Keane: Piano men on a roll

One of this year's fastest-rising bands, Keane, talk to Alexia Loundras about making music without a guitar in sight

Simon Williams, the founder of Fierce Panda records, knows a good thing when he hears it.

Simon Williams, the founder of Fierce Panda records, knows a good thing when he hears it. After all, he introduced the world to Coldplay when, having spotted the quartet's multi-platinum potential, he released the band's first single on his independent label. "Bands like Coldplay do not come along more than once in your life," Williams says ruefully. "But then," he continues with the wonder of a man who has been struck twice by lightning, "lo and behold, along came Keane."

On 21 December 2002 - acting on a tip-off from a music industry mate - Williams called at London's 12-Bar club to check out the Sussex trio. Smitten by the lush intensity of Keane's powerful, piano-driven songs - their melodies guided by singer Tom Chaplin's crystalline voice - Williams promptly offered to release the band's debut single, "Everybody's Changing". Despite being only a limited- edition release, the song's impact was remarkable. A sharks-at-feeding-time record label frenzy followed as A&R men everywhere - newly awoken to Keane's guitar-less charms - desperately tried to lure the band into their fold. In September 2003 Island emerged victorious, offering Keane a highly lucrative record deal which they graciously accepted ("It was quite nice to be schmoozed," admits Chaplin, shyly). Such was the buzz about the band, the bidding war had extended across the Atlantic, where a clutch of US labels clubbed together to fly the threesome out to New York.

By the time Williams came to release the trio's second, low-key, Fierce Panda single, "This is the Last Time", last October, Keane had already been offered a November guest spot on Jools Holland's BBC2 music show. As the hype machine kicked into overdrive, Keane became the BBC's tip for 2004 - beating heavyweights such as Franz Ferdinand and the soul sensation Joss Stone. The music industry bible, Music Week, blathers lovingly about the band at every given opportunity and even the NME - while dissing the trio for having the rock kudos of geography teachers - can't help but acknowledge their quality. And now the record-buying public has also embraced the band. Keane's first proper single - "Somewhere Only We Know" - smashed into the charts at No 3, further fuelling anticipation of their debut album, Hopes and Fears, which is due in early May.

"We seem to be fulfilling ambitions on a weekly basis," says the sparky drummer, Richard Hughes. And later today, the band climb another rung on their achievement ladder as they head out to play their first arena dates (supporting the like-minded Scots minstrels, Travis) before headlining their own, virtually sold-out, national tour in April. The lads are giddy with excitement and, settling themselves into a leather sofa at their record company's west London HQ, they give credence to the NME's criticisms as, unprompted, they playfully discuss the not-too-rock'n'roll merits of their favourite biscuits. But things for Chaplin (caramel digestive), Hughes (plain chocolate Hobnobs) and pianist Tim Rice-Oxley (custard creams: "I can't be doing with a superficial biscuit," he says, only half joking) haven't always gone so smoothly.

Before Williams's intervention, Keane's closest brush with fame came when Chaplin almost ran over Roger Daltrey, while driving down the country lanes near his Battle home. "I finished bumper-to-wheel with the great man himself," he confesses through nervous giggles. But there had also been one other near-miss. Back in 1999, when the band of lifelong schoolmates (then a more conventional guitar-wielding four-piece) was only two years old, they were featured on London radio station Xfm. "We thought we've made it!," says Chaplin who, with flowing locks and translucent skin, looks as cherubic as his striking singing voice suggests. "They were saying, 'This band won't remain unsigned for long.' But then," he shrugs, "we did. After that, it was just loads of gigs and no success."

In August 2001, disappointment finally tore the band apart. "We'd been watching everyone around us becoming successful, while we were still this little band desperately trying to get our music out for God knows how many years," says Rice-Oxley, the oldest and most contemplative of the three. "We had been held together by stubbornness - that's all that kept us at it. But, eventually, our guitarist felt he needed to do something else with his life."

Now, they say, not only were Keane missing a crucial player in their much-loved two-a-side football games, but they were forced to completely rethink their sound. "We didn't know what we were going to do," says Hughes. "Except," interrupts Chaplin, "try even harder."

Armed with this fiercely positive outlook, Keane tested keyboards, fed noises through computers and experimented to try to fill the sonic gap left by the guitar (replacing the player was never an option). But it was the discovery of a piano that could be plugged directly into their sound system that, says Chaplin, was the turning point. "The piano was doing the job of all the other stuff - string pads and laptops - we had been trying to use." Suddenly, for Keane, their music just clicked.

Hughes squeezes himself out from between his bandmates and leans forward, intently. "From then on, we had this feeling that if we could only get our songs out to a wider audience - beyond the fistful of friends you pester to get to gigs - people would actually like what we were doing," he says. As the Fierce Panda debut proved, their hunch was right. The band concede they owe a lot to Williams for putting out their music in the first place ("Fierce Panda allowed us to start something for ourselves," says Chaplin), but, ultimately, credit for Keane's success lies wholly with the stirring simplicity of their evocative songs.

"People are always going to like good melodies - songs that go somewhere, that sound beautiful," says Chaplin. And, drawing on music from Nick Drake and The Beatles to Paul Simon and the Pet Shop Boys, this is exactly what Hopes and Fears achieves. Keane's debut album is a whirlpool of shimmering sounds imbued with melancholy and bursts of passion. Rice-Oxley's delicate piano riffs flirt with crackling electronica, swathes of sonic effects and subtle, snaking rhythms, while Chaplin's nectar-sweet Morten-Harket-meets-Thom-Yorke vocals drench Keane's songs. Even though Keane hold fast to a basic drifting verse/soaring chorus blueprint, their songs are so gorgeously crafted, their rousing melodies so affecting that they speak to everyone.

"We want to make songs that people can relate to," says Rice-Oxley, the band's main songwriter. And as long as their music makes that all important connection, Keane are not ashamed of plunging full-on into the mainstream. Which is why the trio aren't in the least bit bothered by any assertions that they lack cool. "We never asked for any rock credibility," laughs Chaplin. Quite the opposite. "We don't want to put ourselves on some weird rock'n'roll pedestal where no one can recognise what planet we're from let alone recognise our life experiences," adds Rice-Oxley. Inspired by Morrissey, the band members say, they don't hold anything back. "We pour everything about ourselves into our music. It's what we're constantly aiming to do - because having emotions, feelings - is what life's about."

With Keane there is no mystique. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and, worst of all in the eyes of the rock scene, are as genuine and impeccably behaved as choir boys. "Not everyone's going to like us," says Rice-Oxley. "But as long as we can keep providing those who do with music they can love then that's what we'll keep doing."

"Yeah," adds Chaplin beaming with delight. "We want to make the sort of music people can really treasure."

Suddenly aware of their own earnestness, Keane burst into laughter. "Well, you've got to aim ridiculously high," says Hughes. "And we'll just keep going until we get there." He grins. "You know, like monkeys and typewriters."

Keane tour the UK from 22 April ( www.keanemusic.com)

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