The Idolator Interview: Keane’s Tom Chaplin
Last week Keane’s Night Train EP became their fourth release to top the UK album chart and the third in a row to land in the Top 40 on Billboard‘s Top 200 Albums. The set, which was recorded in various studios across the globe while the British trio toured for previous album Perfect Symmetry, found the group collaborating with BET Awards-nominated rapper K’Naan and Japanese MC Tigarah. It also features songwriter/keyboard player Tim Rice-Oxley taking over vocal duties from Tom Chaplin on one of the tracks.
We spoke with Chaplin last week about the process of putting the EP together, as well as their upcoming U.S. tour and getting started on their next album. (P.S. If any of you happen to know the whereabouts of the photo that was taken of Tom and Paul McCartney, he’d kindly like to see it.) Read on!
In your interview with UK magazine Gay Times, you mentioned that you had your picture taken with Paul McCartney years ago, but you’ve never been able to track the photo down. Has it surfaced since you put that out there?
TOM CHAPLIN: I’m still waiting for it! It’s very mysterious. You’d think a photo like that would have seen the light of day. I have searched for it online, but it’s very frustrating—I can’t find it. So, yeah—keep putting out the feelers, see if we can’t get ahold of anyone who’s got it! [Laughs]
Did you guys record Night Train with the intention of making an EP, or did you set out to make a full album that ended up an EP?
TC: Actually, kind of the opposite! We planned on it being a single. It really started off as something much, much smaller than it turned into. We had a couple of songs that we started last April—the two songs that we did with K’Naan—and that was really going to be it. We thought, we’ll release it through our website just for the fans, it’ll be a nice little bonus single—a little curiosity for people—and we were going to put it out last October. But there was just something really great about the sessions with K’Naan that kind of spurred us on and made us want to keep going with it. So while we were out on the road last year we just went into studios wherever we were in the world and just carried on. It turned from two songs into eight songs. But, you know what—it’s quite a body of work. We’re quite surprised by how it turned out.
Well, congratulations on it becoming your fourth UK #1.
TC: We’re actually kind of astonished by the success of it. We’re pretty pleased people have taken to it so much. I think the fact that we did it without stressing about it too much and having some kind of big overarching plan has actually given it this sense of looseness. There’s something about it that people have really responded to. It’s been quite an eye-opener.
How did you end up collaborating with the rapper K’Naan on two of the Night Train tracks?
TC: The first song we had that kind of sparked the idea was “Looking Back,” which is kind of West Coast-y, sort of laid back. I suppose it’s got a bit of that thing Kanye West does, sort of melding various different styles. Tim wrote the bare bones of “Stop For A Minute” and it just felt like, again, that would be a good song to maybe move into a different area with. We scratched our heads for awhile and thought, who would be a good person to work with on this? K’Naan sprang to mind because he’s not so defined by hip hop as maybe some other artists that we like. He’s more song-based and quite melodic, as well, in what he does. He just seemed like a really interesting person to hook up with. We phoned him up and it turns out he was a really big fan of Keane. He said, “I play your songs all the time in the studio to clear my head if I’m working really hard on something, just to give me a lift.” He came across to London and we sort of sat there nervously for a few hours while we worked on something. But, you know, it actually turned out that we got on incredibly well as people and as musicians, and I think the collaborations reflect that.
Are there any plans to involve K’Naan in your tour this summer?
TC: We played a launch gig for the EP here in London and he came and sang the two songs. “Stop For A Minute” just tore the place up—it was brilliant! All the UK fans knew every single word by heart. I think they maybe knew more of the words than K’Naan could remember! [Laughs] It was pretty cool. We’re going to do another thing with him for Radio 2 here in the UK. We’re hoping that we can keep it going for as many things as possible, but unfortunately he’s got the official song for the soccer World Cup, so he’s actually going to be away for the rest of May and June and a bit of July—which is not the best timing. We’re going to just fit in as much as we can, but he’s a busy man and I think it’s going to be a bit difficult, geographically.
Were there any songs recorded during the Night Train sessions that got left off?
