Chiswick, west London, a large red sandstone building, home to the record company Independiente. It's hard not to notice, behind the reception desk, a wall of Polaroids, signed headshots of people who have worked here. Near the top row are the faces of four young men, their names marker-penned beneath: Fran, Andy, Dougie, Neil. They look carefree, confident, happy, anonymous. They could be post-room boys surprised by the camera while sneaking back from a lunchtime pint.
Standing in front of the Polaroids, looking for his own face, is Fran Healy, 29, singer with Travis, a man who has sold eight million albums since the picture was taken. His hair is long, a splurge of greying curls squished beneath a brown cord cap. He looks older, less kittenish, but still pleased with himself. "I maintain", he says, "that we are the luckiest band in the world."
It didn't look that way a year ago. Neil Primrose, the band's drummer, had dived into a hotel swimming pool in France, hitting his head on the bottom and breaking three bones in his neck. In hospital, he learnt that he had very similar injuries to those sustained by Christopher Reeve, the Superman actor, in 1995. The doctor's reaction was: "How on earth are you still walking?"
"It's quite a scary place to be when you can't feel your arms and legs," says Primrose now. "But the surgeon was amazing. He stuck it all back together again. I was on the kit straight away, bashing away for months, and it felt good. It still doesn't feel like it did before, but it's not going to. You have a trauma like that in your body and things change a little bit."
We reconvene in an upstairs room of Independiente. All beanbags, ornate cushions and swagged curtains, the room aims for a Satanic Majesties' Request vibe. "I'm really on edge," says the guitarist Andy Dunlop, taking off his mirrored sunglasses. "Whenever I'm in a place that is meant to be relaxing, it just makes me feel nervous."
Perhaps fittingly, then, the band have come to regard Primrose's accident as a positive thing. By the time it happened, Travis had been touring, recording and promoting almost non-stop for two and a half years. "We were running on empty," says Dunlop. Everyone is agreed that if Primrose hadn't regained the use of his arms, Travis would have been over, but, "The enforced hiatus gave us a perspective on what had happened before and what had to happen next," says Dougie Payne, the bassist.
The question for Travis, then, is what do these graduates of the fame academy do with their qualifications? The answer, it seems, is to save the world. Healy explains that Primrose's accident coincided with what Healy calls a "mad political awakening".
"I've felt there was something not quite right for the last year or so," he says. "It was weird. I remember about six months before September 11, I was going, 'Something outrageously heavy is going to happen.' And then I turn on the telly that day and this thing was happening and I was like, 'Is this what it was?' But I don't actually think it was. September 11 was the start of something. I have had the feeling for the past few weeks, ever since the war started, that it's not really my world any more. I think a lot of people feel that."
Travis went on the anti-war marches in London and Glasgow. "When you saw so many people marching, I don't think it was just about the war," says Dunlop. "I think people feel that the world is running out of our control. You don't feel in control of anything any more and I think that's why so many people came out. I don't think it was necessarily one direct statement. It was a lot of people confused and a bit scared."
Perhaps Travis are the perfect band for articulating this sort of general angst. After all, they specialise in music that sounds elegiac without ever being so downright sad as to make you want to rip your heart out. More, Travis have always dealt in non-specifics, which may be why so many people can relate to them. The very vagueness of their lyrics makes them settle in the mind like morning fog.
But the fog is lifting. The first evidence is "The Beautiful Occupation", released at the end of April as the lead track on the Hope CD, an anti-war song in which Healy attempts to shake himself out of his apathy. "I'm too cynical. I'm just sitting here. I'm just wasting my time/ Half a million civilians gonna die today," he sings. "Don't just stand there watching it happening." It is the first song of this sort we have heard from Travis. The suspicion is that it won't be the last.
"We do all the la-la-la stuff great," Healy shrugs, "but on the new record there isn't any of that because, man, we're living in such a fucked-up time at the moment."
While Travis's last album, The Invisible Band, was made in Los Angeles, the new one came together near the Mull of Kintyre, in a makeshift studio in Crear. It was begun, almost by accident, last November. The idea was to play some songs purely as an exercise in getting Primrose drumming again. But it quickly became apparent that this was the most creative and freeing recording experience of their career. After only two weeks, they had nine new songs.
"There was an informality about it because the place wasn't built to be a recording studio," says Payne. "It was this big open space with an incredible view of the Mull of Kintyre. We'd stumble out of bed and still be in our pyjamas four hours later."
It is rumoured that it marks a return to the rockier sound of early Travis rather than the mid-paced ballads that made their name. "I'm not sure if 'rocky' is the exact word I'd use," says Dunlop. "It's definitely more energetic than the last one. The Invisible Band was very subdued.This isn't."
"If anything," says Healy, "it's a cross between Good Feeling and The Man Who. There's something quite dynamic about it. Quite sexy."
They produced this themselves rather than working with Nigel Godrich. Does that mean it lacks his melancholy sheen? "It's got a different kind of sheen," says Primrose. "It's the metal plate in my neck that's worked with all the microphones and made it all sound different." Payne agrees. "It's the bionic drummer. That's what's done it."
The album is due for release in September, and the band are supremely confident about their new material. Travis are still very much in love with the idea of mass appeal - they are keen to have another crack at breaking America. All that's needed, they say, is that one song that the radio stations pick up - it's just that they now hope to take their audience down a more meaningful avenue. They're not even worried that their anti-war stance will have alienated any potential American audience. It might even liven up the tour, they decide.
"Personally, I love Travis," says Healy, summing up. "I think we're cool. We're cool in the way that my granda was cool - he was a brilliant guy, he was honest and he didn't give a fuck what anyone thought."
By permission of the 'Sunday Herald'