Travis Sargent is the lackadaisical, serene and witty frontman for Edmonton’s favourite fuzzed-out psych rock band, Betrayers. He’s charmingly self-aware, with just the right amount of self-debasement.
“People make a big deal out of being the guitar player,” he says, “but out of anyone in the group, I’m definitely the least musical. I’d be the first one thrown overboard if our ship was sinking, so I try to bring some beer to practice whenever I can.”
The band just released their debut LP, Let the Good Times Die, and there couldn’t be any more of a misnomer for this collection of grungy, fuzzed-out, paisley-tinged acid rock. Opener “Spinning Wheel” is equal parts ratty guitars and brooding, languid vocals, washed in a dense reverb, kind of like a bizarro world Hollies. Sargent does say he owes a lot to ‘60s rock, citing it as one of the earliest and long-lasting influences on his own music’s demented concoction of styles.
“I’ve always been attracted to really early rock ‘n’ roll — growing up, the only music my folks would ever play was from those ‘Solid Gold Collection’ cassette tapes,” he says. “We weren’t a very music-focused family, but man, my dad would play the hell outta those tapes. It turned me on to Buddy Holly, the Shirelles, Bo Diddley… all the stuff that influenced this record. Not that we’re some corny throwback band playing Beatles covers or whatever — the record sounds pretty modern — but we wear that Solid Gold influence on our sleeve. At least the Baby Boomers had good taste in tunes, that’s one thing they’ve given us.”
The band’s sound is timeless — steeped in old time tradition and warped by the perversity of the modern age. The result is a dirty, fuzzy swagger of rock ‘n’ roll, like a mean, stumbling drunk in a heroin haze.
“Cherry Beach,” with its wildly chugging guitars and rumbling bass is like a Satanic Beach Boys jam in the apocalypse, a ragged distortion just grumbling and groaning, hanging on for life, screaming wildly at the sky.
Though psych music has recently enjoyed a very favourable comeback into the good graces of the world of people who are overly critical and judgemental about genres and how cool they are, Sargent has a pretty skeptical idea on the idea of the fixation sticking around too long.
“It’s definitely an interesting phenomenon, but I think any kind of ‘fringe’ activity that’s worth a damn will eventually be co-opted by people who don’t really understand it. It’s happened several times with punk rock, I guess this is just a natural progression.”
And Sargent certainly seems to know something about punk rock, with the album track “Little Girl” recalling the desperate and disguised love songs that the Ramones used to write, with just the right mix of jaded detachment and schmaltzy romance.
“You’ve got me crazy/Yeah I’m wound up like a top.”
But genres continue to exist outside of their state of current trendiness and Sargent doesn’t seem necessarily concerned with what the perception of psych music — or any music – is at any time.
“In the end, the true believers will continue to cherish it and the pretenders will drop it like a bad habit and move on to the next cool thing. Which is fine by me, maybe that means there’ll be some Roky Erickson albums in the second-hand bins.”
Ask any indie band play music in Alberta and they’ll tell you the secret to success is just to be a workhorse — constantly pounding at it. Otherwise, says Sargent, it’s easy to just get swept away and fade out.
“The Edmonton curse is to start a great band and then never record anything before breakin’ up — who knows how long we’ll be around for, so we may as well put out a few records while we can, y’know?”
But Sargent believes in the place, he’s had some amazing times and it’s been good to him, but he’s pretty realistic about how challenging it can be sometimes.
“It seems like Alberta has a lot of good music happening right now. What else are you supposed to do when it’s winter for three quarters of the year? It’ll come and go in waves, but right now there seems to be a lot of really interesting stuff coming outta the Prairies.”
Sargent makes the link between the strangeness of playing music in Alberta with the band’s experience recording their debut.
“It sounds dumb, but I think that if we made the album anywhere else, it would’ve flopped. We made the record over a weekend at Riverdale Recorders in Edmonton. It’s this basement studio in Chinatown with a real ‘70s vibe, a totally great spot. Our great friend, Patrick Michalak, recorded it, and he really shaped the album as well. He has a Rainman-like understanding of music that not a lot of cats have and he really busted his ass to capture the sound we were striving for. He’s got a lot of great tricks, like blasting us with halogen lights when our playing is getting lazy, or rigging up weird, old, Soviet microphones to capture different tones. He’s a tone guru, that guy.”
It’s their first recording with their recently altered line-up, with rhythmic belligerence being pushed to the forefront, as the band added a second drummer.
“It’s the first thing we’ve recorded with two drummers: Joe [Stagliano] from the Lad Mags joined our band a couple of weeks before we went into the studio and he’s changed our sound big time,” says Sargent, and the increase heaviness is palpable.
“It was kind of a toss-up between getting a second guitar player or a second drummer. Joe was just a perfect fit, personality-wise, and his drumming really swings, so we knew we had to have him!”
Sargent and the band are definitely riding the high of the new record, but as for next steps, Betrayers will be hitting the road to promote the new LP. Living on the road for the foreseeable future with stops in Europe and US, and select Canadian dates, too, but Sargent admits that touring Canada can be a bit bleak.
“Touring Canada would be great but it’s a bit daunting, so many long drives with just nothing happening for miles and miles. It’s like a song from Nebraska… it’s too creepy.”
Catch the Betrayers at the Palomino on January 4 for the release of their debut LP, Let the Good Times Die.
By Nick Laugher
Photo: Fish Griwkowsky