Interviews

Travis Keller (Buddyhead, American Primitive)

Travis Keller (Photo: Ollie Problemas)

For people of a certain age, Buddyhead.com will likely elicit one of two reactions, both of which are opinionated neither of which are mild. Travis Keller, co-founder of said website-cum-record label has likely heard it all, having been on the receiving end of epithets, threats, punches, and lawsuits.  

Depending on who’s keeping score, it conjures associations equal parts fame and infamy. Started on a lark by Pacific Northwest transplant Keller and one Aaron North, the earliest incarnation was music scene shit-talking of the highest order. Birthed during the Internet’s pre-blog wilderness years, it’s meteoric rise and mainstream influence was altogether more impressive and improbable.

Whether by design or not, it publicly cut the music industry off at the knees and eventually became the de facto must read for the punk adjacent and smartass-inclined. To me, it always came across as a much needed online hub for scene levity and, to be honest, a home for music fans willing to defend art from the brazen and crass commercialism of their unwilling targets. Cavalier and free-swinging, Buddyhead elevated hijinx to high art and their antics skewered everyone from major label luminaries to the disingenuous schmoozers behind the curtain.

The stories are the stuff of legend and they run the gamut from the relatively innocuous to the downright hazardous. Known to post phone numbers of celebrities, they upped the ante on this embryonic form of doxxing with record company sabotage (see Limp Bizkit) and gloriously creative acts of vandalism.

Regardless of whether or not you were paying attention, the website and, subsequently, label was absolutely unavoidable and dependably capable of prompting strong opinions from anyone in the underground. More than anything else, it was a living, breathing organism as likely to dish out scathingly clever hot takes as it was to drop the best album of the year during their decade plus run. 

My entree into their weird and wonderful world was 2004’s Buddyhead Suicide, the label sampler that famously features myriad brilliant prank phone calls torturing everyone from the folks at Fat Wreck Chords to Hoobastank. Credited simply to “Torture Device," the merry fuckery of it all is fortified by killer songs courtesy of Ink & Dagger, Shat, At the Drive-In, the Dillinger Escape Plan, and the aforementioned Icarus Line. Alongside the equally indispensable Gimme Skelter (featuring Raymond Pettibon’s inimitable cover art), people often forget just how golden their musical run of releases was. After digging into Travis Keller’s life and continuing legacy, one thing is abundantly clear… everything he does is in service to art itself. 

Travis currently serves as creative director of American Primitive, an art collective in the truest sense. Based out of Valley Recording Company in Burbank, CA; they manage to inhabit the unique space at which film, music, zines, and associated events converge. Much like the halcyon days of Buddyhead, Travis’ current incarnation is as devoted to the muse of independent art as ever.

He was kind enough to wax nostalgic on everything from getting sued by Axl Rose to the lasting importance of Joe Cardamone and the Icarus Line, and the untamable spirit that informs his present day endeavors. We've also threaded the piece with some photos Travis has taken throughout the years. Folks, meet the Tastemaker, Provocateur, Photographer, Skateboarder, Writer, and Artist. Meet/re-meet Travis Keller. 

For people of a certain age, Buddyhead needs absolutely no introduction. For the uninitiated, give us the long or short of your background. 

I moved to Los Angeles in 1997 from the cultural wasteland of the Pacific Northwest. My first friends in Los Angeles were this band Kanker Sores (who would later become The Icarus Line) and I had met them the previous year when they played a punk show in my hometown that my friend Joel Jett had booked. They were on tour up the West Coast as 16-year-olds on break from High School, had a seven inch out on one of my favorite punk labels (Recess Records) and were from Los Angeles. So I had to be friends with ‘em!

When I landed in LA, I was kinda jumped into their world which was smack dab in the middle of the punk scene. They were promoting shows, playing shows, making flyers, handing out flyers, putting out records and booking tours. It was inspiring. I happened to know how to make websites way before most people cuz I’d been on the internet since a pre-teen and due to being bored had learned HTML coding, so Buddyhead.com happened.

It was one of the first popular music websites on the internet before anyone used the word "blog." It was a webzine, for lack of a better term, as well as an independent record label that released almost 60 titles. The site featured interviews, record reviews, art and the every popular Gossip page where we would talk shit and even post cell phone numbers of celebrities.

