Last Thursday night at the Fox Theater in Oakland, Brandon Flowers joined Fran Healy onstage for a cover of Travis's 2001 singalong, "Side." As the two singers (currently on tour together) jointly crooned the song's chorus ("The circle only has one side...") to an eager crowd, it was clear that what goes around comes around - at least in terms of rock 'n' roll frontmen.
While both Flowers (The Killers) and Healy (Travis) say they've not parted ways with their respective bands, new records from each (Flamingo, Flowers' mixed-bag ode to Sin City, and Healy's sparse, wintry Wreckorder) are attempting to make the most of their solo status, Healy quite appealingly so.
On the introspective Wreckorder (released last month), the Glaswegian singer who led Travis to the forefront of the late-1990s Britpop explosion duets with indie goddess Neko Case ("Sing Me to Sleep") and even plays with Paul McCartney (who did the basslines for "As It Comes").
Fran Healy may not be a household name in the U.S. (Travis scored a minor hit with "Driftwood" in 1999), but it's what American audiences don't know about him that makes this songwriter worth (re)discovering. Whether busking on behalf of the charity WarChild in front of the Deutsche Bank offices in London, hanging out with German Rolling Stone writers in clubs near his new home in Berlin, or going vegetarian as a gift to his favorite Beatle, Healy isn't your average troubadour. And don't be fooled by his simplicity, either; for this bard, words matter.
Healy called from Berlin before his tour to catch up. Below, excerpts from our chat.
How's your German?
Rubbish. The thing is, my wife is German and she does the talking for me.
You're a Britpop guy. How did being in Berlin influence Wreckorder?
I think the whole move from London to Berlin - from the UK to Europe - that was quite a big move. I remember in 1996 I led the band [Travis] to London. It was like, "Right, we've got to move, we've got to get out of Glasgow. I want to change the backdrop." That happened again two and half years ago. I don't know how it affected the record, because I try not to think about it when I'm writing. I just let it sort of happen. I definitely think the record wouldn't exist had I not moved to Berlin, had I not moved away from the U.K. at this time in my life.
How was it recording "Sing Me to Sleep" with Neko Case?
She's very cool. It's very random how that came about. She did a gig in Berlin and I went to see her. My friend writes for Rolling Stone in Germany. And I said, "Ah, that show was nice. Our voices would sound good together." And he said, "Ask her! Ask her - do it right now!" And I'm like, "Oh no. I'm too shy." He made me do it, and I'm glad he did. I went to Vermont to record with Neko. I was aware that we had to get her on the record and we didn't want to make it difficult for her. So I said, "Look, I'll come to you." So we jumped on a plane, then we jumped in a car and drove up through snowstorms and blizzards in Vermont last December. We recorded her and then we flew straight back, so I was only in Vermont for like three hours.
Tell me about Paul McCartney playing on your record and you becoming a vegetarian.
First of all, I'd written a song, and I thought, "Who would be the best bass player to be on this song?" And I decided it was Paul McCartney.
The greatest living bass player. I emailed his office and I attached a demo of the song to the email and said, "Dear Paul, would you please play bass on this song ["As It Comes"]? It's very short and I think you might like it." So, he got back to me a few weeks later and said, "Yes." You know, he's busy and I'm busy and we eventually managed to get it done. I didn't know what to do to say thank you, because it's quite a huge thing to get Paul McCartney to play bass on your record. I needed to balance the equation. I thought about buying him a present, but to balance the equation with a present would be way too expensive. And also, he probably gets presents all the time. I thought maybe a gesture would be cool. I'd been toying with the idea of doing veggie for ages and I'd dabbled a little bit. So I thought, "This is the perfect opportunity. I'll be a veggie. I'll turn veggie to say thank you."
Has Paul commented about your vegetarianism?
He sent me three Linda McCartney cookbooks and said, "Good luck" with it all. He's actually checked back in on me once or twice over the year [since I became vegetarian].
"As it Comes" is actually my favorite track on the record.
I love that song. That's my favorite song on the record, too. It's a really dead simple song, but there's a lot in it.
You got a lot of press when you busked for WarChild outside the Deutsche Bank in London. You've done stuff with Save the Children, too. When did you first start to get involved with activism?
I got involved by accident. In 2004 I was involved in Band Aid 20 (the remake). I was upset that none of the people involved in it were going out to Africa and wanted to see where the money was going and seeing why we were actually involved in it. So we went over [to Africa] with Save the Children and with the Sun newspaper in the UK and a fantastic photographer called Arthur Edwards - he's a Royal photographer - who I love. He's an absolute gem of a guy. He was there. I wouldn't call myself an activist. I just stumbled into it and I'm still in it. I think language can obscure the real meaning behind things. "Activism" is quite politically charged. I think words are so, so powerful, and I wouldn't ever call myself an activist. As a human being, you have to realize that there are people who are less fortunate than you. My activism is not activism, it's just humanism. If I'm well known to a few people, then maybe saying something about Africa might make them think about it. I'm very cynical about charities. I realize that there are things in my life that I'm going to do that will be much more actively "activist," but I'm not ready to do that yet. I'm just figuring stuff out before I take my next steps. But Africa is high on my list.
THE spot for your favorite fan theories and the best movie recs. Learn more