Travis Stever, lead guitarist and songwriter for rock band Coheed And Cambria, tends to lean towards the excessive side of things. Not in any kind of drug or alcohol sense but in a musical vein. Listen to his playing on the new Year Of The Black Rainbow album and you'll hear the guitarist riffing on counter-melodies against Claudio Sanchez's guitar lines, inserting little lead lines over various sections, and just generally filling up the tracks with different tones and phrases. But he is always in control of his parts and his playing and never steps on a vocal or competes with a main melody line.
In an interview that took place at the absurdly early hour of 7 a.m. (west coast time for Stever it was 10 a.m.), the ebullient and humorous musician talked all about the new Atticus Ross/Joe Barresi-produced record. And of course, how could anyone expect him to verbalize his thoughts without filling up a whole lot of tape and then apologizing for everything when the interview drew to an end!
UG: Year of the Black Rainbow is the prequel to the four other records that make up The Amory Wars concept. If I'm a new listener to Coheed and Cambria, will I be any less attracted to this new album if I don't know about this other previously released music?
Travis Stever: I'll start by saying that to be a fan of the band, the concept is there if you want to reach into it. I find that people get into the band and then they're gonna wanna dive into the concept because the lyrics are telling a story. Like you said, there's been four albums already that have followed the concept: Second Stage Turbine Blade and all of them usually would include the number. So it would be Second Stage which is part two of the story; In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 was the third part; and then we had Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV and there's Volume I and II of that. So that was the fourth part of the story in two volumes.
And Year of the Black Rainbow is actually the beginning of everything?
Now we're at the Year of the Black Rainbow; though there's not a number included it is the first part of the story. And on the album actually in the art [at the time of this writing final artwork had not been completed] which will come out obviously when the album comes out, people will see that there's a number 1 in there. What it breaks down to is this is the prequel and it really tells the origins of Coheed and Cambria. There are so many details to the story that I think were unclear to a lot of people before that are cleared up in this book.
Tell us about the book.
The deluxe package is gonna come with a novel that's actually written by Claudio and Peter David who is a science-fiction writer; a very well-known one at that. I actually have been reading the book and it does tie together quite a few different things. A lot of questions that people that had been following the story and people that haven't been following the story yet [will be answered.] And because it's the introduction to the story itself, they'll be able to know what's going on right away.
For instance, as you know we have the dragonfly kinda thing? In the story, the dragonflies were created so they have syringes. I don't want to go too deep because I don't want to confuse you. But I mean there's a certain part in the story that gives the origin and tells how those things were created.
Did you actually learn anything about your own band?
For me it was interesting because I'm part of this band and music is my side of it; the guitar and everything that I do. But it's also interesting for me to see how Claudio is unfolding this story. And also there's a lot of biography; a lot of things that are real life situations that come out in the lyrics. So that's why I go back to what I said before that you don't need to know the concept as much because you can connect with the lyrics on the side that he's talking about his own life.
You talk about writing the music for the band. Have you tried at all to create themes that run through the albums in the same way the Amory Wars concept does? For instance, guitar tones that were present on the early albums and show up on later records?
I honestly look at it and I know everybody else [does], we honestly look at it like any normal album as a rock band who just wants the best tones and whatever parts are best for the songs. There's a concept that lyrically it's always gonna be put into consideration in Claudio's mind; musically it does not dictate what we're doing as a band. More or less when it comes down to it, we are putting together the record that we would want it to be concept or no concept.
What about guitar tones? There are so many of them on the record and some of them just show up for one little lick and then just disappear.
I mean when it comes to tones, it really literally comes down to experimenting with what is gonna sound cool and what works with the song.
Did your producers Atticus Ross and Joe Barresi get involved in this aspect of the recording?
They had two sides to them: You got Atticus who's got like the Nine Inch Nails background and Filter and things like that and then he had also just done a soundtrack for the Book of Ely. And these other projects that he's done throughout the years and there are many. And then you got Joe Barresi who has done Queens of the Stone Age and Tool so like you could see there's two different sides there. We've got these guys producing the album together and they really would have their own jobs; not jobs but you know what I mean. They were dedicated to certain things in the studio.
