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Mysterious Motion: In Conversation with Activity’s Travis Johnson

We talk to Activity, one of the finest bands to emerge from the chaos of the last 18 months.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but bands like Activity are exactly why we keep coming back for more.

With the New York/Connecticut collective releasing their debut album, Unmask Whoever, prior to the world being thrown into the maelstrom of the COVID-19 pandemic, Activity produced the kind of album that was one of the warmest security blankets through some of the toughest months many around the world have experienced.

Comprising of former Grooms members, Travis Johnson (guitar/vocals), and Steve Levine (drums), the pair are are joined by Field Mouse’s Zoë Browne (bass) Russian BathsJess Rees (guitar).

With the assistance of Psychic TV’s Jeff Berner, who produced Unmask Whoever, Activity are true purveyors of the kind of sounds that slowly emerge from the shadows.

It’s music buried in malaise, masqueraded in mystery, and immersed in the post-apocalypse. However, even from the black pits of dread, unlike their kindred spirits, FACS, Protomartyr and – more recently – Alexalone, Activity manage to cultivate something truly heavenly within their sound.

Amid the darkness, Unmask Whoever is a collage of beautiful shapes and deep colours. From the flange-like assault of Calls Your Name, the aptly titled Looming, to the pulsating drive of The Heartbeats that drips into the downright album highlight, I Like the Boys; from start to finish Unmask Whoever ticks all the boxes in everything that we associate with good music.

Not resting on their laurels, Activity have continued slaving away in 2021, releasing two singles, White Phosphorous and Text the Dead. Both a progression on the strides made with Unmask Whoever.

In the lead-up to the band’s first tour since the release of Unmask Whoever, which began at New York’s Mercury Lounge last Wednesday night, we managed to speak to Johnson over Zoom.

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Sun 13: Text the Dead was released last week. Was this song and White Phosphorus written during the Unmasked Whoever sessions, or were they lockdown songs?

Travis Johnson: “White Phosphorus was. That was one of the first things we ever recorded, and we just couldn’t figure out a way to sequence it on the album. We liked the song just as much as any other song, but literally it just didn’t sound good coming into, or out of, any of the other songs to us, so we left it off. 

“Then Text the Dead kind of developed… parts of it were old, like old samples and loops that I’ve made. Then when I had time earlier this year when I was flying home to visit family a lot, when I would come back I had to quarantine. So I was just sitting at home and going through old ideas, then we developed it into a new song, kind of remotely. I’d send it and be like, ‘Is this good?’ And then I do a vocal idea and send that, then somebody would send back something with like a weird synth on top of it. So it was done like that over the last few months.”

S13: You’re not originally from New York, right? 

TJ: “I grew up in Texas. I’ve lived in lived in New York for a while now, though. I’ve only ever been an adult in New York. I’ve never lived as an adult anywhere else, so I don’t know what it would be like. I have thought about that, and if I were to leave, what it would be like to be somewhere else?”

S13: Activity does strike me as a New York kind of band. Like, just its sound. I can imagine walking the streets late at night. Not that the city ever sleeps, but…

TJ: “It’s been pretty sleepy lately, I feel like at times in the last, you know, year-and-a-half. But yeah, that’s good to hear, because I think there’s a very giving tradition of good walking-the-streets-late-at-night music coming out of New York.”

S13: So Unmask Whoever gets released on the week as lockdown. I mean, the title speaks for itself. Are you guys the unluckiest band on Earth right now?

TJ: “I mean, I’m sure we’re not, in the sense that there’s probably a band somewhere who is truly like, [they] would be my favourite band ever and they can’t get anyone to listen to them at all. There’s probably a few of those bands out there who are phenomenal, and no one even knows that they exist. But yeah, I wouldn’t say we’re the unluckiest, but it wasn’t the best timing for album title, or release.”

S13: Yeah. You were going on tour with FACS, as well, and they released their record on the same day as yours and called it Void Moments. These weird things aligning… 

TJ: “Yeah, there was stuff like that. Protomartyr had their first single for their record, too. I mean, part of this is just like… maybe bands like ours, and those bands kind of gravitate towards themes like disease, and the sky falling in kind of stuff already. So I guess it was bound to happen at some point that somebody would release a record that actually lined up with it.” 

S13: How has the reception to Unmasked Whoever been?

TJ: “I feel like it’s been really good. It’s hard to gage how many people have actually heard it without being able to play shows. But people who have heard it have been incredibly kind and supportive and said wonderful things that are just great to hear. From somewhere between, ‘This is a great record’, to like, ‘It helped me feel better these last few months’, which is awesome.” 

