360°Sound caught up with singer/songwriter/guitarist Travis Atria. For 10 years, the Gainesville, Florida resident was in the indie psychedelic rock band Morningbell with his brother and sister-in-law. In April, he released his first solo album as ATRIA, Moonbrain.
Atria is also an accomplished writer. He wrote the cover story on Marvin Gaye for the latest issue of Wax Poetics. We spoke with him last month on the 50th anniversary of Gaye’s classic album What’s Going On. He is the author of the books Better Days Will Come Again: The Life of Arthur Briggs, Jazz Genius of Harlem, Paris, and a Nazi Prison Camp and Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°: Please start by telling us about your music career and what led you to do a solo album.
Travis Atria: Morningbell released six albums and toured the country and played Bonnaroo and SXSW. We had some songs licensed in TV and film. We had a pretty good run. Then my brother and sister-in-law decided to start a family and so around 2014 we stopped playing. I moved to New York for a year to be with my wife who had an internship up there. I just started working on these songs that became Moonbrain.
I bought an Ableton drum beat programmer. It was a piece of technology that I never had before. Because I was in New York I didn’t have access to my home studio and access to a drum kit, I tried to figure out what I could do with this thing. I started making the album I was actually planning on making a Morningbell album but when half the band is raising two young children they weren’t really in the right place to work on it. At a certain point, I was like do I stop? Do I let these songs die? Or do I keep doing it by myself?
A couple of things happened in the making of this that kept me going. One was I was writing a book on Arthur Briggs. It’s about a jazz trumpeter who ends up spending WWII in a Nazi prison camp. I was in Paris researching this, that’s where he lived. I went to see the site where the camp was and later that night, when I got back to my hotel, the Parisian news was reporting on the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. It was really chilling to me to have been in a place and reliving this history, deeply studying WWII and all the things that led up to it, seeing where this man was held captive. And then I see my own countrymen having essentially a Nazi rally.
I was honestly afraid to come home. I didn’t know what country I was coming back to. When that happened, I started feeling differently about it. Most of the music I’d made before had been personal stuff, writing about my own life or relationships, that stuff. But the people whose music I really loved, like Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye, when shit got serious in the world, they were talking about it. They were giving their perspective on it through their music. It changed the way I felt about the world; it was an education for me to listen to those songs.
The other major thing that happened was I became an uncle. The world seemed like it was going insane. The IPCC climate report came out and it said we had 12 years basically to stop the effects of global warming before it hits a point of no return, which is an estimate obviously. There are these two children in my life and they don’t know anything about the world. I can see the world that they’re going to inherit and it’s going to be fucked up.
This is time for me to make an album where I say, ‘This is what I believe, and this is what I see going on.’ It was scary to do that because I’ve never tried doing anything like that before. It’s easy when you’re doing that to become very boring or preachy and I didn’t want to. I tried to keep in my mind that I was talking to my niece and nephew through this music.
I wanted it to be, as Curtis Mayfield said, “painless preaching.” If you want to hear the messages, they’re in there. But you don’t have to. You can just enjoy the song or the groove or whatever. “Jazz Cigarette” is a perfect example of that. I don’t know of many slow jam R&B songs that are talking about ocean acidification. The chorus is almost a throwaway. It was a little bit of silliness. Kind of like sleight of hand. You don’t have to get into this really heavy thing, but it’s there if you want.
How has writing books impacted you as a songwriter and vice versa?
I think music has impacted my writing much more than writing has impacted my music, probably because I spent longer as a musician. I always wanted to write books, even since I was a little kid. I started playing guitar at 12 years old. The process is very different between the two. Writing is not even a one-hundredth as fun or as rewarding as making music. That’s something I didn’t know when I started writing books. Writing is a much lonelier endeavor. There’s basically no feedback. It’s not like playing to an audience where they clap or don’t clap. You write a book, you sell it to someone, they take it home and you never hear from them again. You have no idea if they liked it, no idea if it did well. Writing has made me appreciate music more. I gotta keep making music somehow because it’s so much more fulfilling.
“In the Fullness of Time” was inspired in part by “O Holy Night” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” I wouldn’t have guessed it was influenced by Christmas music.
I love Christmas music. I always have. I collect it and look for good albums. It’s one of the types of music that everyone thinks they hate, but it’s just because you’re not listening to the right stuff. I would argue that Frank Sinatra’s A Jolly Christmas is the best album Sinatra ever made, it’s the best singing of his career, and it’s one of the best albums I’ve ever heard.
I basically stole the lyrics from “O Holy Night.” These lyrics are so deeply embedded within us. It’s not about being religious, because I’m not a particularly religious person, but it occupies the same space as Shakespeare would. These phrases are so deep within us that they have this sort of real power. Sometimes when you’re writing lyrics you can draw on it. “In sin and error pining,” that line I took because that’s what I was trying to talk about on this album. Not only was it influenced by the Christmas music, but it was also the message I was trying to say.
You said “No Name Street” has the best guitar solo you’ve recorded. Tell us a little about your approach to the guitar parts on this record.
For me, my idol growing up other than the Beatles was Hendrix. I’m a left-handed guitarist so there’s not a lot of people to look up to. For me, it was Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, the only two left-handed guitarists I knew of. Almost everything I know is from Hendrix. I grew up playing blues guitar. A big part of Morningbell, especially live, was like turn me loose, let me play for a while. We had a lot of really good guitar work.
I thought I better capture [a solo] on an album. I made sure to get a couple in there. To me, it’s not just wanking. I think within the context of the song it works. “No Name Street” it was at 2 in the morning, I turned my amp up as loud as I can get it. It was just pure anger through the guitar. It was a lot of fun to play. I’m trying to honor my love of Hendrix. Someone told me it reminded them of Parliament. The guitar solo has been done to death, and you’re never going to be better than Hendrix or Jimmy Page. But I don’t care, I just wanted to do it, so I did.