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Written and recorded across a globe-spanning variety of inspiring locations from London to Berlin, New York and rural Norway, with input from some of pop’s top producers, Travis’s seventh album Where You Stand isn’t exactly the work of a new young band with limited resources fearlessly delivering a remarkable debut. So why does it sound like it could be?
The answer begins at an uncertain date, at an airport nobody can remember, around the point when the multi-million-selling Scottish quartet had finished touring 2008’s Ode To J. Smith. Singer/guitarist Fran Healy, bassist Dougie Payne, guitarist Andy Dunlop and drummer Neil Primrose exchanged farewells and boarded separate flights, for what was unspokenly agreed would be a long break of indefinite length – their first proper since releasing their debut album Good Feeling way back in 1997.
“It’s a lovely life,” reflects Payne on an incredible 11 year run up to that point of near constant activity and success built upon success – including two number one albums, three Brit awards, five top 10 singles, 12 top 20 singles, and countless hundreds of sold-out shows around the world. “But you do it relentlessly, and there is a point when it just snaps you somewhere along the line,” he adds.
“You just get fed up of waking up and smelling your mate’s socks every morning,” jokes Healy. “We’ve all got families now, and it’s a definite moment in your life when you go ‘I wanna just be a dad, and be with my family and do that thing.’”
So Healy headed off back to his base in Berlin, Dunlop home to Liverpool, Primrose to Cumbria and Payne to a life divided between Glasgow and New York (to correspond with his actress wife Kelly Macdonald’s shooting schedule for Boardwalk Empire). Approximately five years passed, in which time they all started or expanded their families, worked on other musical projects (Healy his well-received 2010 solo album Wreckorder) and generally enjoyed a well-deserved spell of rest, recuperation and reflection.
Travis consequently return looking, and above all sounding, totally reinvigorated. “Up,” is a word Payne uses to capture the spirit of Where You Stand, and it’s difficult to think of one more appropriate. This is Travis on the rise in so many senses – a spring-breeze-fresh-sounding, distinctly major-key-centric record, the product of a newly democratised songwriting system, blooming home lives and expanded personal horizons, all captured in crisp, glorious pop technicolour with the help of a “super Swede” producer, as the band describe Michael Ilbert (The Hives/The Cardigans/The Wannadies). It was probably Travis’s most enjoyable album to make yet, and definitely one of their proudest achievements. “You stay away as long as it takes,” says Payne of Travis’s well-judged fallow period, “so you feel that hunger and desire to get back to it same as you did at the start.”
That hunger and desire manifests itself from the first moments of opener ‘Mother’ – a bracing rush of harmonic pop with a terrific chiming piano solo. And it doesn’t let up through the nu-wavey guitars and drums of the instantly anthemic ‘Moving’ nor the soulful ‘Warning Sign’, until cinematic piano ballad ‘The Big Screen’ finally brings things to a dramatic conclusion.
Where You Stand crossed countries and continents on its path to completion – from initial writing sessions in London, through to a final highly productive flurry of recording at Berlin’s legendary Hansa Studios (as enjoyed particularly by Bowie-fanatic Payne, who revelled in layering famous synthesisers of Low fame onto ‘Different Room’). But if Travis’s seventh album has a spiritual home, then it’s a studio on a tiny island off the northwest coast of Norway, Ocean Sound Recordings, where the band decamped for three weeks during which “there wasn’t a wasted day.”
An icy November North Sea crashing on the beach just feet from the studio proved inspirational in all kinds of ways, as Healy discovered when struggling to reach the challengingly high chorus melody Payne had set him on ‘Moving’– one of several typically belting songs penned by their bassist. “I remember being told that if you get adrenaline it opens up your vocal chords. And I thought ‘well, there’s the North Sea, it’s like seven degrees, I’ll just run into it and with the shock, my body will get adrenaline.’ So I went in for maybe like a minute or so, then I ran out and up the beach and straight into the room, put the headphones on and got the note.”
‘Warning Sign’ was “touched by the master,” as Healy refers to Ilbert asking a certain friend of his to weigh-in with some subtly ingenious production strokes – Max Martin, the Swedish pure pop songwriter extraordinaire. An affirmative statement of loyalty at all costs, ‘Where You Stand’ is a co-write between Payne and London singer-songwriter Holly Partridge. It’s the title-track and lead-single for no uncertain reason – “it’s the most emotional track on the record,” says Dunlop. But the song’s sober tone is undercut by a video of trademark Travis wit, as Fran is intrepidly subjected to what Payne laughingly calls “slapstick torture” – the result of a whole day spent shivering in a freezing cold Glasgow warehouse as he was pelted with “as many outrageous, messy things as possible,” as the singer puts it.
No wonder the recording all went so well in Norway, when such eerily good omens had preceded their arrival at Ocean Sound, as Healy explains. “On the drive out there, the guy said ‘we have the desk that Radiohead recorded OK Computer on. And I was like ‘really? We recorded The Man Who on that desk’. So we got there, and there’s this desk that we have this relationship with.” Is it fate or just coincidence that Travis ended up hunched over the same controls at which they had some 14 years prior made probably their best-known and most successful recordings to date? Listen to the choruses of ‘Moving’ and ‘Where You Stand’ – as instantaneously glorious as any Travis have written – and decide for yourself.
Where You Stand, like Ode To J. Smith, will also be released via Travis’s own label Red Telephone Box, their five-album stint on Independiente having ended after 2007’s The Boy With No Name, there closing a chapter during which the Scots had reaped successes like few British bands in the post-download revolution music business landscape ever will enjoy again. But for a group as close-knit as Travis, probably none of the sales, awards and adulation they’ve earned would be worth it were they not still together today – let alone in an infinitely stronger, happier place than probably any band has a right to be after a journey as relentless as theirs. “When you’re in a band, you’re in a band forever – it’s a life thing,” reasons Healy, dismissing the suggestion that Travis’s long break between 2008 and 2013 could have become something more final. “For me it’s family.”