Important Imports

Conventional wisdom dictates that the phrase "but they're big in Europe" -- when applied to a band -- indicates a career that has either seen better days or never had them. But the four Scottish lads of Travis have inverted the formula. After seeing their sophomore effort, The Man Who, go multiplatinum, score a string of Top 20 hits and become the UK's biggest-selling record of 1999, they've been allowed to visit our purple mountains majesty and say, yes indeed, we are big in Europe.

"We did all this work for years in England to be a success, so why shouldn't we do it here?" asks singer-songwriter Fran Healy. "If you're [lucky] enough to get massive success, then it's on to the next country and you say, "Shit, I've got to do this all over again.' But I don't think we deserve it if we're not willing to work for it."

Though critics have been buzzing about the band, record buyers apparently have not been paying close attention since the stateside release of The Man Who in April. That's probably owing to the fact that amid today's teen pop, rap and mook metal, Travis's unique blend of relaxing rhythms, swirling melodies and honestly melancholic (but not whiny) songs are downright quaint and even -- dare we say -- soothing.

Take "Writing to Reach You" or the ethereal "As You Are" or the catchy life-can-be-boundary-free ode "Driftwood." All have memorable, lilting melodies and a lyrical point of view in which themes like isolation and emotional honesty never seemed so ennobling. Even peppier material like "Turn," "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?" and "She's So Strange" finds the band hunting for the dark lining in every puffy white cloud.

The somber vibe of The Man Who is only one aspect of the band, which also includes Andy Dunlop (guitar), Dougie Payne (bass) and Neil Primrose (drums). This isn't surprising, given the fact that the album's title comes from Oliver Sacks's book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which humanely catalogs various schizophrenic case studies. (Sacks's studies inspired the 1990 Robert De Niro/ Robin Williams flick Awakenings.)

"We've only had one record out really in America, and that's just one [facet] of the group," Healy says. "There's a long story yet to unfold with this band. And you want your audience to develop with you, otherwise," he then says in a mock NASA controller's voice, "Houston, we have a problem."

Healy knows his band has already made a huge impact at home -- and he says he accepts all views with equal interest. Here, you're not really a pop-culture phenom until you've been parodied on Saturday Night Live; in the UK you're not a success until you've received some backlash. When Face, a high-style British mag, recently attached to its issue a bag of pins, including one that read, "I Hate Travis," Healy's reaction was simply a joyous "Yesss!"

Back in the early 1990s, Healy was just trying to be a decent painter while studying at the Glasgow School of Art. In the UK, attending art school is really like attending a music conservatory, considering that art schools have produced nearly every British Invasion band. Healy played in Glass Onion, which would also include Dunlop and Primrose. By 1996, Healy had dropped out of school, recruited Payne and rechristened the group Travis. Movie fans all, the members decided to name the band after Harry Dean Stanton's down-on-his-luck character in Wim Wenders's cult flick Paris, Texas.

The foursome recorded a demo and low-quality EP before signing with Independiente for 1997's Good Feeling and playing thousands of club gigs across the island. Oasis's Noel Gallagher (the normal brother) took a liking to Travis, and later offered the band an opening slot on an Oasis tour. Nobody expected the massive success that would greet The Man Who when it was released. Recorded in six months -- as opposed to the previous record's four days -- the (in Payne's words) "weirdly cohesive piece of work" struck a chord with Brit-pop fans looking for something new. The album was produced by Nigel Godrich (Radiohead's OK Computer and Beck).

Industry know-it-alls and alternative music mags have started the drumbeat. Still, Healy feels that it's the song, not the performer, that ultimately decides a tune's longevity and impact. "And you have to have trash so the good shit will shine through," he says. The songwriter is still coming to terms with the impact his pen has had on fans. "People come up to you at shows and tell you what a song means to them, and you realize it [often] means more to them than to you. You're still trying to figure out what the hell you were talking about."

When the current U.S. tour ends in early October, Travis will go back to the studio with Godrich. And following a band tradition, the liner notes will be dedicated to two individuals: In the case of The Man Who, honor was given to Stanley Kubrick and Shirley, the buoyant pet dog of one of the band's friends. Both passed away near the record's completion.

"That's it," Healy says with a laugh, as if suddenly struck by a hidden meaning. "Travis lies somewhere between an avant-garde director and a happy dog."

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero