To this day, guitarist Pat Travers can point to the one event that made him say “I want to be a guitar player.”
“When I was 9 years old, I lived in northern Ontario, and I remember it was in February, the Ed Sullivan Show was a big thing every Sunday, and of course, the Beatles were on TV. After seeing them do that performance — maybe it was just an instinct — but I really liked the fact that there were these four guys that really seemed to be controlling what they were doing and it really had a magical effect on me. It dominated my thoughts from then to now,” Travers said.
The Pat Travers Band will play the Columbia Gorge Hotel on Sunday, July 21. Doors open 5 p.m. Tickets $30 in advance.
Travers, 59, still feels that televised performance set his personal music bar “very high” and over the course of 30 plus studio albums, he still strives for that quality and energy that influenced his musical career.
“I got my first record deal in 1976, and I’ve just released this new one called “Can Do.” It seems to have the energy and the stuff that was cool in the late ’70s and early ’80s when I was really at the top of my game, but we’ve got a much more modern production and just a real lot of great songs. I’m real happy with the way I’ve progressed with my career. I think my songwriting has gotten so much better, and the fact that I constantly listened to stuff like the Beatles throughout my whole life, I suppose that after all this time, I’m starting to get good at it.”
Travers recently took some time to discuss his new record from his home in Florida. When asked how he felt the record compared to his earlier efforts, the guitarist said that energy and spontaneity is key to getting the sound he’s after.
“Something I’ve always done and always had a knack for is to have really good spontaneous energy. My best recordings have been when I’m able to capture that. Now as I’ve gotten more experienced, I know how to sort of ‘turn that on’ in the studio, as much as I would live, and it translates. I think that someone who would listen to this album, who had never heard me before, and went back and listened to my very first album, especially if they had it in context, would find a lot of similarities.”
In making studio albums over the years, Travers learned that allowing for more recording time and minimizing distractions from record company executives greatly helped the process of getting a product that sounded good.
“On the ‘Can-Do’ album, I took about eight months to record the whole thing, although I was touring at the same time as well. The tour allowed me not to have to work on 12 songs at once, I could just work on two or three, then go do a couple of weeks touring and come back and have a fresh perspective, and actually have some objective ears again. Sometimes, when you’re in the studio, just the number of repetitions makes you wonder what the heck you’re listening to anymore,” Travers said.
“So it’s good to get away from recording for awhile and then get back to it with fresh ears, to correct something, or reject something, or be happy that I got it right in the first place.”
The Pat Travers band will play the Columbia Gorge Hotel on Sunday, July 21, to kick off the Sounds of Summer Concert Series. Traveling out to the Pacific Northwest has always been on the band’s schedule, even since the early days.
“The Portland area has always been huge for me, even going back to 1978, when I first came through there. I lived in England for a few years before — that’s when I first got my recording going. But I moved to the U.S. in 1978 and did a lot of touring, and Oregon and the Pacific Northwest is a real nice place for me to go. I really enjoy going there.”
Travers said that social media has become an important part of figuring out what songs to play for an upcoming show. “Since my new record came out earlier this month, we’re absolutely going to do some new songs, and I’ve got 33 albums to choose from. But I’m also a big Facebook guy, and we’ve got lots of fans, and they tell me what they like to hear, so we try to put requested songs in the set. We also have a heavy blues thing going on as well, and that really seems to keep the crowd interested.”
On the new album Travers said his songs are “fairly autobiographical,” and the lyrics reflect the difficult economy of recent times, which he knows has been difficult for a lot of people.
“These haven’t been boom years, and a lot of people had to take many, many steps back from where they were, and they wonder if they’re ever going to be able to step forward again. I try to reflect that on my new album.” Another huge influence is Travers’ wife, Monica. “Whenever I get stuck, I just think of her and usually I can finish the song,” Travers said. “I’m not ashamed of that, because Paul McCartney made a living out of writing songs about his wife.”
Travers described the feeling of elation in songwriting when he’s “coming up with stuff, painlessly, without having to think about it.” But sometimes, the creative process is hampered, and he finds himself just going through “all the stuff you’ve got stored away on file, kind of like a Rolodex — it’s not like you’re coming up with anything new. You’re just kind of grabbing out of that Rolodex, and I hate that feeling.”
Over the last couple of years Travers has integrated some non-musical activities to help balance a life of touring and recording.