Activity (photo credit: via the artist’s Bandcamp page)

S13: That’s what I was going say. It’s been a record that’s provided real comfort in lockdown. It kind of gauges that shadowy element of what we’ve all been going through; that apocalyptic vibe. It’s probably something that you weren’t thinking about when you recorded it… 

TJ: “It’s interesting. I guess there’s different kinds of people that react to things with like, something that would be off-putting, like, ‘Why would I want a reminder of what we’re going through, musically?’ and people who actually feel more comfort, listening to something, or watching a film, or reading a book that actually kind of goes into that mindset a little bit. I mean, we obviously weren’t thinking that this was going to happen when we made the record. Weirdly, the last song; it seemed totally hypothetical at the time. The last song on the album…”

S13: Auto Sad? 

TJ: “Yeah. That was like the idea, even though it’s just complete with little fragments of thought. The idea of it was a world where, you know, kind of something apocalyptic. But then like, ‘What is it like in that world? Like on a nice day, what’s a nice day in the post apocalypse? Even though everything is nuts, and feels scary most of the time, what’s that?’ That day where you go outside, and the sun’s just like, you want it to be in the sky, and the temperature is perfect. And you’re like, ‘What does that feel like in that world?’ That was the idea of that song. 

“It’s just a total ideal feeling. So I was thinking about that a lot when I was like, ‘What is that going to feel like, that first day that I go outside?’ And I feel a little bit, like, ‘Oh, the weather’s nice. I can’t see any friends, I can’t see my family. But the weather is nice today’. 

Heartbeats was about police violence, running amok, and that ended up kind of happening last year. I mean, it happens all the time, but it really flared up where it was almost like a battle in the streets, cops trying to throw their power around. Obviously that was like a fever dream kind of thing that ended up weirdly happening, too.”

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S13: How much does politics influence your songs? 

TJ: “I don’t know. I feel like maybe less and less with the new batch of songs. On Unmask Whoever, probably three or four of the songs are pretty political. Not in like a polemic sense or anything, but more kind of just expression, like, ‘This makes me feel this way’. And I’m writing in a solipsistic way, the way things strike me and not necessarily trying to convince a listener, or even not [being] all that concerned with whether or not they know what it’s about. I feel like maybe less so on the new stuff, if only just because of personal stuff that’s taken precedent.”

S13: I wanted to talk about the tracklisting of the album. The back half of the record finishes so strong. Was that intentional? 

TJ: “I know that we liked the idea… the whole time there are songs that are kind of almost rock songs and never quite rock songs. And then the last bit, or the second to last song, you get a full on rock song for 30 seconds, at the end of Violent and Vivisect. We were pretty satisfied with that. Just kind of like, ‘Yeah, we can do that too!’ That was pretty intentional. 

“When we were sketching out the way the tracklisting goes, you’re kind of painting yourself into a corner where you’re like, ‘Well this sounds like a first song and then this goes well out of that’. It ended up just working that way, which is exactly why White Phosphorus got left off, because it just didn’t sound good coming out of, or into, any of the other songs when we listened to it. So it wasn’t intentional like the last half would be like full on strong songs or anything. It was just the way it worked out, and we liked the way it sounded when we listened to it that way.”

Activity - Unmask Whoever

S13: Talking about that rock song thing, I guess Earth Angel pretty good example of that. 

TJ: “Yeah.” 

S13: One track I want to talk to you about is I Like the Boys. Do you remember how that came about?

TJ: “I do remember sitting down and finding the chords. It’s like 12 chords in that song, you know; there’s a lot of up and down the neck and different shapes and stuff like that. [I] kind of kept being amazed when I found another place where the notes made sense. Lyrically, I don’t remember why that came out, but it meant something to me, feeling wise, and I just ran with it, which is what I do a lot of times; just write down a phrase that feels like something to me and then unpack it from there. 

“We had another song I remember that sounded similar to it and I Like the Boys won out. We were like, ‘We can only do one of these’. When we play live or play together, or when I listen to the recording, that first moment where the drums come in and the bass comes in is always very satisfying to be playing it. 

“Then I remember Jess just started singing with me, which is how I think all of her vocals happened. Everybody had mics and everything set up and she just sang and it was great. I remember there was a little bit of a question of how do we make it sound like… there’s that Portishead song called The Rip, and we were like, ‘Do I pick it this way, which is kind of The Rip way, or do I pick it like this, which is the opposite way?’ And yeah, I think in the studio Steve was just like, ‘Well that sounds like The Rip, so do it like that’. So that was why I think it goes in like descending notes instead of ascending, or some up and down kind of motion. It was last minute. I remember that being really hard to get the tempo right in the studio.”

