"The difference between art and design" :: Interview with Travis
I'm pleased to have another entry this evening in our awesome guest-post series, an encore interview conducted by my roving reporter Brian London in California (who did the Superdrag piece in October).
This time I sent Brian off down the coast to the land of sunshine, traffic, and Disneyland to catch up with the guys from the literate and lovely Scottish megaband Travis about their new album, their songwriting philosophies and influences. Plus, he got some exclusive news about how the band is in talks to work with producer Steve Lillywhite again for their next album, a return to rock form. Read on -- and if you've never listened to Travis before, Brian ably handpicked a fine little mix at the end of the post, just to start you off solidly in the right direction.
INTERVIEW WITH TRAVIS
by Brian London
As I was led through the empty House of Blues in Anaheim, Travis’ manager looked back and offered the caveat that "the boys have just woken up and are waiting in the car park, hope you don’t mind doing this outside -- all very peace and love." I emerged outside into the cool southern California evening, and was greeted by one half of the group that Chris Martin of Coldplay recently claimed “invented his band.”
Fran Healy [lead vocals, songwriting and rhythm guitar] and Dougie Payne [backing vocals and bass] of Travis leaned up against the cement load-in ramp --looking just like the scene where William meets Stillwater for the first time in Almost Famous-- and greeted me warmly through their mild, yet present, Scottish brogue.
Yes, the wee music geek inside nearly had a coronary at the situation I found myself in.
In the twilight of the afternoon, I sat on the ground and chatted with one-half of the band have been rocking and rolling around the world for the last sixteen years, selling millions of albums, but more importantly staying true to what people gravitated toward Travis for in the first place; a band that is all about the songs and, as their first single announced to the world, just wants to rock.
THE NEW ALBUM
Brian: First, I want to congratulate you on a really great new record (The Boy With No Name, 2007). Fran, I heard that you gave up smoking. Did you do that before or after you had recorded the vocals for the album?
Your voice has always had a real clarity to it, but some of the vocals on this new record I think really come across as some of your best.
F: Thanks man. I’ve got to say for the vocals, maybe one or two of the songs I’m really proud of singing-wise, but most of the time I still have that feeling when you hear your own voice that you just can’t believe that’s what you sound like. But I do agree that it’s gotten better without cigarettes.
Like on which songs specifically?
F: Well, “Battleships” and “Under the Moonlight” I think are really good vocals. But the Under The Moonlight is a bit jiggery-pokery, lots of clever editing going on there. When I think about it, I’m probably more proud of the editing [laughs], but no matter.
I heard you guys wrote around 40 songs for this new record?
Dougie: Yeah, about that. I mean, we were recording for a long time, around two years. We would record sporadically and we ended up with around forty songs. But it wasn’t like we had forty songs written before we went into the studio.
So you guys would do a session, take some time, and then next time bring in another two or three tunes?
D: Exactly, so we ended up with about forty but we only mixed around twenty of them and then we picked the album from those twenty.
And regarding those other twenty, are there any plans to revisit them in the future?
D: There were a couple that were left unfinished, but you know, everything that’s usable I think was pretty much used. It’s strange now because with the way music is distributed you need three extra tracks for Japan, three different extra tracks for Europe and then b-sides! So I think it’s all pretty much used up.
"FLOWERS IN THE WINDOW"
That leads me into a question I had about your band's method for sequencing records in the past. Your song “Flowers In The Window” on The Invisible Band record wasn’t going to be included until the last minute, right?
F: With that song, we had recorded the album and that was a song we had never got better than the demo which was me, Dougie and Andy sitting around in France just playing it live in a room with a piano and 12-string guitar and us all singing. It just had is really cool vibe with we could never get better. But the song was strong so we tried to record it umpteenth times after that.
D: Had to been about six times right?
F: Yeah, so then we went to do this album The Invisible Band. And Nigel [Godrich, uber-producer behind Radiohead, Beck, Paul McCartney, Air] always hated that song. Really, really didn’t like it.
D: He really had a real problem with it.
F: And when Nigel doesn’t like something, you really know. So we just didn’t go near it. But it was really bugging me, so on the last day I phoned him at 7am, woke him up and naturally that pissed him off.
A great start to any persuasion.
F: A very good start. So I told him I really think we need to record Flowers and, I mean, he got really upset, what with that being the reason for me waking him. Anyway, to cut a long story short, we ended up in the studio arguing like cats and dogs over this, but we put it down and I think the version we got it okay. But the version we do live is much more true how it was meant to be [as they did that night, the band crowds around Healy, who is playing guitar, with arms around each others’ shoulders singing into the same mic]. The demo still really is the best version and it never saw the light of day.
