By Eli Timoner
Standing in a light drizzle after a show outside Thalia Hall last October, I met a man in his early thirties looking to bum a cigarette. I couldn’t help him get what he wanted, but we struck up conversation. His name was Travis, and he was from New York. We had both bought last-minute tickets to see the multitalented author and musician Michelle Zauner (aka Japanese Breakfast) perform on the tour for her latest album Jubilee; he bought them late because he was just passing through, I, because I was unsure if I wanted to fork over the steep ticket price. He told me the reason he was in Chicago was because he was in a band, too. In fact, he said, he and his band were performing the following night at Schuba’s Tavern. When I revealed to him that I had a weekly show at a college radio station, WHPK 88.5 FM, he offered a couple of free tickets to come to Schuba’s the following night. I took him up on the offer, quickly realizing he was Travis Johnson, front man of Activity, one of the better noisy rock bands populating the New York scene. He eventually got his cigarette and I thanked him for the tickets.
Activity hasn’t been around too long, but they are all experienced musicians: Travis, who sings and plays guitar, and drummer Steve Levine played together in their last band Grooms, bassist Zoë Browne takes the synth in her sister’s band Field Mice, and guitarist Jess Rees plays in another noisy Brooklyn band Russian Baths. For a band with enough side projects to go around, however, Activity plays remarkably tight. Their sound, a dark and uneasy swirl of guitars and synth loops that is content to stay for a while in pulsing downtempo, if not more conventional, grooves, before breaking out into extended freak-outs supported by barking guitars and haunting lyrics about paranoia and flights of violence. In their live show, those freak-outs ballooned into atmospheric grooves, built upon layer after layer of guitar feedback, melodic synths, and paper-thin vocals rising, sometimes groggy, as if half-awake.
Their show was populated predominantly by the teen set, younger than I had anticipated for a band whose greatest musical influences, Sonic Youth and Broadcast, Travis told me, were most relevant before those kids were even born. Some of them surely were there for the openers, an impressive(ly young) Chicago outfit Lifeguard who really rocked an hour long set of entirely original music, despite all of the members still being in high school. Still, when Activity took the stage, the kids didn’t leave; they stayed and swelled around the band, sometimes standing motionless in wide-eyed reverence, sometimes flinging their bodies wildly across the floor. I, too, found myself moved at moments to wild trancelike dancing, at other moments in awe of their complicated, soul-reverberating sound complexions. I imagined this is what it must have felt like to go to a show in the early days of shoegaze, if a jagged guitar riff cut in every once and a while to wake the audience from their sound bath.
ELI: I gotta ask, who were you just talking to?
TRAVIS: That was my friend Brent who I’ve known for a while, but haven’t seen in a long time, a drummer in a band I used to play in, used to play with him so when we come to Chicago we stay with him.
ELI: What are you listening to? What is your most recent new discovery?
TRAVIS: My favorite new band, like new to me, is the band Water From Your Eyes… It’s pretty strange in that it’s… strange. It’s not the most immediately like “Oh my god, this is the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard,” it’s strange in the sense that the songs don’t belong together on the album, and it’s these two (I think it’s two) people in New York who just make really unique music, and they’re fine with making like a really sweet, twee ballad and then a kind of scary electronic song like back-to-back.
ELI: That’s cool… Almost like the Magnetic Fields or something.
TRAVIS: Yeah, yeah, it’s like “why not this song next to the other song.” That’s the band I’ve been listening to the most lately.
Eli: Very cool, very cool. What’s it like getting back to live music. I’m sure you get this question a lot…
TRAVIS: No, I haven’t heard it that much. We’re still — this is only our third show.
Eli: Third show! That’s insane. How does it feel to be back?
TRAVIS: It feels awesome! I mean, the weirdest thing is maybe just trying to navigate forgetting you know when you are up onstage everybody else out there is maybe still feeling a little… strange being in a crowd because you are on stage and coming back to something that comes back to you and feels normal, and then, at some point, like when the show’s over, you see the masks again and you realize, Oh yeah! We are still in the middle of this thing. So, it’s weird but it feels awesome, it feels so good to get up onstage and hear music coming back to you through the monitors.
Eli: I’m sure. How was the pandemic, living through that as a musician? I know a lot of musicians struggled making things, continuing things, being able to continue things.
TRAVIS: Our album came out March of last year, so (laughs). We tried to change it and they were like “no, you can’t change it, it’s too late.” [Jess joins] But, uh, so then there were the Bandcamp Fridays, which were great, and we tried to do as much stuff for that as we could. Things like, I’d handwrite out all the lyrics for anybody for bought a physical record, or if you’d buy a thing on Bandcamp, we’d write songs for you.
Eli: Wow, original songs?
TRAVIS: Well, you know, most of them were like, instrumental, weird little things, but some, a couple of them, I think the song we were trying to play tonight but didn’t quite get it, where Jess was about to sing — that was one of them. And then there’s another one that’s very sampler-heavy, and they’ll be on the next album, so… A lot of that is being locked away with a computer and sampler, you know.
Eli: I was (am) so struck by your lyrics. They’re very haunting. [interruption….] Oh but I was gonna ask how you approach songwriting, where your songs come from and what your process is.
TRAVIS: A lot of it is kinda messing around with things a lot until it sticks.
Eli: Even with lyrics like this?
TRAVIS: Yeah, definitely, a lot of it is just like writing down a weird phrase that sounds like it might work or be about something you don’t even really know what it's about and expand out from there. A lot of the lyrics start with a phrase that sounds striking to me, and like “what can that be about?” Same with the music; if there was a sample that was striking, and you hit it rhythmically, you just kind of comb it out from there.
