Interview: Cory Chisel from Traveller

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Traveller will be familiar to Australian audiences who saw the band recently at the Out on the Weekend festival and in side gigs. They will also be familiar to American audiences, both as a band and from as individuals: Cory Chisel, Jonny Fritz and Robert Ellis have so much experience and talent between them that one band possibly can’t contain it all. While the band was in Australia I spoke to Cory, and learnt a bit more about them and their album Western Movies, which has already been released in Australia but not, as yet, in the United States.

I’ll offer you a late welcome to Australia because you’ve already been here and played the Out on the Weekend festival on the weekend – how was it?
Thank you. It was extraordinary. It was full of our friends from home, which is always kind of an interesting feeling when you’re far away on the other side of the world and you’re hanging out with the same people you hang out with at home. The audience was really the difference-maker. You guys are incredible music fans in this country.
You’re not unknown individuals, but this is your first venture to Australia as a group, so there was a bit of the unknown there – but it sounds like no one minded.
You can go see all the other bands who rehearse a bunch and know what their songs are going to be, or you can come see us, where anything can happen. It’s fun.
That’s probably part of the appeal – and in keeping with the spirit of a festival too.
We’ve all obviously spent a lot of time in our careers doing not predictable things but certainly well-worn pathways, so it’s really fun to get out there and push the boundaries of something that we don’t really know how it will go either. It feels present, at least.
I guess when you come into this group with so much individual experience, it’s a bit like jazz musicians coming together: once you know the structure, you can play around within it, and that’s when really interesting things happen.
Yeah, that’s a lot of the idea of the group in general, was to make sure in a lot of ways that it wasn’t well rehearsed, so we could have fun being really present and push boundaries as we’re playing. We know more or less the road map, but which road we take to get there is the fun.
So when you are on stage – because the three of you, I would imagine, have equal weight and equal roles within the band – who gets to be the band leader?
Our personalities sort of work that out easily. Some of us don’t care which song is first or last, and someone in the band really does. They’re all leaders in their own way. Like Robert, certainly, musically sets a lot of the tone for what we do because he’s just such a phenomenal player, so if he wants to change the colour or the direction, he can do that very easily. Jonny’s such a creative craftsman that I think he puts a lot of set lists together and those kinds of things. And my job oftentimes is to be the glue between the two forces that are pulling on the wheel.
In some ways it’s like forming an instant family, because you have these transactional relationships where things have to get done but it’s also intensely personal. So I was actually quite surprised to read that your induction into the band came via a text message and you didn’t know the other two when that text message came through.
Well, I definitely did know them. Jonny and I weren’t as close as Robert and I were. Robert and I really met here in Australia. That’s the thing: inside this group it’s also incestuous. We all know who each other is. But I hadn’t spent a lot of time with Jonny until we sat down to form this band. I think we figured out a lot of what our strengths are individuals. I really love writing melodies and Jonny loves writings words, and Robert’s such an explorer in his way harmonically. The power struggle is easy because I think we all fall into what we want to do and it works itself out.
So when that invitation came to join them, had you had any thoughts of doing different projects, side projects, or was it just one of those great spur-of-the-moment things where you thought, Yep, I’m in.
I’d been writing for other people for a while and working with people like Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, appearing on records with Roseanne Cash and a couple of other people, so I was really enjoying however many years it was – sixteen years – professionally just kind of beating your own drum. And then after a while you wear out on the side of your own voice. So I was definitely looking to get into something that brought the inspiration back into writing, and this was just the right opportunity for it.
So it was 2015 the band had its first live performance, and then there was a gap and you came back together to write and record the album.
Yes, that’s it. We formed for one of the largest folk festivals in the country and I think we had four or five songs or something like that. And Robert said, joking, to the promoter that he needed to book this band and he took us up on it. So we were, like, we stumbled into this and now we’ve got to get serious about it. So in that break we all went to work on our little pieces of the puzzle and just getting our schedules to line up so we could be in the same room took a few years, and now I think we’re all really prioritising this group. To be in a group that has a sense of humour is really liberating for Robert and me. So much of this job is so narcissistic and self-gratifying, that to be able to take the air out of our tyres in a group but also write songs intentionally has been really fun.
