Here is my conversation with Travis Book, upright bassist and vocalist for Tape Time Records’ Grammy-winning recording artists The Infamous Stringdusters.
I spoke with Travis after a Stringdusters show at a RockyGrass festival in Lyons, Colorado.
When did you start getting the sense that you wanted to perform? How did that realization come to you?
I don’t remember a specific moment, but I do remember just sort of an underlying need for attention. And also – and it’s something that I’ve worked on, because it was difficult in my life – sort of a need for drama in my life.
I think I started by acting out in class, and acting out at home. I wasn’t a really difficult kid, but I was an only child, so when I went to school and I got to be around kids, I found that when I was funny, and made an ass of myself, really, I got a lot of attention – both positive and negative. I think when I was in middle school I had detention, like, thirty-seven times I had to stay after class – and I think I may have had a crush on the teacher and not realized that’s what it was. But I’d say that was the first time that I can think of myself really craving attention, and feeling comfortable when people were paying attention.
I’ve found that some performers are incredibly shy, and the stage is the only place where they feel like they aren’t shy. It sounds like that’s not the case for you – that you don’t have any problem being the center of attention, just in general.
No, and I still get into it in varying degrees. But it was something, I think, that grew out of a lot of insecurities I had.
That’s a good question – just wanting to be accepted and have friends. And when you’re the center of attention, you’re The Man, you know? And I think that was mostly it – it just felt good to have people laughing and enjoying themselves. And being able to share that – that was something else, I think. I maybe didn’t realize it, but it’s always been really appealing.
The thing that I liked so much about music, when I got into the music scene, was that, you know, I could hang out in the [festival] campground, and it wouldn’t necessarily be a performance, but it was like this shared experience with the people who were hanging out and watching. And people would coast in, and all of a sudden if a jam was really happening, and we were really doing something compelling musically, or if we were sort of performing a little bit, you’d get done with the song and you’d look around and there was people five deep and they were cheering because there was something sort of magical that happened there. And that’s not necessarily performance, but it was this sort of shared experience, which is a big part of my performance – trying to share something and make everybody a part of what’s going on.
I’ve often thought that it’s kind of a primal thing, like the cave dwellers sitting around the fire passing along the oral tradition, the enhanced experience – or the sharing of the common experience, the lore, the wisdom.
Absolutely. And when I first started playing, I would learn tunes from older guys. And I was hanging out with guys that were fifty years old and retired and super-wealthy, and there were thirty-year-old dirt-bag ski bums, and we were all part of the same scene, and we all had this really common thread – which is a beautiful thing about bluegrass and acoustic music, and just the music scene in general.
Are you intentionally the front man of the Stringdusters, or did that just sort of happen?
It just sort of happened. And some shows I’m more the front man than others. We have a really organic approach to the entire experience. We just try to be sort of present, and if you feel like getting up there and saying something, you do, and if you don’t, then that’s fine also. We used to do what most bluegrass bands do, which is talk between every song. We stopped doing that. We make chunks on our set list and we try to run the songs together, because the music is what’s really most important, and then when we actually say something, it can be something that’s compelling, and we can use it as a tool to sort of accelerate the energy in the show.
Whereas, a lot of bluegrass, you get this tune rocking and the fans are loving it, and then you stop, and you’re, like, “Heyyyy, so-and-so’s from Denver…yaaaay!” And then you’ve got to start all over again. So, we’re using the talking as either a way to make it a low point, or as an opportunity to push it even higher, to get people really excited and engage them and communicate in a very real manner. And I think some of the guys in the band are more comfortable with that than others, so it’s just sort of been a natural progression for us.
One thing I love about what you guys do is how things are so fluid up on the stage, how you’re like a constantly shifting amoeba up there. How did that come about?
We started out as a bluegrass band, playing in front of six microphones, you know? We started to think the sound would be better, and it would be cooler, if we could be plugged in, because mics have feedback issues and that sort of thing. So we started plugging in, and we were still using mics and we still had monitors on the floor, but you have to stay close to your monitor to be able to hear. So we figured out that in-ear monitors would be better, because we could hear better and there wouldn’t be feedback issues. So we got those, and then the dobro player [Andy Hall], once he found he had good pickup tone, he ditched his mic – and all of a sudden he could move around.
