"English Songwriters Spend Most of Our Lives Wishing We Were American": An Interview with Keane
Horror movie directors. The Vaccines. Forming a country-based side-project despite not being all that much into country. This is just a day in the life of Keane pianist/songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley, and for his second PopMatters sitdown, he tells us all about the band's latest back-the-the-basics album Strangeland ...
Keane is a band that wears its heart on its sleeve.
What we are talking about here is a million-selling piano-driven combo that has been unabashedly romantic for the better part of ten years, leaving them vulnerable to dubious comparisons to Coldplay and some criticisms that they earned their success too quickly. And while their 2004 debut Hopes and Fears may have felt like an overnight success, these contenders for the crown in the second wave of Britpop have not given themselves much of a break since. The bittersweet taste of success paved the way for their somewhat jaded sophomore album Under the Iron Sea. And perhaps getting tired of laying their most affecting cards on the table every time, Keane decided to shake up their routine with Perfect Symmetry in 2008, an album that was almost too loopy and sprawling to be taken seriously by the band's fan base. Even their enemies couldn't give them any slack; poor vocalist Tom Chaplin simply said that he was going to step outside his comfort zone for the sessions and Noel Gallagher had to get all up in his grill about it.
But affectation remains Keane's core tool. While talking to lead songwriter and pianist Tim Rice-Oxley, it's difficult to count the number of times he uses the word "emotional" -- because that's what he and Keane have been going after for many years; music that grabs you by the collar until you cry honeyed tears. He readily admits that he is a child of the ‘80s and has a weak spot for big sounds coming from a big heart. These were the motivating factors in the making of Keane's latest album Strangeland. It's not a strange album by any stretch but rather the sound of a line being drawn back to Keane's first two albums, in terms of style and restraint. Another variable that nudged them in this direction was the recruitment of producer Dan Grech-Marguerat who approached the sessions as a disappointed fan, i.e. "Why don't you guys go back to your old style?"
Rice-Oxley recently spent some time on the phone with PopMatters talking about his band's latest achievement and only once getting interrupted by his daughter, asking him to get off the line and come play with her. He confesses that Keane wants to be liked upon first listen and that Grech-Marguerat's production duties on the Vaccines' debut album confirmed the band's desire to enlist his skills. He briefly discusses the penchant for Americana he shares with Keane bassist Jesse Quin and how they distill it into their side project Mt. Desolation. He hesitantly goes to bat for the misunderstood Perfect Symmetry, claiming that a handful of its tracks are some of the best songs he's ever written. When I mentioned Keane's prolific nature in comparison to many of their peers, Rice-Oxley slightly lamented the fact that he wishes the process would move along even faster, as "two or three years between albums is kind of embarrassing."
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I just got done watching the video for "Disconnected". Was the lady in the story supposed to look like Shelley Duvall from The Shining?
She does a bit, yeah. I think they kind of wanted to -- [video co-directors] Juan Antonio Bayona and Sergio Sánchez are the great horror movie directors -- and their mission statement was to cram in as many homage moments as possible into five minutes or whatever it is. These sort of scary but slightly amusing clichés.
Like the end credits over the graphic novel illustrations?
Yeah, I think it's an amazing piece of work and it's nice to be associated with it.
Jumping into Strangeland, is it fair for me to say that it has a little bit more in common with Keane's earlier work than it does, say, with Perfect Symmetry or Night Train?
I think so. I think it probably has more emotional directness like the first couple of albums. I felt like we wandered into slightly more silly territory on Perfect Symmetry and I feel that maybe obscured the emotional impact somehow. So in that respect, I think there's a lot in common there.
And this move wasn't really on purpose?
I don't think it was necessarily on purpose but it was definitely designed to be record that really moves people. It's a great feeling when you play songs to people and you can see the emotional reactions in their faces straightaway, rather than having to say "take the CD and listening to it 20 times, then you might start liking the songs." We thrived on that immediate response that really grabs people straightaway. We did think a little bit harder about the craft of the actual songwriting and also making sure that the music, the sounds and the way we structured of the songs and everything was really courting the emotional story rather than risking confusing people at any point.
The piano parts that kicks off "Silenced By the Night" sounds big. It's just a few notes, but I don't know if it's the pedal you are holding down or the reverb you are using, it just really sounds like it's miles wide.
I think it's about four pianos all playing the same riff. That's something that I suppose has become a bit of a signature of sorts. I love pianos; it's sort of a cheeky statement to make but it's quite interesting when you start to layer them and you get them slightly out of tune with each other. It's an organic instrument, they're not always perfect. I love that effect you get, that width I suppose. Having grown up a child of the 80s, I'm probably slightly drawn to that wide, chorus-ey, stereo sound.
When you were talking about that I was thinking about how, for years, many people in rock 'n' roll have been guilty of overdubbing a hundred electric guitars, so it's not really a stretch if you want to have four pianos play the same thing.
Exactly. It's not always the right thing to do. The more you add to a recording you always risk pushing people away rather than drawing them in. That riff in "Silenced by the Night" is so simple that you have a bit of leeway and still pull people in with it. It really came from listening to a lot of Tom Petty actually, that sort of repeating, hypnotic chord thing he does.
Any particular Tom Petty song?
[pauses] I'd say probably "Learning to Fly" because it does that thing where it's the same chords. I'm not sure it even ever changes, but it doesn't ever feel boring. I did this thing where I was trying to unlock a bit of inspiration and write 20 songs within one day -- 12 hours -- so I had to write very, very quickly. This is one of the songs I wrote, I was just sort of grabbing at inspiration. I was watching a Tom Petty documentary a few years ago and I thought "Oh, it would be great to try that repeating chord thing." I grabbed a few random chords, started playing them, and the song sort of flowed from there.
Dan Grech-Marguerat, Strangeland's producer, has not worked with you prior to this, is that right?
Correct, it's a new collaboration.
What new things did he bring to the process?
One of the most important things Dan brought was a feeling of great passion about what he thought Keane should be doing. He was a very big Keane fan. He loved the first two albums and basically hated the third album [laughs]. He kind of said that right from the beginning when we first spoke to him. He's like, "I love the emotion, I love the songs, I love Tom's soaring voice, the textures of the piano, that sort of transporting atmospheric sound on the first couple of records." And he obviously felt very strongly that that was what we should be doing. We've come quite a long way into the process before we even spoke to Dan, we had all the songs and we already settled into the direction of making a more "band" feeling album, a more organic album, something that was more emotionally direct. So it all fitted together very well. I think he loved what he heard and it was kind of the way that he thought a Keane album should sound. He made us focus on the actual songs and whether the emotional story of the song was the focus.
Are you going to try and change his mind about Perfect Symmetry?
[laughs] I don't know. I hope. I'm really proud of that album, but I understand people listen to music in different ways. You often don't sit down and listen to the record from start to finish a hundred times before making your mind up. There are a lot of songs there I am very, very proud of. But I feel that we didn't make the songs sort of available enough or accessible enough. I'm frustrated by that because there are songs on there that are very emotional, very passionate, yet somehow they're not being served very well by the production or the musical textures.
If there were a handful of songs taken from Perfect Symmetry for a future Keane best-of, what would you hope to see on there?
Off the top of my head would be "Spiraling", "You Don't See Me", and I love "You Haven't Told Me Anything". That's probably one of my favorite songs that I've written. I'm very emotionally attached to that song. And I feel "Spiraling" is as good as any song that I've written, but somehow, when you hear it for the first time, what you hear is a load of ghosts going "whoa" and funny guitar sounds rather than the lyrics or whatever. I hope they sort of stand the test of time.
I read that it was Dan's work with [British indie band] the Vaccines that grabbed your attention, is that right?
Yeah, absolutely. We just loved that record [What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?]; I was completely obsessed with that album during the first half of last year. It was kind of a long shot, we just gave him a call. We loved the energy of the album and also the fact that they obviously put in the time and effort to make sure it wasn't just three great singles and a load of filler.
When you heard that album, what kinds of things were you hoping to apply to Keane?
I guess one of the first things you notice about it is how short all of the songs are. There's literally no time to get bored, they're incredibly economical and they're basically very, very catchy but also full of meaning. They're not moronic pop songs; they're very meaningful and very emotional as well. They're incredibly catchy, very simple sonically for the most part. Those are all things that we like to associate with our music. Also I guess that golden thing you always try to attain, that great tension and momentum of energy which basically come from human beings playing together.
You mentioned song length and how The Vaccines get to the point so very quickly, do you see brevity like that coming into your songwriting ever?
I feel like I started off close to that a few years ago. I gradually expanded that in Perfect Symmetry, a lot of the songs ... I don't know if you would say they're too long, but the length of the songs are dictated by the way they are written. It's hard to change that. There are quite long songs generally on Perfect Symmetry. The title track, for example, has got to be five-and-a-half-minutes long at least. "Perfect Symmetry" is probably the best song I've ever written, and we wanted to make it a single over here [In England], wanted to have it on the radio and all that stuff -- but you couldn't do a radio edit of it because it has, like, five completely different sections. It's just too long for the form of a pop song, at least if you want it to be heard by people we've always never shied away from the fact that we want our songs to be on the radio and we want people to hear them, to get the story quickly and feel a connection with a song the first time they hear it. I loved it when I heard that song "Wrecking Bar" for the first time, and pretty much all of those songs from the Vaccines album. They get you straightaway. I felt a strong sense of envy when I heard that, and I thought that was something we ought to get back to.
Most Keane fans are probably familiar with Mt. Desolation. For PopMatters readers who aren't, can you quickly tell us what it is?
Yeah, absolutely. That was just a little side project that I did with Jesse [Quin], the bass player in Keane. When we were recording Perfect Symmetry we spent many a night sitting up late, drinking beer and listening to music. And we eventually hatched a plan to make a record of our own. I was very organic and simple and a little more concrete, a little more country to put it more accurately. We just wanted to get out there and play and sing. We're used to being in a band where Tom's singing and we decided to have a go at it, taking some lead vocals and going out around the UK and the States in a van, getting away from the routine of being in a bigger band where everything's being done for you all the time -- just trying to reconnect with our roots as musicians.
So is country music part of your roots, part of what you, listened to when you were younger?
I never thought of myself as a big country guy. When you come down to it, I don't think it's a genre-specific album. I don't know if you count it as a country album at all, really. I heard a lot of Buddy Holly especially as a kid. A lot of Dolly Parton and Billy Joe Spears, Kenny Rogers, all in a sort of casual way I suppose; probably the same songs that pretty much every music fan knows or should know. And Neil Young I guess was a big influence and Springsteen. There was quite a wide range of American music. English songwriters spend most of our lives wishing we were American.