A Conversation With Travis’ Fran Healy

Looking back, Travis frontman Fran Healy is still in awe of the enormous U.K. love fest touched off by 1999’s The Man Who—its first kiss embodied by the Scottish outfit’s breakthrough performance at Glastonbury that same year. Craft Recordings has just released a 16-track document of the Glastonbury show, along with an expanded 20th-anniversary reissue of The Man Who, one of the finest albums of the millennium’s first decade. The Glastonbury renditions of The Man Who tracks lack some of the drama and subtlety of their studio counterparts, mainly for reasons Healy explains below. But the massive progression from the charming-yet-indistinct Britpop of its self-titled debut is evident. With help from producers Mike Hedges and Nigel Godrich, Travis locked into the vaguely theatrical loud/soft dynamic that would serve the band well for the next several years.

MAGNET touched base with Healy, who reflects on The Man Who’s 2.8 million units sold, the perceived shit show that was Glastonbury and the group’s more personal connection to American audiences.

As reissues go, the Glastonbury performance makes a nice companion piece to The Man Who.
At the time, we thought Glastonbury was shit. We thought we’d blown it. We left the stage patting each other on the back … like, “Better luck next time, guys.” And we got on our buses and went home.

Apparently, there were those who felt otherwise.
I remember walking through the front door after the show, switching on my television and hearing my name before I even had a chance to sit on the sofa. There were these two BBC Radio 2 presenters sitting around a campfire at Glastonbury waxing about how wonderful our performance was. And then they showed a clip of our performance, and I was like, “Wow, this is pretty good actually.”

What bothered you most about the show when you walked offstage?
There were two things. First, I couldn’t hear myself onstage. Imagine feeling the vibration in your throat and your teeth and your mouth, but the sound is being sucked away by the volume. It’s the weirdest feeling. When I finally got in-ear monitors, it really saved my life. Before that, I’d come offstage after every single show totally depressed because I didn’t know whether I was in tune or out of tune. It probably ruined about 10 years’ worth of gigs for me. The second thing was that it pissed on everyone. We looked at the audience and thought, “This is going to crap because it’s raining.” Everyone looked pretty miserable.

Twenty years later, what’s your perspective on The Man Who?
The Man Who was the first big comedown record from Britpop—the hangover. It introduced people to this less arrogant, more introspective sound. On our first record, there was AC/DC, Oasis, a bit of everything. But at the end of (1997’s) Good Feeling, you begin to hear what we’d become. It weaves very nicely into The Man Who.

What are a few memories that stick out from the recording of The Man Who?
We started out with Mike Hedges. We wanted to work with Nigel (Godrich), but he was recording Kid A at that point, so he was super-busy. Mike is a veteran producer who did the Manic Street Preachers and all the early Cure stuff. The stuff didn’t quite hit the ground running like we wanted it to, but we did keep the vocals from “Turn” and “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” from that session because they were really special. Then we did get Nigel involved, and the first thing we recorded, I think, was “Writing To Reach You.” I remember sitting behind him and watching him get a sound together in the studio—he didn’t even have an assistant engineer. He was soundchecking the drums with Neil (Primrose), and he’d say, “Could you hit the snare drum?’ Then he’d say, “Stop,” go move the mic about two millimeters and come back and say, “Hit it again.” He’d do this about six times until the mic was in the perfect position. Bare in mind that he did that with absolutely everything, and there was no EQ anywhere on the board—it was all mic position. I remember being like, “Wow, he hasn’t touched a single knob. He’s just listening.” Another big part of his technique is that he gets the band to play together. He records the take and tweaks tiny little bits of it. It’s all about the performance with him.

The Radiohead connection must’ve loomed large, yes?
For us, OK Computer was such a massive record, and Nigel and I were getting along really well. So it was nice having a laugh and hanging out while I was watching one of the greatest engineers who’ve ever lived.

It seems like, with The Man Who, the Travis sound came into full focus.
We weren’t really trying to go out and find a sound. But I remember opening the front door of my house in London and my two managers standing in the doorway like tax collectors. We were getting to the end of recording, and they sat down and said, “Listen, the album is quite depressing. Could you write a couple of singles?” So I went away, and the first one I wrote was “The Blue Light,” which is about domestic violence in a cul-de-sac in northern England—not really single material. But “Driftwood” did come out of that. If you have a good song to record, it will make you sound like it wants you to sound. We had those songs for The Man Who.

Does it bother you that the album didn’t do nearly as well here as it did in the U.K.?
Epic initially passed on it. Then it came out in Britain in May 1999, and three months later, we were up to 300,000 records. By Christmas, we were up to 1.5 million. Then Epic said, “Well, maybe you can come over here and try to do this thing.” In the UK, Travis became so fucking massive so quickly. One in six households had The Man Who, and the press hated us because we were so massive. We were getting played too much on the radio. We came to America almost a year later. But the interesting thing is that we never crossed over. We were this little island that a lot of people clambered onto to get away from Limp Bizkit and Britney Spears. Our career in England should’ve been what our career was in America. I’m not complaining—don’t get me wrong. But we reside in a really nice locale in America. People were desperate for something that wasn’t shit in the late 1990s, and we were lucky and honored enough make that record.

—Hobart Rowland