Shop our Big Takeover store for back issues, t-shirts & CDs
Follow The Big Takeover
Photo by Ebru Yildiz
In the press release accompanying Activity’s sophomore release, Spirit in the Room, the NYC band’s music is described as “haunted.” That word never crossed singer/multi-instrumentalist Travis Johnson’s mind until he saw it in the material presented by the band’s label, Western Vinyl. “As soon as I saw it, I was like, ‘That’s perfect. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.’”
Activity’s debut, Unmask Whoever, was released just a few weeks into the global lockdown that started in March 2020 and the unsettling, paranoid, creepy music foreshadowed what was to follow that year. With the inability to properly tour to promote the release, Johnson, Jess Rees (guitar/vocals/keys), Bri DiGiola (bass/vocals), and Steven Levine (drums) began working on the songs that would become Spirit in the Room.
Rather than pick up where we left off after a conversation in early 2021, I asked Johnson about some obvious, and some not-so-obvious, influences that contribute to the recipe that makes up Activity’s music.
At least in a practical way, lockdown completely affected the record. It was the only thing we could do and even then we were like, “Are we supposed to be getting together and doing this?” We started getting together in late spring or early summer of 2020 and this was our one outlet when we couldn’t do anything else. Three of us lived in New York, so we were getting together as much as possible, which wasn’t that often. It was the one thing that we were always looking forward to during that time.
The fact that there were only three of us instead of four, because of lockdown, had a huge impact on the music. Missing a band member gave way to a lot of electronic tinkering that I did on my own to help fill out the sound, that could be done alone and with headphones on.
The mood of it all was in the back of our minds the whole time we were working on music.
This is maybe kind of nerdy, but there were some plugins that came out during the last couple of years that I exploited a lot. I tried to cover my tracks a little bit so that it wasn’t like, “Oh, this is just the sound of this new plugin that everybody’s talking about.” A lot of times, you’ll get a cool sound from it and then you’ll be like, “Now I’m going to play differently because of the sound.” And then, at some point, you might even take the plugin out because now you’ve got this new idea. So, there were a few things that were new that I was just like, “Oh man, I want to run everything through this” and then dial it back from there or even take it out completely.
I don’t think I got any new samplers or drum machines or anything in the last few years, so it was more like diving deeper into the hardware that I already had.
1960’S FOLK MUSIC
Artists like Fairport Convention and Sandy Denny, as well as some obscure stuff that’s been reissued on different compilations by a label like Efficient Space, all played a role in this album. You may not necessarily hear it but I’m incorporating the feeling associated with a lot of folk stuff. I’ll sometimes play guitar in a folk style but by the time the song is recorded, it doesn’t feel like that. It’s that mood what I’m going for a lot of times.
DAVID BERMAN (SILVER JEWS)
He’s part of my DNA at this point in my life. I don’t consciously think, “David Berman would do this, so I’ll do that.” His music has just been with me for so long that it’ll always be in the mix for me. It’s like a subliminal influence.
One thing he does a lot that I love is going back and forth between something that could be considered “every day” lyrics and then adding something that’s kind of fantastical. At the end of the Silver Jews song “Pretty Eyes,” there are literally angels but they’re driving cars and stars take the place of headlights. Things like that influence me. It’s the exact right kind of non sequitur. It doesn’t seem at all pretentious to me, it seems more mysterious and playful.
We went out on a 10 or 12 day tour before we recorded the album. That helped us realize that some of the stuff we were working on just didn’t work the way we were playing it live. There’s a song called “I Like What You Like” that probably went through five or six different iterations when we were writing it before we settled on how we wanted it to sound. When we went on tour, we played it once and were like, “That didn’t feel right,” so it was back to the drawing board for that song.
Maybe my favorite song that we’ve ever done is Jess’s song, “Where the Art is Hung.” It’s all about these big, carefully done, dynamic shifts in the song. Testing it out live, you could really feel when you messed it up or when you got it perfect. That made it easier to know how we wanted the recording to sound once we had the chance to go into the studio.
Anxiety isn’t new to me but there was a certain kind of anxiety that was new to me while working on this album. It was something that I hadn’t experienced before. I’m sure that I’m like most people in that there have been things in the last few years – Covid, politics, etc – that I had never experienced before which played with the dynamics of my emotions.
Anxiety is definitely in the album but I’d have to think about how I’d even describe the role it plays. I have an obsessive compulsive disorder and the last few years were really bad with regard to that but it was in ways that I hadn’t experienced before. In a way, that’s good because I don’t want to write about the same anxiety-influenced thing over and over again. With this album, I couldn’t write from that same perspective, it was something new. Sometimes I have this feeling of something being off. I can’t place it but I know that whatever it is, it’s going to be a big deal. That it’s that uneasiness that contributes to the feeling of anxiety in the music.
