Tim Rice-Oxley - The chart-topping songwriter from somewhere only he knows

In his first solo interview, the man behind Keane, the band once written off as 'Coldplay-lite', tells Nick Hasted about being a small-town boy, his abiding fear of failure, and why the critics were wrong
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The Independent Culture

Tim Rice-Oxley drives the miles from the nearest train station to his local pub garden down idyllic lanes of overarching trees. It's near Beachy Head, Sussex's suicide-leap centre, yet he sips beer in a state of rare contentment. As the Ivor Novello Award-winning songwriter, creative force and keyboardist of Keane, you might expect this to have been his permanent mood since their debut Hopes and Fears sold five million in 2004. But though they were derided as "Coldplay-lite" then, there was a far more genuine English melancholy in classic early hits such as "Somewhere Only We Know". This was redoubled on Under the Iron Sea (2006), as angel-voiced singer, and Rice-Oxley's childhood friend, Tom Chaplin, cancelled a tour to enter the Priory, wrecked by booze and cocaine. Keane retreated to the heart of Europe to make 2008's Prince-influenced synth-riot Perfect Symmetry. They haven't been the same since.

This is the first time Rice-Oxley has been interviewed alone. He has the languid, slightly introverted confidence of the imaginative ex-public-schoolboy he is, and is waylaid at the bar by women hungry for his tall, dark good looks. He isn't recognised as a multi-million-selling pop star. Chaplin gets that. Rice-Oxley is a man rooted in the English countryside, tastes formed, he'll reveal, by Kenneth Williams as much as REM, and a vastly successful songwriter who feels poised over an abyss of talentless failure. He's more curious than Coldplay will ever be.

His band's label-bemusing adventurousness has continued with their varied new eight-track EP, Night Train. "Ever since Tom's booze and drugs escapades we've got more willing to be brave," he says. "None of the EP was planned, it's a chaotic mish-mash, but we thought, 'let's put it out anyway'. The fact that we are releasing anything other than the next Keane album, a two-year chunk after the last Keane album, seems to have confused everybody. It's made me realise how much of a rut the music business is in."

Night Train's title refers to their long rail journeys back and forth from Kent to Berlin while making Perfect Symmetry, a literally transitional period for Keane. "We met in some seedy little bar by Brussels station," he remembers, "as a massive train rolled in bound for Moscow. Normally when we're travelling now, there's 40 people. For it to be just us getting on a train normally was itself extraordinary. In Berlin we spent every night in a shabby 24-hour bar with a Cabaret feel, once we'd finished in the studio making this extra-specially camp record."

Rice-Oxley's writing changed markedly with Perfect Symmetry, making imaginative leaps into the outside world over upbeat melodies, instead of moodily looking inside himself. This was, like their Berlin exile, a response to Chaplin's meltdown, and its ruthlessly chronicling on Under the Iron Sea. "It's bizarre how so much to do with the first album's success seems unreal to us now," he considers. "I literally can't remember half of it. But writing about it just added to the darkness."

Many people still instinctively loathe Keane for not being rock'n'roll enough, but they miss an obvious point. Rice-Oxley's crafted love songs don't try to channel the Stones, but aspire to an older tradition.

"Do you remember Peter Skellern?" he asks, of England's middle-of-the-road 1970s piano man. "I actually saw him play live a couple of times, my parents dragged me. He did an album that was entirely covers of songs sung by Fred Astaire. That's what got me into Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and the Gershwins and Jerome Kern – just the craft and the chords and the words. Sometimes it's like we've slipped back since then, into the Dark Ages. And I don't think I've written anything that I can compare to those people's songs. And time's getting on."

In Night Train's "Stop for a Minute," Rice-Oxley writes: "Sometimes I feel like a little lost child/ Sometimes I feel like the chosen one". Both lines are from the heart. "I'm reading Kenneth Williams's diaries at the moment," he starts to explain. "I'm really interested in someone like that, with all the mess and depression. I really associate with people who are honest about their fear of failure. If I feel that I've written a really great song, that's pretty much what I live for. My identity's dependent on it. But there are days I'll spiral into thinking: 'I can't write any more. I literally can't finish even a crap song.' I live in fear of the day when everyone turns round and says: 'Actually, you're right!' That really haunts me. That whatever I had is gone. I spend the whole time dreading that feeling that I'm not good enough. And it's that same fear that leads to thinking: 'If in doubt, stick to the well-trodden path and let's do another [standard-issue Keane hit] "Is It Any Wonder".' But then Tom gives me a kick up the arse..."

The way Chaplin's soulful chorister's voice sings Rice-Oxley's songs recalls the fractious relationship between another of his heroes, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Later this year, he'll finally step from the shadows with a solo project, Mt. Desolation. It has made him reconsider their bond.

"From a writing point of view, it's become a Siamese-twin-type arrangement," he says. "With Simon and Garfunkel, you can see that's created a lot of resentment. But I've never felt that at all with Tom. You have to have a pretty deep understanding of each other to do things that way. I act as if I don't have a voice of my own. When I write the song I'm hearing him.

"But I started to think, 'I'd love to go down the pub and sing...' Because Tom's great at that, have a few beers and he's like McCartney, whipping an acoustic guitar out of nowhere and playing "Somewhere Only We Know". I'll never be a singer of that calibre, but it started to frustrate me thinking, 'am I going to get through my entire musical career without playing a gig where I've actually got the guts to stand at the front with a microphone, without always hiding behind Tom?'"

Keane's ordinary hearts lie in the Sussex Downs rolling behind us on this perfect spring day; the small-town country life that was all they knew growing up in Battle. "I've always been really defensive about the small-town thing," Rice-Oxley says, with a sudden passion close to anger. "I feel people look down their noses at us because of that. I don't think you know any less about humanity and the world because you're from a small town. All the dramas and tragedies and victories of life are more potent because you actually know the people they're happening to. I don't feel disconnected here in the country, I feel I can focus more, that the noise is stripped away."

Another jibe sent Keane's way by the likes of Kasabian comes from their public school days. "I don't like to complain about it too much," Rice-Oxley says warily, "because that's a step down from complaining how terrible it is being rich. But being a pop musician wasn't an option there. I assumed I'd end up working in the City, or being a lawyer. Me and Tom would get together in the school holidays and make music. And it went on and on, until eventually the penny dropped. It was like coming out."

I wonder if the achingly nostalgic song that defined their early success, "Somewhere Only We Know" (with its lines "I knew the pathway like the back of my hand... sat by the river and it made me complete") is based on somewhere not far, maybe, from where we are.

"It's the area around Battle. Because Richard [Hughes, Keane's drummer] and Tom I've known my entire life, so a lot of my memories involve kicking a football around there when we were 12. I love going to the pub on a summer's evening, taking a long walk home through the fields and the woods, putting the world to rights. That's my idea of heaven. Especially when you've known the people for years and years. I think that was why we struggled so much with what success brought. We felt that we had so much history that was so precious that was suddenly put into a much less pure context. It's a great feeling to have those close friends for so long"

So being in Keane has kept that special place right by his side?

"Yeah. It's pretty mad."

The album 'Night Train' is out on Monday on Island