If you look up “Fran Healy” on Google, the first page of results is currently filled with news stories about the Travis singer’s spectacular beard.
Like his friend ex-REM singer Michael Stipe, Healy has embraced his inner mountain man with a fabulously bushy Old Father Time grey beard that makes him resemble the wise God of hipsters.
Most singers, asked about being in the news for something other than their new album, would get huffy. Not Healy, infamously the nicest guy in music.
“Why should I dye my beard a really bizarre Just For Men colour?”
“I think the attention’s great,” he chuckles. “At least it’s for something different! The beard says you don’t have to be different and try to fit in. Why should I dye my beard a really bizarre Just For Men colour? What’s wrong with a little grey hair and looking older? Fuck it. Embrace it! Be yourself.”
Healy reveals that the photo doing the rounds on social media was actually taken a year ago, before Travis re-emerged with new album Everything At Once. “It’s trimmed back a lot now,” he explains. “But the fact everyone is going ‘Holy shit!’ when they see that photo? That’s mostly why I’m hanging onto the beard. At least people are talking about something!”
And people are now starting to talk about that new album. Travis may not be the gazillion-selling band they were in the late 90s when Why Does It Always Rain On Me? and parent album The Man Who turned them into globe-swallowing superstars.
But they’re far from past it, and on the quiet Travis are still chart botherers: last album Where You Stand reached No 3 in 2013 and their triumphant, celebratory new one deserves to match to better it.
It’s Travis’ most upbeat and raucous album since their 1997 debut Good Feeling, fitting its goodtime euphoria into just 32 minutes.
“We’ve been mates for 25 years and we moved to London as a band in 1996,” Healy recalls. “So we’ve been… I don’t know if you’d call us professional… but semi-professional for 20 years now. We should be knackered old guys now, groaning ‘For fuck’s sake, not again!’ when we release a new record.
“But we’ve never been in such good form. And I know that goes against physics and biology.”
According to Healy, 42, Travis’ rude health is down to realising that, basically, they can do what they want. He draws the analogy of first coming to London as eager schoolboys. “Your management are the teachers, the record company is the headmaster,” he explains. “Us as pupils go ‘Can we try this?’ and the teachers will tell you why your idea is too expensive or ambitious.
“We were so confident when we moved to London 20 years ago, and we’ve never been so confident since. Until now”
“But, about 18 months ago, I had an epiphany. I realised that you don’t have to ask for permission. Just do it! Let the headmaster chase you!
“It’s a weird little change in mindset, but everything has gone differently since then. We were so confident when we first came to London, and we never had that same confidence afterwards. Until now.”
It might sound a surprise to hear Healy claim that Travis’ confidence was jolted, considering that The Man Who and The Invisible Band were owned by virtually everyone in Britain. When Travis played Why Does It Always Rain On Me? at Glastonbury in 1999, a previously sunny festival saw torrential rain hit the festival within seconds of its first line. Forget gold discs, Travis were so powerful that they could change the weather.
“Success was bonkers,” reflects Healy. “It’s like going on a bullet train – everything moves so fast that it’s a blur and you can’t focus on anything.
“The Brits and Ivor Novello awards were pure luck. I should know, I was there”
“Success hits you like a tsunami and knocks your life in a hundred different directions. You spend the next 10 years trying to reassemble your life. Once you have, you’re 10 years older, you’re a father and your life is different.
“At the height of it all, I looked at our diary and I didn’t have a day off for the next six months. You just go ‘Ach, God….’”
At least Travis’ albums were popular for a reason – they were good throughout, not just decent singles like Sing, Writing To Reach You and Turn surrounded by a load of filler.
But Healy is honest enough to admit that Travis’ success was largely down to good fortune. “Releasing an album is like throwing dice,” says Healy, who has lived in Berlin since 2008 with his photographer partner Nora and their nine-year-old son Clay. “When I was getting the Brits, the Ivor Novello Awards and all that bullshit, people were telling me ‘Hey, you’re great!’ And I was like ‘Dude, this just pure luck.’ I was there, and I know how lucky we were.”
