Wouldn't It Be Nice: Fran Healy Of Travis Interviewed
, May 28th, 2013 11:46
With Where You Stand, their seventh album – and first for five years – due out this summer, frontman Fran Healy joins Wyndham Wallace to buy dinner, quote Seamus Heaney and discuss why, despite so many people loving them, they provoke such fiercely negative reactions…
With his famous hair buried beneath a well-worn beanie hat, Fran Healy – the lead singer of Travis, at one time amongst Britain’s biggest acts – sits leaning against the counter of an upmarket but far from exclusive French bistro in the heart of central East Berlin. We’re enjoying a rather good bottle of wine that he’s selected on the basis of its colourful label, and are halfway through a three-course meal to which he’s insisted in advance on treating me. So my behaviour probably seems impolite when, between mouthfuls of tender steak, I tell him how I recently described another band dismissively as “a bit Travis”. The word, I suggest, has become journalistic shorthand.
“For shit,” he interrupts me.
“No,” I counter, trying to reassure him, before immediately failing. “For boring. For nice.”
He buries his head in his hands.
“I know,” he groans apologetically. “I know.”
How did this happen? What turned Travis from a critically acclaimed indie rock band into whipping boys for the kind of people who consider themselves ‘real’ music fans? Why did a band beloved of so many people worldwide become such an object of derision? Who decided they were persona non grata? Whatever the answers, they’re something Fran Healy has learned to accept.
“You can’t fuck with people’s perceptions,” he sighs, lifting his head back up, a reluctant smile on his lips, “because it’s your identity. We were lucky enough to define people, whether it’s good in a lot of cases, or bad in a lot of cases. But, oh, God, when you put it like that…”
Perhaps it’s because I’ve already met the man once before – an occasion during which I swiftly grew to like him – or maybe it’s because I’ve only recently acquainted myself with some of the band’s back catalogue, but the contempt in which some people hold Travis seems somehow unfair. Their music is, at worst, inoffensive. It wears its heart on its sleeve, and is proudly devoid of pretension. It’s what less than sensitive individuals refer to as ‘bed-wetter’s music’, as though the presence of sweet, instant melodies and simple, sincere lyricism is a crime. I’ve steered clear of the band most of my life, but in all honesty I no longer have any recollection why. I have an instinct to tag any mature guitar band I consider bland as “a bit Travis”, and yet they’ve barely grazed my existence in the two decades or so since they formed. Dismissing them is a kneejerk reaction, for me and for many others I know. I’ve no idea, though, who taught me the habit.
I first met Healy – who’s lived with his wife, German photographer Nora Kryst, and son, Clay, in the German capital for over five years – through mutual friends a few months ago outside a bar in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. I’d failed to catch his name when we were introduced, and, thanks to his grey hair, which hung down to his shoulders, also failed to recognise him. It was only when we’d all decided to head to a better spot down the road, and had gathered our stuff together to head for our bikes, that I was forced to wonder who he might be: a group of drunk girls who’d been eyeing him since I arrived had waylaid him and were now posing with him for pictures.
His identity finally revealed, at our next destination he asked me what I do for a living. As I tried to explain, I felt duty bound to inform him that I’d never been much of a fan of his band. Sometimes, after all, it’s best to get these things out in the open. He was quietly amused, but, as we talked, I realised there were in fact a couple of his tunes for which I had a previously unacknowledged soft spot. He seemed flattered when I told him. One’s got something to do with flowers, I added. I even know where I was when I first heard it.
Cycling home much later, unsteady on my bicycle, I listened to ‘Flowers In the Window’ on Youtube. Immediately, I left the dark, intimidating surroundings of the park that takes me home, instead imagining myself driving down London’s Farringdon Road on a windy morning in February 2002. Those, for me, were difficult days, and I remembered how the record had comforted me in a manner I’d never thought a Travis song could. Hearing it again in the wake of my first meeting with its writer, I was suffused with a surprising, if drunken, warmth.
Healy, though, remembers hearing it on the radio in rather different circumstances.
