Interview with Tom Chaplin of Keane
Written By: Dan Albert Interviewed By: Damion Stein
Tom Chaplin and the rest of Keane have seen great success since they first came on the scene in the early 2000’s. Their music boasts an honesty and rawness that is very hard to come by in an era of pop music dominated by unending samples, thumping bass tracks and vapid lyrics. We had the chance to sit down with Tom and find out what it was like growing up on the other side of the pond, how they’ve been able to find success both in the states and abroad, and what it was like working on Keane’s newest album Strangeland.
LIVE: You were born in East Sussex, England. What was life like growing up in the Chaplin household?
Tom Chaplin: It was quite intense. My parents ran a school, a school where the kids were boarded so a lot of the kids lived at the school, so it was a quite magical place to be brought up because not only was I there with my family, but then I had all these friends who were just literally a stones throw from my house. There’s always a tendency to think of your childhood as idyllic and perfect, but there are lots of things about it that feel like imagination and my sense of adventure. I remember it being a pretty happy time generally.
LIVE: Your friend and band mate Tim Rice-Oxley formed a band called the Lotus Eaters which later grew into KEANEafter your addition. Tell us a bit about how you came to join the band.
Chaplin: Well I knew Tim and Richard (Hughes); they were a bit older than me, but they both went to the same schools that I went to. They were really getting into their music during their teens and I was kind of in the background because I was a younger kid. I’ve always loved singing and I think they kind of thought I was kind of immature and not right for the job. As time went on I got seriously into music and starting writing my own stuff and working with various people and they opened their minds and asked me to sing. It was great. At the start none of us really knew what we were doing we were just feeling our way through the dark. We had fun with our own songs and doing covers of The Beatles, Oasis and U2, so it was exciting for me as a young guy to suddenly be involved with this cool band with the older guys from school.
LIVE: Every artist has a list of artists before them they use as inspiration. Who are some of the artists that inspire your music?
Chaplin: The first album I remember buying was Thriller by Michael Jackson. I bought Thriller and Bad at the same time. I saved up all my money because a friend of mine had both albums on tape. I completely fell in love with his music right away. There was a kind of exuberance and virtuoso quality to it. I loved the way he sang and performed, it was so exciting, especially to a young kid. I think that period of Michael Jackson’s music really left an indelible mark on me.
Then QUEEN was the next band I really got into as a kid. I was kind of going for showy/big performing songs then, that’s what inspired me. Those huge voices that could fill a stadium and all the acrobatics on stage were exciting. Freddy Mercury and Michael Jackson were big big influences.
Then as I got a bit older I guess I went a bit more indie, got really into The Beatles and then started falling in love with Brit-pop and all the bands that were in England at the time and the story goes on from there really.
LIVE: Keane’s first album Hopes and Fears was a huge success from the start and has now been certified 9x platinum in the UK. What do you think it was about this album that helped it identify with so many fans?
Chaplin: I think it was the fact that it was so honest emotionally. It’s not an album that has any pretension. It was just an outpouring of how Tim felt and how we all felt as people in a band trying to get somewhere, trying to make our way in the world and fulfill our dreams, without a penny to spare amongst us.
LIVE: You’ve been able to accomplish a high level of success both in the UK and here in the US, something that is notoriously difficult to accomplish. What have you done to make sure your music is accessible to both markets?
Chaplin: I don’t really know. Again it’s a bit of a mystery. I think we’ve been really lucky because our music has not only translated well to American audiences, but it seems to be popular in some of the far flung corners of the world. I think it has something to do with that simplicity and genuine quality that the songs have. It seems that whatever background and culture people are from they seem to be able to identify with something universal, which is lovely.
In America I guess it’s the same stuff that made us successful in the UK. Big anthemic choruses and a sense of no real pretension. Just giving it to ’em straight.
LIVE: Your song “Is it Any Wonder?” was nominated for a Grammy Award back in 2007. What did it mean to you as an artist to be nominated for that award?
Chaplin: I remember the first Grammy Nomination we got was best newcomer which was exciting because it was quite a big deal to be in that category. Ultimately we didn’t win it, but I do remember going to the Grammys and it was really glitzy and exciting. Those kind of awards are a nice bonus, but the most important thing is that you’re true to yourselves and you make great music first and foremost. Beyond that, if a bunch of other people really love your music, that’s a bonus, if people buy your records, that’s a bonus, and if you get an award that’s a great bonus. They’re all just more fuel to the fire, but I wouldn’t say that we live and die by that stuff. The most important thing for us is that we get the chance to go into the studio and make our records and take them out and play them for the big wide world.
LIVE: Your most recent album “Strangeland” is your fourth studio album. How does this album differ from your previous albums?
Chaplin: It was a very careful and well planned out process. One of the things we were frustrated with about the last few albums is that we hadn’t given ourselves as much time to get prepared. With this album we wanted Tim to have as much time as possible, locked away on his own writing songs and sending them to us to get our thoughts and work out what songs we liked the most. I think he wrote like 80 songs or something ridiculous like that over a course of two years, which was lovely because instead of trying to fill an album up with songs you’re trying to whittle it down from a large number to about 10 or 12 songs, which is a much better situation to be in. That was the first thing we felt great about on this album.
Then the other thing was we really wanted to capture a sense of the band in a really organic and real way. With the 3rd album it was really layered up and I guess done kind of back to front, with us rehearsing them once we’d recorded them, which is kind of weird. With this album we wanted to rehearse them first so we went down into Tim’s studio knocking it into shape and making sure we were really happy with it. It was a lot of reducing songs from 5 minutes to 3 ½ minutes and we really worked hard to make sure we had a lot of single choices. I think the album is full of up tempo songs. It’s a pretty upbeat record as far as the lyrical intentions. Even though it deals with some fairly dark subject matter it’s an album that is full of hope and positivity and an enthusiasm for finding redemption in life.
LIVE: Your music has been heard on many television shows including everything from Smallville and One Tree Hill, toCSI and Scrubs. What do you think it is about your music that attracts these programs?
Chaplin: It does seem to be popular backings music for moments of high emotional intensity in TV shows. Again I think that has something to do with the honesty and emotional quality of the songs. Also they’re sort of anthemic so they seem to fit quite well as the backing for those big scenes. I think the atmosphere of our music seems to fit really well with TV and Film as well. The songs have a sort of descriptive quality to them and a lot of images are conjured up by the songs and that somehow carries over quite well them being used as backing tracks.
I’m amazed at the amount of shows that use our stuff, especially in the states. It does seem to be a particularly popular thing to do over there, which is actually a really great way of getting it out there and getting it heard.
LIVE: You’re known for extensively touring all over the world. What are some of the biggest challenges of life on the road?
Chaplin: I guess at the heart of it you’ve got four individuals in a group who are in each other’s pockets for long periods of time. We’ve learned over time how to deal with the ups and downs of life in general with each other which is a really important part of staying together as a band. You learn how to look after each other’s feelings and I think that’s a big part of it.
Aside from that I think the biggest challenge is the traveling. We’ve spent the last couple months doing all sorts of things from South by Southwest to stuff back here in the UK and Europe doing promotional stuff and touring around. We really haven’t stopped and it’s been a lot of traveling and that’s very tiring. Sometimes I get home with a couple of days off and I don’t want to move. I just want to sit still. You feel like you’re getting dragged from place to another constantly. It’s a mad existence, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
LIVE: Besides the new album what can we expect from KEANE in the near future?
Chaplin: Keanemusic.com is the place to really direct people. That’s the real hub of everything for us. We try to keep it constantly updated and make people aware of everything that’s going on. We’ve got lots of videos and stuff and of course new tour dates, so if anybody wants to know anything about Keane that’s the place to go.