Interview with Graham Travis

Although he claims the title of his first album, Why Don’t You Know Me Yet?, is a relationship-themed question, it’s a fortuitous title. I don’t think an artist’s first album has struck me before the way this debut did, and the title becomes especially poignant, predicting that soon, indeed, you will know Graham Travis.

Filled with impeccable pop hooks, catchy guitar-driven rock, and a mix of influences from alt-country to pop to classic rock, Graham’s album is nearly perfect, the kind of album you’d expect from someone who’s been playing for years. But Graham didn’t start playing music until he was 19 (he’s 25 now), and he has only a small amount of experience with one band. Surprising though that may be, it’s more surprising that more haven’t caught on to this album.

After a ridiculous amount of missed calls, we finally spoke with Graham at his workplace in Washington State and discussed writing the perfect pop song, how a young musician gets better known, and where he’s going from here.

Delusions of Adequacy: Is this your first album?

Graham Travis: This is the very first regular album. I did an EP with the band Radio Maria I was in for a few years.

DOA: So what is your musical experience?

GT: Well, I was in choirs growing up, but I never really played any instruments until I was 19. Then I picked up an acoustic and started writing. I never even wrote a real song until I was 22 (I’m 25 now). It’s really just the last few years that I really started to write.

In Radio Maria, I learned to play guitar. I was the guitarist and did some backup vocals. None of us were proficient in our instruments, it was just a learning curve. That was trial by fire. When we broke up, three of us were interested in writing own songs. Lacy Brown was our drummer, and she’s doing a solo endeavor now. Ryan Marsh is doing worship music. So it worked out for us all.

DOA: Is that why you chose to go solo instead of joining another band? Everyone else was doing it?

GT: Well, that band so democratic. We’d mull over everything a million times. I wanted to write my own songs, do my own thing. I thought that I would give it a try and take ita s far as I could.

DOA: So on this album, did you do all the instruments?

GT: I did everything but the drums at some point. On many of the songs, I collaborated with Brian Ward (from the band Kilmer) on bass. He helped out a lot on the album. He just took over most of the bass and really added a lot. He and I would work on arrangements and stuff, so I owe a lot to him. Greg Young did drums, and he produced the whole thing. I have to give them both a lot of credit for taking what I had, which was pretty rough, beginner-type songs, and bring them to a whole new level.

DOA: Are you working with them still?

GT: Yeah, I’m just starting my next album, and I’m excited about our growth.

DOA: So how long has the album been out?

GT: November 1 was the first show, and it’s just catching on slowly. It’s a real indie release. Poptek (Records) is run by a friend of mine, Andy Ingram, who started it up on his own a few months before finishing the CD, and we wanted to wokr together. It’s mutually beneficial. Having a label adds legitimacy to the release, and he helps out with promoting.

DOA: What has the response been so far?

GT: Excellent. It’s been really good. To be honest, I struggle with my confidence when I put myself out there on the line. And I guess I’m surprised. Deep down inside, I always believed I knew a good melody when I heard it, and I thought I could make one. It’s nice to hear people other than family and friends say positive stuff. It’s really awesome. So far it’s all been positive feedback.

DOA: You named the album Why Don’t You Know Me Yet? Is that a subtle hint that this album deserves notice or sly irony?

GT: To some extent, that’s it. It also has a relationship meaning. In terms of vulnerability, I mean, it’s an art form and you want to get out there, but it opens yourself to vulnerability to allow people in. But on a macro level, the album title is an introduction. Why don’t you know me yet? The answer is because I haven’t done it before. I think on a micro level, why don’t you know me yet means I have to make myself known to be known.

That’s one of the song lyrics, “If you really want to know me well, come back when you know yourself.” If you wait forever to know yourself, you’re constantly asking ‘why don’t you know me yet?’ It’s not someone else’s problem though, it’s yours. That’s something I struggle with. There’s a lot of personal truths on this album, but I think they’re universal. I hope so, anyway.

DOA: It’s easy to hear your pop influences on this album. Are you a longtime pop fan?

GT: Yeah. The diversity on the album had me worried. It’s more fragmented with styles and genres. But I’m influenced by a lot of different artists. Like the pop, that’s going back to what I was raised on: The Beatles, the Beach Boys. My dad was a musician, and he had a very diverse taste. He still does.

Then there’s the alt-country stuff, which I love, like the Jayhawks and Ryan Adams, and I think it goes furthe rback, to CSNY and Bruce Springsteen. I grew up on that and still like it. To me, those are the influences on a broad level. When I’m writing a song, it’s just the song, just how I feel at the time. There’s a season when I listen to a lot of pop, and my music is more poppy. Lately I’ve been listening to more poppy songs, pop and rock. I don’t know if there will be as much alt-country on the next album.

DOA: I always ask what people listen to, and you’ve pretty much covered that.

GT: Yeah. I also love lot of local stuff. Long Winters is a huge inspiration to me now. And Broken Social Scene, that made me see I can spend more time on instrumental stuff. Down the road, I want to do something that’s speaking more through music than words. I think it’s more literate…

DOA: Everyone I’ve been talking to lately has mentioned Broken Social Scene. That is a really great album.

