By Mark Guarino
Americans love Brit-pop bands because they sound cutting edge. We may export knucklehead dross like Limp Bizkit and Korn but on the receiving end, we end up with sophisticates like Radiohead, Blur, Pulp, Coldplay and the Verve, just to name a few. The exchange feels unfair.
But what do you do when the most enduring band from the other side of the big pond refuses to be chic at all?
Since 1997, the Scottish quartet Travis made its name for gorgeous, earnest guitar ballads — period. No fancy science fiction exists in past singles like “Sing” or “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?,” just unadorned, radiant melodies. The band’s knack for folk pop craftiness and singer Fran Healy’s schoolboy tenor somehow diminishes any irony that might come from the band’s simple declarations of faith. That combination of upbeat sensibility and meticulous pop craftmanship makes Travis the closest the British Isles has come in producing another Beatles in quite awhile.
The band turns a darker corner with “12 Memories” (Epic), its fourth album, due in stores Tuesday (they play the Riviera Tuesday, Oct. 28). Whether it’s due to Sept. 11, the current Bush administration or simple maturation after touring the world for two years, the music strikes a darker tone without sacrificing the hummable hooks. “Your words are crooked and you’re going to pay/in ten year’s time they’re going to say/that this was the moment that you threw it away,” Healy sings on “Peace the (Expletive) Out.” In other places, the band turns to spousal abuse (“Re-Offender”), unilateralism (“The Beautiful Occupation”) and general dissatisfaction with the current cultural climate (“Quicksand,” “Mid-Life Krysis”) in addition to the swooning strings, simple guitar strum and clanking pianos, looped beats and the occasional noise.
“This record took its own road,” said bassist Dougie Payne. “When we came to record, it suddenly began to sound tougher and harder. I think it’s a dark record but I think there’s a lot of joy and a lot of questioning in it as well.”
Unlike “The Man Who” and “The Invisible Band,” the band’s last two records, producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck) is not involved in “12 Memories.” The band decided to retool how they made music after a troubling period that included considerable burnout after endless touring and a diving accident last summer that left drummer Neil Primose with three broken bones in his neck and the prediction of his doctors that he would never walk again.
“It was the worse thing in my life,” said Payne. “Once we knew he was going to survive … we couldn’t help but think ‘what would life be like if I wasn’t in a band and what if Travis didn’t exist?’ You start to think about giving it away.”
After Primrose went through rehabilitation and showed signs he was going to recover, the band took six months off. They regrouped at a converted farmhouse Primrose’s parents found in the Mull of Kintyre, on the west coast of Scotland. Located 210 miles from any city, its owner had turned it into an artist’s studio. For a view, its windows offered a mountain range with sheep grazing. Travis said goodbye to girlfriends and wives and bunked there for two months with only their recording engineer. Days were spent recording and nights drinking wine in front of a fire.
“It was probably the most creative time we ever had. It hadn’t been the four of us in a room for seven years. We were basically torn apart over the course of touring and promoting all these records,” Payne said.
The recording took place earlier this year during the global debate over the Bush administration’s drive for invading Iraq. The band attended anti-war marches in London and Glasgow and slowly but surely, a blend of fear and anger began to filter in the music. For “Peace the (Expletive) Out,” Healy asked a stadium of 20,000 football fans in London to chant the song’s chorus so it could be mixed into the song’s fadeout.
“(That song) came out of that frustration,” Payne said. “We’re not politicians but we don’t (expletive) know what goes on. I think that’s where the frustration comes from — now knowing. Our respective governments have been so patronizing. ‘Don’t tell the children!’ I’d give my right arm to have a government run by people who say, ‘okay, this is actually what’s going on.’ We live in dishonest times.”