They’re often called “The greatest band you never heard,” but it’s not entirely true. While the Travis Larson Band may not have reached the level of having their own channel on satellite radio — albeit not for lack of material; they’ve recorded seven studio albums, plus live discs and three DVDs — they’re known and respected amongst the upper echelon of musicians, and they’ve developed a devoted fan base over the course of twenty — yes, twenty — years together, most of that time spent in a van, on the road, playing gigs.
The Travis Larson band is Travis Larson on guitar, Dale Moon on drums, and Jennifer Young on bass. Their sound is a hybrid, mixing elements of rock, jazz, prog, and a touch of blues. On stage, they are powerhouses, a combination of smooth riffs and complicated time signatures delivered at full volume.
Last year was hectic for the group. They came off of a series of winter NAMM Show appearances and performances to resume work on a new album, the long-awaited follow-up to 2016’s Anicca. That project was put on hold when the opportunity arose to tour with longtime friends and colleagues The Aristocrats presented itself again. The bands had toured the States together in 2015; the latest run brought increased visibility to both trios.
Jennifer Young discovered music as a child growing up in Southern California. Her passion was such that she immediately knew she wanted to be involved in its creation, and to this day, she considers performing to be a deeply personal experience. When she was 15, her family relocated to San Luis Obispo, where she met Travis Larson in a high school photography class. The two bonded over their love of rock band Rush, and thus began their musical partnership.
In addition to music, she paints, writes, creates all of the band’s album designs and graphics, has shot video tour diaries, and, in 2018, she released her first photography book, Moving Pictures. The title is in homage to her favorite band and a literal representation of where and how the images were captured: from the window of the TLB van, traveling from show to show.
Young describes herself as “just a girl who digs rockin’ the bass,” but anyone who has listened to the Travis Larson Band, watched their videos, or seen them live knows there’s much more going on in her technique and attack, and much to question as to why the spotlight doesn’t swing her way more often in the bass community.
As bassist Bryan Beller (The Aristocrats, Joe Satriani) told GGM, “It’s a cliché to say that bassists are the glue that holds the band together, but in the case of Jennifer Young, it really is true. Musically and spiritually, she gives solid structure to the sweet spark that is the Travis Larson Band — and she does it all while grooving, comping, and soloing her ass off. More people should know about her!”
Under the question “Do you have any hobbies?” on the band’s website, your answer is simply “Yes.” It’s safe to say that among those hobbies, whatever they may be, social media isn’t one of them. You have a business page, but you don’t update often, and there is no personal profile. Is this due to lack of time, lack of interest, a need for privacy, avoiding trolls, all of the above?
It’s all of the above. I don’t like to fall into that world of everybody knowing everything and the cynicism that creeps in. Travis works hard at maintaining a social presence for the band, and we all realize the importance of it, especially these days. It is a great tool, because back in the day, you couldn’t reach people like you can now. I appreciate that social media can bring people together, but I feel like I’m not from that world. I will always prefer one-on-one, real human interaction. Maybe I was born in the wrong century. I should have been a prairie woman living off the land, out in the middle of nowhere, chasing chickens and howling at the moon. Those are good hobbies.
With that, was it difficult for you, early on, to adjust to being on stage and being photographed? Did you ever experience stage fright?
Absolutely. When I was younger, I had a horrible time being on stage. It wasn’t so much stage fright as much as when I’m performing; I’m so inside the music that I feel vulnerable being watched while I have that experience. As I’ve gotten older, that’s changed. I realize now that it’s not about me; it’s about the audience experience. That’s what is most important to provide. So I’ve come to terms with it, but it’s still uncomfortable for me. I think a lot of people might find that odd because I don’t tend to come off as “shy” onstage.
Given that the band has been together for over twenty years, one would expect a lot more media coverage, especially considering the level of musicianship. Do you sometimes feel like you’re flying under the radar?
We have been around for a long time, but people still say, “How come I’ve never heard of you?” I can’t say why. The three of us have only ever played in this band, and most musicians in similar genres have done side work, so they achieve greater visibility that way. We’ve always just played in TLB. These days, it’s unusual for musicians to remain in the same group for twenty years, not playing outside of that. So I think that’s a big part of our radar status.
