Snakes and Stars is a new musical project that teams Michael Travis (The String Cheese Incident, EOTO) and Aaron Johnston (Brazilian Girls, David Byrne’s American Utopia). The two drummers will be “exploring various idioms of electronic and dance music in a live, improvisational format.  While DJs play previous recorded tracks Snakes and Stars plays everything live and makes up the songs as they go.”

Their tour opens this Thursday at the 8×10 in Baltimore and then Snakes and Stars will appear at Philadelphia’s Milkboy on Friday, Brooklyn Bowl on Saturday and continue gigging in the Northeast for an additional week, with the dates available here. Summer festival appearances will follow as well.

How did the project come together?

Michael Travis: I was looking for a new expression for my love of improvised dance music and realized that Aaron was somewhat near (since I moved to the East Coast) and he had a similar solo project going.

My original goal was a solo thing with the rig I had been building at home, but after tuning into what Aaron was doing, it seemed like the perfect fit for a duo.  I texted him and he was into it.   I drove to his house and we started the process of merging the rigs. The music was pretty effortless from the beginning.

Can you talk a bit about your relationship with Aaron over the years?

MT: I met Aaron through Kang in say ’99.  He was on Kang’s solo album Commotion. Kang was super into his playing and invited him to play with us at the Hammerstein Ballroom in NYC. He came with his own full rig and played much of the show.

When it came time for the drum solo we did the standard trading of fours and then I went and brushed my hands across the chimes and then he did the same with his chimes. We did that for a couple times around and then he took his chimes off their mount and I took my chimes off their mount, and we started chasing each other around the stage as if they were spears! Then I slayed him in the center of the stage with my chimes and our friendship was born. Ha! 

Then over the next twenty years we had very casual contact where he would sit in from time to time and that was it.  That was pretty much it until I called him last year.

What, if anything, has surprised you as Snakes and Stars has taken form?

MT: I was surprised with Aaron’s energy for the project and how pro he is at absorbing the parameters of a new gig. He’s got amazing taste and is so into it!

Can you shed some light on your music-making process?

MT:  We prefer the Term “spontaneous composition” to improv.   I have a monster live looping rig with keyboards, bass, guitar, vocals and samples and a mixing board kind of thing for composing from all the loops I just built.  Aaron has a drum kit with tons of triggers and pads that feed into his sound library, and then a similar arsenal of sonic manipulation tools.

There are some improv looping bands and individuals.  But to the best of our knowledge nothing quite this elaborate [Both laugh.]  Also I’d say we’re the most focused on the spontaneous composition component of improvisation.

Aaron Johnston: We have no idea what’s going to happen really. We just rely on our taste and musicality and ears to guide us into something interesting.  So I’ll be doing a groove framing out a song form while Travis is hunting and recording a bass line, melodies, effects etc. in real time as we attempt to make songs out of nowhere. Then we’ll erase and build another one.

What if you mess up and make a bad loop?

MT: I either have to live with it or erase it and start again.

AJ: DJs have no risk as their material is written already. They just step up and play their previously created songs end to end. It’s a manicured calculated event with no danger. [Laughs.]

MT: I’ve long been compelled with merging jamband and Electronic music cultures since I discovered how cool electronic music was 20 years ago–such compelling soundscapes but missing that element of spontaneous discovery that bands like the Dead had.

I was obsessed with a certain early 70’s Dead passage. I think it was Fillmore East ’71 where they were just flowing from seaweed jam land into song snippets into others with no apparent cues and making up song forms in between. Like a school of Telepathic fish. I listened to that like crazy!

Then with String Cheese we managed to core into similar spaces especially in the 99-2001 days. Later I thought “How can I wedge this improv spirit into the manicured EDM world?” It Started with Zilla in 2003 and EOTO in 2006 both with that express goal.

Now Snakes and Stars feels like a refinement of the process. Aaron is incredibly devotional in his playing and has really embraced the craft of bringing the magic of electronic drumming to a live forum.  Improvisation is a crazy state where everyone in the room is thrust into the same moment where anything can happen. It’s pretty electric.

Do you find that audiences influence the music with their energy in a different way when you’re performing with Snakes and Stars?

MT: The energy is more smooth and continuous with Snakes and Stars. As it’s a DJ continuous set.  With SCI is often climax based explosions. Also since SCI has songs fans there get invested in the energy of the song.

What are the challenges and opportunities for improv in this setting versus your efforts with SCI?

MT: Well improv in Snakes and Stars is easier, as there are only two members. And we’re trying to build songs on the spot as opposed to “jamming”. Jamming kind of implies following a soloist to some degree to me.  

Also, playing all the tonal instruments–keyboards, bass, and guitar–is very satisfying for me.  Making the basslines and melodies and composing on the spot is perhaps my favorite musical endeavor.