An Interview With Richard Hughes of Keane
    • THURSDAY, MAY 10, 2012

    • Posted by: Don Saas

    As a so-called assessor of "serious" music, it's way too easy to immediately dismiss instantly accessible and unashamedly catchy music. If you listen to strictly avant garde enough, you might start to question the validity of any musical artform that doesn't require your complete and undivided mental attention to appreciate. Maybe that's why Keane has always stood out so clearly. Notable for being the "band with no guitars" (which is only partially true), Keane make no attempts to hide their Britpop influences and since they are one of the highest selling British pop-rock bands of the 2000s, their mainstream appeal is impossible to deny. Most importantly, they make wonderful music that even the most jaded, cynical person can enjoy, intellectually or on a more gut level. Their newest album, Strangeland, drops 5/ 8 here in the States, and we had a chance to chat with Keane's drummer, Richard Hughes, about the direction of this new record as well as a little history lesson about the band who's responsible for "Somewhere Only We Know" being on virtually every mixtape I've ever made for a girl.

    On Keane's previous album (as well as their last EP), they began to take their music in a more experimental and distorted direction (as compared to the crisp cleanness of Hopes and Fears or Under the Iron Sea). When pressed as to whether Strangeland would continue their sonic experimentation or go back to their old sounds, Hughes said:

    "I think we definitely fell back in love with the sound of the piano. At the same time, I think we're taking things from all of our records, what we've learned along the way. At the same time, there are bits that we've never tried before. There's a song called 'Black Rain.' When we recently played in China, we went to see a traditional folk orchestra there, and there are some sounds on 'Black Rain' that are inspired by that trip."

    One of the many reasons why it's so easy to like the men in Keane is that they are heavily involved in philanthropic organizations. We asked Hughes if there was a specific motivation for why Keane is so charitable, and his answer was remarkably candid.

    "I don't necessarily know if there's an incident you can specifically draw on. We all grew up with a strong sense of right and wrong. You don't anticipate it, but you sell some records and suddenly people approach you to do a cover version for this charity or become patrons of that charity. For years, we've been patrons of a charity called War Child. We've done songs for them and raised funds for them and the same thing for little local things. It's definitely a bonus to being in a band, getting to do that kind of thing."

    One of the most high-profile causes that Hughes has worked towards achieving is the fight against the death penalty. There is no death penalty in England, but Hughes was heavily involved in the fight against the infamous execution of Georgia inmate Troy Davis.

    "For me, the death penalty is something I've always found abhorrent, and the world needs to get shod of it. And it's encouraging to see that if California votes it off, it will be five states in five years that have gotten rid of it. It's nice to come from a country where there's no death penalty. I feel like I can say, 'we don't have it here and we're ok.' We're not completely mental, and we don't have the death penalty."

    Keane has always managed to strike the fine balance between the conventional (but beautiful) post-Britpop of Coldplay and the more artsy, perhaps inaccessible to some art-rock of Radiohead. When asked what led to Keane's sound, Hughes made it appear that a lot of it had to do with a twist of fate.

    "Our lead guitarist [Dominic Scott] left the band in 2001 which forced our band to mix things up, which is when Tim [Rice-Oxley] who plays our piano decided to start playing the piano live. And that was a huge deal for us. We suddenly realized that a piano could take over the huge hole in the sound that the absence of a guitarist had left. That was purely an accident."

    We made Radiohead/Coldplay analogy, of course.

    "The Radiohead thing, they're a massive inspiration. The way they pushed themselves. They haven't stood still or made six identical records, and they've pushed themselves forward to try new things. That's always inspiring, and we've always loved them."

    Before Keane became Keane (so before the arrival of vocalist Tom Chaplin and the departure of guitarist Dominic Scott), Tim-Rice Oxley, Richard Hughes and Dominic Scott were in a cover band called the Lotus Eaters and Hughes shared some fond memories of those days.

