NOBODY LIKES TO hear about some coworker or acquaintance's fabulous vacation, about the eye-opening visit to the crusty art museum or the lazy days spent on the sandy beach. Yet such tales are impossible to avoid; people love talking about the trip they've just taken almost as much as taking the trip itself. Which is why anyone who's read about Britain's hottest band, Travis, or seen them live—as when they opened for Oasis a few months back at the Paramount—is probably sick of hearing about frontman Fran Healy's fabled voyage to Israel, a holiday that produced the gigantic hit "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?"
Showbox, Friday, July 14
The Scottish singer and guitarist, who's now a Londoner, regularly trots out the vignette of arriving in the foreign land only to be besieged by storms, then sitting alone in his hotel room strumming out the simple chords to what would become his band's breakout song. So you'll forgive me if I roll my eyes when my first inquiry to Healy, who's on the phone from a hotel room in Belgium, is greeted by the response, "I was on holiday in Israel. . . ."
I'd asked him about another of the almost sickeningly pretty pop songs on Travis' second album, The Man Who (Epic), a track called "The Last Laugh of the Laughter," which works in a couple of mellifluous French phrases amid a keening piano figure and the band's trademark lite guitar strums. Though his quip would start badly, the eventual story yields a clue to this man's unfailingly friendly nature.
"I'd written a song, and I thought it would be really nice to put French lyrics in it, just for the sound," he tells me through a thick accent. "Two days after I thought about this, I met some French people on a boat up the Red Sea, and we went up into Egypt and then came back down, and on the way, I asked these strangers if they would translate some lines from the song. I met them later on that evening with my guitar in their hotel—by the pool—and they translated for me. I've still got the tapes. It's pretty funny."
THAT HEALY WOULD even take the time to speak with a journalist during Travis' headlining run through Europe's gigantic festivals, including a gig in front of 140,000 at Glastonbury, strikes me as a gracious gesture. The band spent the first part of 2000 knocking Oasis off the covers of the British tabloids—a remarkable feat given the Gallaghers' feisty personalities—and Healy's had to endure the press' lukewarm initial reaction to the sophomore disc, as well as personal intrusions (his strained relationship with his dad became fodder during Travis' rise).
The band's 1997 debut, Good Feeling, was more typical of the Britpop formula, with anthemic choruses and buzzing guitar riffs and pub-ready sing-alongs like "All I Want To Do Is Rock." When the follow-up hit the streets with a more subdued, poignant sound, orchestrated with help from famed Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, the consensus was that Healy and his bandmates—bassist Dougie Payne, guitarist Andy Dunlop, and drummer Neil Primrose—had gone soft.
"The entire press in the UK said they preferred the bombastic to the relaxed," Healy says.
But "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?" "Driftwood," and "The Fear," all strummy midtempo numbers with a sort of confidence and determination that haven't been heard since OK Computer, caught on, catapulting Travis to the top of the charts. They've even made inroads in the US, where The Man Who has cleared 100,000 in sales and where it would probably nudge its way onto every adult-alternative station in the country if American radio programming made any sense whatsoever.
ALAS, IT DOESN'T, so Travis have had to slog through the theaters and clubs of North America, winning fans night by night—not only with their own songs but with their cover of Britney Spears' hit "Baby One More Time." Though the band play it straight, with Healy crooning away as earnestly as if it were one of his own, people assume that the song selection and the band's Scottish background mean he's got his tongue firmly in cheek.
"Everyone thinks it's a parody," notes Healy, "but I think that's because everyone's too vain to say it's a good song because of what people would think about them if they said, 'I like Britney Spears.' The very thought of it!" He gives a dramatic pause, then adds, "We hopefully left irony safe and sound in the 20th century."
Perhaps. But Travis' success in the UK at least hints that audiences once impressed by the rambunctiousness of Oasis or the flamboyance of Beck are ready to settle down and appreciate a more finely crafted type of song. Now the task is to convince America, and they're certainly willing to try. The band's returning on their own headlining tour, then heading to Australia, then coming back to the States, where they'll finish the marathon in Los Angeles and begin recording their third album—again with Godrich producing.
At that point, presumably, Healy will visit another exotic locale and return with more stories of his travels. Or maybe not. "I'm not very good at going on holiday," he says sheepishly. "I always tend to stay in the hotel. Even if it isn't raining, I'm kind of scared to go out."