Any chance of putting that out as a b-side?
D: That’s a good idea.
F: Well, actually, it is on the DVD as an extra. It’s video of us making the demo and it’s lovely.
Your band has always been really reliable for putting out quality extra tracks. “Just The Faces Change” to “Village Man,” there are a lot of great gems. Have you ever considered packaging them up for fans outside the areas where they are readily available?
D: Yeah, I think at some point we will put out some kind of compilation. There have been some ideas floating around. Like you said, there are a lot of places like America, South America, that can’t get hold of this or that track so it would be nice. Eventually we’ll get around to it.
Have you guys ever consciously tried to write a b-side, or do you just sequence the album and pull from what’s left over and hope it’s enough to satisfy the different bundles of extra tracks?
F: You can’t try to write a b-side or a-side, you just try to write a song and if enough people think ‘oh, that’s amazing’ then it’s obvious it’s an album track, or a single.
Was it that way with “Coming Around”? (A stand-alone single that came out in 2000 and was not featured on any album)
D: That was going to be a b-side wasn’t it?
F Yeah, we had a bunch of extra songs that we were recording and the record company guy said ‘that’s not a b-side that’s an a-side!’. I still don’t think it is. I mean it’s good but…
If not a single, do you think it might have been an album track?
F: I still feel it’s a b-side [laughs]. A really good b-side. But it just didn’t have that certain….I can’t put my finger on it.
D: You want to make sure you are happy with everything you put out. Sometimes we have to go into the studio and record b-sides just to be able to put out a single, but we still try to do the best songs we have at that point.
Is there a sense of freedom with b-sides, like, we’re going to try some experimenting and if it doesn’t work out we can always just relegate them to extra tracks?
F: Well, lately it’s been hard because when you’re headed towards an album you really want it to be great so you’re kind of restrained under the pressure of that. Kind of your own pressure I guess of trying to make a record you can listen to from being to end. And not only that, but a record you can take out and play live as well. I think it’s really hard to write really good up-tempo songs. It’s really easy to write a slow, mid-tempo burner of a tune.
I totally agree. It does seem that everyone I know who has tried to write songs, their first ones are always slow and sad.
F: It’s always going to be hard restrained to some degree and I think that does hurt the chances of cool, random things happening.
THE RECORDING PROCESS
Do you guys jam out the songs before recording to make sure they work live?
D: Not really because we record live pretty much, and especially with this record because we were doing it to tape most of the time, so if it didn’t work there we generally wouldn’t bother with it.
Do those backing tracks usually come fast?
D: We get the takes pretty quick. I mean, everyone gets an idea for a part and the song falls together pretty quickly.
And if the song isn’t falling together quickly, it’s a sign.
F: Yeah, totally. We just go and work on something else.
The band did a great studio blog while recording this album, and it always sounded like you’d come in, start a song around midday with a few takes, have a listen back and from that be able to pick the best and be done.
D: It’s funny, but more often than not it was the first one after dinner that we’d keep. Something to do with having a full stomach or whatever. I think time away from the takes really let the parts settle. It’s a weird thing, but true.
Are there any bands or sounds that you guys are big fans of, and you’ve tried to write songs or simply incorporate into what Travis does -- and it just hasn’t worked?
F: No, I’ve never felt the need to because I feel even if someone writes a song and you’re like ‘oh, that’s a great tune’ you can only express yourself. You can’t express anyone else. I think what happens a lot of the time.
For example, the song “As You Are” was born completely listening to a song by Grant Lee Buffalo called “Fuzzy,” and “Across The Universe” by The Beatles. I think it’s Across The Universe . . . [hums a little bit, Dougie chimes in and then they both nod to each other in agreement that it is, in fact, Across the Universe]. But it’s not done consciously. Things come into your little world and your brain starts connecting the pieces without even your conscious control over it. And then you record it and that’s what it becomes.
D: I think sometimes bands consciously will take that bit from this song and this bit from that song and string it together to get a result, but that’s not why we’re doing it. It really comes down to the difference between art and design. I think people will design songs for whatever reason, to fill stadiums or to try and have hits, but there has to be a distinction between that and the art of songwriting.
And I wonder if those artists look back years later and listen to the record and reminisce about the time when they put A and B together? Since you guys are in it for the process, you can lean back and remember sitting in a room in France with two of your friends having a cool moment actually creating something out of nothing.
