They seemed more likely to play cricket on the village green than go off the rails, but the sensitive Battle band had their meltdown too, they tell The Times journalist, Will Hodgkinson.
|The following article was published in The Times, on 7 June 2019: |
Deep in the Sussex countryside, on the edges of the South Downs and not far from the neolithic chalk giant the Long Man of Wilmington, sits the house of Tim Rice-Oxley. The songwriter and keyboardist of Keane appears to be living in bucolic bliss. A barn has been transformed into a recording studio, the lawn is big enough for a five-a-side football game, and the honeysuckle-scented garden evokes a John Betjeman world of homemade marmalade and frothy ale. You would never guess its mild-mannered owner is a rock star who has sold ten million albums and recently got his band back together after seeing his life spectacularly spin out of control.
“Of all the people I know who would have a marriage breakdown, a drink-driving episode and a major midlife crisis, Tim was last on the list,” says Keane’s singer, Tom Chaplin. A more voluble character than the self-effacing Rice-Oxley, he is no longer the lank-haired, chubby-cheeked cherub of the group’s mid-Noughties glory years, but a tall, slender, bequiffed 40-year-old. “When he told me things were not good with [his wife] Jayne, I was shocked. The unravelling followed.”
Chaplin and Rice-Oxley are lifelong friends. Chaplin’s mother was pregnant with him when Rice-Oxley’s mother was pregnant with Tim’s younger brother, Tom. And they, with the help of the drummer Richard Hughes and the bassist Jesse Quin, turned Keane into an unlikely sensation. Breakthrough hits such as Bedshaped and Somewhere Only We Know had little to do with rock and pop tradition: no guitars, a strong emphasis on melody, choirboy vocals from Chaplin and emotive lyrics culled from everyday middle-class experience. They seemed more likely to have a game of cricket on the village green than take loads of drugs and smash up hotel rooms… A false impression, as it turned out.
Keane were as subject to the temptations and pressures of the road as anyone else, Chaplin in particular. He fell heavily into cocaine addiction around 2006 and again in 2013, effectively bringing an end to the band and his friendship with Rice-Oxley. But he cleaned up, became a father and took off on a successful solo career, leaving Rice-Oxley to work on an album of his own. Then in 2014 came the drink-driving incident – Rice-Oxley drove into a ditch on a country lane near his house; nobody hurt, a two-year band – and a loss of confidence that led to him ditching the solo album and reaching out to his old friend.
It’s all grist to the mill of Keane’s new album, Cause and Effect. “I know what it looks like, rich kid with a good life,” goes on a mournful piano ballad called Strange Room, which is what Rice-Oxley said to the police officer who found him in the ditch. The minimal, Brian Eno-like You’re Not Home has words about “bike wheels still turning where you left them on the back lawn” and images of a man sitting alone at night, staring at his phone. It is all terribly sad, but in that dignified, quietly desperate way in which the English provincial middle classes specialise.
Keane - The Way I Feel
From the band's new album, Cause and Effect
“Marriage breaking down, feeling low about life, depression in general,” Rice-Oxley says with a chuckle of resignation. “And in the case of Strange Room, driving your car into a ditch and looking like the local pop star twat.”
“Being middle class is the toxic element of Keane,” Chaplin says. “We don’t talk about things. Tim puts his emotional vocabulary into writing songs and I put it into performing – or running away. When I said, six or seven years ago, that I didn’t want to make any more Keane records, what I really meant is that I wanted to go off and take loads of drugs. My own behaviour took a big toll on everybody’s sanity. I hope that won’t be a problem again.”
I first met Keane in February in a tiny recording studio in West London, where they were tinkering endlessly with a vocal line of Chaplin signing “I need your love” from a yearning heartbreak ballad called I Need Your Love. It turns out that, apart from a one-off gig last year by Rice-Oxley and Chaplin in their home town of Battle in East Sussex, the four band members, friends since childhood, had not seen one another in two years.
“When we started in the Nineties we were typical teenagers: playing football, games of pool, going to the pub, doing the band,” Rice-Oxley says. “You get to a point where you ask yourself how serious you are, you decide to make a go of it, and then it takes over everything. You go home and all anyone talks about is the band. You’re frozen in the moment when you first made it. You become a four-headed beast that has to move as one and it becomes really grating. You end up thinking, ‘Didn’t I used to be an individual?’” For years Keane were just another struggling indie group, Chaplin says, living together in a grotty flat in Stoke Newington in North London, earning next to nothing, toiling away on the pub circuit and “feeling like eternal outsiders, with other bands being all shruggy and distant with us.”
The change came after a gig in 2002 at the Betsey Trotwood pub in Clerkenwell, central London. Simon Williams, a former NME Journalist whose tiny Fierce Panda label had put out Coldplay’s first single, saw Keane’s potential. A year and a half later they were playing to 70,000 people at Live 8 in Hyde Park.
“Coldplay were the example,” Chaplin says. “Compared to us they were slick. Chris was charismatic. And we’re from Battle in East Sussex. No band comes from East Sussex. But Tim and Chris had been at university together [UCL in London], we were doing gigs with Coldplay, and suddenly they were on the radio. We saw it could be done.”
There was a brief period when Keane were allowed to enjoy their success before the criticism started. Rice-Oxley recalls the shock of tuning into BBC Radio 6 Music’s Roundtable after an airing of an early single and hearing a guest saying the last thing the world needed was another band trying to sound like Radiohead. Chaplin dealt with being thrown into the public glare by hiding behind his hair and comfort eating.
“And the result of that was someone saying I looked like a big fat baby,” he exclaims. “I can laugh about it now, but at the time it was horrendous. I remember watching the video for Somewhere Only We Know and thinking, ‘My God, who is that?’ I had never been filmed professionally before, and it looked like a totally different guy. And I didn’t like that guy.”
“It pisses me off, even now,” Rice-Oxley says, sounding pissed off. “Why do bands have to be judged on anything other than making music? Suddenly everyone has an opinion on how you look and we were unprepared for that. The people around you start telling you what to wear and how to do your hair. And you think, ‘I just want to go home’.”
Unfortunately, Rice-Oxley couldn’t go home, because Keane were on their way to becoming one of the biggest bands in Britain. While he dealt with the pressure by writing songs and tinkering away in the studio, Chaplin went off the rails. His problems with drugs started in 2006 during the tour for their second album, Under the Iron Sea, returned in 2012 with their fourth album, Strangeland, and resulted in cancelled gigs, no-shows at interviews and Chaplin locking himself in his house and refusing to come out. Unsurprisingly, Hughes and Quin had reservations about returning to Keane this time round.
“You never clock off,” Quin says of life in a successful band. “You’re sleeping two feet away from each other on a tour bus, or you’re sitting next to each other at an airport, and everything you say and do has an impact on everyone else. But it does feel different this time round. There were never any huge egos in Keane, but fatherhood has changed us. We’re no longer on a mission to get to Madison Square Garden as quickly as possible.”
It seems the story of Keane is really the story of a friendship, and the strain it is put under when what you do together is so much more profound and impactful than what you do on your own. “I often think about that,” Rice-Oxley says. “Look at Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. They had a random meeting at a train station in Dartford and now they’re stuck with each other for the rest of their lives. It must drive them mental.”
“We had an incredible bond, we had success; external forces pulled us apart,” Chaplin says. “Now we’re back. I feel tentative, but we’re taking it one step at a time. We’ll do an album and a bit of touring. That is all we are expecting.”
“Low expectations,” Quin says, laconically. “That’s the Keane buzzword.”