a long talk

Fran Healy Still Believes in America

The Travis frontman on the band’s new album, 10 Songs; the Trump sickness; and why Britpop history deserves a revision. Photo: Xavi Torrent/Redferns

Fran Healy really wants you to write that song. We need it, he tells me several times over a call in early October. Wearing a red jumpsuit (his “Superman” outfit) and preaching the power of love and song — and smiling like a Scottish Mr. Rogers when he says Mark Zuckerberg can “fuck right off” — the 47-year-old frontman exhibits a commitment to both his craft and a bit that is nearly impossible to dismiss. His passion for being kind is probably why you either love or hate his band, Travis, which began as a better than average (and self-aware) knockoff of middle-tier Britpop before doubling down on the kindness and becoming the biggest band in the U.K. for “ten minutes” (Healy’s words) with 1999’s era-defining The Man Who. (I am legally obligated to remind you that Travis directly inspired Coldplay.) A handful of pretty good albums and two decades later — Healy once described 2007’s The Boy With No Name as “a Greatest Hits that didn’t exist” — the band still attracts a devoted following and remains in on the joke. Travis’s naming of its 2018 tour documentary Almost Fashionable (in which they invite a journalist on tour who had previously made their distaste for Travis well known) is just on the nose enough.

The band’s new album, appropriately titled 10 Songs, is top-tier late-career Travis. Healy’s songwriting, which he likens to having experienced a Paul Simon–esque revival after 14 years of just being a dad, is more interested in floating than soaring. Songs like “The Only Thing,” featuring a duet with the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs, won’t bring you to the peak of sad mountain like the Travis classics “Driftwood” or “Turn,” yet its melody will cover you like a warm blanket. “These are my best songs,” Healy says. “I think it’s the most cohesive thing that I’ve done, and I’m not supposed to make any good records in my 40s. That’s just the law of rock and roll. Your sell-by date only lasts until you’re 26 to 30, then you’re fucked.”

Released weeks out from the election, the album provides necessary comfort in the way the most effective Travis songs have long done. Politics has been heavy on Healy’s mind, like everyone else’s; having lived in Los Angeles for three years, he has become an outspoken “conscientious observer of the breakdown of American culture.” He doesn’t like what he sees, and he’s not surprised. He also has hope. “Songs are cultural things that make us feel better,” he muses. “That’s why I called the album 10 Songs: To be kind, to do simple things, is a radical act.”

I’ve read that you’ve written songs on the piano, yet 10 Songs feels like Travis’s first piano record. It feels like the legacy album you make when you’re deep into your career.

It’s deliberately that way. I write on guitar; I know the guitar so well. I’m not really a technical player, but I’m a very good guitarist. I have very good timing, I’m told. But when you write on a piano, I have no idea. To me, the piano is like French. I can’t speak French, but I like to hear with a piano. I don’t quite have the grasp of the French lexicon, and this is why I’m steering toward this instrument.

Is this because you wanted to challenge yourself, or you just feel stuck?

Here’s a good analogy. Have you seen There Will Be Blood? Do you know the scene at the beginning where Daniel Day-Lewis is down that hole and he’s relentlessly hitting at the face of the rock to try and get gold out? This is how I feel as a songwriter, as a melody hunter. I’m looking for melody. I’m looking for that little, tiny bit of gold that I can crush down and turn into something. I think with guitar; it’s almost like my pickax is just not doing the thing anymore. I just changed my pickax. Now I can break away this rock. It’s not any better than a guitar. It’s just not worn away.

Don’t get me wrong. I hate writing. Absolutely hate it. I fucking hate it. Ninety-five percent of the act of songwriting is not creative at all. It’s just pure chipping away and mundane, and there’s no brief. You’re just stabbing in the dark, and you don’t know what’s gonna end up on your fork. Probably nothing for a while.

There Will Be Blood didn’t have the best ending for Daniel, so I wish you luck.

Hopefully, no one drinks my milkshake.

Still, your guitar sound is such a vital part of Travis’s success. Do you think fans will take that pivot away well?

I don’t care about how things sound. I just care about the top line. I don’t give a shit. I care about melody; that’s the most important bit. It can sound like anything.

I heard an interview with Thom Yorke the other day, an old interview when it was everyone talking about Kid A. And he said, “I find melody embarrassing.” I found that to be quite interesting. I think he’s one of the best melody writers of his generation. As a melody writer, I know what he’s talking about. When you write a really good melody, it’s like finding a new element in the periodic table. The feeling that Thom is talking about is writing a shit melody. You have to write hundreds of shit melodies in order to get one that is a new element. It’s a challenge. Right now, that’s what we need. We need melody. We need songs. We need the truth. We need honesty. We need simplicity. Complexity is looked upon in the music as being somehow lofty. Music is the only discipline where complexity is actually thought of as being somehow great.

