When music becomes embedded in your DNA, it’s nigh impossible to shake it from your life permanently.
From rising stardom to unspeakable tragedy, and all the nuances in between, Travis Tooke has continued to rebirth himself musically for over two decades.
Promising start, tragedy
In the early 1990s, while students at the University of Florida, Tooke and classmate Bill White bought a bass and guitar and began messing around. They added friend Jack Vigliatura on vocals and starting playing open mics. They decided to take the band more seriously and added drummer Jack Griego.
For Squirrels played their first show in August 1993, and immediately began touring and recording EPs. Following in the rising popularity of Southern alternative rock bands like the highly influential R.E.M. and the Seattle grunge scene, For Squirrels wrote exceptional grungy pop-rock that eventually caught the ears of major label Sony 550, which signed them in 1995.
Following their self-released debut, “Baypath Rd,” For Squirrels recorded their second album, “Example,” with producer Nick Launay (Talking Heads, Kate Bush). The album was set for an October 1995 release.
On Sept. 8, 1995, the group, with tour manager Tim Bender, was 50 miles south of Savannah on I-95, heading home to Florida after a show at the infamous CBGB club in New York. A tire on their equipment-laden van blew, flipping the vehicle over.
Vigliatura, 21, White, 23, and Bender, 23, all died. Tooke, 23, and Greigo, 28, survived. Their major label debut was two weeks from being released. Sony put the album out as planned, and the single “Mighty K.C.,” which was written about the death of Kurt Cobain, became a hit.
Tooke and Griego attempted to continue the project after the loss of half their band. Tooke moved up front to vocals and they played a few shows as For Squirrels and as Revolver. The band’s sound became heavier, drawing more from grunge than jangly mid-90s alt-rock. A year after the accident, they began playing under the name Subrosa. In 1997, they released the album “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” as Subrosa on Sony Records. It did well, but not well enough. In 2001, Subrosa ended.
Tooke shifted his focus, while never leaving music completely behind. His newest band, Helixglow, will play their Savannah debut with locals The Hypnotics.
Hypnotics guitarist Ty Thompson is a rabid For Squirrels fan. So much so, he tracked Tooke down at a show in Florida and introduced himself.
“In ‘95, that For Squirrels album came out,” Thompson said. “I was a big fan of music, but that was the first time that sonically, I was completely enthralled. I was aware of sound and tone suddenly. The guitar sounds, the drum sounds, all together with amazing songs. That record was it for me. Then they went through a lot.
“The dude got hit as hard as anyone I’ve ever heard getting hit and got back up two years later and realized a record under Subrosa. That record is unreal. What had happened if grunge had not been superseded by Creed and Limp Bizkit? That guy is an honest songwriter. He really knows how to play. He’s a really kind person and inspiring in a lot of ways.”
“Ty invited me on stage to do some songs with them when they came to Gainesville,” Tooke said. “I know him, only because he’s been a fan of For Squirrels and Subrosa for a long time. He came to a show and approached me after. I was like, OK, who’s this dude that’s looming over me and kind of dark. Is he going to jack my wallet? I talked to him and stuff.
“I was like, no, he’s kind of like me. He’s kind of a brooding figure, but I can tell he just loves music to death. When I saw him again at another show, I kept talking to him; he was kind of special. Not just a fan, but there was a connection there, a likeness. We were looking through the mirror at each other. We both had very similar traits and loves and passions. Ever since then, we’ve stayed connected. We’ve been friends ever since.”
Gone around the circle
In the subsequent years since Subrosa called it quits, Tooke has stayed involved in music, but kept it low-key. As he transitioned into a domestic life, his passion for music has never waned and finally, he decided it was time for a rebirth.
“I guess, like most people, you still have to stick with life,” Tooke said. “I have a job and a family and kids. I made sure I didn’t pursue only me in my life. I think at some point, I said to myself, I really miss playing out and really miss doing that part of me. That’s such an ingrained part of my identity. I started looking at myself in the mirror and said, why aren’t you playing out? It has been a damn long time.
"I think for whatever bygones that happened personally, that I don’t want to discuss, I’ve gone around the circle two full times and I am ready to try again.”
Helixglow, a combination of the words helix and glow, emerged from a Subrosa lyric. It’s connected to what makes us “shine,” Tooke explained.
“I was trying to think of a new way to bring out new material,” Tooke continued. “I keep trying to push forward. Even though I am getting older, I still have this sense that I want to keep rebirthing. It’s sort of a thing for me. It was the idea of coming up with a new band name. What makes you go round? The helix being sort of like we go round and round, and DNA, the double helix, the genetic code, what makes you, you. What makes you shine, or what does it for you, where does your power lie?”
Progress is paramount
Helixglow is finishing up their first album, currently a six-song EP. Their live sets consist of all-new tracks. Tooke doesn’t revisit For Squirrels or Subrosa material live. He rarely listens to it. While he is forever connected to his early musical life, progress has become paramount to his forward motion.
“I mean no disrespect to my former life and my friends, and I am always deeply connected to it,” Tooke said. “At the same time… I like to cherish it from the past, but it’s not necessarily something that I like to continue to revisit. I’ll always be grateful and humbled when people walk up to me and say, hey you were in that band For Squirrels, that was amazing, those songs were fantastic. I love to hear that. I don’t necessarily love myself in continuing to participate in what that is.”
Regardless of what band it is, or what era, Tooke is addicted to music and wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s actually a good addiction,” he says with a laugh. “I always need to muse. I always joke, you’re sick. Music is being sick with the muse. You’re musing over these things and you can’t stop that sickness, you can’t stop that fever."