Is there a reason for that?
A sideman gig would have to be the right fit, and that opportunity hasn’t come up for any of us. We’re all very particular with how we devote our time and effort. I’ll speak for myself, though I know the other guys would feel the same: another project would have to at least fulfill the requirement of bringing positive energy into the universe.
During all of this, however, you have built a lot of credibility amongst your peers.
Yes, and we have such great peers and colleagues! Ours is a small niche and genre of music, so it becomes more like family. We’ve been very fortunate in that way. Interestingly, many of our colleagues came from the “once-upon-a-time” era, when the industry actually supported them and their music. All aspects of the “business” were handled, allowing these musicians to simply be musicians.
Meanwhile, TLB missed that golden-age window, so we did everything ourselves. I started the record label, we built a studio, figured out how to make records, arranged distribution and publishing, booked tours. This was back when the Internet was still brand new to the masses. I learned HTML and built a website back in 1996, and I continue to maintain it to this day. When the industry sort of bailed on the lesser-known genres, we were suddenly consulting for “rock stars” who didn’t know where to start with the new DIY paradigm. I remember when Vinnie Moore got in touch, trying to figure out how to “get on Amazon.com.” Ha! I think the TLB credibility lies in our longevity and tenacity.
When did you notice that word was getting out, particularly among other musicians?
It happened over time. You get to know people, realize that you enjoy being with them, and want to work with them. Nothing happens overnight; it’s not always a magical thing. It’s interesting talking to young bands — they have this sense that they’re going to open a big show and then everything is going to explode! In my experience, it doesn’t happen that way at all. It takes years and years of growing and nurturing relationships, having something more to offer than just a bunch of great songs and a good show, experience wearing many hats, and knowing how to handle all of the other neglected aspects, like, how do you chain-up when driving through a Colorado blizzard in the middle of February?
You spent part of 2019 on tour with The Aristocrats. Looking back, was this a next step of sorts for your band?
We had done a similar tour with The Aristocrats about five years ago, that same run, and just like the relationship with our peers, it’s the same with the audiences. You grow it over time, and people hopefully keep coming back because they enjoyed the experience. That did happen on this last run — we had a lot of people come back from the previous tour. The Aristocrats have the super-group phenomenon built on their sideman careers. Everybody knows them from more prominent bands. They have large audiences right off the bat, so that does help us.
You also took on tour managing duties for both bands. How did you balance both sides of the touring experience?
With TLB, Travis and I share the responsibilities. I handle a lot of the logistics like hotels, daily schedules, and accounting. Travis manages the technical aspects, production, coordinating gear, and such.
Taking care of the two bands on this tour was a lot of work. I couldn’t have managed it without my team. I was constantly running around, completely stressed out; it was a big job that I took on as a challenge. I enjoy doing “outside” things to challenge myself, and I always think, Yeah, I can do this. Everyone tells me, “You’d better think about it.” “No, no, no, I can do this.” And then, when I’m doing it, I should have thought about this a little more ….
But it was a good experience. The aspects of managing and then getting on stage to perform, the switch that has to happen in one’s brain throughout the evening, is really quite indescribable. I learned a lot about those differences between being an artist and facilitating an artist. It was a painfully good experience.
How difficult is it to play those sometimes six-in-a-row stretches, different stages, different buildings, every night and (a) keep your sound consistent and (b) keep it interesting for yourselves and for the audience?
It’s very difficult, and I suspect most people have no idea what it takes. You have to center yourself and simply do the job. You’re dealing with a group of creative people, all trying to manage their own worlds, and different levels of exhaustion, emotions, senses. One thing that’s really hard to find is “alone” time. But weirdly, you’re surrounded by people all the time, never alone. Yet there’s loneliness because there’s no time to really connect with anybody. It’s a strange dynamic.
As far as sound, we were fortunate on that tour to have our own sound system and soundman, so the shows were pretty consistent. But, every night, you load in that whole system. It’s a lot of backbreaking work to bring in an entire PA, haul it out at the end of the night, and all of the backline too. We got it down to where the soundchecks were minimal and everyone on stage was generally happy.