“It’s fodder for the haters, but it is fucking hilarious,” he says over our French dinner. “One of the worst moments ever. I was in my car driving through London, and I can remember exactly where it was – back of the South Bank – and ‘Flowers In The Window’ comes on the radio. I’m like, ‘Shit! Radio 1 playing Travis? That’s mental. That’s great! Wahey!’ And the song finishes, and then Colin Murray comes on.”
Healy slows down his speech in a perfectly morose imitation of the Irish DJ.
“‘That’s Travis,’ Murray says. ‘Flowers In The Window.’ Flowers that have sadly wilted and died’.”
Healy bursts into laughter, his eyes alight and yet oddly wistful at the same time. What else can you do?
In the days after I first met Healy, I told a friend about my rediscovery of ‘Flowers In The Window’ and how moved I’d been by it. She in turn related how, with a love affair in disarray, she’d been marooned at the end of a holiday in LA the day the Twin Towers fell. Wandering the streets looking for ways to pass the time, she’d sidled into a record store where Travis’s The Invisible Band was on the listening posts. With nothing else to do, she’d picked up the headphones. That, she said, was when she finally burst into tears, overwhelmed by the predicament in which she found herself and the sentiment she heard in the music. She’d never been a fan before, she told me, but, ever since, Travis have held a special place in her heart. It’s something their music has often done – and continues to do – for many others, whatever their critics might say.
So where did it go wrong for Travis? Of course, they live comfortable lives – Healy owns homes in New York, Berlin and London – and they no doubt still have loyal fans. They’re therefore unlikely to lie awake at night worrying about the haters. But the perception of the band as dreary and unimaginative, an act who only found fame because they jumped onto a bandwagon, remains pervasive. My reawakened fondness for ‘Flowers In The Window’ and my friend’s love of The Invisible Band might be by some considered – at best – guilty pleasures. Something must have provoked this. There have to be reasons why, and I really can’t hear them in the music.
Rewind to May 1997, three months before Oasis’ Be Here Now, and Travis’ debut album, Good Feeling, is flourishing amidst the delirium of Britpop. Though the band is generally considered perhaps a little over-earnest – especially in contrast to Manchester’s favourite siblings – reviews are ecstatic. Andy Gill of The Independent writes of “a new pop presence of impressive gifts and abilities,” concluding that Good Feeling is “undoubtedly one of the debuts of the year”. The New York Times is moved to announce that “Travis could be Britain's next revered rock standard-bearer,” and NME’s James Oldham declares it “a debut of spirited vigour and blatant (but glorious) commercialism. From here on in, the only perversity will be not to like them.” But such positivity is short-lived: a media backlash begins with their 1999 follow-up, The Man Who, which is largely savaged upon release. By 2007’s The Boy With No Name, the NME will consider their music “impotent aural gruel”.
“We had all the papers out in my living room in our little house in Crouch End,” Healy remembers of the week of The Man Who’s release, “because we were like, ‘this is a great record’, like you do every time. And it was like, ‘shit sandwich’. It was terrible. Q gave it two stars. It was a lead review. And they’d supported us! But they were so disappointed that this album was so different from our first album, which was rocky and glammy. And when we did our NME interview, the journalist was like, ‘I really like the record’. We were like, ‘great’. But he’s like, ‘It’s commercial suicide, I’ve got to be honest with you.’”
Looking back, Travis seem to have been cursed with the damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t conundrum that every acclaimed band faces with a new release: do you stick with, or mess with, the formula? Travis had chosen not to repeat themselves, though arguably this wasn’t even a conscious decision: Healy’s neighbour was simply “a mental case. If you creaked the floorboards then he would scream at you from underneath. So I wrote the entire record really quietly, and all these quiet songs came out.”
It could have gone either way, but some who’d wanted more of the same good feelings that Good Feeling had offered were extravagantly disappointed by Healy’s new, more sensitive approach. There’s little doubt, however, that others would have railed against the band had they merely replicated their earlier sound. Sometimes you just can’t win. Expectations are a bummer.
Somehow Travis survived the critical mauling, though the real commercial turnaround only began with their appearance at Glastonbury a month or so later, when, at the end of an otherwise sunny day, the heavens opened above the main stage as the band launched into ‘Why Does It Always Rain On Me’. Intriguingly, the band initially failed to recognise the impact this had had on their audience, much as Bono had left Wembley after Live Aid feeling that “I had just shot U2 in the head in front of a billion viewers”.
