The Shadow Boxer
Scottish indie rockers Travis have been working diligently for quite a while now—14 years to be exact. Their kinder, gentler approach to the Britpop movement that stormed both sides of the Atlantic felt like a breath of fresh air back in the late 90s when “Why Does It Always Rain On Me” was in most radio stations’ regular rotation. Despite the successes of The Man Who and The Invisible Band, Travis’ stature has become a little more modest over the years. But did they slow down? Hell, no.
That’s why Travis is taking a much-needed break right now, and that’s why lead singer Fran Healy has decided to throw his hat into the ring of solo artists. Wreckorder dropped in early October 2010 to some acclaim and Fran has been busy promoting the release since. Healy took time out of his busy Friday afternoon schedule to talk to PopMatters about his latest adventures. Despite the fact that his day was crammed with other promotional duties in the heart of New York City, Travis’ frontman cordially chatted about how a rock band can be like a marriage, how writing a song can be like raising a child, and how he corralled the world’s favorite bass guitar player into contributing to his solo album. He even managed to get interrupted by his own déjà vu over the phone. Seriously.
So why a solo album right now? Does Travis shoot down too many of your ideas?
To understand that, you really need to understand the dynamic of our band. I’ve pretty much been the sole songwriter in the band. A few of the other guys have written a few songs, but I’m also what you would call a benevolent dictator in the band. The guys say “Hey, we’re doing this! We’re doing that! We’re doing the next thing!” and everyone’s like “Oookay.” This album, Wreckorder—there’s no musical reason for doing this record. It’s more for me to do something different. I’ve been in Travis for 14 years, and I’ve been in this room with these three great guys. Brilliant musicians, we all play really well together. So you never have to look outside of that because you’ve got everything you need there. And you almost treat it like a marriage. The thought of going off and playing with another musician is almost the same as going off behind your wife’s back. And I’ve thought it about it that way, which is why I’ve probably never gone and worked with anyone else in all of those 14 years. But last year Dougie [Payne, Travis’ bassist] was really needing some time off, and everyone was very tired after going on nonstop for two or three years. And I thought “this will be as good a time as any.”
I think I was ready to do something like this—I didn’t know if I had the confidence before to do it. I guess I’m more relaxed in my own skin or something. Just being older, I think.
You had Emery Dobyns produce the last Travis album Ode to J. Smith as well as Wreckorder, and I take it that it doesn’t pick up where Travis left off.
Yeah, I would say that Ode to J. Smith was kind of by itself. To keep that marriage analogy going, when you’re married to a record company for 12 years then you go off by yourself. We were no longer under the curse of “you need to write five singles on this album or else” kind of thing. So we made up an album that was like one single, one piece all connected together. We never had the chance to have that much fun in the studio before. And this album [Wreckorder] was different again.
I’ve never connected any of our albums together. If you go back through the Travis back catalogue, Good Feeling and then you go to The Man Who, they’re two very different records. Then The Man Who and The Invisible Band, on paper; same producer, same band, and riding on the crest of The Man Who wave—to me, they are very different records as well and The Invisible Band is far much more pop. It’s similar, maybe it’s like a “part two.” And again, 12 Memories was a complete left turn for us. And then The Boy With No Name was the sound of me trying to write small songs again.
I don’t know if something you as a journalist pick up on is the artwork. It can almost suggest that two albums are kind of alike when maybe they’re less alike. I remember when we did The Boy With No Name, everyone compared it to other records.
Well, it is a photograph of you guys in the distance, and you’re all dressed up in coats. So there is lineage there.
[Laughs] I guess that was the idea, we all thought “Well, let’s make this the third record where we are all small on the album cover.” But that album was like an exercise, the sound of me trying to write small songs again because I’d forgotten how to do that. And after that, we came off our record deal and did Ode to J. Smith. I definitely feel like I can write small songs again, so on Wreckorder my feet are more on the ground. My body’s in my skin, my brain is in my head, and my ego is out the window.
What approach did you and Emery Dobyns take to Wreckorder?
When I make a Travis record, I make demos. I get them to a point and then I take them to the band and we record them in the studio, finishing them with a producer. And somewhere along the journey between bedroom and studio, I think there are great demo moments that are lost. So one of the things that this solo record gave me the opportunity to do was to create the entire thing, from the inception right up to the finished thing. It’s all contained in the same “package.” The producer, Emery, came in at the latter stages because for me, I’m not really good at finishing stuff. A producer is really great at saying “This needs finishing, that needs finishing, you should not finish that. There needs to be an ending on this song, there needs to be a beginning on that song.” And he just came in and tidied the entire thing up and made it what it is, gave it its sound. But at the heart of every single song is the first flourish, when you first sing it or when you first play it, is all still in there.
