Hitting their stride in the late ’90s, Scottish four-piece Travis is often depicted as the first of a new wave of British bands to follow once the fervor surrounding Brit-pop earlier in the decade had died and left a lull in its wake. But while they may have shared some of their peers’ penchant for instantly fetching melodies, the band separated itself from the pack by loading their songs with greater emotional weight while managing to avoid being melodramatic at the same time. Albums like their breakthrough The Man Who (1999) and the subsequent The Invisible Band (2001) found principal songwriter and singer Fran Healy wearing his heart on his sleeve, and such sentimentality seemed to resonate, with those records selling millions of copies in Britain and only slightly smaller numbers elsewhere.
In the subsequent decade and a half, Travis’ music has branched off in different directions as the members have aged and their interests and influences evolved. But the core of what it does has remained relatively the same: impassioned songs imbued with an innate melodicism. Travis’ latest album, Everything At Once (Caroline Records), reveals a band that is older and seemingly more content than its younger restless self, veering between bright-eyed cheeriness (“Magnificent Time”) and being decidedly resolute (“3 Miles High”). In many ways, it is exactly what you’d hope for some 20 years into the band’s career. I caught up with Healy, who was on his way to a show in Birmingham, England, to chat about the here and now and the there and then.
I read an interview where you were going through each record and using an analogy of either facing your audience and showing your true selves or having your backs to the audience and being more cloaked. How would you characterize this record using that analogy?
Fran Healy: We always write our songs with our backs to the business. It was a risky thing to sign a band like us when we first started because we didn’t really sound like anything. I wasn’t a big music listener as a kid. I was an only child sitting at the end of his bed trying to find nice melodies to string together and write a couple of songs about the things I was thinking about. And that’s still the way we do it. That’s really good in the sense that you’re never in fashion. But then going against you, you’re never in fashion! So you’re always on the periphery, and it can be difficult to get any airtime for your songs. This record was done exactly the same, but thankfully in the UK, the radio is hammering it at the moment, which is fucking amazing! You look at the radio chart and it doesn’t fit at all. Urban music is huge just now, and guitar music is on the periphery.
I read another interview in The Quietus—I read a lot in preparation for talking with you—and the guy was saying that you are perceived as being nice with the connotation of being…
I guess you could put it that way. Do you think there’s the same perspective in America?
FH: I couldn’t honestly say. It’s a quite strange phenomenon in Britain because we’re so different from that. I find it really bizarre when I see that perspective of our group. We all went to art school—we’re a proper art school band! As people, if you went out for a drink with us, I think you’d think we’re a nice bunch of guys, but the idea has stuck in way that’s not good. It’s a weird one. Maybe it’s because we became so fucking huge in Britain—we sold four million copies of one album—the airways were saturated by it. And we did it without permission, because all of the reviews of that album (The Man Who) were shit as well. We’ve never really been a critics’ band, and we’ve been paying for it ever since. But it’s an odd thing because we’re so different in reality from this idea. And the guy who wrote that, who I’m good friends with now because he lives in Berlin, he finds it odd as well. But you can’t do anything about it.
Over here, The Man Who was really our introduction to you. We really didn’t hear the first record…
FH: Yeah, we didn’t become huge in America with The Man Who and The Invisible Band. We didn’t become the housewife’s favorite band. We remained a band playing medium-size venues. Like 10 years later, I’d be talking to someone at a party in Brooklyn or LA or wherever, and they’d ask me what I do, and I’d say I was in a band and tell them the name of the band, they’d gush and be like, “Oh my God, you’re in Travis!” And it was nice because I always thought everyone had the same opinion of us. But it’s different in America, and I think a lot of that has to do with mainstream success. Once something gets massive, it just has to be shit because that’s what most massive things are.
The first time I ever saw you play was opening for Oasis and I remember how much rougher and louder you were than the record.
FH: That was a good tour. Every night, we’d go on and try to blow them off the stage, and I think we managed to do that a couple times.
I think you did that in Columbus, actually.
FH: Yeah, there’s us on record, and then there’s us live. I think this new record is the closest we’ve gotten to that live thing where it’s a little bit loose, but a little bit tight. Generally, when we play live, it’s always heavier and rougher around the edges. And it’s more interesting. I think live is always more interesting than records unless you’re John Cale.
Well, when I saw you at Webster Hall a few years ago, I thought it was a bit more dynamic. Did it take awhile before you were comfortable not just rocking out live?
FH: At the moment, we just started this tour, and we’re trying to settle on the setlist. At the second show in Manchester, I noticed that it wasn’t moving it in the right way. I remember really enjoying playing that set at Webster Hall because it had ups and downs and darks and lights. This set so far is less dynamic and we need to chip away at it and add some moments where it calms down a bit and feels like it has a proper pulse and isn’t just hammering you over the head with high energy. Well, as much high energy as a band of 42-year-olds can muster! It’s funny we’ll be onstage and I’ll think, “Wow, we should be in bed by now!” But we’re not, and it feels good!
