Photo courtesy Jonathan Hay

July 15, 2008

‘You’re talking to a miracle’

Travis Meeks heals one piece at a time

Room 131 at the Hurstbourne Lane Days Inn has been stripped of its sterility and turned into a low-lit hippie retreat, complete with incense and earth-tone tapestries that could’ve been ripped from a Grateful Dead bus. Inside, a balding Travis Meeks, 29, chats on his Blackberry in between bites of a Jimmy John’s sub. Having been on tour almost nonstop for the last two years, he has stopped over in Louisville for R&R. As much as he can get, that is. 

When it’s my turn, Travis opens a notebook full of talking points. His publicist did say he had a lot on his mind. “Travis is very excited about the interview,” Jonathan Hay told me. “And he doesn’t like to do media.”

To the contrary, in person Travis shows zero signs of anxiety. He’s articulate, plainspoken and unfazed by the gory details of his life story.

“I have nothing to hide,” he says. 

In his own words, Travis Meeks is a born musician from Charlestown, Ind. His maternal grandfather was a conductor and composer with two sons, one who led a church choir and the other a lounge singer. Travis’ father, Gary Meeks, ran with Elvis’ stepbrother and recorded with The Box Tops, then fronted by future Big Star leader Alex Chilton.

When he was barely old enough to drive, Travis formed Days of the New, whose self-titled album cast Louisville into the post-grunge limelight of the late 1990s, for better or worse. The album bore three No. 1 singles: “Touch, Peel and Stand,” which topped Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Chart for 16 weeks, “Shelf in the Room” and “The Down Town.” He convinced the surviving members of The Doors to let him sing “The End,” which he did on VH-1 to a standing ovation. He has two standing invitations, one to perform at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and the other to front the Boston Pops. 

Then there’s the other Travis Meeks: The narcissist who became a transvestite and went into hiding. A Machiavellian bastard who earned the jealousy — and eventually, the resignations — of the first Days of the New lineup because he got all the royalty checks. An anti-social freak whose meth addiction went public, Britney-style, on A&E’s “Intervention.” A flesh-and-blood advertisement for everything that’s wrong with musicians.

Shades of Mr. Hyde pop up infrequently during his explanation. When he imitates his grandmother, a former lounge singer — “Heyyyyy, here’s lookin’ at you!” — his grin rivals Nicholson’s in “The Shining.” His alias, Maestro Meeks, is an annoying moniker based on the concept behind Days’ upcoming record, Tree Colors, due out early next year. When he slams a bottle of soda — he’s been in recovery three years — and shouts, “Every musician out there is a fucking drug addict!,” it’s impossible to believe he isn’t bonkers.

“Why I’m telling you this is because that’s where this music comes from, that’s where my art comes from,” he says. “You’re talking to a miracle. I am a miracle. I’m not halfway there, you know, dut-dut-dut-dut-da, drink a beer, hang out with my buddies, smoke a joint and get together with the band, wanna be a rock star — no. I am a very troubled individual who has been handed these obstacles in life, and overcome my fears to be honest with myself, so I can be honest with you. That’s not exploitation, it’s liberation.”

Travis’ manic tendencies might have more to do with nature than nurture. He attributes his erratic, oftentimes irritable behavior mostly to Asperger’s Syndrome, a milder form of autism that went undiagnosed almost his entire life. 

To start with Travis you begin with his father, Gary. He wasn’t exactly the greatest role model, and chunks of their lives mirror one another. 

Gary started playing guitar professionally at 13, and caught the ear of a WAKY DJ, whose connections in Memphis landed Gary in the studio with some of rock ’n’ roll’s earliest innovators. “He knew a lot of people there, Jerry Phillips, (Sun Records founder) Sam Phillips’s son,” Gary said. “At the time there was a group called The Box Tops with a hit song called ‘The Letter.’”

The sessions exposed Gary to a whole other side of the music business, and he was only 16. “It got me into the recording end of it,” he said. “There were a bunch of studio heads down there, and they knew what they were doing.”

