Thursday, 14 April 2011 14:49
Watching Travis Atria’s facial expressions is like seeing Morningbell’s music personified. In soft moments, it’s a picture of tranquility. “Lay down next to me. Instead of leaving, you should lay down next to me,” the lead singer croons in a sweet falsetto during “Soul Ma’am.”
By Tyler Francischine; Photo by Chris Hillman
With a guttural “uh,” the song takes off and Travis’ face scrunches up. During a guitar solo, a sneer matches the aggressive sounds coming out of his lefthanded, all-white guitar.
After the song ends and the applause dies down, Travis shares his idea for a new Folgers Coffee jingle. He smiles shyly, and looks at the floor before lifting his left arm to signal he’s starting. The crowd at the Orange and Brew, about 150 people, quiets in anticipation.
Travis seems to be everywhere within Gainesville’s music scene. He serves as frontman for two bands, Morningbell and The Shitty (or Shoddy) Beatles, and works with other local projects including Pseudo Kids and The Slims. He’s released four full-length albums and two EP’s with Morningbell, in addition to the recently released Slims album Killa Dilla. Onstage, he’s known for his white suit and soul-inspired sounds—in addition to a (more recent) falsetto. Offstage, friends and family recognize him for his musical and writing talents and his introspective nature, a characteristic developed out of an adolescence spent in and out of doctors’ offices.
Eric, Travis’s older brother and bandmate, says Travis’s mindset is the opposite of his. Eric is organized and very conscious of how he spends his time, while Travis prefers to let things unfold on their own time.
“He’s the type of person who won’t eat a meal until 6pm unless one appears in front of him,” Eric says. “He’s not into practical stuff—his mind doesn’t work that way.”
After consulting his iPhone for the correct definition, Eric calls Travis a “conduit” (a “channel through which something is conveyed”).
“Something is trying to get out, and it’s getting out through him,” Eric explains.
Travis’s mom, Kathy, who was in town to celebrate Travis’s recent 29th birthday, offers a simile.
“He’s like the Dalai Lama,” she says. “Stacie, Eric’s wife, calls him a creative genius.”
For Travis, the creative process doesn’t quit when he’s asleep. Five or six times, he has woken up in the morning with original, fully composed songs in his head. The first time, he heard a song sung by Jermaine Jackson; the second time, he heard a Louie Armstrong tune. Most recently, he woke up at 11am with a country-tinged soul song, the depressing, break-up type. He jumped out of bed, taught himself the melody on guitar and recorded it. There’s only a small window of time—about a minute, he says—before the music is lost forever. And even then, it’ll never sound as good as it did in his dream.
“I wish there was a way to plug my brain into a computer,” he says.
Travis received his bachelor’s degree in Literature from the University of Miami in 2003 and his master’s in Journalism from the University of Florida in 2007. In addition to writing for his own blog, Thriller Magazine, he has freelanced for INsite in addition to the Gainesville Sun, Paste and hip-hop and soul magazine Wax Poetics. By 2009, he had sold a story for $1,000 to Wax Poetics—a 2,000-word interview with Smokey Robinson.
For his “day job,” Travis works for Community Action Agency testing air-conditioning ducts, insulation and attics to determine where houses are losing energy.
“I’m sure something else will come along,” he says. “I don’t ever really do the same thing two days in a row.”
Travis devoted a hallway in his home to some of his favorite people— The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Michael Jackson. At one end of the “hallway of inspiration,” an altar of Michael Jackson consists of an enlarged shot from the “Billie Jean” music video with a candle underneath it. Before Travis records, he lights that candle. The rest of the hallway is covered with framed shots of his favorite artists.
Travis draws inspiration from sources including The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne and David Byrne of Talking Heads.
From David, Travis learned how a frontman could turn himself into a symbol.
“You could become bigger than yourself,” Travis says. “People remember you better when you always wear the same thing.”
Travis borrowed fashion tips from Wayne, namely his signature white suit, which Travis named “White Lightning.” Travis can recall with great clarity the day he found the white platform shoes at a South Florida thrift store near his home in Hollywood, Fla.
“I was driving around and got this spider sense,” he says. “I just felt like there was something at this store for me.” After finding nothing, Travis almost gave up, but then he spotted a shoe rack, empty except for one pair of shoes.
“I thought, ‘Holy shit,’” he says. “They might’ve been bathed in white light.” Needless to say, the pair fit Travis perfectly, and White Lightning was complete.
Travis always takes his glasses off while performing— he prefers to see the fuzzy outline of the crowd, so he can’t see their faces and guess what they’re thinking. “I exist too much in my head to be free onstage,” he says.
Collin Whitlock, Travis’s close friend and bandmate in The Shitty Beatles and The Slims, says the two spend most of their time analyzing their past actions.
“We’re very Seinfeldian,” Collin says.
Travis’s dad, Drew, says this can create issues. Travis called Kathy once because he had missed the Gainesville I-75 exit. He was in Lake City, 50 miles north of Gainesville, and needed directions.
“He carries a lot with him. He’s been through a lot,” Collin says. “He’s very good about trying to learn from his mistakes, but he remembers.”
Since high school, Travis battled Lyme Disease. For two years, he was on intravenous antibiotics for three hours a day, five days a week. The disease went undiagnosed for years, as Travis thinks the doctors refused to believe the disease had spread to South Florida. The symptoms were unbearable—anxiety, panic attacks, depression, memory problems.
“I’ve had 15 years of experience of appearing normal while freaking out inside,” he says.
“Getting to know him is being part of a special club,” Collin says. “He’s not a whore for his personality.”
“He’s really not that different; it’s just the little things in between that set him apart,” Collin says. “He wants love, he wants happiness, he wants recognition. Maybe the difference is he deserves it.”