After holding the bass chair with the Go Go’s, Cher, the Bangles, Beck, and many others, Abby Travis’ new original project Sumo Princess brings her to center-stage.
Not many musicians get to say they shared the stage with a major band like Spinal Tap before they had even graduated from music school, but it takes a free spirit with a certain amount of grit, fearlessness, and a fairy costume to wind up in those situations. These traits have helped Abby Travis land gigs with Beck, Elastica, the Go-Go’s, the Bangles, Eagles Of Death Metal, and Cher. Her rock & roll attitude is real, her bass lines solid, and her Ampeg 8×10 loud — and she’d really prefer if you didn’t ask her to turn down. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Abby has been playing rock shows since she was a teen. Citing her bass-playing influences as Geezer Butler, Verdine White, John Paul Jones, and Paul McCartney, she’s honed her craft listening to the best.
Aside from being a much-called-upon session player, she’s also released four albums of her own material, and is set to unleash her newest project to the world, Sumo Princess. Formed as a knee-jerk reaction to “hearing the same stupid plug-ins and overly quantized, hyper auto-tuned, compressed shit,” she joined forces with drummer Gene Trautmann (Queens Of The Stone Age, Eagles Of Death Metal) to offer an alternative: music with a huge sense of fun that has clearly come from the space between the pits of their stomachs and the bottom of their boots. The duo’s album, When an Electric Storm, features a heavily effected bass sound and delivers satisfying riffs and drum solos. The only reactionary option as a listener is to nod your head to this rhythm section, which is strong enough to be a stand-alone band.
How did you first start playing bass?
I was asked to join a band called the Lovedolls by the guitarist, Kim, when I was 15. She was dating my brother at the time, and the combination of her liking the way I dressed and the fact I’d made her tunafish sandwiches at the house was enough for her to ask me to join. She said, “I’ll teach you how to play bass — just don’t tell the drummer you’ve never played before.” I did have a piano teacher when I was a kid who told me I should play the bass because I would always do a lot of movement with my left hand. I think that’s probably being Beatles-damaged; I love Paul McCartney so much. I lucked out because the Lovedolls were an offshoot of these cult movies that were made by Dave Markey, and we actually had gigs. Before music, I was a rebellious kid, but my parents let me go on tour because they could see I was practicing all the time and working hard at something.
Did you make a conscious effort to be a session player, or was the goal to just be playing music in any way?
I had this epiphany one day while driving on the Pacific Coast Highway in my ’64½ Mustang — for Californians, cars are important — and thought, “If I really apply myself, I can be as good as anyone else.” When I graduated music school I consciously started taking auditions, and I had a couple of friends in the work-for-hire world who would recommend me. I think being able to sing and play at the same time was helpful.
What were your first big tours?
I first toured with Vanessa Paradis, who was huge in France. After that, I auditioned for Beck. I got to do some great shows with him; playing Reading Festival was definitely a tick on the checklist. I’m not great at remembering shows, but I remember how exciting it was, especially to see that many people all jumping around. Beck was a good artist to work with, too. Out of all the people I’ve worked for, I found him to be the most in it for the right reasons. He was coming from a place of trying to create really good work and was interested in his craft. He wasn’t in it to be a pop star. I have a lot of admiration for him. Halfway through that tour with Beck, Elastica needed a bass player, so I joined them, too, and was doing double-duty touring with both acts. I finished working with Beck and ended up staying with Elastica because they were so much fun.
How was it working with Cher?
It’s like working for Santa Claus! She’s an icon. That woman has an unbelievable work ethic.
You’ve found yourself working alongside a lot of comedy in music. How did you end up working with Andy Kaufman’s character Tony Clifton and Spinal Tap?
I met this guy at a bar one night, and he was looking for a music director for Tony Clifton’s show. It was a regular gig at the Comedy Store, which is a legendary place on Sunset Boulevard that used to be named Ciro’s, and Frank Sinatra would perform there. It was also my first proper musical-director gig, which is hilarious. My proudest contribution to his show was the addition of Judas Priest’s “Living After Midnight” to the setlist, in which Tony performed wearing ass-less chaps.
I wound up in the same room as Spinal Tap because they were heading out on tour and were holding drummer auditions. It was a bit of a publicity stunt, since their drummers were always dying in the movie [This Is Spinal Tap]. At the time I was attending music school, and my boyfriend was a drummer, so I said, “Okay, you’ve gotta teach me.” I showed up to the audition wearing a fairy costume and in character as [in a Nigel Tufnel-esque British accent] “Promethia Pendragon” and I was from a village outside of Stonehenge … I had a whole schtick. I made them laugh, and although they were rooting for me, I didn’t make the cut as a drummer. However, when I explained I was a bass player, they said “You’ll have to join us on ‘Big Bottom’!” So, they got me up at a show during the tour to play that song with them. They also had me up there dancing around as a fairy at some other shows. It was hilarious. I’m proud of that to this day.
