It’s touch and go whether Tom Chaplin will make it in time for the end of our Wednesday rendez-vous. Currently, Tim Rice-Oxley is checking his emails on the fourth floor of a private members club in Covent Garden. Pinging in his inbox, the latest update says that it’s unclear whether Keane’s 27 year-old frontman has an infection or food poisoning. Rice-Oxley and bearded drummer Richard Hughes hope it’s the latter. An infection, they reason, takes longer to cure – and with the group’s second album Under The Iron Sea out this week, not to mention a pan-European MTV broadcast to be filmed the following day in Madrid, the timing leaves a lot to be desired.
“He’s gotten into oysters a lot lately,” ponders Rice-Oxley, as he strides away from the noise of Spain vs Ukraine and into a secluded meeting room. “He can’t pass through an airport without stopping off at an oyster bar. Maybe he’s had a bad oyster.” Keane’s songwriting keyboardist makes no attempt to conceal his views concerning the compatability of seafood and singers in acclaimed rock trios. “Who would want to have an oyster before getting on a plane? That would have been my attitude, but clearly the lead singer of Keane has a different answer to that question.”
By way of mitigation, I suggest that air travel makes people do strange things. What, for instance, is it about aeroplanes that turns everyone into a Bloody Mary drinker? “Bloody Marys? Well yes. And besides, they’re a slightly budget cocktail, aren’t they? Let’s be honest.”
Rare is the moment that a member of Keane dispenses an utterance of unguarded poshness. Since Somewhere Only We Know made instant pop stars of them in 2004, the subtext to so much of the criticism levelled at them has centred around their background. They’re not the first boarding school chums to form a band. But their inability or unwillingness to lapse into the vernacular of rock insurrectionists has inevitably agitated critics for whom the battleground of class war extends to the airwaves. It might be the circumstances of our meeting – or it could be the vindication of having just heard that Under The Iron Sea is currently outselling its nearest competitor by five to one – but today Rice-Oxley has a forthright, unapologetic air about him. If, as a result of Chaplin’s illness, he gets a little free time, he can always spend it doing his very favourite thing – wandering the art galleries of London.
Last night though, was spent at Chris Martin’s house – he and the Coldplay frontman attended UCL together – where they found each other comparing notes on the vagaries of rock stardom. “It’s amazing,” says Rice-Oxley, “how the experience is similar in terms of the massive mood swings and the reactions to how you’re perceived, and just how a little thing can turn a great day into a ridiculously depressing one.”
That Rice-Oxley has had his share of depressing days since the 2005 release of Keane’s debut album Hopes And Fears is pretty obvious when you listen to Under The Iron Sea. Unlike the last album by his pal in Coldplay, it’s not necessarily the follow-up we expected Keane to make. Like Radiohead’s The Bends, the emotional 20/20 vision induced by touring the life out of their debut album has left certain scars. Opener Atlantic sounds like a panic attack set to glacial, funereal keyboard washes. Answering a straight question with a straight answer, Rice-Oxley says, “It’s about the terror of being alone.” Crystal Ball confirms the overriding impression of a man who spends a lot of his time deep in thought on aeroplanes. Even when Rice-Oxley manages to bag a window seat, the view gets no better. Inspired by WB Yeats’ war poem An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, A Bad Dream sees Chaplin singing: “Why do I have to fly/Over every town up and down the line?/I’ll die in the clouds above.”
Is he ever, um, happy? “Well I tend to swing quite violently between being really depressed and really sort of happy,” he ponders. Alluding to the well-documented intra-band tensions that precipitated the making of Under The Iron Sea (Broken Toy addresses what Rice-Oxley perceived as Chaplin’s dereliction of their friendship) Keane’s 30 year-old keyboardist concedes that he isn’t always the easiest person to work with. He says it’s a good job that he didn’t end up joining Coldplay – he and Martin discussed the idea when Martin was in the process of forming the band – “because me and Chris in the same control room would have been very messy indeed… But no, I’m very lucky in my life. I’m very happily married and I love my job.”
That, I suggest, is what well-off depressives try and remind themselves when asked about their quality of life. “Yes, well you have to do that, I suppose. I’m the kind of person who tends to get bogged down.” And no more bogged down, it seems than Christmas 2004, when a fatigued Keane returned to their family homes in the Sussex town of Battle – knowing that there were ten more months of touring ahead of them, and only three songs written for the following album. After the umpteenth time she heard him say he thought he might never write another decent song again, Rice-Oxley’s art student wife Jane started sarcastically agreeing with him.
By his own admission, most of what he ever thinks about is Keane – so perhaps it’s no surprise that it hurts when Liam Gallagher can sing utter nonsense and mean it because he grew up in Burnage, whilst Keane’s comfortable upbringing is equated with a lack of sincerity. If he thinks that people who equate being working class with authenticity need to be clubbed to death with an authentic yet middle-class Nick Drake box set, he refrains from saying so. Indeed, it ought to be noted that, even when on the defensive, he refrains from dwelling on Keane’s “dark ages” between 1998 and 2002, when the band lived and rehearsed in a shared space in Hackney, financing their ambitions with a range of lowly-paid jobs.
Back in the communal area, Hughes elaborates. “Did he not tell you about the medical trial? I think it was £80 he got for testing this drug. I remember meeting him for lunch the morning after he did it. It was a schizophrenia drug. I don’t suppose you’re expected to take schizophrenia drugs unless you’re schizophrenic. And if you’re not, they probably have the wrong effect. I mean, I think it was OK, but then you never know if you’re the one who got the placebo. What I remember the most though, is that his mum – who is a neurologist – went absolutely ballistic when she found out. She told him he was probably going to start having schizophrenic episodes.”
When Tom Chaplin finally arrives, it turns out that he has also taken some pills – albeit of a different kind. “Thank God for Immodium,” he declares, “I think I’m over the worst now, but for the whole of yesterday, I had stuff coming out of me at both ends.” Only a slight pallor in his normally cherubic features hints at what his last 24 hours have been like. “Let me guess,” hazards Rice-Oxley “Oysters?” Not this time, apparently. “Monkfish, I think,” says Chaplin.
As Rice-Oxley and Hughes amble over to another room for a meeting with War Child, Chaplin orders a restorative cup of camomile tea. “What have you been talking about then?” he enquires. Oysters and depression, mainly, I tell him. Chaplin confirms that Rice-Oxley’s “obsessive nature” can make demanding taskmaster of him, but that also he wouldn’t have it any other way. “We’ve just devised this way of talking to each other through the songs. Like on Broken Toy. I know he’s written it about me. But then, I get to sing it back to him. It’s like in the playground when someone calls you names and you get to say, ‘I know you are, but what am I?’ We’ve known each other since we were kids. In that sense, nothing has changed.”