Returning after a five-year hiatus, indie veterans Keane are ready to do it all again. Frontman Tom Chaplin opens up to Matthew Neale about the songs that guided him through fame, addiction and South African gap years.
By 2017, Tom Chaplin was exhausted. Then 38 years old and staring down over two decades of touring with Keane, the singer now had other things occupying his life: namely his family, including 3-year-old daughter Freya. In an interview at the time he declared himself “too old” to get the old band back together. “It's a pragmatic, boring reason,” he admitted, “but a compelling one at this stage of life.”
If there’s one lesson that Chaplin’s learned well though, it’s that life is full of changes. Alongside his own journey through addiction, rehab, relapse and recovery, pianist and songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley was going through his own share of difficulties, including a painful divorce. When Chaplin heard the new music his former bandmate was making something resonated, and suddenly it all made sense again; being in Keane made sense again.
Now with a new album, Cause and Effect, and a renewed sense of purpose, Chaplin seems simultaneously excited about the future again and ready to face his past. As a band who may have been ungenerously slung into the indie landfill pile at their commercial peak, Keane have no interest in recreating Hopes and Fears – perhaps a mammoth feat regardless for a record that’s aged rather well. Instead, the video for first single ‘The Way I Feel’ finds the newly-upholstered four-piece looking svelte and bouncing around the room with the energy of a band half their age. If anyone’s feeling exhausted now, it’s certainly not showing.
“I was 10 or 11 when I started really listening to pop music and Queen were sort of ubiquitous. I was very drawn to lots of things about Queen, but Freddy Mercury was obviously a huge factor - seeing the way he performed, the passion, the energy, the flamboyance, it was mesmerising. I basically wanted to emulate him, as many kids do. That idea of touring the world, playing big stadiums and reaching out to that many people was very inspiring.
“Around 2010 or 2011, Brian and Roger got in touch and said, ‘We’re doing a charity thing for the Prince’s Trust at the Albert Hall, would you like to come and sing a song?’ This was the song that I chose, and I remember practicing for several weeks in the lead-up to it just to make sure I absolutely nailed it, because I obviously wanted to do it complete justice.
“I feel like it was probably one of my finest hours as a singer outside of Keane stuff, so it was nice that something like that could come full circle. I remember when we rehearsed it - being in a room with Brian and Roger, the sound of the band launching into my monitors - and just thinking, ‘Wow, if you grew up in the ‘80s, this is every small child’s dream.’
“I was quite lucky, because of the way my voice ended up I have that range where I can hit those big, high notes that Freddie used to hit, which is not all that common. I’ve always loved singing Queen songs; last year I did a whole Queen tour and a Queen thing for Radio 2 with an orchestra, which was fantastic.”
“I really got into The Beatles as a teenager, and more than anything else, I fell in love with the story itself: how these four guys from Liverpool came together and created this thing that really changed the course of culture all over the world. To have that sort of impact on people’s lives is incredible, and to have fun with it too - it all looked like it was such fun, the pictures, the stories. For me, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ represents one of the real high points of their career as a band.
“I was also learning to play the guitar and the piano at the time I discovered The Beatles, and because their songs are so pure and fundamentally great, to learn your craft as a singer and songwriter through performing those songs is very instructive. They’re the kind of songs where you could strip everything away and they completely stand up on their own.
“I always find that side of things incredibly hard, because I’m not the world’s greatest musician in terms of playing lots of different instruments, so whenever I write a song and try to demo it, I end up feeling like I’m short-changing the song. It’s a perennial source of frustration for me!
“I do think it’s important that a song can go in many different directions. Working on this new Keane record, very often what we’ve done in the past is take demos and make the demo sound as good as possible, but for the first time ever we worked with a much more stubborn and single-minded producer in David Kosten who’s done a lot of work with more leftfield bands like Everything Everything, Bat For Lashes and so on. He wanted us to be challenged all of the time, so a lot of our songs ended up sounding very different to the demos. Particularly for a band at this point in our musical journey, where it would be very easy to comfortably do something we know and trust, to be pushed in that way was tough, but ultimately really good for us.”
“When Different Class came out, I was just finishing school and Britpop was perhaps starting to fizzle out, but to me it felt so alive. It was so exciting to be a teenager starting a band at that point in British musical history.
“A lot of the themes Jarvis Cocker explored on that record were much more interesting than your average pop record. ‘Bar Italia’ didn’t speak to me in the same way the other songs did when I was leaving school, but then later on, when I was living in London, getting into clubbing and actually being one of those tragic’s sat at Bar Italia at three in the morning, it suddenly all made sense.
“I could have picked loads of different songs from that era, but first of all I love this whole record. When you find an artist who is able to say something in a way that is so clever, even intellectual in the way it’s written, but performed through the vehicle of pop music, that’s quite a rare thing to me. I guess The Smiths did it and I was always a big champion of The Divine Comedy; I think Neil’s song-writing flies the flag for that deeper, more intellectual way of writing, and I really admire that. But I guess Jarvis Cocker was the first person that I noticed doing things that way.