Was one of them more interested in the guitar side of things?
Joe Barresi really loved getting great tones. And he had so many different effects to play with. And it really influenced Claudio and I both to dive deep into the world of effects and tones which we're doing even for our live setting more now.
So you're trying to translate some of the guitar sounds from the album directly to the stage?
Yeah; not changing anything drastically but just being more conscious. I find as we go on and progress as a band, we're always getting more conscious of those kinds of things especially guitar-wise. You know what I mean? Just how the sound is gonna come out live and especially in the studio.
The guitar tones on Year of the Black Rainbow really ran the gamut from these little sparkling kind of accent textures to the huge and over-the-top rhythm sounds. You said that Joe Barresi was an important part of dialing in these sounds. Did you have the effects all figured out in pre-production or did you come up with these different guitar textures in the studio itself?
It's a little bit of both because we did do quite a bit of pre-production. But then once we got into the studio it was time to hone in on organizing everything and how everything is gonna sound. The parts were all there.
Was it a pretty loose situation with Joe and Atticus in terms of finding the tones?
There was a point where they would have us just run through the song basically on the spur of the moment and whatever comes out, get a good sound and see what comes out. Just by running through the whole song. Do you know what I mean? Not going on any particular part but run through the whole song and see if anything cool comes out of it. And a couple of my parts just came out of doing that. A couple of them are my favorite parts on the record and I'm sure for Claudio it's the same thing. They're not exactly the most dominant parts but they're like these guitar parts that just have a different feel to em because it literally was a feel. There was not thought, it was, Here, let's get this tone. Oh, that sounds awesome. Let's roll through it and see what we get out of it.
What were some of those parts?
At the end of the song World of Lines, it's a very reverb, delayed-out kind of staccato part that goes around in the background. That was one of those parts that just came spur of the moment. And on Shattered Symphony, yet again at the end of the song and actually a couple of parts in the middle just like really weird. Like you said, little guitar parts that just pop out and they just go right along with these chord progressions or these other leady parts that are going on and they kind of make it a little bit smoother or stick out a little bit more. And those parts are there in Shattered Symphony and at the end of the song there's kind of a very droning sound like weeeeoooohhh [mimics a guitar doing a sort of moaning guitar line.] It's hard for me to describe; it's not a staccato part. I'm trying to think of a band I could relate it to but it's tough. A part like that it just kind of popped out and the next thing you know it works perfect.
In talking about guitar parts, when you listen to The Broken, the first single, you hear these sort of opposing riffs in the verse that play off of each other. The track almost runs away with itself because there is so much going on but it really works. Kind of a controlled chaos. Certainly these riffs must have been worked out.
That song in particular, that verse part was there. So I just worked on stuff that could kinda wrap around it and it is borderline on the chaos side. But we've always had that kind of element. I mean somebody might listen to that and think, Oh, this is teetering on the edge; what are they doing? But that's why we did it that way because we have always had that kind of chaotic thing going on but it's structured and there is reason to it. It's not just, I'm gonna player whatever and he's gonna player whatever. It's more or less, This works; it's a little bit chaotic but we're almost like gears moving together and we're wrapping around each other and that's how I felt those parts worked together. And even for the rest of the song, there's a little kooky part in the middle where Mike and Claudio are following each other and I'm just doing kinda like doodoodoo dooodoodoo [imitates crazy guitar lick] underneath it. And somebody might still say, Ah, that's teetering on chaotic but I think and I'm sure that's why we did it that way and we all thought because it's structured in a way that's very Coheed and Cambria it's just taking it up a notch.
And since you've listened to the record, I'll ask you honestly: There are some songs that are not that chaotic. Correct?
Definitely. There are the acoustic songs and there are several tracks where the music empties out.
The Title Song Has A Real Ambient And Open Feel.
Yeah, we could talk about that one; that's a good song.
The Black Rainbow is sort of the chaos theory in reverse. It starts with really clean guitars and minimal parts and then the electrics come in and it builds. A lot of bands write these types of tracks but unless they're really orchestrated perfectly and grow naturally they always come off sounding artificial somehow. This song was really effective in that growing to a crescendo-type style. This sounds like it was really conceived in the studio.
