By Wade Millward
For more on A History Lesson Part 1
“As a teacher I taught history, geography, and economics. I really like geography,” says the man who known to his students as just ‘Travis’. “I have a degree in geography. When I was video recording, I needed a source of stable income, so I got a position as a teacher because I like teaching stuff.”
Travis’s love for teaching shows. In conversation Travis can hardly contain his encyclopedic knowledge on punk and punk history. And with A History Lesson, Travis is able to share the rise of the West Coast punk scene from his own eyes with home movies he shot as a teenager in LA County. And there is no man more capable of assembling such a collection as Travis, who witnessed the punk emergence from different vantage points. Travis saw it from the venue floors as an audience member, he experienced it from the backstage as a roadie, and eventually he created it from the stage as a performer in his own right.
Travis got his first taste of punk after seeing an X concert at a venue called The Whiskey.
“Seeing X and getting exposed to punk really opened things up to me,” says Travis. “At the shows there were always 200 to 300 people, with no restrictions between you and the band and where you can be. X was the best band I had ever seen live—DJ Bonebrake is an amazing drummer. It made me feel at home, and it made me want to come back.”
Travis went back many times, as indicated by the sheer amount of footage he has acquired over the years. A History Lesson Part 1 is the first in a series of compilations of these homemade movies, and film screenings are taking place throughout California. The screenings are followed by performances from local LA punk bands—legend Mike Watt of The Minutemen, one of the subjects of the film, has even joined A History Lesson on occasion, as has Travis’s own group Carnage Asada. The most recent screening was at the Ninth Street Independent Film Center as part of a benefit to help save the KUSF is a community radio station at the University of San Francisco.
The film conveys a feel for the early 1980s punk scene in LA. Travis includes performances he shot of iconic bands The Minutemen, The Meat Puppets, Red Kross, and Twisted Roots. Travis was specific in his choice of bands for the focus of his first film. As the title implies, these groups have certainly earned their place in the history of not only punk, but also popular music for their influential experimentation.
“The psychedelic elements of the featured bands definitely influenced a lot of later bands and groups from that area,” explains Travis. “Redd Kross and The Minutemen were different from everyone else in hardcore punk. Their songs didn’t just use that one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four structure. They were more experimental; they were among the first punk bands to experiment and include different styles, not just hardcore.”
“The Meat Puppets were a big influence on Nirvana, and they were one of the bigger acts who were able to travel outside the state,” continues Travis. “They played Washington, so they influenced those bands. The Meat Puppets just played wherever they could, just like The Minutemen and Redd Kross.”
Travis also picked those four bands for logistical reasons.
“I started chronologically. The first tapes I made were from 1983 to 1984, and the bands featured in the movie are from that early period,” says Travis. “They were chosen because they had the best quality video. Some of the bands from that period I couldn’t use because I couldn’t get permission.”
What separates A History Lesson from most rockumentaries is that Travis leaves his subjects’ performances in their original state: uncut and without voiceover. Furthermore, Travis’s film aesthetically captures the DIY ethic that is central to punk rock.
“The movie is really low budget. No one was hired, and I didn’t have anyone to help me,” says Travis. “The idea behind punk is that you do it yourself, otherwise no one else is going to do it, and that’s similar to what I did with this movie.”
In addition to live recordings, the film features interviews with members of each band.
“The interviews with Redd Kross, Twisted Roots, and The Minutemen are from 1994 to 1996,” says Travis. “That was when I was working with [Carnage Asada bassist] Dave Jones, who was working on a book about LA Punk. We taped the interviews for future use. For Meat Puppets, we just interviewed them when they were down here for a summer, that wasn’t too hard. Those weren’t the only interviews though. We interviewed whom we could; there were about 70 interviews.”
In the interview, viewers can see how the punk rockers compare to their onstage personas.
“The artists definitely become livelier onstage,” says Travis. “That’s common with the singers, like Jack Brewer and Keith Morris [of Black Flag]. It’s not that they become different people; they just become more energetic and livelier.”
Travis developed his interviewing style and learned the filming trade from his father.
“I worked with my Dad on shows like 60 Minutes and CBS News,” says Travis. “I worked on the sound, and while I was working on these news programs, I saw the interviews and that was how I learned journalism. I saw the questions they asked and learned how to interview. My Dad was the one who taught me the basic skills of using filming and video equipment.”
Mr. Travis never thought twice of how his son was honing his craft.
