Travis Marc is our column’s first SAMA (South African Music Awards) nominated artist. He’s had songs syndicated on South African radio and BBC Television, and found success in the U.K. with his alt rock band Dead Days. Marc moved to New Orleans and decided that he was no longer going to play music—a short-lived decision. He became an assistant at Esplanade Studios. Now he performs nearly every night of the week. His most recent band, Deep Sleep Atlantic, released their first album, Prelude, this summer. We met at Flour Moon Bagels to discuss playing every instrument on an album, remodeling old drum kits, rebuilding your network over and over again on multiple continents, and what it takes to make a living with your art.
You have an unusual trajectory that started about as far as you can get from here, in Johannesburg. Can you walk me through how you got from there to here?
Well, I’ve been a lot of places but the two main places before moving here were: I spent my formative years in Johannesburg and then I got signed with a band that ended up in London and I spent the next 17 years there. Around 2016, I started traveling here. I would come here two to three times a year and I’d spend six to eight weeks each time. By the third visit, I’d come with my guitar and play coffeeshops, open mics, then the cogs started moving. When I moved here though, I decided I didn’t want to gig and now I do it anyway.
Did you get a music degree in South Africa?
I did study music and get a qualification but, personally, I don’t think any of that means anything. I think it’s all about how much you’re willing to put in. I went to NSA [The National School of the Arts]—very prestige. When I was a [kid], my dad saw a poster for a drum solo competition and he entered me (I hate drum solos). But I was a teenager. I went and I came in second. I was surprised because I still remember some of the people who played in that thing… The man judging it owned the music school. He brought me in. I started early, worked my ass off, got all the awards. But the best thing about those kinds of institutions is that you get a network of musicians—which, for me, made no difference, ‘cause I left the country.
Did you have to start from the ground up, building a life, with each move?
Yes, 100%. The first time I did it was a slightly different situation ‘cause the band I was in had gotten signed and with that came all these logistics and people that suddenly cared about us. We’d been gigging like road warriors. Within the first two years, we did, easily, 400 gigs. When we got signed, these people showed up.
Are the musical genres similar here to those in South Africa? What scene were you in over there?
Genre-wise, I was always into rock and songwriters [but] there is a jazz scene there, there is a blues scene there, I loved reggae. There’s a type of music called kwaito that I love, it’s actually very much like bounce. We also have a type of music there called burru music, which is very much like zydeco, just in a different language.
You seem to gig a lot as a guitarist and as a drummer. Which instrument came first?
I started drumming and within three months, my drum teacher was like, “I can’t teach you anymore.”
Were you that good? Did he have nothing left to teach?
Ha, no. He was getting a divorce. His life was changing and I was absolutely heartbroken. The lessons were the highlight of my week. The next day, I walk into a secondhand store, there’s a guitar there, and I’m like, “I’m sure I could figure that out.” I bought the guitar, it was only 400 bucks. It was a classical guitar, an Ibanez.
Are you a brand whore about any of your gear?
I don’t think gear really matters. I think it all comes down to your hands. I really do. I’ve been endorsed by Vater [Percussion] for 20 years though, so I still use their sticks. I’ll have spares for young drummers and give them out. I’m very loyal to brands, people, friends. If they are good to me, I’m good to them.
What’s your kit like?
I just bought this old Slingerland kit from the ‘70s. I totally restored it. I had to strip it and re-wrap it and order new parts. It was old and dying. Cymbal-wise, I used Zildjian; heads, Aquarian. I have some beautiful gear. I’m very lucky but there are times when I’ve played some of that gear and gone, “This sounds cool” and then I sit in and pick up someone else’s guitar and think that sounds cool too, even though it’s nothing like my gear. You can see a musician who’s got the biggest piece of shit guitar and be like, “Wow, how come it sounds so good?” And then someone else gets up there with a $15,000 PRS Custom that they’re playing through a vintage Fender ‘60s amplifier and you go, “It kinda sounds crap.”
Does any gear matter to you? Maybe more as an engineer than a performer? What about microphones?
Yes, OK. Vintage microphones will always make a difference. I’ve run little studios myself and I run with what I have. Then, through reading and researching you find out what people are using and certain sounds you like. There are go-to microphones that people will always use. [Shure] SM57s are always good for rock guitars. If you go to bigger studios you’ll see they’re often using 57s and [Royer R-]121s so, ribbon microphones. If you go to certain studios, you’ll see that they do shootouts on vocals. They’ll use Neumann [U] 67s, Neumann [U] 87 [Ai]s.
Was there ever a microphone that sounded so good, you wanted to steal it?
