Writing To Reach You: Travis Reflect On 'The Man Who'
Travis’ multi-million selling second album ‘The Man Who’ stands as a cultural touchstone for a very specific time in British music.
In 1998 Britpop had burned out almost completely and there was an appetite for something a bit more reflective and melancholy that captured the pre-millennial anxiety of the time. ‘The Man Who’s’ graceful beauty was a perfect record for that moment and connected on a huge level. 20 years later Travis’ singer and songwriter Fran Healy still can’t quite get his head around this weird but special time.
“It’s a mystery to me,” begins Fran from his new home in LA. “It definitely connected and maybe it connected because of the Britpop thing, that candle was just flickering and we had just lit ours. For a long time Travis never really played the game. We didn’t wear the clothes and we didn’t play the type of music that was in fashion. We’ve always been on the outside of it.”
It definitely wasn’t anticipated that these perennial outsiders from Glasgow would become the biggest band in the country but a series of serendipitous moments gradually brought them a wider, eager audience. “That unfasionablility went against us for a long time,” explains Fran. “But at one point everyone turned and looked in our direction.”
The most obvious moment was that famously magical Glastonbury performance in 1999, just a month after ‘The Man Who’ was released, when the heavens mysteriously opened during ‘Why Does It Always Rain On Me?’
“All the stuff that went against us suddenly didn’t matter,” says Fran. “All those things suddenly went for us. Within a year there were all these bands trying to sound like us.”
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The period before ‘The Man Who’ was very much a downtime for the band as they struggled to get a foothold in the Britpop saturated landscape. “We were a bit dejected. No matter what we had done on ‘Good Feeling’ nothing seemed to stick,” says Fran.
As the band decamped to France to record first with Mike Hedges then back in London with celebrated ‘Ok Computer’ producer Nigel Godrich, Travis began to piece a way forward on their own terms based around their own principals and belief in their songs.
“We had no expectations and no big grand plan,” explains Fran. “I remember Chris Martin on the radio talking to Jo Whiley and he was like, 'We’re going to be the biggest band in the world.' I remember hearing that and thinking, wow. I’ve never ever had that ambition. It’s better to just try and be the best band in the world. That’s where my head was at. There was no massive driving ambition.”
There was undoubtedly a sense though that this album had to work: “We were trying to write a really good record that we could be proud of. We weren’t riding high. It was like this is our last chance or else we’re on the National Express back to Glasgow.”
For a band drinking in the last chance saloon you might have expected them to go all out and put the kitchen sink into a massive collection of anthems. Instead though, Travis took the opposite approach and looked in on themselves to create a tender quiet masterpiece.
“The reason the album is so understated is just because that’s how I was feeling,” offers Fran. “It could even have been down to my downstairs neighbour banging the roof and telling me to shut up,” he laughs.
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The quiet storm of these idiosyncratic and gentle love songs and stories is what makes the album so enduring and timeless. “That’s why it’s such a good record,” asserts Fran. “It stands outside of everything and when you listen to it today it still sounds amazing. The songs, the production and the artwork, they all haven’t dated. The only thing that’s dated is us,” he laughs recalling his now greying thin hair, a long way from that zeitgeisty mohawk.
A key feature of ‘The Man Who’ was the bands strong visual aesthetic that crystallised during this period. From the famous logo to the iconic videos, full of ambition and defining moments, it was a period of great creativity for the band.
“When we came back after the first album i said we need to get great artwork and we need to have amazing videos. We made a concerted effort to do that,” recalls Fran.
Working with accomplished directors the band brought their cinema passions to life. “I actually went round to see Ringan Ledwidge who directed ‘Turn’ and ‘Coming Around’ last week in LA. We watched the Champions League final between Spurs and Liverpool. He’s a Liverpool fan so he was very happy.”
The Ledwidge directed video for ‘Turn’ is one of Fran’s fondest memories of this period. “I love the ‘Turn’ video because it was so dark,” he says. “The bit at the end with the kid about to be bottled, it just comes out of nowhere, the sheer ultra violence of it. The whole concept came from ‘Cool Hand Luke’, how many eggs can you eat? So it was how many pushups can you do?”
Another groundbreaking video was for the album’s first single ‘Writing To Reach You’. This one was a bit more dangerous though as Fran explains:
“I remember the Messerschmitt flying over me. The guy who was supposed to fly that plane was the same guy who’d flown a spitfire in the Steven Spielberg film Empire Of The Sun but he’d gotten an eye infection that morning and couldn’t do it. Everyone was getting really edgy because we had a Messerschmitt and no pilot. We eventually found someone but I was like, can this guy really fly a Messerschmitt because it’s an acquired skill? They were like, oh yeah, it’s fine.”
“So he’s flying over me and it was like 12ft over the ground as it went over me travelling at about 250mph, it was so loud with explosions going off everywhere and I was like, Oh my god. Sadly, a few years after that the pilot who was supposed to fly the plane and the plane itself perished as they flew into a mountain.”
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The vast success of ‘The Man Who’ made Travis one of the biggest bands in Britain but in many ways its legacy has shaped the band in recoiling from that superstar status allowing them to still prosper and thrive 20 years later. They weren't particularly set up for the whirlwind they experienced in 1999.
“It’s like a tsunami,” describes Fran. “You’re just sitting in your house and the next minute you’re swimming and you’re like, what happened? You didn’t expect it and you didn’t know what was coming. All your personal effects and everything gets scattered far and wide. You lose your friends and family and don’t know where you are and it takes six years or so to find them again and maybe they’re not the same as when you left them.”
“That whole experience for me was not a pleasant one,” he continues. “We weren’t trying to be this U2 megaband. Fame just hit us. Moving on from that we did ‘The Invisible Band’ and I realised I didn't enjoy being at that altitude. You have to be a certain type to function at that altitude. To write songs i think you have to be on the ground.”
Towards the end of their ‘The Man Who’ fuelled imperial period in 2002, drummer Neil Primrose suffered an accident that hardened the band’s resolve to take a step back.
“One of the most fortunate but unfortunate things that happened to us was Neil breaking his neck,” explains Fran. “We were almost falling apart by that point. We were up Mount Everest wearing trackie tops. After that everything has been to keep it at a distance.”
“We want to remain as much as possible the invisible band. We’ve always kept true to that and I'm really proud of that. We never let the business chew us up and spit us out. That’s what I learned from ‘The Man Who’.”
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‘Live At Glastonbury ’99’ is out now.
Words: Martyn Young
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