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Keane: 'Don't treat your record label like they're drones'

Tim Ingham
Keane

Keane have achieved what many say is impossible in the modern music industry: over the course of 10 years, they’ve stayed on the same major label with the same manager, and never released an album that hasn’t been an Official UK No.1. What’s their secret?

Keane’s career isn’t just an example of how you can beat the world when you write songs that stand the test of time. It’s a lesson in what can happen when a band treats people properly - their label, their publisher, their manager and, crucially, their fans.

Followers of the indie-pop marvels weren’t exactly spilling out of venues back in December 2002, when the founder of indie trojan Fierce Panda, Simon Williams, fell in love. Having witnessed a gig in London’s teeny Betsey Trotwood venue, he signed them for their first commercial releases - the Everybody’s Changing and This is The Last Time EPs - and, according to principal songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley, “literally rescued us from splitting up”.

With a publishing deal already in the bag signed with BMG’s Caroline Elleray, major label interest quickly began to build. In autumn of 2003, the band signed with Island Records, having fielded offers from 22 record companies in one of the most hotly-contested ‘indie’ band signings of recent decades.

Keane were a trio (Rice-Oxley, singer Tom Chaplin and drummer Richard Hughes) when their debut Hopes & Fears (2004) became a slow-burn worldwide smash - it’s sold more than 2.8 million copies in the UK to date and more than 6 million worldwide. Gold records in the US, U2 support slots and BRIT Awards all followed, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about Keane’s career has been their consistency.

They’ve released four more albums since Hopes & Fears - Under The Iron Sea (2006), Perfect Symmetry (2008 - when bassist Jesse Quin joined) the Night Train EP (2010) and last year’s Strangeland. All of them have hit No.1 in the UK.

In an age where major labels are so often criticised for a hurried approach to A&R, Keane prove that it doesn’t have to be that way: for 10 years, all of their releases have come through Island - with a new Best Of on the way next month (November 2013).

Not that things have always been easy for the band from Battle, East Sussex. After initial hefty support for Hopes & Fears, snarkier elements of the music press soon began to pick at the trio’s middle-class upbringing - testing the loyalty of a passionate audience whose devotion has never swayed.

This fanbase includes surprising names such as comedian Peter Kay, who recently said that the band have the “rare ability to produce songs that feel and sound as if we’ve known them all of our lives”.  Lily Cooper (nee Allen) recently called them “the best thing this country has produced in years”. Other supporters include Sir Paul McCartney, Pharrell Williams, Bono, John Mayer, Chris Martin, Gwen Stefani, Kanye West, Steve Coogan and Snoop Dogg.

Music Week sat down with Tim Rice-Oxley to rake over the past decade - and discover why being decent to industry folk has always remained a guiding principle of the band…

A Best Of is a milestone in any artist’s career. Why have you decided to plump for one now?

Mainly as it’s ten years since we released our first thing, the Everything Changes [EP], on Fierce Panda. It’s slightly mental to think of it being a decade, but it’s a great time to look back and gather together what we’ve achieved. It’s weird, because it does feel like something you do when you’ve had 20 albums out or you’re entering the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. But perhaps that’s just my perception from when I was a kid.

It’s barely been a year since you released Strangeland. How’s that campaign gone around the world?

It’s been great. I think we’ve had more of a feeling of being cherished, I suppose, without wanting to sound too self-righteous. People seem glad that we’re still around; there’s a love there you probably only get when you’ve been together a while, especially in places where you’re a long way from home.

What’s South America like? We read they treat you like superstars out there…

On this tour we’ve been to Paraguay, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru and others. Argentina in particular is incredible, Mexico as well.

We’re playing big places - probably bigger than we play anywhere else in the world. We get to the airport and there’s people pressed up against the glass [of your car], sometimes hundreds of people just screaming at you. You get bundled through the crowds by a bunch of burly security guards. It’s mad but exciting. It’s like being in The Beatles, a big star from the ‘60s. And this is in danger of being a cliché, but you get a more extrovert kind of a fan out there. When you start playing they go absolutely mental for an hour-and-a-half.

