INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Independent APRIL 26, 2007 - by Chris Mugan
TRAVIS: 'NOW I THINK WE'RE A PROPER BAND'
It's been three years since their last album, but Travis are back. Chris Mugan finds out what happened to the revitalised rockers.
For a band that has not released an album since 2003, Travis appear commendably unfazed. Especially since that record was 12 Memories, their first dour offering after three helpings of sunbeam-laden pop.
That last effort was shunned by many fans and sniped at by critics, though Singles, Travis's greatest hits, went on to show they retained significant support. Relevancy, though, relies on current material, so it is a sign of some confidence that the foursome lounge on comfy chairs in an elegant hotel suite.
Bassist Dougie Payne's only problem is that he has just returned from a promotional jaunt, only to find the utilities threatening to cut him off. Nor does frontman Fran Healy mind being asked for the umpteenth time about Chris Martin's accolade on a radio show in January that the band "invented" Coldplay.
"It was nice [he said that] because when The Man Who came out, a journalist told us it was commercial suicide and we thought we were fucked," he remembers, "But then something magical happened. It gave quiet bands a place to sell millions of albums. Maybe we were just the first to do it, or we had the courage."
With Coldplay in the public eye, the band are glad to be able to live in anonymity once more. "We sold six million copies of The Man Who, yet no one knew who we were," Healy continues. "I could still walk down the street, but then the fame started catching up on us. It's calmed down now and we're revitalised. I always wanted to be older and now I think we're a proper band."
Their fifth album sees the Glaswegian outfit back on familiar ground, with their trademark melancholy pop based on Healy 's musings on the minutiae of relationships. The Boy With No Name may contain nothing as insistent as Why Does It Always Rain On Me?, but that is only because their lyricist has matured enough to look at life in a less black and white manner.
"Really? Wow," he whispers when I put this to him. "Maybe I'm filling out the grey areas more, but a song has to be black and white to me." Travis albums reflect where Healy is at in life, so second album The Man Who is a break-up album, while its follow-up The Invisible Band reflects the start of the current relationship that he returns to here. "This is an album where I've been in love for ten years. When you first get into it, you have a honeymoon period, but now it's a bit more realistic."
So how did they lose their positivity? Problems set in at the height of their success with The Invisible Band, the record that gave us Sing and Flowers In The Window. Guitarist Andy Dunlop compares the butterfly nerves of last month's warm up gigs, freshened further with the inclusion of keyboardist Claes Bjorklund, to the constant grind of their first three albums.
"If you become an automaton and you don't feel those nerves, what's the point in doing it? You need to get back to reality and feel it all again."
"There was an accumulation of stuff," Payne adds, "By the end of touring The Invisible Band we were physically knackered and emotionally all over the place. The business side of things is relentless and squeezes you dry. We were coming out of that period and not really knowing each other. Then Neil [Primrose] had his accident."
Travis's drummer dived into a shallow swimming pool and broke his neck. Yet he made a near-miraculous recovery and five months later the band recorded 12 Memories, Payne explains. "We made it to prove we could still function as a band. It was weird because after Invisible we couldn't help but think, what would life be like without this? The accident was like somebody going, you don't want it, OK, I'll take it. It's a very different thing giving something away and having it taken from you."
Travis are keen to defend that problematic album. "It's a great record and we all really love it," Payne says politely but firmly. "It reflected the point where there was darkness coming from every angle and for Frannie it was a catharsis. We were turning thirty and we had to jettison a lot of negativity, it was almost like therapy."
So after 12 Memories, Travis took their well deserved break, a time to get back to "marriages, houses and births," as Payne puts it. Easier said then done, he admits. "At some point each one of us got nervous about being away and it was down to the other three to go, it's going to be fine."
At least Healy had enough to keep him occupied. His son Clay, the inspiration behind the album's title as it took so long to choose his name, was born last year. While My Eyes was written after he heard that his partner was pregnant.
"It's made me jettison the stuff that doesn't really matter," he says. "Though I'm sure being a dad will make more impact later on. He's just like a monkey at the moment, checking me out and sucking up every wee bit of information."
Not that Healy is the first Travis father. Dunlop has one kid while Primrose has two daughters. "I'm still catching up on my sleep," the drummer quips dryly.
Healy had also bought an apartment in New York, which even if he can't use much now he is bringing up a child here, provided a new space for him to write, as with New Amsterdam. This blatant stream of consciousness is a lyrical departure, though he is not sure what caused this new-found confidence. "New York is such a cool, confident city, but so many things have happened like having a kid, growing up a little bit and making astute decisions about how to make the album, it's all culminated in this record."
Before they embarked on song-writing, the band needed to rediscover their love of music. The answer to which, it seems, was a two-day session with Brian Eno. This was not to write songs, but to get their creative juices flowing.
"We had an amazing time," Payne gushes, in fantasy land as an avowed fan of another Eno collaborator, David Bowie. "He's a fantastic person to be with, really inspiring, a proper gentleman and an incredible force. It was a musical boot camp."
Conversation turns to Eno's infamous Oblique Strategies creativity-raising card set, which the Roxy Music founder did not have to hand, though he did write down adjectives on scraps of paper and ordered the band to play along in whatever style came up. This happened in November 2004, which suggests the recording of Boy has been tortuous, though nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, the band worked in intensive two-week sessions then went off to see friends and families.
"We were enjoying ourselves," Dunlop explains. "We would do three or four songs, then go off and listen to them. It wasn't about making an album, it was about making music. It felt like the early days when you wanted to get your first album right, so there wasn't any rush."
"You see all these bands flying past you - Arctic Monkeys, Keane, Snow Patrol - and you think, is there still going to be a space for us," Payne adds, "But as our writing and performances got better, we got the confidence to let it take it's own time."
Along the way, they had a series of "false stops", as the bass player puts it, where the band thought they had completed the record, but nagging doubts remained. "A couple of weeks you still can't sleep because that's not right and we still needed a few new songs."
"It was like a journey in the desert," Dunlop smiles. "One of us would suddenly go, I can't take it, we need to release a record. And everyone else would say, it's cool."
Despite avowed support for 12 Memories, the band felt compelled to return with a "strong" album and it is certainly their most varied, from the rocking Selfish Jean, which brings to mind the group's early, post-Oasis incarnation, to the intimate single Closer."We were just making songs and there was no grand plan," Dunlop shrugs. "The oldest songs we've lived with for three years and it's the first time we've had that since we started out."
That sense of playfulness relearned with Eno crops up on album opener 3 Times And You Lose, recorded in two brandy-fuelled sessions, and the spectral Out In Space, which Fran originally recorded in his New York flat, with a mike hanging out of a window to capture the sound of bins closing on Mercer Street.
For the frontman, it was a relief to write without feeling he had to match the great Travis anthems of the past. "When you live in the shadow of these massive songs, you forget they started out as tiny, wee things. So the pressure is to go and write the big song, but that's impossible. It's like asking someone to give birth to a fully grown person. It's up to fate and democracy whether it's going to the moon or not."
He admits to having a number that sounds like Simple Minds' On The Waterfront, which won't get a release any time soon. "I wrote a song called Trapped In The '80s in a really deep voice, but Ibrox can wait. Nigel [Godrich, their producer,] likes it, but I've got an inbuilt honesty chip that won't let me do that."
For Travis, then, it is the one-to-one relationship with the listener that is more important than swaying a huge mass of people. Such an outlook anchors the band, so while they can cajole celeb chum Ben Stiller to appear in the Closer video, you won't see them in the gossip mags any time soon. Travis remain the band of the people.
The Boy With No Name is out on Independiente on 7 May.