As far as keeping it interesting for the audience, once showtime comes, you find that bubble, put yourself in it, and do your job. Bring the joy and light that people are expecting from you. Flipping off Bryan Beller whilst singing “Smuggler’s Corridor” in a Cookie Monster voice keeps things interesting too.
We all heard and read about the report stating that more women are buying and playing guitars. Have you seen anything to reflect this in your audiences, as far as more women coming to the shows?
Honestly, and I don’t say this to be cynical, but at The Aristocrats’ shows, no. At the Travis Larson Band shows, yes. I think TLB has a bit of a different following because of … I guess … me, and so there are more women at our shows. I do hear that there’s a rise in the number of women buying guitars, even exceeding the number of men. I’m not seeing it in the audiences, but surely the ladies are at home woodshedding.
Let’s talk gear. It’s not entirely inconvenient geographically that you are an Ernie Ball/Music Man artist. What’s in your rig and why?
Travis and I have been with Ernie Ball/MusicMan since 2001. When I started out, I really struggled with my sound, convinced that it was my amp or effects. We happened to play a big show locally, opening for Ted Nugent, and the A&R guy for MusicMan was there. He invited us to the factory to check out their guitars. Travis and I fell in love with the instruments. My struggle with other basses was that I couldn’t get consistent sounds with the different styles of playing — fingerstyle, tapping, slapping. One thing would sound good and then the other wouldn’t. I’d dial in a nice fingerstyle tone and then my slapping would sound awful. I thought it was my hands or my effects. As soon as I switched to MusicMan basses, everything sounded smooth and consistent and great.
It has been very convenient that MusicMan is in San Luis Obispo. We’ve become friends with everyone there, and they’ve been really good to us. They’re family. I always have people asking me to check out different basses, especially at the NAMM show, but I love what I have, so much that I don’t even like picking up other basses.
At one NAMM Show, Sterling Ball walked me over to Markbass because I was unhappy with my amps at the time. That’s how I was introduced to Markbass. I love their gear. I’ve never had any problems, whereas before, I was blowing stuff up. As well, their amps don’t color the sound — what you put in is what you get out. It’s powerful, loud, and clean, and those are the things that a rock bassist appreciates.
Effects-wise, I use DigiTech. Travis and I are both endorsers and have been since the beginning.
Do you only play four-string basses? It’s all fingers for you, rather than a pick, correct?
People always tell me that I need to play a five-string, but if I want more than four strings, I’ll play guitar! I’m a rock bass player; that’s the sound I’m looking for. I do use the Hipshot D-Tuner, which functions as a five-string when I need it. Most of our songs require only the four strings, so I don’t want to play an entirely different instrument for a few songs that are in drop D or whatever they might be.
And yes, all fingers. I’ve tried using a pick on records to get a certain sound I was looking for, but my fingers are not “meaty,” so they already have a pick-like quality to them.
How did you develop your technique?
I’m self-taught so that probably explains a lot. It’s not trained technique, so I guess it evolved from figuring out how to play the parts. My hands are small, so I had to employ different approaches, like tapping, to get where I needed to go when I couldn’t reach a note.
In TLB songs, we write a lot of chordal rhythm guitar parts, and I would have to figure out how to play that stuff, especially live. I would end up playing these parts on bass using a flamenco style or an unusual tap technique. I never wanted to be a slap-style player. I’m an old-school rocker, but finally, there came a time when Travis said, “I wrote this song, and I want you to do something funky to it.” “Ohhh, OK.” My thumbs don’t bend in the certain way that slap-style requires. All of my “technique” falls under that old adage, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
Because my fingers are so thin, I alternately use my fingertips and the pads of my fingers to get different sounds. I’m really sensitive to tone and noise on my instrument, and when you’re cranking through a huge PA at insane decibels, bass noise is the worst and most annoying sound there can be. String noise, ringing, clunkiness — so I’ll use both hands for muting, sometimes playing parts with my right thumb because I’m quieting the strings with my other fingers. When I’m rocking my hand, it’s because I’m muting or using the pad and then using the tip. It all depends on what’s being played, not being played, and trying to keep the instrument under control.
