Travis Pryor bought John’s Auto Repair in Whitehorse 17 years ago. He was only 23 at the time, young for someone to make the jump from employee to employer. But maintaining motor vehicles—domestic and foreign, with German cars a specialty—has been the focus of Pryor’s working life ever since. He’s having a good run, too.
Then there’s the Travis Pryor, who local music fans will know as the front man for the Velvet Steamrollers, a four-piece band that—COVID-19 restrictions aside—enjoys bookings at local venues, community events, and parties. The band is also often on the line-up at festivals such as the Yukon Rendezvous in Whitehorse and the Farrago Music Festival in Faro, where Pryor grew up after his family moved north from Newfoundland. It’s a bit of a step, going from under the hood to under the stage lights, but it suits Pryor. The Velvet Steamrollers give him a chance to charge his battery.
How would you describe The Velvet Steamrollers? We’re a high-energy rock band that plays music from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. We’re pretty active on stage and try to get the crowd involved. It’s fun because I’m with a bunch of really talented guys. They’re really, really good, so it makes my job a lot easier. When you’ve got a really good band behind you as a singer, you sound better, too.
Who else is in the band and how did you get together? We have Clint Watson on guitar and Adam Cripps on bass. Willy Ben is the drummer. We met through music, just playing with other bands and through other musicians we knew. We’ve probably known each other for 20 years. When we finally got together, it turned into something.
Take us back a little bit. How did you first get into singing? Just playing around the campfire when I was growing up in Faro. Everybody always had a guitar, and we were always playing, at parties or wherever we got together. We’d pass the guitar around. I just kept rolling from there. I had pretty big stage fright when I first started playing in front of crowds. But you get confidence with a bit of experience. Then it just becomes fun.
How long did that take? I’d say I was timid in front of crowds until I got with the Steamrollers. Around the campfire, not so much.
Were you in bands before the Steamrollers? Oh yeah. I was in a few bands before that. We had a band in Faro and played at the Farrago Music Festival, like in 2002. We opened up for Doug and The Slugs. That was kind of my first big gig. There was 500 or 600 people.
Do you come from a musical family? No. No one in my family is really musically inclined, besides my grandfather. He played the accordion, but that was the only thing. But the first time I heard the accordion, my ears lit up. I remember hearing that when I was a kid and going, ‘Holy hell, what is that!’ My grandfather would break out his accordion when everyone was around for dinner or whatever. The house would go crazy. Everybody would dance around like a bunch of lunatics.
Looking back, what are your most memorable shows? I just find it’s nice when the crowd is completely involved. Once you get the crowd involved, like a big crowd, you’ve got everyone’s attention. I look around the stage at all the boys and everybody’s having as much fun as I am. It’s like we’re in a big bubble up there.
But memorable shows? Well, we threw a party back in September at my shop just outside Whitehorse. Oh, man, that night. It went down to like minus-25. We played inside my big workshop with the doors open so people could see us. We had the woodstove going for heat and the smoke machine billowing away. We could play for about 12 minutes, then the guitars would go out of tune. We built three bonfires on the driveway to help people stay warm. We knew it was going to be cool that night, but we didn’t expect minus-25, I tell you.
You were young when you bought John’s Auto. How did that come about? I was about 20 when I went to work for the original owner. He asked me if I’d be interested in buying the business. I said that was always kind of my goal. So, he said I should work with him for a few years. When I was 23, he said “Okay, let’s do it,” and I bought him out. I’m pretty sure they weren’t expecting me to make it at the time, but I like to prove the naysayers wrong. I paid him off in about five years. Then I financed the business again to build a shop on my own property, a big shop with four bays. We’ve been here for 10 or 11 years now.
How does music fit in with your business life? At work, I order all the parts and pick them up. I take payments and I look after the business side of things. I do it all, from the top to the bottom. I manage the guys in the back and I do the work, too. So, there’s not much time left for things after that, besides sleep. Also, my business is called John’s Auto. So, when I’m at the shop, I’m John. When I get to play, I get to be me.