String Cheese drummer marches to his own beat
The Aspen Times
In 1976, the Diga Rhythm Band, a percussion ensemble led by the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, released a single, “Happiness Is Drumming.” The philosophy of that title would seem to apply to Michael Travis. For 14 years, Travis played the drums in the String Cheese Incident, the Colorado jam band that made thousands of neo-hippies gleeful with its smiley vibe and dance-happy rhythms.
For the last half of that run, however, Travis had more on his mind than banging the skins. For seven years, his practice time has been devoted to the tonal instruments, those that primarily make melody rather than rhythm, as he looked ahead to a time when he would be out front rather than tucked behind his kit.
“As a drummer, you’re trying to support other people’s musical choices,” said Travis by phone. “And sometimes, those choices aren’t what you want to hear. It’s, ‘No, don’t play that!'”
Increasingly over the years, Travis found himself at odds with the musical directions of String Cheese. Billy Nershi, as the band’s guitarist, singer and songwriter, had a naturally larger role in musical choices, and his pull was in the acoustic, bluegrassy direction. Travis, however, was moving toward what might be considered the opposite pole: electronic music.
In 2000, at a ski-area espresso bar, Travis first tuned in his ears to electronica. “I stood there listening and listening, obsessed,” said the 42-year-old, who, as a student in Santa Cruz, took up drums and guitar within the same month. “I realized electronic music represents stuff bands oftentimes can’t do.” Attending the Burning Man festival in Nevada enhanced his passion for the style.
While String Cheese was still in business, Travis formed the electronic side project Zilla with guitarist and bassist Aaron Holstein and dulcimer player Jamie Janover. That scratched the itch to play techno, but Zilla still had Travis confined to the drums.
String Cheese, as all jam bands must, went on hiatus after a run of shows last summer at Red Rocks. The break allowed Travis to focus on a new project, EOTO. The new group, which makes its Aspen debut Wednesday, Dec. 12, at Belly Up, is a duo with Jason Hann, who joined String Cheese in 2005. EOTO has Hann moving from percussion over to the drum set, with Travis, finally, sliding into the tonal slot, playing guitar, bass and keyboards.
Travis’ duties only start with playing the instruments. He is also the onstage composer, of sorts, mixing and looping the live riffs he plays. The key component is that it is all done in real time, from playing the instruments to splicing them onstage.
“It’s one thing to have a computer,” he said. “But there’s a new ethos of taking electronic music back from the computer and humanizing it.” In EOTO, which uses cutting-edge digital technology, Travis mixes his affection for what he calls “the sloppy, New Orleans, human drumming feel of rock ‘n’ roll” with his newfound passion for precise electronic beats. The duo’s music is entirely improvised; the tracks on their debut CD, “Elephants Only Talk Occasionally,” were all made up on the spot in the studio.
Travis finds EOTO ” an acronym for End of Time Observation, a concept too esoteric to explain at length, or, more simply, the Japanese word for “good sound” ” an ideal outlet for his current desires. “It’s fun for me to be making all the musical choices, instead of just drumming,” he said. “This is the best environment for the exact opposite perspective” of being a drummer.
And EOTO might lead him full circle, to his old job in String Cheese.
EOTO, said Travis, lessens his need to impose his techno tendencies on the band. “I love String Cheese. I’m ready to play right now,” he said. “EOTO has honed my desire to be a drummer again.”
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The blizzards of January and February seem like distant dreams to Colorado water managers. What started as a promising year for water supply — with above-average snowpack as of April 1 — ended Sept. 30 with the entire state in some level of drought.