As a hired musician, have you had the most fun on tours that you naturally slotted into?
Absolutely. I feel they’re the ones that I play the best on, too. Some musicians are able to think that all music is equal, and that’s a wonderful personality, particularly for doing hired-gun work. I’m actually more opinionated — I think some stuff sucks, but I absolutely love other stuff, and I don’t have much of a poker face. In some situations that has helped me; when it is a good fit I can understand what the band really wants, and I can fulfill a role more like a band member. Eagles Of Death Metal were an example of that. I felt I could totally be myself with them.
Since you’re the only harmonic instrument in your new project, Sumo Princess, has your role as a bass player changed?
I’m getting to go beyond the traditional role. [The bass is] now just another thing that makes noise; what noises can I make with it? I was always envious of the painting that guitar players get to do with pedals. That’s something I’m indulging in with Sumo Princess.
Were you conscious of wanting to make the band a two-piece?
I was, for several reasons. I wanted the freedom to experiment with the sonic landscape. Also, it’s just so hard to keep a band together; I thought if it’s only two people, it should be easier and also more affordable to tour. I will admit part of the inspiration came to me one day when I was reading Rolling Stone magazine on my friend’s toilet. I saw an article about Royal Blood, so I looked them up on YouTube and thought, “Oh my God, what a brilliant idea — why didn’t I think of that?” I purposely didn’t listen to much of their music after that because I didn’t want to be too influenced.
Did you and Gene develop the songs together, or did you have them fully formed beforehand?
It depends on the song. Some were written from pure jamming; then there were others that I brought in and said, “Here’s a song.” I’m really enjoying writing through improvisation; there’s something super-freeing about it. There’s also a lot of improvisation in our live show. We never do the same set twice. We’re about to go on tour with the Meat Puppets, and I’m excited to see how our set develops. If there’s a technical problem, or if I make a mistake, it could turn into a brand new song. I like to joke that chaos is the third member of the band. When you listen to a Jimmy Page solo, part of the thrill is thinking, “Is he gonna land that?” That’s what I like about rock & roll. That sense of risk is more compelling than hearing live music that sounds exactly the same as it did on the radio.
I love how varied the songs are across the record. What were you listening to that helped inspire the tracks?
The main riff in “Kali Ma” was definitely very Lemmy-inspired. I wrote “You Will Rise” after I went and saw one of my favorite songwriters, Richard Ashcroft from the Verve. He just lets his songs sing themselves. It’s so effortless; the melody does all the work. I wanted to write a song like that. With “You Will Rise” I had experimented with some more melodic bass lines, but soon I realized that playing the simple, bone-head thing sounded better. That’s the other thing that’s funny about Sumo Princess; there are times that I can shred, and I do, particularly in the solos — but oftentimes, playing the stupidest, simplest straight eighths still sounds better. Sometimes I would say to Gene, “Can you play that more like a caveman? Like someone with two turkey legs banging on rocks?”
What would be your advice to players wanting to embark on the session world?
It’s important to say yes a lot. Even if you don’t want the gig or you get the gig, it’s really good to go to the audition and try out, because you end up meeting musicians who’ll put you forward for other gigs. Being open to opportunities, doing the work, and showing up on time is important, too. There’s also a certain amount of keeping your mouth shut and making sure you don’t get involved with someone else’s drama. There’s times when I just say, “Oh, man, I’ve gotta go check my stuff” and then bail, which helps get me out of any political rants or situations. It’s a great blanket statement — it’s completely meaningless, but it sounds like you’re leaving to do something important! Another piece of advice is to make the music that you want to make. Don’t chase the dragon of whatever you think is going to get you money or make you popular. Make music that’s meaningful to you. Then it has a chance of being meaningful to other people.
Sumo Princess, When an Electric Storm [Educational Recordings]
Basses Yamaha BB2000, Ernie Ball Music Man Stingray, 1973 Fender Precision Bass
Rig Ampeg SVT-VR 8×10
Effects Death By Audio Fuzzwar, Boss Bass Synthesizer, Roland Space EchoRE-201, DigiTech Guitar Whammy Pedal, Red Panda Raster, Electro-Harmonix Flanger Hoax Phaser, POG and Mel 9 Tape Replay Machine
See Sumo Princess’ website for a full list of upcoming tour dates with the Meat Puppets. [http://sumoprincessband.com/]