All Aboard the Night Train: An Interview with Keane

Night Train

Few bands have gotten more from less than Keane. The English three-piece boasts a deceptively simple lineup of vocals, piano and drums — and nothing else. This is the sort of roster more often associated with smoky jazz clubs or family-gathering garage bands made up of your siblings. But Keane somehow manage to get a very big sound out of a very small setup.

Richard Hughes, Keane’s drummer, generously credits his fellow bandmates for what Keane is: a group who can naturally conjure those soaring, arms-aloft anthems which threaten to lift the very roof off of stadiums. Those songs are written by pianist Tim Rice-Oxley and sung by Tom Chaplin, the former bearing the louche insouciance of the bon vivant and the latter the wry and mischievous visage (and, perhaps, voice) of a parochial schoolboy gone spectacularly off the rails. Hughes, himself a dashing fellow with not only the requisite sure, steady hand of the top shelf drummer, but also the inherent ability to know when to fill in the spaces and when to lay back in the cut, is able to carry his strengths over to interviews with equal aplomb.

Of Rice-Oxley, Hughes says Keane’s popularity around the world is owed a great debt to his universal approach to songwriting.

“I just think he has this ability to write melodies that are incredibly catchy,” Hughes says. “It’s interesting traveling around the world. People who don’t necessarily have English as their first language love Keane. We’ve literally been all around the world, and I think there’s something in the melodies that Tim writes that really almost speaks to the people. I’m sure you can say that about classical music, but it sounds stupid to say it about pop music, but you know, there’s something that people can key into somewhere, and I think it’s just the strength of his melodies, and I think the lyrics he writes back that up really well.”

Keane is back after a relatively brief sojourn, releasing this month the hotly anticipated Night Train EP. Three albums into a career that’s seen the band conquer the globe with as much ruthless effectiveness as Julius Caesar. Only, you know, with incredibly catchy melodies.

While their albums have somehow managed to bridge the gap between intimacy and inclusiveness, Keane extended the theme of the latter to collaborating with an outside musician for the first time. K’Naan — a Somali and Canadian rapper and singer — worked with the band in London during a small window in their 28-country world tour in support of Perfect Symmetry, their 2008 album. Indeed, the eight songs on Night Train were recorded piecemeal in studios large and small whenever the band found the time to work on even the smallest piece of the puzzle.

“With K,Naan, we were lucky that we were in a studio together,” says Hughes. “He was over in the UK, and we just went and holed up in a studio together for three days in south London.”

Keane was recording, but it wasn’t necessarily clear at the time where the journey would eventually take the band.

“There was never a plan to put out an EP,” says Hughes. “We were just trying things out going into a studio. And we did some bass parts in Australia, and some drum parts in Washington D.C., and I remember doing some backing vocals in Copenhagen. We were on tour, and we were just trying to get into a studio when we could. It was different, but we didn’t do it with the idea of just putting a record out. At the end of the tour, we were just so many things, and thought if we’d do a couple more, we could put out an EP.”

According to legend, when Mike Love heard the direction Brian Wilson wanted to take the Beach Boys with the now-seminal Pet Sounds, he considered how a steady diet of fantastic singles along a narrow theme of girls/surfing/cars had become their bread and butter and gruffly said, “Don’t fuck with the formula.” Whether the quote is real or not is immaterial. Because while Love was on to something commercially, the album represents for many not only the artistic high point of the Beach Boys’ canon, but one of pop music’s great recorded achievements.

This is not to put undue pressure on Keane, but rather to illustrate simply that sometimes it’s okay to fuck with the formula. Even when the music industry was healthy, and fat label heads lit fatter cigars with weekly chart reports, fucking with the formula must have always made the palms sweat. There’s no indication that Keane has had to suffer various graphs to show how their multi-million dollar string of albums and singles built upon the grand and the lush might be upended by working with an urban artist and, even in the smallest way, fucking with the formula. But then again, there are two different versions of Night Train‘s lead single, “Stop for a Minute.”

“There is a version of ‘Stop for a Minute,’ where radio stations for whatever reason just don’t want to play rap music, they literally refuse, and K’Naan is singing,” Hughes says. “I find that very confusing and really don’t understand why that would be.”

Fans of Keane who aren’t necessarily thrilled with hearing hip-hop influences find their way into the band’s music should still be pleased with the results. The collaboration has a natural and understated feel, in spite of the perils of any group of musicians opening up the creative process to someone they’ve never worked with before. The pop battlefield is strewn with the bloated corpses of awkwardly shoe-horned guest appearances and ill-advised bull sessions between artists cut of disparate and similar cloth alike. But when something happens organically, why not take the plunge? This is where Keane found themselves when heading into that brief initial foray with K’Naan, one which also produced Night Train‘s “Looking Back.”

“It was sort of weirdly easy,” says Hughes of the first-time collaboration. “We just seemed to hit it off really well. [K’Naan] just kind of showed up in the studio, and Tim had sent him a couple of songs that were sort of half-finished, and he had some ideas. It was amazingly simple, really. I’m sure there have been collaborations in the past that felt awkward, but it felt really good. I think we were lucky. He’s a very musical guy, and I guess a lot of music is instinctive, and I guess he had similar instincts to ours.”

Whether by design or happenstance, the songs with K’Naan don’t veer too far from familiar Keane territory, with sweeping choruses guaranteed to lead to untold embarrassed looks at red lights when the listener is discovered singing along to the car stereo at top volume. Fortunately, K’naan fit into the mix perfectly, with his rhymes not remotely incongruous with what Keane already does so well.

“Because Tim had already written the verses and choruses that Tom was going to sing, we knew that those bits would come across as Keane in the same way they normally do,” Hughes says. “The style of ‘Stop for a Minute,’ for example, is definitely different. But I think having that power in Tom’s voice, it’s a pretty classic Tim sort of songwriting thing, and it just seems recognizable. It’s sort of like the Pet Shop Boys; as soon as you hear Neil Tennant, you know it’s the Pet Shops Boys regardless of whatever the style is.”

The aforementioned “Looking Back” doesn’t just arrive with Keane’s familiar grandly theatrical gestures; it was also, at least subconsciously, inspired by “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky.

“Tim had convinced himself that he’d written that riff,” recalls Hughes. “He’d programmed it and thought, ‘God, I’ve come up with this amazing riff.’ And he played it for some friend, and they said, ‘Wow, that’s a really good idea. I’m surprised no one’s used the Rocky theme before,’ and he was like, ‘Shit! That’s what it is!’ Honestly, when he told me that, I couldn’t control my laughter. It just sort of slipped into his head.”

Keane will hit the road in support of Night Train in June, with U.S. dates kicking off on July 20 in Oakland, California. Playing live is something Hughes says the band looks most forward to.

“It’s a reasonable trip around the States; not just the coasts, but a few places in the middle as well, which is great,” he says. “Obviously, it’s such a huge country. It’s one of the most fun things you get to do in a band, is get on a bus and drive around the states. We grew up in the UK, in a little town in the countryside, and it genuinely is one of the things you dream about doing.”

Hughes says the band is hoping to work with K’Naan on select tour dates, both by having him perform with his own band as a support act and on the songs they’ve done together. And when it’s just Keane on their own, they’ll do what they’ve always done so well: Create a very big sound.

“I think the piano is very good, and the way Tim plays it is very good at covering a large range of filling up sound,” Hughes says. “And also, these days we travel with our friend Jesse [Quin] playing bass with us. And Tom plays a bit of keys and guitar sometimes. In a way, a lot of what we do leaves room for Tom’s voice, which is sort of the biggest instrument we have. Leaving him room makes it sort of easier for us.”