It's awesome that you feel that way. It actually was exactly what you're saying; it was studio-built as a band. We had Claudio start playing a riff, just a chord progression which he changed but at first it just started with a little chord progression that was actually the solo part to Pearl of the Stars. Like it was those chords but then he changed it around a little bit and I started writing the other part.
A sort of give-and-take between Claudio and you?
We were basically just hitting off each other with different parts. So we start going back and forth like that in the live room with Atticus kind of eggin' us on to do certain things. I came up with the little part [sings the five-note counter melody in the verse], that whole thing, and we're going back and forth with that. And I think that Mike kind of set off of that line. Next thing you know we had that part and you'd think that's like part A, right?
And then we moved on and kind of broke it down a little bit more. It was like writing a song as a band but instead it was more spur of the moment than it would usually be. It could start with Claudio with the skeleton of a song usually or maybe Claud and I would put somethin' together. But this time it was just all of together working on it in the studio.
That's a good example too of running through and just playing something because I use a lot of Bigsby-driven kind of lead stuff throughout the end. That's what that sound is; it's more just the Les Paul with the Bigsby. And that originally was not supposed to be the part. But then I wanted to add something over what I had. So they had me plug in, I got the sound, and then the next thing you know that whole end [happened.] When all the guitars come in and Claudio starts with the heavier riff and then I'm playing that leady thing over it. I just played through that and that's what we kept.
You're mainly a Les Paul user?
Yeah; I used a 2005 SG on a couple of songs; on a couple of the parts on The Broken. For the most part, I have a brand new goldtop with a Bigsby and it's like my favorite guitar that I ever had. It sounds the best.
You obviously got a great instrument.
I was talking to somebody about it the other day and I'm sure you would know exactly what I'm talking about but you never know what the wood is gonna be like which can change the sound so much. I'll be completely honest, Steve: I got a Black Beauty from Gibson that I paid for. I've been buying from Gibson for years. They're not givin' away free ones anymore let's put it that way with the way things are. You know what I mean? I got one or two guitars out of them in the past but I paid for quite a few too. And so I got this Black Beauty and got it custom made with The Keywork which is our band symbol. And they said, Well, OK, you pick any other guitar, we'll throw it in. I wanted a goldtop. What is the newest one? [Presumably Travis was talking about the Gibson Studio model.] This is the funniest part: They put this one together for me. It's basically just a standard goldtop with a Bigsby and I'm like, Oh, this Black Beauty is gonna be my favorite guitar; I can't wait to get it. So I get the Black Beauty and then I get the goldtop and the goldtop turns out to be my favorite guitar that I ever had.
"I'm part of this band and music is my side of it; the guitar and everything that I do."
That was the main guitar on the album?
I recorded a lot of this album with [that guitar.] So it's pretty funny. Now it's my primary guitar for playing on the new songs and I'll use the Black Beauty on the old songs. It's dorky that I think it's so funny.
No, man, it's a good story. Some people might wonder why you're putting Bigsbys on Les Pauls though. You and Neil young, right? You never had a desire to go to traditional whammy bar guitars like Strats and stuff?
Not really; no. I've tried but it wasn't my kind of thing. I am a huge Neil Young fan; I'll admit that flat out. And I think you can hear that at the end of The Black Rainbow. That's kind of what I think about when I hear that; it's like very Neil Youngesque kind of playing.
You admit to listening to Neil Young. Who else did you listen to?
I know Claudio and I both have a wide variety of influences. One of my favorite influences is Mick Ronson but I don't know if that really shines in what I play. But I have so many other favorite guitar players too. I've got the usual. Tony Iommi; I've been on a huge Black Sabbath trip. We did that Heaven & Hell tour which was like a dream come true to be able to watch those dudes every night. Now I'm on a kick again for some reason; I guess because I've been collecting vinyl pretty heavily again now so all of a sudden I'm listening to all these Sabbath bootlegs that I got. I have bought Vol. 4 which is my favorite Sabbath album.
