- Luke Awtry
- Tall Travis at the Dog House in South Burlington
On the morning of their Seven Days interview, the members of folk-punk band Tall Travis gathered at the location they'd chosen under a mulberry tree on Burlington's Main Street. The six musicians — some of them barefoot — milled around in the mulch.
They'd come to the same tree yesterday, they shared. Bassist Theodore "Teddy" Whiteman had picked the tree's fruit and made mulberry pancakes for everyone.
Tall Travis' members, who range in age from 17 to 22, have lots of shared interests. When they're not playing songs about fireflies and broken-down cars, they like tea, board games and books. A copy of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia has made rounds in the band.
But when asked what activity they like most, four of them answered at the same time: "Trespassing."
Front person and ukulele player Phineas "Phin" Potter added, "We're a big 'right-to-roam' group."
Designations of private property are not the only boundaries Tall Travis are willing to transgress. On the band's third full-length album, Witness This!, its young members double down on verve and irreverence, with lyrics about personal and political change. For examples, look no further than the first two singles: "Old Jack" and "Fences and Laws."
"Old Jack" is a yarn about a free-spirited town elder who's murdered for radicalizing the youths with thoughts of liberation.
In just under three minutes, "Fences and Laws" gives an even more overt finger to the powers that be. The song's percussive strums speed to a frantic pace. In a distinctly punk voice that blends insouciance with desperation, Potter intones, "You can have fences / You can have laws / You can have whatever kind of borders you draw / But you can't tell us we deserve it / And you don't know what's right and what's wrong."
Even the band's seemingly apolitical tracks have an anarchic streak — and reveal that affinity for trespassing. According to Potter, the 2022 friendship anthem "Cloud Country" is about "sitting on top of the chimney of the abandoned YMCA on College Street."
Tall Travis formed at the University of Vermont in fall 2020. Potter wanted to start a band and first looped in guitarist Elliot Walsh and washboard player Pax Logiodice, friends from a folk music club. Trumpeter Justin Moyer, fiddler (and Walsh's younger brother) Casey Seem, and bassist Whiteman joined soon after.
The band's sound emerged organically as a fusion of its members' backgrounds. Potter had sung in Boston's multigenerational Family Folk Chorale. (On the band's popular 2021 track "Raw Milk Is Medicine," he shouts out his "earthy, crunchy parents.") Moyer, Logiodice and Whiteman were high school band kids, and Seem and Walsh had grown up playing trad music for contra dances.
"We were all friends and happened to have our hands on instruments, and we've gotten really good together," Whiteman said.
As for the name: Nobody in the group is named Travis. No one is notably tall, either. The moniker comes from a vast list of band name ideas generated by one of Potter's friends.
On its Spotify artist page, the band has spun a characteristically zany tall tale about its namesake.
"He went up into Québec right before the pandemic to get his triangle tuned and couldn't come back because of the pandemic," Potter summarized. "And since then, he's been waylaid with various other issues. He was in prison for a while. I think he went to Ukraine."
The band's debut album, Travis Is Out There, was released in 2021, followed by To Be in a Place (2022) and an EP, Chicken Music, earlier this year.
Across these projects, Tall Travis have cemented a sound that blooms with bright, traditional folk instrumentation, replete with earthy strings and generous horn flourishes. On this rich soundscape, they float lyrics that run the gamut from saccharine ("Train Tickets") to cynical ("This Is Proof I Read Krakauer").
Soon after their inception, Tall Travis started performing off campus. They played Burlington's Radio Bean, busked on Church Street and sometimes traveled to New York, where Walsh had transferred to Cornell University.
"I don't know if we ever succeeded at being a college band," Potter said.
This makes sense. For starters, the group embraces story songs and protest anthems, hallmarks of both the folk and punk traditions that have largely been eschewed by Gen Z. To boot, one of its members is in high school.
"We would do Battle of the Bands at UVM," Moyer recounted. "People were kind of like, This one is not like the others."
"It's a lot harder to put on folk shows in college," Walsh said. Compared with jam band shows, he added, "what you do in the audience [is] less intuitive" at a folk show.
"People expect acoustic instruments to be low energy," Moyer said.
But last week at the Dog House, an underground South Burlington venue for DIY house shows, they delivered a rowdy performance that belied that misconception. A crowd of young concertgoers danced with abandon in the sweaty subterranean space. Over the band's patter, a decidedly fratty-looking gentleman in a snapback enthused, "Dude, this is fucking lit."
The band members are students of the folk-punk genre, which blossomed in the United Kingdom in the '80s and has often codeveloped with anarchist politics. They appreciate accessible, inclusive music and list countless influences, folk-punk and otherwise. Among them are Dispatch (who formed at Middlebury College), the Decemberists, Ramshackle Glory, Rent Strike, Pigeon Pit, Mischief Brew and Defiance, Ohio.
According to the band's members, the mantle of folk-punk culture is now carried by Gen Z, especially via the r/FolkPunk subreddit. They were excited when the 2003 folk-punk song "No Children" by the Mountain Goats went viral on TikTok last year. "The genre is evolving," Walsh said. "Our generation is very involved."
At the annual Black Bear Americana Music Fest in Goshen, Conn., where older folk acts predominate, Tall Travis have represented a younger musical contingent for the past two years. "We get stopped every two seconds by all the old festivalgoers who say, 'You guys are amazing,'" Seem said.
On its current tour, planned largely by sending cold emails, the band has performed at venues ranging from the legendary Club Passim in Cambridge, Mass., to Potter's grandpa's porch in Haddam, Conn.
On Witness This! listeners will find a deluge of references to death. But it's "tarot card death," Logiodice explained, "symbolizing change."
And it's a time of much change for Tall Travis. On top of the new album, the tour and being finalists for best folk group in the 2023 Seven Daysies, the band saw three of its members — Potter, Logiodice and Moyer — graduate from college this spring.
Seem, meanwhile, just graduated from high school and will matriculate at UVM in the fall. (At the Dog House show, Whiteman led the audience in an ovation for Seem. "He's 17 and absolutely fucking shredding it on the fiddle," Whiteman said. The crowd roared.)
In the coming months, the band will scatter. Moyer is working at a local pharmacy counter and seeking a job where he can put his biochemistry degree to use. Logiodice is Boston-bound and wants to "write for a living."
Potter has taken a job in Waterbury as a timber framer. He's eager to defy the stereotype that "radicals don't know how to do any actual work," he said.
In an ideal world, though, Potter would like to be "indie band famous." This is a status with which "you can fill a stadium but don't get recognized in a Trader Joe's."
As they await a time when they'll all live in one place again, Tall Travis intend to keep playing gigs. The members are already speaking about the next album. In October, they'll make a third appearance at Black Bear.
Still in Vermont, Potter and Seem have big plans for further trespassing, too. Potter shared, "We are gonna jump on freight trains and ride them wherever they go."