Travis: Album by Album with Fran Healy
Following our editor's 8/10 review of their seventh album Where You Stand, DiS' Marc Burrows sits down with Fran Healy to discuss their back catalogue...
Travis frontman Fran Healy is doing Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ dance. Sort of. He starts by showing us the back of his hand, “the first Travis record was us with our backs to you”, he explains. "We were going through our suitcase. Then the second Travis record is us facing you”, the hand twists to show his palm, “the third we’re still facing, more refined and pop, the fourth you’ve got the back of us again”, he twizzles the hand. “We turned our back on everyone and we’re doing something else. It’s the unrecognisable side to a lot of people, then on the fifth, on Boy With No Name”. The wrist rotates palm-side, “we went “oh, it’s us again’, and everyone said ‘there you are! I didn’t recognise you from behind!’, and then on the other one we’ve turned again, and now we’re turning this way”. He flashes his hand quickly, one side then the other, several times, because he likes it and he’s putting a ring on it. “Some bands don’t do that because they become content to not go into their suitcase and go ‘I wonder what else I can wear?’”
The Scottish four piece are back, following what Healy describes as a five-year “non-commercial break”. The new album, Where You Stand is reliably Travis-y; punchy, catchy, with a hint of proper soul and robust melodies. In Healy’s terms they’re back to showing us their true faces, moving away from the deliberately awkward Ode To J. Smith concept album, now five years behind them. It caps one hell of a back catalogue, one that began in the midst of Britpop with the decidedly chipper Good Feeling, genuinely changed what British music sounded like for a few years with The Man Who and The Invisible Band - without which Coldplay, Starsailor, and more recently, Mumford and Sons would have scarcely registered on the mainstream radar. Travis’ spell as the biggest band in the country was also the last hurrah for the traditional British music industry. It’s telling that The Invisible Band remains the biggest selling 12” album of the 21st century and mega-selling indie records have been few and far between since its 2001 release.
Healy’s here to talk us through the band’s seventeen years and seven albums, front to back, using a barrage of colourful metaphors, nods to his inspiration (“I think Wings is the closest band Travis could ever get to” he says, when we point out the new record has very much a 70s McCartney feel) and an ever twisting hand.
Where You Stand (2013)
Fran Healy: We came off tour in 2009 and it was the best tour that we’ve ever done. We ended in a really nice space. But we did end going ‘let’s go away and be with our families now, let’s not put a line in the sand of when we’re going to come back’. That went on indefinitely. Then around a year and a half ago we got the call - the Batphone went. So we had a meeting, none of us wanted to speak about albums or touring, we didn’t want to discuss any of that, but we did think it was a good idea to go into a room every couple of months and be with each other again - try and write and collect songs, with no view other than collecting songs. By the end we had a bunch of stuff and at that point I suggested that maybe we try and record it, but again not talking about albums, not talking about anything - and it was always a point not to do that because that’s the business and we wanted to try and incubate it from everything that was ‘the business’. It has a habit of souring everything. In 1996 we spent a very similar year in a room, writing. Collecting a bunch of material, and then we brought it to London - to the business, and that’s when we began doing what we were doing. All these songs gave us confidence, and that’s your fuel, then you come down and run on that fuel for as long as you can until it runs out.
This is the first album where we worked all together. We collaborated - that was the other stipulation when we were in that room. I said to the guys ‘I don’t want to do it myself anymore’. I didn’t want to go ‘here’s a song, there’s a thing’. I was bored of that, and the band was bored of that, so it was like ‘why don’t we just do it all together?’ So Dougie’s got three songs on the record, I’ve got three songs on the record, Andy’s got two, and there’s ‘Mother’ which we wrote together. These sessions we did with each other, some of the songs came from those in seed form, and then we individually went off and wrote around it.
When we walked away at the end of tour it was ‘End of Part 1’. And you could have just switched the telly off. We didn’t know how long the commercial break would be. Or the non-commercial break, When I went into the studio I just had a bunch of stuff and it might have been shit, but ever since the moment we stepped into the studio until right now it’s been lovely and completely natural. Sometimes when you put a record out you think ‘oh fuck! Why did that happen?’ but this feels like everything’s moving in the right way. It’s like that experiment you do in chemistry with nylon, you get a liquid and you mix it with another liquid and then you get a plastic stirrer and you stir it, and you pull out nylon, it just emerges from this liquid like magic - it’s kind of the same thing with this record. ‘Mother’ is first because I always felt it sounded like a great beginning song for a show, and we’ve never really had one of those. So it positions the cannon in this direction, then you fire - the piano lifts off at about three minutes, and to me the album lifts off with the piano solo and remains in the air until ten minutes to landing, when you get ‘Boxes’, then you’re taxiing on the runway when you get to ‘The Big Screen’.
Ode To J. Smith (2008)
I have less attachment to that album because it was part of a project. The project was ‘let’s write an album and record it in a month, from scratch, let’s spend three weeks in a room writing it from nothing, and then record it in two weeks in a room, and that’s it’. And for that reason I didn’t get the usual time to reflect. I think one of the things that put a bee on our bonnet was doing that Beatles 40th Anniversary of Sgt Pepper session for Radio 2 with Geoff Emerick. He took us aside secretly and said... actually it wasn’t that secret, he made it very clear when we were doing it that we were his favourite, because we did ‘Lovely Rita’ in, like, two hours or three hours without batting an eyelid. I believe a lot of the bands had problems, because bands don’t record to tape anymore but we were lucky enough that we do. We heard from someone else that he was gushing about us. That session was what made us think “we should do something really fast and not get too precious about it”.
I’m happy with what we did, I’m happy with the ambition of some of the songs. I like that there’s latin in the song ‘J Smith’, and there’s a Crouch End choir telling the character to “put coal in his arse for eternity” in Latin. It’s quite funny. I’m the least attached to it because I didn’t get a chance to bond with it. If it was a baby it would be a baby that got taken away from me too soon.
The Boy With No Name (2007)
It’s my least favourite Travis record, because it just became this exercise in ‘write more singles, write more singles, write more singles’, the record was slightly skewed because it became seven, or eight or nine possible singles, all slightly differing. It didn’t feel focused to me, because we were being so pushed toward singles. We already had about six there - how many does an album need?
The thing is, song for song, I think it’s the best Travis album. But as an album as a whole, it’s the worst. To me that album feels like the last ten furlongs of a horse race, where the jockey is whipping the shit out of the horse, and it’s not a cruel thing because the horse is going for it too, but it sounds like that to me- squeezing every last bit out. When I play the record it sounds like a song from every Travis album, like a Greatest Hits that didn’t exist. It’s a compilation album of songs that happened to be new - we were the first to do that! It’s a groundbreaking record! ‘Battleships’ is one of the best songs I’ve ever done, ‘Big Chair’ is fucking amazing, ‘Out In Space’ is amazing. It’s just a weird record. The horse is being beaten and Andy [MacDonald, A&R man] squeezed every song he could out of it. I like it for that, but it’s the least cohesive record we ever did.
12 Memories (2003)
When we did Twelve Memories it was definitely a moment where every fucking band was like us, because after The Man Who did so well the business signed everything that sounded like that. It was like we’d found this brilliant, quiet, serene spot on the banks of a beautiful lake, and no-ones been there except maybe you can see Neil Young’s campfire over there, and Joni Mitchell’s bow and arrow over there, but nobody was there. Then two years later it was a fucking casino, so we had to disappear from there and go and find somewhere else.
I was in a really weird place at the time. I was really upset, and fucked off. I think the stress of the success of The Man Who and Invisible Band knocked the shit out of all of us. Like, we were out surfing, and the tsunami hit and blew us all to pieces. So again that’s us with our backs to the audience, gathering all the clothes that were spilled for miles and putting them back in our suitcase.
I was really upset about our country. During the 80s we had protests and Poll Tax marches and all that kind of stuff, students and guys with dreadlocks and dogs on rope were the people marching. But when the Iraq war happened it was peoples aunts and uncles, it was dads with kids. I’ve never seen our country mobilise the way we did during that time, grannies became politicised, and it was so obviously wrong even this band that never said boo to a goose had got politicised by it. Only one or two songs on the record reflected that, but everybody jumped on it as our ‘political’ album and I thought ‘oh fuck’ then I remember hearing Jo Wiley on the radio saying ‘this is the new song from Travis, it’s about being trapped in a brutal relationship’ and I went ‘oh fuck’, who wants to hear that on drive time? It reflected my state of mind at the time, like a snapshot, but I love that album because of it. it’s a really fucked up record, with some really good shit on it. There was less pressure to do singles too, you’d have to ask Andy MacDonald about that though - I was only aware of being really, really depressed, just exhausted after the shit that had gone on. When we came to recording it, that’s what it was - the camp that had been set up, that we’d had to move away from, we were trying to find a new place.
That was a pinnacle point on a commercial level for Travis, because we could have built a casino where everyone else was, but that’s not us. We had to try and find somewhere else. Everyone’s still enjoying the casino.
