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Interview: Travis Johnson of Activity

6 January 2021

If there’s an album that sounds like 2020, it’s Unmask Whoever, the debut from the NYC-based four-piece Activity. The music – a mix of samplers, synths, and noisy guitars – can, at times, sound creepy and unsettling with lyrics to match. Make no mistake, just like the year that just ended, there’s nothing shiny and happy about this music and yet it’s oddly comforting indie rock from this upstart band made up of members of Grooms, Field Mouse, and Russian Baths.

Founding member Travis Johnson hopped on a Zoom call as 2020 came to a close to talk about how the band’s music served as an unofficial soundtrack to the year.

If we can pretend like this interview was on March 1, 2020, tell me where your head was at and what you were thinking. The album was about to come out, not sure if you had tour plans. What was the cycle you were getting ready to hop into?

TRAVIS: I can check our email account and see when the last email was sent about booking a show. I remember we had a little mini-string of dates that was Philly, Boston, Richmond, DC or something like that. That was secured. And then, a couple weeks later, we were going to go out and do more throughout the Midwest. That was coming together too – I remember Pittsburgh, I think Cleveland. I think, at that point, I was just like, “I hope there’s not rain on our album release night.” And hoping that some of the bigger sites reviewed the record.

How did Activity form?

TRAVIS: Steve (Levine) and I, he’s the drummer, we played together in this band Grooms for a few years. I like the records that we made a lot but it was kind of a band that should have ended sooner than it did. I was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore but I want to keep playing with Steve.” We did a last European tour and then came back and immediately started playing with Jess (Rees). It wasn’t determined yet if she was going to join Grooms or what, but then it was like, let’s just start something new. Then we had two guitar players and a drummer. Jess and I were switching off, I’d get the sampler out and the synth and then sometimes she’d get that out. We were like, “This is really good but it’s not a full band yet.” We asked our friend Zoë (Browne) if she wanted to play bass. She lived in Philadelphia at the time. She had never played bass before, she had played guitar so she came in and immediately started coming up with these inventive bass lines that worked really well.

In Grooms, I sang on every song and played guitar on every song and I wanted a band where somebody else would sing and I’d go over and just be hitting buttons on a synth or a sampler. That was the idea, we didn’t have a “let’s sound like these bands” kind of thing. We’re not a band that has to have guitars. It’s like, “If you recorded something cool on your iPhone, send it to me and I’ll put it in my sampler and see if I can make something out of it.” It was really open ended in a fun way.

How long have you been working together?

TRAVIS: It was really fast. That last Grooms tour was in April 2018 and I think maybe we had already started playing with Jess a little before that tour. We kept playing throughout the summer and then announced Grooms was done. We brought in Zoë in August and recorded the first three songs maybe two months later. That was totally triggered by my friend Jeff (Berner), who recorded the album. He was like, “I’d love to get Grooms in for a day. It’s a free day, we’ll just throw stuff at the wall and see if you have a song.” I told him, “Grooms is going to end but maybe another thing will start up.” So, we did that and we kind of got songs ready for that. It was “Calls Your Name,” “Spring Low Life,” and a song that never came out, actually. We recorded those three and then I sent them to Grooms’ label, Western Vinyl, and they were like, “Yeah, let’s totally do this.” I think maybe three months after that, we went in and did the rest of the album. We had done like two shows when we went in and recorded. Within six months of Zoë joining, we had written and recorded the album.

With all of you having come from other bands, was this a ‘let’s hang out and see if anything comes of it” or was it a “let’s get this band together and put a record out”?

TRAVIS: I think it was kind of weirdly both. It was both playful and low stakes while at the same time, not with a careerist ambition, but the ambition of “this is a new band where all of us can decide what it becomes.” It’s not the kind of band that drifts over time and you lose a member and gain a member and you start off as a twee-pop band and then you become this or that. It was like, let’s push ourselves and find a thing that feels like it’s ours and really have a thing that feels, I don’t want to say “completely original,” because it’s certainly not completely original, but just that it would sound fully formed. It was ambitious in that way but at the same time we were listening to our voice demos of us jamming. It’s like 18-minute jams with us laughing through the whole thing and every one of them starts off with jokes. We’ve never had any fights whatsoever. I think the idea is that this can be fun, there’s no baggage. To answer your question, it was super off the cuff and also pretty focused at the same time.