You recorded the album at Hansa Studios in Berlin, and of course, everyone thinks of Bowie when they think of that studio. Did he figure into your thinking when deciding to record there? This is the first album you’ve recorded there, right?
FH: We did a few days at Hansa at the end of making the last record, Where You Stand. You’ve got two studios at Hansa, and the main one isn’t where Bowie recorded all that stuff. There were a few others when he recorded, and the only one that’s left is on the top floor. I’m sure Bowie was probably in the main one a little bit, and REM and U2 and Depeche Mode all made records there. But our producer Michael Ilbert has his room next door to that, and I’ve got this amazing writing room next door to him. It’s a great studio, but we went there because it was convenient. I live in Berlin and I work there and know everyone there. We had the whole top floor to ourselves. It was so cool! It has this thing about it, where it’s like a living museum that still operates as a recording studio. There’s the Solina keyboard that Bowie used on Low, which we used on the song “Three Miles High.” They have the amps from Lust for Life, which we used all over our record. And it looks like the seventies when you walk in; it’s been perfectly preserved. And when a studio has a pedigree like that, you feel like, “Shit, we really have to make a good record.” But it’s your luck as well. We recorded at Abbey Road in 1999. It was shit. We had to ditch everything we recorded there, so it’s no guarantee.
You mentioned your writing room. Having that space, are you the type of person who treats songwriting like a job, where you have to go to the office every day?
FH: No, I don’t. If you saw my room, you’d see exactly how I use it. I’ve made it into an apartment. I’ve got a couch and a computer set up by my piano for making demos. But mostly it’s a massive couch, a big bookshelf full of art books, and a projector screen for watching movies. Most of the time, I just go there and sit in the quiet and think. A big part of writing or doing any creative thing is not doing it. I don’t think enough people talk about that negative space. We live in a world where everyone has to produce a certain amount of songs. If you go to Nashville and these places where people are churning out song after song, most of them are shit because people aren’t getting enough inactivity. It’s too much product. You just get junk if you do that. But if you treat it like you’re a farmer, where you have one big empty field for most of the year then for one week of the year you harvest, you probably will produce better songs. At least, I find that to be true for me.
Before the last record, you told the other guys that you didn’t want to do all the songwriting any longer. Was there a particular reason you decided to give up the reigns a bit?
FH: The other guys in the band all write. I’m still the main writer, mostly because I’m the singer and because I’m pretty good at it now. The problem for Andy (guitarist Andy Dunlop) and Dougie (bassist Dougie Payne) is that they’re writing a song that I have to sing, and if it doesn’t feel right for me, I just can’t do it. But Dougie especially has improved his songwriting and is writing more stuff that fits. It’s been great. For instance, “Animals” is my favorite song in the set. It makes me feel like Elvis when I sing it because there’s a weird vibrato that I haven’t done before.
Given that you were the principal songwriter, what made you want to make a solo record?
FH: Everyone had a break, and I got a recording desk and some cool mics and I just continued writing. That record is like a Travis album without anyone else in the house. It’s just me there by myself playing everything. It’s like a really polished demo tape for Travis, and it probably would have been a Travis record had we been active at the time. I just thought I’d do my own thing this time and it was nice. It was another feather in the cap, and I got to play with some other really cool people like Neko Case and Paul McCartney.
How’d you hook up McCartney?
FH: I just cold-called him. I got his email and sent him the demo of the song. I was playing bass on some of the record and Sam Dixon, who’s worked with Sia and Adele and is a friend of mine, played on some songs. But there was this one song that needed something else. It needed a Beatle! So I emailed him. I thought he’d never get back to me, and he didn’t for 14 or 15 days. I had forgotten about it when I got this email saying he loved the track and wanted to do it. Because I was busy and he was touring, he did it in his studio in England and sent me over the bassline. I konked takes two and three together, and then I thought to myself, “Shit man, I just konked Paul McCartney’s bassline together.” I sent him an email saying I had taken the best of two and three and hoped he didn’t mind. He was like, “No man, it’s great.” He’s really cool, a really lovely human.
Given the longevity of the band, is there anything that would make you hang it up? You mentioned Lust for Life, are you still going to be this when you’re Iggy Pop’s age?
FH: We always said we’d do 12 records. That was always the goal. So if we hit 12 records and we’re still rolling, great. If one of us died, we’d stop because the M.O. of the band has always been that it’s the four of us and that’s the band. There was a time when Neil was having his first kid, and we got another drummer in and it was just not right. It felt bad, and it felt bad for everyone. So after that we realized that not a lot of bands have what we’ve got and you usually don’t get to see that on a stage: four people who have been together for that length of time and still love each other. It’s a real live friendship coming to a stage near you!
Yeah are you going to be touring the States for this record?
FH: We may be coming in the fall, but nothing’s concrete. We’re just going to get on with touring Britain and Europe and doing all the festivals, then we’ll see if we’re coming over in the fall. But we always come.