    "Well we never had any gigs. I wouldn't like you to think that we were competent enough to get paid to do it. We weren't that good. Around the time that we started playing music together, Achtung Baby had just been released. Having an Irish guitarist when that came out obviously meant we were playing that from start to finish or at least massacring it. I remember a really big deal was one day a guy in my French class at my school had walked past where we were practicing on a Sunday and said in my class 'Were you trying to play 'one' by u2?' and I felt like it was the biggest achievement in our whole lives because he recognized the song we were murdering. That was a huge deal. 'Oh god, we're not so terrible that you can't make out the song.'"

    Hughes also spoke at length about the influences other drummers had on his style and some of the more general inspirations that influenced Keane.

    "As a drummer, I grew up as a huge R.E.M. fan. Bill Berry is a massive influence on me. When I listen back to R.E.M. records, I'll catch, 'oh that's where I stole that from.' It's so ingrained in your consciousness. I used to sit at home with my kit and put on records like Automatic For The People or Out of Time and play them from start to finish, just playing along. That's the way I learned to play the drums. Same with the beatles. Same with the britpop bands like Blur or Oasis. just by teaching myself by copying them and trying to work out what they did."

    As to Keane in general, Hughes picked out a delicious selection of artists that influenced the band.

    "From a wider point of view, with a British band in the 90s, you can't not be influenced by the Smiths or by the British pop rock bands. The Pet Shop boys were a huge band for Tim and I, the first band we fell in love with. The Beatles. Also, Depeche Mode. Violator was an absolutely massive record for us. It was the second record I had. when you've got a cd player, and you've only got two CDs, I listened to Violator a million times. There was definitely a lot of British music there. But also Paul Simon. I think Tim learned so much from Paul Simon lyrically and also melodically. It's interesting when you read stuff about Paul Simon. He'll spend nine months on the same lyric re-writing it and tweaking things here and there. That's why his songs are so great. He works hard to make every word perfect. I think Tim really found inspiration in that. It motivated him to work really hard on the songwriting for this record."

    When Hughes brought up Blur and Oasis, we couldn't help but ask the ultimate British pop-rock question. Blur or Oasis (we also threw in Pulp who recently reunited for a killer set at Coachella).

    "Oh man, that's hard. I went to see Blur play at Hyde Park last summer, and they were absolutely amazing. But I don't know, God, that's such a difficult question. I think back in the day, if we had to pick one, it would have been Blur. I think it's because when Parklife came out, it really just spoke to us. I can just remember, Tim had just broken up with a girlfriend when he went off to University. And i can just hear those songs as the soundtrack going round to see him in his room all depressed and lovelorn. It's like "End of a Century" and songs like that. It's certainly an amazing record. If I had to pick one, it would be that. Though I'm so glad I live in a world where I don't have to pick one."

    Keane certainly gained a reputation for being one of the most piano-centric bands of the aughts (Hopes and Fears and Under the Iron Sea were guitar-free albums), but they moved away from that image on Perfect Symmetry and to a much lesser extent, the new album. When asked why they wanted to change the image that had helped make them so famous, Hughes said:

    "It was the fun of it. We didn't have a producer on that record. We went a bit instrument crazy. We had all kinds of different things on there. We went to paris. We went to berlin. We spent long nights in all of these bars that never closed. There was just a riff inspiring the sound that sounded great on a guitar. There's never been a master plan. We're not that clever. At any one time, we've got one record in us. It's a matter of finding it and helping it come out. One of the great things about music, especially about recording, is that there's no idea that's too stupid to try out because you can simply delete it."

    When asked to give one last message to his fans to help drum up excitement for the new record, Hughes offered up a line he got from a fan (with some nice self-deprecating humor to start things off).

    "God, I probably should have something really witty to say. I'll tell you what, I was talking to one of our fans after a show, after the first show we did when we came back and played down near where we grew up, and this girl said to me, 'I love it. It's like Hopes and Fears in 3D' which I thought was an absolutely brilliant line. So I asked her if i could steal that. And people are excited about films in 3D. I think it's time we embrace music in 3D. That's how I would describe it. Hopefully, people will like it but if not that's totally cool by me."

    So, for all of you Keane fans out there, Strangeland is out on Island Recorsd 5/8.


    You can buy Keane's new album Strangeland on iTunes, as well as Amazon.

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