Watching you in videos and listening to the music, everything flows and weaves so perfectly. After twenty years, no doubt you can all read each other easily and finish each other’s musical thoughts.
Yes. However, we are not an improvisational band. We perform what’s on the record, though sometimes the solos will change. Haven’t we all been a little disappointed when you go to a live show, wait for your favorite band to play your favorite song, and they go off in some oddball direction? And you were so ready to hear what you know from the record! So TLB has always been very strict about playing the songs the way we recorded them. You’re going to hear the songs the same way every time you see us, and in our minds, that gives the audience what they want.
I realize there are different schools of thought about this, and I appreciate both sides. A lot of bands enjoy improvising and doing something different every time so that each show is a whole new experience. We’re more from the Rush school of thought, where you go to the show, hear those songs, and they sound like what you were waiting for.
Was a trio always the plan with you and Travis, and does that make your job easier, more challenging, or both?
It was always a trio. Travis and I grew up loving trios. It makes my job both easier and more challenging but in a fun way. It’s interesting to try and compensate for some of the rhythm guitar tracks on record, and it’s easier in that there’s less to wade through as far as following somebody.
Live, we always base everything off of Dale. We have one focal point, and Dale is it. If I tried to start by being in the pocket with Travis, and Travis went off on his own, it would all be a mess! So we listen to Dale, and Travis and I don’t worry about our pocket together. Assuming we’re both attached to Dale, it’s going to be in the pocket. So that’s our approach: We follow Dale and we remain tight that way.
The three of you have your own studio for rehearsing and recording. Is that where the entire creative process takes place, or do you also work from home studios to write and demo your parts?
It’s both. Travis has a home studio, so he works there, sends things to us, then Dale and I work on things at home too. The bulk of the drum process is done at the big studio as a band. We all sit down and talk about the parts, figure things out, and then tell each other what to do!
Backtracking, what drew you to the bass? When did you start to play?
I never intended to be a musician. I just always loved music. There are people who just know they want to be musicians — it’s in their blood and they must do it. For me, I loved music so much that I wanted to facilitate it somehow. When I met Travis and I heard him play, I knew I had to be a part of bringing his music to people. By then, I had been playing bass for a short time, but it was just for fun.
I started out playing acoustic guitar around age 14. I was hearing the bass lines, but at that time I didn’t even know there was such a thing as bass guitar. This was back when we played records, and I remember listening to a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young record, hearing this bass line, and playing it on acoustic guitar. I can’t even remember how I figured out that there was such a thing as a bass guitar. I think my dad must have told me.
Around that time, I was interested in drums, too, so my parents got me a drum set. They were quite wise in renting instead of buying because that lasted about a week. I still love playing drums to this day, but as a kid, you listen to a record and it sounds amazing. But when you have a drum kit stuffed in a tiny bedroom, it sounds like complete s**t because you don’t realize there’s things like compression, reverb, how they mic the drum kit, and a zillion things that make it sound the way it does on a record. So I had this drum kit, it sounded awful, and that was the end of that.
When I discovered “bass” and started putting together that it was a rhythmic and melodic instrument, I wanted one. This was at a time when we lived out in the sticks in Southern California, and my parents drove me all the way to Orange County to go to Guitar Center and pick out a bass —within reason. I saw a black one hanging on a wall, and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. They got it for me, along with a little Fender Sidekick bass amp. I remember we were driving back, it was a two-hour-plus drive, and they stopped to get dinner on the way home. I wouldn’t get out of the car because I didn’t want to leave my bass, so I stayed in the car and skipped dinner. I was totally in love!
It sounds as if you had supportive parents. Were they musicians?
My dad played in bands in the 1950s, but otherwise, not a particularly musical family. They had gone through a lot of different things with me because I wanted to try everything. I think they were just hoping something would stick, and they got a sense that bass was it when I stayed in the car that night. They were small-business owners and always believed in doing what you wanted to do, not that you must go to college or follow a scripted path. I’m not sure they were thrilled that I chose a life as a musician because they realized how hard it can be and has been, but they were always very supportive. I’m very fortunate to have such a wonderful family who’ve allowed me to be me.