GT: It’s fantastic! What they are doing with layering… Brian (Ward) said it drove him crazy to hear me throw all this layering into my songs, throw all these layers in songs. Now he listens to this, and he can accept more of what I’m trying to do. The music has this thick sound, which keeps your interest, there’s so many different things to hear. That album sort of gave me a license to keep on doing what I’m doing.

DOA: “Tripped You Up” is about the catchiest song I’ve heard in a long time. Describe the process of making this song?

GT: Some songs are just a gift. I was halfway through the CD when I wrote that song. It’s about my girlfriend, my fiance now. I think if you’re going to write a real poppy pop song, you have to be shameless about the content. That will let you do the melodies and sing it in the way it needs to be sung. You can’t be too serious about a pop song. That one, I just sat down in my room and wrote it mostly on acoustic guitar. I write a few things on piano, more now. But that just came sitting in my room one night. It was definitely inspired. I was crazy in love. I wrote all those words, and it’s very pulled right out of conversations. It just happened in the course of a half-hour, and I started four-tracking.

Hooks come easy to me. Adding other hooks that go with it is the easy part. I always start with the chord progression and deconstruct from there.

DOA: I mentioned this in my review, kind of half jokingly, but do you think it’s possible for one amazingly catchy song to overshadow an album? Should a pop musician be afraid of that happening?

GT: I don’t think it’s something to be afraid of. You have to rely on the listener’s integrity. I don’t want the type of listener who would just listen to one song and set the album aside. You have to want the listener to listen to it over and over because of that song. I mean, I guess we all do that. I did that with Long Winters’ latest release. I listened to it over and over, and it blew my mind. Afterwards, I stuck with it, and discovered all the stuff that, in my gluttonous listening I couldn’t wait for right then. Everyone’s had that experience of finding that track 11 song they never listened to and it became their favorite song on the CD. That’s natural.

DOA: As a musician, do you know that’s going to be one of those songs when you’re writing it?

GT: Yeah, sometimes you get something that happens in the studio that’s just awesome. You just say, ‘oh wow, that’s magic.’ We had a couple of those moments. It didn’t come with “Tripped You Up” until the mixing. The tracking is so wonderful, and then we added the bass. We went backwards and did the drums and guitar and piano and then added the bass. We were waiting on Brian most times. When the bass was added, we started with the jingly stuff, the bells, tambourine, glockenspiel. That’s when we knew something happened, right there. All three of us turned our heads and said that’s something special. When you start so rough and crude, the transformation really catches your eye.

DOA: So what about your next album? Have you started on that yet?

GT: Yeah, I’m four-tracking the songs now. I’ve got about 10 songs that are really rough. Some are just rough cuts, but I have the hooks to build around. Sometimes you know it’s a song after about 12 bars of hook and a little melody. I’m in the process of flushing those out, about a quarter of the way through. It’s going to be a longer process. I’m thinking of collaborating with my friends more on this one. I’ll be coming up with the arrangements and doing the four-tracking, knowing what hooks I want to keep, and I hope we can bring more people in to round it out.

I’ve been living in Eugene (Washington) now for a few months until the wedding, and I realized when you step outside what kind of great music culture has been building here the last year and a half or so. Like, there’s Lacy Brown, who has a different style than mine, but she’s a wonderful writer. There’s a lot of people like that, other folks who haven’t played out much but are wonderful people. I’ve done some shows with Shane (Tutmarc) of Dolour – Lacy used to be his drummer.

DOA: Speaking of touring, have you done much?

GT: No, I haven’t really toured. I would love to tour, but I’m not really in a place where I can yet, due to commitments and stuff. I’d like to do well in Seattle first. If I can do well there. Seattle is all I’ve ever known. There’s so much good music around. They say if you can get people to accept you there… it’s a tough crowd. I guess I did about five shows with Radio Maria, but I’ve been working full time. I’m trying to free myself to do this part-time and do part-time with the music. Hopefully things will expand. I’d like to stick to the Northwest for a while.

DOA: When you’ve played live, do you just do it solo?

GT: No, I have been rounding up folks right now to play. We’re booked at the end of April already. We’re doing a live radio thing at KEXP in early May. I want to fill in the dates around that. It’s hard living in Eugene and having to go up there and play. But I don’t do a lot of solo acoustic stuff. I like having the other music around me. It’s probably a confidence thing.

DOA: Ok, last question. I joked about this in my review too, but due to the success of pop music recently, do you think a great pop-rock songwriter has to change his name to Ben – Ben Kweller, Ben Folds, Ben Lee – to be successful?

GT: (laughs) I think I’ll do about three more shows and if I get a good draw, I can afford the name change. I haven’t heard Ben Kweller, but I saw that in your review and want to hear his stuff.

DOA: It kind of reminds me of yours, only with less of the alt-country leanings.

GT: It’s funny, I learned my first song on piano from going back and forth from the stereo to the piano with a Ben Folds song, so there’s some affinity there as well. I guess maybe I’ll have to consider the name change!