While Keane’s delicate melodies and anthemic lifts fit generally in the same bin as the music made by their mates, U.K. weep-pop icons Coldplay—and their less successful used-to-be competition from Scotland, Travis—the combination of pianist/songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley’s hefty, stickier melodies and vocalist Tom Chaplin’s angelic soprano easily bests their contemporaries in sheer talent alone. And they’re not nicking Coldplay’s “sound,” either. The bands have been playing this same kind of emotionally charged pop since forming simultaneously at University College London, when Rice-Oxley turned down his Brillo-haired mate Chris Martin’s invite to play keyboards so he could focus on the newly formed Keane.
While the band—including drummer Richard Hughes—is an unconventional live power-trio, minus the bass and the guitar, the sound they create together, with a bit of help from a laptop or two, is astoundingly huge. Rice-Oxley’s piano alone is a revelation, effortlessly conveying the grandeur of a full orchestra.
Although their former schoolmates got out of the U.K. and onto the charts first, Keane would soon enough cause a sensation of their own when Fierce Panda issued their debut single “Everybody’s Changing” in 2003, and a major-label bidding war erupted. The band eventually landed in Interscope mogul/legend Jimmy Iovine’s office and roster.
Nearly two years later, still touring behind their lush 2004 full-length Hopes and Fears, Keane is back in America for another go-round of sold-out shows. Calling from a recording studio in “deepest, darkest Sussex, in rural England,” Rice-Oxley takes a break from working up new material for their as yet untitled follow-up, due early next year.
Is this the same place you worked up Hopes and Fears?
Yeah, it is—a little farmhouse in the countryside near where I grew up. It’s about 500 yards from where Tom lives, as well. We did most of the last record here, although we did record some at my parents’ house nearby.
How far along in the process are you?
We’ve just done a few days, with maybe six songs in various states of disrepair. It’s sounding really good, but we’re taking it slowly to leave ourselves space to experiment. We don’t want to get too settled too early on in the process. We feel we’ve got a really great record in us somewhere. We just need to work hard and push ourselves to bring that out.
Stylistically, are the new songs any different?
I think the key elements, the things that are really important to us, will still be there. But in terms of actual sound, I think it might be a bit more raw, and a bit more funky. Hopefully the end result will be something really exciting.
How much collaboration goes into the writing?
I basically do all of the writing, in the most basic form, as it were. But then we work together as a band to make some really exciting sounds, making sure the way we put the songs together, as a band, is really, really powerful. That’s something you can only get with chemistry—and a bit of perspiration, I guess—as a band.
Do you use any backing tracks to add instrumentation live?
I play three different keyboards—and Tom plays one, sometimes—and I’ve got my little laptop, which plays my bass parts from the record. I wish I could play the bass live myself, but I don’t enough hands, unfortunately. We’re quite into our technology.
You’ve been touring nearly nonstop for two years now.
We played the Glastonbury Festival this year in front of 30,000 people. Just sensational. And playing in America is always exciting. To go into towns like Phoenix, Ariz. or Knoxville, Tenn. and have people buying tickets. Mexico City was amazing! All we heard was screaming.
Was America different than you’d expected?
I’ve been amazed—I think we all have—by how enthusiastic and welcoming the people are. When you’re traveling 5,000 miles to play a place a long, long way from home, it’s just amazing to have people actually come see us play and know who we are. Our fans in America have been very giving and outgoing with their enthusiasm and encouragement, which is something we really appreciate. We’re not a swaggering, overconfident rock ’n’ roll–type band. You need encouragement sometimes when you’re in a strange place, and they’re always coming up and saying, “I love your record,” or whatever. That’s something you don’t get everywhere. I think it’s a very American thing and I think it’s brilliant.
What can we expect from your live show?
I think people may be surprised at how rocking we are live. We really like to put a lot of energy into our playing. When people meet us, we’re normally quite restrained and polite, but as soon as we get onstage, we just become different people. We’re obsessed and passionate about what we do, and I think that really comes across. I think people are quite shocked by that, and it tends to get them really excited.
How familiar are you with tourmates The Zutons and The Redwalls?
I’ve heard The Redwalls’ CD, and we really like it. We asked them to play and we’re really glad they’re doing it. The Zutons are one of our favorite British bands. It’ll be great to see them play every night.
Who would you love to tour with?
One who we’ve already toured with, Brendan Benson. He supported us on our last U.K. tour and is absolutely fantastic. And we absolutely love Rufus Wainwright, who supported us in March in Europe. So maybe if we had Rufus and Brendan playing, that would be pretty much my ideal gig, then.