It must be a bit of a relief, too, when you know that the other two are so accomplished and the level of professionalism is the same – after all those years of doing it on your own it must be nice to think you can relax and let some other people pick up some slack, and then you can pick it up for them, and you can all enjoy yourselves that way.
It’s a vacation, truly. Even doing interviews – like today, I’m doing the one because the other boys did them the other day. It’s not so much on one individual person’s shoulders and it really is so much easier. And when you’re on stage in a band that you love with people you love, you don’t really care if anyone else likes the show – we’re doing this for us as much as anything else. It has a gang mentality, you know.
You’ve released Western Movies in Australia but not yet in the United States – I’m guessing that’s because you’re out here for the festival, but you must have some fans in the US who are wondering why they have to wait.
Yeah, but that’s the way our band works – it seemed intelligent to go exactly in a different direction with this. We thought about even not releasing it in the United States and just releasing it in Australia. We’ve had a band for the past two years without even releasing a record. In this day and age it’s such an interesting process of trying to figure out what that even means any more, to release a record. So it’s fun to come down here where we don’t have a lot of skin in the game; we’re not trying to be the largest band in Australia, we’re just trying to come and have as much fun as possible. And then when you release it in the States it starts to feel more like, How many albums are we selling?And all that kind of stuff that none of us are really all that eager to get into.
When it came to writing the album you took ten days, and it was January so it was cold and a good time to be inside. That’s a really intensive writing process, but had things been bubbling away in your mind and the others’ minds so that when you came to write it flowed pretty easily?
I don’t worry about anything other than the melodies, so I have a Rolodex, phone memos, voice memos full of ideas. The other two have such strengths of their own. I don’t think we set out as a rule but when we all came together we’d been doing our mental work ahead of time. Jonny is extremely … he gets on these creative rolls. He’s got a story and he’s saying, ‘We should write a song about this’ and ‘We should write a song about that’, and as long as I have a melody to match it, we’re good to go. We could write a whole other record while we’re here.
I work with words in my day job and I love music obsessively, but I can never imagine coming up with a melody – not even a bar that works – even though I play instruments.
Well, that’s why you’ve got to have me in your band – I’ll help you out.
[Laughs] In terms of your musical background, are melodies things that have always come easily to you?
Yes. It always sounds a littlepretentious or boring when you hear it, but they’re really around all the time. You’re humming things and they’re not songs that you’ve heard before. So you just go about collecting them and capturing them as best you can. If you’re in a public place it gets a little awkward if you’re trying to record and remember things, but they leave really quickly, so you have to be vigilant about grabbing them when they come in.
It’s a discipline to be able to capture them when they come – did it take you a while to develop that discipline, or at least that awareness that you need to do that?
No. You said the right word. I personally think everybody can do it. I think you’re sort of conditioned away from it. If you’ve ever watched a child, they’re always making up songs. They’re always making up words that sound fun together to say. And it either gets nurtured or it gets turned into ‘Oh that’s nonsense’, or ‘What are you singing?’ There’s so much, like, song shaming, I feel like that is [laughs]. And then if you foster it – my parents, the minute they caught on that I was doing this stuff, and I was really young, they got me this little tape deck and would buy me endless amounts of tapes, and they taught me how to press record and rewind. They made it into a real special thing, so I just have a long habit of cultivating it, I’d say.
And also you’ve maintained it. That’s a practice you started young and you’ve still got it, so I can’t imagine you’ve had many times away from it.
I’ve been lucky enough – knock on wood – that I’ve never had a dry spell or a time when I couldn’t access … I’ve had lots of times where the melodies don’t necessarily tell you what they want to say, and I get very frustrated in that part of the process. I don’t want to just write instrumental music, necessarily. So teaming up with other guys – if you’ve ever met Jonny, you would know in a second, he’s got a constant inner narrative running that’s funny, interesting and sad. And right on the money. It’s sort of how he walks around too. So combining those things. And Robert is literally an energy ball of ‘Give me a guitar, give me a guitar, give me a guitar, let me touch that.’ If you sit in a room and there’s only one guitar, he has it.
Therefore, it is a perfect trinity. It sounds like it has been a meeting of minds in many different ways.
And I think all of us always really wanted to be in a band, we just couldn’t find enough people in our home towns, who we grew up with, who wanted to stick with it as long as we would. So this is always what I wanted to do, essentially. I’ve never really had a huge need to be, like, ‘The world needs to know what Cory Chisel thinks’, but I do love being in the creative process with people who are pushing you and expanding. And we get to travel the world together, with our best friends. And the rhythm section of the group – you could do a whole separate article on their diverse backgrounds that they’re bringing in. When you get the right chemistry it’s fun. Until we break up and hate each other.
