Travis: Return of the invisible band
Travis's singalong chart-toppers led the way from Britpop to Coldplay. Their frontman tells Elisa Bray why they've been out of sight for a while
Fran Healy, the frontman of Travis, one of Britain's most enduring popular bands and the pioneers of melodic indie, has had an eventful morning. En route from his Berlin home early this morning, the singer and songwriter left his passport behind at the airport. “A father was saying goodbye to his daughter, which made me cry,” he says, by way of explanation. “The past couple of days I've felt…” His eyes mist up. “I'm a father – my son is seven and he's so cool at the moment, so maybe it was that. Anyway. Nice to meet you.”
This clarifies how Travis are famously known as the nicest band around. This is despite their considerable fame; they were one of the biggest bands in the Nineties, headlining Glastonbury following their breakthrough, second, album The Man Who, the biggest-selling album of 1999. Their melodic indie paved a way out of Britpop for a raft of bands from Snow Patrol to Keane and Coldplay, whose Chris Martin called himself “a poor man’s Fran Healy”.
Now Travis are back with their much-anticipated first album in five years, Where You Stand, which they release later this summer. How have they remained so grounded, and so, well, nice? “We're Scottish ,” states 39-year-old Healy. “And Scottish people, we don't do that starry fame thing. It's very against something in our unwritten constitution: don't get above your station, so maybe that's the main thing. The title [of our third album] The Invisible Band came from the idea that our songs were all over the radio, but no one knew what we looked like.”
Part of the reason for their longevity is that Travis have always existed outside of fashion. When they started out, their goal was to write songs that would still be played in 25 years, and melody remains the heart of Travis. “God yeah, we've always been about the song. I think sometimes bands get in the way of the song. I started listening to The Band when they'd been split up for years; they were an invisible band. I aspire to be that.”
It has been suggested the reason for their absence is that the four-piece needed a break after the tour promoting their last album Ode to J. Smith left them tired and fed up, but Healy disagrees. “I think our state of mind was probably the best. We left at such a nice moment. I remember for the final tour we were in America and it was one of the best tours we ever had.”
By contrast, he says, when they boarded their separate flights, the break was to allow the bandmates to devote time to their young children. All are fathers – Healy to the aforementioned Clay with his wife, the German photographer Nora Kryst with whom he's lived in Berlin for the past five years, while in December bassist Dougie Payne had his second child with his wife, the actress Kelly Macdonald.
“We spent a couple of years being dads, and that's been amazing. We slammed it since 1997. We just decided, 'let's chill', because this moment when you have kids is really important – you'll never get it back. We're artists: we write songs and we perform. I think when you're in a band you're one of the emergency services… you see how happy it makes people feel. And, when you have kids, I like the idea that this is the most important project you'll ever do, the most important record you could ever write.”
His son hasn't yet taken to singing, but then it took his father a while to discover his musical path. Growing up in Glasgow, aside from winning a prize for singing aged seven, in a concert to celebrate Robert Burns, and a one-off singing role in a school play at 12, Healy didn't take it up until he was into his teens. Although he does have a childhood memory of visiting his aunt, and the adults investigating the sound of a radio coming from upstairs only to find the young Healy at his cousin's Bontempi organ. He was playing songs, chords included, despite no musical training and no music played in the home he shared with his mother (she separated from his lorry-driver father when Healy was young).
“I guess you just find what it is you like to do. I went to a Catholic school and the head teacher every week at hymn practice would say, 'he who sings prays twice', and I always remembered that.”
Travis formed from a band that guitarist Andy Dunlop founded, which drummer Neil Primrose had joined soon after. All from working-class Glasgow backgrounds, Healy auditioned to be their new singer in 1991 after being invited by Primrose (the drummer had poured him a pint), and joined the band when he enrolled at art school in Glasgow, and would later bring in his best friend and fellow art student Dougie Payne to play bass. In 1993, Healy quit art school to do Travis full-time.
Healy released his debut solo album Wreckorder in October 2010, featuring Paul McCartney as a guest bassist. It was McCartney who inspired him to become a vegetarian. Has he kept his pledge? “I eat fish now,” he admits. “But I'll kill you if you put that in the article because he'll come after me. I'm not very organised with my diet so when I was a total veggie about three years ago I didn't think I was getting the right things, so fish helps.”
It was on this tour, when he played with session musicians, that he missed his bandmates. Not that the band members felt bereft without Travis. “It's like switching off a switch,” states Healy. “You don't even think about the band. Nobody did, because we'd just spent so much time – almost too much – doing something, living in each other's pockets. I think all of us worried, 'will we still have our connection?', and it was immediately apparent, 'yes'. When you are with people for that amount of time – I met the guys when I was 18, and people you met when you were 18, no matter how old you get, you're always 18 with them.”
When they did decide to regroup, it was with some important changes in mind. While Healy had always been the band's songwriter, they all agreed that a more democratic approach would give the band its much-needed change in direction while continuing the ear-worm melodies which first brought them fame with “Driftwood” and “Why Does it Always Rain on Me?”.
“We'd definitely gotten to a point where the way we did it before needed to change. I did everything, I wrote all the songs, and I felt that maybe if we were going to continue we should do it differently, everyone get in the room together, everybody write. We spent a lot of time in the room jamming. When we got to the studio it was a little bit like, 'let's see what everyone's got'.” The result, Where You Stand, is brimming with melodic rock singles bolstered by jangling guitars and, something which you can't often say of a band known for the melancholic side of indie melodies, it is really quite uplifting.
With Healy in Berlin and the other three members scattered in Glasgow, Liverpool and Lancaster, they recorded the album with Swedish producer Michael Ilbert across several locations – in London, Norway, New York and Berlin, including on a sound desk on which Radiohead's OK Computer was recorded, as well as their own The Man Who. If there's one fear that Healy has about the band's seventh album, it's replicating the falsetto vocals live. This, it would seem, is the downside to sharing songwriting duties – the songs written by Payne require singing very high-pitched and very loud. This he achieved with a dip in Norway's chilly sea-water.
“I heard that adrenaline opens up your throat for five minutes. So I went into six or seven degree water for two minutes, and then ran back up the beach and got the notes. How am I going to do that on stage? I'm going to have to have a bath of ice.”
The democratic process allowed him to focus on his vocals. “I'd never done that because when I've been in the studio I've been in the control room all the time, over the producer, just watching everything, and I would be singing but I'd never be concentrating on it. For this album I was hardly ever in the control room and I was so much more relaxed than I ever was. I've sung my best things on this record. And maybe that's because I didn't have to worry about writing all the songs. And for the first time ever there are two songs where I'm not playing a guitar. I get to be a singer.”
Many of the songs are autobiographical; “Reminder” lists fatherly advice for Healy's son: “celebrate, don't be late, finish what's on your plate”; while “Moving”, written by Payne, is about the upheaval that accompanies being married to an actress. “Kelly's been going here, there and everywhere and just when they get settled down they've got to move again. It's about realising it's not where you are, it's who you're with, that's home. And I liked the moral to that.”
Travis may no longer be the million-selling band of the Nineties, and their performance at Glastonbury 2013 might not be as headliners, but their songs are as classic and enduring as ever. Does Healy miss those festival headline spots? “I never cared about it. Since we began we've always played every show like it was the last show we'd ever play. We play it like kids, just lose it. And it's so nice. Nice,” he repeats in mock horror. “I didn't say that!”
'Where You Stand' is out on 19 August on Red Telephone Box through Kobalt. The single “Where You Stand” is out on 10 June. Travis play Islington Assembly Hall in London on Thursday
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