To me the album sounds like 2020. It’s sort of paranoid, it’s sort of dark. Tell me about the writing of the songs. You obviously didn’t foresee this pandemic coming and yet it seems to be the perfect soundtrack for the year.

TRAVIS: Thanks, in a way. That’s a big compliment and it’s obviously a horrible year but it’s good that I made something that resonates with something that people are going through. There was no mission to make it a dark thing or anything like that or nailing a zeitgeist, but, whenever the lyrics were coming out, it was a lot about disease and people you can’t trust and being disillusioned. Those are kind of perennial things that I think about. I’ve struggled with obsessive compulsive disorder and various mental illnesses for a long time, so those are kind of things that are ready to go. It wasn’t a goal but once it started going in that direction, we could go, “okay, well this is taking shape.” And then Jeff, who recorded and, in a way, produced the album, he plays in Psychic TV, he’s got a good palate of references. Like, “If we push it in this direction, it will make me feel like this.” And I was like, “Yeah, let’s go in that direction.” Sort of queasy, still really pretty at times. I think for me, at least, I can’t speak for everybody else, I was just like, “I want to make something I would listen to if I wasn’t making it.” A lot of the times, that’s stuff that sounds like 2020 felt.

When I heard “Earth Angel,” I was like, “This sounds like Pavement covering some of the more ambient/soundtrack-sounding Nine Inch Nails stuff.”

TRAVIS: That’s really funny because that song, I don’t know if it’s the “I want to fuck” part that makes people think that, but I’ve definitely heard numerous Nine Inch Nails comparisons from friends. And then there’s that industrial drum sound that’s going on. All of that was completely accidental. I do love Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral but it was completely accidental. It’s really fun to hear you say that.

How did the “Earth Angel” video come about? Was that something you did post-lockdown?

TRAVIS: Yeah. I can’t even remember how the idea of making a video came about but Steve was like, “I know how to mount a camera to the hood of a car” and we were like, “Okay, let’s do that tonight.” As you can probably see in the video, we’re driving around where there is no one else and it’s at 11 o’clock at night. Since we don’t have our masks on, we have the windows open. The idea was what can we do that will be super interesting with no budget? We didn’t ask for a budget, we were just like let’s make a video. We didn’t want it to be pretentious and we didn’t want it to be boring or stupid. We were like, “What kind of tricks can we play if the camera is here and this is what you can see.” Steve has directed stuff for other people, like short films, and he’s edited things and he’s been in acting and that business for a long time. I think he majored in Film Studies so he has the right vocabulary to know what works and what doesn’t.

How would you describe your 2020 music listening? Was it different than years past because of the circumstances and spending a lot more time at home?

TRAVIS: Yeah. I’m probably not alone in this but, for at least the first couple of weeks, I can’t remember because time has been so strange, I didn’t want to listen to music and I didn’t want to make music. It felt weird and, not wrong in a moral way, but, like, it made me feel kind of sick. Maybe it reminded me of what wasn’t happening and what was going on instead. It made me feel more isolated. At some point, maybe it was the first Bandcamp day, I just bought a few records and that got me over it.

It’s been different in the sense that I usually do a good amount of deejaying at bars and stuff, which usually also means I’m listening to a good amount of dance 12” and weird disco stuff and going through and pulling records to play at the next set. I didn’t really do much of that, I did do a couple of socially-distanced sets where I’m outside and other people are in their little cubicles out on the street. That’s a big difference for me, not listening to all that much dance music and listening to a lot more sad, strange jazz.

There was a Charlie Megira comp. I came across it, maybe it might have been right before the pandemic, and now it goes for like $150. He’s this guy, he was Israeli and he made this really haunting, kind of David Lynch-y, there’s a lot of the ’50s/‘60s early rock and roll references but it sounds super alien at the same time. A lot of it is really sad and beautiful and that was really a thing for me. I didn’t listen to a lot of big, pumping stuff. I would put on stuff that I could just lay on the couch and drift off to.

I haven’t listened to a lot of big, happy pop stuff either. I find that Americana is a pretty relaxing genre and I’m actually really into the new Taylor Swift stuff. Have you listened to the albums she released in 2020?

