Sunday, March 25, 2012

TS and the Past Haunts

Only four years have passed since the Boston-based rock band Piebald formally broke up, but, for Travis Shettel, their singer and guitarist, it seems like several lifetimes have cycled.
In a way, it's true: Shettel has survived several musical lifetimes since their slow dissolution. “Even before Piebald ended,” he add, “I was trying to get another Los Angeles band together. Piebald was still doing tours here and there and trying to put together an album for the last two years, but I needed another musical outlet. So, for a while, I was in a band called the Was. Basically it was comprised of musician friends that I collected, and it was a haphazard, rag-tag team of people who I love.”

It was with the Duke Spirit, an indie-rock band from London, however, where TS and the Past Haunts, his current musical pursuit, was coaxed into fruition.

Shettel was asked to be the Duke Spirit's manager during one of their first US tours; eventually, he was also asked to perform keys and percussion live alongside them. When they learned that he had been writing songs on the side, the Duke Spirit offered to be his backup band in the studio, but only if he booked time during their one-week break in LA. “So I sent them twenty songs that I had written,” Shettel tells. “We sort of sorted through them and chose seven that we recorded that week. I did a few overdubs after that, and that became the initial Past Haunts EP.”

By the time that EP, titled Caveman Rock, was released by No Sleep Records in 2011, the Duke Spirit had returned to their own priorities; Shettel once again had the taste of melody lingering on his lips, but had lost his backup band. Determined to give the Past Haunts a full musical life, he asked his friend Ben Heywood, who played keyboard in the Was, and his wife Heather to be his backup band as drummer and bassist respectively. “We did one show just to see what it would even be like, and we had a great time,” Shettel says.

With the Heywoods, Shettel recorded and released the Past Haunts' first full-length record. Released by No Sleep in 2012, Gone and Goner toes many musical lines at once—from harsh to airy and etherial, chaotic and complex to clean. Opener “East Jesus” relies on a riff that bounces and swings from beat to leaden beat; Shettel's hoots between verses and the way his voice snarls throughout gives the song an animalistic, primitive vibe. Halfway through the record's second side, though, “All I Can Tell You” shows a band that might have opened for Buddy Holly—tight and lean, at least until the chorus, which turns hazy with layers of fuzzy, fuming chords.

I wanted to make loud, brash, obnoxious rock tunes,” Shettel confesses, “but that also didn't have zero harmonies or melodies—songs that you can still dance to, but are still somewhat abrasive. I know it's garage rocky, but I don't exactly know what kind of music it is.”

For Shettel, it is better to be difficult to define than to write shallow music that satisfies certain musical mores. “Wouldn't you rather be rather be somewhat indescribable than to be easily compared to something else?” he asks rhetorically. “The attempt to create something I've never heard that still builds upon past music that I've experienced and loved, twisting it around and putting it through the TS and the Past Haunts filter, hopefully makes it indescribable. You can't just put it in a category, can't just compare it to another band; you have to dive into it more.”

Perhaps no song on Gone and Goner captures this genre-less (or genre-full) nature better than “Circumstance”. The song starts with enormous, pounding chords that collapse with the power and violence of a cave-in; the dust and stones settle a breath before the first verse, where Shettel's voice narrates three tragic, unsparing tales, his guitar scrolling behind him. During these verses, “Circumstance” has the flavor and finesse of something strummed on stage during Woodstock—drenched in Hendrixian reverb, stepping at a wanderer's pace, embellished with tambourine—at least until Shettel's voice, rising into a yelp, leads the song back into those cave-in chords, Ben Heywood's drums tumbling like boulders, Heather Heywood's bass rattling like an earthquake.

It's a song we will probably play every set during our entire existence as a band,” Shettel says. “I looked up the word 'circumstance' once—I can't remember what prompted me to do that—and the definition was something along the lines of, 'events that are beyond a human's control.' I thought that was really interesting because we sort of think we can control everything, but it turns out that we invented a word that says that we can't in some cases. So I just wrote three scenarios about how life is a little fleeting, how you can't control everything that happens to you.”

It's impressive how a song like “Circumstance” and a record like Gone and Goner can express so many styles at once—folk storytelling, the weight of heavy metal, punk-rock's purpose, psychedelic aesthetics, the grease of garage rock, pop's clever claws—without feeling forced or favoring one above another; it's what makes TS and the Past Haunts' first full-length eerily memorable. Perhaps it's his perseverance, the many lifetimes Shettel experienced as a musician—with Piebald and the Was, with the Duke Spirit and now the Past Haunts—that allows Gone and Goner to feel so sophisticated, so genre-full.

Then again, it's sometimes easy to mistake talent and passion for mere perseverance.

Shettel performed these songs on a late Winter afternoon before his bartending shift at Mandrake Bar in Culver City, CA. He performed the songs on his Fender 12-string in the bar's back storage room before it opened for the evening.

"Circumstance" appears on TS and the Past Haunts' 2012 record titled Gone and Goner. "Know What I Know" appears on the band's 2011 digital EP titled Caveman Rock. "Georgia on My Mind" is a cover written by Hoagy Carmichael and (arguably) made famous by Ray Charles, who recorded it for his 1960 record The Genius Hits the Road. "From Me to You" is a Beatles cover; the song originally appeared on a 1963 single by the band.

Visit the band's website for more music.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume Three for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2012. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.

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