'I'm not going to sit here and say this is the best record of the past 20 years" says Fran Healy, 'But I think we've made a really good album. It feels like we're back.'
It does indeed. Travis's fifth album is a record that will remind people how the four friends from Glasgow came to be one of the UK's biggest and best loved bands. A band Chris Martin recently admitted 'invented' Coldplay. A band that's sold millions of albums and that headline festivals. A band that's won the Brit for Best British Group twice and whose second album 'The Man Who', was bought by one in eight British households.
Simply put, 'The Boy With No Name' is a belting collection of bittersweet pop songs from the band who do bittersweet pop music better than anyone. It's no exaggeration to say that every song - including the velcro-catchy bonus track - is a potential single. Clearly, Healy's knack for crafting brilliant songs from life's highs and lows hasn't deserted him. 'Song for song, I honestly think it's stronger than anything we've done,' says the band's ever-amiable bassist Dougie Payne. 'Frannie just seemed to be completely inspired.'
It's been three and a half years since Travis's last studio album, '12 Memories', a record which Healy now describes as 'a therapy session'. As Payne adds 'I really like that album but we were still recovering from all the madness of the previous few years.'
Madness like going from selling 40,000 copies of your first album (1997's 'Good Feeling') to going multi-platinum with your next two (1999's 'The Man Who' and 2001's 'The Invisible Band'). Or madness like when the band's drummer, Neil Primrose, dived head first into the shallow end of a swimming pool in 2002, shattering his upper vertebrae and endangering his life. Or, indeed, madness like the fact the country the band grew up in had flung itself into a war which they didn't agree with. 'That record was like a purge of the system,' says Healy.
Once they'd finished promoting '12 Memories', the band decided to take their first proper break. 'I just thought, 'I need to live',' explains Healy . 'My best songs have always been drawn from experience and life. So I decided to take some time off, just to be with people I care about, go on holiday, hang out and get away from the intensity of the music business.'
By the autumn of 2004, the band were refreshed enough to reconvene. To kick things off, Travis went into the studio with Brian Eno to bounce some ideas around. That got their creative juices flowing and the band fell into a process whereby Healy would write some songs, the band would record them and then they'd get producers Nigel Godrich or Mike Hedges to come in and offer their opinions. There would be intense bursts of activity, followed by a few weeks or months off. During the breaks, Healy kept himself busy by becoming a father, visiting the Sudan with Save The Children and playing the odd show (2005's live highlight was either playing Live 8, headlining the Isle of Wight festival or performing at the annual Crouch End carol concert).
Then, when it felt right, the band would go back into the studio. 'We were just very, very relaxed about everything,' says Healy. So much so that they invited various friends to join them for recording sessions, including Hollywood A-lister (and Travis fan) Ben Stiller, who played cowbell during one session. 'I really enjoyed being in the studio this time,' says Payne. 'I think we all did. It sounds wanky, but some amazing things happened while we were just playing together. It really galvanised us as a band.'
Before long, it became apparent that they had a lot of songs. A lot of good songs. 'The volume of stuff we recorded was amazing,' says Payne. 'We ended up with 30 or 40 tracks. The fact that whittling it down to 11 was so difficult speaks volumes about the quality of the songwriting that was going on. We've never been in the position before where we've had too many songs. Even with 'The Man Who' we only had 8 or 9 right up until a very late stage.'
'The Boy With No Name' was finally finished in December 2006. 'That was when I stopped getting the voices in my head at night telling me it wasn't ready yet,' grins Healy. 'Now I'm really content that we've done a great thing and that it's time to get it out there.'
The album begins with the enchanting 'Three Times And You Lose', a classic Travis song about 'feeling trapped and anonymous in the big city'. Things then take a turn for the sprightly, with 'Selfish Jean', a track whose rollicking introduction was inspired by Iggy Pop and Motown, yet disguises a barbed song about broken friendships. That gives way to the so-in-love warmth of first single 'Closer' and the positively groovesome 'Big Chair', which marries Healy's tale of loneliness and rejection with the funkiest performance ever given by Travis's rhythm section.
Next is 'Battleships', a wonderfully lilting tune which pinpoints those times when two people who love each other find themselves at war over 'the stupid, niggly things, like directions when you're in the car'. Then it's onto the stomping hymn to insomnia that is 'Eyes Wide Open' and the absurdly hooky 'My Eyes', which Healy wrote the day he discovered he was going to be a dad (the album also takes its title from Healy's son, Clay, whose name took several weeks to decide). That leads nicely onto the widescreen emotions of 'One Night', a gorgeous, heartfelt song about those brief moments that change your life forever.
The delicate 'Out In Space' - "out in space, a million miners work upon the nights coal face" - is another song looking at friendships as they go through good times and bad, before the stirring Payne/Healy collaboration 'Colder' offers both Travis's finest weather-related song since 'Why Does It Always Rain On Me?' and proof that Healy is a cracking harmonica player. The album draws to a close with 'New Amsterdam', a hymn to New York, the city Healy has fallen so in love with that he's bought a flat there. Last, but not certainly not least, is that insanely catchy bonus track, 'Sailing Away', 'a daft little ditty' which Healy wrote one day while sitting in his back garden mourning the death of his giant goldfish, Mr Pink.
The album certainly has its emotional ups and downs, but, throughout, it glows with a newfound confidence and a softly expressed hopefulness. 'I've been calling it 'guarded optimism',' says Payne. 'This record is definitely more upbeat and positive than the last one. When you've got great songs, you feel more confident, that means you start playing great and then everything starts to feel more positive. I think that definitely bled through to the record.'
Travis are back, and ready to resume their place on the airwaves, on stages and in people's affections.
'After a time of feeling stuck, we feel like we can do anything,' agrees Healy. 'We went through some dark places. But we've found our muse again.'
And then some.
'There's a lot of people today in the British music scene who just write songs from their heads; they're thinking about it too much and they're not actually concentrating on what's going on in their heart. And whatever you write about, if it comes from your heart then people will get it. If you just write from your mind, then you must be a brilliant actor.' - Francis Healy, TRAVIS