Theo Travis: "My new album is very much new prog rock - no elves in sight"

a portrait of theo travis

With a foot in both jazz and progressive rock, Theo Travis is one of the busiest sax and flute players on the scene at the moment, having recorded and toured with luminaries such as Steven Wilson, Robert Fripp, David Sylvian and Gong. In addition to leading his own quartet, Double Talk, he’s also been a member of Soft Machine since 2006. He’s just released Open Air, an album of solo flute processed via effects pedals and looping technology. Although on holiday in America, he took the time to chat with Prog

Your new album Open Air is very hypnotic in its use of loops. How did you get interested in that way of playing?

I’ve always been very attracted to slow, hypnotic music, although you wouldn’t necessarily know that from my jazz stuff. I can probably date that interest back to two artists. I remember getting into John Martyn and his use of Echoplex sometime in the 80s. Then I started going through his back catalogue. It blew me away.

The other artist that got me involved in that whole sound world was Brian Eno with Music For Airports and On Land. That last album had a three-dimensional quality. It wasn’t just an ‘interesting sound that was as ignorable as it was listenable’ thing – I found it very musical. If you actually reduce the whole thing to the harmonies and melodies on a piano, it’d be very sparse, but there’s also a whole lot going on.

You released an album of solo flute music back in 2003, called Slow Life. How does Open Air differ?

I suppose what’s different is me. In the intervening years I’ve done a lot of exploring in that looping sound world, particularly with Robert Fripp. Robert has his whole distinctive soundscape world and being able to work alongside and with that helped me develop the concept for a new album. Whether it’s solo or with Soft Machine, The Tangent, Steven Wilson, or with Cipher, I’ve done so much since Slow Life I was keen to try to explore an album of that kind of music by going in as deep as I could.

With Open Air I’ve explored quite a few different flutes – bass flute, concert flute or various wooden flutes. It’s broadening the texture and using a little bit more technology as well. The core sound, though, is coming from the same place: texture, harmony, melody and a bit of three-dimensional slowness.

Are you planning on working with Robert Fripp in the future?

Well, we’re going to release a three-CD Travis & Fripp set soon. I loved working with Robert. It was very easy going to work with him. We locked in very comfortably. Working with textural, slow music, Robert is one of the pioneers and playing those concerts in the church environment, it just changes everything [the duo recorded a series of live shows in churches and cathedrals in 2009‑’10]. You approach the music in a certain way; the audience listens differently. It was a very special way of making music. Working with Robert was very easy, which doesn’t sit well with a lot of the public’s perceptions of him!

You reverted to being called Soft Machine after dropping the Legacy tag in 2015. What’s been the response?

It’s been great actually. We’ve been in Europe recently and in November we’re touring the UK. One of the things I’ve been pleased with is that we’ve played to audiences both young and old who are hardcore Soft Machine fans. They’d tell us, “I know Soft Machine music and this is Soft Machine.” That felt very good. The music is very real and it’s not trying to be something it isn’t. Obviously, John Marshall [drums], Roy Babbington [bass] and John Etheridge [guitar] were in Soft Machine for a long time and you can’t trick hardcore fans. If they thought it was a band trying to be something it wasn’t, they would tell us. We are drawing on some new material but also some different older tracks, such as The Man Who Waved At Trains, and we’re looking at other tracks from Seven and Fourth. There’s such a great catalogue of music for us to dip into.

Who else have you been playing with?

I’m on The Slow Rust Of Forgotten Machinery, the latest album by The Tangent. Andy Tillison is such a talented musician and writer. I’ve been involved in the band since their second album and after Andy, I’m probably the longest-standing musician to be associated with the group. It’s very much new progressive rock. There are no elves or goblins to be seen within a hundred miles of it! It’s quite socially conscious and real. It’s not all metaphors and vague, ambiguous words that might mean this or that. You hear the words and you know what it means. It’s very much heart‑on‑the‑sleeve stuff.

I’ve guested on a couple of other albums recently. One is by Niko Tsonev, who was in Steven Wilson’s band from the Get All You Deserve DVD. The album’s called Moonparticle and it sounds great. The other album I did quite a lot on is [the debut solo album] by Gleb Kolyadin from iamthemorning. Nick Beggs and Gavin Harrison are on that one as well. It was quite an involved project. It was a mixture of complicated parts and blowing.

Gleb is very impressive as a pianist. He’s as technical and as complex as Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson at their very best on the piano. I had to really work on that one! It was more complex than a lot of stuff I’ve done. I really enjoyed it. It was nicely written and recorded.

You’ve worked with some pretty big names along the way. Who else would you like to play with?

I’m a big Traffic fan. I love John Barleycorn Must Die and The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys. I love Steve Winwood and he did a great album called Nine Lives a few years ago. I’d like to work with him if you can get that organised, please!

Open Air is out now on Tonefloat. See www.theotravis.com for details.

Theo Travis - Open Air album review