In the mid-1970s, Gary’s manager moved to Canada, and the man producing him wanted the elder Meeks to relocate to Nashville to try to break as a country artist. “At that time, in 1974, all the Memphis guys moved to Nashville, and it ultimately led to the Nashville sound,” Gary said. “I wanted to rock ’n’ roll, and wasn’t much interested in Nashville at the time. The Memphis thing was more rock and blues.”

At 19, Gary was touring several times a year to Florida, developing his craft and a mean, lasting alcohol addiction. “I’d get in whatever band was going south to Florida, whatever group I could hop on,” he said. “It was a good place to stay wasted. It was warm, had a beach, plenty of girls.”

Gary wasn’t entirely naïve to the dangers of drug addiction among musicians. “I’d hear all the stories about Elvis. I’d see him and think, ‘He’s the king, and he don’t seem like he’s having too much fun,’” he said. “You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist. It’s so hard in the business because everybody wants to stroke you. It gets pretty sick.”

Alcoholism forced him to relocate to Fort Worth, Tex., in 1985 to dry out, and Travis moved out of Gary’s mother’s house and rejoined his father once dad was on the right track.

“Travis was a real introvert. I always knew he was,” he said. “The music was kind of his saving grace. It was his therapy and his way of communicating.” 

Traditional schools didn’t suit Travis, who said he was prone to psychotic episodes, exacerbated by drug use. It compelled Gary to transfer him to special schools. “My father put me in the system, to keep me out of the system,” is how Travis saw it.

“I knew what was going on,” Gary said. “I’ve had him in a lot of counseling, a lot of treatment. I knew the potential was there …. If you throw alcohol and drugs on top of me, you’re just going to see whacko. Some people can’t drink, and some people have no business taking drugs.”

Travis was in and out of drug treatment facilities from age 11 to 15. By about 1995, he “got run out” of Charlestown and moved into a basement apartment in Louisville. “I went through paranoia and acid trips, separation from the mind and body,” he said. “That’s where my spiritual journey begins.” 

Travis’s vision for Days of the New was 180 degrees from Dead Reckoning, the metal group he formed with Matt Taul and Jesse Vest, who played on portions as Days of the New’s rhythm section on (Orange), the band’s Outpost debut. Gary had known for years that Travis’ acoustic music was stronger, more thoughtful.

“I had a little recording setup at home. When he would get all whacked out, he’d get in his room and record these songs acoustic,” Gary said. “I was just blown away by it. That’s when he went ahead and said he would take the bull by the horns, doing the acoustical stuff.”

The dominant image on (Orange) is a gangly, aging tree that shows up on subsequent Days releases (Green) and (Red). As artistic fascinations go, it’s not uncommon for a specific image to dominate a piece of art, but Travis’ devotion to it borders absurd.

“I’ve seen this picture on the wall of a tree, that many people have seen, but no one has seen it like I have, and I have this relationship with the tree, and it’s gotten me through years, and I got this vision. The tree is my emblem. I have a tree belt.” Travis lifts his shirt to reveal it.

“It is my superhero. It was a painting on the wall that a lot of people had already seen. I had a moment and a vision. Tears were in my eyes. I went into the picture, and I found myself sitting in the picture. Part of Asperger’s is associating sound with vision, so I see what I hear. That’s how I write. That’s how I continue to write my records.”

In an e-mail sent from his MySpace page, former Days guitarist Todd Whitener said that because of a contractual obligation, neither he, Vest nor Taul could disclose any information about their time in Days of the New. Rick Smith, Travis’ manager, said he knows of no such contract. 

Travis said the band didn’t like the name at first, and that the rehearsals tried his patience. “Bringing the band together, Days of the New, was one of the most difficult things. Because we’re talking … the music was already written, the guitar player didn’t know how to play acoustic guitar. I had to teach the drummer how to lay back and understand that the acoustic guitar was (the main) instrument,” he said. “To make that first album happen, I had to pull my hair out to make these guys focus. I spent all my time trying to get these guys to focus.”

It wasn’t the band that first drew attention but Travis, by himself, playing an acoustic guitar. 

On the second day of a two-day Harvest Showcase at Stage Door Johnnie’s in Louisville in 1997, Gary introduced his son to a crowd that included Rick Smith, who has managed some of the biggest names in rock for 30 years. Smith was in town to judge the talent. 