“My Dad just thought it was good that I was doing something,” says Travis. “He just wanted me to learn how to use the equipment, and the best way to learn is to practice. I was using hand-me-down equipment; I guess you could consider it on-the-job-training.”
Any editor, or teenager for that matter, would kill for the kind of training Travis experienced. The punk historian became a staple in the LA punk scene due to all the equipment he carried to live shows.
“I had on a VCR, like one you’d keep in a house, and I wore this lighting belt with motorcycle batteries and electrifiers that were used to power the camera,” says Travis. “It was not easy to shoot stuff and get around. The audience didn’t have any problems with me; at the shows I always saw the same people and they saw me. The bigger bands sometimes wouldn’t let me film them, but the smaller ones would want me to film them. My stuff would sometimes get messed up if someone would stage-dive on me. Now, people who want to film a show just use their iPhone to film shows, which I think is great.”
It is clear that Travis would have been grateful to have an iPhone for his filming his home movies, since technological constraints prevented his documentary from coming out sooner.
“Editing systems are so much better today, I was able to make the movie right on my computer,” says Travis. “Originally, you’d have to go from one VHS tape to another, and the tapes didn’t even have time codes, so you tracked your video by how the wheel was turned. This made editing very imprecise and you could cut off a fourth of a second of tape—but on a computer, you can get it really accurate, and when you need to try something else, there are different ways to edit a tape.”
“We would do these generator shows because when you’re under 21, it’s hard to get into some shows,” says Travis. “So we got our own generator and PA system and set up these shows. We’d go out on the beach in Malibu; we did a show in an abandoned missile silo; we also did one behind this restaurant. We put on these shows all around LA. One time someone suggested we do a generator show in the desert. So in the middle of nowhere we’d set up the PA and just jam. Redd Kross and Sonic Youth were doing that before I did any shows, but I saw how they did it and it was so simple. I was inspired, so I borrowed my Dad’s equipment and put on my own.”
Travis then explained the significance of generator shows to the southern California punk scene as a benchmark separating the true fans from the casual listeners.
“The shows were fun, and they are still done today,” says Travis. “Desert shows have a different feel from regular shows since select people found out that they were going on, and then not everyone was willing to drive to the desert and hike two to three miles to the show. There was nowhere to park, so that’s what you had to do, and the people who do that must be very dedicated. The shows would go on all night until sunrise, and you could get really close to the band. Or you could go off to the rocks and watch nature, and the since it was out in the desert you could see the stars so clearly.”
After gaining notice for his filming capabilities, Travis gained editing experience working his way from underground films to MTV specials. He worked closely with director Dave Markey, who started out with cult hits before moving on to documentaries. Travis’s first project with Markey was the punk schlock classic Lovedolls Superstar, done with Markey’s own studio We Got Power.
“Dave had previously done Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, and for Superstar I helped with editing, shooting, and any other extra work,” says Travis. “I was still in high school at the time, but his friends had heard about me and they knew where I lived. When I was videotaping punk shows, it was not a common thing—not many other people were doing that. So word spread and Dave came to me.”
Travis’s work on the underground film showed the emerging editor how DIY was not just an onstage concept. Travis was able to see this DIY ethic in comparison to the work his father did for CBS.
“It was different than working for CBS,” says Travis. “CBS is a corporation where everyone has one position and one job to do. At We Got Power, it was just Markey, Jordan Schwartz, and whomever they had to help them out with whatever they could. There are few people who do what they can. While shooting the movie, I saw that most of the lines were improvised, and it was really just a bunch of friends having fun making a movie.”
“The funny thing about that is, the movie was about a fictitious band called The Lovedolls, and then a real life Lovedolls band started up, and it included my sister. But, she wasn’t in the movie band at all; she just made a cameo appearance.
Also, on the soundtrack were Dead Kennedys and Sonic Youth. Even though Sonic Youth is from New York, they came to LA in 1985 and played at a desert party with Meat Puppets and Redd Kross, who did most of the Lovedolls soundtrack. They became friends with the guys in Redd Kross, and through them they met Markey, and through him they were able to get a spot on the soundtrack.”
On the other side of working with Markey, Travis participated in serious film work as well. The two were tasked with making a Kurt Cobain tribute for the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards.
“Making the tribute was heavy stuff,” says Travis. “We went through a lot of material, watching all their footage and interviews. Markey directed and I edited, and we were happy to do what the Nirvana people wanted. It was a heavy experience to being there with them and watching the footage, which they’d never seen before. They were good people to work with, even under those heavy circumstances. They were big stars, but they weren’t assholes or anything.”
