Q: How do you kill an elephant?
A: Simple—by ignoring it.
Though such a query might seem odd at first, it is, in fact, exactly what Keane had to deal with for the past few years. When this plucky, piano-based UK trio first burst into the public consciousness with the song “Somewhere Only We Know” in 2004, they were quickly labeled as the “new Coldplay”, a label that initially referred to their sound but later reflected their success, as their debut album Hopes & Fears was a huge seller in Great Britain and a surprise undercurrent hit in the U.S. Yet their ballads of romantic woe, written with a professional sheen by key-pounder Tim Rice-Oxley and belted out by Tom Chaplain, weren’t anything new. Some critics were eager to write them off ... but then the drama started.
With the release of 2006’s Under the Iron Sea, there was a notable change in the band. First single “Is It Any Wonder?” featured Rice-Oxley distorting his keyboards to sound like guitars, the lyrics occasionally touching on subjects such as the emerging Iraq war, and—most critically—a majority of Rice-Oxley’s lyrics were about his gradually-contentious relationship with Tom, who, in turn, had to sing them. As if the tension between the two members wasn’t enough, Tom, in the middle of that year, shocked the world by checking into drug rehab right in the middle of the band’s latest world tour. No, Coldplay this ain’t.
Yet, something strange was happening with the band. Both their albums were chart-toppers in Britain, and Iron Sea debuted at #7 in the U.S. Their profile was on the rise, a Q/HMV readers poll put their two albums on the Top 20 of the Greatest British Albums of All-Time List, and even Noel Gallagher began slagging the band off, making Keane far more than a flavor-of-the-month band. They had suddenly become serious contenders in the pop music sweepstakes. (And just for the record, the week after Oasis’ latest album debuted at the top spot in the UK charts—yeah, Keane displaced them.)
Now with Tom out of rehab and the band in high spirits and good moods, there’s still that huge elephant in the room: how would the band address all of the tabloid drama that plagued them over the past few years? The answer is simple: they didn’t.
Talking to Tim Rice-Oxley about Perfect Symmetry—the band’s new pop-heavy, ‘80s-inspired album—it feels as if Keane’s chief songwriter is genuinely at ease. I joke that we should celebrate, as this is roughly the 100th interview he’s given to promote the disc, but, as he notes, he actually enjoys talking about the album this time around, as it’s a point of pride for him: a triumph of the will, if it were. Here, Rice-Oxley talks about that proverbial elephant, why he doesn’t care about being labeled a “sell-out”, and how he’s finally come to peace with Iron Sea.
I do want to get to Perfect Symmetry in a second, but one of the things I wanted to briefly talk about was Under the Iron Sea. I’ve been glancing over a lot of the interviews you’ve been doing as of late, and it feels like you’ve developed a sort of antipathy towards that album. It wasn’t the most fun you’ve had in the recording studio, much has been said about the lyrics you were writing about Tom who in turn had to sing them, and then that whole Q/HMV readers poll which put Iron Sea at #8 of the Greatest British Albums of All-Time list. So, in hindsight, have your feelings about that album changed at all?
It’s funny: I think all of us love that record, basically. The problem is that we associate it with a time when, ya know, we just weren’t loving making music together, and the whole point of being in a band is that you love making music together and happily creating a bit of magic; and I think—unfortunately—that that record has become associated with some very difficult and dark times for us. But you know it’s funny: I was—I don’t know why—but for some reason I was listening to a couple of tracks off it the other day [and] I thought they were pretty bloody amazing, to be honest! Just ‘cos I haven’t really learned to really listen to a record once you finish making it—you can’t really listen to it with any sort of objectivity. I finally got ‘round to listening to a couple tracks the other day and I’m really quite proud of what we’d done, and it’s very easy to sort of associate an album with a bad time; then you start to sort of think badly of that record, [when] in fact I think it’s a really great record and I’m really proud of it and I’m glad that ... ya know, to be honest, what I’m most proud of is fact that we had a chance to come back from that and keep making music and to do something different and be something better, I think. And also to get back to sort of loving making music together, and I think the whole idea is that if you’re lucky enough and determined enough and good enough to keep making music for 20, 30 years or whatever, each little up and down just becomes a chapter in the story.
