Interview with Abby Travis

Abby Travis is a musician’s musician and a bass player that you’ve probably heard at one time or another. In addition to her own music, she’s an in-demand performer and session bassist/singer who has played with The Go-Go’s, EODM, Beck, Cher, Masters of Reality, The Bangles, Exene Cervenka, Elastica, KMFDM, Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes, Dee Dee Ramone, Vanessa Paradis, Spinal Tap and Farflung. Her most current band, Sumo Princess has a new full-length album coming out May 8th on Ruined Vibes Records and will hit the road with The Meat Puppets right after.

She recently launched a podcast called Sounds Off with Abby Travis. The podcast features a number of iconic musical guests in conversation with the bassist to the stars. We recently talked with Abby via telephone to ask her about the new podcast and to find out about her latest band.

Congratulations on your new podcast. I’ve listened to the first two episodes and episode #3 with Norwood Fisher of Fishbone just came out today! Can you tell us about how it all came together?

Sure, within a couple of months, three different people randomly came up to me and suggested I do a podcast, kind of without any prompting. There were two different people on the Cher gig who said, “You should do a podcast” and I got home from that and played a show with my band and my friend Lonnie said, “You should really do a podcast.” I figured well fuck it, I’ll do a podcast.

My initial idea was to do interviews. I recorded the first episode quite a while before we actually released the podcast and I started to edit it myself. I was kind of over-editing. I was attempting to get rid of every “um” and “like” and “you know” and it was taking me a really long time. So I called up my friend John Ganem who comes more from the picture editing world and talked to him about working with me on the podcast and producing it and editing it.

I sent him over what I had done on that episode that will never even come out. I was emphatic and said, “Please listen to the part that I’ve already edited” because I was afraid the he would think that I was a babbling stoner. And he was very emphatic that I also send him the non-edited audio. Once he heard it, he responded really favorably to some of the accidental background stuff that was occurring. Like I have a very boisterous terrier that was my father’s dog. She’s being quiet right now but she was almost commenting on the original podcast. He liked that and he liked the sound of the keys, the sound of the walking around. We just kept brainstorming. Like I’m walking around right now, I think better when I’m moving. A lot of people pace when they’re on the phone.

It just sort of developed into this idea. It’s also like the “What makes this podcast different from other interview-style podcasts?” question. Having it exist in a specific place, and a specific time where the lister goes on a little bit of a journey makes it interesting and unlike a lot of the studio interview podcasts that are already out there. What John was also very hardcore about was committing to the rules of vérité so it’s not edited out of order. Things are taken out. You’re not just listening to raw audio, there is editing. But we’re not going to put a question from the end of the interview in the beginning.

So that’s how it came about.

When I was listening to it, you seem have a great rapport with your guests. Are these all people you’ve worked with and who else can we expect to hear on future episodes.

So far all of the people that I’ve interviewed are people who I know. I’ve either worked with them or they’re friends of mine. The first episode was Steve McDonald from Redd Kross whom I have not worked with since we both play the same instrument but I’m a big fan of his. The second episode was Exene Cervenka (of the band X) whom I have had the pleasure of playing bass for.

Coming up this season we have Norwood Fisher from Fishbone whom I have worked with. We’ve got Kira Roessler whose played bass in Black Flag and Alice Bag who is an incredible legendary punk rock vocalist whom I’ve worked for. There are some other notables but I don’t want to jinx things before they’re in the can. But there are some heavyweight people coming up and I think listeners will be excited to learn more.

Please tell us about your current band Sumo Princess.

Sumo Princess is a duo band that I have with Gene Trautmann. He’s played in Queens of the Stone Age and Eagles of Death Metal. Also, in a fabulous psych band called The Miracle Workers back in the 80’s. He and I have been friends for a very long time. It’s a bass and drum duo band but not a bass and drums that’s a style of music, just the instrumentation. He plays drums, I play bass but I’m also using a sizable pedalboard with a bunch of effects. I’ve done a lot of work as a bass player for hire and this band I started for my own sanity. There’s no guitar player in the band so no one can tell me not to use a specific pedal. It’s self-indulgent but it’s also aggressive and reactive to the times. I was happily surprised at the response. People seem to really like it a lot which makes me happy.

Last year we put out a couple of 7” singles where we collaborated with nine different artists to do different versions of picture discs which was a wonderful experience. In May we’re putting out our first full-length called “When an Electric Storm” on Ruined Vibes Records.

I heard about your limited edition 7” vinyl picture discs and that you used 9 different artists. That sounds like a fun project but how did you put that all together?

Some of the people I knew. Some people I found on the internet and I liked their work so I asked them. Almost all of the stuff was sent to me in a digital file. I have a graphic artist named Jerome Curchod, whom I’ve worked with him on most of the records I put out myself. Some of the artists were more web/ template savvy than others but he took everyone’s work and put it together and made it happen.

It was a really fun experience. I didn’t really micromanage the artists. I sent them the songs. There were some artists that I had ideas for based on work I’d seen them do that I had responded to. But other people I was like, “How does this song make you feel.” And different fans respond to different peoples work as well. A few people have collected them all which is ideal.

