Michael Travis Discusses Improvisation with Snakes & Stars

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    Michael Travis Discusses Improvisation with Snakes & Stars
    Published: March 26, 2024

    Michael Travis and Aaron Johnston of Snakes & Stars.

    As the founding drummer of the iconic jam band, String Cheese Incident, Michael Travis has been playing improvisational music at a professional level since the 90s. He dove headfirst into the world of electronic dance music with the long-running project EOTO (2006-2021), which was a collaboration with fellow SCI member Jason Hann, and is the stuff of music festival legends.

    Now that EOTO has run its course, Travis is back again with a new project, Snakes & Stars, this time a collaboration with Aaron Johnston (Brazilian Girls, David Byrne’s American Utopia). The duo performs all-improvised electronic music and focuses on building songs on the spot, and are currently touring with a stop in our hometown at the Charleston Pour House on Wednesday, March 27th.

    I had a chance to catch up with Trav to discuss Snakes & Stars, working with Aaron Johnston, and the spirit of improvisational music. Read on to see what we talked about.

    Getting Into Electronic Music: EOTO & Zilla

    “I was obviously into rock and roll for a long time,” Travis explains, “and then discovered electronic music and thought it was really cool, but that the one thing about it is that it’s generally pretty static. DJs and producers are standing up there playing previously existing songs, which on a certain level will always be the same.”

    With the above in mind, Travis decided that he wanted to bring some of the jam band ethos to the world of electronic music. He started with the livetronica band Zilla in 2003, and later formed EOTO with Hann to explore this improvisational aspect.

    “With EOTO starting out, and before that with Zilla, I was kind of electronically tinged. Just trying to infuse the jam band ethos of improvising, and how it’s different every night because nobody knows what’s going to happen, infuses the whole night with this exciting energetic wave. And so I was always compelled with doing that with Zilla and EOTO and now Snakes & Stars. Snakes & Stars is a little more introspective maybe. EOTO got pretty… kind of was a party band. So this is more spacey stuff. Trippier maybe.”

    Snakes & Stars: Michael Travis & Aaron Johnston

    In Snakes & Stars, Travis forgoes his drum kit in favor of a bass guitar and keyboards, while Johnston holds down the electronic drum kit. The duo first met in 1999 after Johnston played on SCI member Michael Kang’s album, Comotion, and then Johnston sat in with String Cheese in NYC.

    “I was really struck with his presence when we had him come sit in. And I thought he was an amazing person, an amazing player. Back in ’99 in New York City, we had kind of a cool moment. So then when EOTO had run its course creatively and I was looking for a new outlet. He lives near me. And I’m like, ‘Hey, let’s check this thing out.’ He said, ‘Okay, no problem, let’s do it.’”

    They found some studio space and jammed it out, and Snakes & Stars was born.

    “And then from there, Aaron went full electronic drum kit,” Travis says. “Now, all of the sounds are coming out of the computer, which gives it a more authentic feel than before, he was kind of an acoustic kit, which is cool for sure, but gives it a whole different vibe.”

    Travis explains how they don’t even have a talkback mic to communicate with each other on stage, making the experience something akin to unbridled creativity.

    On Improvisation & the Grateful Dead

    Before Travis began playing music professionally, he discovered lots of different music, including, of course, the Grateful Dead. He recalls listening to Dead tapes from the 70s and hearing the improvisational passages.

    “I remember way back when,” Travis continues, “even before I was really playing music professionally, just being so stunned at how they could roll along in this soupy jam, and all of a sudden appear in a totally composed moment that was obviously being fed to them in the moment, but there was not a previously existing song. But it also didn’t sound like just a free-form jam.”

    Travis explains how he was always struck with the Dead’s ability to make a song out of nothing, and has long been inspired to create songs in this fashion.

    “That’s always been my favorite moments of String Cheese’s improving, where we made it sound like a song was just sitting there waiting to be played, and we just played it. As opposed to noodling around or having the song, you know, previously existing. I was always compelled to that spontaneous composition concept and just felt like it’s kind of the coolest stuff, because in improv, whether the audience knows it or not, they’re kind of thrust into that creation moment. It’s got its own charge that reciting previously existing music doesn’t really have, exactly.”

    As someone who stays on the audience side of that exchange, the feeling of watching good improvised music is like having the thoughts removed from your mind. You can completely focus on what’s happening on the stage, and become engaged in the journey in a unique way.

    On Improvised Electronic Music

    “I look forward to a time, hopefully, when people understand what Aaron and I are doing is– how fresh and live it is because it’s not– there’s a lot of– there’s a lot of charlatanism in the electronic music world these days. They have these things where you can buy melodies that they already laid down. It’s like, “Yeah, move me on music theory.” I’m like, “Oh, my God, that is so gross and ingenuine,” or you can just buy a melody or buy a chord structure and drop it in your song and call it yours.”

    Instead of taking this route of pre-recorded sounds, Travis and Johnston forge their own path with no idea how it’s going to turn out.

    “Even since the days of Pretty Lights first album, where he was taking melodies from other people and then calling them his own. It’s just like there’s a long history of ingenuity in the electronic music world from my perspective. So it’s nice to be holding up the flag of really on the edge and without a net, kind of, no previously existing anything.”

    The Future of Snakes & Stars

    While they remain focused on improvisational music for now, Travis and Johnston have plans to work with some pre-recorded sounds of their own in the future. Travis explains how the rig he uses in the live setting is an excellent composition rig, meaning that it has value both in the studio and in the live environment.

    “We built this rig that’s like the greatest compositional device ever. Like you can make stuff up so quickly and build parts and have it all right there. More easy than ever in any other rig that I’ve ever been a part of. So we’ve already dug into making tracks like that and we just got to finish them up and put them out.”

    Travis mentioned doing a produced alternate ego band with Johnston that makes use of these pre-recorded sounds. We’ll have to stay tuned for more on that, but for now we can catch the duo on the road including this Wednesday at Charleston Pour House after Dead on the Deck. PoHo tix here and full tour dates here.

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