It’s the summer of 1999. The flame of Britpop which flared so brightly and arrogantly has long been extinguished; leaving the majority of its former leaders burnt out and charred. Rising out of the ashes, Travis take to the stage at the Glastonbury Festival and play Why Does it Always Rain on Me from their album The Man Who. The heavens duly open along with the floodgates of fame and success. The deluge of plaudits and accolades which follows sweeps them along on a wave of popularity, leading to them being crowned the Biggest Band in Britain™. Then, with the stadiums of the world at their mercy, Travis come crashing down.
“It’s really hard not to implode and unravel when fame like that hits you because you’re really stretched very thinly,” says guitarist Andy Dunlop. “We were trying to play these massive UK gigs while attempting to break the US and keep the momentum going in Europe all at the same time. It kind of all caught up with us. After all the hype and the hysteria, we just had to put the brakes on and disappear for a while. When we came back, we had to want it. Luckily, we did.”
When the Scottish four-piece resurfaced, the musical landscape was very different. Melodic, melancholic stadium rock was now de rigueur and bands like Coldplay and Starsailor had taken up the baton. Travis responded with The Invisible Band, an album reflecting the group’s belief that the music should always be more important than the image.
“With The Invisible Band, it was all about the reaction to that mad fame,” Dunlop says. “We wanted the music to be out there and for it to be less about this image of being a big band. That whole crazy period taught us that fame is cheap and it’s not worth chasing. So that album was all about our reaction to hollow fame.”
Perversely, the album brought more adulation and lead to the more organic, moody and political sounds of 12 Memories, an album which exposed Travis to what could be described as their first media backlash.
“After 12 Memories, which was an extremely cathartic album, we were a bit bruised by the negative response to that,” Dunlop admits. “We’d put ourselves out there and got shot down to a certain extent. But with the follow-up, The Boy with No Name, we started to rebuild and stretch ourselves. We tried a lot of different things to try and find out who we were at that point. We rediscovered our self confidence through that whole experience.”
The band’s rediscovered confidence is evident throughout their new album, Ode to J. Smith. The first not to be based on personal experiences, Ode to J. Smith features a series of characters which appear throughout the last day of protagonist J. Smith’s life. It’s typical Travis in many ways, with delicate harmonies and hooks, but there is an unsettling, brooding darkness throughout. The combination has led to many critics calling it the band’s best album ever.
“The new album’s written from a totally different perspective and angle from the others,” Dunlop explains. “It’s the first not to have that autobiographical theme to it. It’s more novelistic and thematic with its cast of characters and its journey.
“We really enjoyed making this record and I for one love listening to it,” he adds. “As a whole piece of work, it’s our most complete record since The Man Who and I’m really proud of how it works. It’s a collection of songs which tells the story of the central character, J. Smith’s last day of life. He dies, goes to heaven and is then turned away, ending up in hell. It poses a lot of questions, like why he didn’t get into heaven and why hell turns out to be enough for him. Ultimately, it’s about redemption.”