What do you know about Keane? They’re an English pop rock band with a penchant for the piano. Check. They’re fronted by a pudgy-faced man-boy called Tom Chaplin. Check. Tom had a bit of a problem with certain addictions a while back (port, allegedly, to be spirit-specific – sparking UK tabloid headlines such as ‘Tom is a porty animal’). Check. Oh, and their music is the epitome of middle-of-the-road, insipid soft rock. Check? And this, for the Keane cynic, is where the data promptly ends. But is it fair to write them off so hastily? Is there anything else about them worth our much-fought-for memory space?
Well, starting off gingerly, the other two members of the band do actually have names – Tim Rice-Oxley (a rather lovely name, at that), their composer, bassist, and pianist, and Richard Hughes, their drummer. It is this man, Richard Hughes, who has been assigned with revealing whether Keane really do cut the mustard, as we speak to him ahead of their first ever Middle East show in Dubai this Wednesday.
‘Our shows are pretty interactive,’ the enthusiastic chatterbox tells us from his Toronto hotel room, when we ask what we can expect from their Dubai date. ‘We’ll be trying to get the crowd to sing along by playing the songs they know – so it’ll be an early version of our greatest hits album.’
No remixes, no new songs and no stage costumes, then. So far, so humdrum? Yet with songs that have brought the kind of staggering success they’ve achieved, we can understand why they might not want to fiddle with them much. The release of their first album, Hopes And Fears (featuring ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ and ‘Everybody’s Changing’), immediately went to the top of the UK charts then on to became the country’s second-biggest selling album of 2004. In 2005 the band won two Brit Awards, while Tim earned the prestigious Ivor Novello as composer of the year.
In 2008, both Hopes And Fears and second album Under The Iron Sea were voted two of the best British albums ever made by readers of muso mag Q (The Beatles, Oasis and Radiohead were the only other acts to have two albums inside the top 20). In short, their rise to international stardom has been nothing short of phenomenal.
‘[Hopes And Fears was] number one and I was still living at my mum and dad’s because I couldn’t afford to pay my rent,’ remembers Richard. ‘There’s no way anybody can be ready for that change in their life.
It was a very weird time.’ Especially weird, it seems, for the band’s lead singer. ‘Any single article about Keane seems to refer back to Tom’s spell in rehab,’ he says. ‘It only occurred to me recently how much additional pressure the success put on him, going from playing gigs the size of our living rooms to playing Live 8 in front of hundreds of thousands.’ Surprisingly, Richard’s raised the issue we’ve been warned by his ‘people’ to avoid entirely – that of Tom’s six-week stint in The Priory for addiction issues in 2006, for which they cancelled two US tours, and which caused many a scandal-mongerer to herald ‘the end’ of the trio.
Seizing the opportunity, we hit him with another sideways question on the topic: how did the furore surrounding Tom affect the other two in the group? ‘I was very grateful the focus wasn’t on me,’ he responds quickly. ‘It feels like ancient history now, but it just came down to how we could make our friend happy and better again, really.’
Bless. But still a bit too cuddly for our liking. So we probe whether, like Snow Patrol (who we’ve heard are a bit on the wild side), their heartfelt melodies belie a group of hotel-trashing, TV-hurling party boys? ‘Snow Patrol seem very nice to me!’ Richard counters, sounding a little like our great auntie. ‘But, to be honest, we probably would surprise people, considering the way we’re portrayed sometimes. We enjoy being on the road, we hit the town and see what’s going on, but it’s not something we boast about,’ he finishes, in a very mature approach to debauchery.
One way Keane might be labeled edgy is in their latest approach to music videos. ‘With ‘Spiralling’ [a single from latest album, Perfect Symmetry] we spent our music video money on a 3D gig instead.’ The first time a 3D live webcast had ever been attempted, it was streamed across the internet and watched by thousands. ‘There’s a Cold War Kids music video that’s just come out like this – it’s an interactive music video in which you can click on the four people in the band and they either start or stop playing, so you’re almost remixing the track,’ Richard explains. ‘There are so many ideas out there. We’ve always tried to embrace that.’ And, some critics argue, their albums are testament to this very willingness to adapt.
While Hopes And Fears secured their pigeonhole as Britain’s masters of the piano rock ballad, Under The Iron Sea went darker with distorted piano sounds (and picked them up a strong Mexican following, intriguingly), now Perfect Symmetry introduces rock guitars and a relatively sunnier sound. But will they ever leave behind their signature piano sound? ‘We’ve never been a band that just has an idea for the sake of it, like “let’s stop using the piano!”, “Why?” “Oh, because it’s an idea”,’ he explains. ‘But if the piano doesn’t suit the songs then we won’t use it. So yeah, I can foresee a time when we have a record that doesn’t have piano on it. It’s entirely possible.’
Finally, in a last-ditch attempt to squeeze as much old fashioned rock and roll from Keane as possible, we ask Richard the drummer if he’s ever experienced his own Spinal Tap moment, when he’s really feared for his life. ‘Part of our lighting rig once slammed down on to the stage next to my drums,’ he says quite calmly. ‘I think it weighed about half a ton. I felt slightly concerned for my life. But I still finished the song and the gig.’ Risking life and limb to keep a beat? Let’s hope their Dubai gig is as exciting.
Keane as mustard
If each member of the band was a certain type of the golden condiment, which would they be? Richard explains.
Richard: ‘I’m definitely wholegrain mustard. I’m a vegetarian, so I love it.’
Tom: ‘He’s English mustard. Tom likes a Sunday roast lathered in the stuff.’
Tim: ‘Tim would be Dijon mustard then, purely by default.’
Keane play Madinat Arena, July 8, 9pm, Dhs220, www.timeouttickets.com.