And I was already moving around, because I had my pickup on my instrument, and I had my microphone in the instrument. And so even though the bass is hard to move, you can actually move. I wasn’t grounded to a microphone and I wasn’t dependent on that monitor, right? So we realized that once you started ditching the mics, it cleaned up the stage and it allowed us to move around, and because we weren’t trapped to the monitors – we had the in-ears.
So ditching the mics became our mission, and [then] we got our sound guy who travels with us, and all of those things came together and we started playing without microphones. And therefore all of the normal rules of where you would normally stand, all of a sudden you could basically stand anywhere, unless you went to sing.
And it allows this really amazing thing where, you know, if you’ve got [all the] guys standing at the front of the stage and one guy goes to take a solo, you may not have any idea who it is, unless you can immediately identify the banjo or the instrument that’s playing. So now the singer, the center of attention, is encouraged to stand up at the front and everybody gathers around them. And it allows us to hear each other and play with each other, and it makes things much more interesting. And it makes it easier for the audience to know where to send their attention.
So the long answer to your question is that it happened really organically and sort of by accident. And we realized that it was super-cool. We started doing it just because it was fun to engage your energy with a different person onstage. And I noticed that people tended to pay attention to what I was paying attention to, you know? And if I zone out, people zone out, and if I look at them, they look at me, and if I look at the soloist, they look at the soloist. It’s not that everyone’s paying attention to me, but, you know, you’re sort of sweeping around the stage and someone directs your attention somewhere, and then you get tuned into what you’re supposed to.
So it just sort of happened naturally, and I think it’s one of the best things we’ve got going for ourselves right now, that the stage show is so dynamic and different and interesting every time.
Do you feel that the individuals in the band are all on the same page in terms of performance styles, and if so, what do you think it does for you as performers and as a band to be on the same page?
I think it’s everything, and we haven’t always been on the same page. We’re more on the same page now than we ever have been. That is to say, when we started out, everyone had all this different experience. We had all kinds of experience playing onstage, but not together. And we didn’t really know what it was going to take to make us successful, or even what we were going to be like when we finally put ourselves together – what we were going to turn into.
And so everyone’s personalities changed. I think being in a band has challenged us more personally than it has even musically. And obviously it’s challenged us musically, but personally, we’ve all really come around to finding a really peaceful way of being together and communicating.
There’s times where I almost feel it’s almost like we’re a monastery. You know, we had a couple days off, and we were hanging out in this beautiful place, and there’s guys sitting up on the porch hanging out, there’s guys doing yoga down in the yard, there’s a couple of guys meditating, a few guys playing music, and everyone’s really relaxed and open. And when we can go onstage and everyone’s got that same attitude that, you know, the most important thing is that we have a good time together and we respect each other and listen to each other, then it becomes really good and we become more of the same person. So our personalities have become really similar, and we all want the same things out of the show.
When we started out, there was a real big thing in bluegrass – you have to play well, and there was this expectation that you’re going to sound a certain way and that you’d be competent in your instrument in a certain way. And we were fortunate that we could sort of hang with any bluegrass band. But it was almost like we were as tight as Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, but we were as loose as Yonder Mountain String Band. Or the Grateful Dead or Phish, maybe, is an even better analogy – a band that was open to new experiences but also could play together, and knew that when it was time to play we could play.
So it’s been an ongoing evolution of how we play together and how we listen to each other. But learning to respect each other, ultimately, is the most important thing. It makes it really easy. When your focus is on listening to and loving the people you’re onstage with, then you don’t really have to worry about performing, because that’s the best kind of performance you can give as a musician – just to be present and enjoy yourself.
I’m always talking to my clients about being present, and working with them on relaxation techniques and ways of re-gathering your focus and “being here now”. And it really shows when that’s not the case.