“We’re like, ‘Fuck!’” Healy remembers of a moment that soon entered Glastonbury folklore, “because it was an average show, I felt. We all felt. And when it rained, everyone was in their summer clothes and they’re miserable. We did the rest of the gig, walked off, and we were all a bit depressed about it. Got home, got back about midnight. I switched on the telly on BBC 2 and there was Jo Whiley and John Peel and they were talking about us! ‘Travis, Travis, Travis, Travis!’ That was the tipping point.”
When the song was released as a single a few weeks later, it reached the UK Top 10, and far-sighted, ingenious TV marketing on the part of their label at the time, Independiente – who initially targeted small spots in Scotland, immediately identifying significant uplifts in sales and investing in a long term, wider campaign – helped breathe further life into the band’s profile.
“The Man Who went in at number nine, I think,” Healy recalls of its release, “which was a real good result. But then it started to drop pretty quickly. We were all going round saying, ‘bye! See ya!’ And then it started to go the other way. None of us knew why, but by Christmas they’d managed to keep the album in the Top 10 just by telly advertising. Scary amounts of records being sold every week: 200,000 records, 300,000 records a week round about Christmas. We didn’t even sell that in our first four months!”
It looked like the final victory was going to be Travis’.
“At the end of the year,” Healy grins, “Best Record la la la la la. Q gave us three awards. Even Melody Maker: I got the Haircut Of The Year! NME put us on the cover!”
But success came with a price. Travis’s music was now unavoidable, ‘Why Does It Always Rain On Me’ swiftly reduced to an ubiquitous, perversely feel-good busker’s staple alongside R.E.M.’s ‘Everybody Hurts’.
“The TV advertising,” Healy says, “sold, like, three million records in Britain, that one album. Andy (MacDonald, Independiente boss) got us these framed discs that I’ve never hung on the wall. It’s about three metres long with nine platinum discs in it. It’s a joke! You’d see it in a parody of a rock and roll documentary. That made me think, ‘Maybe we pushed it too far’. And that spoiled it a little bit for us. Everyone’s sick of you! Even I was like, ‘fucking take this shit off the radio now! Really! Will you go away?’
“But once it’s out, it’s out. You create this thing you didn’t mean to create, and it’s suddenly out of your control. And we ushered in – for better or for worse, unknowingly or unwittingly – another slew of bands. The record companies were like, ‘Let’s sign all the bands that sound a bit like that because we’ll sell records.’ And we get the tag of the guys that opened that door, same as The Strokes opened the door for all the bands that began with ‘The’ and were a bit jagged and spiky.”
So is this the reason that people hate Travis? It’s a simple case of overexposure? Or is it that the success of The Man Who – and its follow-up, 2001’s The Invisible Band – was achieved without the permission of tastemakers? Could it be that the widespread appreciation of Travis’ music by the masses – the great, unwashed, McDonalds-eating masses – provokes unthinking prejudice on the part of those whose raison d'être is to revel in the undiscovered, their taste evidence of their independence and superiority? Whatever the answers, Healy is at least able to smile about it.
“I got speaking to a girl at a flat warming party in Williamsburg around Barack Obama’s first election. She was in a band. Her name was Angel! We chatted about this, and then she asked what I did. ‘I sing too,’ I said. ‘Oh, what’s your band called?’ ‘Travis.’ She gawped. ‘Noooo! You're that guy?’ I checked her band that evening: Dirty Projectors.”
He laughs again. Fran Healy laughs a lot.
“She's not in the band any longer. Maybe they found her Travis stubs.”
The fact is, Healy seems largely unconcerned about what people might think of his band, content knowing that there are enough people out there who have experienced moments like my friend and I did, moments where Travis’ music has transcended our mundane existence and transformed it into something almost mystical. To him, it’s keenly apparent, very little else matters.
“The most important thing about music is to be transported,” he insists. “It’s about real magic. Not like Penn and Teller or Paul Daniels! When you’re in a studio or when you’ve written a song, and all the things coalesce like that and disappear, and you can just record that moment where it all goes ‘Woop!’ If you can catch that… It’s almost impossible. It’s like the Higgs Boson. It’s elusive. You can’t see it. It’s just like stabbing in the dark. But if you stab in the dark and you get it and pull it out of the room, you can then go to other people and they hear it. They’ll get that same magic. Real magic! You just happened to be there when it happened and you recorded it before it disappeared.
