Bridging the gap between late-period Oasis-style lager-lad bands and early-day Coldplay-mode weepy-feely, Travis have come a long way since Fran Healy borrowed £600 from his mum back in 1996 to pay for the recording of their first single. From Glasgow to London and from London to New York, Healy has now opted for “happening” Berlin. Despite a calm reaction to their previous album, this is no retirement: Travis’ new album “Ode to J. Smith” is due out at the end of September, and Healy has been busy with the band on promotional tours in the Far East. This hasn’t left much time for him to hang out in his apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, where he’s settled with his wife and two-year-old son.
My wife Nora is German and we had been playing with the idea of a move to Berlin for a couple of years. I think it’s important to change your backdrop every 10 years or so, as things start to get mundane and you become too settled in your comfort zones. We had been living in Soho, New York until last October, when we decided to make the move. It was very easy, really; Nora came over and rented a flat for three weeks in Mitte and checked the city out. Then I found an apartment in Prenzlauer Berg on a website and bought it. I think Berlin is where it’s happening and it’s good to be in a place that is on the up – any city that is experiencing a resurgence is a great place to be.
So how does Berlin compare to New York?
Berlin is a world stage and very similar to New York in the early eighties. It is like Soho was in the eighties, where co-ops were created out of the old textile buildings and the place became a hive of creativity. Today, New York is too expensive and the creativity has been squeezed out of the city. People with loads of cash don’t have good ideas; it’s the poor people who have the ideas, so the rich hire poor, creative people to think for them. Now all the artists are leaving Manhattan and moving to Williamsburg, which is where it’s all happening now. I was recently talking to the singer from Ladytron, who’s from Bulgaria, and when I told her I had moved to Berlin she became super-excited and her face lit up.
Echt? What’s so special?
I have only lived here since March, but I love the fact that there aren’t dozens of chain stores like there are in the UK except, of course, Kaiser’s, but that’s OK because Kaiser’s rocks! I live in Prenzlauer Berg, and I have yet to find a Starbucks there. It’s not like in London where there’s one on every corner. It’s really special here; there are loads of cute little cafés everywhere.
How does German society compare to British society?
I prefer it on an economic, social and emotional level – even from my earliest impressions. It’s not a capitalist society in the way that Britain is. The Brits are obsessed with buying houses, the latest gadgets, etc. Germans aren’t into all that. They save their money and rent. When I moved to Berlin, I really became aware of Thatcher’s Britain, the yuppies and the whole capitalist aspect of British society. I wasn’t aware of it when I was a kid growing up. Socially, Berlin is better balanced. OK, so maybe Mitte is a capitalist enclave of Berlin with all your H&Ms and High Street stores, but it’s a far cry from being like Britain. And Sundays are great here, because they are quiet. They should enforce Sunday closing in Britain.
What about the Germans themselves?
I like the way Germans are forthright and tell you what they think. If they don’t like the album they’ll tell you. You know where you stand with the Germans. It’s very healthy, the total opposite to the stiff upper lip of the British.
How’s your German?
Pretty non-existent. We’re bringing up our son bilingual but he’s started saying things to me in German that I don’t understand so I’m going to have to start learning German too.
It’s only been a year since your last album, “The Boy With No Name”.
We had taken a two-and-a-half year break before recording “The Boy With No Name”, where we returned to normalcy and took time out to have kids. But we still have a lot to prove to ourselves and to our fans.
We wanted to continue the momentum of the last album and went straight into recording the next one to make up for a bit of lost ground. We are best known for our gentle, acoustic melodies, but “Ode to J. Smith” is definitely more rocky and edgier than the others, with more electric guitars, whilst still being very melodic at the same time. It’s funny with Travis: People come to the shows expecting the songs to sound like they do on the album but we are much heavier live – more rock ‘n’ roll. This album is closer to what a live show would be.
How’s the reaction to the album so far?
It’s been amazing. It’s overwhelming – we haven’t experienced such a reaction since the release of “The Man Who”. The funny thing is that when we released “The Man Who”, the Germans refused to release it until a year later. They wanted to wait to see if it was a success in the UK before releasing it in Germany!
You recorded “Ode to J. Smith” on your own label, Red Telephone Box – why?
Previously, we had had two five-year record deals with two major labels. But this time we thought, ‘Fuck it. We’ll do it ourselves.’ In Germany, the record is coming out on Universal Domestic and will be worked as a domestic act, which is cool because I live here now.
Running on your own gives you a lot of motivation and you really make it matter, you make it count. We have never been so ambitious or fired- up. Once you’ve sold millions of records, had number ones and headlined festivals it’s your job to maintain it and keep the ball rolling, which is one of the reasons we went off to have kids, because it’s hard to keep up the momentum. Now we are building it up again with the new album. We’re very committed, just with kids in arms this time around.
Does your family travel with you?
No, they stay at home. The schedule is extremely grueling and it will get harder before it gets easier. My son is only two, but he’s used to me being away. It’s hard. But I wouldn’t want him to be on tour with me. It’s no life for a kid. I want him to be in Prenzlauer Berg playing at the Spielplatz with his friends.
Travis’ new album “Ode to J. Smith” is out September 28. The single “Song to Self” will be released on September 16.