It sounds like it’s going too well for fights – yet.
Oh, we’ve had a shitload of fights. That’s every day. One member of the band hates the show every time we play. We rotate it.
I think that’s also part of keeping sharp. You’d get complacent if every single one of you walked off and thought, That’s great.
Yeah, we all can’t run to the same side of the boat. We have to balance each other out. Different personalities sort that out as it goes. But everybody’s really on each other’s side at the end of the day, so if there’s people who came and liked it, great, and if not – who gives a shit? We had fun.
On a slightly technical note, I read that the album was recorded and written in your 57-room former monastery. How did you manage to choose one room to be the studio – which room did you pick?
Well, we used a lot of different spaces for different reasons. The technical aspect is that there’s certain rooms that are a little easier to control musically. All the reverbs and everything like that that are in the record, we were able to use the chapel as the place where we went after those kinds of sounds. It’s a really interesting place. It’s kind of hard to explain unless you’re in it, but there’s endless options. We could make a lot of different-kind-of-sounding records. So we just want to get back in there. We’re all ready to make another one.
And do you, on your own time, experiment with the sorts of sounds that come out of those rooms or do you wait for that recording process?
This project with the monastery is really what has … other than this group and a small amount with my own music, but really the main project is understanding that building and how to use it for art making. Then when everyone shows up I get really geeked out and excited about a specific spot that I want everyone to see, and hopefully one of them gets it and we get to use it.
How amazing that you could actually find a building like that and also really engage in exploring it. That’s beautiful.
It definitely was kind of a dream-come-true scenario with the whole property. So I plan on exploiting it to its fullest over the next thirty years.
And you have many rooms in which to do so. Now, for this album you did not have a record label.
We didn’t want one [laughs].
I did some research but couldn’t find out if you’ve had one before for your own work. But I imagine it was somewhat liberating to not have a label.
It was amazing to not have anyone else’s opinions other than our perfect opinions.
[Laughs] I often talk to Australian country music artists and there’s a lot of self-funding or crowd-funding going, and the quality of work coming out is so good that one wonders whether record companies have in the past meddled too much.
All the time. All thetime. Every one of us has a story like that. It’s our job, if we want the audience to enjoy what we’re making and if the audience at first is the record company and there’s just not giving you any positive feedback, it’s pretty impossible to not change something in the record, because you’re just getting all this negative feedback. This is really from our brain and from our mind, and we like it, and if there was a recipe – if any people from a record company knew what was going to sell and what wasn’t going to sell – they wouldn’t all lose their jobs every other day.
Part of this development of artists producing their own work is that it’s so much more direct to their audience, and the reason to do this is, in large part, to reach your audience. So the audience probably feels more connected without having a record company in the middle.
We live in a direct-to-consumer world. I watch Netflix. I want to pick the show I want to watch. I don’t want to arbitrarily have someone else force-feed me the content of what I want to digest. So I think it’s really important for artists to have that access that we’ve been granted through technology to really just cut out the people who previously have been gatekeepers – arbitrary gatekeepers and bad bankers who give us shitty loans that we have to pay back, and even when we do pay them back they still own the company. It just doesn’t make sense.
To go back to your album, and its title, Western Movies, I would like to ask you: which Western movies do you like?
Ẁow, that’s a lot to answer there. We all have our own favourite. I personally love Pale Rider. Robert’s saying [The Outlaw] Josey Wales. I don’t remember what Jonny’s favourite is – some spaghetti Western. But that’s one thing a lot of us connect on in our music, exposing the stuff that we feel maybe we’re a little nerdy or dorky for liking, and then we’re, like, ‘Let’s write songs about that – let’s exploit ourselves.’
If it’s stuff you love, passion always connects with an audience.
Every girlfriend in the world has been bored to death having to sit through one of these movies because we forced them on the world.
So for my last question I’m going to ask just about you and your music separately. Do you have plans for music of your own soon or do you think it will be another album with Traveller first?

 

I released a new record in the States in August, and really have an interesting time releasing my own music. I don’t know if it’s just a growth phase of time. I really enjoy making them and enjoy people close to me, having something to give them that I feel belongs to them too. But the whole process of going around and stumping for everyone in the world to care about what you think, I have an interesting relationship to. But I do have a record that I’m really proud of and now on this trip we’re making plans to come over again, just solo, with my partner Adrielle, hopefully maybe in February.
 
Western Movies is out now.

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