There was an audible strand of heartfelt but understated balladry in the British indie-rock of the '90s that started with Radiohead’s High And Dry in 1992, traced its trajectory through the Verve in the Britpop era, then was carried along by Travis at the turn of the millennium and Keane shortly after, before finally being claimed forever by Coldplay.
Many of our colleagues in the rock journalism community derided this form of huge-selling pop in public but sang along with it in private, the hypocrites; fortunately, neither the bands concerned nor the massive audiences who filled their gigs gave a damn what we in the press thought.
You may recall the long sequence of hits enjoyed by Travis, the Glasgow foursome made up of singer Fran Healy, guitarist Andy Dunlop, bassist Dougie Payne and drummer Neil Primrose. They included Writing To Reach You, Driftwood, Why Does It Always Rain On Me?, Turn, Sing, Flowers In The Window and many more, each ranging from the anthemic to the subtle but in all cases anchored by earworm melodies.
In 1999, success still lay ahead, however. Travis had got as far as a second album, The Man Who, but it wasn’t until that year’s Glastonbury Festival that they found real recognition. During Why Does It Always Rain on Me?, the heavens fortuitously opened, the crowd went nuts - followed shortly by the attendant media - and the path was set. Travis headlined Glasto in 2000, selling 3.5 million copies of The Man Who and snagging a bunch of industry awards for the album and its singles.
This brings us to the release of Live At Glastonbury ’99, which celebrates 20 years since this momentous gig. The funny thing is that for bassist Dougie Payne, the set was a bit of a washout...
Glastonbury 1999 was crucial for your band, wasn’t it?
“It was so bizarre, because obviously it turned out to be a breakthrough for us, but I remember coming offstage and going, ‘Well, that wasn’t great, was it?’ We were a bit underwhelmed, because it started to rain and all the crowd were in their summer finery, and we were thinking, ‘We’ve ruined this. This is not what we wanted’. I was sulking. But then, by the time we went home, it was all over the news, ‘Oh, Travis made it rain, ha ha’. Utterly bizarre. I only really remember few glum faces because it was raining, and then the aftermath of it.”
Have you listened back to your bass playing on the gig?
“I listened back to it to approve this release, and would say it’s good. I think we actually played pretty well. The beauty of playing an instrument is that you find yourself getting incrementally better and looking back and going, ‘Oh yeah, I could have written a better bass-line there,’ or ‘I could have played that part better,’ or whatever. But when you’re early in your career, it’s so much more about the energy and your chemistry with the guys in the band.”
The Man Who
The trick is always to decide whether to leave the mistakes in or to fix them.
“We always just leave it as is, because live is live, and there’s always little glitches and things. Maybe a guitar is out of tune or somebody comes in wrong, but it’s part of the whole thing, and there’s no point in releasing live stuff if you turn it into a studio recording, I think. Somebody said to me once, ‘Being a bass player is one of the toughest places to be, because if the drummer fucks up, it’s jazz. If the guitarist fucks up, it’s improvisation. If the singer fucks up, it’s kind of charming. If the bass player fucks up, the whole thing fucks up.’”
What about The Man Who, also reissued this year? Does it still sound solid, bass-wise?
“Yeah. It really hangs together as a record. There’s something kind of magic about the atmosphere of it. I think a lot of it has to do with [producer] Nigel Godrich, sonically. Nigel was just an absolute point of power. He was incredible. And there’s a real autumnal atmosphere to it. The great thing about Nigel is that he really wanted to capture live performances in the studio, so that was what we did, and then he did his sonic magic on the record. But I think because it’s all live performances, and as much as possible one-take vocals, it’s just got that magic to it. There was no Pro-Tools. It was all captured live.”
Your bass playing was often restrained. Was that to avoid stepping on the vocal melodies?
“Absolutely. I think we all play for the song, because as soon as you start showing off, it tends to get in the way. That’s something that you learn, to support the song and be interesting, but not to get in the way. I think that’s a really important thing, because it’s all about playing for the song. If you’re not playing for the song, it’s just a kind of masturbation.”
Having played these songs for 20 years, do you play the bass parts differently now?