If Healy’s words look angry in print, he’s laughing with typical good humour as he says them, and he knows that at least Travis merited their luck. A bit. “The fact that whether or not a record succeeds is down to luck means that all a band should be concerned with is making it as watertight as possible. If it gets heard by a lot of people, then that’s very nice – so long as the band has done its job right.
“You don’t want a million people buying a shit record going ‘Fuck, there’s only one good song on this and the rest is pants.’”
With all that in mind, it’s no wonder that, as confident as Healy is about the merits of Everything At Once that he has “no expectations whatsoever” about how well it’ll chart. But it deserves it.
“Alfie Boe recorded his opera vocals on his iPhone in the hotel toilet”
Travis’ only credo was to make sure each song was under three minutes long. Three years previously, all the singles from Where You Stand were over four minutes. “Radio asked us to take 90 seconds off everything,” Healy recalls. “So we did that, radio was happy and played it, but the song no longer sounds quite the same. So the easier way of making a song good for radio is to make sure it’s three minutes in the first place. That’s why the album is so punchy and poppy.”
Punchy and poppy, yes, but it also finds room for opera singer Alfie Boe to sing on Paralysed. “I wrote a powerful choral-sounding part in the chorus,” says Healy. “And when we recorded it, it sounded a bit pony. I thought ‘Do I know any opera singers…?’ and remembered meeting Alfie a couple of years ago.
“He recorded his vocals on his iPhone in the toilet of his hotel. But when I played it to our producer, he said ‘Wow, where did you record this? The acoustics are amazing!’”
Alongside guest singers Josephine Oniyama and Aurora, guests on Everything At Once include Keane keyboardist Tim Rice-Oxley, who co-wrote the rowdy Magnificent Time. Rice-Oxley sent the demo to Healy, admitting it sounded “like a bad Travis impression.” Healy was impressed, but laughs: “Magnificent Time is a great title, but no Scotsman would ever say the word ‘Magnificent’. Well, unless it’s a football commentator going ‘Magnificent goal, Archie!’ on Sportscene.”
“We’re foul-mouthed teenagers thinking ‘What’s the worst possible thing I could say right now?'”
Travis actually finished recording Everything At Once a year ago, but delayed its release so that they could work out a proper release plan for it. This includes a film accompanying the album, directed by Healy, starring the band and with “really good cameramen and crew who I cold-called, going ‘Could you do this for nothing?’” That includes a First Assistant Director who worked on the Bourne films.
So Travis are defying age and accepted band logic by making their finest album 20 years into their career. They’ve also kept the same line-up throughout, with guitarist Andy Dunlop, bassist Dougie Payne and drummer Neil Primrose on board throughout.
“We’re still mates and we still like each other,” Healy insists. “Actually, we love each other. We’ve been through ups and downs like any relationship, but throughout it all we realise that what we have is special.
“And if people could hear what we’re like when we’re together, nobody would say ‘Ah, aren’t Travis nice guys?’ We’re foul-mouthed teenagers thinking ‘What’s the worst possible thing I could say right now?’ It’s boys being boys. And that’s cool. We’re just in a really nice space right now. And we’re encouraging the love.”
Travis’ new album Everything At Once is out now. They play at T In The Park, V and Bingley Music Live festivals and tour from May 6. Dates are:
Glasgow O2 ABC (May 6)
Manchester Albert Hall (7)
London Forum (9)
Birmingham O2 Academy (12)
Newcastle O2 Academy (13)
Leeds O2 Academy (14)
Leicester De Montfort Hall (16)
Bournemouth Academy (17)
Bristol Colston Hall (18)
Norwich UEA (19)
Loaded’s deputy editor John Earls has covered entertainment and sport across a range of national newspapers, plus several football and music magazines, since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at @EarlsJohn