It’s 32 degrees in Berlin, the windows of Fran Healy’s den are flung open and the Travis frontman is doing his homework – learning the words to the Dylan standards he’s performing at a Bob-fest in Dublin.
“He’s one of those artists who’s perplexing even for the fanatics,” says Healy when I ask what Dylan means to him. “Once in a blue moon they’ll get a gig where his singing can be understood.”
You would never call Travis perplexing. They make pleasant, tuneful, strum-ful pop and they’ve been doing it successfully since 1997. These Scots won’t frighten their horses, or your granny. The word often used to describe them is one that in rock ’n’ roll rates as an insult – “nice”. I’d been suspicious of this – how nice can million-sellers be, really, and especially when they’re so often damned with faint praise? – but an hour chatting to Healy rates as one of my nicest assignments in a while. He even tells me about the day he frightened his mum.
“I did an interview recently where I sounded like a complete p***k,” he says. “Politics came up right at the end. Now, I live in Berlin and so am not following the independence debate day by day. I made a remark about Alex Salmond reminding me of one of those teachers you had at school who you weren’t quite sure about. The whole article was me spouting off – nothing about our music. My mum phoned and said: ‘Son, what are you doing? You came across like a total w******.’
“I certainly came across as pro-Labour but the truth is I’m not pro-anyone. Dougie [Payne, Travis’ bassist] reckons all politicians look like estate agents now and he’s right. I dealt with them when we did Live8; I’ve touched that world. But I got really disenfranchised at the time of the Iraq war. There was that huge march and millions of people said the war was wrong, but the politicians didn’t take any notice. I was let down by politics and now I say: ‘F*** ’em.’” Then Healy laughs. “Can I ask you to do something? I don’t mind you saying in your piece that my mum thought I was a w***** because that’s funny. But please don’t put it in your headline. That would probably be bad for her health!” Consider it done, Fran.
New Travis albums usually come along every couple of years but after 2008’s Ode to J Smith the band took a long break. The seventh, Where You Stand, only emerges now, the sabbatical being deemed necessary by Healy, Payne, Andy Dunlop and Neil Primrose who all wanted to be around to watch their kids grow. While Payne had his second child with Boardwalk Empire actress Kelly Macdonald last December, Healy is dad to seven-year-old Clay and with his wife, German photographer Nora Kryst, has just returned from delivering the lad back at school following the summer holidays.
Pop stars don’t normally discuss their family life in much detail but Healy, as we’ve established, is a warm and open fellow and in any case fatherhood has imprinted on the album. “The title is a statement: it represents where we are in our lives. We’ve all had this lovely couple of years with our families and when you have children it’s the first time you can see both ends of the swimming pool. The deep end is where it began for you and now you’re swimming towards the shallow end, where the plughole is. Andy was talking about this the other day: you look at your kid and back to your own childhood and also see in your own parents where you’re headed. A lot of the new songs on the album reflect this, none more than Boxes, which is one of Andy’s and which I think is really beautiful.” An album standout, it describes how we play in cardboard boxes, live in concretes boxes, exit in wooden ones. “And towards the end there’s the line: ‘The heart is a box which the soul has fled.’ It just makes me well up. That’s maybe the song which gives the album its emotional fragrance, though I’m wary of saying that records have a smell because sooner or later someone’s going to mention Spinal Tap and ‘s*** sandwich’!”
It was parenthood which prompted Healy and Nora’s move to Berlin five years ago. “We’d been 12 years in London and when Clay came along we were like: ‘Do we want to be here?’ Schooling was the issue. In England maybe more than Scotland, kids are sent to school really early; it’s later in Germany which was attractive to us. Clay’s school was set up by a handful of parents; it’s fee-paying but the charges are low and it’s non-profit-making. It’s bilingual and really cool. And Berlin is cool, too – we couldn’t have made a better move. The city’s really lovely and the pace isn’t crazy. There are no Tescos; instead they have co-ops on the corners, local shops which don’t really take credit cards. They have proper Sundays where everything closes and everyone cycles. It’s like Thatcher never happened!”
What does Healy miss about Scotland? “Our banter culture,” he says unhesitatingly. “I went back to visit my mum recently and was on the top-deck of a bus. New passengers would come on, sit down next to someone and conversation would begin. Soon everyone was nattering. That just doesn’t happen in Berlin. On the trams everyone’s dead quiet. But no one sat next to me that day. They never do – I must look too shifty!” He’s chuffed that Clay, despite never having lived here, has a Scottish accent. What does the boy think of his old man’s music? “Funnily enough, he got asked at school today whether he liked it. He produced this incredulous face and said ‘Yeah!’, which was a nice moment. But he doesn’t sing, at least not yet. I haven’t thrust a guitar in his hand. We draw, make things, dance, have fun and do stuff which will hopefully stick in his mind.”
With the rest of the band scattered in Glasgow, Liverpool and Lancaster, the album was recorded across several locations including London, New York and Norway. It’s a more democratic affair, all four sharing compositional duties. Healy, instead of being preoccupied with the songs, got to enjoy being the singer, though he insists: “I’m still a bossy little s***.” So was there a danger the hiatus could have become permanent? “No. You’re more likely to have these thoughts in the middle of a tour when you just want to smell your own socks for a change. If there is a Travis constitution it would be: Never ever split.”
The band continue to function outside musical fashion. “We’ve always done everything with our backs to the industry,” he adds. With smash-hits come clout; second album The Man Who was 1999’s biggest-seller. But they didn’t get carried away at becoming Glastonbury headliners and nor were they devastated when their kind of pop was dubbed “bedwetters’ music”. “Alan McGee said that and I thought it was brilliant,” laughs Healy. “Listen, the obituaries for guitar bands get written every few years. We managed to time our wee break with the last pronouncement and now it seems safe to pop our heads out of the burrows again.”
• Where You Stand (Red Telephone Box) is out on Monday