At the peak of the site's popularity, it was getting between 9 million and 12 million pageviews a month and we got sued by people like Courtney Love, Fred Durst, Axl Rose, and others. Also got offered millions of dollars for it, the most being 12 million, to which I said no every time [laughs]. It was a pretty fun ride, I’m proud of what I did and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Obviously, Buddyhead’s reputation as rabble-rousers and provocateurs has long preceded the label. Was it a conscious decision to incorporate the extracurricular or was it an organic extension of boredom? 

Nothing was conscious, if anything I was just trying to make my friends laugh, express myself and shine light on shit I thought was cool. I had just moved to Los Angeles and I was surrounded by cool shit, felt like a kid in a candy store. Everything I’ve ever done has been to combat boredom and none of it was planned because I never thought anyone would see it or care. It’s still amazing to me that anyone cares what I gotta say. I still think all this shit is pretty funny but yet now I’m also grateful. I went through some shit and grew up a bit finally [laughs].

Your unique brand of pre-Internet “trolling” always seemed to come from a place of fandom or reverence for an inherently self-serious scene/genre. Care to share any times when that message was either clearly lost or surprisingly well received? 

Yeah, any shit talk came from a place of serious fandom. I love music and art so much, I know what I like and it’s the closest thing I have to a religion. In those days I just looked at all like I was defending this thing I loved and trying to show people there was better shit than Limp Bizkit.  

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Not sure who took this photo of @joe_cardamone and I at SXSW 2003, but this is my vibe forever ����

A post shared by TK (@travismichaelkeller) on

Buddyhead’s existence coincided with the nascent days of the Internet. That must have allowed you some true freedom to operate as an art collective, even then. How did that affect the vision? Was the enigmatic presence intentional? 

I dunno really, I had been on the internet for like 10 years already when I started Buddyhead in 1998, so it was completely normal to me. What wasn’t normal was very many other people being on the internet. So when that changed everyone was surfing the web and we started getting millions of views, it was like wow ok. 

I always like how so many people helped with Buddyhead, they would float and in out of a revolving cast and pretty pure all of it. And I let everyone say and do whatever the fuck they wanted to as long as it was cool. I never edited anyone, except Joe twice. Two of his reviews got edited, I think. 

But as I said before nothing was intentional with Buddyhead, I would blame the enigmatic presence on being punk. And prolly trying to ape things like Grand Royal magazine, Big Brother magazine, Thrasher, Sub Pop’s '90s ads that said "World Domination," and a mess of other shit. 

Josh Brown and Sean McCabe of Ink & Dagger, 1998. (Photo: Travis Keller)

If there’s been a musical through line running throughout your creative career, it seems like it’s the Icarus Line. Was that band the impetus to start releasing records? The relationship with the band has taken you on some rather interesting adventures with some rather interesting folks on a global scale. Care to share? 

For sure, I definitely give them credit for just showing me you could do whatever you put your mind to. They were my first friends in Los Angeles and Joe and I are still friends, it’s pretty cool and rare honestly. The first record I released was a seven inch of the Icarus Line and it was cuz they had an extra song. And we were coming from punk rock that’s just what you did, press that shit yourself, make the artwork yourself and distribute em yourself. Only I did that I just kept going. 

The Icarus Line (Photo: Travis Keller)

There’s a litany of phenomenal releases you’ve been a part of over the years. I’ve long loved your work with 400 Blows, Ink & Dagger, the aforementioned Icarus Line, and myriad others. As diverse as the roster was, the unifying quality seemed to be that these were musical “misfits” that wouldn’t have made as much sense on another label. What’re some releases you think need revisiting? What are some of your current projects?

I would say don’t bother with any of it cuz it’s old as fuck, just check out what I’m involved with now. But for the sake of the interview, peep the three Shat records I released, those are timeless. I like the Last Leaf EP from the Denver band, Moccasin. Also the Pyramid Wooden Apex tape, I think that’s online and features Ryan from Moccasin. The Gimme Skelter comp is pretty cool if you can find it. I think it’s kinda rare. But it features rare or exclusive tracks from Primal Scream, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Mudhoney, Pleasure Forever, Weezer, Le Tigre, Wire, and Shat. Iggy Pop and his band have a bunch of tracks on it, too. And the artwork is by Raymond Pettibone. Gangster, huh?

There’s is also a press copy out there that’s even better because The Captain from the Icarus Line is saying shit like “DONT DOWNLOAD!” over every song. I wish I still had a copy of that. Buddyhead Suicide comp is dope for the prank calls alone!

A grip of ssorted Buddyhead Records releases

Current projects I’m involved with:

Problemas

I just released three singles by Probemas, “Miss Lonely," “Psycho,” and “Spooki Babi." Also made music videos for all three tracks. Check her first single “Weed Sex TV," it’s awesome but I did not make the video. Lots brewing with her.

Joe Cardamone

Check out his mixtape, which is on streaming services and called Holy War, We also shot a short film called Holy War II as well as a bunch of music videos, the later you can find on AmericanPrimitive.org. He’s got a new record called Deep Fake coming out and nothing sounds like this, very excited and proud of my homie. 

Dreamhome

Joe recorded their record at the American Primitive studio, Valley Recording Co in Burbank. And Jacob and I have been making videos for them, we’re editing number two right now. It’s a pretty ideal creative relationship cuz they trust us and let us do whatever the fuck we want. And we all have fun doing it too.

Your personal Instagram is a veritable treasure trove of photography past and present. Has that always been a medium you’ve taken to? How does that fit into the melange of your art? 

Yeah, for as long as I can remember photography has been something I’ve been drawn to. And even when it hasn’t been my main focus professionally, I’ve still always had a camera in my hand where ever I go. I think it started as a defense mechanism so I didn’t have to talk to people as much. But it’s just always been something I’ve done since my dad gave me his Canon A-1 in 1991. And that camera is still my main camera today. From then on I just started documenting my friends and what was around me. At the time it was mainly skateboarding, but also the two or three punk bands in town and whenever few touring bands came to town.

Mark Lanegan in 2019. (Photo: Travis Keller)

I also got a video camera around the same time, taught myself how to edit on the local cable companies linear S-VHS editing system and put out a string of DIY skateboard videos that I sold outta my parents garage via mail order for $7. Back then it was just all about documenting or proving that you’d done something, in most cases it was pulling a trick but not always.

Photos and videos have always kinda gone hand in hand for me, the line separating them is mad blurry for me. One of my next projects is transferring 300+ hours of mini DV tapes I shot between 1997-2010 on tour with bands and during the years of Buddyhead, it’s a treasure trove of good shit like live shows, interviews and just plain ol’ tom foolery. Gonna be fun to relive a lot of that and release it into the world. It’s a fucking time capsule, I just hope they still work cuz if they do we got Cocksucker Blues Part 2 coming out.

Trent Reznor (Photo: Travis Keller)

Skateboarding is art. It was transformative for me and numerous peers, in that it created an entryway into other adjacent subcultures, namely punk rock. It has seemingly played a critical role in your life, as well. A great deal of your photography, though compositionally brilliant and accomplished, still retains the magic of the 90’s skate aesthetic. How’d it affect you and your artistic trajectory? What’s up with your current skateboarding endeavors? 

Yeah skateboarding was the connector for everything in my life. It’s how I got into photography and video, music and DIY culture. it’s always been a center point in my life, and has taught me a lot of life lessons. Like failures are as important as successes and if you keep trying you can do pretty much anything you much your mind too. I skateboard everyday, it keeps me young. Some days I’ll just cruise, other days I’ll skate some small ledges or bomb some hills in Koreatown or one of the many skate parks around my house in Boyle Heights. I keep it pretty chill tho, I try and remember my age [laughs].

Cedric Bixler-Zavala of At the Drive-In and the Mars Volta in 2000. (Photo: Travis Keller)

To be overly reductionist, American Primitive is an Art Collective, yeah? From what I gather, you seem to be involved with and do damn near everything. Give me a rundown of both its formation and current activity. What’s on the horizon for American Primitive?

Yep, It’s an art collective. Our headquarters is Joe’s recording studio in Burbank which also doubles as a production office for our videos and films as well as an editing bay in the green room. It’s a little factory. We are kinda at the intersection of music and film in that way. Our upcoming projects include a couple records as well as some videos/films from Skeleton Joe, some more Problemas music/videos, new Dreamhome, a short film we’ve been cooking up, I’ve got a couple zines coming soon, a pop up store downtown LA and a ton of other shit. 

American Primitive products

How can people keep up with you and your exhaustive amount of rad shit? 

AmericanPrimitive.org, and you can also follow me and Joe on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Pick up my two photo zines—Stay Alive and Past Lives—at this link.

Mr. Keller and friend in 2019. (Photo: Ollie Problemas)

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