You came through during a post-Radiohead period of emotional British indie, alongside Snow Patrol, Coldplay and Starsailor. Why have you endured when others around at that time have called it a day or seen their popularity fizzle out?

It was a blessing and a curse, but even when we started off I think we always stood outside of fashion. Nothing about us was very fashionable, thank goodness, and it’s continued that way.

The good thing about that is that you don’t die off when the fashion dies off, which it does in pop music very rapidly. I suppose we’ve always done our own thing, which means we’ve existed away from trends. We’ve not relied on being darlings of the media - which means we haven’t been at the mercy of being on front covers. Obviously, that stuff is great if you can get it, but we’ve been able to concentrate on our music and our touring. That’s what actual music fans want - they’re paying their hard earned money.

Is there a slight element of satisfaction that you’re still here despite the fact that after you arrived and started to sell, the ‘edgier’ elements of the music press perhaps used you as ‘soft rock’ whipping boys? Was that hurtful?

We don’t necessarily take any pleasure from it in terms of a feeling that we’ve ‘shown them all’ or anything, but I guess it’s helped us to learn not to get too upset. It’s funny, when you first come out, people only write about you if they like you and that’s great: every time you read about yourself in a magazine or hear about yourself on the radio, it’s people saying nice things. You think: ‘This is just brilliant - we’re the next Beatles!’ But then… I remember the first time I heard someone slagging us off on the radio, thinking: ‘Shit. It’s not always going to be good.’ From then on it was very chequered. I think we’ve learned that bands, fashions and magazines come and go.

You realise that they’re just people passing comment on you. If you stand outside of that, it means you’re not at their mercy. That’s very reassuring, because if every time someone slagged you off you felt it was another step towards the grave, that would be very scary.

Let’s go way back to when you were signed to Fierce Panda by Simon Williams. What are your memories of that time, and how did you find the experience of being on the label?

Simon literally rescued us from splitting up. We’d been a band for a good seven years by then, which when you’re in your mid-twenties feels like a long time. We’d had a lot of labels that had been sniffing around us that hadn’t gone for it, and that was very disheartening. We’d actually got to the point where even I was saying: ‘I don’t know if I can do this much longer. It’s not going anywhere.’ Basically, we set up two last gigs in London for friends and family. Simon came to one or both, one at the 12 Bar Club, the other at the Betsey Trotwood. We were at the end of the line before he put out Everybody’s Changing. It was amazing.

I remember the total lack of glitz and glamour around the way he did things. He literally emailed me to say: ‘Can you send me a photo for the cover and an .mp3 to stick on the disc?’ They were just demos. But it seemed like such a massive deal. Looking back on it now, it could have come to nothing, Fierce Panda being a small - but very well respected - label. But if I remember rightly, I think Simon also brought Steve Lamacq down to some shows so there was obviously a dialogue going on. Steve was onto it very early. He’s also been a huge supporter.

We basically owe everything to Simon. Fierce Panda deserves more recognition. They’ve been such an amazing label and most of the public have probably never ever heard of them. There are a lot of people on much bigger record labels who owe their BMWs to Simon Williams.

Lamacq’s always seemed very loyal to Keane - even when some had tagged you as ‘uncool’.

He’s been really important. There are many legendary figures in radio and he’s one - I grew up listening to him. Our first ever radio session was with him. He used to come to the gigs and it was weird to be talking to someone with that voice. It was a very romantic thing - it made me realise that he does actually go to gigs all the time. He’s not just sitting their behind a big mixing desk waiting for producers to hand him music and tell him what’s cool. He has opinions on all the songs. I remember him saying about Hopes & Fears: ‘You’ve only got one shit song’ - a track called She Has No Time. That was his idea of a compliment.

