The Herald Sun MAY 24, 2007 - by Cameron Adams


Travis are back with an album they hope will restore their former glory...

Travis frontman Fran Healy is nothing if not a realist. He knows his band helped soften the face of rock music with their 1999 album The Man Who.

It was reviewed at the time as "commercial suicide". The public reversed any such notion.

Fuelled by singles Why Does it Always Rain On Me?, Driftwood and Writing To Reach You, The Man Who has sold more than three million copies in the UK.

It also opened the door for a legion of bands unafraid to show their emotional side, from Coldplay to Snow Patrol.

By the time they released their 2003 album 12 Memories, Travis realised there was a legion of bands making similar albums, so they tinkered with their sound.

12 Memories flopped. Even a singles collection failed to see Travis catch up with the bands they inspired.

Come 2007 and Healy has spent two years writing songs that he hopes will restore Travis to their former glory. The result is a new album, The Boy With No Name.

Healy is aware that he's in damage-control mode.

"Having taken that time out and that long to make a record has put us at a slight disadvantage," he says.

"It's like taking a pit stop and watching the other cars go past. It's been like Coldplay... zoom! Keane... zoom! Snow Patrol... zoom! Kasabian, Kaiser Chiefs, Arctic Monkeys... Zoom! Zoom! Zoom! And all while we're sitting around getting our tyres changed.

"But at the same time the advantage is we've had two and a half years to try and make a great record."

Healy has had a little help from his famous friends. Coldplay's Chris Martin is not only a musical colleague but he and Healy are also both rock dads. Martin's son, Moses, and Healy's son, Clay, were born about the same time and the two meet at each other's houses for rock crèches.

"We've had some lovely afternoons," Healy says. "Not many people have been through what we've both been through, so there's a real common ground. I guess it's like how women talk about childbirth because they've done it. We talk shop like doctors or mechanics would."

It was during one of those shop talk moments that Martin put a spin on The Boy With No Name.

Martin asked Healy to play him the album when it was almost finished. Healy did so, minus a song called Big Chair. Martin asked what other songs he had. Healy played him Big Chair.

"He said, 'That's fucking brilliant, why isn't it on the album?'," Healy says. "He's so blunt! He'll say 'That's shit'.

"So at the eleventh hour, our old rivals Coldplay helped out, I guess. He even helped me put the songs in order. Damn, I owe him now. Shit, I'm Coldplay's bitch!"

When Chris Martin played DJ for a day on colossal UK radio station Radio 1 early this year he slipped Big Chair into his set, long before Travis released it.

Martin also introduced the song by saying "Travis invented Coldplay". It was the kind of quote publicists dream of.

The statement is haunting Healy - in a Casper the Friendly Ghost way - as he promotes The Boy With No Name.

"That was really sweet of him," Healy says. "Radiohead and Oasis invented Travis. Travis and Radiohead invented Coldplay. Coldplay and Travis invented Keane. Keane and Coldplay invented Snow Patrol. It's that rock family tree.

"When Coldplay were writing, Yellow, Why Does it Always Rain on Me? was sparkling on the radio. When you're the doorman of a certain type of music, which I think we were (on) that mainstream acoustic ballad rock, you can sometimes get overlooked. So it was nice of Chris to say that."

Travis's critics sharpened their knives once Coldplay cracked America, a place Travis have only slightly dented.

Some suggested Healy would be bitter that Martin had overtaken him. Others argued that it wouldn't register.

"I didn't want what they wanted," Healy says. "Chris wanted to be the biggest band in the world. I wanted to be the best band in the world. It's very different.

"Being the biggest band in the world is achievable; you've just got to create the right album to do that. Chris wrote A Rush of Blood To The Head to play Glastonbury, he wrote X&Y to play those big giant sheds in America. That's cool. But I can't do that. I don't want to do that.

"These songs sit in your headphones while you're on the train, one to one. I wrote the songs in my bedroom by myself, so when you listen to them by yourself, those songs have resonance.

"To me, the best bands stay true to themselves. We took a right pounding on the last record (12 Memories). We felt we had to change our sound because we'd make an album that would sound like everyone else. It'd sell but it'd just be another acoustic rock album."

It wasn't just Coldplay who noticed the impact Travis had on the masses. Healy remembers Snow Patrol supporting Travis while they were touring The Man Who.