TRAVIS: I have a thing where I’m sure I’ll listen to both of the records she made, probably in 2021. Whenever everybody is talking about the same record at the same time, I’m afraid to listen to it. I’ll usually listen to it after it’s cooled off. Sometimes I’ll love it and be like, “Oh man, I missed out on six months of listening to this.”

My thing is, if I get on Twitter and all I see is … I can’t … it’s probably kind of pretentious in some way or another, where I just don’t want to partake. Like, right now everyone is talking about the Eve 6 guy tweeting. It really is legitimately interesting but my Instagram feed is now all of people liking his tweets. That’s all I’m seeing. I’m like, “Alright. Okay.”

I thought it was funny and even cute when he first started tweeting but I feel like maybe I’m over it now.

TRAVIS: Yeah, me too. It’s not even his fault. I would do it too if everyone kept clapping for it.

I’m curious what kind of music you grew up listening to. Do you remember the first band that you really loved?

TRAVIS: That band and album would have been Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins and, to a lesser extent, In Utero by Nirvana. That was like when I was 10 or 11. Before that, my favorite song was “Show Me Love” by Robin S. I had no desire to buy the album. I wanted to hear it over and over again but I wasn’t curious as to what the other songs sounded like.

The song [that made me a Smashing Pumpkins fan] was “Disarm,” which is a really silly song to me now. It’s like the worst song on that album. That was where I was like, “I want to hear that album over and over again.” I asked for the album for my birthday.

Billy Corgan released something like eight new Smashing Pumpkins songs leading up to the release of the new album which has 20 tracks. When you can’t be out touring and building buzz, that’s probably not a terrible idea.

TRAVIS: I think Bill Callahan did something like that too on his last release. We’re trying to do things – because it’s fun, but also to make getting a record more exciting for people, we’ve been doing things like, especially on Bandcamp Fridays, I’ll handwrite all the lyrics for people. And some days we’ve said, “We’ll write you a song and record it and send it to you.” That was really fun because at least two of those will go on the next record in some form..

With all the lockdowns, what is the state of Activity? Do you practice? Do you keep in touch? Do you do Zoom happy hours? Or, is it like, “Let’s touch base in a few months and see what’s going on”?

TRAVIS: It’s been pretty involved. We’re fairly close to being done with the second record, in some ways. Three of us live within a couple blocks of each other and our practice space is within a couple blocks of us. I got the virus in March and we were like, one of us has already had it, me and Steve are already working together, and then basically we don’t see anybody else so we’re like, “Yeah, let’s go and practice.”

Zoë is in Connecticut and we’ve been sending her the stuff we’ve been recording in voice demo form but then a lot is also sketches and sampler-type stuff that’s more in the vibe of “Calls Your Name” where it’s pretty electronic and I’ll say, “Zoë, can you sing on this? I have no ideas for vocals.” She’ll send stuff back.

So we have half an album of that kind of thing and half an album of more live guitar stuff. The same mixture as the first record but I don’t know if it’ll come out sounding the same. Zoë was reasonably, and rightly, saying that once she gets the vaccine or once we all get the vaccine, she’ll come down and we can practice for three weeks and then go in the studio. We’ll have all the stuff already familiar even though we haven’t all been in the same room together. The other three of us are actually going to mask up and practice tonight.

I know everything is unpredictable right now. If things don’t get back to normal until September 2021, would you hold off on releasing another record or do you think, since you won’t be out touring, you might go in and record it sooner than later?

TRAVIS: I don’t know, that’s hard to say. It would be nice to have a normal record cycle for a record for this band because we haven’t had one yet. But, also, that seems to get less and less meaningful every time I’m part of a record that gets put out. I would like to tour within a month or two of when the record comes out and know that it’s going to be safe and that it won’t be canceled. If we’re able to get vaccinated and record in the summer, it would still probably be early 2022 before the record comes out.

As you mentioned, the lyrics are very current. Even the album title, Unmask Whoever feels very relevant.

TRAVIS: The extent to which the record, through no one’s fault, could not have been more poorly timed. Okay, it’s going to come out right when all the stores are closed. It’s got the word “unmask” in the title, it’s your first record, you’ve never played a show outside of New York. It’s honestly pretty hilarious.