Travis's recent single marked a commercial breakthrough for the band, with its Top 10 chart placing and massive radio play. Sue Sillitoe talks to the song's producer, Mike Hedges.
Since their emergence in 1996, Scottish band Travis have proved almost impossible to pin down. In the wake of their 1997 debut album Good Feeling the quartet — Fran Healy, Andy Dunlop, Dougie Payne and Neil Primrose — have endured a variety of labels, from cerebral art school rockers through to laconic balladeers. However, the label the band most enjoys — and certainly the one that comes closest to describing their sound — is musically schizophrenic. In fact, Travis liked this one so much they acknowledged it with the release of their second album, The Man Who, by adapting the title from Oliver Sacks' compendium of schizophrenic case studies, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.
"The last album was recorded with no trickery and it became this supposedly 'schizophrenic' record," says bass player Dougie Payne. "The second album was recorded over six months in six different studios, using more instrumentation, and it's turned into this weirdly cohesive piece of work."
The Man Who may be cohesive enough to shake accusations of schizophrenia, but none the less the Travis sound still remains very eclectic. Embracing influences as diverse as the Plastic Ono Band, John Barry, Ennio Morricone, Bowie in his Hunky Dory phase and even Simon & Garfunkel, The Man Who has spawned three singles so far. One of these is the subject of this feature, 'Why Does It Always Rain On Me?', which entered the UK charts at number 10 and spent a further six weeks hovering around the Top 40.
Preliminary sessions for The Man Who took place in the picturesque environs of Chateau De La Rouge Motte in Normandy, a unique facility owned by producer Mike Hedges and equipped with a vintage EMI TG console. The band spent three weeks there during the summer of 1998, recording four tracks with Hedges and his
co‑producer Ian Grimble — a period described by guitarist Andy Dunlop as "cheese, bread, tequila and watching shooting stars going across the sky every night." One of the tracks that came out of this fusion was 'Why Does It Always Rain On Me'.
Back in London, work continued in a variety of studios around the capital including Angel and Abbey Road. As well as Hedges and Grimble, the band also worked with producer Nigel Godrich, whose credits include Radiohead, Beck and Pavement. Godrich was ultimately responsible for producing most of the songs on the album, and also for all the mixing.
Mike Hedges, a producer whose career spans more than 20 years and whose credit list reads like that proverbial Who's Who of the rock and pop world, became involved with Travis through Andy MacDonald, the man behind record label Independiente. MacDonald, formerly the boss of Go! Discs, set up Independiente in 1997 and counts Travis as one of the label's first major signings.
"Andy and I knew each other from way back," Mike Hedges explains. "As the brains behind Go! Discs he was also responsible for handling The Beautiful South, a band I've worked with on many occasions. With Travis, he called me up and we all had a meeting in London. It was decided that Ian and I would work with the band at my studio in France and record three songs. We ended up recording four, although not all of them made it onto the album, because while we were working the band wrote another song and wanted to record that as well. They were still getting material together, but they had a few songs ready that they wanted to record. Fran wanted to get them down before going away to write the rest of the album. One of the tracks, 'Writing To Reach You' was eventually re‑recorded because it wasn't quite right — we were trying to recreate the feel of the demo, which is notoriously difficult to do."
At the time of the Travis sessions, Hedges admits he was feeling pretty shattered, having just completed the Manic Street Preachers' album This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours: "I was blasted, and although I wanted to do the rest of the album I was too tired to tackle more than a few tracks. A change is as good as a rest, and when you change projects you do get a burst of energy. But although starting a project is relatively easy; finishing it is always harder — and even more so when you are tired. It's a bit like rechargeable batteries; if you don't fully recharge them they don't last as long."
Tiredness apart, when the band arrived at the studio raring to go, their enthusiasm soon had Hedges and Grimble hooked on the project. "The tracks were already written," Hedges remembers. "Fran does the songwriting and he brought along a brilliant demo which I believe was done at a studio in Scotland. The demo for 'Why Does It Always Rain On Me?' came as a guitar track and vocal, which was how it was written and pretty much how we ended up recording it. The nice, gentle, easy feel was there even at demo stage, and that's what we wanted to keep."
According to Hedges, the main driving force behind Travis is Fran Healy, who has very definite ideas about how the band should sound. Healy was at art college when he discovered his real passion lay in music, coming to this conclusion when he realised he was finishing more songs than paintings. Dropping out, he met drummer Neil Primrose who was working in a Glasgow bar. They formed the band with Andy Dunlop before recruiting Dougie Payne who completed the line‑up. In 1996, after securing a publishing deal with Sony, they moved south and signed to Independiente.
"Fran has very solid ideas about how he wants Travis to sound," says Hedges. "He arrived with a demo and knew exactly what he wanted to keep in terms of the interesting little hooks and the overall melodic feel. He's very exact and very vocal about what he wants — extremely specific. My role was to sit there, listen to him and interpret his ideas. Some bands expect you to come up with all the ideas but these days most bands, especially the ones I work with, are more intelligent and do have fixed ideas about their sound and about what their producer should be trying to achieve. They know what they want to get out of the recording: its my job to translate that to tape, get it off again and get it mixed. Obviously if a band doesn't know what it wants it's much easier for me, but I still prefer people with a brain!"
Mike Hedges' French studio houses an extensive collection of recording gear, much of it not quite belonging to modern times. The heart of the studio consists of historic equipment from Abbey Road Studios, designed in the '60s and dating from the very early '70s. Dark Side Of The Moon was recorded on it, as was John Lennon's Imagine and Kate Bush's first two albums.
I always get the band playing live so that I can get the entire band on tape performing something that is as near to the finished result as possible.
Among this collection is an EMI desk that fills up the Chateau's former salon‑cum‑ballroom, and an ancient 16‑track Studer A80 Mark I tape recorder. These are complemented by assorted late '60s/early '70s gear from Abbey Road Studio 2, which Hedges rescued about 10 years ago from the studio's vaults: "The desk is an EMI Mark IV with 60 inputs — 40 channels, four echo returns and 16 monitoring channels. It is the ultimate EMI desk, the best and biggest they ever made, and because it is a one‑off it gives my studio a totally unique sound. Originally it was installed in Abbey Road's Studio 2, where The Beatles used to work, but after 11 years there it was removed in 1981, dismantled and stored in a rather humid place. By the time I got it in 1989 it required quite a bit of renovation work."
Hedges had Optifile automation retrofitted onto the Mark IV, and also has an old Siemens patchbay that contains self‑cleaning plugs to avoid crackle. "The EMI may not be as easy to use as an SSL and it needs more maintenance, but it sounds better than any other desk I've ever worked with," he adds. "The EQ is limited but very musical (2‑band with bass cut on all echo sends and returns), and the desk has amazing compressors on each channel, as vicious as Pultecs, plus there's an oscillator to check internal connections."
With tape recorders, Hedges believes 2‑inch 16‑track simply sounds better than 2‑inch 24‑track. His particular machine is a 1969 Studer 2‑inch 16‑track that is really an updated 1‑inch 8‑track machine with new 2‑inch heads. During the Travis sessions, the backing track was recorded on the Studer running at 15ips with Dolby A, because Hedges believes the low end sounds better at lower tape speeds.
"They all played live," he says. "I always get the band playing live so that I can get the entire band on tape performing something that is as near to the finished result as possible. With Travis this was relatively easy because they are very tight. They do a lot of live work and are all accomplished musicians so there is no fumbling about."
Hedges added that the track came together very fast. "Once we decided on the feel, it only took a couple of days to get the entire track down — and that included all the overdubs. We used Pro Tools to replace or repair wherever there was a need for it. For example, if there was a slip in bar two of the second chorus, we'd take the first beat in bar one of another chorus and change it in the hard disk system so that we completely kept the live feel. It's so much better working this way; the old way of doing it would have been to strip it back to the drums and overdub everything bit by bit, which would have ruined its live atmosphere. That's the major advantage of Pro Tools, you can capture the feel of the band much more easily because you don't have the drop‑ins and drop‑outs of the old system. Ian and I use Pro Tools on all our projects. We now have five systems and always have one full system running while we're mixing, usually for FX. If you have any unusual FX running there are plenty of things you can do in Pro Tools that you can't do in any other way unless you've got lots of bits of tapes and razor blades."
