Travis Gray has a distinctive creative sensibility. Inspired equally by Stephin Meritt, Saturday morning cartoons, and the Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Gray's particular perspective is elegant and absurd, sly and yet still naive, childlike but sometimes heartbreaking. It shows up in everything he does, including his work as art director for Metro Pulse.
During the early 2000s, the primary outlet for his musical talent was the Mito Band, a quirky synth-pop group that has recently reunited, with new focus and plans for a new album, after several years apart.
Gray formed the Mito Band with drummer Daniel Moore in 2000, after the two discovered a shared interest in OMD, Magnetic Fields, and novelty records.
"He fixed my computer, saw my records, and we hung out from that day—literally, the next day, we hung out and started making music," Gray says.
Shortly after that, Gray recruited his friends Jesse and Lauren Wagner to round out the lineup on guitar and bass, respectively. They worked up a catalog of charmingly eccentric, brightly colored keyboard pop, featuring songs about monkeys and the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, that was out of step with most of the rest of Knoxville's music scene at the time (and most other times, for that matter).
"Our first show was really funny," Gray says. The Mito Band, minus Jesse, who had a previous commitment with a different band, made its debut at a house party. "So it was just a bassist, keyboards, and drums. We were in a space about the size of this table and there was this really young kid who was like, ‘So, you guys play rock music?' He should have known, seeing the keyboard set up right in front of the rest of the band. We started out, it was the slowest song we've ever done, and he immediately walked right out the front door."
The band's first few years—up until 2004, when Moore moved away from Knoxville—were haphazard, with infrequent shows and an irregular rehearsal schedule. But that initial iteration of the band culminated in a five-song EP—still the group's only official recording.
"Our shows were sporadic," Lauren Wagner says. "It was maybe one show and then we would play six months later and only practice two weeks beforehand. We'd learn all the same songs we knew, maybe with one more. ... [Moore's] leaving was the reason we got that recording done in the first place. So when he moved we were excited that we had somewhat of a recording and wanted to figure out a new way to regroup. We played again, not too long after he left, within six months, I'd say—our regular six-month schedule."
But after a succession of drummers (and drum machines) the Mito Band eventually lost its focus. Gray continued performing on his own, as Rumblytums and Private Papers. The same sensibility showed itself in his solo work—many of the songs he wrote during that period have been adapted back into the Mito Band—but his solo shows didn't quite have the full chemistry or urgency of the full band.
Gray and the Wagners reunited last summer for a show at Metro Pulse's 20th anniversary music festival, along with drummer Jason Stark. They quickly fell into a regular schedule together.
"This time, we've been meeting at least once a week, like a regular band's practice schedule, and it makes a big difference," Gray says.
They plan to record a full album as soon as the details can be worked out. That means finding a studio and time, but also arranging songs perfected in small clubs like Pilot Light into fuller, high-definition studio versions.
"There's always a little more room to mess around," Jesse says. "I think we have a tendency to want to do that. ... You have these demos and it gets distilled down into a band song, and from there, I think that's the strange part—how do we translate that into an album format? Because live shows are live shows, we're just playing as best we know how. But if we're given the ability to mess with things or make things a little more polished..."