Cory Chisel, Robert Ellis and Jonny Fritz feed on friendship to create casually superb and instantly hummable debut album, 'Western Movies'
The story goes, in 2015 songwriters Robert Ellis and Jonny Fritz told the guy who produces the Newport Folk Festival that they had a band and wanted to play the fest. It worked, and soon enough they were booked to play.
There was just one problem. They didn't actually have a band, nor did they have any songs. So Ellis and Fritz recruited friend and fellow songwriter Cory Chisel to help make their imaginary band a real one: Traveller.
“We picked the most generic Americana name ever to make sure that everyone would buy our T-shirts,” Chisel said recently by phone. Speaking with a self-deprecating charm, tongue resting comfortably in his cheek, the Wisconsin musician described the advantages of living in a different part of the country from his Traveller bandmates. “That's how we keep our band together,” he said. “It's the way that our passive aggressiveness can really play itself out.”
In reality, though, friendship is what brought the three musicians together. “I've been friends with Robert Ellis since he had longer hair than I do now,” Chisel said. “We've always ended up in dressing rooms hanging out with each other, liking each other a little bit more than the people in the bands we were in. That just sort of organically happens. You pick your favorites. Those guys luckily found me.”
After that initial Newport performance, and some more touring, Traveller decamped to Refuge Foundation for the Arts, aka the Refuge, a nearly 100-year-old, 57-bedroom former monastery in Appleton, Wisconsin, over which Chisel was given stewardship.
“The purpose is to restore the property and the grounds and hand it over to the world's creative lunatics and let them see what we can do with it for a while,” Chisel said. “It makes sense to be in an unusual space if you're trying to do something new for yourself. It's different from studios that keep all outside sound out. It's a really organic space. For the kind of lives that we lead — the 7-11 gas stations of the world, moving all the time — it's nice to go somewhere time feels like it stops.”
Traveller recorded the 10 instant-classic pop songs on the band's debut, Western Movies, in about 10 days, and while the musicianship on the album is tight, the vibe is loose. “Christmas Eve at Kroger” is a fingerpicked holiday tune meant to be played with a cheap can of domestic beer in hand instead of egg nog, and on “Hummingbird” (featuring a “do-do-do” chorus that will lodge itself into your brain for weeks at a time), a single, middle-aged woman fantasizes about settling down with a cop and changing the ending of “Thelma & Louise” (“They don't drive off no cliff/They get away with it”).
“I like Tom Waits records and things that have snaggly edges to them,” said Chisel, who'll visit Thirty One West's ballroom in Newark with Ellis and Fritz on Saturday, May 5 — the day after Western Movies is officially released. “I think we're definitely writing the truest songs any of us have written before because we've done this long enough to know the joke that is the job, and we want to embrace it with kindness as opposed to bitterness. It does create a more boundary-less scenario than our solo careers.”
The songs, too, reflect the musicians' sense of humor in a way that Chisel and Ellis hadn't previously incorporated as much into their own music, perhaps spurred on by Fritz, who has never had any qualms about embracing his goofy side (he used to go by the name Jonny Corndawg).
“I think that's what's hard for me about being in a band in general — having to take yourself very seriously,” Chisel said. “It's sort of a narcissistic cesspool you wind up in, writing about your own feelings for years and years and years. On the other hand, our songs have never been more serious, even though sometimes you're laughing. I think there's a fun line to play with there. We're trying to write great songs more than we're trying to be funny. It just happens to be funny sometimes.”