Travis: The Men Who Rock

Upbeat rockers get set for more studio magic, but can they top their The Man Who success?

By Jennifer Elks

It doesn't sound like such a rough job, being a conduit for great music.

That's how frontman Fran Healy, 27, sees his band, Travis. The Scottish rock darlings believe their deeply personal-yet-universal music comes through them rather than from them.

"A band's a medium, like the radio, television, a CD player or whatever," Healy said as he reclined on the band's tour bus with bassist Dougie Payne, 27, during an April stop on their tour with Oasis. "A band needs a song in order to function, in order to get on the radio. But once the song's on the radio, it doesn't need a band."

Along the way to moving more than 3 million copies of their second album, The Man Who, since its May 1999 UK release, Travis have sold out several rounds of U.S. dates this year. The band also headlined two of Britain's biggest festivals — Glastonbury and T in the Park, and it will lead V2000 in late August.

At these shows, the band has been previewing material from its forthcoming third album, tentatively titled Afterglow — expected next April or May — including "Coming Around" (released as a single in the UK in June) and "Safe."

The upbeat pop harmonies of "Coming Around" and the sweetness of "Safe" will pervade the new record, Healy said, with nothing like the frantic "Blue Flashing Light"-type (RealAudio excerpt) songs of previous albums.

The Lighter Side Of Sound

"You can hammer your guitars and make lots of noise, but the quietest voice in the world can say so much," Healy said. "There will be times when we do heavy songs. Sometimes it's called for, but every other band's doing heavy songs. I'm just bored of it, you know? I think it's a cop-out to put big heavy guitars on things now. I think it's more daring to not do it."

After a three-week break in August, Travis will return to the States in September for another round of dates. October will find them recording Afterglow in Los Angeles with producer Nigel Godrich, who also worked on Radiohead's acclaimed 1997 album, OK Computer.

"We're gonna absorb a bit of sunshine," Payne said. "I think it's gonna be quite an optimistic record. It's going to sound like Ricky Martin," he quipped.

But the lighter tone of the material the band's playing these days doesn't just reflect the fact that Travis have had a great couple of years. Some of the songs, such as "Flowers in the Window" and "Safe," predate their huge commercial success. The latter tune, written about eight years ago when Healy was still a teen, reflects the idea that people crave emotional safety in an increasingly complex world.

The newer tracks mine a decidedly upbeat vein. "The Man Who is quite an inward-looking record," Healy said. "There's a lot of thinking about what's inside yourself and whatnot. I think the [new] songs are kind of optimistic because they're outward-looking."

No matter what their mind-set is going into the studio, they never really know what direction the recording will take until the red light comes on and they begin to play, Healy said.

"Serendipity," Payne agreed. "It's a marvelous thing."

An Unspoiled Act

The notoriously nice quartet has remained so, even in the face of several Brit Awards (the British equivalent of the Grammys) and the adulation heaped upon them by the fair-weather British press. Sometimes success can spoil an act and taint their artistic output (does the name Oasis ring a bell?). But so far, there's no sign of that with Travis.

Example: During a July 17 Travis show at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium, Healy asked every member of the audience to go out and do something nice for someone without expecting something in return, just to spread positive energy.

"Having a humanity about you is almost, like, more rebellious," Payne said.

The band began as the Glass Onion in Glasgow in 1991. After some lineup changes, singer/songwriter/guitarist Healy, Payne, lead guitarist Andy Dunlop, 28, and drummer Neil Primrose, 28, changed their name to Travis — after the main character in the Wim Wenders film "Paris, Texas." They financed their first single, "All I Want To Do Is Rock" (RealAudio excerpt) with a loan from Healy's mother.

Their feel-good 1997 debut, Good Feeling, produced by Steve Lillywhite (known for his work with U2, Peter Gabriel and Morrissey), featured punchy power-pop and catchy melodies. Godrich lent his signature production style to 1999's The Man Who, capturing a sumptuous sound that led to Radiohead comparisons. Filled with lush arrangements, engaging melodies and Healy's soaring voice, The Man Who is a sincere, intimate and personal second album. The LP generated four top 20 singles and was voted 1999's album of the year by every major music magazine in Britain.

Travis' earnest approach is reflected in their simple, gorgeous melodies and the pictures they paint about love and longing. Songs such as "Luv" (RealAudio excerpt) and "As You Are" delve into the complexities of romantic relationships without being sappy or trite.

"Our task is just to write great tunes with words that could mean something," Healy explained. "A little beat to tap your foot along to, a little bit of humor in there to smile to, something for the heart. And that's it. I don't want to get too indulgent."

Stateside Success

U.S. fans began buzzing about Travis early this year, judging from the sold-out crowd that greeted them at San Francisco's Bottom of the Hill in January. The band rocked through several tunes from Good Feeling, but the dynamic performance showcased The Man Who.

Toward the show's end, Healy and Payne obliged requests for their acoustic cover of Britney Spears' mega-hit "...Baby One More Time." The uninitiated laughed when they realized what was being played, but they were soon nodding and singing along when the honesty of Travis' stripped-down version revealed the song's genius.

More surprises were in store. The U.S. pressing of The Man Who (April 11) came with three songs unavailable on the UK version: the aggressive "Blue Flashing Light" and two acoustic B-sides, "Twenty" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Only Molly Knows" (RealAudio excerpt).

The extra songs were released as hidden tracks to keep them from disrupting the album's cohesive feel. "If you put ['Blue Flashing Light'] into that room with all the songs from The Man Who album, it'd smash the place up," Payne said.

Beyond their talents and work ethic, some industry observers attribute part of Travis' success to the fact that they filled the Brit-rock slot when their peers began to falter. "With Radiohead keeping a low profile and Oasis losing it a little, I think serious music fans needed something to get their teeth into," said Claire Sturgess, DJ at London radio station XFM. "Travis came along at the right time."

But the lads say they aren't going back into the studio with the idea of creating another #1 album. Instead, they'll just keep playing until the magic kicks in.

"You follow the groove and the thing will reveal itself to you," Healy said. "You just feel totally charged, like sticking your finger in a light socket."