On paper, 2005 couldn’t have been a better year for Keane.
The first album by the melodic pop trio from across the pond, “Hopes and Fears,” was certified gold in the United States, they opened for U2 at Madison Square Garden and were nominated for a best new artist Grammy.
Yet as the year drew to a close, Keane was at perhaps the most miserable point in its existence. Constant touring had left them overwhelmed and embittered, and the childhood friends — twentysomething bandmates Richard Hughes, Tim Rice-Oxley and Tom Chaplin — were wearing on each other’s nerves.
“I think we were pretty spent,” said drummer Hughes as he sat in a hotel bar with the rest of the group. “It seemed to us like we’d been touring a long time and we’d stopped communicating and sort of started to shut ourselves off a bit just to survive, and you enter a sort of crash mode.”
Still, as frayed and frustrated as they might have been, when their touring obligations finally ended and they had a chance to take a break from it all — and each other — they didn’t. Instead, they headed right back to the studio to work on their second album, “Under The Iron Sea,” which came out this week.
The result: another critically acclaimed disc that shows they must have done something besides bicker and vegetate during their months on the road. The album finds Keane experimenting musically — moving away from the acoustic, piano-centered ballads that drew comparisons to their good friends Coldplay when they first debuted in 2004. Besides the new sound though, the disc highlights their angst — about their lives and the world around them.
Normal human beings“We have changed a lot as people,” said Rice-Oxley, who plays piano. “Any relationship is going to be tested over time, and our relationship has certainly been tested, but also we’re constantly scrutinizing what we see around us in the world, things that we see other people going through, things that we see each other going through, just as normal human beings.”
Keane, who grew up together in a small town in England, ceased being normal human beings and morphed into rock stars after the release of “Hopes and Fears.” As the album grew from buzz-worthy to a certified hit, media scrutiny of the band grew, their performance schedule exploded and time for family and friends dwindled.
They anticipated what success would bring — and friends warned Keane how dizzying it would all be when it finally came.
“Fran Healy from Travis — we supported them very early on — he said, ‘Make sure you enjoy it all, really sort of soak it up,”’ Hughes recalled. “We probably didn’t do it very well in the end.”
“We were kind of driven by this ambition,” interjected Chaplin, whose smooth falsetto anchors the group’s sound. “We always wanted to do stuff and not turn things down, and often we weren’t making time, like Richard said, to enjoy the places we were seeing and going to.”
By the time they landed in New York last October to open up dates with U2 at Madison Square Garden, the group was at its breaking point. But even when they had spare time it turned into work, as they arranged to find studio time in the city, and some of the earliest songs from “Under the Iron Sea” were formed there.
In some ways, it was ambition that had them in the studios in the hours before their performances. But Chaplin said it was also because they couldn’t stay away.
“Music is not really like any other job, it’s so much a part of your makeup, sort of emotionally that it’s something kind of vital about doing it; you have to do it to sort of stay alive, really if you’re in a band,” Chaplin said.
Evolution of soundThough their debut album drew them accolades, the band decided to tinker with their top-selling formula for “Under the Iron Sea.” Though there are no guitars on their album — or in the band — an electronic guitar sound permeates many of the tracks, the result of Rice-Oxley’s experimentation with a variety of different instruments.
“We’ve always evolved as people making music,” said Hughes. “It’s just that the first five or six years of it, no one was watching ... now it’s sort of in full view.”
While Chaplin calls the “Under the Iron Sea” Keane’s “big rock record,” he also hopes listeners pay close attention to the lyrics as well. They touch not only on the turbulence the band experienced, but in the world too.
“I think our personal lives seemed to be colored by this kind of sense of fear and of crisis that kind of pervades every element of it, whether it’s just feeling that you are just sort of powerless in the world that we live in,” Chaplin said. “I suppose it’s trying to kind of digest the world around us, but on a very personal level.”