You’re supposed to turn up to a major label, sell shitloads of your first album, struggle with your second and get dropped. You’ve been on Island for five - soon to be six - albums.  What’s the secret? Have some personalities been at the company for all that time?

One or two. Jon Turner [now-MD] has been there from the beginning. He’s been not just supportive, but has worked with us in a way where there’s a dialogue that has always felt very respectful and very creative. I think it’s very easy for people at big labels to get very business-driven and jaded quite quickly.

Jon’s not like that and Island generally doesn’t seem like that - not the people we’ve dealt with anyway. I believe they enjoy our music and know that we’re a band who are in it to make great music. We’ve never had an attitude whereby we’ve felt too good to talk to people at the label - I’ve encountered that a lot in other bands, people who think the record company are basically a bunch of drones to run around after you and make you a star.

That’s not going to lead to a long relationship. Stars come and go. When we signed our deal, rather than just grabbing as much money as we could, we focused on retaining artistic control of every possible aspect. That probably sent a message [to Island] that they probably respected. People at record companies need to feel inspired as well - if they’re sitting in their offices all day, they might have 10,000 bands coming across their desk.

That’s a point of view we don’t hear very often: we’re quick to criticise record labels for dropping people too soon, but actually sometimes perhaps the artists almost have a responsibility to help motivate the staff…

Yeah, record company people are just human beings the same way that we are. It’s very easy to fall into a trap where you think, ‘I’m a big star and therefore I’m up here and the other human beings are down there.’ That’s obviously a massive delusion and you’ll soon disappear. It’s about a natural respect for other people. That’s never been something that’s contrived or that we felt we were being particularly wonderful about - perhaps it’s partly because we were a bit older than a lot of bands are when we were signed.

Also, if you grow up as a music fan and you love Nick Drake and Bob Marley and U2… you go into the Island Records building which was still in St. Peter’s Square when we signed to them, and there’s PJ Harvey busy recording in the basement, then there’s all these gold discs on the wall and Steve Winwood’s Hammond organ in the corner. That’s all really exciting. I used to go in there just to hang out because that’s what I’d read people used to do in the ‘70s; they probably thought I was a complete nutcase. I’d go and see Ted Cummings who was our head of press. I’m sure he had much better things to do than talk to me but I remember one time he’d made me a CD of the songs that he liked and thought I should listen to; Todd Rundgren and Rufus Wainwright and loads of people that he was into. I actually learned a lot about music through Ted. With Island it was kind of an old school relationship. Most people just don’t have that, especially now, and that’s a real shame because that symbiosis is something that can benefit everyone.

Island Records are no longer in that hallowed building. With more recent changes to the label, has the A&R pressure increased?

[Island] have always been very diplomatic. Interscope perhaps hasn’t been quite so easy. Island would have probably loved it if we’d done Hopes & Fears parts 2, 3 and 4 after our debut, but it was good, natural, that we said: ‘This is where we are now.’

I can remember playing the [less ‘pop’] Under The Iron Sea to [then-Island boss] Nick Gatfield and he kept saying, ‘Strong… strong.’?You could tell what he really meant was, ‘Oh, shit!’ But the important thing is that he didn’t say that - it showed diplomacy. As you can imagine, with [2008 single] Spiralling it was even worse - but by then they could take a deep breath and say, ‘Okay, not what we were expecting, but let’s run with it.’ They respected us enough to do that, and we respected them more for doing it. As anyone knows, to take any album that’s been a big success and just make it again is almost impossible - so many people have failed doing that.

Was there a reason you chose Island?

At that point, all we cared about was getting an album out, we weren’t thinking about a career.  We did a lot of meetings, a lot of dinners - it was a weird time. We very nearly signed to Polydor who were not the label they are now. At the time it was all about Popstars - Paul Adam was running it, who was on that programme. When it came to it I think I phoned Caroline Elleray - who was our publisher and basically discovered us, even before Simon - and she said: ‘You’ve got to sign to Island - don’t sign with Polydor, you need a label that believes in you.’ She could see beyond just getting that first album out, which was amazing. Caroline knew that Ferdy [Unger-Hamilton, then-Island A&R] believed in the band. She pretty much persuaded us to sign to Island, and she was right.

