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How Keane makes music–‘Let’s just do what feels right to us; it’s the only way’

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KEANE’S TomChaplin, Richard Hughes, Tim Rice-Oxley and Jesse Quin. KRIS ROCHA

Everbody’s changing, but Keane doesn’t feel the need for it. At least, not where the band’s musical identity is concerned. Keane pianist/songsmith Tim Rice-Oxley and drummer Richard Hughes recently shared their thoughts on the band’s new album “Strangeland,” and how they cope with the ever-changing musical landscape.

On returning to their roots with the new album:

R: I think Strangeland’s a pretty good mix of the preceding records. It’s tempting to generalize or make sweeping statements, but I think all of our records have had quite a variety to them and that’s something we’re very proud of. Within a band, you go through phases, and I think we sort of fell back in love with the piano on this record, perhaps in a way we hadn’t done in “Night Train” or “Perfect Symmetry.” Maybe we wanted to move away from that a little bit, just as a pure sound.

But on every record, there’s Tom [Chaplin]’s voice, which is a very character-ful and very recognizable thing, and they’re songs that Tim has written, which tend to be very melodic songs. So I think we actually have the freedom to do quite a lot of things to the music, such that it’ll still sound quite like Keane when you listen to it.

On musical influences:

T: We probably grew up enjoying more reflective or melancholy songs; quite an English thing, maybe, it’s like a tradition. If you go back to The Beatles, they write these great songs that kind of sound happy but if you listen to the lyrics, some of them are really sad. That’s the great trick that everyone from the Pet Shop Boys, bands we’ve loved since we were kids—very intelligent, thoughtful, often quite sad lyrics, but are great camp-disco anthems that everyone wants to dance to. (Laughter) Even The Smiths, they were funny and sad at the same time. I think those were big influences on us. And then we got into Radiohead, and there was this sort of culture of complaining about everything (laughs). That was kind of what we grew up with.

On writing “happy/sad” music:

It’s nice to write happy songs, but I think just saying “I’m happy” is not a very interesting statement. And it’s nice to try to get some of the complex emotions into a song. I think on this album, particularly, we were trying to write about how life is not black and white, about the twists and turns of a journey rather than just trying to make simple statements. And it’s hard to put that in a pop song, but that was the challenge.

R: It’s also quite hard to talk about those things without sounding quite wishy-washy or like you don’t really know what you’re talking about. But I guess that’s another reason to put it into a song, really.

RICHARD Hughes and Tim Rice-Oxley at the press conference. KRIS ROCHA

T: I remember when we released “Perfect Symmetry,” we kept going on about what sort of “hopeful” album it was; we all felt that because we had such a good time making it. As the months went by and we kept telling everyone what a fun album it was, I started thinking about the lyrics and [realized], “This is a really depressing album.” (Laughter) It’s a weird relationship we have with our music. You know, this album is definitely complex emotionally. Some days we’re miserable, some days we’re not.

On their songs being covered by other artists:

R: The “Glee” thing, it was pretty extraordinary and pretty unexpected, and I know that a lot of people slag it off and it’s very tempting, very easy to slag off something like “Glee” that’s quite different. But at the same time, it’s quite a brave choice of the music, whoever it is that decides what music to put on the show. We’re not that well-known in the States, and to pick a song of ours, I feel like it was really motivated by a love of the song, and that’s a very flattering thing to happen. So whether you like the style of it or not, it’s exposing proper songwriting to a lot of people, and that’s a very flattering thing to be chosen for.

 

On possibly writing songs for films:

T: We’d love to. We’ll see. It’s something we keep talking about but it’s a bit of a dark art, writing movie soundtracks. It’s quite different from writing three-minute pop songs.

On dealing with criticism:

T: Bands always like to say they don’t care about what anyone says about them. It’s very hard to actually not care, but I think the trick is to try to distinguish between having a personal reaction to those things and actually sort of changing your music to suit some critic in some part of the world. It’s probably not a good idea to try to change anything to please everyone; it’s impossible. So we’ve tried really hard to avoid that; we’ve put so much of ourselves into it. You have to do what you believe in the end, because there’s just no other way of judging it.

It’s not just critics; we’re very lucky we have lots of fans all over the world and they all have different opinions on our music. And we’ve got our mums and dads and friends and everyone wants something else, something different. Getting everyone in the band to agree [on something] is enough of a struggle. (Laughter)

You have to make something you’re really proud of and I think that’s something that we’ve always done; even before we’d had a record deal we found that if we’d just followed our instincts, then that was when we got the best stuff. And that’s how we’d ended up making “Hopes and Fears,” even though people kept telling us to try to make music that was more urban and more edgy and had, like, more modern programming. Eventually, we just said, “You know, let’s just do what feels right to us,” and it worked. That’s always how we’d made music, and I think it’s the only way.

On coping with the ever-changing musical landscape:

R: I feel like we’ve always stuck by the things we’ve wanted to do, and that’s the only way we really know how to do things. Of course we think, when you choose a single, you think which song is gonna sound the best on the radio, but you don’t necessarily start writing your songs with the idea that it’s the song that’s going to be on the radio. I think there’s a subtle difference.

T: If you know someone might go on to iTunes or whatever and download two tracks from your album, then your approach on how to sequence your album might be different. You might wanna have your best two songs first rather than telling a story that lasts 45 minutes. I find that very interesting ‘cause you can just tell people are arranging your albums in a different way now, because [their] attention span is changing. For me, it’s hard to resist that, but like what Rich said, you just try to make the best music that you can and trust that the people will like it.


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