiotic relationship. But with you guys it is the guitarist and the bass player going back and forth within songs. How did that evolve?
Kyle: That’s Josh's melodic ear that he has trained. He can work from their cohesiveness (with Eric on drums) and kind of complement me simultaneously. A good example of that (kind of playing) is one of our favorite records, “The Allman Brothers Band - Live At Fillmore East.” If you listen to Berry Oakley's playing, he's right there with the two drummers. But at the same time you'll hear him hit a lick right there with Duane or play just against Dickey Betts, while he's still in the pocket with the drummers.
Cris: With this band, it sounds like everyone is allowed to be an individual. Everyone is allowed to contribute. Everyone is allowed to musically voice their opinion. And yet, especially in songs like “Sweet Anna Lee,” you guys are all paddling in the same direction, for lack of a better term. Is that always the case? What happens when one guy wants to go in one direction and another guy wants to go in a different direction within a song?
Kyle: A long discussion happens. Sometimes heated, sometimes not, to be brutally honest. But yeah, like you said, the way this band writes songs is everyone has a voice. You got that nailed. And one of the rules and principles we go by is we are not going to confine ourselves into a small space musically.
In the instance of “Sweet Anna Lee,” my brother (Eric) penned that tune, and I helped as well. We co-wrote it, but he definitely started it off. I came to him and I was like, "Man, you have got something special here." Growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, we always have loved this Americana kind of sound, and he really was able to harness that with this song.
We all thought it deserved to be on the record. And a discussion happened. Does it fit? Is it us? Eventually the conclusion (we came to was): Anything we write and enjoy is us. We are not going to restrict someone. Just because it doesn't sound like something I wrote, doesn't mean it's wrong. You know, maybe I'm wrong in that scenario. What is the direction?
We have been advised to play (just) one kind of music, and it is something we cannot feasibly do. We just have too many influences and we enjoy playing different styles of music. We take pride in being good at playing different styles of music. We like to switch it up and just play the game however we see fit.
Cris: I totally get that, because the music industry does not know what to do with someone they can't put in a box.
Kyle: Oh they don't. They have no clue, man.
Cris: Did you guys consciously decide as a band, we're not going to let anyone pigeonhole us?
Kyle: Yeah. To tell a story I rarely tell in an interview, we were approached when we first started by some names that will not be named in Nashville, some heavy hitters. We did a showcase. It kind of looked like “American Idol.” They set us up on a big stage and said, “Play four of your songs. We are going to sit here and take notes.” And they liked us. They sat down with us and said, "First off, you guys are good looking. We can work with that."
And we were immediately thinking, "Oh no."
Then they said, "Here's what we're going to do. We are going to shorten the songs (to) two and a half, three minutes. No more guitar solos. We are going to sit you down with a songwriter that can gear this more towards pop music," and so on and so forth.
We just said no. We'll fight in the trenches out here before we set ourselves up for that kind of situation. So it was a conscious decision. We decided we are going to do it our way instead of their way.
Maybe that cost me millions of dollars, but I don't care. I'd rather play the music I like than be wealthy.
Cris: Focusing on your locale, most articles refer to you as an “Asheville-based band.” How would you say Asheville has influenced you as musicians?
Kyle: You can hear it in the versatility of our music. There's just so much good music going around here, and the fans in Asheville are usually very open minded. You'll see the same guy at a bluegrass show that you'll see at a jamband show, or the same guy at a blues kind of show that you'll see at a hard rock show, or an Americana show.
Growing up around these people and learning from them, it has just soaked into our nature as musicians. That's something Asheville certainly has to offer: The versatility and well-rounded musicians for young cats like us to learn from.
Cris: In this one interview you were quoted as saying, "We play what we feel, not what we think." Can you elaborate on that?
Feeling Versus Thinking
Kyle: Certainly. I think music, for me at least, is something you feel more than something you think about. When I was 7 years old and I first heard the Beatles or (specifically) “Sgt. Pepper's,” I didn't think, "This is ingenious and creative." I felt it was ingenious and creative… if that makes sense. To take that to an improvisational sense, if you're playing a three-minute solo, and you have the eyes of a thousand people watching you and it's just you making up ideas off the top off your head… at the point you get caught thinking, you are dead in the water.
The flow stops, because now you're thinking, "Where are we headed next? Are we headed in the wrong direction?" You're (second) guessing yourself. You have to stop all your thinking and just feel the music, play what you feel.
Cris: And then my other question along those lines is: How do you stay with that once you get into the studio? Because from everything I've heard and read, a lot of people get trapped in overthinking when it becomes studio time.
Kyle: Right, certainly. And I think we've been guilty of that too, as much as anyone else.
Before you go in, you do the thinking. What are we setting out to do? You kind of lay out an outline. With this song, what are we setting out to do? But once you get in there, you have to let that go and kind of let the tune evolve (on its own), if you're going to let it sound organic and a become a piece of art. I think you could work on one song for eternity. But at some point you have to say, "This is done."
Cris: Is that kind of giving up on the idea of perfection?
Kyle: Yeah, maybe so. Part of that is understanding that perfection is unobtainable, and also undefinable. What is perfection? How can you ever reach something that you can't define? In my opinion, you've reached perfection when you've reached a good stopping point, rather than redoing it and redoing it and redoing it.
Some friends of mine are doing their first record. They're called Black Garlic. They are out of West Virginia, and they tragically lost their lead guitar player, Stevie Watts, in a car accident, right after they started making the record.
They asked me to play on the record because he passed away and he was a big fan of mine, and I was set to be a guest on the record anyhow. But there were all these huge holes and gaps left in the music, because he wasn't able to come back and do overdubs.
I kind of just harnessed the emotions I felt about the whole thing and about the songs. I wrote a couple of harmonies that I could play with him. But it's definitely weird to play...
Music is like a time machine. I got in a time machine, went back in time, and played harmony with my friend who passed away, and traded licks with him and played solos. And I'll tell you right now, 90% of the material they're using is the very first bite I took at a solo. Even though I would try it two or three times, that first whack is the one. Sometimes perfection is just spontaneity. It is not over-calculating.
Cris: Was the emotional level the same as if you were all in the studio together?
Kyle: Yeah, I would say so for sure, if not more so, because I knew in a way this was the last time I was going to get to play with my good friend. My emotions were kind of heightened in that session, because of the finality of the whole scenario. This is my last chance, so I'm going to get it, dammit.