“It’s got nothing to do with you or me or bands,” he continues. “Sadly we live in such a culture that that’s somehow important, but in fifty or a hundred years, it’s not. When the band is invisible, and you’ve died and I’ve gone, some kid might pull it off the shelf and go…” He takes a deep breath. “It’s like breathing in something. Have you ever heard the poem ‘The Skunk’ by Seamus Heaney? There’s a great line: ‘The aftermath of a mouthful of wine was like inhaling you off a cold pillow.’”
It’s true that great music can indeed transport you. This, for some people, is precisely what Travis do best. They provide a sense of unity – as they did at Glastonbury in ‘99 – and offer consolation when most needed. Were they to fail at this it might be easier to understand the sceptics, but the evidence that they succeed is ample. Still, some resent the manner in which they do it: Travis wear their heart on their sleeves, and have no shame in doing so. Perhaps the problem, therefore, is that music is for many – especially within the media – an intellectual exercise. To judge its value, one must rationalise its appeal. Sentiment and magic, however, are hard things to explain. Why do certain songs make the hairs on one’s neck stand up and others not, and never for us all? This isn’t a question most people can answer.
These are things to which Healy’s perhaps not previously – or at least not recently – given much thought. I’d written to him in advance of our meeting to say that I wished to address the manner in which people think of his band, and he’d responded at length, acknowledging what I had referred to as potential “misconceptions”, but accepting that certain of these “are sacred, ground into the very lens we project the idea of ourselves through and so almost impossible to correct. In a sense, these inconsistencies should perhaps be left in place if only to preserve our id.”
Nonetheless, the longer we talk, the more he immerses himself in the conversation, as though it’s giving him an opportunity to consider things in a different light. We discuss the struggle that people have communicating the emotional connection a song can make.
“What it is,” Healy muses, “is that the guy who wrote it, he wrote it because he couldn’t say it. So he had to sing it. And you as a journalist then have to say what he couldn’t say but had to sing. If you look at lyrics, you couldn’t possibly write it to someone. But you’ve got poetry, and then you’ve got lyrics, which have got melody attached to them. Singing is an elevated form of storytelling. If I wanted to say to Nora, ‘Jesus, what’s wrong with you? Why don’t you ever sing to me? Why don’t I ever hear you in the bath singing?’ it just sounds like an attack. ‘Sing’, on a personal level, that’s about Nora. ‘Driftwood’ is about Nora, and ‘Driftwood’’s a killer lyric saying, ‘You’re a fuck-up, you really are. You just don’t make use of what you’ve got.’ But if you sing it to someone…”
He smiles at the thought, before reaching for a handful of French fries.
“Anyway, your job is to bring it back down to earth again, and it’s kind of an impossible task.”
With Travis, I suggest, the mystery that people might find in a Sunn O))) record or an Animal Collective record is also missing. Healy’s band works with timeless, traditional pop constructions that look back to the era of great songwriters. Their songs sound like they’re crafted; like Healy sat down to write rather than merely build something around a riff he found appealing. So perhaps people don’t know how to respond to that. Their neophiliac tendencies lead them instead towards novelty and weirdness and strange little sounds.
“Maybe,” Healy ponders, genuinely caught up in our debate, “it’s that journalism is a cerebral thing, and our music is an emotional thing. All the journalists I usually meet are thinkers. They’re less inclined to be emotional people. I think where Travis, or certain songs – not even us – can get, there’s an emotional part to it, and there’s also a little bit of something else. It’ll hit you, but the cerebral part has to be just a little dash of salt, because if it’s too wordy then it goes into this other place that’s not emotional. That’s interesting, but it’s cold. It’s dead. I can’t make that because it doesn’t move me. I want to be moved. I think going to church when I was a little kid - I don’t like religion at all - but the best part of it was all the hymns, and hearing everybody singing. I didn’t know the words, but it moved you. None of it was cerebral.”
So, in a sense, Travis operate at a primitive, instinctive level?