F: Yeah, but we don’t listen to it two years later! [Both Fran and Dougie break into laughter]. We play them every night live so there is no need. I mean, sometimes I do and think ‘that’s nice’ or ‘that sounds great.’ I don’t think there are any songs where I’m like ‘oh God’.
Any that you would pluck off of an album if you could go back?
F: Yeah, maybe. I think “She’s So Strange” from The Man Who, “Safe” off The Invisible Band might have gone, to make more lean albums. Maybe…..I don’t know, there are a couple of songs.
D: But it’s not really worth thinking about. It is what it is, and I believed in it at the time and still do. By the time you’re finished making it, you’ve literally heard it hundreds and hundreds of times, and then you’re going to go out and play it for the following however-many years, so there really isn’t a need to go back and listen to it.
GOOD FEELING & LILLYWHITE
Here’s a question I’ve always wondered about the making of your first album Good Feeling -- your Scottish band worked with English Producer Steve Lillywhite in a studio in upstate New York. How did that string of events come together?
F: Steve had recorded The Dave Matthews Band at this studio in Bearsville that The Band set up and he really liked the assistants and the sounds and wanted to do it there, so we went.
D: We kind of thought, brand new band recording their first album, Steve Lillywhite is asking us to go to New York, it was just [laughs] well, alright! ‘Oh, we’re going to stay in Robbie Robertsons’ house? Where’s the ticket?!’ It was great.
The sound on that first record is a bit more rough around the edges and really seems to capture the energy of a young band who is excited to be in a real studio, see how loud the amps go and just having a blast. Not to say that you would want to repeat yourself, but would you ever think about maybe letting yourself return to that version of Travis?
F: Yeah. Definitely. I think the next record you’ll probably see that happen. We’re planning on that anyway. We’re going to go write for eight weeks, and then go record the album in a week just like we did with Good Feeling. I think the band is good enough to go and do that, you know. If we spend too long on the album it will end up sounding too slick and polished and there’s really nothing to hold onto.
And those cracks in the marble are usually what make a record interesting.
F: Interestingly we’ve been talking to Steve about producing again.
Is there anything written, or have you just been gathering up sketches?
F: There are a couple of ideas.
D: And a few of those unfinished ideas from the last record so we’ll see what happens.
F: I’m really excited, man. It should be really cool.
Where are you guys planning to go away and write this rock record?
D: Just going to head back home to London because we’ve been away for a lot of the year. So we’re going to get back and find a little cubbyhole.
Are you all located in London, or do any of you still live in Scotland?
D: Pretty much yeah. If not full time, we all have places there. Only Neil [Primrose, the drummer] lives up north.
F: But I think he can, because generally me, Dougie and Andy are the ones who are hands-on twiddling with ideas.
D: Neil will come in and nail his part in, like, never more than three takes. He gets really impatient with us fucking up our parts all the time!
Well, thanks a lot guys, and I’m looking forward to the show and the next record.
F & D: Thank you.
. . . And then Travis were off to soundcheck. The next time I saw them was their grand entrance to the stage. To the sound of the Rocky Theme, they entered from the back and moved through the crowd wearing silky boxer uniforms. They made it onto the stage and began with the fantastic new single “Selfish Jean.”
They rolled through the set of crowd-friendly singalongs, but kept it interesting by introducing tricks that only seasoned bands who know exactly how to control a crowd can pull off. One part that we all loved was when Fran asked the crowd for total silence while he showed what truly unplugged performance is. He unplugged his acoustic guitar, stepped back from the mic and belted out a beautiful version of the hymn-like extra track from The Man Who album called “Twenty.”
Travis is a band that upholds and respects the qualities which every band would value in an ideal world; pride in the craftsmanship of their art, giving the audience a show that embraces, amuses and entertains on every level. They also preserve that quality which seems to be the most difficult to maintain; the ability to be a complete success on every level while remaining as approachable and decent as they undoubtedly were when playing pubs in Scotland.
So raise your pints up high to another five albums worth of tunes that celebrate what can happen if you start a band for all the right reasons.
THE ‘WHO ARE TRAVIS?’ MIX
All I Want To Do Is Rock
Village Man (b-side)
The Connection (b-side)
As You Are
Just The Faces Change (b-side)
High As A Kite (b-side)
Twenty (bonus track)
Flowers In The Window (live in Santiago)
TRAVIS MIX ZIPPED
[photo above from Santiago, Chile show. Band pics from TravisOnline.com]
Related link: Check out Kevin at So Much Silence's review of the recent Arizona show