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

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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence