A Chat with Tim Rice-Oxley, Tim Rice-Oxley interview, Keane, Perfect Symmetry

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We’ll have to check our history books on this, but we’re hard pressed to remember a single month that had four bands from the other side of the pond (three British, one Irish) releasing their third albums within the span of a few weeks. The Kaiser Chiefs, Snow Patrol and Bloc Party will drop their junior efforts later in the month, but first on the clock are Battle’s own Keane, who return with Perfect Symmetry, a decidedly poppier affair than 2006’s sad but beautiful Under the Iron Sea. Bullz-Eye spoke with pianist and main songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley about whether the third album is harder to make than the second album, the state of singer Tom Chaplin (who’s popping in and out of rehab between tours), and watching the mad genius that is Jon Brion in action.


Bullz-Eye: Where in the world are you right now?

Tim Rice-Oxley: I am in London, England in a rehearsal studio, just working on getting all the new songs ready to play live. So yeah, it will come together.

BE: All right, well let’s get to it. You worked with Jon Brion, who is one of my favorite musicians, on this album. Tell me what it was like working with him.

"We were trying to find things that were as far removed from Keane as you can imagine."
TR-O: We were quite daunted about working with him. You know, his résumé is something that speaks for itself, and naturally he’s a fantastic musician in his own right. But he was a really, really nice guy and he told interesting stories and he really inspired us to kind of try new things for this record and he was very, very excited about the songs, which really filled us with confidence. His whole approach is really just about pushing yourself into new directions. And we’re terrible worriers – we’re always convinced that we’re pretenders. And then his whole approach is, “Don’t worry about what everyone is else is going to think, and just go with it. If you have an idea, no matter how stupid or crazy or inappropriate it sounds, if you’ve got an inkling that you might be onto something cool, then just give it a go and think no more than that.”

BE: Did you record out in Los Angeles with him?

TR-O: We didn’t. He actually came over to Paris, France, which was really good of him, and it was great. It was obviously a foreign capital for us as well, and we had gone there to soak up some new vibes and get a bit of new inspiration. And it was great for both parties to be kind of meeting in some strange place, and I think that, in turn, also inspired us. We had a few beers and hung out and we went out into town with him and did a bit of shopping, bought some gadgets. Yeah, it was great.

BE: Have you ever seen one of his shows at Largo in L.A.?

TR-O: Yeah, because we mixed the record in L.A. and the last night we were there, we were up pretty late, eventually doing an all nighter, but he kindly invited us down to the show. We had worked at the studio for a couple of hours, so I thought we were very late and I thought oh, we’re going to miss the whole show. It turned out that when we got there he must have already been on for three hours, and he went on for another three hours, actually. It was the most phenomenal thing I’ve ever seen; it was just amazing. He was like…well I’m sure you’ve seen it (Note: Luckily, I have)…but he was just busting out medleys of little…I remember somewhere along the point, someone shouted out “Play Pet Sounds,” and he’s like, “Well, I can’t play the whole Pet Sounds,” and then he said “Well, I’m going to give it a go.” He played, like, the first ten seconds of every song from Pet Sounds, with one into the next. I wound up being sadly depressed, to be honest, because it made you realize what an absolutely, extraordinarily talented man he is, but it gives you something to aim for.

BE: You also worked with Stuart Price, who would appear to be as far removed from Jon Brion as it comes. Did you deliberately seek out two people from different ends of the spectrum when you were looking for assistant producers?

TR-O: Very much so. To be honest, we were trying to find things that were as far removed from Keane as you can imagine. So I guess we were going to different ends of the spectrum, in terms of things that have felt different from us. So Jon obviously works very organically, where Stuart has more of a mind for electronica. So the thing that both those guys have in common is that they’re very much about ignoring fashion and ignoring what anyone else thinks, and just going for it. Stuart and Jon really inspired us to redevelop this kind of pact that our approach was going to be a total opposite of whatever was cool and to try and find the sounds that would be as uncool and unfashionable as possible. Stuart is a very funny guy, and that challenge for us and for him was kind of exciting and it made us come up with some weird and interesting stuff. I felt we had this track, “Again and Again,” that was actually the oldest track on the record and we were kind of struggling to make it as exciting as the new ones, and with Stuart we just went completely off on a different tangent with it and out came this big, sort of electro-synth monster. I loved working with him; he’s a fantastic guy.

BE: I’ve heard four songs from the new album, and it appears to be decidedly more major-key than the first two albums. Was that a conscious decision on your part?

TR-O: Yeah absolutely, it’s a much more…it’s a funny thing, because the lyrics are generally quite serious and quite, I don’t know that I would say that they’re dark, but they’re definitely not fluffy bunny lyrics. But the overall feel of the songs and the album generally is one that is just full of hope. I feel like it’s very uplifting; it was certainly a very happy time making the record, and the sense of going forward and feeling that we could do new things. I think that spirit, that positivity and excitement and enthusiasm you can feel that in all the songs. So where the first two records were quite melancholy, I feel that this record, even though the songs are trying to kind of tackle some serious issues here and there, the sense is always one of hope. It’s like we believe in people and we believe in ourselves and humanity’s ability to do fantastic things, in the sense that we can get through this to aspire to something better.

BE: “Spiralling” seems to have been written with the express purpose of ending the U2 and Coldplay comparisons once and for all. If that was the case, I say mission accomplished.  

