When the piano-fuelled, guitar-less, Grammy-nominated trio Keane finally hit pay dirt in 2004 with its debut Hopes and Fears, everything was coming up roses. But like any other successful new band on a major label, the first time around with 10 or 12 songs quickly becomes the third or fourth or fifth time around with those same 10 or 12 songs. The group’s Strangers DVD captured some of the grind that is the road, a grind that almost saw a very promising act run into the ground.
“We just kind of stopped talking to each other and enjoying stuff together and sharing the sort of weird life we’ve made for ourselves,” drummer Richard Hughes says on the line from Britain. “For a while I think we were strangers.”
“I think we did a tour too many,” he adds. “It’s hard to describe because you get to live this ridiculously amazing life and you get to go on stage and do all this stuff. I think every band experiences it on their first tour, the reality of what they’re doing is very sort of strange and it is hard to sort of adjust to.”
The group took some time off, but not too much, resulting in a new, polished, and at times poignant Under the Iron Sea. One of the final lines on the album has singer Tom Chaplin uttering, “I guess I’m a record you’re tired of”, but this is one you’d be hard pressed to get bored with. The all-important sophomore album has the band branching out into a darker area both lyrically and sonically. The cheerful, life-affirming nature of album one has been replaced at times by a tender, bittersweet melancholia found on tracks like “Hamburg Song” and “Try Again”.
“The subject matter was not the happiest, and we wanted the instruments to reflect that,” Hughes says. “We wanted the music and the sounds we used and the atmosphere on the record to have an intensity that Hopes and Fears didn’t have. We wanted to capture that atmosphere and do the songs justice.”
And according to Hughes, Keane knew they didn’t want to repeat Hopes and Fears with this new record, despite the debut selling literally millions of copies.
“I think we were constantly frustrated as music fans by bands who make a first record and then make it again for their second record and then again for their third record,” Hughes says. “It may be good for record sales but it’s not necessarily good from a keeping people interested point of view, and certainly not for us. We’ve always looked up to bands that develop and push themselves and challenge the people that listen to them just as they challenge themselves.”
The new album contains 11 songs and is led by the first single “Is It Any Wonder?” a song that sounds like a guitar intro by The Edge (“Even Better Than the Real Thing”) but is the result of some ingenuity by keyboardist Tim Rice-Oxley.
“Tim was trying to get an angry, kind of violent sound from his piano and he was putting it through an amplifier that is only used for guitars,” Hughes says. “He was really sort of getting it to almost feedback. The piano is a respected, classical instrument but you can fuck it up, too, and we wanted to. It was kind of his take on a Jimi Hendrix riff at the start of the song, to make his piano as visceral as Jimi Hendrix’s guitar.”
And oddly enough, the video for the single was created by Kevin Godley, who also directed U2’s “Even Better Than the Real Thing”.
“The video was the first video we enjoyed making,” Hughes says. “[Godley] said because of the energy and the pace of the song he imagined the camera always moving. He invented this crazy rollercoaster to put the camera on and to build it around it. You just played the song 20 times and then they said okay and it looked really wicked, it was cool.”
Another song worthy of being released as a single is “A Bad Dream”, inspired by the W.B. Yeats poem “An Irish Airman Forsees His Death”. Hughes says the feeling of helplessness in the song mirrors the feelings some of today’s youth might have towards war.
“I think we’ve always had a morbid fascination with what that must feel like,” he says. “He doesn’t hate the people he’s fighting against and he doesn’t love the people he’s trying to protect and he’s going to die. I think in the current world we live in there are a lot of people feeling that way that have been sent off to war. It’s an incredibly moving poem and it’s as relevant now as when it was written.”
Like most of their peers, Keane have their own views on downloading. Under the Iron Sea was leaked by iTunes Belgium a couple of weeks before the official release, resulting in fans getting their hands on it before they were supposed to. Hughes says the group is realistic about the upsides and downsides of the Internet.
“I think we’ve benefited immensely in our short time as a band,” he says. “We’ve been a band for years but people didn’t give a shit for the first 10. If there’s an option and people can afford it then I think people should buy it but I’d rather somebody could listen to our music than couldn’t listen to our music.
“I think we can see both sides of it, which sounds like a politician’s answer,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t think the illegal downloading of songs is good. I think that’s a bad thing. But I think we nevertheless appreciate the fact the Internet has done many good things for us so I guess we can put up with it.”
The group will mount a brief North American string of dates in late June and early July before returning in September for a more extensive trek. Keane are also slated for various European festivals and Japan’s Summersonic in August. Hughes says the shows have gone quite well thanks to the new material and the ability to change things up in terms of a set list.
But perhaps the biggest question at the moment I should pose to Hughes is quite obvious. I’m talking to a Brit during the middle of a World Cup soccer match featuring Brazil and Croatia.
“I’ve left my sitting room in order to concentrate on the interviews,” he says with a laugh. “Nevertheless, between interviews I’m going back and forth. Last time it was nil-nil.”
And how does Hughes feel now with the retirement of soccer star Roy Keane (no, the band isn’t named after him)?
“I guess he’ll just shout at people and get very angry at the touch line instead of on the pitch,” he says. “I used to love watching football games, less so in the World Cup but definitely in regards to the [English] Premiership.
“I get unbelievably wound up by the arrogance and constant bickering of football players, the way they’re so disrespectful to the referees and linesman to the point of which I find it almost impossible to watch Premiership football because they’re so petulant and spoiled. It drives me nuts.”