Right. I tell my bass students, playing music with other people is a lot like meditation, where your attention will waver from where it’s supposed to be. You know, thoughts arise in meditation, but you don’t harp on yourself for having thoughts. When you recognize you’re thinking, you just bring yourself back to the present. It’s the same thing with music. When you recognize that your attention is too much on yourself, when your attention is somewhere other than what’s happening in the moment – who’s singing, who’s soloing, what’s going on in the audience, any of those things – your attention can be a lot of places other than be in the present, but you just bring yourself right back there, and then the music all of a sudden will just sort of congeal.
How do you experience the audience as a performer? What does that energy feel like to you?
It’s like a two-sided coin, where the audience is all of the experience on the one hand, like the most important thing, and then on the other hand, they kind of don’t matter at all. And what I mean by that is that I don’t really take responsibility for their experience, and that’s the part of the coin where they don’t really matter – they don’t really matter to my experience. They do affect what I do, because I do want to entertain them, and I want them to enjoy themselves.
And on the other hand, on the other side of the coin, they are every bit of the experience. The more the audience is open and is with us and is present in the moment, the less they’re thinking about another show they saw that was better, or the band before that was better, or what they wish we would be playing – the more they’re just there and letting it wash over them. And that might be talking to their friend, or it may be dancing. It may be singing along, or it may be getting a beer. But the more that they can just sort of be there and be enjoying themselves and just being in a positive head space, the better it is for us, and it’s everything for us.
We sort of stopped playing sit-down shows, because people would get in these comfy theater chairs, and they’d be totally digging it, but we couldn’t tell at all and there was nothing coming back. You’d get done with a show and they’d stand up and they’d clap and they’d want an encore and they’d buy lots of records, but the whole experience wasn’t the same as when people are doing what they really want to do. And a festival’s a prime example – at a festival, people can just sort of do their thing.
I taught this thing called “Getting Comfortable Onstage”, and I tell people, you know, you really owe it to yourself to figure out what you want your music to be like, or what kind of statement you want to make, and rehearse that, because that’ll help ease your nerves – being prepared is one part of it. But then when you go up onstage, you have to understand that as long as you’re doing what you set out to do, or, rather, as long as you’re being present, playing music or acting or anything, you have to believe that what you’re doing has intrinsic value. And if people don’t get it, if people bring their preconceptions in, or if it just hits them wrong, there’s nothing you can do about that.
I tell my students, if the audience doesn’t like it, well, fuck ‘em. There’s nothing you can do about that. The only thing you can maybe do is you can sell your soul to the devil of Kitsch and Cliché, and you can try to fire people up in some way that you’ve heard before, but if that’s not genuine to your experience, there’s nothing that you can do about the audience.
So that’s a really roundabout and confusing answer. On one hand, I need the audience, absolutely, to be a hundred percent on the same page with me for us all to have a great experience, for it to reach its true potential. But if the audience isn’t with me, if they don’t get it, it doesn’t really affect me anymore. And that has been a revelation. I mean, that’s just sort of a life philosophy, you know? If people don’t like you, well, it has nothing to do with you. And it’s absolutely the same thing when you go to perform. As long as you’re true to who you are, if they don’t get it, that’s totally fine. To each his own.
You’re in a situation where I would imagine that generally you’re showing up where people are psyched to see you, where the table is set for you in a nice way?
And it’s nice to get to that point in your band’s career.
Yeah, it’s easier to feel this way when you know that the people that hire you know what they’re getting, and most of the people that come to your show know what they’re getting.
You’re not struggling to win them over in any way.
We still play a ton of free shows in parks, or we play to tons of people that have never heard us before. So there are still times where I have to combat that need to make people like it, or feel the pressure of having to succeed, having to play a great show. Sometimes the shows aren’t that great. But I always have a really good time. That’s the only thing that I can control – I can prepare, and then I can have a really awesome time.
How easy is it for you to access the zone as a member of the band, and how easy is it for the band to access the zone? Is that something that you can bring on, or does it just happen and you just have to enjoy it when it happens? The more you tour together and play together, do you feel like more of that is within your control of bringing it on?
