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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."
Anyone looking for an all-encompassing statement-of-purpose for SOFT, the hyper-caffeinated new record from Rathborne will find it in the first line of the second song when Luke Rathborne – chief songwriter and principle persona – hiccups, "Heard you gotta get it in motion." From that moment on, SOFT never stops moving bounding from one jagged-edged neo-New Wave song to the
next, marrying the fast-and-loose ethos of The Ramones with the coiled neurosis of early Devo and the melodic ease of classic R.E.M. and Tom Petty. "The feeling of the record is incredible energy," says Rathborne. "Youthfulness, lust -- the feeling of breaking out of yourself, unchaining yourself, forcing yourself to be
free." That same spirit of optimism and restlessness also characterizes Rathborne's career to date. He learned how to play guitar at age 12, when a stranger who was passing through the small town in Northern Maine where Rathborne lived left
the instrument at his house ("There was a lot of freewheelin' types passing through my house when we were kids," he chuckles). Inspired by the DIY spirit of punk rock, he recorded his first album, After Dark, when he was just 16 years old, sneaking into the recording studio of his local college late at night and teaching
himself how to use the equipment. "I guess ambition when you're young is really unusual," Rathborne says, "But I just couldn't really find a place in high school." Rathborne relocated to New York when he was just 18, where he connected with famed Tin Pan Alley producer Joey Levine. From there, Rathborne began
steadily honing his skills, booking himself a weeklong UK tour, netting a slot opening for The Strokes at South By Southwest and recording the EP I Can Be One/Dog Years, which earned him an appearance on the BBC''s 6 Music. "In the course of making those records," he says, "I've gone from being a 16-year-old kid to being an adult." That maturity is evident throughout SOFT, a story of heartbreak and redemption that told in spit-shined Buddy Holly vocal melodies. Produced by Rathborne and Emery Dobyns (Antony & the Johnsons, Battles, Noah & the Whale), with mixing
and co-production by Gus Oberg and The Strokes' Albert Hammond, Jr., the record nestles honey-sweet hooks inside tangles of guitar and Darren Will's percolating bass. "Some of the punk bands I had been in as a teenager sounded like this, "Rathborne says, "So it's a 'return to punk' for me in some ways."
That comes through in songs like "Wanna Be You," where Rathborne sighs and pines over a whistling synth line and a taut cluster of guitar that recalls vintage Nick Lowe. "That's really a song about identity," Rathborne explains. "It's about figuring out why people love each other, why they want to be each other, and
when that crosses the line." "Last Forgiven," which Rathborne says is about "redemption and yearning," cruises and dips like a roller coaster going halfspeed. Despair and hope commingle in "So Long NYC," a speed-racing, Guided By Voices-style power-pop number in which Rathborne flips the mythologizing
associated with New York on its head. "It's like the antithesis of a Frank Sinatra song," he says. "There was a point for about a year where I was crashing between peoples' apartments, walking around feeling hungry. I would work in a bar near Union Square and then walk around the streets after it was dark. Wandering
through New York City late at night when everyone else was asleep, It made me feel like I had stumbled onto something secret." That contradictory impulse – romanticism and cynicism, energy and exhaustion, is what powers SOFT, and what dusts its cotton candy melodies with a fine layer of grit. "As you get older, the feeling of being drawn between love and cynicism
grows exponentially – almost like someone in medieval times being stretched out on a rack," Rathborne says. "Art is about making a connection between those things." That's what Rathborne does throughout SOFT, and the results are as
infectious as they are complex. "There's something hidden in there for everyone," Rathborne explains. "We're all reaching for something, and art helps people deal with those things. I hope people realize the album is about something deeper than what's on the surface. It's a record about hope and redemption and
energy and possibility. And hopefully, it can be a record about people's lives."
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