Several of Nelsen’s former projects and collaborators will honor his legacy on Saturday, September 18, with a concert at the East Side Club.
Photo: Travis Nelsen, wearing a light mustard plaid button-up shirt and blue jeans, sits on grass and leans against a large sign promoting a show. Cheap Trick’s name is visible. He’s holding a white cup and smiling.
Anyone who has ever played music can attest to the difficulty of establishing a singular, noticeable imprint. Travis Nelsen did it from the start. Speaking with Tone Madison ahead of a Saturday, September 18 memorial show at The East Side Club, both Nelsen’s brother Troy Nelsen and the Nelsens’ longtime friend and frequent collaborator Eric Hartz went to great lengths to make that point clear.
Travis Nelsen, who died in April 2020, was preternaturally gifted when it came to elevating the material at hand. Whether it was his earliest band in Waukesha (The Cool Papas), the extensive list of bands he joined in Madison (Quencher, The Coolhand Band, Rhoda, Heavy Balls And The Flip-Offs), or the acts he played a pivotal role in dramatically reshaping after moving to Austin (Ten Speed, Okkervil River), he left an indelible effect on the projects he undertook (which also included time spent in The Jackknife Brothers, Maki, Swearing At Motorists, Admiral Academy, and Vibrationland).
Troy Nelsen’s earliest memory of his brother on stage comes via a charming recollection of Travis agreeing to jump into a broccoli costume constructed out of cardboard to dance to a song by Slow Children—an earlier band of Troy Nelsen’s—called “I Hate Broccoli.” Years later, this would earn a soft reprisal when Travis Nelsen would don a potato costume that was sewn by his mother and throw potato chips at the audience when his brother played in a band called The Potatoes (which featured both Troy Nelsen and Eric Hartz). The anecdote reveals essential truths about Travis Nelsen: he was relentlessly kind, supportive to a fault, and a born showman.
The Nelsen brothers both made the most of their musical talents from an early age. “I got him on stage as soon as I could get on stage and I got him playing in bars as soon as I could as well. I don’t know if there were a lot of 15-year-old kids playing O’Cayz Corral,” Troy Nelsen recalls, referring to a legendary downtown Madison venue that burned down in 2001. “His style [was] there. I think that’s an important thing to note: at that age he was already an incredible drummer. In his first band.” By the time they were in their later teens, the brothers had moved to Madison and were residing in a punk house with Hartz (whose bands and projects have included Hum Machine, Voltress, and The Flavor That Kills) and Eric Schinker (who played with Hartz in the band Shazy Hade, and has also played in The New Recruits and Uzi Ferrari), another dear friend and frequent collaborator.
Both Troy Nelsen and Hartz spoke at length about Travis Nelsen’s all-purpose natural talent in our conversations, highlighting a set of skills that never seemed to stop unrolling: skateboarding, cooking, chess, math, juggling, yoyoing, tutoring, and knitting all among them. “He always had an angle,” Troy Nelsen wrote in an email to Tone Madison, recalling how his brother started renting out hotel rooms and charging people for tables at the age of 13, making a considerable amount of money by setting up baseball card swaps (baseball-card collecting was an early passion for Travis Nelsen). Attending a few baseball-card conventions also got him interested in event organizing’s minutiae.
Having moved to Austin in the mid-’90s to pursue a career as a professional musician with his brother, Travis Nelsen had already found some success, joining Maki as a touring drummer and as a part of Ten Speed. A Maki tour with Whiskeytown proved informative in tightening an understanding of the finer mechanics of touring. “Back then, there was internet, but that’s not how it worked. It worked with phone calls and doing a lot of research to try to figure out what clubs were in town,” says Troy Nelsen, recounting the moment his brother started integrating his organizational know-how with his music career. “So [Travis] did all that, worked out money and stuff. He was [Ten Speed’s] agent and the road manager all of the sudden.” Some time after that, Travis Nelsen would approach Okkervil River’s guitarist/vocalist Will Sheff with an offer to become their tour manager. Sheff accepted.
Between the releases of Okkervil River’s 2003 sophomore effort Down The River Of Golden Dreams and their 2005 breakout release Black Sheep Boy, Travis Nelsen would become the band’s drummer, aided by a recommendation of the band’s preceding drummer, who had moved out of state. As Troy Nelsen and Eric Hartz both stated in separate conversations, “Travis took that band to another level,” transforming them from what Troy Nelsen referred to as “librarian rock” into a surging, punk-tinted indie rock powerhouse.
During the span of Travis’ time in the band, they’d tour the world (“Apart from Japan and maybe the [former] Soviet Union,” notes Troy Nelsen), perform to national audiences on late night TV shows, sell out a string of 5,000-seat venues, earn innumerable accolades from prestigious publications, and release several outstanding records: the Sleep & Wake-Up Songs EP, Black Sheep Boy, the Black Sheep Boy Appendix EP, the Overboard & Down EP, The Stage Names, The Stand Ins, and True Love Cast Out All Evil, a collaborative record backing legendary musician Roky Erickson (of The 13th Floor Elevators). Travis Nelsen and Okkervil River would part ways after the Erickson collaboration.
On April 7, 2020, Travis Nelsen passed away in his sleep. He was 44. In the days that followed his passing, several of the artists he’d worked with commemorated their time together with heartrending tributes. While Nelsen is most known for his long tenure in Okkervil River, he was especially fond of his Madison bands. In one of his last communications with his brother, he’d emailed him live material from Heavy Balls And The Flip-Offs, having begun immersing himself in recapturing the excitement of his earlier projects.
There’s still a great deal of affection for those early punk bands among Nelsen’s family and contemporaries, which is why several of them will be reuniting to perform at Saturday’s event at the East Side Club. It’s scheduled to run from 5 to 8 p.m., and takes place a week before what would’ve been Travis Nelsen’s 46th birthday (he was born on September 23, 1975). The Coolhand Band, The Low Czars, Quencher, and Vibrationland will all perform. “It’s heartwarming for us to know that all of these people are going to all this effort,” says Troy Nelsen.
Hartz, who organized the event, emphasized the importance that it’s seen as a celebration.
“This is definitely the way Travis would want us to do it,” Hartz says. “He’d want to have a concert. He wouldn’t want some funeral in a funeral home or anything. We’re doing it the way he’d want it done. That’s how I’d want it. I’d want people to celebrate my life more than mourn it.”
All of the funds donated at the event will be directed towards a charity of the Nelsen family’s choosing.