“Yeah,” he swiftly agrees. “It’s the reason why they put music into religion. Because it moves people. One of the biggest and most impactful musical moments ever was this weird night that we had in Glasgow. My friend’s father was a writer, and Stuart from Belle And Sebastian was the friend of my friend’s sister, and I was a friend of the other sister. And both me and Stuart would go to this house. Before he made records he was a journalist and wrote for a magazine called M8, and I was in my band, Glass Onion, and we were doing our first gigs. I always knew Stuart as this cardigan-over-the-hands guy who was slightly annoying, but I kind of liked him because he was genuine.
“So they had this night where this guy was going away to some place in America, and everyone went: Belle And Sebastian were there, we were there, all the bands were there. And a guitar’s being passed around, and Stuart did a song. I did a song. It was the first time I’d ever done anything like that. I’d just written it, and our band were all watching and I fucking nailed it. It was so good! Argh! It was amazing! I remember Stuart had done his bit, and I, like, fucking annihilated him! It was so quiet. It was perfect.
“So the night wore on, and at the end of the night I was thinking, ‘triumph!’ And everyone’s waiting for the taxi in the other room, and the lights went up, and there were maybe about twenty people in the room – all different ages, old people, young people – and the wife of this writer said, ‘Margaret’, to this old lady sitting beside me, ‘up and sing a song.’ So this woman stood up in the middle of the room, and she clasped her hands together in front of her, and she sung. It was a Gaelic song, so I had no idea what she was singing about, but about thirty seconds into it I started getting really emotional. And then I started crying. And then I turned around, and there was about fifteen other people in the room going ‘fuck!’ Big, red faces. And I thought, ‘fuck me! She just blew everyone away!’ I didn’t know what that woman was singing and yet it moved me to tears. Maybe it’s not a cerebral thing. It’s not about words. We add words like you add artificial flavours.”
Arguably, much of our response to music is guided by the context in which we hear it. It can be affected by what we’ve just heard, or our current levels of patience for a particular style. Put your collection on shuffle and you’ll be amazed how different something can sound when taken out of its familiar frame of reference: the song that normally precedes it. Similarly, emotional circumstances can guide our reactions, and the right song at the right moment can be transformed by even the most banal of conditions.
“It’s not about bands,” Healy happily concurs. “It’s about people and the context of things. I did a really fun thing with my friend that he keeps going on about. I sent him the song ‘Reminder’ from the new record, and said, ‘I know which way you go to work, so when you go over Waterloo Bridge I want you to press play. That’s where I want you to hear this song’. And he’s going ‘Context! Jesus, fuck!’"
Healy grins and takes another swig of wine before continuing.
“You don’t remember me. You don’t remember anything. All you remember is how it felt. It had nothing to do with a band. How rude to even mention a band! It has nothing to do with a band. That’s how I grew up listening to music. I didn’t know bands. Bands are like badges. They’re not important and they’re swappable. But memories, the memories that you attach to things, are far more powerful.”
If you doubt how important context is to a record that really means something to you, play a tune to someone else whose opinion you value, and notice how you start to hear it through their ears, doubting your own conviction. The associations it has for you – conscious or subconscious – are absent for that person, so its impact depends not just upon what they’re hearing but their own mood, and indeed everything around them, at that precise moment.
Sometimes, too, we share music not just out of joy, but to seek reassurance that our taste is ‘acceptable’, and this – just possibly – is also something that has caused Travis to suffer. Critics, see, often hunt in packs, and music fans in general aren’t so different. Developing informed opinions about music is a surprisingly exhausting task when deluged every day with countless records, their publicists eager to secure coverage while editors await verdicts. Once a handful of influential journalists have loudly decided at the back of a venue that a new record is either abhorrent or outstanding, it’s often simpler to adopt the ruling of peers than investigate further independently. Just look at the speed at which judgements were made about Daft Punk’s latest release. Furthermore, to question the prevailing opinion takes energy that might be best used elsewhere. Worse still, it might suggest ignorance. It could even affect one’s status in the pack: dissent often breeds rejection, after all. In the rush to form an opinion, therefore, perhaps some people don’t take into account the factors that have influenced their assessment beyond the songs themselves. They simply accept received wisdom. This, I concede, is perhaps what led me to consider other bands “a bit Travis” without really ever having delved into Travis’ work itself. It’s something Healy understands.