TR-O: Well, thank you very much. And it’s a funny thing, because we never set out with any kind of agenda on this record. We knew we wanted to do something that felt fresh and new for us, but we never thought “Oh, we want to avoid sounding like that or we really want to go in that direction.” I think the great breakthrough for us, and again something we got from Jon and Stuart, was just a sense of instincts without any other kind of criteria being taken into consideration. It’s so easy when you’re making music, before you even play the note, to start worrying about what the fans are going to think, what it’s going to sound like on the radio, what’s going to sell, whether you’re going to alienate people who liked you before, or whether or not you’re going to get some new fans, or I don’t know. So whether you’re going to look foolish or be hopelessly uncool and there are so many things you can sense bands worrying about and you can hear it in the music, a sense of being restrained. This time we felt slightly off the leash and we really didn’t care about anything, apart from what sounded exciting and fresh and fun for us. So I get…for better or for worse, this is what we ended up with in songs like “Spiralling,” and for me, there’s an undeniable sense of the excitement and relief when we were making the record. You can’t manufacture that stuff, it’s either there in the room when you’re recording or it’s not. I’m really proud of the fact that we had that great atmosphere and it came out in this sort of weird and hopefully un-Keane-like sound.

BE: With regard to the song “Better Than This,” which came first: the melody, or the “Ashes to Ashes”-style drum track?

TR-O: Ha ha! That’s another weird one. I think we had at least the melody of the song and the chords and everything, but it really didn’t have a groove or anything like that. When I was doing the demo, I just thought oh, rather than having another kind of indie rock and roll sort of rhythm, that I’ll try something a bit more bouncy, and you know, add that groove, then I was playing a sort of funky guitar and then I got out one of my old synthesizers that I actually never play – I bought in a junk shop in Toronto, I think. So I was just playing around with it and came up with this sound, and it’s the sound you hear in the riff. I thought “Wow, that’s pretty great,” and went off to bed because it was the middle of the night by then. And then I woke up the next morning I thought, “Ah, you slipped a little Bowie in there!” By the time you have that creative impulse, and something is kind of organically called a song, that stuff is the kind of magic you have to go with, I think. The synth has a hint of “Ashes to Ashes” but I think the song, even if you take away that riff, the song I think, is one of the best I’ve written.

"We’re terrible worriers. We’re always convinced that we’re pretenders."

BE: You collaborated with Gwen Stefani on a track. I have a two-part question for you about that: how many of those requests do you receive to collaborate with someone, and have you ever taken one just for the potentially large royalty check?

TR-O: (Laughs) I don’t know. I…

BE: Or was the collaboration with Gwen for the large royalty check?

T-O-R: For me, the only one I’ve done really was the Gwen [song], and that kind of fell at my feet, the first time I ever wrote with anyone else, and it was with someone who’s pretty nice and the absolute queen of what she does. We had a fantastic time doing it; she’s an absolute delight to work with, incredibly hard working and she’s so talented. That was really fun and actually really easy and so rewarding, and the song turned out amazing. There were quite a few offers after that, which is definitely were tempting, but I eventually go, well you know, this is going to get very time-consuming. In a way, I feel like I’ve already had this amazing experience working with Gwen, and I’m not sure if I want to dilute that. And I really just wanted to focus on Keane. So anyways, that is kind of a long story short; I’ve not really done much more of that. 

BE: I have a theory that the third album is harder to make than the second one, because your second album only has to be different from one type of sound, while your second album has to be different from at least two or more styles. Now that you’ve finished your third record, would you agree or disagree?

TR-O: On paper, I would agree with you completely, but for us, the second album was kind of grueling to make, because we had run ourselves into the ground touring the first album. I’m very proud of the second record, but it doesn’t have the freshness and the excitement that I was talking about just now. So the third record, I can honestly say, has been an absolute pleasure from start to finish; really the best six months we’ve ever had with the band, I think. We definitely worked hard, but things just seemed to flow really easily, and all we did was make that kind of mental leap to just be ourselves and have a great time and indulge ourselves this time. And really, in a way, the record kind of made itself. I think 90 percent of the battle is just having no fear and being enthusiastic and constantly going into the studio with energy and excitement and everything else just seems to flow from there. So all I can say is we had an amazing time making the record and they were pretty much the best six months of our lives, so I’m kind of sorry it’s over. But yeah, I guess we have been very, very lucky.

BE: Now to the more sensitive subject matter: how is Tom doing?

TR-O: He’s really well, quite well, indeed. Again, I think it’s just been a big part why this record was so fun to make.

BE: Now are you still planning on doing a full-fledged tour or have your tour plans been adjusted any?

TR-O: Well, we’re just getting our plans together now. We just found out the European dates; let me think, starting next month sometime. Then I think we’re going to try to come out to the States, and then back to the U.K. to the arena gigs and that sort of thing. So yeah, yeah you know, I think this record, much more than the first, feels like something that we all had really created, and there’s that magical chemistry, creatively, that you always dream with a band. So we’re all really, really excited about getting it out there, and everyone feels good. I don’t know, we just seem to be more excited about hitting the road than we ever have done before, so I’m sure there will be a lot of touring ahead.

BE: I’ll let you get back to working on the tour stuff, and thanks for taking the time to talk to us, I appreciate it. It was a pleasure talking to you, Tim.

TR-O: It’s my pleasure, it’s my pleasure. See you soon, I hope.

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