Travis: When the going gets tough...

Once they were one of Britain's hottest bands, but Travis slipped out of the limelight after misfortune struck. Now, they tell Alexia Loundras, they're back - and out to prove that their success was no fluke
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The Independent Culture

Fran Healy is beaming, as are his bandmates, Dougie Payne, Andy Dunlop and Neil Primrose. The four-piece have just played a gig and are rushing on adrenaline. But it was not a festival set, or even an arena show. This gig was on a completely different scale, and the band had to displace a Big Issue-seller to play it: Travis have been busking.

Fran Healy is beaming, as are his bandmates, Dougie Payne, Andy Dunlop and Neil Primrose. The four-piece have just played a gig and are rushing on adrenaline. But it was not a festival set, or even an arena show. This gig was on a completely different scale, and the band had to displace a Big Issue-seller to play it: Travis have been busking.

But hang on, now. While the record industry may be licking the (real or imagined) wounds inflicted by internet downloads, Travis have not fallen on hard times. On the contrary, they seem to be doing all right. The band are in Sheffield, where in a few hours they'll play another packed-out, intimate show on their sold-out tour. And, 10 minutes ago, the band's laid-back street performance raised £240 for The Big Issue. Hemmed in by the swarming mob, Travis laughed, joked and aired their hits, encouraging the crowd to sing along. All around, mobile phones captured the moment. The lad next to me was beside himself: "Do you know who this is?" he shouted down his phone as the band tore into "Driftwood". "Travis - Travis are playing in the street!"

With two UK No 1 albums, eight million worldwide record sales, an Ivor Novello songwriting award and 15 hit singles under their belt, a free gig by one of the best-selling bands of the Nineties in the middle of the high street is a little unexpected. "At first no one believes it's us playing," says the bassist Payne later: "There was one guy in Newcastle who walked past going, 'They're not bad - they even look like them.' "

Travis claim they're not busking for the publicity - Healy says the surprise lo-fi show is about doing something "on the hoof and exciting" - but they are about to release a greatest-hits collection, Singles. Although it is a complete Travis retrospective, the band insist it's no parting salute. Nearly a decade after forming at art college in Glasgow in 1995, Travis say their ambitions are still right on track. "When we came down to London in 1996, we planned to make 12 albums: three sets of four, like a triptych," says Healy, before apologising for his band's art-school pretensions. "This singles collection represents the first four records - volume one."

Singles includes their debut single "All I Want to Do Is Rock" first released on the band's own Red Telephone Box label before they were snapped up by Independiente in 1996; the breakthrough hit "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?"; and "Flowers in the Window". It also features the darker numbers off last year's 12 Memories, but it manages to feel cohesive.

Travis agree: "It's like a family reunion, where songs from all our albums get to meet for the first time," says Healy, "And it's funny," adds Payne. " 'Tied to the Nineties', which we've never been keen on because we thought it was throwaway Britpop, really, turns out to be actually the most fun at the party!" But, more than that, Singles marks the end of a chapter, and reminds us that they nearly didn't make it this far.

Two years ago, the band almost collapsed under the weight of their own success. "Think of Travis as a potted plant," says Healy, sipping red wine from a plastic cup. "If it gets really, really big too quickly it becomes top-heavy and the stalk can no longer hold the plant. That's what happened to us." Travis didn't intend to be huge. Two years after their well-received but under-selling 1997 debut, Good Feeling, Travis released their follow-up, The Man Who, to mixed reviews. But it was a classic slow-burner and, 13 weeks after its release, became a No 1 album. Almost overnight, Travis went from being just another indie-band to the biggest group in the country - and tabloid fodder. Their songs undoubtedly struck a chord with the nation - but it takes more than a cracking album to make a band as big as Travis. While Healy claims that they were just lucky, Payne is closer to the truth: "As Mark Twain said, 'The harder I work, the better my luck gets.' And we worked our balls off."

Between 1998 and 2002, Travis toured constantly: "You've got to strike while the iron is hot," explains Healy. "You'd be daft if you had the energy to do it and you said, 'Nah, can't be bothered.'" Travis's third album, 2001's insipid The Invisible Band, was squeezed out in a bid to keep the band's momentum going and debuted at the top of the album charts. But Travis was running on empty. "Without realising, we were all drifting apart," says Payne. "We weren't communicating and at times you found yourself thinking, 'What's the point of this - what would life be like without the band?'"

They didn't have to wait long to get a taste of what that might be like. In the summer of 2002, their drummer, Primrose, dived into a swimming pool and broke three vertebrae in his neck, coming within millimetres of being paralysed. "I think our luckiest day was the day of Neil's accident," says Healy. Payne agrees: "It was like someone going, 'You think you don't want to be in this band, eh? Right then, we'll take it away.' That's when we realised that we really wanted to be in this band - together."

Shaken up, Travis retreated in on themselves. Says Payne: "Up until then, Travis had always been like a house with all the doors open to everyone. But after that, we stopped. It was like drawing the curtains and saying, 'I'm not coming out - I need a night off.'"

Travis re-emerged with 12 Memories, the band's darkest and most emotionally eloquent record to date, only to find they had faded from favour, usurped by Coldplay. Travis admit they're disappointed that 12 Memories didn't do better but, says Payne, "the most important thing about that record was that it was made at all."

Primrose's accident may have put Travis's priorities in perspective but their ambition has not been dampened. For starters Travis say they regret not having had the chance to enjoy the height of their fame more. "It was like being in the eye of a hurricane," says Healy. "All this madness was happening around us but in the middle of it, where we were, it was the quietest place of all." Shaking his head in disbelief, Payne says his abiding memory of Travis's first-ever arena show was losing a PlayStation tournament on the tour bus later that night. "If we've learnt one thing," says Payne, "it's to take a bit more time to look around. Appreciate what's happening when it's happening. We can't control how big we are, but I think we're ready to be as big as we were again."

But is it not conceivable that Travis have peaked? "If I thought we'd peaked, I'd stop," adds Healy convincingly. "If you don't think you can do any better, why would you keep trying? We started our band because we wanted to make the best record we could possibly make. I believe we've still not made our best record."

The band have already started working on their next album and can't wait to get back in the studio with their long-time producers Nigel Goodrich and Mike Hedges, and, for the first time, Brian Eno, whom Payne affectionately describes as a phenomenal and inspiring "musical accident". "Writing a great song is like an addiction," says Healy. "When you manage to write a song that's a bit special, it makes your hairs stand on end. For me, there's nothing that comes close to the moment when a song comes through."

Travis's confidence is genuine, but it's unlikely the band will ever re-scale the giddy heights they enjoyed with The Man Who. Still, their passion and vigour are undeniable; hence the busking and the tiny club dates. "These shows are like a test," says Dunlop. "We don't have the huge banks of lights and massive PAs to take the focus off us. We're relying on the euphoria of just getting up and doing it."

Now, as the band prepare to take to the tiny stage, Payne adds: "You don't judge a person by how they are when things are going their way. You judge them by how they are when things are going against them." And for that reason alone, Travis are a force to be reckoned with.

'Singles' is out on Monday on Independiente

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