“If you’ve got preconceptions,” he reasons, “it all adds up to being not so good. But context… Hearing a song on the radio and it stopping you in your tracks still gets me. You just want to know who that is so you can get it and try and forget who it was and just listen to the song. It’s yours. You own it. If you don’t know who it is, it becomes more yours. But if it comes with a press kit then the game is over.
“In a sense, The Man Who – the record that we spoke about earlier, that everyone had given bad reviews to and then later went back to and sort of went, ‘ah, no, it’s alright actually’… That made me cynical a little bit. But, on the surface, maybe that’s it. How can you taste a glass of wine unless you let it breathe? With some records you can’t just sit down. I think there’s loads of records that maybe slip through the cracks critically that are great. But the pressure’s enormous if you’re getting 750 records a year. Fuck! It’s mindboggling!”
Healy, it turns out, is in no mood to criticise the media or those who loathe his band. He’s come to terms with the fact that there are people out there who dislike his music.
“The flak you get, you’re just, ‘pfff’,” he smiles. “Fair enough. You just take it. What can you do about it? You can’t fight it because you don’t know where it’s coming from.”
No doubt his success would have given him the luxury of ignoring this flak even if he weren’t an easy-going, charismatic man, but Healey seems genuinely more intrigued to learn about the possible reasons behind the insults than to waste time getting upset about them. Ironically, this might be another reason as to why people struggle with Travis: Healy, just like his music, is really, really nice. In music, ‘nice’ people are often considered bland, whereas the musicians we often celebrate most are provocative and outrageous if, in many cases, unlikeable. In a world in which many of us continue to subscribe to the legend of rock ‘n’ roll, perhaps summarised best by Bill Hicks in one of his memorable rants – “When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children? I want my children listening to people who fucking rocked! I don't care if they died in pools of their own vomit! I want someone who plays from his fucking heart!” – there’s little room for a band as polite and ‘nice’ as Travis. They might be playing from their heart, but it isn’t bitter, broken or diseased.
It’s a problem Healy recognises. In his earlier email, he’d suggested that, “maybe what makes our band special is so hard to put into words that the more powerful brush strokes used in the media don't get down into those micro-cracks. My media face – that of a sonnenkind [German for 'child of the sun'] – is the first hurdle. How could that doe-eyed cunt be anything other than that? My songs are simple to a perplexing degree. This is annoying...”
He repeats this belief when we meet. “I think I’m the problem,” he says, “because I’m the face of the band. If I meet an interviewer, I’m always very courteous. I’m not like, ‘I’m up here’, and neither do I say, ‘You’re up there’. I’m just eye-to-eye. That’s just the way I am. Maybe it’s this thing where you’ve got a spotlight on the ground, a lit area, and it says ‘Rock Star’ on it, but it’s an attitude, that. And then there’s another one that says ‘Normal’. You’ve got to choose which one you want. But that ‘nice’ word: ‘nice’ is boring. ‘Yeah, he’s nice but…’ ‘Nice but dim.’”
Healy’s made his choice, and it’s meant that people are willing to portray him and his music as vapid. But it’s an attitude that, surprisingly, resonates with others to whom he otherwise has little obvious connection. Some two years ago, Steve Albini told GQ: “Most people in their daily lives are pretty reasonable. A lot of people that end up being in bands give themselves license to act like assholes because they’re involved in music. If they didn’t see the music world as separate from the real world, most people would continue to behave honorably in their interactions with the music scene… You don’t act like an asshole when you go to the barber. So why act like an asshole when you’re in a band?”
The answer is that it gives the media, and their audience, something to talk about when they can’t articulate anything more complex about the music itself, and sometimes when there’s nothing else to discuss anyway.
“This is why we called our third album The Invisible Band,” Healy goes on. “That’s in a way what we felt like at the time. We had all this huge success, pumped by steroids, but no one knew who we were. And I kind of liked it. All the bands that I liked weren’t there in my face on the radio bugging me. And I thought, ‘I’d love to aspire to be that band’. All those bands that are invisible, that are not in the media. Joni Mitchell is not in the media. Neil Young was not in the media. Bob Dylan’s not in the media. They’re invisible. You can just hear the music and go, ‘Aaaah’.
