New album Strangeland is a return to heartfelt sound adored by their fans, says Ed Power
TIM Rice-Oxley is sharing bad memories. “It was a shock when the media turned on us,” says Keane’s songwriter. “I don’t think we were prepared for that level of cynicism.
“Nobody ever is, are they? The only comfort is that it was mostly a press thing. The public embraced the songs. But you take it to heart, all the same. You grow up dreaming of being on the front of a music magazine. When they reject you, it isn’t nice.”
The Sussex band will this week release their fourth album. After a 2008 foray into experimental pop, Strangeland is a return to their classic ‘anthemic’ sound. Their detractors in the media will hate every gushing, heartfelt note. Fans will adore it.
“We didn’t consciously want to go back to our first album,” says Rice-Oxley. “It just sort of happened. Our goal was to make sure the music was of the highest possible quality.
“That’s not always easy to do and can take a lot of time. I actually think it’s a much better album than our first one. But I can understand why people would find comparisons. There’s a lot drawing them together.”
Keane have travelled a rocky path since 2004’s Hopes and Fears turned them into overnight stars. Three shy boys from the sticks (a quartet as of last year), they were ill-prepared for the dark side of success.
They partied, sometimes too much. In 2006, frontman Tom Chaplin went into rehab to treat his spiralling cocaine and alcohol addiction.
A middle-class boy from a good home, he was not the sort you expect to go off the rails. His difficulties sparked a media frenzy.
Watching aghast from the sidelines, Rice-Oxley worried the band might be over.
“There was definitely a fear we had reached the end of the road,” he says. “When things get really bad, it can be hard to see the sunny side of the street. I don’t think we would have carried on without him. He was a fundamental part of the band. It was a bit hairy.”
Rice-Oxley writes all of the songs and hands them to Chaplin, more or less complete. “I rarely make a point of explaining precisely what they are about,” he says. “Fortunately, we’ve known each other for a long time. So, most of the time, it’s fairly obvious to him.”
As a band, they’ve been together 13 years, and have been friends far longer. There have never been any real fallings-out, just tensions over Chaplin’s drug use (he is now teetotal and happily married).
“It is always difficult to make the transition from childhood friendship to adult friendship,” says Rice-Oxley. “With Keane, we have been joined at the hip for a long time. Part of the battle is not to expect the other guys to be the same people they were when we were all 17. We have an intense relationship in which there is a great deal of love. However, we also acknowledge that it is important to get out of one another’s hair every now and then.”
Nostalgia is a theme of the new record. Rice-Oxley and Chaplin still live near where they grew up in the historic town of Battle. On Strangeland, their love for the town, and East Sussex, comes across powerfully.
Back home, they’ve taken flack for being middle class. There’s little doubt they are on the posh side. The boarding school they attended, near Battles, is a feeder for Oxford and Cambridge. They also had the misfortune to arrive at the same time as several other well-heeled groups, such as Coldplay and The Strokes. After all these years, Rice-Oxley still can’t understand why their background is an issue. Keane never pretended to be ne’er do wells from the wrong side of town.
“It’s strange — we get this a lot, but only in England. I don’t know what it’s like in Ireland. It is weird that people would judge us on something other than your music. We weren’t really prepared for that. I suppose, you get over it. It does effect you, though,” Rice-Oxley says.
In 2010, Rice-Oxley took a bus-man’s holiday. He started a side project called Mt Desolation, to channel his love of country music. The usual suspects jeered at the piano player from Keane trying to channel Johnny Cash. All the same, he had a blast.
“A break was approaching with Keane. I have an obsession with music. It’s a bit mental, to be honest. I wanted to fill the gap with other stuff. Taking time off wasn’t something I was interested in. The other point was that I’d never sang on a record. I’m not an amazing singer. I wanted to have a crack at it. I felt I was being a bit of a coward not doing it. But there was no sense that I had the shackles on in Keane and was getting to do something that wasn’t allowed. It was just a break, really,” he says.
Strangeland is a significant release for the band. Keane suffered a backlash on their previous LP, Perfect Symmetry. In a curious inversion, critics responded positively, while fans were baffled by its experimental undertones. After a long hiatus, the new record needs to be a hit.
“We were in a buoyant mood,” says Rice-Oxley of Perfect Symmetry. “I don’t know why, but I felt we wanted to make a poppy, European album. It seemed to be what flowed out of us at the time. I suppose we were getting it out of our system.
“If I have any regrets about that album, it is that I am very proud of the lyrics, but they tended to be overshadowed by the music. The heart of the songs, as it were, didn’t stand out as much as they might have. You always follow your instincts when you are making an album and think about it afterwards. With our new record, the instinct was to make something that was more accessible.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved