Once Britain’s biggest pop band, Travis stepped back to reconnect with the real world. Now, they’re back, and Berlin-based frontman Fran Healy is having a blast, he tells Fiona Shepherd
Fran Healy, Travis frontman, Berlin-dwelling expatriate, weaver of words and melodies and currently wearer of a bushy grey beard, is fond of his poetic metaphors. During our conversation, he ruminates on the addictive connotations of having “a hit” record, compares the good luck of musical success to a wind which randomly blows dandelions in your direction, and refers to band members as vital organs and songs “I can put my feet into and they fit”. Then he describes the Travis album journey with the following stream of analogies:
“We drove our car into the ground around The Boy With No Name, and then around about [Ode To] J Smith we just drove it off the road and it went into a ditch and the last record [Where We Stand, released in 2013] was us getting it back on the road and making it work again – and this record [Everything At Once] we’re all in the car again and the petrol’s the songs, and it seems to be working really good.”
To run with the theme, there was a time in the late 1990s when that car was more of a juggernaut. Travis were the nation’s favourite pop band and their career was a pedal-to-the-metal affair, with all the demands and obligations which muscle in around huge commercial success.
“The band almost got in the way of our friendship because we would look at each other as work,” reflects Healy. “Every time you would look at the other guys, it was a reminder that you were away from home and you wanted to be home, not on the bus any more.”
That’s an actual bus Healy is talking about. But he’s not done with the metaphors. Shortly before driving that car into the ground, Healy became a father to Clay – “and that was the new project, the art project for your life and I didn’t want to f*** that up, so I spent a lot of time being a dad. Now he’s nine and you can step back from it and it doesn’t fall over, it’s working by itself now and it allowed me to come back to my other baby.”
Even by his affable standards, Healy appears to be very relaxed about where Travis are these days, approaching elder statesmanship, setting their own agenda with fewer expectations on their shoulders and, in Healy’s case, enjoying the less febrile atmosphere of Berlin. “The pace is human,” he says, “and I’ve never seen anyone so much as raise their voice to anyone else.”
Healy says he was more focused on the writing and recording of Everything At Once, released earlier this year, than those preceding car-off-the-road albums. This may have been down to renting his own room – a sort of hipster dad pad – in Berlin’s legendary Hansa Studios, where the likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, U2 and Depeche Mode recorded defining albums, and where Healy now spends the days reading, watching films and listening to music, before returning at night after Clay has gone to bed to write into the wee small hours.
“It’s the first room I ever had where absolutely no one can hear me doing anything because I’ve got a soundproof door. I can scream, I can shout, I can do anything,” he says.
What Healy has chosen to do is write another collection of gentle, insidiously catchy middle of the road pop tunes, suffused with a twist of melancholy. Most of the songs on Everything At Once are mid-paced and reflective, although the jaunty singalong Magnificent Time will probably be the track which goes down best when Travis headline King Tut’s Wah Wah Tent next Saturday at T in the Park.
And most of these new songs clock in at a trim three minutes or under – apart from guitarist Andy Dunlop’s practically prog rock five-minute contribution – so much so that Healy’s radio plugger found himself, for the first time ever in his career, asking his artist if he could write a longer song for airplay.
“It’s a cool problem to have,” laughs Healy. “Three minutes is plenty, and it was at the back of my head that all my favourite songs are sub-three minutes. You really don’t need that much time because when you are walking down the street, the bit that you are humming is maybe 15 seconds long and you repeat that throughout the day. If I can catch that and if it’s still in my head after a few weeks, I think I could make a song about this. I’m not thinking of radio or the canon, I’m more just trying to get that fix again.
“When you write your first song, it’s such a buzz, and you’re always trying to match that buzz. You’re kind of a junkie for that weird feeling that happens when you discover a new melody, arrangement or rhythm, a tone that sticks in your head or maybe a little turn of phrase that’s not too weird.”
Healy really is in his own world as a songwriter, being one of those musicians, along with the likes of KT Tunstall and Muse frontman Matt Bellamy, who learned about music by playing it rather than by hoovering up a smorgasbord of musical references as a teenager. Whereas Travis bassist Dougie Payne grew up on his sister’s Bowie records and Dunlop was going to Status Quo gigs before he hit his teens, Healy says he “didn’t even get a record player until I was 12, so I think I’ve been playing catch-up for the longest time.”
“But one of the reasons I like music is that it f***s with time a little bit,” he says. “A song I heard in maybe 1977, that I would sing when I was walking to school, I’ll still sing that song occasionally. It’s 40 years long, rather than just three minutes long.”
• Travis play T in the Park on 9 July. Everything At Once is out now on Red Telephone Box Records