Travis O’Neill and the Art of Rebellion

Like his beloved home country of Ireland, you might say musician Travis O’Neill is an island unto himself. There’s not much information about him. His personal webpage leads to an add for cheap car insurance and lists of local dentists. The wikipedia page devoted to Pipes and Pints, the punk group he fronts, waxes poetically about the previous singer and the band’s “true sound.” O’Neill is mentioned offhandedly in a final paragraph, “oh yeah, there’s a new singer,” clearly written by a fan girl of their first incarnation. But, as I dug deeper into the Prague music scene I’d been hearing whispers of his name. His was always dropped with hesitation, near reverence, like I was being clued in to man of a different calibre. “Don’t you know?” they would say.

We all know this is an era of documenting every last mundane moment of our please-don’t-let-people-think-I’m-boring lives. I can tell you exactly what my grade school classmate’s favorite burger is at Red Robin (whisky bbq cheese) #Yummy. I can name all the guy from IT’s kids (Addison, Marley, and Jackson). Thumbs up on that science fair project Marley! And look at that, Lori drank waaaay too much chardonnay on her Caribbean cruise! Laugh emoji. In an obnoxious era of documenting everything, O’Neill eschews over-sharing. He doesn’t have to. I was able to find videos from his rock/country/folk group Travis O’Neill and His Cardinal Sins and the well established punk band Pipes and Pints. The videos show a high-energy, cool as fuck looking frontman, crowds at his fingertips, growling and exposed. His energy explodes on stage. But, if the fans are getting so much from him, I have to wonder what’s left? Maybe nothing. Maybe away from the stage there is nothing but slices of metro pizza and Netflix binges. I thought of an off stage blobby jellyfish burning a hole through the couch cushions and it made me feel a bit better. Some of us couldn’t command a crowd if we were on fire. Men like O’Neill are on a completely different level. Their charisma spills out from them like lava and we, the lucky ones, the plain ones, get to bask in their energy and fantasize that we too can maybe, MAYBE reach their heights…right after we finish the last season of Peaky Blinders.

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O’Neill cuts an intimidating figure, and why he accepted an interview with me is still a mystery. We agreed to meet at Cafe 22 in the heart of Smíchov to talk his life and music and for me to find out what all the hubbub was about. He wasn’t hard to spot. O’Neill, lean, tattooed, with a low swept blonde mohican and thick rimmed glasses, made the rest of the room fade into dull grays and browns. I wondered aloud if he could go full-time just sitting in places making everyone around him look cooler. He was mid-meeting with another musician, quietly discussing an upcoming (TOP SECRET!) collaboration. I asked if I could get some quotes for car insurance.

For all my envy and fawning, there’s no secret to O’Neill’s success; good old-fashioned hard work. A champion boxer since the age of six, O’Neill learned a strong work ethic early. “If you’re lazy, you get hit. Work hard, you win.” His father was a huge influence. Whether pushed or inspired, young Travis followed in his dad’s footsteps to the ring. “I was actually a better boxer.” O’Neill smirks. I get the feeling this was probably a recurring playful jab in the the O’Neill household. The other massive influence in O’Neill’s life was music. Electrified by the sounds of Sabbath and the Sex Pistols, O’Neill began writing his own music at 13. He recounts those early years as ‘poetry and a guitar smash.’ He knew himself already.

Image Ivi Rebova

Like most people who never quite fit into their home towns, O’Neill knew the frustration of it all. The not quite fitting in. The ache of wanting to escape. The yearning to be with people who “get it”. For O’Neill, Black Flag, Bad Brains, and every band coming out of the DC punk scene got it. There’s a Czech joke that goes something like: A man is gathering slugs from his garden and placing them in a bucket. A neighbor looks over and says, “you need to put a lid on that bucket or the slugs will crawl out.” “No need,” says the gardener. “If one tries to crawl out, the others will pull him back in.” Welcome to life in a small town. The gravity can easily suck you back into the life already lived by your parents. Like slugs in a bucket. O’Neill faced pushback for wanting to get the hell out of Sligo. One teacher went so far as to quip, “you should learn to be a mechanic.” Why is it that rebels are always herded into the high school’s auto shop and not the college level English classes? These are the kids that have something to say. The observers. The bullshit detectors. Anyway, O’Neill left, his sights set on London and a career in music. Contrary to what was thought back home, success came early. Soon there were label signings, world tours, and establishing himself as one of the scenes most charismatic frontmen. He rode wave after wave of success for twelve memorable years, experiencing all that comes to rockstars, but not many mechanics.

Success of course leads to pressure from the label, success means inflating egos, success means there’s money to manage. Like a star collapsing in on itself, O’Neill felt the growing stagnation and wanted out. “It imploded,” he says. “We were well-known, but I was tired of being ‘that guy’”. So, with 70 songs in his pocket, O’Neill up and left, coming to Prague to drown out the ubiquitous noise and focus on what he does best; combining elements of multiple musical genres into a solid, conscious driven sound.