"They were a little punk band," Healy says. "When we did the first two gigs for 12 Memories they were coming out with Run. They went on before us at a festival and I remember going, 'I didn't know you could sing' (to Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody).

"NME said The Man Who was commercial suicide because no one was making albums like that then. But we got away with it. We were selling like three million albums, which is mental. And record companies were looking to sign bands that sounded like Travis, like they did trying to find bands who sound like the Strokes."

Healy says guitar-free trio Keane were the first band to admit they were Travis fans.

"Travis are like a guilty pleasure," he says. "I know we're not a band people wear on their sleeves that they love, but we're a band people think of fondly. Someone like the Strokes are just cool. They're cool people. They'd be cool even if they weren't doing music.

"We're cool in a different way. Whatever it is we are, I've come to terms with. I'm comfortable in my own skin. We're a pop band with slightly left-of-centre lyrics. We know the territory better than anyone."

Healy looks back on 12 Memories as a necessary part of the musical arc.

"We had to go away to come back. That was literally a therapy session. I'm quite melancholic at the best of times. I was a depressed eleven-year-old!"

He had an early indication 12 Memories would struggle.

The lead single, Re-Offender, detailed domestic abuse. Second single The Beautiful Occupation was a statement on war.

"Radio 1 played Re-Offender for the first time and they said, 'Here's Travis's new single, it's about being trapped in a brutal relationship', and I remember thinking, 'I wouldn't buy that'. It was a sombre year; that album reflects that year completely. I had Ed from Radiohead thank me for doing The Beautiful Occupation at the MTV Europe awards.

"I thought we'd sell fifty million. It didn't do anything. I'm quite philosophical."

He now realises the band were "long overdue" for a backlash.

"People would come up to me in the street and say 'when's your album out?'" Healy recalls. "It was out! Nowadays it's hard because if you have a down album people go 'They're dead!'

"Bono said to me one day, when we were talking about their album Pop, which didn't sell as well as their others, that an actor friend told him, 'They didn't like that movie. Just do another movie. They like you, they just don't like that movie'. That's true. We did an arthouse dark movie. Now we're back with ET!"

The Boy With No Name nearly took another arthouse twist. When thinking of producers, Healy went to the last name on his wish-list - Brian Eno, the experimental genius behind some of U2's finest work.

Travis and Eno worked together for several days.

"We realised it was interesting music, but I'm the songwriter and I've got to take control. I'd wandered away with 12 Memories. Eno swung me back into realising I had to write songs with melodies people haven't heard before."

Eno's methods have been politely described as unusual. Healy laughs at the memories.

"He'd say, 'Write a descriptive word to describe music'. We'd write sixty cards, he'd pull two out from a bag and say, 'Dark, metallic. Go and play an instrument you don't usually play in that style'.

"One time he said, 'Imagine you're in a space station off the planet Earth and Earth has died and you have to write a song about being homesick for your planet'. We sat there going 'Er...' It was an experience. I can phone Brian Eno up now!"

Somewhere Chris Martin and Coldplay are diving into bags as Brian Eno produces their next album.

"The thing they've done, which we didn't do, is they've got songs," Healy says. "I thought we'd just jam and get someone to put all the jams together, which is what U2 do. They do it really well. I can't do that."

The Boy With No Name refers - not so cryptically - to Healy and wife Nora struggling to christen their son.

"We thought we were having a girl we'd call Matilda," he says. "Then Clay came out. For four weeks he didn't have a name, we were online and looking in books and Clay was one we saw first.

"I like it because it reminds you that he's so malleable at this age. I've got to keep in the back of my mind that this is a person you could totally fuck up.

"It's like soft clay, when you get to seven or eight it gets hard and you can't go back and change that. I'm very wary of that."

The album's first single, Closer, features Ben Stiller in the video. Stiller is a massive Travis fan.

"He and his wife came to a show and I saw him sing every word to every song," Healy says.

Stiller dropped into the studio when the band were recording, adding cowbells to a track that didn't make the album. It was "too heavy, it's for another day," Healy says. So Stiller settled for a video cameo.

"I phoned the director and said, 'I've asked Ben Stiller to be in the video and he's keen, is that OK?' He went 'Er, yes!'"

While the album traverses climactic musical territory, Closer is classic Travis, which is why Healy wanted it to introduce the album.

"We had our fingers burnt on the last album," Healy says. "I wanted a song that said 'It's not Keane! It's not Coldplay! It's Travis! The doormen! The originals!'."