I see it as a practice, just like music is a practice or yoga is a practice, and it’s ongoing. And it gets easier to identify the things that keep me from that space.
What are they?
Self-doubt. Or expectation. Or over-indulgence, you know? I used to party really hard when I played, and I don’t as much anymore because it has the potential to sort of turn on me and make me real self-conscious. It’s really just self-evaluation – it’s not being able to sort of be the listener. Whenever I get outside myself, it’s really easy. It’s sort of a tough question, but I think those are the things that get in my way.
So how do you experience the zone? What does it feel like to you when it happens?
It’s just effortless – that’s the best way to describe it.
Do you appreciate it when it’s happening?
And do you notice a difference in how you’re working with your band mates when it happens?
Do you feel like it’s kind of a contact high? Do people catch it from each other?
What is it like when that happens?
These are good questions – these are hard to describe! I don’t know how to explain it.
I can tell you that everybody I interview struggles with questions about this topic.
Yeah, this question is really hard! I don’t know, because when I’m in it and I start to think about it is when I leave it. So I’ve always just sort of tried not to worry about it too much or think about it too much. Can you re-phrase the question and give me another crack at it?
We were talking about the contact high version of the zone, where somebody in the band gets it, and then someone else catches it from them, and then the whole band is in it. And you as an individual can get in the zone, and then you might be able to do things that you didn’t even know you could do. But it also seems like the band as a whole can get into that space. How does that happen, and what does it feel like when it happens?
There’s sort of almost like a hierarchy of needs when you’re onstage, like being able to hear what you need to hear, or if you can’t hear what you need to hear, total acceptance of not being able to hear it, putting that behind you. Any other things that could stand in your way, any other issues like someone else being in a bad mood, or someone not listening – I mean, for me, I’m in the zone when I’m listening, when my attention is completely outside myself and I’m the observer. The best seat in the house, that’s how I like to see it.
And I think that the band can only achieve that when everybody is listening, and it’s hard because some people think that that’s more important than others, and some people, it’s more natural than others to participate in that way – to sort of drop their preconceptions about how things should go, or worrying about their instrument or their hands, or any of that stuff.
That’s part of the hierarchy – you have to be able to not worry about yourself physically, or your mental space. The thoughts sort of stop, and it just becomes presence and observation. And when I’m really feeling it, I’m able to feel like I’m playing my ass off, and singing exactly what I would want to sing, and I’m not even doing it – I’m watching myself do it. You know, there’s been a few times when I’ve been on the stage, and I’ve literally felt like I was in the audience.
I know exactly what you mean.
And when I sang, I was blowing my own mind.
Yeah. “Look at that guy!”
“How am I doing this? This is so sick!” And I was looking out into the audience, and they were, like, “Yeah, this is ridiculous!” And I was, like, “Yeah, this is awesome!” I felt like I was standing next to them, and we were looking at each other like, “This is sick! Yeah!” You know, we were hanging out. Because I’ve been that guy in the audience, right? So I think that’s when I feel like I’m in the zone, and I don’t know how I get there – I always just try to appreciate wherever I’m at, at the time.
It’s sort of like varying degrees. For me, I get a little closer as my needs are met. And sometimes I walk onstage and we just start, and we’re all sort of there, and it’s like a miracle, you know? But other times, you have to try to bring some of the guys in. Someone’s head’s a little behind, they’re a little too much in their own brain, they’re thinking about their instrument, so you’ve got to go over there and kind of engage them, bump into them, smile at them or something and be, like, “Dude, you’re not with us. Come on, man, come over here and hang out.” And that’s partly what the moving onstage does – you’re moving, you’re thinking about your spatial positioning, it distracts you from playing, so then you can just play, and you’re listening, you get by someone and listen.
Do you get stage fright?
Why do you think that is?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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 the 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 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?
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?
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?
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.
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 – your mind’s got a mind of its 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?
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?
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.
Cool. Mission accomplished!