- Travis (Fran Healy, second from left): music for staying in.
Don't believe the hype. That pretty much goes for anything these days, but it's especially true when it concerns new British bands. Normally, what sells well on the other side of the Atlantic -- Blur, Pulp, Supergrass -- doesn't do squat over here. Oasis and Radiohead are household names in the U.S., but only after years of touring and numerous albums. So it's with great skepticism that we approach Travis, currently the U.K.'s biggest band.
Yeah, last year it sold over two million copies of its sophomore album, The Man Who, in Europe and had numerous top 20 radio singles, but the Scottish band's success is misleading, when you take into consideration that 1999 was an off year for Britpop.
"When we finished the record, we released it and, just by fucking luck, you didn't have any of the big giant bands doing anything," admits singer Fran Healy, who's also the band's main songwriter. "And we benefited from that massively, but it was kind of by default. I tell you, man, when we put our first record, Good Feeling, out, you had the Verve, Radiohead, and Oasis. It was like fucking heavyweights, and we were just trampled by the elephants. Timing is of massive importance. And it's kind of bizarre, as well. Music and art and all of these things kind of fuck time, but in order to get to people, we have to adhere to it to some extent. We were lucky."
Call it British cockiness, but over the years, quintessential Britpop singers have always seemed like, well, snobs. Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis can create incredibly melodic, guitar-driven tunes, but you feel like punching them in the nose for all of their insufferable bad-boy posturing. But all that appears to be changing. Despite being rivals within the scene, the Gallagher brothers are uncharacteristically supportive of Travis. That explains their prime opening slot on Oasis's current Stateside tour. Even though they're the new guys on the block, Travis has no problem poking fun at Oasis. On one of its biggest hits, "Driftwood," Healy sings "The radio is playing all the usual/And what's a wonderwall anyway?" The good-natured Healy appears to be the antithesis of Liam and Noel. Despite a thick accent, the Glasgow native is as poetic and creative in conversation as his songs are. Perhaps that's why Healy has been called the nice guy of Britpop by the British press.
"I think we're just reasonable," he explains. "We're not in any way under any illusions as to massive importance in the big scheme of things. When a song is set off like a firework, it leaves a little star in the sky. And when it explodes, [all that other] stuff -- your VJs, DJs, and fucking BJs and all that -- falls away.
"Bands come and go. There have been millions of bands, but songs, songs just hang around forever if they're given half the chance. And that's the kind of priority that we seize. We're just doing it for the song, and that's it."
Granted, his view of creating music for music's sake is idealistic, but Healy's ardor is hard to ignore. The songs on The Man Who speak for themselves. Healy has a knack for writing emphatic lyrics that cut across all walks of life. When Healy sings, "Because it's Saturday night and your friends are all out/And you feel like shit because they never call you," he speaks for anyone who's ever spent too much time alone. Healy also brings a sense of longing to the unlikeliest of cover tunes. His gentle interpretation of Britney Spears's "Baby One More Time" is a novelty, but it also gives the band credibility for turning cheesy pop into Britpop. Healy, who possesses an ethereal falsetto for a voice, says the unreleased song could make it into the group's set lists on its current tour -- though he doesn't count Spears among his influences.
"I would actually say one of the most beautiful sounds is the sound of a male voice singing high," he explains. "And it's not just [Radiohead's] Thomas Yorke. It's been Jeff Buckley. It's been the choir boys who had their bollocks lopped off to make them sing higher. It's always been a beautiful sound. I think the one thing that made me, inspired me to sing higher, was the work of Jeff Buckley, because I just found it unbelievable and completely unattainable. He had a massive gift with that voice. I think you can only try and aspire in that way. And I think this whole blah, blah, blah Radiohead [comparison] is kind of like "Wait a minute. Hold on. Where the hell did Thomas Yorke get it from?' And if you ask Thom Yorke, he'll tell you it was Jeff Buckley as well, strangely enough."
Travis began in Glasgow in the early '90s, after Healy, an art school dropout, hooked up with two friends -- drummer Neil Primrose and guitarist Andy Dunlop. Shortly thereafter, bassist Dougie Payne joined. For years, Travis toiled around its hometown in anonymity. It's these memories that keep Healy grounded despite the hype surrounding The Man Who, which was released in the U.S. the first week of April.
"The hype is a relatively new thing for us," says Healy. "We've never relied on hype ever, because we never, ever had hype. From the very moment we started in Glasgow, no one liked us. The hype is something that is created around you. All of the hype that you have over there has been created by the press over here and the success over here. Almost none of it has been created by us in a way. I'm under no illusions as to how difficult America is to break. It's like breaking a nut. And I think, with a country like Britain, you can break it with a hammer, but then you go over to America, and it's a bigger nut and a harder shell. If you have the same size hammer, you have to hit it like fuckin' 10 times. So, we're just going to come over and tour and tour and tour, and we're going to try to get our songs on the radio. That's the one thing that changed on our second record. [British] radio gave us a chance. If that didn't happen, we'd be fucked."
Healy knows that The Man Who is an introspective disc, but he thinks the different moods reflected in the songs will appeal to a wide range of listeners.
"It's a positive and negative album," he explains. "It's a container rather than contents. It's something that you can put whatever you're feeling into. So if you're feeling shit, you can put that into it, and it will be a really miserable record. And if you're feeling really up and happy, [it's a] happy record. It kind of got me thinking. Fuck, man, it's rare when that happens, and you can't do that by deliberation. I've not heard the album being played in any restaurants or cafés or anything like that. I think it's maybe an album that people secretly hoard to themselves. They'll listen to it with friends or when they wash the dishes or on a Sunday, or when they're by themselves. It's a staying-in record."
It's the magic of songwriting that keeps Healy going. Despite the natural flow of many of the songs on The Man Who, Healy maintains that writing them wasn't easy. Listening to him explain the dynamics of writing a tune sounds similar to the ranting of a late-night infomercial psychic describing what it's like to be possessed by another spirit.
"I'll sit in a room and write 99 shit songs, and then this amazing thing happens," says Healy. "It just writes itself in like 10 minutes, and all the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and you bust out crying, and you're like "What the fuck?' And at that point, you're like "Now that's a fucking song.' And until you do that [for the first time], you can't tell [what it's like]. And when that happens, you're locked in and trapped, and you can't ever bend -- unless you're dishonest -- and put anything less onto a record. So you have to wait, and it will take you a long time, but it will be worth it, because you'll be putting proper songs out there and not just junk music. I mean, what the fuck is the point of making an album if you don't have any songs, you know?"