Oh yeah, tons. When I was working at Esplanade, he’s got some old ribbon mics in there [studio owner and lead engineer Misha Kachkachishvili], RCAs—I would have loved to take those. He’s got more Neumann microphones than I can even count… but no, I used to think all that mattered, but Billie Eilish recorded her album on Logic Pro and an [Audio-Technica] AT2020, which was, like, a $50 microphone. They still got it mastered and mixed by big engineers who can put it through different plugins and all that stuff but, with recording, as long as you get the signal into your program correctly, you can manipulate it and then it’s gonna come down to, “Are you gonna manipulate it and fuck it up or are you gonna manipulate it and make it better?”
How did you end up forming your newest band, Deep Sleep Atlantic?
My last band [in the U.K.] was called Dead Days. We did very well. I had made the decision that I was gonna be moving and this guy, who’s very influential on the side of music that you don’t see, hit me up and said he wanted to sign me, the week I was leaving. So I left anyway and I’m talking to my dad one day and he was like, “Why don’t you just do it?” and I was like, “I’m done dad. I’m tired of missing stuff. I’ve missed birthdays and weddings. I’ve missed more Christmases and New Years than anyone I know.” So, to make a very long story short, I’m working at Esplanade—that’s how I met Daniel [Perez, Deep Sleep Atlantic’s drummer]; he was an assistant there too. And every time I’m home (which wasn’t very often, ‘cause Esplanade days are 18-hour days), I’m writing songs and before I know it, I’ve written 40 songs. So I start sending them to the manager, he’s giving me proper feedback, and I’ve got a record. He becomes my manager. I’m global now! Then Daniel and I made it a live band.
On your recent album, Prelude, you played every instrument?
Every instrument except for the saxophone solo on “Blue” and the guitar solo on “Bones.” First I demo the songs with a guitar and a voice, then I record the drums to that track, then bass. I think like a band because I grew up in bands but I can’t play all the instruments at once and I’m really bad with tapping my foot when I play guitar. I have to take my shoes off or you’ll hear it while I’m tracking.
So, which instruments can you play?
I would say I’m competent at drums, guitar, bass. I’ve tried pretty much any form of percussion, except for tablas. It’s got a specific technique and I’m not good. But I can play congos correctly, bongos, timbales, and djembes. When it comes to recording, I can get any piano you need done. Live, I’m not such a pianist. My hands get a little confused and I’ve got terrible technique. I look at how piano is played and then I look at the way I play. I sing. I think the DAW (digital audio workstation) is an instrument, ‘cause it’s a whole different thing. You’ve gotta learn it.
What instruments did you play on the album?
I played on a TAMA Superstar [drum kit]. I recorded and engineered the album in a shotgun house in the Treme. I used a Fender Precision Bass through an Ampeg BA-112, a Sennheiser [MD] 421[-II] to mic that, and I went through a SansAmp [Tech] 21 (very famous sound, Pixies and stuff will go through that). Guitar-wise I went through a JCM900, very famous Marshall amplifier… It’s hard to say which guitars I was playing… I’ve got more guitars than I would ever need.
At the moment I’m mainly using a Fender Telecaster. It’s a Nocaster reissue from 1951, except it’s not from then, it’s a copy; and then I’m using a Gibson Les Paul Standard [‘50s] Gold Top a lot lately. I love it but it’s so heavy. I’m not the biggest of people and by the end of the day, if I’m sitting with it, I have no blood flow to my hip. I used an [Epiphone] SG Special a lot on this record. It’s got a bite to it that none of my other guitars do and then, my other special piece of gear I used [for] a lot of this record, they’re called Menatone, and I used something [an effects pedal] that they make called the Red Snapper [4 Knob PTP] a lot.
Is there a piece of gear you sold that you miss?
My original classical guitar—it had sentimental value. I regret selling a Gibson Les Paul Voodoo ‘cause they only made, like, a thousand of these things (or something to that effect), and it had a red voodoo inlay on the fretboards. It was made out of swamp ash, which is a wood that comes from the swamps but it’s now endangered… I took it to Guitar Center and they gave me 600 bucks and I kind of regret doing that.
You mentioned, earlier, that you get pretty sizable royalties from an old song. What’s that story?
It was a song I wrote a billion years ago called “Beautiful Day.” It got to number one on a local station in South Africa and got to number two on a different couple of stations and then it got used for a BBC cooking program so I made a lot of money off of that song. Ironically, it was never a song I wanted to write. We had a label that said our band was too heavy and that we had to work on radio-friendly material, so I did the thing that every young artist thinks they need to do, and that was to write a commercial song. Through it, I got a couple cuts with some artists on Universal Records and got little kickbacks and each year I get little bits. Not enough to live on anymore, but a bit.
Do you remember how that triumph happened?
It’s all about, “How much drive do you have to do what you say you want to do?” I met Seether’s manager and she, at the time, had just been a part of Seether getting a contract with Wind-up Records when they were still the biggest label in the world. And I said to her, “How did you do this? How???” And she was like, “I ask people for what I want until they tell me to fuck off or give it to me.” And that’s kind of been my approach.
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