Talking to Travis Shettel is harder than you think. Sure, he’s a nice, cheerful, young gentleman of a rock singer, but you can’t help feeling a little guilty for making him speak at all.
“People speaking, the way they speak, is really bad for them,” he tells me apologetically. “Not that speaking in general is bad, it’s just that often people don’t do it properly.”
He can’t be blamed for his caution. Not very long ago Shettel endured surgery on his vocal cords, and still has to stick to a daily routine of vocal exercises. The first time our interview was set he apologetically called to reschedule, as he had to warm up for about forty minutes before he dared go on stage.
For some bands, a singer’s grievous vocal condition would be its death knell. But Piebald has already tried an early retirement. It didn’t stick, and now it doesn’t seem likely they will be giving up anytime soon, if ever, no matter what they might be forced to endure.
When I finally had a chance to talk with Shettel, he was driving their van across Iowa to a show in Columbia, Missouri. The band has been touring in support of their new record, All Ears, All Eyes, All the Time, and if the year and a half of touring that the band put itself through for their last record is any indication, they won’t be heading home anytime soon. That is, if they had a home.
“I don’t really call anywhere home right now,” Shettel says, without a trace of irony. “But when I’m not on tour I’m often in Massachusetts at my mom’s house.”
Very few bands have remained together for the length of time and with as little media recognition as Piebald. Though they aren’t jaded, Shettel can’t help eying newcomers with a little envy, along with a veteran’s sense of having seen it all before.
“It’s funny watching other bands who have been together for only a year or two years and they’re signed to Victory Records or Drive Thru (Records) or MCA or something amazing like that,” he says.
Still, he avoids trying to force his advice on anyone else.
“It’s not a cool way to live,” he says. “To have ‘better than you’ thoughts just ‘cause you’ve been around longer. Ian MacKaye could give me a big speech, but he’s been doing this a lot longer.”
Piebald has gone through a slew of changes that few bands experience, altering their sound as they mature and slipping in and out of favor as scenes have come and gone. They first became known as a “screamo” band during high school, and then moved on into the emo genre before and after their retirement. Their reunion came at a time when Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba was getting profiled in the New York Times and every band who had ever played in a church basement seemed to have a chance at major label success.
Unfortunately the tide turned too early. Though they enjoyed the popularity of emo, ever since the unsurprising backlash against mainstream bands like Dashboard Confessional and New Found Glory—both bands that Piebald has toured with—as purveyors of teenybop poppunk, they seem ready to escape the classification.
“We don’t fit in anywhere really, but there are bands that we tour with,” Shettel says cagily. “Our music overlaps with theirs in some ways, but it’s not exactly where we fit. We don’t know where we fit so we’ll tour with anybody. But it often seems that we’ll tour with bands who go into that emo category. I don’t feel like we sound like Thursday or New Found Glory. We can play shows with them and it works, people aren’t throwing rotten food at us on stage and we might make a few fans from that but on a whole Thursday and Piebald don’t have that much in common musically.”
He mentions acts such as Spoon, Spiritualized and Stephen Malkmus as ideal touring partners, but so far Piebald has remained caught in emo, a scene in which the audience always seems to stay in the age range of 14 to 17. Still, Shettel says he can spot an older group, doing their best to stay unnoticed.
“The majority of the people who are in the front, closest to the band are the younger crowd,” he says. “But I can always spot around the outskirts the dudes and the chicks with beer. The older crowd, they’re there I think our next plan is to try and do the older market somehow. We’re going to try and be like an opening band on some tour where it’s a slightly older crowd. Maybe not even older, maybe it’s our age. That would be great.”
When the band first formed, while the members were still in high school, a key ideal for them and their audience was straight edge, a no drinking, drugs, or sex ideology that takes its name from a song written by MacKaye’s early band Minor Threat. Straight edge as a lifestyle still certainly exists, but as they aged, Piebald’s members have moved on. Still, Shettel declares that he’s never regretted his youthful teetotalism.
“It was very important to me,” he says. “I’m glad that in high school I didn’t get wasted If I did that stuff I would be way more off-kilter. I’m glad that I had that time and I’m glad that that was part of my life but it just isn’t anymore. It just doesn’t matter to me anymore.
“Not to sound like a lame dude, but beer is fun to drink and weed is fun to use and they make you think about things differently. I’m not saying I’m a better person for it but it definitely changed the way I look at things. I feel like I’m a more relaxed person because of it and I can look at things with a different perspective because of it. It allows you to experience things outside of your brain or in a manner different from normally.
Shettel’s thoughts have changed in other ways as well since his earliest days in rock ‘n’ roll. Yet when it comes to tattoos the effects of changing one’s mind are more difficult to erase. Shettel has several tattoos on his arms, back and chest, but the one that sticks out clearly in my mind was the one that he revealed once at a concert: a giant, flaming skull—with bat wings, naturally—on his sternum.
“You get them when you’re young because you think they’re cool but then you forget that you’re going to get older,” he says. “I didn’t realize that I was going to get older. It’s not that you regret it but maybe if you were back there again you probably wouldn’t do it.”
During his retirement years, while Shettel was looking for a regular day job, he made sure to keep the tattoos covered during interviews. Yet once he found a job—at an after school program—the kids and coworkers quickly got over them. Tattoos have become increasingly acceptable in the mainstream over the past few years, and Shettel thinks his own tattoos will soon lack the shock value they might have had when he first got them.
“Fifty percent of the people I see now…have a tattoo you can see,” he says. “I’m probably going to have ‘a couple’ in a few years, whereas now I have ‘a bunch.’ There’s going to be so many people with full sleeves, and they’re living in the regular world. The world is lightening up with that stuff.”
Despite his fraught vocal cords and Piebald’s continuing struggle to make a name for themselves, Shettel possesses an unflagging desire to keep going. He and the band may have aged, living longer than other contemporary bands and even the genres they helped to found, but he’s not old enough yet to give up on rock. Neither is he ready to stop submitting himself to the tattooist’s needle, though he may have moved past the fiery skull phase.
“I thought of this idea the other day: I want to get something like this happy ice cream cone, like a dancing ice cream cone with a smile on it’s face,” he tells me. “I’d probably regret that in five years too, but…I thought that if I was going to get another tattoo, that might be the one.”