Travis

Travis
Since forming in Glasgow during the ‘90s, Travis have seen their share of both highs and lows. The highs include their legendary appearance at Glastonbury in 1999 where the skies opened just after they began to play "Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” and winning a pair of Ivor Novello awards for songwriting, whereas their drummer Neil Primrose’s spinal cord injury during the band’s 2002 French tour was enough of a low that the band very nearly called it a day. They have just released their wonderful fifth album, The Boy With No Name, and singer Fran Healy took time out of their UK tour to talk to Exclaim! about the perils of success, paving the way for other melancholy bands and being one of the first bands to oppose the Iraq war.

For the uninitiated, who are Travis?
Travis are a band who are journeying in an old-school pioneering way, like people who used to go out and find new places. We want to find new melodies that you’ve never heard before that still sound like classics. You know, the kind of songs that once you’ve heard them a couple of times, you can’t get them out of your head. We don’t want to write pop songs that are like Take That or sugary bubblegum pop, but classic pop songs like the Rolling Stones — songs that are not afraid of melody or simplicity. So our records are generally very melodic and simplistic in the best way, and with lyrics that really try to say something and get at the emotion of a situation.

According to your band’s Wikipedia entry, one in eight households in the UK own a copy of The Man Who — true or false?
That’s true. Three million copies sold over here.

How does that kind of statistic make you feel?
I don’t know because it is all so abstract. I mean, I wonder what other kind of things that one in eight households own?

Have you thought about going up to eight different houses and testing it out?
[Laughs] I’m sure it would work because so many people stop me in the street and tell me that they played a song at their wedding or played us at their brother’s funeral and so on. I think that we write songs for moments in people’s lives, those pivotal times like weddings, births and conceptions.

That album represented the peak of the band’s popularity — did that kind of fame have a real effect on Travis?
It was kind of like a wrecking ball. It was like a tornado hitting your house and unless you tie down all your belongings, bits of it are ripped away from you. And it felt like such a freak thing — it happened completely out of the blue and we weren’t ready for it so it blew away a lot of those small ornaments that we didn’t box up. Our lives really did move and we were in the eye of the hurricane, blowing around, getting dizzy and looking at each other wondering what was going to happen. Then eventually, three years later it drops you off and you’re thinking, "Where the fuck are we?” and "Who the fuck are we?” It was scary and fantastic and it was like a moment from A Star Is Born or our Al Jolson moment from The Jazz Singer. It was like just something from a movie.

Did that change really happen overnight for the band?
Yes. We’d been playing as a band for three years and although we’d been chipping away at a dam by playing lots of shows and had released our first record but when it finally came, it happened overnight. It went from nobody knowing who we were to everyone knowing who we were and it really was a beautiful thing.

Your last album, 12 Memories, has become known as the band’s dark album. Any regrets about its tone?
It was a little dark and some people didn’t think that we had that in us. We really didn’t want to let commerce tell us what to do. And I don’t have any regrets because by that time, our drummer had broken his neck in an accident and I think there’s a perception change when something critical like that happens in a band’s career. I think we definitely went under for a while after that we were almost out of the business until he got better.

Do you think it was hard for the public to hear this side of the band?
I really don’t think so because the success of an album is dependent on so many things like whether we put the right singles out in the right order, so sometimes people just decide that they don’t like a particular song that they hear on the radio. These days, an album can be judged on the first single, so if you don’t choose the right song then you’re just screwed. So maybe our choice of singles wasn’t right, but I really don’t feel regretful about anything at all. I just love doing this and we’re so successful. We know what it feels like not to sell as many records as The Man Who or The Invisible Band because we already did that with our first album Good Feeling — it sold nothing. And I believe that you’ve got to be a real band and not give a fuck about the industry. You can’t just look at record sales and base success on that. I base it on expressing your emotions and your feelings at that time. When 12 Memories came out, we were the only band — the only band — who were saying "Fuck the war” and people couldn’t believe that Travis were the band saying that. The way I thought about it was that if even Travis were saying this then it must be wrong. I remember that Ed from Radiohead came up to me when we went to see some film. He took me aside at the end and said "I just wanted to say that what you guys did on your last record was so brave and so fucking cool and I thought I should tell you because I don’t think anyone has said it to you.” He was talking about when we did the MTV Europe awards and sang "Beautiful Occupation” with 100 naked protesters — it was a great expression of art and of what everyone was feeling at the time. Yet, I suppose, some people didn’t want to hear Travis tell them about the war but it was important for me to express what I thought. That’s what I think a good band has to do — they have to follow their feelings and not follow fashion. Only a fool follows fashion.

These days, the charts are filled with bands like Snow Patrol, Coldplay and Keane who have quite a lot in common with what Travis have been doing for years. Do you think the band was more influential than some people might admit?
When Travis came out, our record label for the most part wasn’t prepared for what was going to happen, and neither were we. We proved to the industry at large that that kind of music made any kind of business sense. They didn’t think that this kind of music could sell three million albums in the UK and when The Man Who was absolutely killing everything in sight, all the other record companies started to scramble. They were trying to work out what we were doing and why it was so big. Suddenly, this kind of more gentle, acoustic, emotional pop music was loved by millions of people and while it might not have influenced some of these other bands because they were already making music like this. It did show the industry that there was a giant, football pitch to play on and people were going to pay good money for this kind of product if you had it for sale. So all kinds of bands with a similar sound were getting signed. I think that Travis influenced the industry and opened doors for other bands. There were always melodic pop bands around and I remember distinctly when we did an interview with NME when we released The Man Who and afterwards the guy told us that the record was commercial suicide. So I was sitting there with my head in my hands after he left, thinking "Fuck. Shit. We’re fucked.” But we weren’t and things changed for us in just a couple of month’s time.

Do you see Travis as following on in a long line of melodic Scottish bands, like del Amitri and Teenage Fanclub? Is there something in the water in Glasgow that makes it happen?
[Laughs] I think that there’s definitely something about Celtic people, and that isn’t just Scotland. You go back thousands of years and the Egyptians were doffing their caps to the Celts because of their ingenuity and their artistic flair. So I think that Celts are just kind of wily and because of the bad weather they have lots of free time and don’t want to get bored — they need ways to pass their time, like music or television or tarmac or the Macintosh coat.

Was there a conscience effort to make the new album that was more like The Man Who or did it just turn out that way?
When you look at an album, you can’t help but think that a band meant to make it this way or that way. But I swear, and I’m saying this with my hand on my heart, that I never mean to do anything ever, it just comes out like that. So you have a song and you go into the studio and throw different bits of music at it. Some of them stick and then you bring in Nigel [Godrich, the album’s producer] and different people to help you out who want to change it this way and that way so by the end, you’ve got something as random as a song and then multiply that by 12 and the result is something you can no longer really control. The fact that this album perhaps has that melodic, hallmark sound of Travis is just one of those things. Even on 12 Memories there are melodic moments, but I was a bit bitter at that point and so it was more like a jagged pill that was hard to swallow, but I do love that record. In fact, there’s a song – "Love Will Come Through” – on that album, which is the most licensed Travis song. That song has been used in every movie and every television show, and for some reason everybody wants to use that song. So we’ll just get on with doing what we do because Travis has never been a band that follows fashion. We’re more interested in finding good melodies — someone’s got to do it.

What about the response to the new album by both critics and the public?
I never read any reviews, so I don’t know what they’ve been saying about it. I haven’t heard anything really bad but at the same time, it is more about how we feel about the songs and if by the end of recording a record on and off for about a year, the songs still sound as fresh as the day they were recorded then you’ve done a good job. Especially because by that time, you’ve listened to them hundreds of times and that’s the testament to maybe the fact that it’s a strong piece of work.

And what about your favourite songs on the new album?
There are a couple of songs I keep coming back to. One is "My Eyes” which is a song I wrote on the day that I found out we were going to have a baby. I was feeling that I really should try and write a song, and I was sitting in bed feeling very emotional about what was going to happen. And I think that you should always try to write when you are in an extreme moment, whether it’s happy or sad, or if it’s extremely hot or extremely cold. Just write when there are extreme conditions of some kind. So I went downstairs and wrote a song — I didn’t know what it was going to be about, I just wanted to write a song — and this song where I was looking into the future came out. I didn’t know what was going to happen then, but I was wishing that this little person, whoever they were, turned out to have some wisdom. It was a simple song, trying to capture something and weirdly enough, it has come to mean more to me now that I am a father than it did at the time when I was writing blindly about what it might be like.

And the other song? It’s "Battleships.” It was the last song that was written for the record, so it was very last minute. I had just had one of those nothing arguments with [my wife] Nora and it wasted so much time and energy. I wrote in my diary that relationships are like ships and you travel down a river while these ships just come and they go, and I wrote at the end how it was more like battleships. And I thought that that was a really nice premise for a song and so it just came out and it turned out great and made it onto the album.