In The Studio is a series dedicated to detailing the creative processes of Bay Area artists, a behind-the-scenes look at the myriad personalities that make up our music community. This entry features Travis Hayes recording three new tracks at Nu-Tone Studios.
Travis Hayes is a lot louder than I remember. The first time I saw the singer-songwriter perform was a rather low-key set at Amnesia which featured no more than an acoustic guitar, cello, and backup vocals for support. Now he has the Bay Area’s version of the E Street Band pushing his sound into the upper reaches of the rock n’ roll atmosphere.
When I walked into Pittsburgh-based Nu-Tone Studios — a gem tucked away in the city’s industrial outskirts — I was immediately greeted by a wall of scintillating lead guitars, an explosive drum beat and a booming bass line. The track turned out to be “Honest Man,” an anthemic burst of sound that Hayes himself described as “Coldplay meets Kings of Leon.” Yes, it’s certainly radio-friendly, but Travis’s raspy, almost Small Change-era Tom Waits voice and gritty lyrics grounded it in an edgier reality.
“Honest Man” was just one of the three tracks I witnessed for the day that revealed the transformation of an artist right before my eyes, from lone troubadour to swaggering bandleader. However, his method of bandleading is less creative tyrant and more jocular everyman. If I didn’t know any better, I would assume he was just another one of the guys in a markedly talented collective. Even though these are his songs and this is his band, Hayes was surprisingly open to input on “Honest Man,” the melodically soaring “Sleepless,” and the driving, alt-country stomp of “The Worst.”
His band is certainly a good bunch to receive input from. It’s a sort of Balanced Breakfast supergroup featuring musicians from numerous established bands in the Bay, including Brent Curriden from Lords of Sealand and Cave Clove, drummer Cade from Friends W/O Benefits and singer Emily Whitehurst from Survival Guide. It’s probably easy, then, to feel like the music is in capable hands, and it seemed to relieve some of the pressure involved in recording, especially when particular parts needed to be hammered out a little bit more. The environment was so relaxed at times that the session resembled hanging out with your friends after school than a laborious creative process. Though plenty of hard work was accomplished throughout the day, plenty of goofing off occurred as well: playing with cardboard cutouts of Yoda and various other pieces of Star Wars paraphernalia filling the studio; GIF exchanges that resulted in bursts of boyish laughter; bassist Travis Pacheco constantly talking about Megadeth and my amazement at the ease with which he could rattle off various lineup changes without hesitation.
It’s clear that this batch of recordings is Travis Hayes’s vision, but it is a group effort making it come to life. This fact became vividly clear when engineer Scott Goodrich suggested the whole group get involved on gang vocals to fortify the chorus of “Honest Man.” That meant hangers-on as well, including photographer/videographer and man behind Abbot Kinney, Jared Swanson, manager and fellow Bay Bridged writer Victor Valle, and, of course, me. This is the second time I’ve been caught in the middle of the recording process, pulled back into the fray like Al Pacino in The Godfather III. I’m no singer, but I wasn’t gonna say no like a square, so I joined in and attempted to refrain from cracking up as Cade made faces and Victor gesticulated wildly with his hands like a demented maestro. Somehow it ended up sounding alright. Hell, better than alright. It sounded great. As if the song wasn’t already big enough, this group sent it into outer space.
Hayes isn’t the type to wear emotions on his sleeve. He saves that for his songs, and he’s more likely to respond to you with dry, self-depreciating humor than effusive exclamations. But after the final take of gang vocals I could see the excitement radiating from his face. He didn’t have to say a word, but I knew he was immensely proud of these tracks, his band, and the future of his music career.
Writer, drummer for numerous Bay Area bands, and obsessive Titus Andronicus fan, you can find more of his work (both musical and literary) at louderthanadoubt.tumblr.com or facebook.com/Nearmyth62. @LouderThanDoubt