September 27, 2008
The return of Keane
After singer Tom Chaplin’s battle with drink and drugs, Keane are back with a soaring new album. They talk rock, rifts and rehab
To the Royal Opera House in London’s paparazzi-strewn Covent Garden for the GQ Man of the Year Awards. It’s a celebrity menagerie: Boris Johnson, Gordon Ramsay and Josh Brolin, James Nesbitt and Kirsty Gallagher, the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin, two of the standing members of Primal Scream, a cloud of comedians (Steve Coogan, the Mighty Boosh, the actor-writers of Gavin and Stacey), a wobble of models (Elle Macpherson, Daisy Lowe). There’s Lily Allen, one of the award ceremony’s hosts. There’s Elton John, the other one. Oh, who will drink whom under the table? (Probably Lily Allen. As usual.)
Sitting near the back are Keane. They’re the only performers tonight, opening proceedings with a bash through their recent free single Spiralling (half a million copies were downloaded during the week-long promotion). A few minutes before the festivities commence, the three bandmates are nervously tapping feet, fingers and crockery, and fending off the blandishments of waves of waiting staff. Drummer Richard Hughes, 32, forgoes the proffered dinner; he doesn’t like to play on a full stomach. Pianist and songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley, 32, hovers sideways in his seat, ready for action. Singer Tom Chaplin, 29, seems especially jittery; no, he won’t have a nerve-steadying drink, thanks very much.
It’s a big night for Keane, in more ways than one. It marks the first public performance of a song from their imminent third album, Perfect Symmetry – an album that, for a while, looked like it might not get made. And it marks the return – the revival if you like – of Chaplin. He was supposed to attend this awards ceremony two years ago, to collect the trophy for Band of the Year: the trio of public-school pals from Sussex were riding high on the eight million sales of their 2004 debut, Hopes and Fears, and 2006’s follow-up, Under the Iron Sea. But in September 2006, Tom Chaplin was in rehab at the Priory, being treated for addiction to alcohol and cocaine. Rice-Oxley and Hughes had to pick up the hefty glass bauble without him.
If you ask Chaplin about 2006 and when he realised his partying was getting out of control, his normal bluff heartiness stutters to a halt. “Phewwwww,” he says, exhaling heavily. “I don’t know. It started with isolated things. It’d get better for a while, then other things would come along and I’d make mistakes. We’re not talking an Amy Winehouse/Pete Doherty scale of not turning up to stuff, but there were certainly things I missed.”
Keane had become very big very quickly. Early singles Somewhere Only We Know and Everybody’s Changing were huge hits. Like their friends and peers Coldplay, Keane knew their way round a piano ballad that touched a universal chord: sensitive, uplifting, singalong. Hopes and Fears entered the album charts at No 1 and won the band two Brit Awards. In the UK in 2004, only Scissor Sisters sold more albums than Keane.
The rest of the world was almost as enamoured of the three polite young men from Sussex. Second album Under the Iron Sea followed hard on the heels of a world tour. The mood was darker but the songs – Is It Any Wonder?, A Bad Dream – were just as catchy.
In large part, this was down to the ringing voice and personable appeal of Chaplin. Here was a chubby, cherub-faced chap who seemed barely out of short trousers. An unlikely pop star, but an appealing one. A safe one, even.
It was, therefore, something of a shock when Chaplin was revealed as a boozehound and cocaine addict. He was the unlikeliest rock’n’roll party animal. But his problems were very real indeed.
“What really was a wake-up call for me was that I just wasn’t very happy. I felt very, very miserable. I’m a manic person. But that element of being wired up all wrong, it’s part of what makes you want to be the frontman of a band.” This is why, he reasons, a lot of singers end up in “that situation” of drug abuse, breakdown and, if they’re lucky/strong/supported, recovery.
The day before the GQ event I meet Tim Rice-Oxley for breakfast in a pub near his home in Bermondsey, South London. Our appointment is at the very proper-job time of 9am, and he has the muesli with fruit. The pre-interview talk is of kitchen knives, foodie paradise Borough Market and his attempts to make sashimi.
Rice-Oxley is not like most young, multimillion-selling rock stars. He’s polite, friendly, but also upper-middle-class clenched, talking passionately but somehow drily about the nuances of the new record. The son of two doctors, he’s well-spoken – like Chaplin and Hughes, he attended Vinehall prep school in Sussex and boarded at Tonbridge in Kent. He read Classics at University College London, and admits that Ovid’s poem Pygmalion influenced the lyrics of Spiralling. He writes all of Keane’s songs but has no interest in singing them. Indeed, he visibly shudders at the very thought. Chaplin, whom he’s known almost his entire life (their mums are very good friends), is much better at that job. And nor is it simply a case of the singer being a mouthpiece for the songwriter. “Tom’s brilliant at adding little flourishes. It’s those little things that lift a song into something much more beautiful.