I think that that there’s that expectation that people had about this record: it would be your “comeback album” in the sense that it was going to be reflective about Tom’s rehab stint which—of course—it wasn’t. Was there ever that temptation to play into that “elephant in the room” in the writing process?
We were lucky ‘cos we ... after Tom did his rehab stint, we had the best part of [that] year back on the road after that. We came to America a couple of times and we had some amazing, massive tours in the U.K. and Europe and South America. Some of that was tough, especially to start with. We took [a] very proactive, pragmatic approach to start with, and just saying, “You know, we got to keep working on this or we’re going to slip back to where we were a few months ago.” So we worked through a lot of that stuff then and we ended up just having a great time. We kind of cleared a lot of that crap out of our mental systems (if you will) before we got anywhere near making this third record, and that meant that we really ... you know, I made conscious decisions—which I discussed with the other guys—that I just didn’t want to be talking about ... you know I felt like that chapter had been dealt with and we’d moved on from it and we didn’t want to be writing and playing and singing all of these songs about something that didn’t feel like it was ... you know I felt like it was in the past rather than the future and we felt happy and excited and, really, the songs—I guess—come out of that headspace rather than that more negative one from a couple of years ago.
There’s a lot of talk about this being your “‘80s” record or even your “pop” record. What do you think of this record? Is it the more fun album? The more “carnivalesque” album, if you will?
I think that great music comes from losing your fear and, for me, I find it really hard—[and] I’m probably the worst person to ask for some sort of all-encompassing definition of the record—but the thing that I associate with the recording process is a lack of fear and a lack of self-consciousness and just a great ... there was certainly a lot of fun [in] making it, and, ya know, I’m proud of the fact that it’s varied and is a new thing for Keane—in some places more than others—but I think it has a great sense of ... well, you know, when we were making it we felt very excited and we felt like we were having a great time and really experiencing the pure joy of making music: the way that we did when we first started making music, you know? I feel [that] you can’t fabricate that stuff, especially if you get it to come through the kind of cold medium of a CD and some crappy speakers. It’s either there or it isn’t, and I think it’s a really tangible thing on this record and I’m really proud of that and excited. I’m excited about the ... excitement of the music, if that makes any sense.
Well I think that when you guys started out, it was easy to categorize you guys as “the piano band”. With each successive record, it seems like you want your piano to sound as un-piano like as possible. Is this keeping in line with that sense of excitement you guys had in recording this time out?
You know it’s funny: we didn’t really try to do anything. I think the only thing we consciously tried to do was lose any sense of contrivance, I suppose, and any sense of limits or what’s fashionable or unfashionable or what makes a hit record or what sounds like Keane or whatever, and that—in theory—should be a very easy mental set to make, but for nine out of ten bands, it’s impossible. So that was really the only sort of step we were determined to make, and we did that fairly early in the process, and from that point on, there was just “anything goes” and “any ideas is fair game.” “Spiralling” is a good example of that. It’s actually a guitar riff on “Spiralling”, and that main riff is a pretty weird sound for any kind of guitarist. There’s a little bit of piano in there as well, obviously, and a lot of this-and-that: some great drum sounds, a lot of weird percussion, the backing vocals and such. There’s that sense of trying new ideas that were not sort of familiar to us, which is something that really snowballed through the making of the record. We never really had a sense of “Oh, we should change what we’re doing” for any particular reason. It was really that we—I think we’re just having fun in a very kind of innocent way ... which is not easy to do when you’re in a band that’s had some success and you know people are gonna hear your music, but when we’re making records, we sort of forgotten that’s anyone’s going to hear it, if you know what I mean, which is quite a liberating thing.
Getting back to “Spiralling” for a moment, one of the things that I found lyrically interesting was during the bridge in which you discuss the “you” of the song, as in “you want to be president?” and “you want to start a war?” Listening to that and some select tracks from Iron Sea, it feels like—especially in comparison to your early singles—there’s more of a rising political tone in your music. Does it feel like Keane is taking on more of a political stance or is it simply in the mix of things?
