Along with Coldplay, Travis was once thought to be in line to succeed Radiohead atop the Britpop throne. Despite obvious differences in musical style and execution from Thom Yorke and his auteur buddies, these two bands were expected to fill some pretty perfect shoes.
While Coldplay has managed to carve out its own niche on the critical continuum, the same can't be said of Travis. The Scottish band's last three records -- The Man Who, The Invisible Band and this year's 12 Memories -- have been greeted by reviews that have become, over time, less rhapsodic and more cynical; the critics seem to expect the band to have outgrown the same old pair of trousers. What they forget is that it's often the oldest, most weather-beaten garments that provide the most comfort. That's the appeal of Travis's music: There are no great artistic strides being made, no experimental, flirting-with-insanity freakouts à la Radiohead. The critics can grouse away ad nauseam about the quartet's dearth of edginess, but what's there is still very good -- cuddly, comfortable, nonthreatening balladry.
Of course, the world is an edgier place now, and front man Fran Healy and company are not immune to the toxic cultural effects of 9/11, the war in Iraq and duplicitous world leaders, not to mention the shell shock brought on by a near-fatal accident suffered by drummer Neil Primrose, who fractured three vertebrae in 2002 after diving into too-shallow water at a hotel pool in France. No longer content with writing fluffy-bunny songs about love's labors, Travis has shifted its gaze in an angrier, sadder direction, lashing out, albeit obliquely, at Tony Blair and the United Nations ("The Beautiful Occupation" and "Peace the Fuck Out"), and placing meditations on domestic violence ("Re-Offender") alongside their standard, doe-eyed lover's laments.
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The political fare is not terribly overt -- there is no Dixie Chicks-style mouthing off on 12 Memories, and the political statement is not so much in the message but in the delivery. While critics rail against the admittedly sophomoric lyricism of "Peace the Fuck Out" ("You have a voice -- don't lose it / You have a choice -- so choose it / You have a brain -- so use it"), they miss an important, glaring addition to the Travis oeuvre: the F-bomb.
Bassist Dougie Payne chuckles in agreement. "I think maybe Franny was deliberately trying to provoke some kind of argument, not about politics but about censorship. There was a time last year when we were arguing the case about having the word 'fuck' on the back of the record. The newsagents were selling a newspaper with corpses on the front page, and it was like, 'What's unacceptable here?' A word, or this gruesome image in a newsagent's that children are walking into?
"The fact is that we all felt while making the record that we're living in frightening times with frightening leaders," Payne says. "We all felt that we were being lied to and that there were half-truths and misinformation being fed to the media. We just felt that nobody was getting the real story."
The problem, though, with not being the mouthpiece of a band is that your whole identity as an artist is sucked into someone else's words. The other members of Travis must find ways to distinguish themselves. "You've got to be fairly vigilant about maintaining your own identity as a person within that kind of structure but without jeopardizing the chemistry of the band and the good things that that gives," Payne concurs. "So it is quite a fine balance."
Payne believes that being in a band can lead to a certain amount of what the shrinks call learned helplessness. "I think it's important to be a normal human being," he says. "The thing is that most people in bands are absolutely useless. They can't actually do anything except be in a band. They can't even look after themselves because you generally get into the position of having everything done for you. You've got tour managers, techs, people who tell you where you should be and what you should be doing, and so you become like a great big baby. I think it's important to be a grown-up."
Part of being a grown-up is knowing the difference between healthy drive and jealous, petty competition. Payne stresses that Travis ascribes to the former.
"Once you're out in the marketplace, I suppose that you're kind of -- not competitive, but ambitious for the record to get to people," says Payne. "Looking back on The Man Who selling three million copies in Britain alone is just amazing. A lot of people really loved that record, and the same thing with The Invisible Band. So when we put this record out, of course you don't want it to be, you know, a thousand people and that's it. You want it to get to as many folks as possible. I don't think you're necessarily in competition with other bands. I think if you're ambitious with your record, perhaps you're in competition creatively with your own last record. You want to make a better thing."
So the blokes in Travis aren't really bothered by the fact that Coldplay, effectively their little brothers on the international music scene, have catapulted themselves to astronomical professional heights while they were playing Scrabble and recording 12 Memories on the Isle of Mull. Or are they?
"There are certain things that I would very much like for us to do, like play Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl, and seeing Coldplay do that, I was like, 'Oh, you fuckin' bastards!' But they've worked their balls off to get there, and they've done it. We've just got to try and get there."
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