Humility is not generally hardwired into a musician’s DNA. The very nature of writing songs that are designed to touch an audience, of spending hours, days and weeks travelling the road so you can stand on a stage and soak up the adoration of those with whom the songs have communicated, doesn’t lend itself to the introverted and unassuming. But Travis – however much we might think we know about them – aren’t like other bands. It’s not that they lack ambition: they’ve existed now for a quarter of a century, and you don’t continue working as a band unless you have something to contribute that’s as significant as in your early days. But there’s something different about these four men. It’s something that’s kept them together as a band for 25 years, something that’s kept them writing and recording songs that have in turn kept them in the hearts of music fans around the world. It’s arguably indefinable, no doubt the result of the consolidation of many factors, but at its heart lies one rare but remarkable quality: modesty.
Everything At Once positively overflows with conviction and confidence, the sound of a band once again locating their special chemistry and relishing it. But, at less than 33 minutes long, it’s unusually succinct, consciously purged of anything ostentatious or frivolous. Instead, seven of its ten songs – and the other three can hardly be considered decadent – are bold enough to sweep in and out of your life within three minutes. Characterised by Travis’ idiosyncratic blend of optimism and melancholy, sentiment and temperance – plus, above all, unforgettable melodies – songs like the uplifting ‘What Will Come’, the celebratory ‘Magnificent Time’ (a co-write with Keane’s Tim Rice-Oxley) and the galloping title track, as much as the gorgeous ‘Idlewild’ (Healy’s first duet, recorded with Josephine Oniyama), the aching ‘Strangers On A Train’, the comforting ‘3 Miles High’, and the wry ‘Paralysed’ (with backing vocals by opera singer Alfie Boe), prove that Travis remain one of our most precious musical treasures. Much like the group that wrote them – one that once knowingly entitled an album The Invisible Band – these songs appear unassuming, and yet they endure longer than anyone might ever expect. Their success is unquestionable, but any explanation is elusive. That’s the magic that makes up Travis.
Such alchemy is something that singer and guitarist Fran Healy – who joined Andy Dunlop (guitar) and Neil Primrose (drums) in Glasgow band Glass Onion, before recruiting best friend and fellow Glasgow School of Art student Dougie Payne (bass) to transform it into Travis in 1990 – finds equally hard to define. “We’re not like all the other bands,” he says. “We’re weird. It’s a dead hard thing to put into words.” The thought, in fact, makes him surprisingly wistful. “You don’t really think about it until you really look at it,” he sighs fondly. “You think people change, but you don’t. You stay exactly the same as you were when you were 18 if you hang around with the same people as when you were 18. And when we all stood in a room together for the first time, it was like” – his voice drops to an awed whisper – ‘Ah, this is so good!’”
It’s something with which Payne agrees. “Whenever we get together,” he laughs, “we regress to the age we were when we first met! Despite all the water that has passed under our collective bridge, it still feels weirdly fresh.” Primrose, for his part, refers to “what was in the early days called the 'stupid factor', which I suppose was our way of describing the blind faith or intuition that we’d eventually get where we needed to be, no matter which road had to be taken or for how long.” Dunlop, additionally, points out how, “there's not many bands that have lasted 25 years with the same lineup, so I think by preserving that we’ve secured what is special about the band.” But, he acknowledges, “we’re a different band, in much the same way as, at 43, I'm a different person than I was at 18. We’re not necessarily grown up, but I think we know much better now why the band exists. What started off as essentially a bunch of friends playing music together has grown into something like a family.”
This relationship is mirrored by Travis’ connection with their fans, who paved their path to success with an unquestionable devotion that has at times bypassed critics’ estimations and even the whims of fashion. As Primrose puts
it, “success arrived without permission.” The band would accept that their commercial peak was originally reached at the turn of the century – though Primrose breaking his neck in 2003 undeniably contributed to the deceleration of an until then unstoppable ascent largely fuelled by their second album, 1999’s The Man Who – but their last album, 2013’s Where You Stand, recorded after a lengthy sojourn, nevertheless shot to No. 3 in the UK charts, maintaining their healthy sales across the globe. To some, this was a surprise: after five years out of the spotlight following their last collection, 2008’s Ode To J. Smith, Travis might have seemed like a band who were, as they themselves had once admitted in one of their own songs, “tied to the 90s”. But Where You Stand proved that Travis had always stood apart by virtue of the fact that their music is – despite its ability to weld itself mentally to specific occasions – utterly timeless.
