Abby Travis is one badass bassist. She just recently ended the final Go-Go's tour after playing with the storied Los Angeles band for much of the last half-decade, but that gig was just one notch on the talented four-stringer's bass strap. Travis, who got her start in the mid-'80s with The Lovedolls, has played with The Go-Go's, Beck, comedian/lounge singer Tony Clifton (created by the late, great Andy Kaufman and occasionally resurrected by Kaufman's friend Bob Zmuda), and seemingly everyone in between.
One might think all of these great gigs would make a musician jaded, or worse, stuck on herself. But Travis is down to earth and there isn't a hint of rock star attitude lingering around her. It's refreshing to talk to a performer who clearly loves what she does, whether she's acting as a hired gun laying down bass lines live or in the studio for well-established rock bands, or creating solo work or putting together bands of her own — like her current act, Sumo Princess, a two-piece bass and drums mix of stoner-punk and art-rock. She even gives music lessons when she's in town long enough to share her immense talent and musical knowledge.
My conversation with the 46-year-old native Angeleno back in September started with another bassist I recently profiled, Red Kross' Steve McDonald.
Did you get the link I sent you with the Steve McDonald story?
I did. I was stoked to see him get his due. I’m a big fan of Steve McDonald. He’s totally under-appreciated and I don’t think he gets enough props. Weirdly enough, the first band I was ever in was this band called The Lovedolls and they kind of came from this movie Dave Markey made. The songs that were on the soundtrack of the movie that were the Lovedolls songs were actually written and performed by Redd Kross. So the first bass lines I ever learned were Steve’s bass lines, which was a really great way to be introduced to the instrument.
How did you end up playing bass?
Kim [Pilkington] was the guitar player of the Lovedolls, rest in peace, and she was dating my older brother Dave at the time and the band had come into existence and they were looking for a new bass player. Basically, she liked the way I dressed and I’d given her a tuna fish sandwich one time at our house when she was hungry and I brought the average age of the band down by about five years. At that point, that was enough to be in a band. That’s how I started.
I hadn’t played bass before and I remember Kim telling me, “Don’t tell Janet [Housden, the drummer] that you haven’t played before.” [Laughs] She gave me some lessons and that’s how it all started.
So did you play guitar at that point?
I’d taken piano lessons as a kid.
So you could read music. Did that help you in the Lovedolls?
Reading music doesn’t help you in the Lovedolls [laughs], but understanding how to play an instrument can help you play any instrument.
How old were you when you joined the Lovedolls?
I was either 15-and-a-half or 16. I think I was in 10th or 11th grade. I’m the worst person for this kind of stuff, especially years. Don’t even bother asking me what year something happened.
Staying on the bass for a bit, what’s your bass of choice?
It really depends on the project I’m doing. I have three main basses that I use. For a lot of stuff, I use my Yamaha BB 2000. That’s really my main bass, but in Sumo Princess I use my Music Man Stingray. I also have a ’73 [Fender] Precision that I keep flat rounds on, so if I’m doing a recording that I want to hear that sound, I’ll use that bass. It really does depend on what I’m playing. I’m not that into gear, so I have had all those basses for a long time.
You’re a bass player after my own heart. I’m not a gearhead either, but there are a lot of them out there that like to know this stuff.
For the gearheads, then, you can say the Music Man is an Ernie Ball, made in the USA.
Those are pricey.
I got that in the '90s. I had one of those fortuitous moments. My friend and I went to Sam Ash. He’s one of those guys that’s always looking for a deal on a new guitar. I was like, “I don’t want any other basses unless I see a Music Man Stingray with a rosewood fret board” and I walk in and find one for $800.
I play it in Sumo Princess, my new band, because that band is just bass and drums and I’m looking for more high end and the Music Man gets so much fuzz and I’m looking for those overtones. It’s more comfortable to play and it gets the sound I want for that project.
What’s your amp of choice?
Well, I’m an Ampeg artist so I use an Ampeg VR and an 8-by-10 [speaker cabinet].
Oh, those are fun to carry around.
Well, I don’t carry them around. Most of the gigs I do, there’s roadies, but I have to say I’m starting to feel really guilty because for Sumo Princess, part of the sound is having that massive amp and speakers and poor Tommy [Grenas, Travis’ husband] has to schlep it. As soon as we get a little success I’m hiring a roadie because I feel guilty asking my husband to move it all the time.
There are some amazing solid-state heads that are small enough to fit in an overhead baggage that sound pretty great. I used one for the Farflung tour [Grenas’ longtime, and awesome, band that Travis occasionally plays with], but when I’m doing all the analog effects and I want that distortion, it sounds better with a big, gnarly tube head.
I noticed on your website that you give music lessons. How did you get into that?
I started doing that about 15 years ago. I am a trained musician. I graduated from a jazz music school. There’s always more to learn, but I have a pretty good understanding of music theory and I’m a big fan of modal harmonic theory in particular, which I happen to think is fantastic theory for creating bass lines.
