For most music critics, the rise of Travis might be a mystery on a par with who built Stonehenge, but the reason’s simple. Two songs into tonight’s set, and just before the band glide into the raw, vulnerable ‘As You Are’, singer Fran Healy approaches his microphone and announces, “I think one of the trends of the late-20th century is that people are afraid of showing their feelings…” The band start playing Fran’s stark tale of personal alienation and it clicks: the reason for [a]Travis[/a]’ overwhelming success is precisely because they aren’t afraid.
A profound emotional ebb and sway has characterised all of 1999’s best records – from Shack‘s opiated folk to The Flaming Lips‘ baroque psychedelia – but [a]Travis[/a] have done it better than anyone. Unabashed populists, their mercurial ability to transform the everyday into concise, lyrical rock has allowed them to connect in a way that no other band, bar Stereophonics, has come close to.
And make no mistake, 1999 has been their year. When they first appeared on the cover of [I]NME [/I]at the end of July, ‘The Man Who’ had just sold 100,000 copies. A little over five months later, it’s just gone quadruple platinum, selling well over a million copies. They’re officially the biggest selling British band of the year – and it’s been achieved without the rhetoric and hollow bombast that so often accompanies such success.
Nor do they appear to be resting on their laurels. Halfway through tonight’s show, they unveil a new song called ‘Coming Around’. An epic surge of acoustic power-pop and lyrical optimism, it sounds like it’s been plucked straight from the first Big Star album. The contrast with the Catholic confessionals that dominated ‘The Man Who’ is obvious, and if the imminent demise of Creation hasn’t already sounded the death knell for Teenage Fanclub, then ‘Coming Around’ surely does.
If that’s an unexpected surprise, then the rest of the gig borders on revelation. [a]Travis[/a] find themselves in this discotheque in the heart of Hamburg’s infamous Reeperbahn as part of a three-headed [I]Rolling Stone[/I] package tour with Gay Dad and Ben Folds Five. There’s no doubt, though, who the real stars of the show are. In the two years since they opened up for Oasis, [a]Travis[/a]’ shows have grown immeasurably in stature. Burgeoning sales have given them a resilience and confidence that was occasionally absent in the past.
From the moment they arrive onstage to the mighty thud of ‘All I Want To Do Is Rock’, the difference is obvious. Guitarist Andy Dunlop is on his knees, his guitar raised over his head, coaxing waves of feedback from his amp, while bassist Dougie Payne thrusts his pelvis into the back of his guitar and Neil Primrose relentlessly hammers his kit into early retirement. Centre stage, Fran is bent double, pushing into his microphone, a dead ringer for Thom Yorke if only his legs didn’t keep twitching like Shakin’ Stevens, but a captivating presence nonetheless.
Even the more fragile material from ‘The Man Who’ is fleshed out and given new life – at least partly thanks to the tumbling keyboards of Jeremy Proctor. ‘Writing To Reach You’, ‘The Fear’ and ‘Driftwood’ are restyled as durable rushes of rock’n’roll bravado, while older songs like ‘Good Day To Die’ and the perpetually woozy ‘Good Feeling’ no longer sound like anomalies in a ‘The Man Who’-heavy set. And the audience respond accordingly, the ones who don’t know all the words opting for hands-in-the-air goth dancing instead.
After just 35 minutes, though, it all comes to an end. Travis leave the stage in a hail of dissonance and strobed lighting as ‘Flashing Blue Light’ burns itself to a husk. Fran promptly jumps into the photo-pit and starts shaking everyone’s hands, while Dougie, Andy and Neil – triumphant grins plastered all over their faces – wave at the screaming crowd, before jogging off to their dressing room.
Backstage, it’s chaos. Fran is being shepherded into a broom cupboard to talk to Radio 1, the cream of the German media are parading their moustaches, and Dougie, Andy and Neil are desperately trying to find a drink. Fran‘s German girlfriend, Nora, is also around, taking pictures of anyone who stands still long enough, and threatening to put [I]NME [/I]photographer Andy Willsher out of a job by this time next year.
After about 90 minutes, the room begins to clear and [I]NME [/I]is ushered into the dressing room for a chat. Surrounded by beer cans and preparing to head off to Leipzig, they’re tired and looking forward to getting back home, but spirits are still high.
So how does it feel to have kicked everyone else’s arses this year?
Dougie [I](laughing)[/I]: “We haven’t kicked anyone’s arses.”
Andy: “We’ve been too busy guarding our own to worry about kicking anyone else’s.”
Fran: “It doesn’t feel like any sort of achievement. I just wish there were some better bands about, doing the same thing as us and getting through to the same people. I think there’s only one little portal that allows bands to come through – and this year we were the ones.”
Dougie: “We don’t really care.”
Fran: “Had another band made it, I wouldn’t be sitting here now swearing. I’d be like, ‘Good on you.'”
You have proved your critics wrong, though…
Fran: “I don’t feel vindicated. No matter how much I get my genitals in a twist about journalists, and about the inkies in particular, if they weren’t there we would never have had the chance to push through that one little portal.”
Neil: “It’s not worth bearing grudges.”
Dougie: “Vindication implies self-satisfaction as well, and we’re not smug about it – honestly.”
So you’re not worried about Oasis coming back next year to reclaim their throne?
Fran: “We’ve got to get over this idea that fame and success are some kind of belt to be won or lost. Why can’t bands just get on? We’re all part of the same patchwork quilt. Journalists just set bands against each other.”
‘Coming Around’ sounds like Big Star. Written anything else?
Fran: “Do you really think it’s like Big Star? I think it sounds more like The Byrds. Er, anyway, the next album is going to be one of the most optimistic records ever made. Can I say that? It’s already half-written. We’ve got this other song called ‘Afterglow’ that I think’s really good.”
Dougie: “It’s going to be called ‘The Man Yeah!!!’.”
Andy: “I should hope so. I’ve got a mate who works in a record shop in Camden and someone brought back ‘The Man Who’ because it was too depressing.”
[I](Tour manager, Pete, enters and taps his watch. There’s only time for one last question.)[/I]
What were your favourite records of the year?
All: “‘Terror Twilight’ by Pavement.”
Andy: “I liked ‘The Soft Bulletin’ by The Flaming Lips.”
Fran: “I went up to the singer and he said, ‘Do you want to see my butterflies?’ He pulled out an envelope and all these butterflies flew out. Amazing.”
Neil: “I liked the new McCartney stuff.”
Fran: “Oh yeah… we met him when we were doing [I]Later[/I]… I think he’s a fan. He was singing along, anyway. Oh shit, we’ve really got to go…”
And with that, our brief audience ends. The band of ’99 bundles [I]NME [/I]to the floor in a group hug, before being dragged off to their bus and Leipzig.
In a year in which the mediocre have flourished like weeds on wasteland, we should be grateful for [a]Travis[/a]. Their songwriting – with its effortless warmth and clarity – would have triumphed in any year, and with new (and better) songs waiting in the wings it would be a brave man who bets against them triumphing again next year. Noel Gallagher and Oasis might be about to return with their hastily assembled, [I]Rock School[/I] line-up, but the populist crown has long since changed hands. And if I were Noel, I wouldn’t be at all confident about winning it back.