You mentioned your pedalboard earlier, as a duo did you have to change your gear or your approach towards bass playing?

It changes it an awful lot. If I’m supporting a regular band with bass, drums, guitars and maybe keys, my role is really different. In Sumo Princess there is no other tonal sounds other than my voice and what I’m playing on the bass. There’s plenty of room for me to do whatever I want although often interestingly it still sounds best if I do stuff that’s simple and boneheaded just to fill out the sound.

Frequency-wise it really gives me a lot of freedom and I purposely use my Music Man Stingray bass because it has more high-end response than my 73’ Precision that I have flat-wounds on. As well, I use a Pog, at times and a lot of fuzz and different delays. If I was playing in somebody’s band, depending on the style of music, most of the time we’d like to have a nice fat round low-end. In Sumo Princess, I’m not looking for that. It’s the whole sonic bed of the whole song. It’s very angular. There’s a lot of fuzz and I’m looking to enhance the harmonics and high-end that just exist.

Your bio says “Improvisation and strange vocal stylings are main ingredients” and “When singing, you seem to take on different characters in each narrative.” Do you also use effects on your vocals?

There’s one track that is going to be the single off our record, called “Kali Ma”, that I do use a vocoder on. Most of the other stuff I don’t use effects. Live, I’ve been experimenting with some effects just because I sing some backup vocals on the album and I’d like to hear some more harmonies or thicken up when the chorus comes in by trying to use a doubler. I’ve had some really mixed results with that. I’ve had pedals that sounded great for two shows and then broke in the middle of a gig. A lot of the stuff I’ve experimented with doesn’t seem to be designed to be taken out on the road anymore. I went through about four different vocoders till I found the Roland that actually worked. The TC Electronics didn’t work. The ElectroHamonix didn’t work. I’m doing something specific with it. Traditionally, with a vocoder, you would plug your instrument into it and have your instrument trigger what the robot sound is but I want my voice to do that, not the instrument. I want the instrument to be doing something different than what I’m singing. It’s always like a weird sonic puzzle.

That sounds like a good problem to have in some ways.

Yea, it’s fun! Most of the stomp boxes I’m using for the bass don’t have a lot of presets which is good and bad. There are some shows where there’s not much of a soundcheck and it can get a little “uh oh.” I always joke that chaos is the third member of the band. Like a weird accident that might turn into a new section of the song. It keeps everyone on their toes.

You’ve spent a lot of time on the road and you’ll be out supporting the Meat Puppets in May. Do you enjoy touring?

I do enjoy touring overall. Every tour is totally different. I’ve done some tours that are super cush and totally easy. When it’s my own bad it will be a little bit harder when I don’t have a tour manager. But it’s super rewarding as I get to bring my music to the people. I’ve been touring for such a long time that when I’ve stayed in Los Angeles for too long, I start to feel weird. There’s a traveling bug that I get. And I like exploring new places. It’s a fun job because you get to see immediately that you’re making people happy. Most actors I know really enjoy doing theater and I think it’s the same sort of thing, an immediate response.

One venue you are scheduled to play is the Space Ballroom in Hamden, CT. I used to book a band I worked with there when it was just called The Space. It’s an all age venue which I thought was a great community asset. What are your thoughts on how kids are finding and listening to music these days?

First of all, at my sort of advanced age, I don’t think I can speak for the kids. My only “Get Off of My Lawn” thing is that I wish people would value music enough to pay for it. It would make my life, and other musician’s life a lot easier. I’m sure this talk has been had by millions of people. Yes, I have a lot more promotional and publicity opportunities at my fingertips but at the same time I think there are generations of kids that haven’t grown up thinking that music has a value. They expect it to be free. That’s kind of rough and it makes it hard to maintain.

That goes back to 7” vinyl picture discs with 9 different artists, does that add more of a reason to actually purchase something rather than to listen to it online?

Absolutely. I think if you’re going to do a physical release, there’s got to be a reason that people would want to buy it. I think that’s why vinyl does well. I wonder how many of the people who purchased the 7” actually really listened to them from the vinyl and how many used the digital download but wanted the vinyl as a keepsake. I was doing that even when I had CDs for my solo stuff. I was still not selling that many though. That was definitely part of the intent. It’s like a piece of art even though that sounds pretentious in itself. I know Jason at Ruined Vibes is really serious about quality and I’m looking forward to our next release as well! My friend, photographer Chris Green, shot the cover art.

Well it is a takeaway, and people can enjoy that along with the audio.

Yes, also especially since Sumo Princess’ main instrument is bass, the music sounds really good on vinyl. Analog is ideal for bass and drums!

Between your podcast and the bands you’ve played with and are playing with, there is a sense of longevity. What advice could you give to someone who is trying to break into the music industry and survive long term?

My advice is to be true to yourself. I don’t really look at myself as an amazingly successful person. I’ve been kind of like a working grunt. At least I feel, at the end of the day, I’m happy with the work I’ve done. Chasing that dragon of what’s hip and what’s trendy can be a trap. If people make music or do work that they’re proud of, then there is inherently more integrity and a higher chance of longevity.

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Photo by Rocky Schenck

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