LONDON – You can’t sell as many records as Travis have without dividing opinion.
Like most bands that smash through the commercial ceiling — 1999’s breakthrough second album “The Man Who” sold 2.7 million copies in the U.K. alone — the Scottish four-piece count as many scorn pourers as they do devotees to their radio-friendly indie-rock.
Not that singer-songwriter Fran Healy is bothered. “Aye, it’s always been like that,” the Glaswegian tells me from his Berlin home. “Something happened to me the other day which summed it up. I sang (signature tune) “Why Does it Always Rain on Me?” on the radio, and it was magical, a real moment. I opened my eyes and the presenter was crying.
“Three hours later, I got into a taxi with a Polish driver. He asked me what I did for a living, so I played him “Why Does it Always Rain On Me?” on my phone. He just turned round and said (adopts excellent Polish accent), ‘If you want to get to the next level, I would work with other people if I was you. It is a bit narcissistic to think you can do it all on your own.’ ” Healy bursts out laughing. “It was the funniest thing, man! Just three hours before that, my song made someone cry. But that’s what it’s been like since we started, and nothing has changed. For every one person you touch, you get 200 people telling you you’re sh-t.”
It’s an anecdote that seems appropriate with Travis emerging from a five-year hiatus unsure what to expect from a world that has changed unrecognizably in their absence. Critics have never bothered Healy (“We’ve never been fashionable, but I find that fashionable things don’t tend to last”) but what has troubled him — if anything ever troubles such an extremely likeable and easy-going guy — was how Travis could operate, artistically and personally, in 2013.
In the five years since last album “Ode to J Smith,” all four members (Healy, guitarist Andy Dunlop, bassist Dougie Payne and drummer Neil Primrose) have had children, and although Travis “was left in a great place, there was no big fall-out,” an inevitable reassessing of priorities placed a question mark over the band’s future.
For Healy, that period of self-reflection led him to Berlin (“the best city in the world”), to release a solo record “because I was bored,” and to “become a father, grow up and catch up with myself.”
Splitting Travis was never on the agenda — “Coming from a broken family with divorced parents, there is something in me that really likes the idea of keeping things together” — but there was a certain relief when the four members reconvened more than a year ago and found the formula remained.
“It really was,” Healy says chuckling to himself, as he does quite often. “At the back of your head you think, ‘Oh God, how is this going to go?’ But when we rehearsed, it felt like we hadn’t stopped playing — really cool and lovely.”
Imminent seventh album “Where You Stand” is the unmistakable sound of a band doing, as Healy puts it, “What we were put on the planet to do.” In fact, it couldn’t sound more like Travis if it had been scientifically created in a laboratory with that exact intention: with an undercurrent of melancholy to their harmonious anthems, it breaks no new ground but will delight those already on board.
“Oh, definitely,” Healy agrees. “We have two sounds, the more unpopular sound like ‘Good Feeling,’ which is slightly edgier, and then we have this other one. And it’s that one that people know the best. It’s our true voice, and ‘Where You Stand’ is definitely that. We’re not trying to reinvent any wheel, just trying to find a new melody that you’ve not heard before that will get stuck in your head.”
For Healy, melody rules all to the extent he dismisses out of hand (very politely, of course) my attempt to dissect the meaning of the lyrics to “Where You Stand,” which, to these ears, seem to be an attempt by a 39-year-old man, juggling family and musical commitments, to make sense of his place in the world. “In song, don’t even think about the lyrics,” he says, “just sing along and lose yourself in them.”
Really? Are they that insignificant? “Really. When I’m writing it’s just the first thing out of my mouth and I don’t even know what it means. But if it works, if it fits with the melody, then leave it and let’s move on. Often, it is more after the event. ‘Mother’ — about the band, where we’re at, why the f-ck did we wait so long to get it back together again (laughs). But there is no overarching philosophical theme. It’s pop music.”
Healy’s belief in the transcending power of pop music is almost childlike and, unlike many of his peers, he is unfettered by the evolving face of an industry that seems incapable of keeping up with the times. Is that a naive stance?
“No, it’s not,” he attests, “because that is just how we consume music. That has changed since the start. But one thing that never changes is melody. All these things come after the currency of our business, which are songs. All bands should exist outside the sales of music. How boring is that? So as long as Travis can still write a tune that can get stuck in your head and get on the radio then we are in good shape. Once you’re on air, you become timeless.”
Tokyo plays host to Travis’ second full show of the year when they return to headline the thrice-a-year Hostess Club Weekender on Sunday.
“Japan is sort of like Britain, in that it’s an island and definitely different to everywhere else. I love it. It reminds me of home so much, they have, like we do, local quirks to their national identity and I love every part of it. We really enjoy it, and I know they enjoy us, too. It’s a mutual appreciation society.”
Hostess Club Weekender takes place at Yebisu Garden Hall in Meguro-ku, Tokyo, on June 8 and 9 (doors open at 1 p.m. on Saturday, 12 noon on Sunday; one-day tickets cost ¥7,900;  5424-0111). For more information, visit www.travisonline.com or www.ynos.tv/hostessclub.
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