Travis almost didn’t make a fourth album. Last summer, drummer Neil Primrose dived into a hotel swimming pool in France, hit his head on the bottom and broke three bones in his neck. His doctor was pretty sure he would never walk again. Fran Healy, Andy Dunlop and Dougie Payne were devastated; their best mate might be confined to a wheel chair.
Within three weeks of the accident, however, Neil was sitting at his drum kit for ten to 15 minutes a day. The pain was almost overwhelming but still, Neil couldn’t help himself. The doctor, amazed his patient was up and about, agreed it would be the best form of rehabilitation. As long as he took it easy. ‘I spent a couple of months at home being a moany old bastard,’ says Neil. ‘But I knew how lucky I was even to be able to walk.’
While Neil was slowly recuperating, the band was forced to take six months off. This was the first proper break since 1999, when The Man Who elevated the Glasgow mates to prominence as pioneers of emotionally literate anthems. They were more exhausted than they realized. They had also lost their way a little; after the unexpected scale of the success of The Man Who, they went straight back into the studio to record The Invisible Band. It is a fine album, but the band now realizes they didn’t challenge themselves enough.
‘Little cracks started appearing in 2001, around the time of The Invisible Band,’ explains Franny. ‘We hadn’t anticipated The Man Who doing so well. It was an emotional roller coaster for us. Being Scottish, we’re very reticent about being famous pop stars; it’s encoded into our DNA that we can’t be brassy or show off. But suddenly, we weren’t this little band in Glasgow any more. We desperately needed to take a step back and re-evaluate. After Neil’s accident it came close to the end of Travis – this band would no longer exist without one of the four members – but we were given another chance.’
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Travis met up again at towards the end of last year to start work on 12 Memories. They set up a makeshift studio on Mull, hoping only to get Neil back into drumming. They would stumble out of bed in the morning and play in their pajamas, eat some good food, maybe wander up the road to the pub owned by Neil’s parents and have a few shots of malt. Evenings were spent in front of the open fire, drinking wine and playing Scrabble.
After two weeks they had written nine new songs. ‘It was like falling in love again,’ says Dougie, laughing. ‘Mull felt like a healing place. It wasn’t in any way tense this time round.’
After working with revered producer Nigel Godrich on both The Man Who and The Invisible Band, Travis decided to go it alone. They made a conscious decision not to worry: about hits, about being cool, about anything. Franny wanted to move away from the la-la-la songs he does so well to reflect upon the times in which we live. ‘In the past Nora, my fiancée, inspired a lot of songs about love and courting. But we’re solid now so I felt I could move on. September 11 was the start of something. I’m still not interested in politics, but I can now see how fragile the world is.’
Neil’s accident, the six-month break, the spell in the studio on Mull and Franny’s desire to push the band forwards have all come together to produce a startling record. 12 Memories is Travis at their very best, writing great tunes, sounding relaxed, happy, liberated but also responding to the world.
The first single, ‘Re-Offender,’ is a poignantly beautiful love song about being trapped in a brutal relationship. It is as simple, as captivating as ‘Writing To Reach You’ or ‘Sing.’ ‘The Beautiful Occupation,’ which was released in April on the Hope CD, is Franny’s direct response to going on anti-war marches in London and Glasgow (‘I’m wasting my time/Half a million civilians gonna die today/Don’t just stand there watching it happening’).
So Travis took six months off, didn’t play a gig for almost a year. Dougie got engaged to actor Kelly MacDonald. Andy married his girlfriend Jo. Franny turned 29. In the time off, he thought a lot about life. He had an ‘emotional spring clean’. He hung out with Nora, read philosophical books, grew his hair. He was proud of his Hoxton fin, but when Beckham appropriated the hair cut a week after a chance meeting in the car park of Toys R Us, Franny knew it was time to move on.
After almost not making it, the band agree that 12 Memories is their best album yet. As Dougie says so simply: ‘It just feels like us.’
But the last word comes, as ever, from Franny. ‘People who are trying to be cool are pretentious and I hate any form of pretension. Travis are about being decent and honest. For us, truth is the bottom line. Truth is the most powerful thing in the world.’ It seems this wee Glasgow lad will never forget that he lied when he was seventeen.