The next wave

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By Gary Graff  

The new sound of Britpop in 2004 was made by three men, a piano and a drum set - along with the occasional guitar, bass and orchestrations. Keane came out of Battle, England, where keyboardist Tim Rice-Oxley and drummer Richard Hughes were friends at the Hastings secondary school. A love of music connected them to younger student and singer Tom Chaplin, and the three eventually joined forces circa 1997, taking the Keane name from a woman who'd been Chaplin's nanny when he was younger.

Chaplin did take time out to go to South Africa and care for underprivileged children. When he returned, Hughes informed him that they had a gig in ten days to prepare for. Shortly thereafter, they repaired to France for three months of writing and demoing, influenced by what Chaplin calls "old people's music" - Paul Simon, the Smiths, the Pet Shop Boys. A 2002 gig caught the ear of Fierce Panda Records, the same label that had helped launch the careers of Coldplay and Supergrass. Fierce Panda put out Keane's first single, "Everybody's Changing," which won a U.K. audience that eventually led to a full-length debut, Hope and Fears, which won the Q Award for Album of the Year, and spawned a U.S. record deal with Interscope as well as the hits "Somewhere We Know" and "Somebody Told Me." Suffice it to say that these days Keane is doing a lot more hoping than fearing, and with good reason.

Q: Not a bad out of the box start, is it?

Rice-Oxley: We're amazed, really, especially from an American point of view. It's just been incredible. We've played sold-out shows in Texas. It's just weird how it's spreading so quickly. We didn't expect it all. How can you, really?

Q: Being a three-piece group with only two instrumentalists is unusual. How did you decide on that course?

Rice-Oxley: It certainly wasn't what we originally intended. We started off as a four-piece guitar band with another good friend of ours who's a great guitarist. I was playing the bass, so it was quite a standard set-up and we were the same as a lot of bands. Then our guitarist decided he'd had enough and we weren't getting anywhere, so we were forced into a position where we had to find a different way of doing things. It was quite a chaotic time for us. We ended up trying electronic stuff to start with, we're really into Depeche Mode and Aphex Twin and Kraftwerk and lots of stuff like that. But it wasn't very satisfying once we started rehearsing it and trying to play it live. It wasn't about rocking out, it was about twiddling nobs and making sure everything held together.

Q: So what did you try next?

Rice-Oxley: We just went back to what we liked best. What I really loved was playing the piano, writing songs on the piano...I was always much better at the piano than anything else. So we just said, 'Right, let's do the most simple things and see how it goes,' just Richard playing the drums, me playing the piano, Tom singing. Once we did that, it felt so liberating.

Q: Did you have a sense at the time that what you were doing - voice, piano, drums - was pretty unorthodox?

Rice-Oxley: I guess we'd been through so many ups and downs and different ideas by that point that it didn't seem that strange in a way. As soon as we got out there, though, people made us very aware it wasn't what was kind of normal. It may sound odd to say that it didn't seem that strange to us at the time, but it really didn't.

Q: You achieve such a full and lush sound on Hope and Fears. How was that accomplished?

Rice-Oxley: Well, a big part of it is I still play the bass guitar on the records. You've got a classic kind of drum and bass rhythm section driving it and giving it that rock feel. That's what we love. I don't think we'd be able to live without that, really. We actually love all those bands like U2 and the Smiths, the Beatles and Beach Boys, people who are really into the bass side of things, rocking out. So all our songs have that kind of rhythmic foundation to them. Also, piano is a very versatile instrument. You can make a lot of noise with one, which is pretty cool, or you can pull back and keep it very simple. And there's other stuff on the album as well, old analog string machines, a few blips and bleeps from analog synthesizers. It's a bit of a blend, I guess.

Q: Doing it live is a whole different animal, though. Right?

Rice-Oxley: I think so. The difficulty is that we don't have enough hands. If I had my way, I'd be playing three different keyboards all at the same time, and the bass. So it definitely is a bit more stripped back live, but if anything it's even more rocking. We've discovered since recording the album that taking elements away almost adds energy and adds intimacy at the same time. When it comes time to record again, we'll probably end up stripping things back even more rather than kind of going crazy and adding more stuff, more production, more instruments. It's a learning process.

Q: What kind of fan base are you finding that Keane has?

Rice-Oxley: It's amazing, actually. Especially in America, people seem to be very open-minded. We've got people who are really into Korn and other sort of heavier stuff, Papa Roach or whatever, and get really into Keane as well. People are sort of very open-minded to hearing good music, which is great. That makes any kind of show an opportunity to try to convert people, which is great. I remember playing to a completely empty room, apart from two of our friends, in some horrible town in the middle of England. But at the same time ("Everybody's Changing") was just sort of starting to get on the radio, so that moment was a real kind of turning point for us, and just getting to that turning point felt like kind of a validation to us.

Q: What do you think you'd be doing if not making music?

Rice-Oxley: I don't know. Before, we were all kind of just working, in limbo in a way. We'd all finished studying, but we didn't have any other ambitions. I never wanted to do anything apart from being in a band - I don't think any of us did, really. We were just kind of in a holding pattern, trying to earn money to pay our rent, pay for rehearsal rooms and so on. That went on for quite a long time, it was a fairly depressing period, actually, just this depressing void where we didn't know what lay ahead of us. (laughs) It's weird. We never really considered what else we wanted to do. I guess probably what kept us going was we were so obsessed with our songs and our music. We just battled on and were very, very lucky that eventually it all kind of came to something.

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.