So, all those usual guitar influences you get from most guitar players, they're there. As for newer stuff, there's been a lot of things I've been into but it's hard to really break it down. It would be more band-oriented; not just guitar. There's a new band called Midlake; I really like their music. That's more of a band thing.
What about Mars Volta or Incubus?
Well, I've liked a lot of Incubus stuff in the past. I remember actually way back when they first came out and they had that album Science or whatever and I bought that ages ago and then they completely changed after that. That was like a funk metal kind of thing going on and then they changed quite a bit. And I've not followed too closely on the albums but what I have heard throughout the years, I really have enjoyed. And Mars Volta? I admire what they do. Yet again I haven't followed it too hard.
When it comes down to it, I'm either listening to like really, really older stuff or I'm listening to new stuff. There's a new metal band, well, they're not even that metal, but they're called Big Business.
Do you ever take notice of the bands on tour with you?
Some of the bands we've toured with I really like. Baroness I really enjoyed. It's funny, I could be listening to Leonard Cohen one day, Baroness the next day; that band Torch and then I might throw in a little Hall & Oates in-between. Music to me is like there's no boundary; so it's just whatever. My iPod has an absurd amount of music on it. And now it's starting to become an absurd amount of vinyl again. So that's really how it goes for me in being influenced. And I know the rest of the guys in the band are pretty much the same.
What was it like recording with Chris Pennie for the first time in the studio? How different is Chris from Josh Eppard?
It's not anything that Josh didn't bring because that's what Coheed and Cambria was and that's what it belonged being. But now this band for over three years now - Chris has been a part of this band for almost four years and having this lineup, this is what Coheed and Cambria is now. This is what we need to be now and what Chris brings to it is the same thing that the rest of us are bringing to it. And hopefully this makes sense to you: This is what we've moved on to be; this is how the band has progressed. When Josh was in the band, that was the way Coheed and Cambria needed to be and I'm very proud of what we were then. But Chris joining the band has a huge influence on the way things are moving now and the way that we are playing. Just like any artist or band wants to feel, I think that we've gotten better. Somebody else could beg to differ and that's fine but I mean for me any artist or band just wants to keep getting better. And with Chris joining the band and us becoming who we are now, I think it's better than ever; it's just tighter. Before it was great; it's just different.
I kinda just contradicted myself and I apologize for that.
That's cool. You're just trying to explain a process.
What I'm trying to say is: We're the band that we belong being when Josh was in the band. And now that Chris is in the band, though we've changed, it doesn't make the past lack anything. We're the band that we need to be now.
And that band with Chris will be playing the Coachella Festival on April 17 with Faith No More, Muse, Devo, and a bunch of other bands. Any kind of friendly competition set in with you and these other groups?
No, not really; we're kind of a band on our own when it comes to that. I'm very excited for the tour we're about to do with Circa Survive and Torch. We played with Circa Survive before but I'm a big fan of Torch's music so it'll be really interesting to be able to play with [them.]
Do you actually watch the other bands on tour with you when they perform?
We did the Heaven & Hell tour and it's always amazing to me because there have been a lot of times in the past where it has not been an option to enjoy watching the other band. And wanna see them every night. This is gonna be one of those tours where that is the case. So for me that's kind of important because not only am I so amped up to play every night but I'm amped up because there's a really great show rolling through with us.
The carnival is bringing better rides. How about that? That's a good way to describe it. More ladies with beards and better rides and that's what we've got goin' on and that makes me excited. I don't know what the hell that meant but just roll with it.
While we're talking about live performances how does the Neverender: Children of the Fence Edition CD/DVD hold up for you? That seems like a rather daunting undertaking to record your entire catalog over the course of four nights.
It was work, it definitely was work, but I was pretty amazed. That goes back to the whole Chris thing too. This unit, the way that we are as a band now, we strapped down and we knew that it was gonna make our fans really happy and it was gonna excite us. Once we took this on and once it was done, it was gonna excite us that we had done it. But in the midst of it it was pretty strenuous at times.
But it definitely was worth it especially with helping out in situations like our rehearsal.
We're in rehearsal right now and we're playing a bunch of older tunes and it's like, Oh, yeah, I need to learn that song? I just come home and I listen to it once and it's like muscle memory comes into it. So I know everything.
