While the phrase “Marsupial Lion” may conjure up images of a futuristic cross-breeding experiment gone wrong, Ithaca-based musician Travis Jonathan is quickly shaping the notion into something significantly less concerning yet equally cutting-edge. His debut album, Juvenilia, dropped this July. The vibe is easygoing yet exhilarating, carefully calculated but not complacent. For listeners craving something jammable and contemplative with psychedelic undercurrents, the nine track collection hits all three for the price of one.
While Ithaca is his current habit, Jonathan originally hails from a small town just outside of Concord, New Hampshire. It was there that his affinity for music began to reveal itself, first through the drums and later, the guitar. From jazz ensembles to musicals to garage bands, Jonathan’s adolescence was a time of critical gestation for what would quickly develop into a wholehearted and unapologetic quest to make sense of the world through music. Even at a young age, music acted as “the gravitational force in [his] social life,” providing a different type of language with which he could make connections.
He forged one such tie around the age of 10 with a neighborhood playmate named Parker Tichko. Jonathan was a self-described “indie rock kid” in his university years, yet Tichko incited an indelible shift in his musical conception by introducing him to synthesizers. The two quickly unearthed a special type of synergy that is at the heart of Juvenilia, with Tichko thoughtfully composing synth layers and Jonathan spearheading the vocals and guitar.
Jonathan has coined the term “riffwave” to describe the genre into which this music falls. It spans “the bite of huge guitar riffs with the swirling softness of synthesizers,” constituting something that isn’t quite synthpop, yet isn’t exactly indietronica either. Marsupial Lion fills the gap between overly chill bedroom pop and new age alternative, harnessing a sound that feels as genuine as it is unique.
Marsupial Lion, the project’s undoubtedly peculiar name, arises from none other than Australian folklore. The “drop bear” is a mythic creature used to frighten tourists Down Under, a sort of terrifyingly aggressive koala that surprises innocent pedestrians by plummeting from the trees. Jonathan, understandably intrigued, did some digging into the legend’s history and stumbled across the legend’s precursor. The “drop bear” was supposedly born out of the history of a real animal even more harrowing — the marsupial lion.
Jonathan points out that the name encapsulates an essential sense of duality. While koalas and kangaroos are our textbook marsupials, “neither of these creatures are exactly threatening.” On the other hand, though, “The lion is this symbol of power. To me that combination is perfectly symbolic of everything I love about music … It’s the aggressiveness of the electric guitar juxtaposed against the tenderness of a really sensitive vocal melody,” he said, pointing to artists like Tame Impala and Cocteau Twins. “I love dualities in music.”
Jonathan’s musical inspirations know no bounds, ranging from the lulling reggae waves of John Brown’s Body to the unmistakable guitar shreds of Swedish rock group Dungen. Take a look at the “Making Juvenilia” playlist and you’ll find artists like Chaka Khan, The Smashing Pumpkins and Miguel all in the same breath. Jonathan notes the 1980s, however, as a period of particularly notable glory. “There’s something … really beautiful about the exploration of synthesizers with rock music that was going on,” he said. “A lot of this music wouldn’t even be construed as rock music; when you combined drum machines, synthesizers and guitars … you got something new and exciting.”
Juvenilia lies at the intersection between reflection about the past and a passionate meditation on how technology is brazenly carving out the future. Jonathan noted that deriving inspiration from the past is a “very natural and reflexive impulse for most creators … From there, it’s just a matter of how far back you reach, and how personal you want to get.”
Technology, however, is certainly a less popular topic to zero in on, and this individuality is much of what makes the album so poignant. Countless advancements have stranded us in a place of “constant negotiation between leaning on [them] when [they] make doing the things we love easier, while staying vigilant against the ubiquitous platforms wired to usurp and belittle human agency.” Juvenilia serves to remind us that “we are in the infancy of reckoning with these forces … I’m thinking especially about the monetization of the intangible … and the staggeringly uneven economic spoils of big tech.”
Jonathan is reluctant to pick a favorite track, yet his enthusiasm for the project is undoubtedly clear. “My favorite thing about [Juvenilia] is how many moments still give me the chills I was chasing when it came together,” he said.
While Marsupial Lion is currently celebrating this major milestone, the future is far from out of mind. “There’s more music on the horizon,” Jonathan said, with a couple dozen tracks still in the works. “There are types of sounds I’m eager to explore and combine with other sounds.” In the current moment where concerts are largely on hold, he’s excited by the challenge of “performing the music in a capacity that fits within pandemic constraints.”
At its core, Juvenilia is a record of musing. It’s electric and eclectic. The album tracks themes of speculation, amalgamation and epiphany through technology’s critical lens, inviting the listener into a parallel world of their own rumination.
Megan Pontin is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected]