THE scene is a Madrid hotel room, November 29, 2001. In the midst of their seemingly endless world tour, Travis are having a much-needed band meeting. It’s the eve of George Harrison’s death. This is coincidental but it is the hook by which singer Fran Healy can name the exact day on which he started to worry that Travis might not survive.
From scrappy beginnings gigging around their hometown of Glasgow and practising above its famous Horseshoe Bar, the four long-term friends had become one of Britain’s biggest bands and serious contenders on a global scale. Even Prince Philip, who can normally be relied upon to be completely out of touch with the zeitgeist, was aware of their hit song ‘Why Does It Always Rain On Me?’
Their second album, The Man Who, and its follow-up, The Invisible Band, had sold millions and they had spent the best part of four years headlining tours across the globe. But while everything on the outside looked peachy, the view from the inside of that Madrid hotel room was darkening rapidly.
"Neil [Primrose, the drummer] put the absolute shiters up me in Madrid," recalls Healy. "Talking about The Invisible Band he said, ‘It’s alright. This record’s fine but if we don’t do another record and make it f***ing shit hot, I’m leaving.’ I was stunned. Neil has a tendency to over dramatise things when he is a bit pissed, but those words have been ringing out in my head ever since."
Primrose was not the only one to be feeling the strain. On the back of The Man Who’s success, Travis had toured constantly for two years and then gone straight into a studio in Los Angeles to record The Invisible Band. As soon as the discs were pressed up the band was back on the road again, and the jam-packed schedule was beginning to eat them up.
"I was a great deal more ambitious than the other band members," says Healy, with an emphasis on the ‘was’. "In the midst of the campaign for The Invisible Band I realised that I had these blinkers on. We were totally going for it and I didn’t notice that the rest of the band were flaking out."
Healy reckons that bassist Dougie Payne was the first to crack, then guitarist Andy Dunlop, Primrose and finally Healy himself. After Primrose’s announcement, Healy remembers sitting with the band’s manager, head in hands and saying: "This is f***ed. We’ve dropped it. I don’t know where we’ve left it and I don’t know where it is going. It’s gone."
It was at this point, with the band’s future already hanging in the balance, that Primrose broke his neck diving into a swimming pool in France in July last year. The other band members pulled him out of the pool when they realised he wasn’t floating inertly for a joke. There was a high chance that Primrose could have ended up in a wheelchair but, apparently against medical odds, he has made a full recovery.
There are other, less hazardous, ways to strengthen the bonds between band members, but Primrose’s misfortune may well have been Travis’ saviour.
As the drummer puts it: "It’s been a hard year. A lot of good stuff has come out of it but a lot of bad memories still exist. At the end of the day, I’m very lucky to be here and it has forced a rethink for a lot of us, not just myself but also the other guys in the band.
"We all went through this horrific thing, although Neil obviously went through more than the rest of us," agrees Payne. "Facing the mortality of one of your friends and by dint of that your own mortality, makes you think. After you realise that your friend is going to be OK you wonder if he is going to be able to play drums again, and then you begin to wonder about the band."
If Primrose’s accident didn’t force Travis into making a decision about the band’s viability, it certainly helped them to crystallise their thoughts. Payne reckons nothing makes you realise how much you want something like the prospect of no longer having it. "We went through a phase towards the end of touring The Invisible Band of just wanting to give up," he says. "We were tired, burnt out and just wanted to stop and do nothing. We had stopped associating each other with all the things that had brought us together in the first place. It had all become work.
"When that happens you can’t help but think about giving it away. You wonder what life would be like without the band. Then, with Neil’s accident, it was like somebody or something was threatening to take it away. When somebody threatens to take something you realise pretty quickly whether you want it or not. We all very quickly realised that we do want to do this and we do want Travis to continue. We wanted to make more records and we had to find a way of doing that."
Primrose’s injury forced the band to take six months out while he recuperated with his wife and children. Freed from the insular bubble of touring, the band took the opportunity to reacquaint themselves with normal life. On endless tours, little things like whether you can get room service at 3am can assume an inflated significance, while more pressing concerns such as friends and family become more vague.
Dunlop made the most of the break, getting married to his long-term partner Jo. Payne waited until earlier this year to get married to actress Kelly MacDonald. Healy got to spend more time with his fiance Nora, to whom the songs ‘Driftwood’ and ‘Turn’ are dedicated. Slowly the band began to rediscover what was important to them.
Towards the end of last year, with Primrose on the mend, they all met up on Mull. None of them could remember the last time that just the four of them had been in a room to play music. According to the ever urbane Payne, it was a case of walking into the room and saying: "I remember you! How are you? And then realising that we actually quite liked each other again and that we could get on. All the stuff that had been pulling us apart was other stuff. It wasn’t to do with us. It was general tiredness and not communicating properly." He adds: "It never came to blows."
It is possible to make a case for the theory that each big step in Travis’s career has been brought about by crisis. The death of Healy’s grandfather was the prompt for the band to move to London to get a record deal. Their first album, Good Feeling, was a critical success and commercial flop. Fearful of returning to the drudgery of the dole, Healy changed tack for The Man Who and was rewarded with multi-platinum success. By comparison, The Invisible Band didn’t live up to expectations.
Like parents asked to give an objective report on a wayward child, none of the band members will overtly put the boot into The Invisible Band. They will say that it was the best album they could produce at that time and place - but there is a sense that it could have been better in a different time and place.
Dunlop points out that there was a bigger growth between Good Feeling and The Man Who than between The Man Who and The Invisible Band. Healy will concede that the record suffered from all the band being exhausted and him not demo-ing enough of the tracks thoroughly. "At the end of that record we went straight back on the road and we shouldn’t have done that," he says.
Dramatic as it was, the band view Primrose’s near-death experience as a kick-start to a fresh phase in the Travis career. When they met up on Mull, they had not intended to write a new album. Reacquaintance, relaxation and a spot of light jamming were on the agenda rather than recording. Nonetheless, by last Christmas they had the framework of their imminent album, 12 Memories, down on DAT.
Too much has been made of 12 Memories being Travis’s political album - it’s not as though they have metamorphosed into rabid anarchists. The universal themes of love and loss are still at the core of the album rather than the agitprop politics of Chumbawamba.
Songs such as ‘Beautiful Occupation’ or ‘Peace The F*** Out’ can certainly be read as comments on events in Iraq, but the band are more ambiguous about their meaning. "In the past, Nora inspired a lot of songs about love and courting, but we’re solid now so I felt I could move on," says Healy. "September 11 was the start of something. I’m still not interested in politics but I can see now how fragile the world is."
The other band members cite ageing as the cause for any tendency for 12 Memories to look more at the wider world than previous albums. They are all now in their 30s and while not quite ready to start fondly fingering garden shed catalogues, there is a definite sense of having moved on.
"In your teens and your early 20s you are just trying desperately to find out who you are," says Payne. "You are looking inwards and going, ‘Oh I’m this, I’m that, I’m a goth, I’m a hippy, I’m a mod.’ You’re trying to find some identity that fits you. When you hit your late 20s and 30s you become more comfortable in your own skin. Then you become more outward looking and maybe look at your place in the world, and what kind of place you live in.
"If you look at the lyrics on the album they touch on every aspect of life. Relationships, love, loss, parents, school, friendship, politics, heartbreak: all these things that make up a big part of life. The political goings on of the last two or three years are in there because they have been a huge part of everybody’s life. It’s politicised people who would never have been bothered before."
As the songwriter of the band, Healy acknowledges that world events are not absent from 12 Memories but insists that, as usual, his songs are a reflection of his own life more than anything else. Healy argues that in some ways people’s lives can be a microcosm of the wider world and that is what he writes about. "The world around us has probably got f*** all to do with the tone of this record," he says. "It’s the world around me and local to me."
The other band members talk about 12 Memories as being one of the "purest" and direct albums they have done. This is the authentic sound of the band, they claim. Healy reckons the tone of the album is "one of I can’t take it any more. I feel like the guy in the film Network. The guy that gets people to open the window and say, ‘I’m as mad as hell and I just can’t take it any more.’"
When pressed, he can’t pin down the exact cause of any frustration or angst, but he points out there is a song called ‘Midlife Krysis’ on the album that is about him feeling as though he is "losing it". "I’m 30 years old and I felt like I was having a midlife crisis," he explains. "That’s me as a person. That’s where I’m at in my life and I’m saying, ‘What the f*** am I doing?’ I think everybody gets that when they hit 30. Their hard-drive is suddenly full and you’ve got to start trashing stuff or putting it on a zip drive or something. I’m terrible at letting things go, therefore you store them in something. In a way, I think 12 Memories is like that zip drive."
If Healy feels acutely troubled now but is unsure as to why, then it makes a change from him feeling troubled and knowing exactly why. A single child, he was brought up by his mother and extended family. He says his father never touched him but domestic violence blighted his parents’ relationship. It has been discussed extensively and he has written about it before on tracks such as ‘Blue Flashing Light’ with its line about a "belt hanging over the door". On 12 Memories, it’s alluded to again on ‘Re-Offender’ with its lines about "You say you love me and then you do it again".
Healy attended a Catholic school in Possil Park, and both his education and the routine sectarian violence of his schooldays have also left their mark. ‘In The Church’ is a hidden track at the end of 12 Memories which airs his feelings towards the Catholic Church. "I have massive problems with the Catholic Church," he says. "I was brought up a Catholic and went to a Catholic school, and it’s the whole idea of them teaching you how to feel rather than teaching you how to learn, or teaching you how to be a normal person. There is a lot of fear in it. I’ve really a big problem with education as well."
Not being one to shy away from wearing his heart on his sleeve has paid dividends for Healy, even if it has not helped exorcise any demons. His songs do have an emotional resonance that connects fans more closely to the band than to other contemporary acts. Travis songs have provided a soundtrack to weddings and funerals - something that seems more unlikely with, say, songs from the last Radiohead album.
The songs’ accessibility and universal appeal are the same factors that are highlighted by the band’s detractors. Travis have always been the first to admit that they have never made any conscious effort to be cool or have an underground appeal. They have always aimed squarely at the mass market and hit it more or less between the eyes.
A Healy test is to run songs by his family and young children on the basis that they have no preconceptions of what is cool or fashionable. It is hard to imagine The Strokes employing the same method, but for Travis it has produced huge hits such as ‘Turn’ and ‘Sing’.
"The very best thing to do is to play songs to very young children and see how they work on a visceral level - how it connects with them," says Healy. "With tracks like ‘Beautiful Occupation’ or ‘Peace The F*** Out’ they absolutely lose it.’"
"Tested on children" is probably not the slogan his marketing people will be using with 12 Memories, but you can see where he is coming from. Having recovered from the band nearly splitting up but still wrestling with a premature midlife crisis, it will be interesting to see where Healy goes next.
12 Memories is released on Independiente on October 13. Travis play the Carling Academy in Glasgow, October 14