“I do karate, and there’s all sorts of forms that you have to do, and they’re very prescribed and you have to do them in a specific way. When you get it right, it’s almost the same thing as when you’re doing music; you get this muscle memory, and you’re not really thinking, you’re just doing. And I think that happens with anything creative, even if it’s not artistic,” Travers said.
“Karate has definitely helped to give strength to my voice and my fingers, and I’m really thankful for that,” he said.
Strengthening his voice reminded Travers of a odd occurrence that happened in 2011. “For a long time, I did all the backing vocals on my albums, all the high vocal parts, and I had this very high falsetto voice. Over time, due to mistreating myself, not getting enough sleep and everything else for years and years, my voice disappeared and I wasn’t able to do that anymore. Suddenly, just before Christmas of 2011, my wife and I were driving in the car and a song came on the radio that had a high vocal part, and I sang along with it, and all of a sudden my voice came back. That gave me a lot more confidence, but to this day I can’t explain what happened.”
It’s ironic that with over 30 studio albums and years of constant touring, Pat Travers remains under the radar in today’s commercial music scene. Travers acknowledges this fact and describes his experience in the music business when his band was “inches away” from the success of some of his contemporary acts.
“By 1980, each album I did progressively sold more and more, and we started playing bigger and bigger places, and the curve was always going up. And it just seemed like we were inches away from that next step of being famous. My contemporaries at the time were bands like Foghat and Ted Nugent.
And then it all fell apart, as it does often times in rock and roll, people just kind of lost their focus, and it wasn’t a team anymore. Everybody was an individual, there was a lot of dissention, and of course my manager, who was in control of just about everything, basically lost his mind, too. So the whole thing was like smoke in a bottle, and once it came out, there was no way to get it back, and we kinda lost an opportunity there,” Travers said.
The desire to get to that “next level” has been a focus of Travers’ music career.
“You ask me how I keep going on after all that, and I guess the simple answer is this is the only thing I really know how to do. I’ve always felt that I still won’t be happy until I have that ‘next level’ which would be to get out of the ‘also-rans’ and be at the top tier. We’ll see if that happens, and I feel confident that it can.”
Travers recalled a winter tour in 1978 opening for the progressive rock band Rush as a bonding experience for him and his band.
“It was our first major U.S. tour, and at the time, even though Rush could sell quite a few records and sell out the shows — up to 17,000 people every night, they weren’t getting any radio play. Plus, the music press was poison, they just hated them. They didn’t have the recognition they had now, they were just a cult band, really.
“The guys were great to hang with, at the time we had a three piece band and they were a three-piece band, so we had kind of an affinity for each other. I remember we got a day off, and we were all in the same hotel. Geddy (Lee) was hanging out in my room and he whipped out a cassette and said ‘here’s some rough mixes of some of our new stuff,’ and he played “Tom Sawyer.” And I’m going, “Guess what, you’ve got a radio hit now! You guys are gonna be huge!” But he didn’t believe me. And of course, they went on to have a multi-mega hit with that song.”
For the last ten years or so, Travers has been using modern Paul Reed Smith electric guitars for his shows. When asked if he still possessed any of his vintage guitar gear, Travers said he didn’t, but he described how he’s trying to make his new gear look older.
“No, I sure don’t, I wish I did, because for sentimental reasons it would be nice to have all those old guitars and stuff. I have quite a few really, really nice guitars, most of them are Paul Reed Smith, they’re beautiful instruments, but I try to get mine to look a little uglier! (laughs) I’ve got this beautiful charcoal black guitar with a maple top, but it’s hard to see the wood grain on the top, so I put it out here on a stand in the sun and rub isopropyl alcohol on it and try to beat up that plastic coating so it’ll start to get some character. But really, they’re wonderful sounding and playing guitars.”
After the Hood River show Travers heads to Las Vegas for a couple of weeks with Edgar Winter and Rick Derringer. Then, in October, his touring band is off to the U.K., followed by a tour in Europe. Travers said that the European audiences seem to be getting a broader demographic than here in the U.S.
“I do remember we were playing in Holland, and there was a group of 19-20-year- olds that showed up at the meet and greet after the show. I said, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing here?’ and they said they like to get out and find new musical influences.
“And I thought that was really cool because that sounds like something I would have done when I was young. I didn’t care who was on stage, I just wanted to see people play an instrument. It didn’t matter what kind of music they were playing, you know, I just wanted to learn.”