Talking of Caroline, can you give us a potted history of your publishing?

Caroline and a guy called Ian Ramage signed us to BMG Publishing, as it was then, and they were very patient with us [Keane are now signed to Universal Music Publishing, where Elleray works]. Those two were with us all through the time when record labels were having a look. They’d come down to Suffolk to see us, then nothing would happen for ages. They stuck with it and gave us some sort of advance which enabled us to rehearse all day and write new songs which became Hopes & Fears. They never once gave any sign of panicking that they might have backed the wrong horse.

What input have your publishers had on your career over the last ten years?

To start with they were incredibly involved because they were the only people we knew. I suppose it gradually felt like Island took over that [A&R] role and we became more of an independent unit anyway, especially with a bit of success. I remember realising that I wished I had consulted with Caroline more on our second album; just sent her more demos and stuff. It’s not that we deliberately excluded her, but we didn’t include her as much as people from Island. She’s got a great ear and very good judgement - the same goes for a lot of the people she worked with. There’s been lots of times where we’ve definitely appreciated her opinion and times that I wish I’d asked for it when I hadn’t. I remember Paul Curran who was the head of BMG when we signed to them, saying something about, ‘While you’re getting all over-excited about conquering America and every other country on the globe, don’t forget to keep making good music or forget about the UK, because that’ll disappear if you don’t keep cherishing it.’ They kept our feet on the ground in a very delicate and sensitive way and also introduced us to a lot of music.

We haven’t talked about your manager for all this time, Adam Tudhope. What’s been the secret behind that relationship?

We were at university together - we both studied Classics at UCL. We were flatmates at uni and afterwards for a year or so. At that time Tom and I were making sort of demo tapes. I’d be playing [demos] in the kitchen when I was doing the washing up and Adam would be very encouraging. Eventually he said, ‘You need to get out and book some gigs.’ I’d always make excuses because basically I didn’t know how to start - I didn’t know who to call or how to say, ‘Can we do a gig please?’

Adam’s much more confident and always had this slightly entrepreneurial spirit. He said, ‘Right I’m going to phone up and book you a gig.’ After going to quite a lot of trouble, I think, he got the Hope & Anchor to put us on and then basically became our manager overnight - and he’s been winging it ever since…. [Laughs]

Winging it very successfully!

Exactly. It’s weird I guess that’s how people start off in management. It’s a bit like being in a band: you begin trying to be like U2 or something and the next thing you know you’re actually a proper band, and it all gets a bit out of hand.

How have you and Adam maintained a friendship with all the professional pressures that have been in both of your lives over the last decade?

Well, he’s basically been the fourth member of the band - the fifth member since Jesse joined. I felt like Adam was my closest ally as the driving force behind the band for a lot of the early days.

We’d spend hours on the phone talking about how we were going to do things before we even had a record deal. He’d print out this great masterplan of what we were going to do in five years’ time - it would always end with a world-beating tour of American stadiums. We didn’t have any record company interest at that point but I loved his dedication. We had a shared passion for it, which has always been the common bedrock of our relationship as artist and manager.

I suppose his role as ‘manager’ has gradually taken over from him being a ‘friend’ but you have to try and cling on to both - especially when we’ve had difficult times and we’ve been really at odds about stuff. I think there’s a basic mutual respect that probably comes from when we started at university - we had a lot of respect for each other’s brains.

Neither of us are super-geek types but over the years if I said something he completely disagreed with, he’d know there must be something in it and vice versa. We have never been dismissive of each other’s opinions. A manager often has to be the scapegoat: it’s very easy for the band to say, ‘It’s the manager’s fault.’ It’s a tough job - the band gets all the credit. It’s the same for the record companies: you get the blame when something goes wrong but you don’t get the credit when it all goes right.

