Photo: Pat Pope / Courtesy of Chummy Press

Lighting a Fire in the Rain: An Interview with Travis

Two decades on, lauded Scottish rockers Travis reflect on the re-issue of their masterpiece The Man Who along with their pivotal Glastonbury performance, which launched the group to new heights.

The Man Who (20th Anniversary Edition)
21 June 2019

The 26th day of June in the year 1999 might not mean much to you, but it certainly holds a very special place in Travis guitarist Andy Dunlop’s heart. It was the day of his band’s Glastonbury performance. They weren’t lucky enough to land a spot on the Pyramid Stage, but they did land on the next best thing, which was a stage that also played host to Mogwai, Super Furry Animals, and Pavement throughout the weekend.

The band’s sophomore album, The Man Who, had been out for about a month, but its first two singles, “Writing to Reach You” and “Driftwood”, didn’t gain the group much acclaim outside of their native UK, where it debuted on the albums chart at number five. From there, it lost steam, heading back down the list with little fanfare.

And then, it rained.

As Dunlop’s group began the opening chords to “Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” the heavens opened up, a previously dry afternoon became soaked, and The Man Who gained an entirely new life. The moment garnered a good deal of publicity for the band as the festival wrapped up the next day, and The Man Who turned out to be the third-best-selling album in the UK for 1999 by the time the year wrapped up.

“It was the first sunny Glastonbury in years, and everyone was going ‘Oh, I hope you don’t make it rain,’ just trying to be funny,” Dunlap explained in a recent interview, “and we were like ‘Ah no, don’t be stupid.'”

But being stupid pays off sometimes, and the serendipitous moment launched the band into global success. Before it was all said and done, the track landed in the top 50 of 11 charts around the world, including hitting No. 11 in Australia, No. 35 on Billboard’s U.S. Alternative Songs list and No. 4 in their native Scotland. A record that was once left to fade into the Britpop ether found another life, a life that afforded the band a 237-date world tour that culminated with a performance at the next year’s Glastonbury festival — only this time on the aforementioned Pyramid Stage.

The group is celebrating the 20th anniversary of their breakthrough effort by offering up a reissue of the album, along with a release featuring the Glastonbury performance, creatively titled Live at Glastonbury ’99. Both albums are out on the Craft Recordings imprint and catching up with Dunlop, they both represent a crucial time in Travis’s evolution. Reflecting over the phone on how The Man Who came together, the guitarist noted how the collection ultimately grew from humble beginnings.

“It doesn’t seem that long ago, really,” he said, laughing a little at the memory. “We came off the first record, and that was really well received. It didn’t sell an awful lot. It did all right and had a certain following, but it didn’t set the world on fire or anything.

“So, we thought the pressure was off,” he continued. “We just thought, ‘We’re going to make the record we want to make, we’ll just do whatever we want to do.’ We started and the first two songs were kind of like the first record, so it was quite rocky … but as it went on, and Fran had his heart broken, we had a set of songs that seemed to gel. Then, we got Nigel Godrich. We really wanted to work with him, and we just harassed him so much. Obviously, he had done a lot of the Radiohead stuff, and we were absolutely delighted. He’s just an amazing sonic guy.

“It was over a long time,” Dunlop concluded, “but we were in no rush to make a record, and we wanted to wait to make the record that we wanted.”

The decision to wait worked, even if it took some time to celebrate the fruits of their labor. NME’s Stuart Bailie, while reviewing The Man Who, criticized the move from an edgy blend of rock on 1997s Good Feeling to a turn toward heartfelt balladry when he advised the group “will be the best when they stop trying to make sad, classic records”. It was somewhat ironic, then, that Travis’s evolution in sound was part of the secret sauce that allowed them to break through internationally.

Such a switch was the only way to do it, the guitarist argued. Travis were in a spot where making the most honest thing they could came as the biggest priority when they stepped into the studio. And as luck would have it, singer/songwriter Fran Healy was dealing with an inordinate amount of tumult as the songs unfolded. The change in sound wasn’t necessarily intentional, Dunlap explained, but the band also wasn’t shying away from the anguish Healy was bringing to the songs.

“Last year, we started opening the doors a bit and playing the album in its entirety,” the guitarist said. “That was the first time I really listened to it for a little bit, and it’s got a nice flow to it, especially when we were playing it live. It’s got something special about it. It’s just a great collection of honest songs — painstakingly honest — because a heart was broken.”

“Still,” he added, “I don’t know if it would be looked at this way if it hadn’t done so well.”

As for how it ended up doing so well, Dunlop admitted that it was an amalgamation of things. Or, well, an amalgamation of things and blind luck. As it typically goes with albums and songs that gain international success, predictions on which songs will connect with an audience are about as accurate as the weather report. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that the guitarist had no idea that “Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” would be the missing piece to the breakthrough puzzle.

“We never thought that was going to be a single or a hit,” he said enthusiastically. “I still haven’t got a clue. You look at it, ‘Writing to Reach You” was the first single, then there was ‘Driftwood’, and then, literally, when it came to the third single, that was kind of like the last choice. But it was like, ‘Fran really wants to get it out as a single’ because it was coming up to the summer. Nobody thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be a massive single’ — and nobody ever knows. When it comes to singles, it’s a crapshoot, it really is.”

Even so, Travis do know a bit about singles, as the re-release of The Man Who contains an extra set of B-sides and covers that the band recorded around the time of the record’s original release. Among the tracks featured are versions of the Band’s “The Weight”, Joni Mitchell’s “River”, and Britney Spears’s “Baby One More Time”, the latter of which Dunlap holds no remorse for including.

“Fran had been playing it on acoustic the night before a radio show, and we were like, ‘Now you’ve got to do it tomorrow,'” he explained about the decision to incorporate “Baby One More Time” into their set. “That recording (on the re-release) was the first time he played it all the way through, so somebody was holding up the words in front of him. The thing is that song is a really good song. A lot of people are like, ‘Nah, that’s shit; don’t listen to that,’ and actually, it’s just a great pop song, especially for an acoustic guitar. It seems to be a thing everyone has to do now — an acoustic cover of a pop song, but back then, it wasn’t done in an ironic way. It was just a really good song.”

As for what Travis is doing these days to craft “really good songs,” the band is currently taking time to write a new record. They hope to get into a studio before the end of the year so that the new stuff can hit the streets by the early part of 2020. They have no plans to slow down, the guitarist noted, adding that as long as people keep coming to the shows, they’ll keep making music together.

One has to wonder, though, if nearly 25 years after their first record, the band would even be allowed to keep creating for the masses had The Man Who not gained a second life and the magic of their Glastonbury performance never happened. It’s a question of which Dunlop is keenly aware, even if he’s quick to point out that while it helped, it certainly wasn’t the only stroke of good fortune the band received to make a career out of making music.

“I think people were putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to play pretty well and we were probably a bit tough on ourselves coming out of it,” he said. “You could have done that here, you could have done that there. But then it rained, and you looked out and the crowd was just wet during that song.

“All the work we did up until then, it’s like building a bonfire,” the guitarist concluded. “You have all your stuff, and then you realize you don’t have a lighter or a box of matches, so you need that little spark of luck. That was ours — Glastonbury.

“It started our whole bonfire.”