PAT TRAVERS: TRAVERSING THE GLOBE, GUITAR IN HAND
By Paul Freeman [October 2011 Interview]
“If you’re not doing what you like, if you’re trying to catch a trend, you’ll always be behind,” said guitarist/singer Pat Travers. “So just do what makes you happy.”
Those who relish blues-infused guitar rock have been happy about Travers’ music since his eponymous 1976 debut album.
We had a chance to talk with Travers on the eve of a Northern California club gig. “We like to get close to the crowd and work it,” Travers said. “So it should be fun. The hardest part will be keeping the volume down.”
He performed some of his classic material, as well as songs from his latest album, “Fidelis,” plus a couple from his next CD.
“It’s a great set. Really gets you going. Never stops. Playing live, I just put everything I’ve got into it and we just try to make sure it’s a good time for everybody.”
Travers was born in Toronto and spent his teen years in Ottawa. In 1968, at 13, he experienced Jimi Hendrix in concert.
“There’s actually a CD of that show, ‘Jimi Hendrix in Ottawa.’ I don’t know if that’s the first show or the second show. I was at the second show. And I was just kind of in shock and awe. So I can’t really attest to what happened there,” Travers said, chuckling.
The Hendrix performance had a lasting effect on Travers. “It was the most powerful thing I’d ever seen or felt. So I just tried to emulate some of that all my life, in my own little way, anyway. I think I took something away from Hendrix in attitude and in just general stage presence, things like that. Great performer.”
By 15, Travers was playing in rock bands and trying to carve out his own guitar identity. “I just went about that from the beginning. We had to play other people’s music and I would have to learn the essence of a solo, the essence of a song. But I was putting my own stuff in right from the start. Yeah, and I wanted to play my own music. I didn’t want to play other people’s music. I wanted other people to play my music,” Travers said with a laugh.
Travers jumped at an opportunity to join the band of Canadian rock ‘n’ roll legend Ronnie Hawkins. That was a valuable apprenticeship.
“Ronnie was so cool. He told me he wanted me to play these old ‘50s and ‘60s rockabilly tunes. And he wanted me to play them exactly the same, same sound, same picking, same everything. For a 19, 20-year-old kid, that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do.
“But he said, ‘You can do this, son, and you’ll be better than a hundred guitar players, because this is where it all comes from. You need to know this stuff. It’s like fundamental.’ And he was right. He really was. If you don’t know those early, fundamental rhythms that these guys played, you’re just doing the cartoon version of it. You have to find out where the soul really comes from, when they’re playing it, why they’re playing, how they’re playing it. The nuance is important.
“You have to learn some fundamentals. And keep going back to them, too. I do martial arts. I’ve been doing it for a while, so I have a black belt. I’m a sensei and I teach. And that forces me to go back to the fundamentals every time. When I’m working with a newbie, I have to go right back to the beginning every time. Same thing with music, you should do that, too. Go right back to the fundamentals. Because that’s your platform. That’s your foundation.”
In 1975, Travers moved to London England. “I had just turned 21. And I really was green. I knew nothing about anything. And I think that helped me, because I just came in there and made a demo and called all the record companies and made appointments with the A&R men. Some of them would see me. Some of them wouldn’t. I’d get rejected here and there. But one guy liked it and wanted to sign me. And that’s how that happened. Everything started to move pretty quickly. A year after I’d been in England, I played the Reading Festival.”
For that first album, Travers began writing songs. “I think I’m much better now. It was something I never really did. We always played other people’s music. I wanted to come up with something original and not derivative and not what I’d been playing for the last five years. So I was kind of on the spot on my first album, because I’d never written any songs before. So I just did what I did and I tried to make music. And I listen back to that album now and I think it’s pretty good for the first time and not having a clue about making an album. I couldn’t listen to it for the longest time. But I can listen to it now.”
The challenge, at the time of the record’s release, was to get the masses to listen. “We made quick progress. But still, the U.K. was going through a transition in trends in music. It was all the punk scene coming in. And it was very anti- what I wanted to do. So it was a little discouraging.
“We had a solid fan base, but it was small. The punk, new wave stuff was the new fashion and they were the only people that were going to get any promotion. Fortunately, in the U.S., they were playing our music in Austin, Texas, on radio station KLBJ and it started from there and then up in Chicago and out to the Bay Area, and all over the States. And we were suddenly more popular in the U.S., so came over here.”
Travers moved to Florida in 1978. With a revamped lineup, his band enjoyed some commercial success with such albums as “Heat in the Street” and “Crash and Burn.” “Snortin’ Whiskey” was a radio hit and Travers became a force in the hard rock scene. He began using keyboards, as well as guitar and vocals, to express himself.
He set a goal of attaining a number one album. But Travers wouldn’t bend his musical personality to suit the mainstream.
“I didn’t want to go for some pop sound or try to predict what would be popular. All I could do was what I liked. And that was the best stuff that people responded to. There was one album, where I tried to be contemporary and play these ‘80s hair tunes with big choruses. I got a writer in that wrote these songs. And I didn’t like doing them. And I didn’t like the way they sounded. And it didn’t work anyway. So now, forever and ever, I’m just going to do what I like.“
Peers such Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and Rush’s Alex Lifeson mention Travers as being among their favorite players.
“I’m always flattered by that and amazed by some of the guys who mention me as an influence.”
Travers is eager to finish up in next album. “It’ll be a little more R&B. It’s my roots. But it’ll always sound kind of funky. It’s stripping things down, not so much over-the-top production, making every part really count and coming out sounding like four guys playing.
“Recording has definitely changed. The whole nature of pop music is completely different from 20 years ago. And it’s still finding it’s way.
“But I think it’s a good time for creative music. Different types of music can get exposure on the internet and through audience-building, building up your fan base. And if you put your songs up for download, you get all the money. You don’t need a record company anymore.”
Travers, who resides outside Orlando with his wife and two kids, has shot a 3-D TV pilot, which he hopes might find a home at DirecTV. “It’s called ‘P.T.’s Rock House 3-D.’ It’s an hour-long show. My band plays and then I have Mark Farner from Grand Funk as my guest. I interview him for about 15 minutes. Then we play four or five of his songs. It turned out well. It felt good at the time.”
As for Travers’ goals, the quipped, “To be filthy rich. Actually, I’d settle for half of that - rich. Leave out filth.
“These are tough times right now. Things are uncertain. I don’t want to look back and say, ‘Gee, that was great. And that was great.’ I really don’t want to do that right now. I’ve got to look forward and figure out how to get my music to a lot of people. And make myself more famous on the internet or whatever. So that’s what I’m looking for. The future, that’s where I’m looking. I’ve had some great moments. But I know I’ll continue to have them, too.
“Like I said, these are uncertain times. There’s a certain amount of stress you have to overcome. But, fortunately, I have my show to play and that’s always a joy. So I’m very lucky. Every day that I get to play, I get 90 minutes of joy.”