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The Band Who

"We all felt while making the record that we're living in frightening times with frightening leaders," says Travis bassist Dougie Payne, far left.
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Travis was once thought, along with Coldplay, to be the millennium's heir apparent to Radiohead's Britpop throne. While Coldplay has managed to carve out its own space on the critical continuum, the response to Travis' last three records--The Man Who (1999), The Invisible Band (2000) and 12 Memories (2003)--has become more cynical, less rhapsodic; the critics seem to want the band to outgrow the same pair of trousers. The media may bemoan the worn edges of the form, but don't forget: It is often the oldest, softest, most weather-beaten garments that provide the most comfort. That's the appeal of Travis' music--there are no great artistic strides, no experimental, flirting-with-insanity freakouts à la Radiohead. There is simply cuddly, comfortable, nonthreatening balladry that listeners can wrap themselves up in for warmth against the chill of love's heartache while critics grouse about how the quartet lacks edge.

But the world is an edgier place now, and singer-songwriter Francis Healy and company are not immune to the effects of 9-11, the war in Iraq and duplicitous world leaders, not to mention the shell shock brought on by a near-tragic 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 the standard, doe-eyed lover's laments.

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 complain about 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 at this observation. "I think maybe Franny [Healy] 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?"

The group ultimately opted for the timeless and safe "F***" on the exterior liner notes, although the cover lacks the seemingly ubiquitous parental advisory sticker (suggesting some logical gaps in what constitutes explicit lyrics). Provoking a debate is all well and good, but what if everyone doesn't agree? There can be only one front man, which means the remaining members' opinions can be rendered nonexistent.

"With the lyrics, Franny's so hard on himself and so thorough about working through them, going through pages and pages and sheets and sheets of paper trying to get some kind of essential thing," Payne says. "And after days of sitting and waiting for him to finish lyrics, you can't really go, 'I'm not having that! I don't believe you!' He does actually believe what he writes, and we're not going to censor him. It all comes from the same place, and it's all communicated the same way, which is totally honest as he sees it. I'm not a big fan of censorship, and in these times, if you're going to start censoring artists, it's dangerous ground to tread.

"The fact is that we all felt while making the record that we're living in frightening times with frightening leaders. We all felt that we were being lied to and that half-truths and misinformation were 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 other ways to distinguish themselves. Otherwise the players may find themselves pigeonholed, categorized as "the shy one," "the cute one" or, simply, "the bassist."

"You've got to be fairly vigilant about maintaining your own identity as a person," Payne says, "without jeopardizing the chemistry of the band." For Payne and guitarist Andy Dunlop, that meant getting married. Primrose recovered from his accident, which should have paralyzed him (or worse). Healy contemplated the fragility of the world after September 11, and also grew out his hair after David Beckham co-opted his "Hoxton fin" Mohawk.

"Rather than being a regular person, you're one-quarter of a band," Payne says. "That becomes a very unreal and very strange place to be, and so I think it's important to make these steps and be a normal human being. 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 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 means having to deal with competition, even if it's against some of the biggest bands in the world. This does not faze Travis.

"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," Payne says. "Looking back on The Man Who selling 3 million copies in Britain alone is just amazing, and it's so exciting and gratifying to see so many people getting the record and enjoying it. 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 Travis' little brothers on the international music scene, have catapulted themselves to astronomical professional heights while Travis has been playing Scrabble on the Isle of Mull (the tiny Scottish island where 12 Memories was recorded)?

"There are certain things that I would very much like for us to do, like play Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl. 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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