“With the bigger songs like Writing To Reach You and Why Does It Always Rain On Me? and Driftwood we try to replicate as exactly as possible what is on the record. We always have done. Obviously, live, there’s a bit more muscularity, but we still try and play exactly as is because that’s what people want to see and that’s what people want to hear. You’ve always got to remember that no matter how many shows you’ve played, it’s very possible that it might be some fan’s only time seeing you, and they want to hear the songs that they know in a familiar way. Basically, you’re performing a public service. You’re a postman, delivering something to people.”
Are you still using the same bass gear?
“I’ve used the same Fender Jazz since 2000, but I used a lot of different basses on The Man Who. I used a Precision, I used a Rickenbacker, I even used a Hofner violin bass at one point. They’re lovely to play. Nigel was very into the Mustang bass at that point, so I used that. But since that point the Jazz has been my main bass, which I’ve used at every show since 2000, which is kind of crazy.”
Do you take another Jazz out as backup?
“Yeah, I’ve got two spare Jazzes and I’ve also got a Precision that I bought in ’96. It’s an old 60s P that I use when we do drop-D stuff. But really as much as possible I use my Jazz, and I never change the strings on it. I heard about James Jamerson and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn never changing their strings. What was it they said? ‘The funk is in the gunk.’”
Do you take amps on the road with you?
“Yeah, I tour with Ashdowns. They’re potent, but they’re precise in their clarity. I really, really like the Ashdowns. They’re fantastic amps.”
I read on Wikipedia that you hadn’t played bass before you joined the band. Is that correct?
“That is actually true. I had played piano in primary school, and then, because I was completely obsessed with David Bowie, I started playing saxophone. After that I decided I wanted to sing and write songs, so I got a guitar when I was 15. I played guitar all through my teens and all through art school. And then Franny and I kind of jammed, and Andy and I would jam, singing, after art school and at home. When Franny asked me to join the band in 1995, I was 22, and I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘Play bass’. And I was like, ‘I don’t know how to play the bass’, but he said, ‘Just have a go, have a go’ and brought round a cheapo bass and a little amp, I think it was an Esquire or something. He had a tape of five songs and he said, ‘Let’s have a go’. From then on I got really into bass players: I practise more now than I did back then, even. I’ve been watching Scott Devine, do you know him?”
Yes, Scott’s amazing.
“I’ve been watching him on YouTube. He’s fantastic. I’ve been concentrating on his Motown stuff, a lot of Jamerson and Bob Babbitt, trying to work out exactly what’s going on. It’s like you work it out and then you forget that you’ve worked it out, you know what I mean? It’s a source of joy. I did it a bit backwards, because I got into music as a child when I was four or five, through my older sisters’ record collections. My middle sister Jo was obsessed with the Beatles, so Paul McCartney was my first bass-playing hero. His bass-lines are like extraterrestrial intelligence.
“For the 40th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper [in 2007], we had to go in with Geoff Emerick into Abbey Road and do a cover version of one of the songs from Sgt. Pepper on the original four-track machine. You had to do it absolutely as they did it, and we got Lovely Rita which was really nice because my mum’s name is Rita. I listened to the bass-line and I was like, ‘Oh, this is a beauty!’ And it barely repeats. He does that thing where he’s wandering up and down the neck. I spent about a week getting it right, because I knew we’d have to do it absolutely live and we only had one afternoon to do it, so I spent a week just taking that bass line apart and putting it back together, and it worked. I used my Rickenbacker, because that’s what he used. It’s all on YouTube.”
Are you a five-string player or strictly four?
“Four. I always use four. It’s not even for a musical reason. I just think there’s something so elegant about the simplicity of the four-string. They’re just beautiful instruments, and maybe it’s some kind of OCD thing where I feel weird about odd numbers. I’m not against them in any kind of profound way, but I just feel like there’s nothing quite as beautiful as a Fender Jazz with four strings.”
So what does the future hold? Does Travis just keep rolling, year in and year out?
“Yeah, yeah. We’re writing at the moment for the next record. Hopefully we’ll be in the studio in October. Franny and I are going down to Glastonbury this weekend to do a couple of acoustic things, just me and him, for radio, and then we go off to play a show in Jakarta. After that we’ll be in the studio, and then we go off again.”
Is it still fun?
“I think playing music is energising, because music is magic, it really is. And playing music with pals that you’ve known for nearly 25 years, or more than that, that is a privilege. It’s a total pleasure. The travelling is hard. Nobody likes being in airports or airplanes anymore. But the actual playing is still magic, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Live At Glastonbury ’99 and The Man Who are out now.