“There were 20 bands, and 19 of them sounded like Hootie,” Smith recalled. “Gary says, ‘I’m gonna bring my son out. Every time he would get in trouble, I’d tell him to go upstairs and write a hit.’ And I thought, Oh Jesus. The minute (Travis) opened his mouth, Jim Morrison came out.”

Smith found Travis immediately after the show and made his pitch. “I said, ‘I can get you a record deal, and get you to the next step. And he was like, ‘Man it was good meeting you, but we’re gonna go hang out with these girls.’”

Smith sent Travis’ demos to Scott Litt, who had produced Counting Crows and R.E.M. Litt signed Travis to Outpost, a subsidiary of Geffen Records.

“Touch, Peel & Stand,” the first single from the band’s debut, exploded, opening doors — and tours — beyond the band’s wildest dreams. Despite Days’ limited touring history, they opened for (Alice in Chains guitarist) Jerry Cantrell and Metallica, a match Travis said in retrospect didn’t make sense.

“We’re an acoustic act, we should’ve been playing with Dave Matthews,” he said. “I was seeing this thing happen: The way people wanted to see us was the way people wanted to see us. People thought I was supposed to be ‘Touch, Peel & Stand.’”

As songs go, the track falls in line with a lot of the post-grunge canon that surfaced in the 1990s. Travis’s morose delivery and simplistic lyrics are heart-on-sleeve, and Taul’s funk-latin drumbeat is still one of Travis’ favorite tracks. “As far as I’m concerned, he owns the track.”

But one single does not a band make, and while Travis knew he was more than a one-hit wonder, he did not know how to communicate his vision or how to cope with sudden fame. When the misperceptions weren’t driving him nuts, it was the adulation.

“I did not have the tools to stand up … with Asperger’s, and I had no one to back me up,” he said. “People kissed my ass all the time. They enabled me. I got my ass kissed so much that it just cornered me. I would bitch because people would kiss my ass. I couldn’t stand it.”

In 1998, Travis started working on the follow-up (Green), and dissolved the association with Whitener, Taul and Vest. The three went on to form Tantric with Hugo Ferreira, a roadie of Days’ turned singer. A February 1999 Rolling Stone story called the split “predictable.”

“I did not fire the band,” Travis said. “We parted ways, because they were jealous of me making the money from songwriting and publishing. They did not like being hired hands anymore; they felt like they were more than that. They were the ones who met with fans after the show. I didn’t meet with any fans. Now it’s different. I go out and I’m like, ‘Hey, how are you doin’?’ Part of that has to do with role-playing. If I can capture a role, or a mood or a sound or a tone — it’s like theatrics: If I can capture a mood or a tone I can project it. That’s why I’ve become more social.”

He doesn’t begrudge the members for taking off, and remains philosophical about the split. “Trying to find a band to understand and back me up as a composer and a writer, that’s been hard for people to do. It’s been hard for people to take the ride,” he said. “I couldn’t get my first band to take the ride. They rode for the first album, and it wore them out.”

His new lineup was a seven-piece band that included future Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger on backup vocals, drummer Ray Rizzo and guitarist Craig Wagner, both Louisvillians at the time. 

“The green album, in a lot of ways, is my favorite record,” Travis said. “It was my way of expressing this rite of music that I’ve been trying to introduce to America: this world sound, old world, composition, classical, organic, I guess hippie music, heady, jamband stuff. And I’ll tell you what, give me any band in this town, and me and Ray Rizzo alone will show you up. That’s not out of hubris. That’s what we do. We are improv world musicians, with an acoustic guitar, percussion and drumkit. We are the hippiest of the hippie.”

Rizzo did not return an e-mail seeking comment.

Barely a trace of post-grunge arrangement shows up on (Green). “Flight Response” begins with the sound of horses galloping, and from there, you wonder if this is the same band. The composition is essentially one piece of music, and it would’ve been released as one 66-minute track had Interscope President Jimmy Iovine — whose company now owns Geffen and therefore Outpost — not refused. 

“Travis was always going toward making world music,” manager Rick Smith said. “He wanted to have a concert in a giant dome, where he controlled the temperatures. I was like, ‘Wow, I want commissions before expenses.’”