“Even back in Glasgow,” Healy reminisces, “we were never part of all the bands that were kicking about. We were always on the perimeter, on the outside looking in. And, once in London, we were on the periphery of Britpop. We weren’t really part of it. We’re kind of outsiders, and we always have been.” Dunlop confirms the sentiment. “The great thing about being in Travis,” he says, “is that I feel, even at our most popular point, we never really fitted in. So there’s never really been that longing to adjust to anything culturally. It's much nicer to follow your own path and grow naturally than to engineer yourself to whatever the current climate dictates.”
That path took Travis from the acclaimed, rocky sounds of 1997’s Good Feeling to the unexpected success of The Man Who, an album initially dismissed by critics but which wormed its way into the world’s hearts, helped by a memorable appearance at Glastonbury, when the heavens opened to greet the evergreen ‘Why Does It Always Rain On Me’. The Invisible Band matched this success, while 2003’s rather darker 12 Memories was even lauded by Elton John. But though their profile and sales remained impressive through 2007’s The Boy With No Name and then Ode To J. Smith, the band knew that it was time to take a break.
“When it’s happening,” Healy says of the rollercoaster ride upon which their success launched them, “you’re like, ‘Fuck! We’re at Number one!’ And then it’s like a tsunami hits your whole life, and you pick yourself up ten years later. ‘What the fuck? What happened? Shit!’ Things change, especially when you get really successful. People who’ve been totally normal suddenly alter, because they can’t deal with whatever it is that’s happening. I think we’d just run out of petrol.”
They took a five year break before the release of Where You Stand, though not, Healy says, to preserve a friendship that he considers “unbreakable”, but to ensure the existence of the band itself. Indeed, Dunlop says the very thing that has kept them together is, quite literally, “time apart”. In fact, they now live in different cities: Healy’s based in Berlin, Dunlop in Liverpool, Primrose in the Lake District, while Payne divides his time between New York and Glasgow. But with typical unfussiness, they returned to the fray in a low-key fashion, self-releasing Where You Stand with just a VHS quality video – directed by Wolfgang ‘Good Bye Lenin’ Becker – to promote it. The album felt, in many ways, like a fresh start, a rawer, less polished recording that signalled the beginning of what might be seen as the band’s second chapter or, as Dunlop puts it, “a fresh lap in the band’s journey”.
With Everything At Once they took the lessons learned from making Where You Stand to heart, Healy taking his time to write and the band allowing themselves enviable space to record. The whole process took the best part of eighteen months, with Healy holed up in his room at Berlin’s legendary Hansa Studios, where they then set themselves up to record on a ‘two weeks on, four weeks off’ schedule. They took as their inspiration the condensed nature of the 7” single, something underlined by their experience of editing songs from the previous collection to suit the needs of radio. The goal was to keep songs under three minutes, or, as Healy puts it, “Don’t overstay your welcome. Be frugal with your writing. You can say everything you want to say. You don’t need four minutes to do it. Take Roy Orbison’s ‘Running Scared’: it’s two and a half minutes long, but it fucks with time ‘cos there’s so much going on it. I still listen to that song now and it’s 40, 50 years old. That’s a long song!”
The results represent Travis at their very best, the record tumbling by swiftly but leaving so many traces in its wake that it demands repeated attention. From the muscular title track’s energetic verses, Billy Cobham bassline, and indelible, inspirational chorus, to the railroad crossing bells sampled in Dunlop’s closing ‘Strangers On A Train’ – via ‘The Radio Song’, which, against a ‘How Soon Is Now’ shuffle, eulogises the concise nature of the kind of songs they sought to reflect during the album’s making, and ‘What Will Come’, which encapsulates the hopefulness at the centre of every truly significant personal relationship, not to mention the Wilco-esque ‘All Of The Places’ – Everything At Once is an intricately detailed, deceptively simple collection of classic Travis, distilled to its very essence.
Whether the album will return Travis to the commercial heights of their past is of little interest to the band. As Healy puts it, “What is success? There’s all these branches, and they’re all attached to one big trunk.” It’s most likely of little interest to their fans, too, because at Everything At Once’s core lies a typically modest goal, one summarised neatly by Payne. “Melody has always been king for Travis. It’s where it all starts and where it all ends up, with someone singing along to a song on the radio...”
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