It had only been two years since Travis finished working with Markey on the director’s magnum opus, the punk and early grunge documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke.
“After Markey accompanied Sonic Youth on their European tour with Nirvana, he came back to LA with all this footage which I edited and transferred to video, using each song as a video and the live audio recording,” says Travis. “It was a good project, and it was fun since it let me listen to Nirvana and Sonic Youth every day.”
Travis is not just an avid listener and documenter of punk rock; he also creates it. His A History Lesson project has not only given new life to his home videos, but also to his psychedelic punk group Carnage Asada. Through Carnage Asada, Travis is living the life he witnessed through the lens of his handheld cameras, and he is able to be an active part in keeping the alive the punk ethics of DIY and camaraderie.
“With the groups I play with,” says Travis. “There’ll be a guy who plays in two to three bands, and the guys in those bands play in two or three other bands. It creates a web. You come to understand a band better because you understand the people in them and you’ve jammed with them.”
Carnage Asada, as a frequent follow-up act to a History Lesson Part 1 screening, is gaining greater exposure and more work.
“We’ve been working on our new album,” says Travis. “We recorded the songs back from 2003 to 2004, and we’re in the process of mixing it now. Hopefully this spring we can record some stuff with our new guitar player Tony Fate.”
Carnage Asada is not Travis’s first experience travelling with a punk band, however. Back in the 1980s, Travis knew the groups of his hometown well enough that he would tour with them, giving him a firsthand account of the spread of punk across the West Coast.
“I went on tour with Killroy in 1984 when I was just 16 years old,” says Travis. “For that tour we went to all these small towns, and their punk scenes were different compared to that of LA. In LA, punk had been well established, but it was groups like Killroy were bringing punk to these small towns.
In 1985, I traveled with Redd Kross on their tour. They were a better band and they put on better shows, and back then there were no restrictions on driving for kids like me. In 1991, I went on tour with Celebrity Skin, working as a roadie and a soundman.
As for interesting stories, I remember when touring with Celebrity Skin, their drummer Don Bolles was eating at a Waffle House with us, and someone from the band put $5 in the jukebox and played Waffle House songs until he cried.”
Travis continued to tour in 1990s, only by this time he had made a name for himself as a musician. It was his time to observe shows from the stage itself.
“In the 1990s I joined this band WACO and played cello for them; we went on a few tours. It was always interesting to see different places, and the experience certainly made high school more interesting,” says Travis. “There were a lot of punkers right in LA; there always were.”
There always will be too, as Travis has learned during his time as a social studies teacher.
“I taught in South Central LA, and while I thought there were a lot of punk rockers there, there were more than when I was in high school,” says Travis. “When I was in school, it was new; punk rock was still catching on. Now, almost 25 years later, the younger students knew certain bands that had different influences. I saw high school bands forming between friends with common interests who just wanted to play. I watched as they started out playing at parties to getting their own shows.”
Travis’s students have returned the favor by serving as audience members at his History Lesson screenings.
“I do see former students at the History Lesson screenings, and I go to talk to them,” says Travis. “They’ll come to my Carnage Asada shows—as a teacher I wasn’t antagonistic or anything. We’re always happy to see each other. To them I never was ‘Mr. Travis’, I was always just Travis.”
The historian known simply as Travis will continue teaching his unique history lesson, as he already has a second film lined up.
“We’re working on A History Lesson Part 2, and I’ve learned some things from making the first movie,” says Travis. “For Part 1, I edited all the interviews first, then I tried to get the clearances. I profiled 12 bands originally, but I was only able to clear four of them. For Part 2, I have to figure out who I generally want to use and get them cleared first.”
The only confirmed band for A History Lesson Part 2 was Saccharine Trust, and Travis has a history with the South bay punk band’s eccentric frontman.
“Saccharine Trust will be featured in Part 2; they were another SST band that worked with Black Flag,” says Travis. “I worked with their singer Jack Brewer on this poetry record he did. He’s really cool, and the thing about the record was that all the songs, they were live recordings we did at the Hollywood Christmas Parade. We recorded him reciting his poetry on Hollywood Boulevard as the parade went by. He has such intense words; it was all pretty interesting.”
Until them, the Part 1 screenings and Carnage Asada shows don’t look like they’ll be stopping anytime soon.