Theo Travis: From Prog to Jazz and Back Again

Bruce Lindsay By

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Theo Travis / Cipher"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.

"It's influenced by [Frippertronics] certainly," he said. "Essentially, it's using a series of foot pedals whereby as a single line player I can create a broad and long texture, largely ambient in nature with floating, moving, harmonies. Normally, with flute or sax you play a single line and it's gone as soon as you breathe, whereas this way I can create almost infinite lines to build up thick harmonies. Using looping technology you play a line and press a pedal and add another layer and another, building up musical canvases.

Theo Travis"The other thing [Ambitronics] incorporates is the harmonic thinking. If you are playing single lines that come back on themselves, you can use a pedal that brings the instrument down an octave or two, adding bass line or notes, which changes the harmony. Doing that you have to be very aware of the rhythm and harmony of what you are doing to make it work.

"It's an approach that has built up through a love of the sound of the alto flute when you layer it up. More specifically, it started when I went to John Etheridge's house and tried a set of pedals with the alto flute, loved it immediately, went out and bought a set and about two weeks later made Slow Life (Ether Sounds Records, 2003)."

So Slow Life is the birth of ambitronics?

"Very much so ... I invented my record label just to put it out, because I really felt strongly about it," Travis said. "When I initially approached Robert Fripp that was the album I sent to him: because of that album he was interested in doing something."

Unusually, Travis' ambitronics have also inspired a novel: Jonathan Coe's "The Rain Before It Falls."

"I actually get credited at the beginning of the book because he told me that he was listening to [Slow Life] while he was writing the book," he said. "There's a whole chapter about a person who does a flute loops performance and he credits me as being the inspiration for that section. So the album's done more than just the smallish number of sales. It's established a sound that I like and it's triggered some other things."

The immediate future for Theo Travis is something he sums up succinctly: "It's busy," he laughs.

"Travis and Fripp is very active: one of the concerts was released as a live download album and we're just mixing the concert we did in Coventry Cathedral, for release in 2010," he said. "I just played on the new Tangent CD which will probably come out at the end of 2009 and there's talk of performances related to that. There'll be another Cipher tour and a Double Talk tour early next year and hopefully some more Travis and Fripp dates in Europe and possibly Japan. I've just contributed to a project by Francis Dunnery [singer, guitarist and writer with 1980s band It Bites]. He's really matured in his songwriting and producing. I just played on his album on Tuesday."

The Cipher work with silent films has been one of Travis' more unusual projects: more of this is also planned for the near future.

"We did a tour with a new score to The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and next year is the 90th anniversary of the film's release so we're planning on dates in January, February or March," Travis said. "The plan is to do an album of the whole soundtrack that will match the DVD of the film: press 'Go' on the DVD and 'Go' on the CD and you have the complete show. The only reason we might not do that is because we might be too busy [laughs].

Theo Travis

"Dave [Sturt] has been depping on the Gong tour as [Gong bassist] Mike Howlett has taken up a teaching post in Australia. The whole of Cipher has been in Gong. But we will certainly do more Cipher live dates, in cinemas. We've done quite a few tours now where we set up at the front of the cinema, watch the film as it's shown and play. The music entirely comes from us: we watch the film, large areas of our music will be improvised and certain themes and sounds will be prepared for certain scenes in the film. We like doing this, a modern take on making music for movies with live instruments and loops and two computers. The music is very atmospheric so people don't respond to it as if it's weird experimental electro-acoustics. They just go 'Oh, I like that.' On a good performance people's biggest compliment is 'That was so good I didn't know you were there.' Obviously, if you did that on a jazz gig..."

Theo Travis is a wise man: a talented and versatile musician, a music fan, realistic enough to understand the vagaries of music as a business and enthusiastic enough about music as an artform to be willing to take chances and to play for pleasure. He's also a very busy man, and he'll hopefully continue to be one for many years to come.

Selected Discography

Travis & Fripp, Thread (Panegyric Records, 2008)
No Man, Schoolyard Ghosts (Snapper, 2008)
Soft Machine Legacy, Steam (MoonJune Records, 2007)
The Tangent, Going Off On One (Inside Out, 2007)
Theo Travis, Double Talk (33 Records, 2007)
Bass Communion, Ghosts On Magnetic Tape (Tonefloat, 2006)
Theo Travis, Slow Life (Ether Sounds Records, 2003)
Cipher, One Who Whispers (Gliss Records, 2002)
Travis/Beaujolais Quartet, Berlin Vibe (Symbol Records, 2001)
Theo Travis, Heart Of The Sun (33 Records, 2001)
Gong, Zero To Infinity (Snapper Music, 2000)
Theo Travis Quartet, Passion Dance—Live At Ronnie Scott's (Ronnie Scott's Jazz House, 1999)

Photo Credits

Page 3, Soft Machine Legacy: Sean Kelly

Page 4: Anders Husa

All Other Photos: Courtesy of Theo Travis

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