TC: I don’t think there were, really. The process of making it was really “we’ve got a song, let’s go in the studio, let’s put it down and if it works, it works.” Actually, luckily enough for us, pretty much everything worked. I don’t think there were any full songs that fell by the wayside. It was a really good process from that point of view, because it seemed like every idea that we put down was a success. And maybe that was just because we didn’t have time to endlessly go over it and soul-search about whether the bass part should go up or down! [Laughs] So what you hear is basically what we did.
Tim does the main vocals on “Your Love,” and I have to admit, sometimes I forget that it’s him because he kind of sounds like you. Did he intentionally aim to do that?
TC: Basically he’s copying my style, isn’t he? [Laughs] I don’t really know. The strange thing is, whenever he comes up with a new song he’ll send me a demo, and it’ll obviously be him singing on it—and I normally am quite impressed by his vocals. I really like his voice—it’s got really great character to it. I think he plays it down, but he can sing. He’s quite a shy guy, so he finds it hard to cross that barrier. And that was a good example of how the whole process worked, because that song, I was going to sing a vocal on but we actually just ran out of time. We were in a studio in Denmark. I recorded “Clear Skies” and then, yeah, just didn’t have enough time to do that vocal. So we just left on the demo vocal. We all thought it was great, so we thought, why the hell not? It made the opportunity to launch Tim’s voice into the world.
“My Shadow” is very “classic” Keane.
TC: Yeah. It’s a very classic Keane song. In fact, it was going to be on [previous album] Perfect Symmetry, but we felt it was so kind of old-school Keane that it would probably sit too much in contrast with the rest of the album. It was finished, I think, before Perfect Symmetry. But we just thought, sod it—we’ll keep it for another time. And again, because this EP or album—or whatever we’re going to call it—was such a mixture of different styles and songs, we just felt it would work really well on there and it was a good chance for it to be heard.
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It’s a beautiful song.
TC: I think we might actually release that one as a single in America. We’ve certainly thought about it and I think there seems to be a reasonable groundswell of excitement about it. So we might well end up releasing it in the States.
Looking ahead a little bit, have you started thinking about album number four yet?
TC: Actually, we had a meeting today, and we sat down and we listened to the demos that we’ve got currently knocking around. We were talking about who we’d like to work with and how we’d like to go about doing it. So, yeah—that conversation has happened. We’re underway with that process. It’s kind of in the ether. [Laughs] But, practically speaking, it won’t be till October or November before we get in a studio. But, you know, I feel pretty excited. I think this EP has actually—it just seems like things are going well for us at the moment. It’s a nice feeling. The new demos and new songs sound really good, and I would imagine sometime next year we’ll have another record ready.
Do you get requests to appear on other artists’ songs often?
TC: Yeah—we get the odd thing. Tim gets quite a few requests for songwriting. He’s worked with Gwen Stefani, Nicole Scherzinger and Kylie Minogue—lots of really attractive ladies, actually! [Laughs] I’m thinking about it—why do all these attractive women want to work with Tim? Is it just because of his songs? I’m not sure. But his songwriting is actually something that is very highly respected and commanded, I suppose. There are various projects we’ve been asked to get involved in. In terms of really big projects, we kind of feel like we’re still plowing our own furrow, you know—doing our own thing. There have been offers and exciting ideas, but as yet we haven’t really carried any of them through.
You three kick off the U.S. leg of your tour on July 20 in Oakland, California. What cities or areas in the States do you like to hit up when you’re over here?
TC: I think particularly New York is a favorite of ours. And interestingly enough, the more that we go to L.A., the more we appreciate and enjoy it. The atmosphere and the lifestyle of the place are actually quite enticing. [Laughs] To be honest, I wouldn’t really specify any favorites. Normally what we do is we fly to L.A. and then we get on a bus then go up one coast then across and down the other side. It’s just something really magical. As teenagers, we read a lot about U2 and these big bands touring the States and getting on a big bus and carrying on from one city to the next. There’s something very romantic about that. It’s great to sort of emulate your heroes and do that.