Adam’s very good at what he does - he’s very passionate, enthusiastic and innovative. His strongest quality is that he listens; he doesn’t just think he knows it all. He’ll learn from other people quite openly and he’s not afraid to say that he wants to learn about something rather than pretending he knows about it and blag his way through and make mistakes. He’s done all right.

One more industry-centric question: you signed your deal when Napster had just come to prominence. Do you rely on recordings income-wise at all today? Or is that done and dusted now?

Of course it has been quite alarming to see the change since our first album. Obviously it’s all relative and we feel very lucky to get paid for what we do, but when we started out we’d get these enormous royalty cheques like: ‘That’s amazing! I can buy a house!’ But now it’s much more like ‘£300 from this quarter on Spotify’ - it’s very different.

We’re very grateful that we just caught the end of the time when you could make a good income from one really successful record. It’s a bit scary now: if I was starting out today I would be pretty frightened about the degree of how successful you have to be to make your fortune, as it were - even just to make a really good living. Obviously touring is still the saving grace for bands because that is a unique experience that can’t be faked or replicated.

It’s a shame, of course, that the various [streaming] outlets do not pay a better royalty for music, but the truth is it’s just like any other industry that has changed and been superseded by new technology from the industrial revolution onwards. There isn’t some God-given right to make millions from playing a guitar, it’s just lucky that there’s been a supply-and-demand thing for 50 years and now the supply is changing.

The demand is still there, but you don’t have a right to get paid for every song you create. I value music very highly and come from a generation that’s used to paying £15 for an album, which seems like a fair price - £1 a song. But it’s a random amount in the first place. This generation is getting used to paying 70p for a song, or nothing. It’s a terrible shame, but it’s technology moving forward, as it does in every business. You can’t stop it.

What about the future: what sonic direction can we expect Keane to go in over the years to come?

To be honest, I don’t actually really know what’s happening with the band. We don’t know what we’re doing. I think we’re having some kind of a break. Tom’s had his eye on making a solo album for quite a while. We’re at a point where it feels like we’ve completed almost a cycle of albums. Strangeland feels like the end of an arc. This feels like a good time for him to do that. Beyond that, we don’t know - but there’s definitely going to be some kind of a break. We’ll have to wait and see.

Will you make a solo album or work with others?

I don’t know. It requires a lot of adjustment because the band’s been alive for 15 years or something. I have been writing with other people quite a lot, but it’s very different from being an artist. Keane is such a big thing to me that it’s hard to imagine not focusing on it. Our future depends a lot on Tom.

Are you confident that eventually Keane will make music together again?

I’m not confident, no. I am hopeful. I honestly don’t know. I’m very philosophical about these things - I definitely think we have a lot more to say. I believe we’re a really great band with a really great fanbase and people that want to travel with us on a musical journey. That’s still very exciting to me, so I’d love to enter a whole new phase of our music that’s richer, deeper and better. But I honestly don’t know. Tom’s solo record will be the next thing when he finishes it. We’re definitely at a juncture, and I don’t know which way we’re going to go.

What’s been your proudest moment in all of your experience with Keane?

There’s been so many great moments. Probably the first time we played Glastonbury. We’ve done lots of things that I feel on an intellectual level I felt very proud of - playing at The O2, stuff like that. But there was something so visceral about that first Glastonbury [in 2004], it was such a shock. We’d been on tour in the US and were just getting started in the UK. We went away the day after Hopes & Fears came out, to the US for a month, playing little clubs. We came back and all the while this album had been No.1. Over 30,000 people came out to the NME stage or whatever it was. It was a really weird, very emotional experience. I’d never seen that many people in one place before and there they were - all shouting our songs. I felt electrified.

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Tags: Interviews, Interview, Keane

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