In 1999, Travis developed a kidney stone that led to an addiction to painkillers, and from there, he developed a taste for meth. His weight plummeted; at one point he weighed barely 100 pounds.

As he devolved emotionally, Days’ future as an act was about to fall victim to internal label politics. When Interscope bought Geffen, Outpost was dismantled. In the shakeup, Tom Whalley, who managed Dr. Dre, was set to work as Days of the New’s major-label advocate, but he soon left to become chairman of Warner Bros. Records, and Days fell under the purview of Jordan Schur, who helped break Limp Bizkit.

That personnel switch was disastrous. “No one at Interscope had any feel for Travis,” Smith said. “It was a situation where nobody understood. They wanted a single from him. I just remember the first time Bob Dylan met with the new regime at Columbia, and they asked him, ‘What do you think the first track is Bob?’ and he said, ‘Maybe you should have Bruce Springsteen write me one of them singles.’”

In 2000, Travis once again entered the studio to make (Red). Gary alleges that, after spending half-a-million dollars to record it, Schur made the band scrap the sessions and start over. (Red) was released on Sept. 11, 2001. Smith lobbied radio stations on it and it sold about 80,000 copies, but the project ultimately faltered. Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin had seen Days live and was interested in producing them for his Def American imprint; when Days asked to be relieved of their contract, Interscope said no. “It’s like, ‘I don’t want you, but I ain’t gonna let you go,’” Gary said.

“It wasn’t ‘commercially viable,’ was the term they used,” Smith said. “You have to think and feel and have emotions, and you can’t just put it on and drive to Super America.”

Neither Schur nor Whalley could be reached for comment.

Touring (Red) was a nightmare, thanks to Travis’ scattered emotions and demeanor — he was short-circuiting from booze and meth. “After the Metallica tour, he had picked up a bottle of tequila in Dallas, and his father, who was sober, just drove him home and canceled the tour — 90 sold-out shows,” Smith said. “He began to get a reputation.”

He was about to become notorious. In February 2005, Travis and his family were filmed for A&E’s hit show, “Intervention;” his parents were going to confront him about his meth addiction. In the episode, Travis checks into a rehab clinic in Utah. A personal and creative tailspin can only last so long, and Travis said he has finally learned to stand up for himself.

“What I never told was, I sat back and let everybody just walk on me,” he said. “It runs in my family, you know. (But) I am my mother and my father. My mother will only take so much shit (smacks his hands), and that’s what got me clean.”

Days of the New has no label. Travis still lives in Utah and has been touring frequently since 2007 with an eight-piece cast of musicians that rotates often, sometimes not amicably. 

The first time Brigid Kaelin rehearsed with Travis at his house, she was nervous. “I’m never nervous playing,” she said, and many of her friends discouraged her from touring with him. “I know a lot of people who are crazy. Crazy’s not the right word for him. He was great to me. He’s going for a vibe with the musicians. He says, ‘It’s this key and this scale, and listen. Everybody’s listening to each other, but it could easily be a trainwreck.’”

To work with Travis, Kaelin’s experience teaching children with Asperger’s has come in handy. “You have to be really laid back and really open-minded, and you have to be patient,” she said. “He can be the funniest person ever and then a really mean person within the same conversation. You have to go with it. People who are autistic just say what’s on their mind, but it’s always the truth, and I have a lot of respect for him. He has managed to find himself some of the most beautiful people. Travis causes a lot of stress. He’s the boss. Your boss isn’t always your friend.”

He is technically broke, owes back taxes to the Internal Revenue Service as well as child support for his two daughters, ages 15 and 4, but he’s getting current on both, said Smith, who works for Travis pro bono. He’s confident he can get Travis back on the road for 100 dates a year, and they are looking for a distributor for Tree Colors.

If he could rewind the clock, Gary said that a little more time might’ve lessened the harm Travis endured, and dealt, to himself and others.

“Knowing what I know now, to see everything that he’s gone through, it’s a tough deal,” he said. “Even if you’re successful, it’s just a different world. It’s not real. You’ve got to separate the business from what’s real. Failure is an event, not a person.”