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POP MUSIC

Are They Too Nice to Rock Our World?

That's one misperception Travis is fending off as it seeks fans for its uplifting, poetic music.

August 06, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

The name on the Wiltern Theatre marquee is clearly Travis--yet another best-selling British rock band that has had to struggle in this country to duplicate its overseas success.

But something is odd backstage--something that separates this British band from such predecessors as Oasis, the Verve and the Stone Roses. No one in Travis is quarreling . . . or threatening to quit . . . or even grumbling about how slow U.S. rock fans are to pick up on their music.

What gives?

"Meet the nicest band in the U.K.," Travis' leader, Fran Healy, says with an exaggerated smile.

"That's what they call us back in England--but don't believe it," he continues, sitting in a dressing room after a late-afternoon sound check. "There were massive newspaper strikes in Great Britain in the '80s and journalism changed radically. The papers became more sensationalized. They'll take one thing about you and exaggerate it.

"We tend to be good-natured and friendly so we end up as the nicest band in Britain. We're not. At least, I'm not. I can be a real [expletive] sometimes."

Whatever disclaimer Healy wants to make, there is something refreshing and openhearted about Travis' music and manner.

In contrast to the aloof rock-star attitude of so many high-profile British rock bands of the last decade, Healy, the band's singer and songwriter, reaches out to the audience on stage in ways that underscore the thoughtful and uplifting elements in the songs.

Travis' music doesn't have the sonic ambition or the aggressively spiritual themes of the early U2, but there are enough similarities between the community-minded Healy and Bono to make you at least toy with the idea of giving Travis the nickname U-Too.

The group's "All I Want to Do Is Rock" is one of the great rock anthems of recent years, a song that exudes the optimism and desire of U2's "I Will Follow." Travis' "Happy," also from the group's 1997 debut album, "Good Feeling," is as unashamedly joyful as Bruce Springsteen's "Out in the Street."

But Travis also has its darker side--especially on its latest album, 1999's "The Man Who," with the melancholy undercurrents of "Why Does It Always Rain on Me" and the tender introspection of "As You Are," which captures the feeling of being outside the mainstream.

These and Travis' other high points make classic rock themes seem fresh and believable once more. They've also made Travis a huge star in Britain, where "The Man Who" was the biggest-selling rock album last year.

None of this, however, has helped Travis crack the U.S. in a big way. The group's second album has sold only about 135,000 copies since its release here in January, compared to more than 2.2 million in the U.K.

Travis, however, has more than music going for it in its quest to break the U.S. market: a strong work ethic. Unlike the many British bands who spent little time touring in the U.S., Travis has been through Los Angeles three times already this year for shows.

"This band has a real commitment to playing in America, which is a different approach from most U.K. bands," says David Massey, executive vice president of A&R for Travis' label, Epic Records. "Fran Healy is an incredibly focused guy who wants to communicate with people. He's someone you can bet on for the long run."

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As Travis plays its warm, engaging music at the Wiltern, you realize how much easier it would have been for them if they had arrived in the U.S. a decade or so earlier--back when such compatible acts as U2 and R.E.M. dominated the marketplace.

Now that the easiest path to rock stardom is to be angry, rude or dumb (or all three), it's hard to convince fans that it's OK to like a band that is "achingly sincere" (Rolling Stone), "heartfelt" (the New York Times) and "dreamy" (the Los Angeles Times).

Even most of Travis' musical favorites are drawn from an earlier era.

"Just start with everyone at 'The Last Waltz' [concert]. . . . Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, the Band, Neil Young," Healy, 27, says when asked about his influences. But Healy would rather talk about individual songs or albums than artists.

"With me, it's the old story of put your faith in the art, not the artist, because the art won't let you down," Healy says.

During the concert that night, he offers an elaborate analogy, with bands, record companies and radio stations as the gunpowder that shoots songs into the sky. In a couple of years, he says, the record company, the band and the radio station may have all gone away, but the memory of the song remains.

"I believe that," he says backstage. "Great records--just like heroic moments in sports--are like little pieces of magic that stay in your imagination like stars in the sky. Records like Joni Mitchell's 'Blue' or Bob Dylan's 'Blood on the Tracks' are there to inspire us. They are the stars that you use to navigate your life by, and the ones you use to find your way home when you are lost."

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