Travis O’Neill and His Cardinal Sins is one such group that captures O’Neill’s ability to blend country, rock, bluegrass, and folk. The music makes you think, “why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?” Songs like “Maggie’s Bones” and “Devil’s Shine” have the layered sound of groups like The Band, while the addition of fiddle and banjo are reminiscent of The Pogues. And then there’s O’Neill’s lyrics. His ability to tell a good story (which might just be part of being Irish) reminds you of Johnny Cash or Arlo Guthrie. It’s country without the dorkiness, folk without the pretentiousness, and rock without the isolation.

On the other side of the spectrum is O’Neill’s work with the massively popular, Pipes and Pints. This is where the story gets a little more nuanced. Remember when Sammy Hagar replaced David Lee Roth in Van Halen? The response from fans was decisive. Battle lines were drawn. Either you missed the flashy showmanship (and stretchy fabrics) of Roth, or you preferred the superior singing skills of Hagar. And, oh god, don’t get me started on AC/DC. With any regime change or shift in musical direction you’re going to hear the cliched line of “I liked their early stuff.” Frankly, that’s just lazy listening and demands musicians be automatons. These types of fans want what they’ve come to expect, period. “Bands I like must keep cranking out the things I like, or I will say they suck.” Huh. Sounds a lot like the record labels.

Images courtesy Travis O’Neill, Travis O’Neill and His Cardinal sins, and Pipes and Pints

It’s true Pipes and Pints sounded different than under the lead vocals of Psycho Mike. The first version of Pipes and Pints was something similar to groups like The Bouncing Souls or NOFX. Pipes and Pints’ driving power chords, shouty singing, and sing-along nature of choruses hit every proverbial punk nail on the head. The song “Criticized” from 2009’s ‘Until We Die’ is as close as you’ll get to the perfect punk anthem. But, along comes O’Neill in 2017 to take over frontman duties and there is a marked shift in style to the chagrin of some fans, the delight of others. He had to know he’d face criticism. He wasn’t asked to copy Psycho Mike’s singing style, or rely on previously released songs. The sound simply matured. People grow, as people do, otherwise you might as well have stayed in Sligo.

By 2018 the new line-up of Pipes and Pints released four singles, a standout being “Rebel in My Veins.” There’s the bagpipe, the sing along chorus, and the speeding drums, but there’s a whole different texture to O’Neill’s vocals. His voice resonates with the sound of a trained singer. He floats between notes as opposed to punching through them. Purists will say the new sound is only an echo of classic punk, but if a group wants to step outside the confines of one genre to see how it pairs with another, no one does it better than O’Neill. “Karma Killer” for instance rolls and pushes hard, embracing the burden of “death rock n roll and blues.” Yet, the underlying beat is straight rockabilly. You almost question yourself. Am I hearing what I’m hearing? Are they doing what I think they’re doing? Oh, and before I go on, I have to say it, the official video for “Karma Killer” is disturbing. Damn Tomáš Bláha (director), what are you trying to do to us? The star, Majkelina Cat, is simply gorgeous but hoo boy she’s scary! Like Dita Von Teese in a champagne glass filled with blood scary. The guy with the thing and guh-guh-guh? Nope. O’Neill could be singing Mary Had a Little Lamb but I’d be too busy hoping the poor bastard says his safe word to notice.

Back to my original question. If O’Neill were a pie chart, how would the pieces be split? 75% music, 35% everything else? Wait…math..whatever. Speaking to O’Neill it’s apparent there are no percentages, there is no division of energy. Every pie gets 100%, like a virtual Marie Callender’s. The music is one passion. The conviction is the other. O’Neill is defiantly straight edge. A movement begun by Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye, straight edge punks strive for maintaining a pure body and conscience by abstaining from drugs and alcohol. Many are vegetarian or vegan, the later O’Neill has embraced wholly. This all sounds rather kumbaya, but it is far from the case. Straight edge is just as hardcore as any other faction in punk, if not more so. I wouldn’t dare step foot into a straight edge mosh pit without wanting violent shoves and an elbow to the head. What sets straight edge apart is their diligence to the cause. O’Neill’s veganism is a huge part of his message with avid support of causes like The Save Movement and Sea Shepherd. He makes no apologies for drinking tea in a wine bar. Far from an over-zealous ideologue, O’Neill’s lives it. He’d live it whether we were watching or not. Of course we can’t take our eyes off him. O’Neill, the fierce and enigmatic frontman, the man who works an audience into an absolute frenzy, is at his core, humble. “I want to be as inspirational as I can,” he says. “I do this (the music, the veganism, the positive message) to connect.” In a time of recognition for nothing and me-me-me follow me on instagram, being genuine without jamming a fragile ego down your throat is a true act of rebellion.

You can find more information about O’Neill’s work as well as videos and tour dates:

Travis O’Neill and His Cardinal Sins

Pipes and Pints

Melinda King

Melinda King

Originally from the great state of Nebraska, Melinda King has been writing, acting, and raising a family in Prague for the last 13 years. Aside from that, she enjoys various Gen-X activities like drinking coffee, wearing cardigans, and quietly weeping during 25th-anniversary shows of bands she used to like.
About Melinda King 31 Articles
Originally from the great state of Nebraska, Melinda King has been writing, acting, and raising a family in Prague for the last 13 years. Aside from that, she enjoys various Gen-X activities like drinking coffee, wearing cardigans, and quietly weeping during 25th-anniversary shows of bands she used to like.