Talk about the help you got from other musicians, because you’ve got quite a list of names.
Yeah, it’s pretty cool. I got Neko [Case] because I saw her playing in Berlin and I asked her after the gig if she would be into doing a duet. She said “Yeah,” so I actually wrote that song [“Sing Me To Sleep”] after listening to her songs. I listened to her voice and her key. I sent it to her, we figured it out and she sung it! I got Paul McCartney to play bass. That song [“As It Comes”] is one of my favorites on the record. After I had written it, I thought “Who’s the best bass player? Because it really needs a good bass line.” And I thought Paul would be amazing, because he is one of the greatest bass players. He’s always been overlooked for his bass playing because he’s so good at other things. So I e-mailed his office, asking “Could you pass this on to Paul?” with an attachment on the e-mail. And he got back to me in about two weeks, said he loved the song and wanted to try and work it out. But he’s really busy and he said it might take a while, but I was like “Man, if it takes a couple of years, that’s fine!” But it didn’t take that long.
I’ve always liked the bass part to “Something”.
It’s funny you should say that because a friend of mine was over from Germany in New York the other day. He’s a big Beatles fan and he just got new speakers for his computer, and he was playing Abbey Road, and that came on. I was listening to it, and the bass was really, really loud, and it’s the same bass that’s on my song! And it really sounds the same, it’s the actual instrument and the actual player is the same! It’s a nice thing.
So there is a definite sound to the Hofner bass?
Oh yeah, it’s definitely got personality. And the way he plays it is so cool. Another musician on the record is Tom Hobden from Noah & the Whale, a really talented arranger and violin player. “Rocking Chair” is the best moment where you really hear him, but he’s also on “In The Morning” and “Sing Me To Sleep”.
When it comes to performing live, do you have the opportunity to take Tom Hobden and Neko Case with you? Because these songs work pretty well with them.
That would be great, that would be a dream come true. But unfortunately Neko and Tom are in other bands. Tom is recording an album and Neko is on tour with the New Pornographers, so the chances of that happening are slim. At the moment I’ve been doing it totally by myself, and I wanted to do that because I’ve been in a band for 14 years and I just want to be on my own. Some of my friends are comedians and they travel by themselves, and at points I’ve been quite envious of that lifestyle. So part of this sabbatical from Travis is just trying to pair everything down to me and a guitar. And thankfully the new songs actually stand up really well with the old songs as well, which I’m throwing into the set. The shows have been really nice.
What old songs are you performing? Are they songs like “Dear Diary” that can easily boil down to just you and the guitar?
Yeah, I did “Dear Diary” the other night at Echo Park in Los Angeles, and that was really nice. And I played “Writing to Reach You”. I think I played a lot of The Invisible Band at the last three shows in Los Angeles at the beginning of the week. Because I was in L.A. and the album is much attached to Los Angeles because we recorded a lot of it in L.A. It really depends because every single Travis song was written on the guitar.
It’s interesting to bring the songs from Travis, because they’re my songs, essentially. I guess I feel like Carol King when she got all of her songs back. She did an album of songs for other bands, even though I write songs for Travis and I sing in Travis, the songs are definitely Travis. But when you get them back to play them by yourself, they definitely have a different air about them. It’s nice; it’s nice to get your kids back.
Two songs I wanted to ask about are “In The Morning” and “Shadow Boxing”, because neither one sounds like it would comfortably fit onto a Travis album. Can you talk about where those came from, musically?
That’s interesting you should say that. I don’t sit down with a pre-plan; usually the song informs where the music comes from. I had written a song that mentioned “shadow boxing” in it, and the song wasn’t that good. But I was intrigued by the “shadow boxing”—people who would fight with their own shadow if there was no one else to fight with. And about the confrontations you have with people close to you throughout your life. I wrote those words “shadow boxing” and I stuck it up on my wall and thought I would want to write a song with this title. I’ve never done that before, ever. But I sat and played it and I thought “It has to have a piano.” So I started playing about on the piano, I wrote up a riff, and then the rest became longer and wider, I threw melody into it, and the words came. It all happened very organically. And the same applies to every single song I’ve ever really done. It starts with one thing and then spreads out very organically from that point. Usually you know immediately whether it’s going to work or not with lyric, the mood or the rhythm.
After doing this long enough, you can spot it early on.
