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January 27, 2023

Cowboy clairvoyant

With a thick VR headset strapped to his forehead, electronic musician Travis Cook speaks with CityMag about his most recent “purge” – the incendiary 24-track album 'The Prodigy'.

  • Words: Angela Skujins
  • Pictures: Jonno Revanche

“The future of music is exciting,” Travis Cook says while walking down a pixelated, dilapidated Eastern European neighbourhood. Artificial pigeons fly into the sunset. Travis smiles. We assume he’s thinking of the question we just asked: What’s on the horizon for music? “No one knows the rules anymore,” he says.

Travis is not in Eastern Europe irl. The producer, and one half of electro-pop duo Collarbones, is in Adelaide. He’s wearing a dorky virtual reality headset over his eyes, giving him visions of faraway places. The musician, wearing a trademark slime green track jacket and chunky sneakers, joins CityMag at Virtual Reality Adelaide on Grenfell Street, where we’re swatting away digital projectiles and discussing his latest album, The Prodigy.

Immersing Travis in this fabricated, fantastical world felt fitting. The producer’s music transports listeners through time and space.

The Prodigy is a sonic collage, littered with sentimental chopped and screwed hooks sitting on a bed of jagged, breakneck production. It’s a maddening mosaic of archival material, cut up and stitched back together with experimental electronica as the glue. It’s a simulacrum of a retro-future.

The heater ‘whipped’ is an obvious fleece of Willow Smith’s 2010 oddity, ‘Whip My Hair’. But then there are songs like ‘alfalfa’, a synth-heavy instrumental cavalcade suitable for a Marie Antionette march (pre-revolution and guillotine). Then there’s the smattering of slow, glitchy trip-hop and acid house tracks, like ‘intelligent_dance_music’ and ‘grace’, which feature stunning recurring motifs fit for a David Cronenberg science fiction flick.

Travis says the remix-heavy bangers are the skeleton of the album, the ambient interludes being the fat around the muscle. And while he explores a lot of 2000s pop through the more driven songs, even diving into the ’80s by snatching a Prefab Sprout hook, he doesn’t want his music to only be nostalgic. “I’m always wanting to mix the references up so I’m not grabbing from one place,” Travis says. “And I like nostalgia, but I also don’t want to be stuck in it – so I have to balance it with something.”

On his computer at home, Travis usually works by first flogging a sonic theme, such as a Britney Spears a capella, and then moving on to the next thing once he gets bored. “Like t.A.T.u,” he says, referencing The Prodigy’s turbo-charged single ‘guardian_angel’, featuring a slashed and cranked-up riff from the early-noughties Russian duo’s ‘Not Gonna Get Us’.

The ambient songs serve a different purpose. Travis has completed film studies and has a love of cinema. He’s attracted to building scores, with The Prodigy’s ‘slowdeath’ – a downtempo dirge, rich with choral singing and bouncy synthesisers – serving as what could be the foundation for a dramatic stage or screen production. “I want to do something that’s a bit unexpected, so throw people off a little bit but in an interesting way,” he says.

The rapid rate at which Travis produces his songs is why he refers to releasing music as a “purge”. Standing in the black-carpeted virtual reality zone, he says if he didn’t rid himself of the work, it would become a burden. “And I would just be so overwhelmed, and I would never release anything, and we wouldn’t have this discussion,” he says, slicing through a pixelated pineapple.

Travis IRL


Travis estimates he has 70 unreleased songs currently sitting on his laptop. But trying to make innovative music, he says, means if he sits on a release he risks “every one sounding like that”.

Though he treats his music seriously, Travis doesn’t take himself too seriously. In prior interviews with ill-prepared journalists, as the talking head for Collarbones, the producer would serve searing, sarcastic answers in response to inane questions. (He recalls someone once asked him what his favourite website was.)

The name of the album, The Prodigy, is also tongue-in-cheek. Rather than a statement of arrogance, it’s Travis playing at being arrogant. “My album titles are inside jokes with myself,” he says, his smile widening. “The first album was called mastered and it wasn’t mastered. It was a joke, like I’d mastered my craft.”

This playfulness spreads to the tracks themselves, with songs like ‘back_of_the_truck’, which reworks a fiery lyrical lick from Michete’s 2020 song ‘Back of the Truck’. The refrain is ribald, rough and repetitive – the kind of sleazy, in-your-face fun found on an LSDXOXO single.

“I do want to be taken seriously,” Travis says, “but it’s boring to be overly serious. There’s nothing less I want to be than the middling laptop guy who doesn’t provoke any kind of reaction whatsoever.”

Collarbones, his musical project with Sydney-based vocalist Marcus Whale, leans aesthetically on memes and jokes for press and marketing material. “We make a bit of a joke out of ourselves,” Travis says. “And I did do some stand-up [comedy] a few years ago – and that was a good outlet but… being a comedian doesn’t appeal to me if I can do that through other things.”

Playfulness is deeply rooted in Travis’ personality, and it’s also what draws him towards experimental electronica. “I’m impatient for what’s next,” he says, “and I don’t want to just sit on my laurels and stagnate.” He started learning classical guitar at age five, moved to electric guitar at nine, and dropped the instrument entirely at 13. “I got bored,” he says. “It just felt limited. The intellectualising and learning to read music didn’t appeal to me, and I wasn’t so good at reading music.”

His creative world opened up as the internet became a place to hang out. “I was going online more and these certain musical floodgates opened,” he says. “I got exposed to a lot.” He spent hours pirating music and trawling forums – which is how he e-met Marcus.

Some of this influence comes out in Collarbones (he says Marcus often claims his most “palatable” tracks), but in his solo work, as seen on The Prodigy, he is the internet personified – a referential, reverential combustion of sometimes clashing, sometimes harmonising culture.

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