Theo Travis: From Prog to Jazz and Back Again
"The music feels natural to me and I'm enjoying it," he said. "I'm not imitating what they did. People wouldn't want me to do that and it wouldn't work for me to do that. I come along with whatever I have and if it works, I guess I get the gig [laughs}. In SML, I'd already played with Hugh Hopper quite a bit and John Etheridge loads and John Marshall quite a lot so it was a very comfortable fit. The awkward thing there was that I joined the band when Elton Dean was very ill and on the next run of gigs at the Pizza Express in Soho, he died the night before the first gig. On one hand, people were saying 'Well done' but on the other hand they were sad because Elton had died so it was a slightly strange situation."
Soft Machine Legacy (l:r): John Etheridge, Theo Travis, John Marshall, Hugh Hopper
Sadly, Hugh Hopper died earlier this year. Travis is as yet uncertain about what this means for the future of SML.
"We've got a big tour this autumn and there's talk of some gigs early next year. If Roy Babbington (currently deputising for Hopper) is happy to do it then it may well carry on. Of course, there have been various line-ups, but with Etheridge, John Marshall, Hugh and me it had a definite imprint and the album we made, Steam (MoonJune Records, 2007), we were all very happy with. I hope it will continue but we'll see how it goes after this tour."
Theo Travis' vast range of work stretches across many styles and genres of jazz and prog, as well as into ambient, avant-garde and new age. To hear Travis play, it is obvious that this talented musician has the ability to cross this vast spectrum of music. But is there a "master plan" to this?
"I do love a lot of music," says Travis, "I listen to a lot of music and although I'm a professional musician I am also a music fan. Some people, when [playing music] becomes their job they become very interested in how to play their instrument but they don't talk about music they love to listen to. Whereas still, if I've got a gig hours and hours away, I'll happily listen to four hours of music on the way there and on the way back. A lot of the music I go out of my way to do is stuff that I love and I'm lucky I don't seem to do that much I'm not keen on."
It becomes clear that many of Travis' collaborations arise through happenstance rather than a deliberate plan. For example, "Gong happened through a series of coincidences that led to me being asked to do a tour in 1999," Travis said. "That was probably the first time I toured with a big rock band. It was a lot of fun. A lot of the collaborations are down to me enjoying and wanting to be involved in that sort of musicthey're not all profitable [laughs].
"Cipher started off purely as an experimental thing. We [Travis and bassist Dave Sturt] both played in a band called No Time Toulouse and got very interested in a minimal approach. We were both very influenced by Brian Eno records. We spent ages just messing around on sounds then we made the first album and then we got an offer to do music for a silent film and it worked. You could use strange, dark, experimental music but if it fitted with an image people could relate to it and there was a place you could play it.
"So that was definitely a labour of love which we never thought would do anything, but it led to other things. People like it and having that experience you can take it elsewhere. It's funny how things lead to other things. If you really love music and are involved in it, then you do stuff which can lead to other stuff. If you just say 'I want (payment) for that' you end up ... on a different path, I suppose."
Another link in Travis' music is that between his work in Cipher and his work with Robert Fripp. Travis sees these links as extending even further, into two more collaborations.
"Around the same time that Cipher was beginning I met Steven Wilson [founder and lead guitarist of progressive rock band Porcupine Tree]," he said. "He'd started a new project called Bass Communion, which I played in, taking acoustic sounds, minimal sounds, a very minimal textural thing. Then there was Steve Lawson, who's very much into solo, bass guitar, looping technology. Again, a different approach ... but again pretty dark, minor key, approach and that again is similar to the Travis and Fripp approach. These areas may be slightly minority and niche but they're related and through doing one you can understand the music so you can do another and if you like it and you get a result things can lead on to others who are comfortable in that sound world. It's a bit out of the normal, particularly for a saxophone, flute type of player [laughs]."
On a number of his albums Travis refers to his system of "Ambitronics," a reference to "Frippertronics," developed by Travis' collaborator Robert Fripp in the 1970s. But is such a comparison be misplaced? Not entirely, according to Travis.