Yeah! It’s like trying to get a child to wear clothes it doesn’t want to wear. I think the song will be what it will be. I’m not going to make a song that should sound light and gay and push it into black leather pants and give it an Echo & the Bunnymen haircut. I’ll let that song be a light, gay, and sentimental song. And that’s to my eternal damnation, I’m sure. But I have to stay true to that song because the song lives on. You have to do your best for the song and forget about yourself.
You’ve got, say, “Last Train” from The Invisible Band to “Flowers in the Window”. You couldn’t get more opposite. But to me they’re exactly the same because one thing that runs through both songs is that I’m letting the songs be who they want to be. And it’s weird, as a parent I do exactly the same with my son. He’s an amazing kid. Are you a parent?
Yes, I have a two-year-old and a baby.
So you’re in the midst of it. The temptation to say “Alright, today we’re going to listen to M.I.A.,” there’s a temptation to force the kid into what you want it to be and I sort of tend to sit back and guide invisibly as much as possible, and I do that with the songs as well. I don’t put them in leather pants and give them Echo & the Bunnymen haircuts.
Although that would be kind of cool. Maybe for Halloween.
I get the impression that a lot of these songs have specific stories behind them.
Maybe, there’s a few. There are stories, but I’m still trying to work out where they’re coming from. “As It Comes” is ... wow, I just got déjà vu there! That’s weird. When I grew up as a kid I was with my grandparents a lot and I was surrounded by really, really old people. In their 70s and 80s, and that was my sort of peer group when I was a kid. And I’ve always felt a little closer to that age group than most people.
Is “Rocking Chair” about aging too?
“Rocking Chair” is about Alzheimer’s. It was about a specific story that I read in the news about this guy whose wife of 55 got Alzheimer’s. It was the story of the day he took her to the hospital. Really, really sad story. I never sit down and say “I’m going to write a song about that”—the “Shadow Boxing” thing being an exception just for the title. But I’ve never thought “I’m going to write a song about this or that or the next thing.” You start with a couple of chords and a couple of key words and melody, then you fill it out like a crossword. As you fill in the crossword, you start to realize “Alright, this is what it’s about.” And when you realize what it’s about, it helps you finish the crossword. And by the end of the crossword, this was about what it feels like to have Alzheimer’s; the room closing in on you and you just end up getting dissolved.
I read it on a plane, sobbing uncontrollably, much to the amusement of the people sitting beside me. Because I was trying to explain it to them, and I couldn’t through tears what was making me cry. Then I was kind of laughing at the same time trying to explain it.
“As It Comes” is also in that area of really old people and about appreciating people while they’re around. Our character in “As It Comes,” the first time he’s soft or gentle with his wife, she’s dead [Laughs].
That “but you’re no longer there” lyric?
I thought of it as a unique twist to “When I’m 64”.
That’s interesting. When I sent it to Paul—I mean, I don’t think of Paul as an old guy. He’s 65 or 66 now, so he’s an older gentleman. Is he a grandfather now? I think he is.
He should be, by this point.
But I think the difference between the two characters is one is a lover and the other is a person who finds it hard to love.
Where there other strings on the album besides Tom Hobdon? I was just listening to “Anything”.
That song has a little bit of strings on it, but it’s just me playing everything.
A keyboard part?
Do you also play drums on this album? Because the drum work sounds pretty good.
Yeah, I can hold my own a little bit. I love playing drums but I’m not a drummer, so there’s going to be a lot of time correction [Laughs]. But I’m getting better, I don’t think there was that much time correction on this record. I got one drummer on the album and that was a guy called Johnny T. He plays with Ryan Adams a lot, and he played on the song “Buttercups”. But everything else is me.
You are currently touring?
Yeah, I’m doing a couple of shows. Then I’m coming back to the United States with Brandon Flowers on his tour, supporting him. Two lonely, solo pop stars out together to keep each other company.
I didn’t think about that. How you’re both away from your bands right now.
We’re both having an affair with each other behind both bands’ backs.
So what lies in the future? Are you going to try something like this again?
Now that I’m out of the room, I’m really enjoying doing things differently. I definitely will make Travis records, but at the same time, I want to do other things. I want to work with other musicians. If this was a marriage, I’ve just got too much love for one woman. I’m considering becoming a Mormon [Laughs]. What do they call it when they have more than one ...?
Yeah, I don’t know if the Mormons do that anymore! But in my career, it’s the right era. I’m a very late developer. I didn’t start really getting into listening to records until I was in my late teens, just because of circumstance. It was like, I’m ten years behind everyone else. I can write melodies and that’s where my strength lies, along with lyrics. I think some inspiration for those melodies come from playing, and part of playing is doing it differently. So that’s where I’m kind of going. I’ll do Travis records of course, but I want to try other things now that I’m outside.
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