I think that’s true in that we ... I think we’re a little less self-obsessed than we were (Laughs) on the first couple of records, especially the second one [which] is very sort of introverted and self-critical and self-examining. This new album is very much about that sort of human sympathy and it’s very much our attempts to make sense of what we see around us and [to] just throw out our thoughts and ask questions. You know, we’re not really claiming to have any answers and I hope none of the songs come across as being preachy or anything ‘cos we definitely [don’t] make it in that spirit. I think we felt, in our heads, a great sense of hope while we were making the record and a sense of “people are capable of amazing things” and we should all be aspiring to something greater and more beautiful. And that belief in the human spirit, if you will, is something that really runs throughout [the] record. Yeah, I’m proud I guess of the sense that it feels like a much more sympathetic record, whereas I feel like the second record, especially, is quite sort of ... I don’t know ...
“Woe is me”?
Yeah! Yeah, definitely. It’s a very angry record in places. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a very constructive thing. (Laughs)
Well I think you could argue that there’s an expectation that bands will do the same record over and over, but everyone inevitably changes. Look at Radiohead: they had their pseudo-political record Hail to the Thief and then followed that up with the jazz-affected personal relationship album In Rainbows.
Yeah, but Radiohead are an exception, I think. There are very few bands out there who actually had the guts to do what Radiohead has done throughout their career, ‘cos so many bands—and I’m sure you know, and to my eyes and ears—seem to just make the same record over and over again, and I think Radiohead are a great inspiration to us and [are] one of those bands—[of] only a handful of them, I guess, off the top of my head: the Radioheads and Bowies and Bjorks, U2 are another great example, Talking Heads—that have tried to change all the time and challenge themselves. I think that if you’re of the [mindset that] you’re somehow happy doing the same thing over and over again, I think that’s fine: you gotta do whatever makes you happy. But for us I know that we just get ... [it’s like] our attention span is too short. We get a bit weird with people. (Laughs) And really it’s just a selfish thing of wanting to make things fresh and exciting for us. And it is a great feeling as a band when you’re in the studio and you’re able to think “Wow, we’ve actually created something new and exciting” ... I don’t know.
I think the only way that you could be the same band repeating the same things over and over is if you decided to change your name to Take That.
(Laughs) But there are so many rock bands that do that as well, and I think it’s just a ... again, it’s because doing the same thing over and over again is also the best way to sell records and make money or whatever it is you want to do—and if you’re gonna change, you have to not fear failure, I suppose. Letting go of that fear is the biggest [decision] you can make as a band, but it is, as I said before, incredibly liberating, and it just makes life much more exciting.
Well I think some of that showed through when you decided to work with Gwen Stefani on her Sweet Escape album as well, which can be misconstrued as you “selling out” when in fact it’s more like you were spending your time honing your skills in a pop-specific context.
That’s great to hear—I just don’t really ... care. I just have no time for musical snobbery of that sort, you know? It makes no sense to me why people say, “This [is] like a particular genre” or even a particular band, on principle. Occasionally you hear people who say, “I don’t like any hip-hop,” ya know, sort of just on principle—and you can bet that they probably never actually listened to it at all. One of the best things for me is when people turn up to a Keane gig wearing a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt or something that makes you feel like ... it’s inspiring to be the same person who loves Nine Inch Nails, loves Keane, [has] a whole lot of rap CDs, and some classical music in their collection as well or whatever. People who are prepared to embrace whatever turns them on without any sense of giving a shit about what’s cool or what anyone else might think—that’s what music should be, or what music “fandom” should be, I guess.
Looking back so far in your career, what’s been your biggest regret, and—conversely—what’s been your proudest accomplishment?
I think my biggest regret—my only regret, really—is that we didn’t sort of start earlier. (Laughs) We all came from a background where we weren’t really encouraged to do anything as frivolous and—I don’t know—“unsafe” as being in a rock ‘n roll band and throwing the last of our education to the wind and trying to actually make music. So I kind of wish [that] half the time that we spent learning algebra and physics and so on ... doing all that kind of crap was spent out playing gigs and “doing the whole thing”—but that’s a fairly minor thing. Proudest accomplishment: I think definitely ... the first six months of this year, making this album [was] definitely the best time that we’ve ever had as a band, and we’ve been making music together for 15 years or something, and perhaps that sort of naïve joy—just throwing ideas around madly, almost trying to outdo each other in sheer silliness—it was a really fun thing and a really great experience as a band, and I’m really sort of thrilled that we were able to do that and go on a train to Berlin and just be chewing the fat and talking about music and sharing stories and ideas in the small hours of the morning in some weird bar in Berlin ... and just, you know, having that magical chemistry of—I don’t know—different personalities and different musical forces coming together to make something great.