To record the drums, Ian Grimble set Neil Primrose up in the studio's basement recording area, which was a stone cellar in a previous life. "We baffled it right up, draped curtains around and made it quite dead," he explains. "Then we fed Neil a click track through an in‑ear setup and got a stereo mix of everyone else going through his headphones. This meant everyone was playing to the same balance, which is how we got the dynamics right."
In keeping with the feel of the song, Hedges and Grimble used dynamic mics and an old valve Telefunken to warm up the drums. "We wanted a close, fat‑and‑easy kind of sound," Grimble says. The rest of the band were recorded in the studio's main live area on the ground floor — except for Healy who, according to Grimble, was relegated to the corridor!
On the subject of microphones, Hedges says. "We always use Sennheisers as our main mics, and I'm also keen on BPM, which is a relatively little‑known German company that makes very good modern valve mics. We use the TD94 and the TD95, which are great for ambience and for adding a little 'valviness' to the sound."
For Fran Healy's vocals Hedges used a Sennheiser 4032 hand‑held mic. "A lot of people feel comfortable with a hand‑held, even if they are not holding it but have it on a stand instead," he says. "It's more natural, because it isn't a great big thing, so they can get as close as they want. This helps the performance, because the vocalist is relaxed."
As the track was intended to sound as natural as possible, very little extra was added. Grimble used the EMI desk's built‑in compressors on the backing track, and added Focusrite Red in split mono mode on the snare and bass drums to create more warmth.
"When we first started working with the band we soon realised the best idea was to record them live," Grimble says, "Most of the work was done in the studio in terms of getting a good performance. If anything didn't sound right we changed the mic or amp or threw a pedal in the way. With this kind of sound it's far better to change something at source rather than muck around with it in the control room."
Grimble used a couple of Vox valve models, an old Jennings transistor amp that delivers a great sound, and an Orange brought in by Andy Dunlop. Grimble explains, "Rather than have too many different guitar parts, we'd link up three amps with different sounds and textures and record the whole thing. This gave us three different sounds that we could chop about later using Pro Tools. All the guitar sounds in the headphones were from the band's own amps on their live settings, so they played to what they were used to when they rehearsed. When we had everything down we decided which part sounded better on which amp, before chaining off different amps and using them in different sections."
Although Nigel Godrich was responsible for mixing the entire album, Hedges initially thought he would be mixing his own tracks so he and Grimble did part of the job while they were at Abbey Road: "I prefer to mix in France because I like the sound of my own desk, but I also like being in London so every now and then we go there for a change of scene. I always use Abbey Road, preferably studio 2, because it's a studio I feel comfortable with.
Hedges and Grimble's mixes were used as a starting point by Godrich. "I don't think much was added or subtracted," says Hedges, "because the finished result sounds very natural, very much as we recorded it. If you do an album in batches of three or four tracks, which is how more and more bands are choosing to work, then it makes sense in terms of continuity to have just one person mixing it. So what I mixed at Abbey Road ended up as rough mix for the next producer — in this case Nigel Godrich. As he is an amazing mixer I have no problem with him taking over; in fact I would never worry about anything like this, provided it ultimately improved the track."
So Mike Hedges isn't the kind of producer to let his ego be bruised by having his tracks remixed. "No way," he laughs. "Personally I think it's ridiculous to get shirty about being remixed because the better the track is, the more it sells. So long as I've got a producer's credit, why be precious?"
Travis were keen to incorporate a cello sound into this particular track, and in order to record it Mike Hedges and Ian Grimble decamped to Abbey Road. Grimble explains, "We went to Abbey Road to do various string parts including the cello. We set up in Studio 2 which has a great chamber at the top, so most of the sound you hear comes from that. We used a close Neumann U87 microphone and an M50 omni on a big boom to get some distance. The cellist was Sarah Wilson, a friend of the band's, who played on the original demos so we always knew her performance was going to be part of the track."