The Invisible Band (2001)
It was like pulling teeth. We went into the studio, and I remember distinctly Nigel Godrich saying ‘we have to do a better record than the one before, it has to be better’. Then I remember me and Dougie sitting in the parking lot with head in hands going ‘Nigel hates us!’ He was in such a bad mood, and it was only the first week. It’s one of my main memories of being in our band, I really felt he was going to desert the record. Unbeknownst to us Nigel was having his own dramas, and he wasn’t getting any rest, so we were getting the brunt of it. Our relationship with Nigel was such that he was my best friend, and you get to see both sides. It’s not a commercial venture anymore, it’s just mates in the room, and he was just fucked, he was knackered. It got much better when we realised that.
We’d just done The Man Who in Britain and it was absolutely massive, but America wouldn’t release it at first, nobody would release it really, all of the reviews were terrible, but it had a life of its own, everyone changed their opinion of it, suddenly it was successful and America went ‘hell, we’ll release it after all!’, so we had to do the entire promotion of the whole album all over again, for another year, and we were just fucked. So the beginning of doing Invisible Band was really dark, the roll-over was the hard part - we took a week off and went straight into recording, that was tough. For all of us, when we talked about it, it was our least favourite to make, even though it was fun outside of the studio, having fun in LA with our friends.
I think sound-wise and pop-wise, it’s one of our best records. Everyone says that’s the ‘nice’ record, and that’s not a bad word when it’s spoken, you meet someone and say ‘he was nice’ and that’s not a bad thing, but in print it’s come to mean boring, in the history of our band we’re nice. We’re just nice guys, we’re not cunts, we’re not wankers. We’re very Scottish - anyone who sits down to do an interview, or we meet in a bar, we’re always very welcoming to them, saying ‘come in, come out of the rain’ and that’s nice. But because we were so overexposed it soured it somehow.
The Man Who (1999)
It’s a breakup album. It’s an ‘I’ve just been chucked and my heart is absolutely broken’ record. I’d split up with my girlfriend of three years, and I was very attached to her. I think as a human, not having a father, you don’t realise it at the time, but I realise it now as a father - if you don’t have a Dad or Mum in your life, you have this huge gaping hole that will never be filled up, and you can just fill it with everything and it will never be full, not even when you have your own kids. It’s abandonment, or attachment issues and it leaves this big hole when you lose it. I was really attached to this person, and she went to St Andrew to be a doctor. That record began it’s life when she started to plan to go, then she went, then I got chucked. The song ‘Luv’, is writing to reach someone that has their back to you, or the door is closed, nobody is answering. I wrote this song, the demo of which is the best version, and sent it to her. I never heard back, but it didn’t matter, it was just a goodbye song. ‘Writing To Reach You’ is about her, ‘Luv’ is about that, ‘The Fear’ is about that, knowing what’s coming - it’s a breakup record.
At the end of our first album (1997’s [i]Good Feeling[/i]) we were starting to find our true voice, but on most of that album, again, you’re seeing our backs. They didn’t see who we were, they saw us going through the suitcase and trying things on, so when we came back with The Man Who nobody recognised us. The press fucking hated that album when it came out, because they didn’t recognise it. They liked our back, they didn’t like the way this looked.
When you have that atom of luck and you get huge, then you better hope you’ve produced a great bit of a work, because if it gets huge and it’s shit, you’re going to look terrible. We were really lucky that the album that hit, people do reach for, and our name’s on it.
Even I think it’s one of the best records - you have a producer at the top of his game, and you have a songwriter that’s just been chucked. Everything coalesced in a nice way. So I’m glad it’s that record that got huge. We don’t make bad records, they’re just different, but if it had happened to any one, I’m glad it’s that one. Emotionally speaking it’s got something you can’t have at any other time in your life but when you’re 19, 20, 21... Again though, right up until the last minute, the record company were going ‘take ‘Turn’ off!’. We didn’t have a clue!
If I had to pick one of our albums to save from a fire I’d say The Man Who without a doubt, it rescued me at the time I needed rescuing.
Good Feeling (1997)
Good Feeling was a very frustrating record. It was our first album, and it came out the same year OK Computer came out, Be Here Now came out and Urban Hymns came out, it was caught in the busiest time of classic British records ever. My favourite song on that album is ‘All I Wanna Do Is Rock’, and the best version of that doesn’t really exist on the album, it’s just on the 10”. There’s 700 copies of it, but I’m just glad it’s out there.
I don’t think it’s a great record, but it’s more a technical thing, I just don’t like the way it sounds, I don’t like the vocal. I never listen to that album because the monitor mixes were insanely good and when it got mixed it lost it for me. I wish I could remix it, or release the monitor mixes. I didn’t have the confidence to say what I wanted at the time, I was too young, but I’d never go back and do a Stephen Spielberg, it’s done- leave it be, but if you want to know what I wish the record had sounded like, listen to the 10” of ‘All I Wanna Do Is Rock’, it’s so, so good.