“The relationship between the two of us and the song is unique,” Rice-Oxley continues, citing their “20 years of making music together… I don’t imagine that any other band of our age would have that.”
The tensions within Keane were evident in the songs that Rice-Oxley wrote for Under the Iron Sea. Some were indirect attacks on the rock star that Chaplin had become; others were direct. “Fool, I wonder if you know yourself at all?” was a lyric in Hamburg Song. Was Chaplin happy singing songs that were being rude about him?
“Eh… I don’t know,” says Rice-Oxley, falteringly. “I don’t think it was a particularly pleasant process for him. It wasn’t a very pleasant process for any of us, really. My main memory of making Under the Iron Sea was that Tom wasn’t particularly engaged.”
Chaplin wasn’t “engaged” because he was increasingly more interested in drinking and taking drugs. “That was part of the problem,” says Rice-Oxley. “But I think that stemmed from the fact that he wanted to get away from being in the band. Just to have a break from it. We hadn’t stopped at all. We were just burnt out; we should have had a bit of a holiday, really.” But instead, Keane kept working. Or trying to. When Chaplin didn’t show for a Times interview in 2006, his bandmates covered for him, saying he had a stomach bug. “Well, that stuff was happening a lot, all the time. It was definitely…” Rice-Oxley is talking in staccato grunts now. “I dunno – what else can you do? We wanted to protect him, I suppose.
“It’s a cliché you always see in films, someone saying it’s the lying that hurts. But it is really. Trust is so important.”
For Chaplin, the healing began in a Tokyo hotel room in August 2006. Under the Iron Sea had been out for barely two months, but already the singer had had enough. He was miles from home, alone and desperate. “I felt appalling,” he admits. “It had been brewing that whole tour; I just knew it was coming.”
The afternoon before the GQ performance, I meet Chaplin in a deserted room in the Royal Opera House. The singer forswears a coffee (“I had one earlier on”) and, with some prompting, recalls how he checked himself out of that Tokyo hotel and, without telling anyone, booked himself an immediate flight home. “I was the only person in first class. I just sat there on my own thinking, ‘Well, this is it, the band is finished. And that’s a good thing.’”
He talks, without resorting too much to therapy-speak, about how, since he was a teenager, he’s been prone to wild mood swings. “I’m either absurdly optimistic or depressingly pessimistic in very short bursts. And I know when it’s coming – I get more and more manic. More and more annoying!” he laughs forcefully. “Louder and louder, and then suddenly – whoosh. It’s a bit like a sugar crash.”
This, he reflects, is another example of how public school “has not really had a positive or supportive impact on me. I think I was far too sensitive for where I was.” And Chaplin says this as someone steeped in the world of private education: his dad was the headmaster of Vinehall, his mum a teacher there, too.
He’s said previously that he was taking cocaine around the time of Keane’s first single, Call Me What You Like, in 2000, but now admits, “I started doing those things when lots of people my age were doing them. And I often think, if it hadn’t been for the band, it would have made such a mess.” How did he perform on cocaine?
“I never did. I never did,” he repeats. “But there were certainly times when I hadn’t had any sleep. And was probably still steaming from the night before when we were doing things. And gigs suffered.”
Finally, in Japan, after Keane had motored straight from one hit album into the making and promoting of another, Chaplin hit the wall. He flew home, spoke to his dad, and checked himself into the Priory. Within two months he was clean, sober and back on the road. Initially Keane had a “no booze on the rider” rule, and Chaplin still won’t drink on tour, although it seems a social drink or two is allowed. There’s certainly no hint of holier-than-thou reformed addict about him. Just the calm demeanour of a clever, well brought-up young man in a band with his two best mates; someone who realised how close he’d come to throwing it all away.
“My questions to myself these days are: ‘Have you got your priorities straight?’” says a sanguine Chaplin, readily admitting he prefers the quietude of the Sussex cottage he shares with his girlfriend to the hurly-burly of London life (although he still has a “bolt-hole” in Covent Garden). “‘What are you doing tomorrow or next week? What do you have to be sorted and ready and organised for?’ And I really feel that I do prioritise in my life now, which is great.”
At the GQ event that night, Keane are a hit. The first public outing for their colourful and excitable new direction is greeted by much jewellery-rattling from the gathered celebocracy. When he steps up to collect his award, two years late, Tom Chaplin is blushingly grateful. He thanks his band, and he means it sincerely. Richard Hughes and Tim Rice-Oxley applaud him right back. Having almost lost it, they had their band back. “If there’s a unifying lyrical theme,” says Rice-Oxley, “it’s that people could do better, be better.” Chaplin, meanwhile, is ready to take on the world again. “It’s so exciting. I feel like a small child with a Christmas present.”
Perfect Symmetry is out on October 13; the single The Lovers Are Losing follows on October 20. Further details: www.keanemusic.com