“I still think of Keane as an indie band really. We cut our teeth playing on the Camden circuit and most of the bands we loved were bona fide indie bands. Even our set up was, for a long time, guitars and drums; it was only when our guitarist left in 2001 that we suddenly thought, ‘How the fuck are we going to do the songs now that there’s only three of us?’ Tim was writing a lot on piano, so we decided to make that the beating heart of the band, but even then I think the way Tim plays the piano is in quite a guitar style: he’s either doing a supporting rhythm part or he’s playing riffs.
“I feel like our indie roots never really left us. Right at the start, when our first independent releases came out through Fierce Panda, we were NME darlings – we did the tour and they really loved us. Then obviously we signed a big record deal and the album went very mainstream, which perhaps affected other people’s views of us. But we always thought of ourselves as a little indie band that had become much more successful than we expected.”
“This was my favourite song on OK Computer; I think it’s just so beautiful. For a start there’s Ed O’Brien doing that triplet-y guitar part that changes at every beat, offset against the 4:4 beat, which creates this lovely hypnotic background for the song. And then obviously there’s the subject matter, where I think Thom Yorke really caught that millennial sense of dread, particularly if you were a teenager at that time. It spoke to me on so many levels - the angst, but also the wider fear of what the future was going to be.
“The whole thing has this brooding, hypnotic intensity to it that builds and builds until that amazing bit - I think they sample a ZX Spectrum or something for the blippy part - when the song breaks open at the end.
“I first got into that record when I was away in South Africa on a gap year, and we spent the entire time getting stoned. We had a crappy little tape machine with one speaker on it and I’d taped OK Computer off a CD or something. It was one of the few albums I had when I was out there and I remember these nights when we’d listen to it on repeat, getting stoned. I didn’t really have a clue what the words were to the songs, so you had to kind of imagine what he was singing about.
“I found it all so mesmerising and mysterious, and I think more than any other album it galvanised my desire to make music for the rest of my life. I thought, ‘If I could do something half as good as this, I’ll be a happy man.’
“Playing the Camden circuit in the years that followed, every band had at least hinted at a Radiohead pastiche, if not worse, and we were totally just like everyone else; we probably sounded too like them, but not as good obviously! Part of getting better was trying to get away from being like Radiohead and finding our own voice. We’d take the good things about them, or the things that really resonated with us, but try not to end up becoming a sub-Radiohead pastiche. But it was certainly hard to get out from underneath that shadow, because they were so undeniably brilliant.”
“My three most treasured possessions are my Nick Drake original vinyl records, which my wife bought me over a succession of birthdays. He never had the impact that he should have done at the time, so to treasure and celebrate those records now feels like a lovely thing to do.
“Those lost souls who went before their time are fascinating stories, aren’t they? I’ve read as many books as I can find on Nick Drake and there’s something about his story that I really connect with; the English public schoolboy who probably repressed his feelings way too much but found an outlet through music.
“There’s something there I can identify with. I’ve had similar problems - particularly with mental health and addiction - which I’ve managed by luck, the support of lovely people around me and better advances in the way that those problems are dealt with in this day and age. But I so often feel I could have become that person who got lost, so I feel for him as a human being every time I listen to his music.
“There’s something very beautiful about the fact that ‘From The Morning’ is the final song on the final record. It has a sense of real release, which I guess for him came through the ultimate release of death after what must have felt like a life of imprisonment. He never really escaped from his own unhappiness. I don’t know whether it was luck or judgement that meant it ended up as the final song, but it’s very uplifting and has a resonance to it.
“I find it hard to listen to Nick Drake and I have to be in the right frame of mind to listen to his music. The story is just so sad, but at the same time the music is so profoundly beautiful that it almost counteracts that sadness.”
“The Blue Nile are such a cult band, but once you get into them it’s like a secret that only you and a few others are in on. I could have picked any of their songs, but I thought I’d choose one that’s slightly more obscure. Hats is probably my favourite album of theirs, but this is from High which was something of a return to form.
“I’ve always thought their music is quite impressionistic. For me, ‘Because of Toledo’ evokes middle America, the story of the average Joe and brushstrokes of the experiences in that person’s life. It’s hard to convey what it is about their music, but obviously Paul Buchanan’s voice is hauntingly beautiful and there’s something in the production; it’s so close to being cheesy, but somehow remains just inside the line. It draws you into a nostalgic world that you feel like you know, and no one does that sense of nostalgic melancholy quite as well as The Blue Nile.
“I love the first line of that song: ‘Because of Toledo, I got so worried and stayed clean.’ I’ve been liberated myself from something that was a recurring self-destructive problem, that eventually got so bad I either had to confront it and really change, or it was going to end in death or disaster. As with every addict, there’s still always a part that I feel I’m missing out on, although as time goes on that does subside. I’m so lucky to have hung onto my family and friends, because I really tested them and challenged them. I’m lucky that I’m able to be drawn to where the creative forces lead me.