It's funny; it was such a scary thing to think of before we did it and then once we did it it was like, Wow, that's not so bad. But, yeah, it definitely took a lot and I think that our fans in particular were really excited that we did it.
You also manage to find time for your side projects: Davenport Cabinet and Fire Deuce.
Fire Deuce is kind of non-existent. I mean who knows? That was with the guys from 3 and maybe someday we'll do somethin' again cause it was definitely fun. It was tongue-in-cheek rock and fun and I enjoyed it. More or less whatever I do elsewhere now is with the Davenport Cabinet project. And I actually will be releasing a split with that and I think we're shooting for May. I'm doing a split with a band called One Small Step For Landmines. We're gonna release it on vinyl and I'm doing three songs and the other band are doing three songs. So that's hopefully gonna be released mid-May and I think it will be a 10 vinyl release but then it would have the MP3 downloads as well. You know how they're doing it now; a lot of people are collecting vinyl again. It's more indulgent too because I'd like to release something on vinyl with that project so I decided to do that.
"There's a lot of biography; a lot of things that are real life situations that come out in the lyrics."
None of these songs could ever be recorded by Coheed and Cambria?
No; it's really more experimenting on what could be the folkier side of certain things. And it's not just folk music; it can be more throwback classic rock sounding and then there are a couple of songs that are kind of poppy. These songs I can take and add whatever I want and do it at home for fun because I have a little studio at home. Also, I have friends get involved; more friends than ever on these next three songs. I got a good friend named Jimmy who plays guitar on a couple of songs and I got my friend Rory who plays drums; and actually Chris Pennie plays drums on one of the songs. The list kind of goes on. I had my father sing on a song; he did some backgrounds because he's been a singer/songwriter. He was the reason I play music so I had him come in and sing on a song. So it was really an effort to get a lot of friends and family involved and have fun with it. It definitely started as my project but I'd like to get more people involved.
You sound pretty psyched about these three new songs.
I think these three songs that are gonna be released, I'm the most proud of any I've ever done. Aside from Coheed; Coheed is a completely different entity. With this project, it's the most proud I've ever been of what I've done with them. One is called Blood and Rain, one is called All Silence Breaks, and then there's another one called Wires and Satellites.
You mentioned just a minute ago about your folkier side. You play mandolin and banjo and some other stringed instruments.
Yeah, some of that stuff comes on definitely in the Davenport.
And on Year of the Black Rainbow, there is a track like Pearl of the Stars that is centered around an acoustic guitar. Do you like this quieter side of the music?
Pearl of the Stars was more supposed to be a Prize Fighter song. I think Claudio had written that song as either an idea for Coheed or Prizefighter. Because he's got Prizefighter Inferno and there's definitely more of an electronic side to quite a bit of it but it's definitely got the folk feel to it throughout. And I think he was kinda, Well, if it's not a Coheed song, that's what this will be. And everybody really liked it and that's what Pearl of the Stars became. It was a song that could have ended up being a side project song but I think it's a great tune and I'm really glad it's on the Coheed album.
That was a song that Claudio had actually demoed at home and he and Atticus Ross, the producer, really put a lot of work into that tune. But the demo that he did at home really, really has all the elements that the song became. Like if you listen to the demo, there would be no mistaking that it's the same song. It's just that they added so much more to it in the end. I'm glad that song is on the record.
Which does uncover a different side of the band.
Like you said before, I'm definitely a fan of any of that kind of stuff. That's why I love The Black Rainbow, the last tune because it starts out with that slower feel. I tend to have that side of me. There's a lot of the Davenport stuff that has more of a minor or slower feel to it. I don't know why that happens. A lot of people ask me, Why the hell is Am your favorite chord? And I'm just like, I don't know; it just kinda happens.
Steven, I'm sorry if I kind of go on sometimes. Did you get what you needed out of it?
You're a delight. One response from you covers the next five questions on the page.
Oh, good. Well, at least hopefully that's helpful.
Photo credit: JayWestPhotography.com
Interview by Steven Rosen
"To be a fan of the band, the concept is there if you want to reach into it."