“The title was an acknowledgement of how we were perceived at that time, because nobody knew us, and yet we were the biggest band in Britain. And not even arguably: by a fucking mile! We did a piece – I think it was Q, or Select – and they took us round Glasgow, and we went to the Horseshoe Bar where we rehearsed above. And we went down and had lunch in the bar underneath. It was all full – because they do a cheap lunch – of all these old ladies and other people. And the manager of the bar comes up. He’s all like, ‘hey lads, wahey! Fucking well done! Here: check this out.’ Opens up the karaoke machine. This is 1pm in the afternoon. He’s like, ‘get up and do a song, wee man’, and he gives me the mike and cues up ‘Why Does It Always Rain On Me’. And the song comes on, and I just thought, ‘fuck it: I’ll do it. It’s funny.’ And I started singing, and at the end of it all the ladies are clapping, the people are clapping, and this one lady leaned over and said, 'you know that sounded just like the record!' She didn’t know who I was!”
The recollection is obviously one he’s fond of. It seems he’d rather be liked by a seventy year-old grandmother than celebrated in the NME.
“Oh, yeah,” he replies without hesitation. “They’re such fussy fucking listeners!”
So you’ve never been concerned about being thought of as hip? I ask as we drain our glasses.
“At any point? No. Never! I’m working class. Do you know any working class hip people? I don’t. You don’t have time when you don’t have money to be fucking hip! Hip is a luxury! It’s a luxury trip! That’s all it is. You either are or you’re not. You’re either exposed to culture and cool stuff or... Take The Strokes. I’m highly envious of The Strokes in a strange way. I know them: they’re fucking refined finishing school boys who all come from really incredibly, amazingly rich backgrounds, not just money-wise but culturally. It’s very clear that they are like that because they were given all that opportunity. But hip as we know it is unachievable. So just be yourself.”
The waitress brings over the bill. Healy makes it clear there’s no question of me even offering a tip.
“My grandpa was the coolest guy in my life,” he concludes as he offers his card. “He wasn’t pretentious. He just was being himself. The Strokes to me are cool because they’re just being themselves. They’re not trying to be cool. If you just be who you are then you’re cool. Hip is a different thing. I like the distinction between hip and cool. We’ve never been hip! To answer your question: Ne… ver!”
At the end of the day, all of this is irrelevant, so long as we make up our own minds. All sorts of things can colour our feelings for a band – whether positively or negatively – and the only thing that matters is that we acknowledge this and remain true to our own gut instincts. Sure, to some, Travis may indeed be dull. They may think that way because their friends have condemned them, because the media have said so, because they’re sick of the sound of them, or because Fran Healy is a “doe-eyed cunt”. They may even – God forbid – have spent time with Travis’ music and given it careful consideration, reaching the conclusion that they’d rather have their eyelids chewed by rats.
But there’s a reason why so many others care about them. You may or may not hear it when Where We Stand reaches the stores later this year. The record’s unlikely to revolutionise your opinions. It’s dripping with gentle, lingering melodies, generous sentiment and all the other things for which Travis are known. All the same, you owe it to yourself to ask why you love or dislike them. This may lead you to question what it is that makes you love music itself. Whether such contemplation reinforces your opinions or leads to you to reassess them is ultimately unimportant. What matters is that you take the time to listen and form your own thoughts.
A few hours later – after we’ve been joined excitedly by my friend, the one who broke down in LA while listening to The Invisible Band; after we’ve gone to see Jenny Hval perform and Healy has left us at the bar to sit in the front row for the duration of the show, emerging so enthusiastic at its end that he buys a copy of her record and asks her to sign it; after we’ve retired to a nearby bar to drink and smoke cigarettes until the small hours of the morning – we step out onto the streets to find taxis home.
“I’ve had an idea,” Healy calls out as we hail a passing cab. “You know what your article should be about? You should redefine the word ‘nice’.”
Well, then, let’s talk about that. Wouldn’t it be nice.
Travis’s new album, Where You Stand, is released on August 19 by Red Telephone Box. The title track is available now as a single