Eli: Do you write collaboratively, or do you write most of the material?
TRAVIS: It’s really collaborative. Jess and I don’t, the way the guitars are ping-ponging off each other the whole time, that’s kind of the way that happens, when we play, so. Took me a long time to find somebody where it worked like that with, so it’s great.
Eli: I definitely felt that connection on stage. There were real moments when you could tell the audience got sucked in and felt that kind of magnetism between you two. And I know that a lot of the people in this band have side projects, too.
Eli: Do you consider yourself part of a scene? Do you have a lot of musician friends you like to collaborate with, or think of yourself as part of a movement?
TRAVIS: No, I kind of wish I did. I think you know there’s our band, and a lot of bands that are related to it, just through one member being shared, but outside of that, there’s not as many… I would love to be a part of a thing… and maybe this isn’t a thing that really exists except in retrospect of inflated, embellished history. I don’t feel like there [are] a lot of bands that are constantly playing with and daring each other to do this or that. That’s how I imagine thinking about crowd rock bands.
TRAVIS: I was just saying how I wish that I did but I don’t feel like we’re part of a collective scene kind of thing, if you will
JESS: In New York?
TRAVIS: Yeah... I mean like we have friends, but it’s not like there’s a bunch of bands where we’re all like doing the same kind of thing
JESS: Well, I think that we probably don’t realize that we are, but we are. You know, from the inside… It’s like when people have siblings, when they’re like “we don’t look anything alike” but then everyone else says you look like twins.
ELI: What bands do you feel that sibling dynamic with?
JESS: Well even just from all the bands that we’ve played in, alone: Russian Baths, and I don’t know if Field Mouse as well, but straight up with that, that’s a collective of bands.
TRAVIS: We have friends who are in cool bands.
JESS: WE played our last show before COVID with Parlor Walls and played our first show back with them.
TRAVIS: I suppose she’s changed my mind.
ELI: That’s good, I hope your mind is changed. I think people need that kind of community. I was speaking to Lifeguard [the openers] and I asked them if they see themselves as part of a scene? (Because this is something I’m really interested in) and they said “Oh, totally, you know there’s this band and this band, and they’re all kids! I was really shocked by that. How did you find them?
TRAVIS: Somebody suggested a few bands, and they were one of them. And I was like, let’s go with them if they’re available. And it turned out we’re kind of [associated]; this is a good example of what I mean. FACS, which is a local Chicago band, they’re great, one of their…
ELI: The bassist’s dad
TRAVIS: Right, the bassist’s [from Lifeguard] dad is from FACS, and we already knew each other, and was like “Oh, by the way, my son’s playing that show. And I feel a camaraderie with FACS too, but it’s not like a local thing.
JESS: Do you want to eat first?
TRAVIS: Yeah, we should probably eat….
ELI: How long have you been playing music? What’s your own progression with music been?
TRAVIS: Nothing too exciting. I found my dad’s guitar when I was like 12. Started faking my way through playing it. Then I can’t remember, I think somebody found me a tablature book, or I was finding tabs online that kind of made me understand a little but about how guitar worked. I quickly got bored playing in normal tuning, so I just started doing that thing [retuning] and I’ve been stuck there ever since.
ELI: And what about you, Jess?
JESS: What about me what?
ELI: What has your evolution as a musician been like? How you got to be here, what your influences are?
JESS: I started playing in bands in high school and college, and I had an indie pop, electronic pop band in college which was cool, totally different from what I do now.
ELI: What was that called?
JESS: Huma. We’re still on Spotify even though we haven’t played as that in so long. And then I didn’t play for a minute, and then I met Luke who I play with in Russian Baths. And we started getting back into playing, learned how to play guitar in a different way, like more noisy, Sonic Youth kind of influence, and so I sort of grew into that. And then I met Travis and Steve from playing shows with them with Russian Baths, and when they stopped playing Grooms they asked me to jam with them, and I was like “are you serious, you’re asking me?” I was so flattered, I couldn’t believe. And developing and playing music with them has been super cool because we write all our own songs together, which is really a different way. It’s hard… it’s easier in one way because you don’t have the responsibility of writing all of the parts and showing someone, but it’s harder because you literally have to want to be in a room with people for many hours at a time just like fucking around with music, which I love doing and so do they, so it’s perfect. And we all really gel musically.
ELI: Do you feel like that’s a different process than with your other projects?
JESS: Yeah… I think with Russian Baths, it’s more like me and Luke would… well earlier on we would all be in the same room but we would write some kind of song or structure then get everyone, the other rhythm section on board. But this is really… Steve, the drummer, is really crucial for the songwriting process, and really influential on it, which isn’t always the case with a drummer. He’s really good.
ELI: It comes through in your songs, there’s a ping-pong kind of magnetism between the guitars, and the drums tied it as a fabric… It doesn’t sound like something that could have been written prescriptively.
JESS: Right! No, it totally couldn’t. One person by themselves couldn’t write those parts. I mean, maybe some writing orchestral parts, or writing parts, but for a rock band., it would be really hard someone to write all those parts, they’re interwoven.
ELI: You mentioned Sonic Youth, and a lot of your songs, I was roped into this magnetism during the show, they reminded me a lot of some of their more melodic songs, but noisy too…
JESS: I love melodies. And sometimes they come out as harmonics in noise. But I’m not someone who just likes the pure noise of it, I like to hook onto something. Maybe from my earlier electro-indie pop band, you know.