I don’t have any kids, so that experience of teaching … when you show somebody how to do something that they have never been able to do before, the look on their face when they are able to play something or they understand something … it’s a really wonderful gift, you know? I enjoy teaching students. It’s a great way to supplement my income when I’m home and [laughs] I’m not really qualified to do a lot of other stuff, so there you go. One of my kids, a student of mine, I think she’s about 14 and she’s already got a record deal. I’m so proud. It’s a lot of fun.
What’s the most important thing for folks to grasp first, in your opinion, when someone is learning a new instrument?
The first thing that I go over with new students is how to physically hold and play the instrument properly so they don’t hurt their wrist or get tendinitis. I tailor my lessons, though, for each student because each student has different goals. It really depends on what they want to do or learn. I use a lot of Ramones’ music with my beginners because it gets their right hand together and teaches them how to play in time.
Let’s talk about your career a bit. Tell me more about doing The Lovedolls.
They kind of had a leg up because they came from those Dave Markey movies [Desperate Teenage Lovedolls and Lovedolls Superstar] so they had more going on than most baby bands. It wasn’t terribly hard and I had a lot of fun. It was still that early punk era so it wasn’t like anyone was looking for me to play fancy Jaco Pastorius type stuff. I’m not easily frightened anyway, so I just had fun with it. The only thing that used to happen a lot, though, was because I was underage, a lot of the venues we played I’d have to stay outside or in the kitchen. It was fun, though. We got to do a little bit of touring and I enjoyed the experience.
You have a really extensive resume. Was that your plan, to play with a lot of different folks, or had you not just found a band experience that was fulfilling?
After The Lovedolls, I was in a band called The Rails that was a power-pop trio, and that was a good experience. But after I finished school, it got to the point where it was kind of important for me to make a living. It was not like I wanted to be this touring bass player for hire, or session person, but I was open to opportunities, and if people would call up and offer me chances to audition, I was like, “Why not?” I was always working on my own stuff, too, but I was open to different things that came along.
I’ve sometimes wondered if my own career, meaning the records I’ve put out under my own name, of which there have been four, if I’d been singularly focused on doing my own music if that would have gone better? Who knows? Those are unanswerable questions.
How do you like to write?
All the stuff I’ve written under my own name, I wrote that on piano. For Sumo Princess, my new band, a lot of it is being written through improvisation, or I’ve been writing it on bass because I want it to be different than my old stuff.
Who is playing drums in Sumo Princess?
His name is Gene Trautmann. He was in The Miracle Workers and he was in Queens of the Stone Age and Eagles of Death Metal. He’s an old friend of mine and he’s a good guy.
Are you one of those folks who writes every day?
No. I write when I feel like it. Usually the best writing I do, or the best time to finish songs, is when I’m walking one of the dogs. I think [jazz legend] Billy Strayhorn said something similar, like, the time to finish a song is not when you’re trying to. You have to free the subconscious mind to work on its own.
Going back to your résumé, are there any projects that you consider favorites?
I don’t really like to pick favorites that much. I’ve had a lot of amazing experiences that I’m very, very thankful for. I really enjoyed being with The Go-Go’s for the past four or five years. I really love their music. I grew up on their music, so getting to be a part of that was quite a lot of fun. Getting to play the Hollywood Bowl with a full symphony orchestra backing us up … I never thought I would get to do that.
I also loved playing in Masters of Reality. Getting to play music that was that heavy and with people that are such good musicians. I had a lot of fun working with Eagles of Death Metal. They have such an amazing audience and it's total ass-shaking music that’s fun to play.
In my 20s, when Beck played the Reading Festival. I had never played to 40,000 people and that was really neat. Getting to go to England and Europe at that age was very cool. I’m very fortunate that I’ve gotten to do a lot of fantastic things.
And a variety of different styles, too. Going back to The Go-Go’s for a second, was it surreal realizing you were playing with them after having grown up listening to them?
A little bit, yeah, it was. Even though I knew most of them before I ended up playing with them, but yes it was. It was pretty surreal. I particularly like playing songs like “This Town” and “Our Lips Our Sealed” and seeing the audience reaction to them.
It’s different when you play music that brings you back to a certain age. I don’t know how to describe it.
I totally get that. I play in a band now with one of the original members of JFA, who were huge out here in my hometown when I was growing up, and sometimes that 13- or 14-year-old kid in me pops up and freaks out because now I’m playing with one of the guys I grew up idolizing.
I totally have experiences like that. I just made a record that came out this year with Alice Bag. Who has been a friend of mine for a really long time. The stuff that I played on was very Phil Spector-y, '60s girl group … I used that flat-wound [Precision Bass] on it. We did a show, the record release party, and she had me play “Babylonian Gorgon” with her and I was freaking out the whole time. When she came out — and she’s someone I’ll have cocktails with and hang out [with] — but when she came out she was in full “Alice Bag” mode and doing that dance that is so specific to her that no one else does. It actually kind of startled me and made me so happy that I almost fucked up the song. [Laughs]
What was it like playing with Gibby Haynes and His Problem?
It wasn’t my favorite. I’ll leave it at that. I survived the tour, I’ll put it that way. [Laughs]
I have to ask, as well, how did the whole Tony Clifton thing happen?
That was completely random. Tommy and I went out to our friend’s bar one night who worked with Tony Clifton and they were looking for a musical director and I said I’ll do it. It was totally random.
How was it? People have some different ideas about Tony Clifton.
Let me think about how I want to answer that. It was interesting and I think I’ll give Mr. Clifton credit for always being in character, even for rehearsal. He was always Tony. I was OK when the job ended, but we ended on good terms. It was fun for me to have a regular job. It was at the Comedy Club. It was fun to have a normal schedule like that for a while. There were some good players in the band. I thought a lot of his comedy was quite funny and the thing I’m most proud of as musical director was I got him to do “Living After Midnight” by Judas Priest. He came out in ass-less chaps and I think it is hilarious that I contributed to the comedy world.
So, you’re doing Sumo Princess now. Have you recorded yet?
No, we’re doing our first recording in a few weeks. I’m terribly excited. [Note: Since this interview took place, the recording has been completed.]
Oh cool, where are you recording at?
We’re recording at my friend Dave Jones’s studio. Not only is he a great guy and I can’t wait to work with him, but he’s got an analog tape machine and the amount of distortion and gnarliness we’ve got tone-wise, what we’re doing will work better with analog. He’s a fellow bass player, as well, so I think it will work really well there.
I’ve recorded most of my records at my own studio, but I’ve now discovered that a.) I don’t really like engineering, and b.) I really don’t like playing and engineering at the same time. I don’t like wearing too many hats. I’m very happy to be working with Dave in a few weeks.
Our next show is in December at Pappy and Harriet’s. It’s a great venue. I’ve been going out there for a long time because my friends have a studio out there. I don’t like it in the summer though … it’s too hot.
So that’s the next gig?
Yes, the show is on Saturday, December 3rd. We’re trying to be kind of picky about what we do because we’re both older and we want to play, but only if it’s right. To do an opening slot at the Viper Room is not of interest. We’re thinking of putting together things that are more like, happenings, or special events. Things that are worth it for us and worth it for the audience to come out.
We’d like to put out a record, maybe next year, in Europe and go over there and tour with it. That’s kind of the goal right now.
I was going to ask what you were doing with the record.
I think when the band only has two people, it makes it more affordable. I’m also super-interested in doing split 7-inch or split full-length records with like-minded bands. Farflung does a lot of stuff like that and I think that is a great way to expose your music to new fans and hear other people’s music.
Are you working on any more solo stuff?
No. I’m not doing any Abby Travis music any more. I started going Sumo Princess because I hated music and I started the band to keep myself from going completely insane. The only Abby Travis stuff — and I know it is really lame to talk about yourself in the third person [laughs] — that I ever do is there’s this place called Brookledge which is owned by the family that started the Magic Castle. There's this theater there that Orson Welles used to practice his magic act with Marlene Dietrich as the assistant. I’m a huge fan of Hollywood history, so it's really cool to play there.
So nothing is on your schedule right now other than Sumo Princess?
I just got off of working since March, so I’m quite happy to be home and only focusing on this project right now.
So were you on the road for five or six full months?
Well, I wasn’t on the road for all of it. There was a bunch of Bowie tributes that I did this year because David Bowie was my favorite artist ever, so I was happy to take part in those playing bass and singing. There was a Farflung tour for five weeks. There was Go-Go’s stuff and in between that I played keyboards with Alan Davey's of Hawkwind and I did the album and show with Alice Bag. There was just a bunch of stuff. My brain actually started to feel like it was getting full because every week I was learning a whole bunch of songs.
It’s nice to be able to focus on my own stuff for a while. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the audience response [to Sumo Princess] because the music is pretty weird. I’m using a lot of different effects. There’s a ton hardcore elements, but I’ve heard elements of The Residents and Klaus Nomi. It’s minimalist and strange and kind of angular. I had no idea if people were going to dig it or not, but I’m pleasantly surprised that people are excited by it.
It’s also fun for me, I have to admit, because so much of what I do is working for other people and my job is to make their vision complete or work out. Sumo Princess gives me a lot of freedom. There’s a lot of improvised parts in our set, a lot of jamming, so I like the creative freedom and spontaneity of that a lot. It’s working for me right now.
That has to be nice.
I do know I have to work in January, and there is some little stuff here and there, but I don’t have any big things on the table. Normally that would freak me out, but I’m pretty happy that I’ve got this window to work on Sumo Princess.