by Wade Millward
Cape Cod artist Chandler Travis dons many roles in his music career.
Some nights he’s an in-your-face, pajama-wearing rocker-provocateur.
Some nights he’s an easy, breezy, loungey song man with warm melodies and a casual vibe.
Then there are those other nights, the nights when he’s his booking agent, his publicist, his accountant. He calls it a necessary sacrifice to stay in the music business he’s always loved and to keep the career that’s made him happy.
Travis heads three bands, with occasional reunions for his best-known group, ’80s rock outfit The Incredible Casuals.
The Catbirds are his four-member noisy, bluesy rock band, featuring three other members. Their last album release was “Catbirds Say Yeah!” on June 15.
The Chandler Travis Philharmonic features nine (yes, nine) colorful musicians who put on raucous, theatrical rock performances in pajamas, bathrobes and drag.
Travis spun off The Chandler Travis Three-O (four members, of course) when the Philharmonic proved too populous to play Cape Cod’s bars. The Three-O are a different sound: acoustic, slowed down, with clarinets and keyboards helping create light jazz, pop and rock. They released their latest album, “This is What Bears Look Like Underwater,” August 31, just a few months after the Catbirds release.
Travis says his bands’ attempts at trying and incorporating different styles, unusual live behavior and fondness for absurdity and humor has earned them a devoted audience of all ages throughout his 40-year career. He’s even rapped on a few productions, including his 1992 solo debut writer-songsinger (sic) and the song Crab Napkin.
Samples of his style and dates for his upcoming performances are on his website, chandlertravis.com.
Travis’ various personas and projects can cause confusion. Wait, is he the guitarist tonight, or is he the bassist? Should he wear a jacket and tie or jammies and a flower hat?
“Every now and then I bring the right stuff,” he says. “But every now and then I fuck up completely.”
In his off-time, if such a thing exists, he travels, watches movies and cares for the pets with his wife, Marybeth, a commercial artist and professional wild goose chaser (she chases geese off golf courses with one of their dogs, Mag. Travis says the border collie occasionally earns more than he does.)
His personality seems calm, laid back at first. He emailed to postpone our interview on account of Eastham, Mass., getting one of its first nice, warm days that spring. He wanted to enjoy a lunch and walk the beach with some friends, his horses Patsy and Trip and his dogs Bodie and Mag.
But Travis is quick to self-deprecation and sarcasm and describes himself as the unchallenged leader of the two bands bearing his name. The Catbirds and the Casuals, on the other hand, are democratic projects. Travis likes a sense of definitive direction with his projects, but learned to avoid doing music alone after a solo career.
“I get sick of myself,” he says. “I like to bounce stuff off of other people.”
When he was young, back when he went by his first name Peter, he heard the musicals and Cole Porter records his parents brought home. His listening habits were typical for a ’60s kid: Bob Dylan, The Kinks, and The Beatles. Today, he says he’s into Brazilian, African and ska music, and enjoys artists from Duke Ellington to Randy Newman to XTC.
Travis came to Boston for college, ready to protest and get involved in the country’s changing social climate. He started going by his middle name, Chandler (his mother’s maiden name) and realized music was his life’s calling.
He formed his first major act, a comedy folk duo called Travis, Shook and Club Wow, with Boston University buddy Steve Shook, who also attended the same Connecticut prep school as Travis. They toured in the 1970s, mostly supporting comedian George Carlin. They performed on TV for The Tonight Show and The Midnight Special.
Club Wow grew into the Casuals in 1980, adding drummer Rikki Bates and guitarist Johnny Spampinato. Eventually, the group drifted. Shook left for a solo career, had kids and became a builder. The other Casuals concentrate on their own projects, making time for the occasional reunion, such as July 7’s show at the Beachcomber bar and restaurant in Wellfleet, Mass.
Bates, who Travis says is 6’4” and plays in drag, is The Catbirds and Philharmonic drummer. The two bonded through a mutual appreciation for the rock group NRBQ. Travis was hooked on how such musical virtuosos could still pull off silly stage antics with reckless abandon. He calls NRBQ pianist Terry Adams one of his favorite musicians.
Regretting the lack of attention Shook’s guitar talents receive today, Travis says the one thing he’d redo is be more serious and get bigger during his first go at music.
“In 10 years we put out one album, which shows we had fun in other areas,” Travis says. “But Steve is amazing, and I wish more people knew about him.”
Travis downplays his own instrumental skills, saying he’s a singer and a writer first. He’s prolific; with nearly 700 songs listed in his website’s song index and formerly a columnist for The Cape Codder newspaper under the name Thurston Kelp (the column was titled “Kelp on Kape.”)
He describes himself as a ham, a natural onstage who knows how to command others and the audience’s attention.
“You give me a hole, I’ll fill it,” he says.
Travis tries to keep his groups self-sustaining, doing or enlisting friendly help in accounting, booking and promoting. He says he could use help with the business end of his projects, such as a proper manager. He estimates 5 percent of his time is spent actually playing, but he’s just as fascinated with music as when he started. He never wanted to be an aimless college graduate who fell into a job he didn’t love.
“I don’t know how those people live,” he says. “I’m so glad to be obsessed with something.”
For Travis, the joy is in the creating, the collaborating to design a song’s blueprint before executing it for an audience. His solo work lacked the joy he got in communal accomplishment.
He plays mostly near his home in Cape Cod, where he says his living’s made from Memorial Day to Labor Day, sometimes playing six nights a week. He says springing the Philharmonic and Three-o on new listeners usually gets a good reaction.
His usual venues are bars and restaurants, where he says chairs and tables stifle his theatrical urges (hence the smaller Three-O and Catbirds). Those patrons are less likely to want a show and even get shocked when bands engage them.
To Travis, any strong reaction is a good reaction. Bad days are when his bands can’t provoke, can’t connect at all with a crowd.
“I’d rather be booed than ignored,” he says. “As long as they’re thoroughly jostled, I’m happy.”
His tours have taken him far and wide. Highlights include playing New Orleans with the Philharmonic and bringing the Casuals to Japan, where the crowd’s familiarity with his songs surprised Travis.
He’s played his share of unusual venues. He drove to one of his earliest gigs at a Worcester YMCA from Boston in a pickup truck. Years ago, he plugged into a drive-in, where his music was played through audience’s car speakers out of sync with the performance. The Philharmonic hosted the release party for their 2000 debut, Let’s Have a Pancake, at an actual pancake house at 11 a.m. It was one of their best shows, Travis says.
What keeps him going is fighting against the swarms of shitty music out there, and he’s driven to get the tunes out his head and into his listeners’ ears. He’ll keep experimenting, diversifying, and surprising his audiences and himself.
Going at music a different way, Travis’ way, has been the method since the beginning. Club Wow was only able to put out a best-of album. The first Casuals record was a mock surf album. Throughout this summer, he’ll rock and shock listeners as leader of the Catbirds and the Philharmonic, or he’ll ease them as a Three-O. It depends on what night they catch him.
“One of the drawbacks of being obscure is we don’t have anything to depart from,” Travis says. “We started with a departure, and it’s been a series of departures.”