Prior to this band, you and Travis played in cover bands. Were they typical cover bands doing the club scene?
Yes, they were very typical, with Travis singing lead and me on background vocals. Yet we were always still in a trio. We did Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, Cheap Trick, the Police. You name it; we did it. We would try to throw in our originals along the way, and bar owners were like, “Don’t play that crap!”
We got to a point where we decided to get serious about our own music, spent two years building the studio in San Luis Obispo, and recorded the first album in 1998. We had a bunch of songs written and we needed a drummer. We were fortunate to find Dale through our engineer, Kip Stork. Not many people want to stick it out doing an uncertain thing while living in a van on the road. It’s not an easy commitment to make, and Dale’s been there the whole time with us.
We made the first record and it was a real struggle trying to book shows back then. It was not really the scene for instrumental music or any kind of technical playing. The grunge movement was in full swing, and the last thing anyone wanted to hear was guitar-based, shredding, instrumental music with complicated time signatures. But we kept at it. Travis and I spent many years playing as a duo at bookstores, coffee shops, parks, parking lots. We played everywhere. We were honing our craft and trying to get better.
How did you get the studio off the ground?
We met Kip Stork around 1991. He had been wanting to build a studio for a long time. So, for about five years, we tried to convince him to do this. Kip financed it with a shoestring budget, and we did everything ourselves to build a 3,000-square foot studio — all the labor of framing, hanging drywall, building studio furniture. We even scavenged glass for the mixing room windows from a demolition site! Twenty years later, we still rehearse at Avalon and have carte blanche on when we need to use the recording side, while Kip engineers and records all kinds of bands year-round.
There was talk last year about a new album in the works. What is the status?
We’re still working on it. We’re a little behind because of the tour with The Aristocrats last year. We typically come out with something new every two years, whether it’s a studio record or a live release. It’s been very solid like that. Now it’s been four years, so we definitely need to come out with something this year. Because we missed the two-year mark, I released a photography book, which was a fun experience for me. It had been brewing in my head for many years, and I thought it was an interesting perspective from a touring musician — moving pictures out of the window of a van. People don’t realize that most of your day is spent sitting in a van and driving.
How many photos did you shoot for the book? Does it chronicle twenty years? Were any of the images shot on film?
I don’t have any 35mm film photos in the book. When I got my first little point-and-shoot digital camera, I started shooting. Some of the pictures are still old and they go all the way up until the present. I was collecting and collecting. The biggest part of that project was sorting through all the photos. Over the years, I would dump them in a folder, until one day, I decided to go through them and see what moved me in a certain way. They are all shot from the moving van, though when we would hit a stoplight or roll through a parking lot, those were good opportunities for capturing something more than blurs.
I weeded through more than 4,000 photos, and there are still so many that I didn’t have a chance to go through because I had a deadline. I could probably put out four more volumes, and I’m already working on another project. I shoot with an old DSLR, a Canon Rebel T1. People might suggest it’s time to upgrade, but it works and I know how to use it. I don’t consider myself a photographer by any means. I point and shoot, and sometimes I catch things that I think are interesting to look at.
Will you be back on the road this year?
First, we need to set a deadline and release date for the record. Based on that, we’ll start planning a tour. I don’t want to say we rushed through the last album, but it was a little hurried, in my opinion. Travis knows I’d like to take it a little slower with this one, so we’ll see. He hopes to tour in the fall, and we always do little runs here and there.
I love making records. That’s the best part for me — creating the music, imagining where it can go, and watching it bloom. I love producing and experiencing that whole process, whereas Travis loves playing live. He’s always ready to get out on the road. At the very latest, you’ll see us out by next spring!
— Alison Richter
Jennifer Young’s Gear
Music Man Sterling
Music Man Bongo
Music Man Reflex
Music Man SUB Sterling with tremolo
Main Live Rig:
Markbass Big Bang
Markbass Standard 104HR cabinet
Electro-Voice RE-2G Wireless
DigiTech Stereo JamMan