The Stage and Screens Where It’s Just Me and Keane: My Convo with Tim Rice-Oxley
Hey Tim! I’m extremely sad that Keane isn’t coming to Atlanta on this tour.
Tim Rice Oxley: We haven’t been there in awhile now. We
would love to come back. We need to spend more time in the States.
Here, people think of Keane as being a quintessentially British band.
TRO: We’ve always had a feel that America has embraced Keane from very early on. I’m a great lover of America. I keep saying I’m going to move there. I haven’t yet plucked up the courage … but one day.
Is it true you do a lot of traveling by train?
TRO: Yeah, we try to. We haven’t always done things that way. When we started touring, we kind of flew everywhere like everyone does. None of us enjoy the process of flying. It seems to be getting ever more miserable to go through an airport these days. When we were recording Perfect Symmetry, we’d had enough of flying, but we wanted to go to Berlin to record, and we ended up getting the overnight train to Berlin. It was such a revelation and a great bonding experience — the four of us taking off on this little adventure in the middle of the night, sitting in the bar and watching the towns of Europe go by. It really opened our eyes. You have this sense of real travel, one that’s been lost in the last 50 years since cheap air travel became the default mode of getting anywhere.
How did traveling around in trains inspire you as a songwriter? It must have, since you called the new record Night Train.
TRO: I’ve always had a love of trains. There’s a song called “Try Again” on our second album that has quite a bit of train imagery. The whole Night Train concept was borne out of a sense of adventure. That spirit came to represent that whole period of our lives last year, just kind of traveling around the world playing in support of Perfect Symmetry. Those are probably some of our happiest moments are when we were jumping on board a train in Europe or Russia or Japan or even in the States. When traveling’s such a big part of your life and you make a little change like that, it makes a huge difference.
Why is Night Train an EP? There are 9 songs.
TRO: It was a chaotic process. The whole concept of the EP came from that spirit of unplanned willingness to embrace the unknown. We were out on tour. We were in Boston, and we realized we had 3 or 4 songs that were finished but didn’t seem to fit anywhere; they didn’t feel like we wanted to save them another two years until a proper Keane record was finished. Those were the two K’Naan collaborations and “My Shadow,” and we had the idea of doing a cover of this 1980’s Japanese pop song. There was a sense of fun, and rather than saying we’ve got to stick to the plan that everyone does of a record every two years, and it’s gotta be 12 songs and it’s gotta be promoted up to the eyeballs. We got sort of carried away with it and before we knew it, we had 9 tracks. I like that, because we’re giving people more than you wouldn’t expect from and EP. I’m pleased to have that stuff out there, and it’s become much more of an event – if that’s not too pretentious a word – than we’d ever planned. It’s dong amazingly well over here in the UK. It’s been really cool.
How did you connect with rapper, K’Naan?
TRO: I know Tom was a fan of his first record, and he got me into it. We heard he was a Keane fan. So I called him up and he’s a lovely guy – very relaxed, very enthusiastic. I sent him some ideas and he loved them. The next thing we were in the studio in London and three days later we had some completely new songs, which is unusual for an English indie band.
Both K’Naan songs are great. I love “Stop for a Minute,” but “Looking Back,” with that great allusion to the Rocky theme song, is brill.
TRO: We could have certainly overthought that. It’s very much kind of in the hip-hop spirit, sampling a great hook like that. In the world of hip-hop it’s not at all unusual and pretty much a standard way of working up an idea for a song. For an indie band, it’s unheard of. Having taken the step to do that, it felt so fun and so exciting to hear. I think we felt really proud that we had the guts to do it.
Was working with producer Jon Brion really influential on you, because your sound changed around the time of Perfect Symmetry. Did you guys have a lot of the ideas of how you wanted that record to sound before you got together?
TRO: We had some building blocks, but we didn’t have the confidence to make that leap into the unknown. I guess we were worried whether we were capable of making a record that was much more eletcro – it’s very different record than the first two. With Jon Brion, having someone we respected so much and someone who had made such brilliant music come and encourage us … he was very honest about what we had done so far. He had this attitude of ” You can try whatever you want, bearing in mind if it doesn’t work, you can just delete it.” That sounds obvious, but it’s quite hard to have that spirit of being willing to make a fool of yourself in the studio. If you really do try stuff that’s uncomfortable, sometimes you just sound like an idiot at the end of it. But he gave us the confidence to realize that’s part of the fun of making a record. That’s why the great albums are as exciting as they are , because there’s a spirit of willingness to make a fool of yourself in the studio in search of those moments of inspiration.
Tell me about some of your influences, especially as the piano player.
TRO: Piano was the instrument I started out on as a child, but one of the things that made our band quite unique is that most of my influences were guitarists or electronic music like Depeche Mode or Kraftwerk, or a lot of that 1980s stuff … people like The Pet Shop Boys, and U2 and REM and Radiohead and Bowie – classic bands – people who are known for being more generally about guitars. I guess I took that sense of that kind of expansive, melodic guitar parts and used it. Rather than being about twiddly solos, it’s much more about creating sonic landscapes for the vocals and lyrics to fit into – a kind of impressionistic approach to sound. I think taking that inspiration and applying it to a piano is probably what made Keane’s sound unique. It’s a pretty bastardized approach to playing piano that would probably be disapproved of by anyone who’s been classically trained. I think it made for quite interesting results.
What about your activist work? You’ve done a lot of work with War Child, Make Poverty History, and you played Live 8. Does everybody in the band feel strongly about being involved in those kind of things?
TRO: Fans and musicians have always been so divided about whether music and politics, for want of a better word, should mix. I’ve never really understood that. I think a lot of the best music comes from a spirit of wanting to make the world a better place. There’s always room for a good old love story in pop music. But that in itself comes from wanting to make the world a better place. When I was growing up, U2 were the band who influenced me the most. Even now, 20 some odd years later, I still pretty much hero worship them. I remember seeing Bono onstage and finding the stuff that he was saying much more eye opening and inspirational and stirring than anything I was seeing on the 9 o’clock news on the BBC. As a teenager, it was something I could connect to, much more than what the gray-haired guy on the TV from the House of Commons was saying. I’ve always felt that if you’re given that stage, you have an amazing power to do good. I’ve never understood why people look down on that. War Child especially, we’ve had a relatively longstanding relationship with. If you can just turn up and play music and somehow actually do some good, it’s pretty easy to do that.
How does it feel to be back on the road again?
TRO: We’re the best we’ve ever been as a live band. We’ve just finished a UK tour with a lot of outdoor shows. We’ve really grown in confidence. The fact that the EP – – something that was thrown together pretty loosely and pretty quickly — went to number 1 over here [in England] gave us a real injection of confidence. And all of the sudden we have a few more crowd favorites in our catalog than we had a few months ago. We normally have a little acoustic section in our show, too. I think Tom is the best frontman on the planet now. I really want people to see that. I hope anyone who comes to see us has a really amazing night, because we’re not happy unless they do.