“Making my solo record was very much about telling that story, and in the end that album wrote itself because there was so much to talk about it. With the comeback of Keane, Tim had a very similar story to mine in some ways, reaching a point of utter despair, not having anything solid or certain in his life, and trying to find a way out of that. As ever with Tim’s writing I was very drawn to the songs, and that’s taken me to where I am at the moment.
“I’m lucky to be alive, but also to then have a life so full of creative energy and love, I’m in a pretty good place.”
“Like The Blue Nile, I suppose he’s got a bit of a cult following and I only know of artists who are big fans of him - people like Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney are big fans of Ron. He’s a bit of a writer’s writer and I feel he may have been a little let down by the way his music’s been produced over the years; it’s maybe been a bit safer than it could have been, if that’s not too unfair.
“At the heart of it, the craft in the songs is really very special in my opinion, often taking simple chords and what seem to be very simple melodies and subject matter, and twisting them in a way that you think, ‘God, I wish I could do that’.
“I was at Glastonbury one year - I think it was 2009 - and at the time I’d just been through my first round of rehab, talked about it in the press and it had all kind of come out. I was having trouble getting into America and I felt like I’d given this big part of me away and let a lot of people down. But I hadn’t really given up drink and drugs at that point, so I just thought, ‘I’m going to Glastonbury, I’m going to have a great time.’ I remember my manager saying “If you get caught smoking dope or off your face and it gets back, we’re never going to go to America again.” And I just felt really shit about it. How had my life got like this?
“My wife and I were walking around, and we ended up in the Avalon field. Ron was there playing a little acoustic set and the first song we walked in on was this song ‘All In Good Time’. It’s a simple, tried and tested theme, which is that sometimes in life you feel that everything’s getting on top of you and you can’t see a way out, but when you look back you think ‘Of course I was going to find a way through it.’
“Life has these moments that are very difficult, and you don’t think you’ll be able to navigate a way through it, but for the most part you normally do. This song is about that idea I suppose, seeing it all from a more settled, reflective perspective, and I remembering thinking, ‘Thank god, maybe there is an answer.’ It couldn’t have been more perfectly suited to the moment I was in, and I remember feeling a bit tearful. It felt like he was speaking to me in a very poignant way.”
“I love Nigel Godrich and everything he’s ever produced basically, I don’t think he’s ever made a bad record. We were always really desperate to persuade Nigel to produce one of our records, because I think we always felt like it would be a very harmonious thing, but he’s picky about what he does, and I think by the point we wanted to make records with him he’d more or less had enough. He’d begrudgingly produce a Radiohead record, but otherwise mostly do his own thing. Still, you never know!
“A layman might think, ‘What does a producer really do?’, but when you hear Nigel Godrich produce, you can always hear his stamp. There’s a Divine Comedy record called Regeneration, which is one of my favourites he produced, the Travis records, obviously all of the Radiohead records, but out of the blue he picked Here We Go Magic. I think he’d seen them at a festival and obviously felt like he could do something really great with them.
“Together they made this record called A Different Ship, and I think it’s an absolutely stunning album. ‘Alone But Moving’ is probably my favourite, just for the atmospherics of it and the weirdness of it. I really admire great lyricists, people who speak to you in a way you might not have heard, or make sense of something you couldn’t quite put your finger on, but for this record it’s just very atmospheric. You don’t need the specifics.”
“This record was written right in the midst of him living a very hedonistic life and destroying himself at the same time I think. On one level I can relate to that, because I’ve experienced a similar thing; the record after this one was the journey out of it, and I can relate to that too.
“I totally love ‘Poses’ because it sums Rufus up. He’s such a force of nature. I remember he came and supported us on a European tour around 2006 and he was very different to us: very extrovert and funny, very flamboyant, very emotionally open and honest – not just in his music, but in the way he was.
“It was really lovely to see that in operation, because I felt like I couldn’t really be myself at that time. I found it very hard to relax and be honest. I never felt comfortable onstage, because although I had my singing voice, I never felt like I had my voice as a person. I felt… not envious of Rufus, but I wished I could be more like that. He was so open, his connection with the fans was something I was inspired by, but I just couldn’t get there.
“I think later in life I now feel that much more readily. I feel more comfortable and know myself better, and I can be more myself on stage or in interviews, or whatever, without that crippling sense of shyness or shame that used to make me hide myself always.
“That line in ‘Poses’ about being drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue is such beautiful imagery, and I hadn’t really encountered anyone with that kind of grasp of melody, those soaring, epic, haunted melodies, since Radiohead in the mid-to-late ‘90s. I remember saying to Rufus, “Your voice and melodies really remind me of Radiohead,” and he was like, “Yeah, people say that, and I’m not really into Radiohead…” He was always quite surprised by that comparison, which was interesting.”