Chime-pop quartet Travis has gathered plenty of feathers in its cap over the course of a 16-year career, including BRIT Awards, chart-topping hits (collected on the memorable '04 Singles anthology), and a bevy of brilliant B-side covers that run from "All the Young Dudes" to "Back in Black" to "I Kissed a Girl."
But lately, the plumage has become even more exotic, notes frontman Fran Healy: Honors like celebrated Twilight author Stephanie Meyer listing the group as one of her "favorite sources of inspiration." Or new U.K. folkie Amy MacDonald citing Travis as the sole reason she started playing. Not to mention director Garth Jennings casting the bandmembers as schoolteachers in his recent Son of Rambow comedy.
Healy hasn't met Meyer yet.
"But I've heard that this Twilight writer had mentioned one of our songs in her book," marvels the singer, who admittedly hates reading books. "And I've met Amy MacDonald a couple of times, and she's really cool. She used to log onto our Web site years ago, and she was one of those fans I'll never forget. And I remember just as Keane's first album was coming out, they came on tour with us, and I asked Tim [Rice-Oxley, composer] 'How do you write songs this good?' And he said 'Basically, I just take a Travis song, turn it backwards, then copy it!' So they were big fans, as well."
Still, Healy is humble about such praise. For years, he believes, "Travis was always the guilty pleasure for people, especially men, and I don't know why that is. Because I'm just trying to write the best song possible — that's the only reason I'm doing this."
So the former art student didn't let a little thing like losing a recording contract with Epic stop him. He merely relaunched his old label, Red Telephone Box — which issued Travis' first anthemic single, "All I Want to Do is Rock," back in '96 — last year and inked separate distribution deals around the world for the current Ode to J. Smith album.
This sixth set is easily the outfit's most thoughtful, a concept piece revolving around a "J. Smith" everyman who decides to achieve nirvana by committing suicide.
"The first song, 'Chinese Blues,' is him looking at the world and thinking, 'Why should I bother?'" explains Healy, who along with bassist Dougie Payne scripted each track like a novel chapter. "And 'Broken Mirror' is the moment when he just can't take anymore, but once he dies, he's not on heaven's guest list, and even the devil casts him out. So he winds up back on Earth, his own personal hell."
Healy reckons that Travis boosters will dig deep into the J. Smith story, looking for Twilight-clever clues. Meanwhile, he dismisses the old-school music biz as the Titanic, crashing headlong into the Internet iceberg, while Travis paddles away in a convenient lifeboat. His songs haven't changed, he says, just their delivery system.
"And that's why we'll survive — if you want to write timeless music that comes from the heart, you'll always be in fashion."