Speaking of Radiohead, I see your band and Radiohead as two of the bigger ’90s U.K. bands that circled around Britpop. You two are still the ones going at it today. In the end, you and Thom both grew beards and moved to L.A.

We’re living parallel lives. I’m living Thom’s Paul McCartney alter ego.

Whether it’s Radiohead or Travis, there are a few bands that are just “We are us.” But like you said, we were outside of it. Why would you follow fashion?

There’s a sort of revision happening right now where people are reckoning with how conservative Britpop actually was: Noel Gallagher’s now refusing to wear a mask, the “Make Britain Great Again” agenda, and back to basics and tradition in rock and roll. As someone who was a part of the era, do you think there’s truth there, or is that just misplaced nostalgia?

I didn’t get the Britannia thing because, you know, fuck that. I’m Scottish.

When Oasis came through, they showed this working-class, little 18-year-old guy that it is possible for working-class people to get to the absolute height of culture. In the U.K., if you’re working class, generally you don’t have time to mope about anything. You just want to hear a good tune when you come back from work that speaks to you in a simple fucking way. That’s what was great about Oasis.

When I think of Britpop, I think of a few bands. I think of the La’s. It would be interesting to recategorize Britpop and maybe what it actually means, because there are bands like the Housemartins and Billy Bragg who came before it. The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays. They were part of British popular culture, but maybe it needs a revision. Oasis and Blur were the outstanding bands of that era and then we came along and then Coldplay and Keane. I don’t see many bands reaching those heights in Britain. I haven’t really seen them for a while. It’s just not a thing at the moment. Maybe it will be.

I can’t speak for Noel, but when I heard what he said, I was like, “It’s got nothing to do with you.” Britain’s a conservative country. America is a conservative country. What is fucking happening to your country? I’ve lived here for three years. I look around and I see a lot of unhappy people. They’re all empty. No love. People don’t have time for love. People do not have time for their kids. People are working their asses off just to put food on the table, a roof over their heads, and they don’t see their kids. Kids grow up feeling more depressed. America seems to be in this horrible feedback loop, and look where you are now. You got the flu, that metaphorical flu, and Trump is the symptom. He’s the achy neck or the sore throat. He’s not the cause. Getting rid of him is not going to make it go away. And I love America, absolutely. It’s the place where everything’s possible. You went to the moon. You put a Black man in the White House. Sadly, Trump also is possible in America.

How are you feeling as an American?

I don’t know what’s going to happen.

There’s a really interesting book called Why Love Matters. It pools all this evidence on the benefits of love and how absolutely important it is to the health of a human and then, on the bigger scale of things, the health of a country. Look at Trump. Here’s someone who’s never received love. He’s been neglected. That guy’s a walking poster boy for pure neglect. Whatever happened to him created this persona of narcissism and feeling like he’s got no shame. There’s no humor. There’s no intelligence. But he’s an amazing con man. He’s a survivor. I don’t admire him in any way, but holy shit, the guy got to be the United States president. He’s the fucking con man of all time. He’s very good at what he does, but he’s absolutely completely empty. And look at who he’s appealing to. He’s appealing to people who have been neglected by fucking government after government after government who doesn’t even acknowledge their existence. Everyone slags them off. Have a bit of fucking compassion for these people because they’re not as lucky as you and me. A lot of people have been ignored for generations, and suddenly this guy comes along and says, “I see you.” He’s not giving them love, though. He can’t. He’s not capable of that.

Your country is sleepwalking and has been for 20, 30 years, and it’s now sleepwalking off the edge of the cliff unless something happens. I think this election is going to be America’s IQ test. I think you’re going to get flying colors. You’re going to pass it because people have woken up, and not just woke, middle-class liberals.

I admire your optimism.

I placed a bet on Trump becoming the president 18 months before he even said he was running. I just saw it coming. One night at a bar in New York with my friend, I said, “Donald Trump is going to be your next president.” And he was like, “Fuck off,” and I was like, “I put money on it,” and I put $100 on it and I won. I put a bet on it this time that you guys are gonna be fine. It’s just science. The pendulum swings one way, and it will swing another way. But when it swings back the other way, hopefully people put things in place.

It’s an interesting time in America. As a young boy, I looked at your country and it was the castle on the hill. All your movies and all your art and music and everything was so cool. You guys were so smart and clever, and you just got the flu. You’re just on your back right now. I think that’s bound to happen if you let it. I think good things are gonna happen. I have a good feeling.

I hope you win your bet.

Just be good. Just try and be good. It’s okay, especially now, to be nice.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fran Healy Still Believes in America