At some point in 2020, I may have started reading the wrong kind of books. What I thought might make me feel better didn’t. I was getting really into Marxism and started feeling like I understood global dynamics a little better. My anxiety shifted into a feeling of resignation. I’m very displeased and going on something like X (fka Twitter) doesn’t help. It’s boring now. You can’t even hate read it anymore.
I became disillusioned with a lot of things while also having a firmer idea of what I think things should be. Through that, I started to understand some of things I could do to make things better, like being kind to the people around me or being generous with what I have. When I realized that, it helped a lot.
LOSING A PARENT AND HAVING ANOTHER PARENT GET SICK
My dad got sick about a year before my mom died. He got sick and then got better and then Covid happened. Then, right when vaccines were coming out is when my mom died. It was very unexpected. A lot of the record had already been written at that point. The song “I Saw His Eyes,” I wrote that when my dad was sick. I wasn’t terrified that we were going to lose him. It was cancer but it seemed pretty treatable. But he just looked so sickly. That song is me reaching out to him and saying that, should we have to part, I’ll see you on the other side and I’m terribly sorry for all the times I’ve been cold or cruel to you, which I definitely can be with him.
The last song on the album (“Susan Medical City”) was probably written 10 days after my mom died and it was probably one of the first times I was able to pick up a guitar after losing her. It just came out real quick and I think it’s my best chord progression on any of our songs. I knew immediately that this was going to be the “mom” song and half the lyrics were there in 30 minutes. Even on the songs that had been kind of written but weren’t totally finished, the situation with my parents kind of wormed its way in there with little lyrical references that made sense to me but maybe not anybody else.
That’s like the pall hanging over the whole record. It was the end of this miserable year (2020) capped off by the saddest moment in my life. I didn’t want to make everybody feel sad with the record but I also knew that the record was going to sound haunted. I didn’t have the words for it but I knew that I wanted the sense that something was hanging around.
Steve and I have known each other for a while because we played together in another band and had gone on long tours. Bri took over on bass two years ago. She and I had been working together with Steve in a wood shop which is how we met. I didn’t really know Jess before the band. We got to know each other through writing but we still had never been on tour together until a couple years after we formed because of Covid. After that tour we were all super close.
You can’t really anticipate what’s going to happen when you form a band with the people you form it with, whether it’s gonna work musically or whether you’ll be able to stand each other on tour. We were a very young band when Covid hit and it definitely changed the way that we all related to each other. When we could finally go out on tour it didn’t feel like one of those tours where you’re like, “What a slog. There was nobody there.” You kind of didn’t care because you were just so glad to be on tour. There were four people at our show in Chapel Hill. As long as the staff was cool and they liked it, we were like, “This is great.”
I left the wood shop last year so that I could start up an effects pedal company. I basically did that so that I would be more in control of when my free time was because, honestly, that’s the biggest way that a day job influences your music. Unless you’re doing something kind of cool like working in a museum or anything with artistic stimuli, the main way a day job affects your art is by taking time and energy away from it.
I’ve always been really lucky with jobs. I worked at another pedal company for a long time and then when the pandemic came I was working in a woodshop with friends. That was great because we would play each other records while we were working. Or we’d put on really cool playlists from NTS Radio. There’s a thousand bands or artists you’ve never heard of that are on these playlists and we would just devour those. In that way, my day job had a positive effect on the music.
There’s a podcast called Blowback that is about to come out with its fourth season. It’s a podcast about the American Empire. The first season was about the Iraq war. They said they were doing it because there was this plan during the first part of the Trump era to rehabilitate the reputation of George W. Bush and they were like, “Let’s look a little more carefully at what he did.” The second season is about American relations with Cuba. The third season is about North Korea.
I’m a history nerd to begin with and this podcast is politically aligned with my beliefs. In a way, this podcast added to that sense of anxiety and anger about the way things are that eventually gave way to some level of resignation, not like I’m giving up but realizing that my anxiety isn’t making anything any better. A sense of systematized evil operating in the world, I guess, is a big feeling for me in general. And that podcast was probably the one that I took the most of that from.
There are a lot of new and fancy restaurants in my neighborhood since Covid. There’s this one that has now been like four fancy restaurants just in the last three years. Nothing can stay there. I can’t say that those restaurants are much of an influence, but the sense of having things put in front of me creates a sense of FOMO and my awareness of that is part of everything I do, including music. But, I do like going to good and reasonably affordable restaurants.
I really like this restaurant called Five Leaves. It’s fairly nice, not dressy, but it’s always solid. Most Sundays I go to the bar across the park from me and hang out with the staff there and read while eating a burger and fries. It’s called Palace and it’s just a really good communal feeling.
These places are influences because I spend time there, especially at Palace where I’m always bringing a book or, if I’m feeling a little bit more pretentious, a lyrics pad with lyrics that I’m working on. That’s really valuable time to be immersing yourself in something for a good hour while also being social. That’s the kind of thing that I wouldn’t do in a fast food restaurant.
Like some of the other things we talked about, it’s not a direct influence but an influence in the way that it affects the structure of everything.