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S13: As a listener you can tell when artists have a vast range of musical scope and knowledge, it feeds into every member bringing something different to the table…

TJ: “That’s great to hear, because that was definitely the idea; for it to not sound at all even remotely like a guy, or a person, and three other people, you know?” 

Sun 13: Yeah. You’ve been in other bands previously, such as Grooms. Obviously with different dynamics with new musicians, have your songwriting methods changed over the years? 

TJ: “Grooms was pretty collaborative, but it never sounded as collaborative as I wanted it to. I think part of that was that the instrumentation was such… I feel like if every song is like a rhythm guitar, or a main guitar, bass and drums, then it’s always going to sound a little bit like songwriter-ly,  which is fine and I think sometimes the limitations of that versus like, with Activity where it’s bringing in a synth line that’s insufficient to be a song on its own, but sounds cool, and then being like, ‘Alright, this is like a fragment of a song but now we all need to join in to make it something so that it doesn’t just sound like a weird half-thought out demo or something’. That’s part of it.

“The songs would not stand on their own if you just heard the sample on Calls Your Name by itself. It needed the drums to be what they are, it needs Jess singing the chorus like she does. It needs all those things.

“I think that’s a big thing that’s different with Activity is the extent to where anybody who’s bringing in an idea is like… it’s really only part of an idea. And then everything else gets fleshed out in a way that makes it a different thing, you know?”

S13: Sure. 

TJ: “Very few of the songs could just be played by themselves on guitar. I Like the Boys is one of them that probably could be, and it would sound like it made sense. But The Heartbeats, or Calls Your Name, or Nude Prince, like, you couldn’t play those by yourself and have it be a coherent thing.”

S13: Sonically, it sounds like a very democratic band. Like you say, it’s like a small idea, which gets expanded. Kind of like, aesthetically, to Sonic Youth, or something..

TJ: “Where you can’t tell where the central idea started.” 

S13: Exactly. So you’ve got some shows coming up. Are you the type of band that play one set of songs every night or change it up?

TJ: “Well, we never really got to find out, but I’ve always been a fan of when you’re out on tour, you’re like, ‘Well, what if we start with this tonight?’ And then you’re either like, ‘That was awesome’, or, ‘No, we can’t start with that, that’s a bad opener’. Or, ‘What if we try and you know, do this song into this song without stopping and see how that goes?’ 

“I like the idea of changing it up every night; we’ll see if my bandmates do. We have a lot of new songs that we’re going to play. Like, six or so new songs. They’ll be in the mix. Depending on how long of a set we have, if we had to, we could play like 15 songs, so we should have lots of options.” 

Activity

S13: After the tour, are you planning to start recording a new album for next year?

TJ: “We have time booked in the studio with the same studio with Jeff Berner, who recorded Unmask Whoever. We have it booked for December.” 

S13: Nice. Not all of the band lives in New York, right? Someone lives in Philadelphia, as well?

TJ: “Zoe did live in Philadelphia until the pandemic hit, and then she’s been in Connecticut for a while. But still about the same amount of time away, and the other three of us all live in the same neighbourhood. I’m a four minute walk from Jess right now and Steve is very close. So the three of us started practising last summer with new ideas and sending them to Zoe until she felt comfortable. Basically until we were all vaccinated was when she came and joined in, and really quickly we got everything pretty figured out. As soon as we’re back from tour we’ll go into this practice space and get really ready to record.” 

S13: How did all the band meet? Was it on tour with other bands?

TJ: “Kind of. Steve and I had played together and Grooms. I met him through his girlfriend who was a long time friend of mine, and one day after she started dating him, she was like, ‘This is my boyfriend, Steve, he plays drums’. So we started playing together in Grooms and we played shows with Jess’s other band, Russian Baths

“When Steve and I knew that we wanted to do something that wasn’t Grooms, or at least when I knew; maybe Steve wasn’t sure… But we were just like, ‘Well, Jess is an awesome guitar player’ from playing shows with them. And so she and I got together and just played guitar in a room for two hours at a time and just ping-ponged off each other’s ideas and saw what it was like to play. 

“Steve and I were both been friends with Zoe’s sister for a while, so we were like, ‘Let’s ask Zoe if she wants to play bass, even though she’s a guitar player’. And she’s been awesome on bass. So that was kind of it. It was kind of like asking friends that you know, but don’t know too well that you’ve never played with before and just seeing how it goes. It kept working.” 

Text the Dead, White Phosphorous and Unmask Whoever are all out now via Western Vinyl. Purchase from Bandcamp.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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