Stadium ballad champions Keane have suffered more than their fair share of slings and arrows. Media sniping, inter-band strife and a personal breakdown almost destroyed them, but they have survived to surprise everyone with a bold new sound to silence the doubters, Michael Odell meets them ahead of next week's show in Dubai. The last time I met the British band Keane - who will be playing for the first time in Dubai on Wednesday (July 8) - was backstage at the Q magazine awards ceremony in London last October. The three members of the band - Tim Rice-Oxley, Tom Chaplin and Richard Hughes - were closely examining their recently acquired award. Spiralling, from their most recent album, Perfect Symmetry, was voted Best Track, drinks were being served in the "media room" and other musicians were on hand to offer their congratulations. The bizarre-hatted singer/nutcase Grace Jones was in our corner. So was Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys, as well as The Who's Roger Daltrey and various Kaiser Chiefs.
With their straight-backed reserve, Keane are reminiscent of highly able civil servants struggling to speak the lingo at a foreign embassy reception. It is partly for this reason that, despite huge record sales and awards like this one, they once struggled to win friends among the British rock fraternity. Members of Razorlight and Kasabian lined up to deride them as "uncool". Days before this awards ceremony, Noel Gallagher - never one to mince his words - had derided them as "s***".
When singer Tom Chaplin was admitted to The Priory hospital with drink and drug problems in 2006, a very famous American rock star actually put it to me that this was part of a covert record company strategy to jettison the band's clean-cut image. Their crimes were deemed to be as follows: they didn't use guitars for their first two albums and wrote mostly ballads. Additionally, they are a well-mannered, privately educated trio and therefore contravene the rebellious working-class spirit of rock 'n' roll.
"Most people listen to music and they like it or they don't. I've never heard a great song and thought, 'I must go and check where those guys went to school before I go out and buy it,'" Tim Rice-Oxley (piano, bass) said the first time I met him. "I don't think it's in us to pretend to be anything other than who we are." But on this particular evening, people are not talking about class war so much as the change of direction heralded by Perfect Symmetry, the band's third album. The ballads have been reined in. There are guitars. Where some bands are content to discover a winning formula and repeat it ad nauseaum, Keane haven't. Perfect Symmetry is the quirky Eighties pop about-turn that nobody saw coming.
"It took us so long to get here, no one wants to sit on their laurels. We want to try whatever we can. I'm not ruling out steel drums for the next album," the wryly observational Richard Hughes (drums), says. And so the Q Award was a vindication - and no more obviously so than when Coldplay's Chris Martin walked in, after picking up awards for Best Band In The World Today and Best Album. He congratulated Rice-Oxley and there was a matey back-slap. Then he said: "Coldplay and Keane? It's a battle to the death. Like King Kong and Godzilla."
It was a touching reunion. At one time Keane were dubbed "Warmplay" for their similar soppy stadium ballads. The story of the two bands is closely intertwined and award successes meant much to both. However, Perfect Symmetry has the more poignant backstory, marking as it does the moment when Keane came back from the abyss. The tale begins with Hughes and Rice-Oxley trying to form a band and thinking very hard before deciding to allow their younger, "very loud and annoying" schoolfriend, Tom Chaplin, to try out as the singer. The trio had all attended Tonbridge, a £30,000 (Dh182,000) per year private school in southern England, which has very arcane laws on pupils' haircuts and was once, reputedly, Hitler's planned southern HQ if the Nazis had ever invade England.
They called their band The Lotus Eaters, until they discovered the name was taken. Then it became Cherry Keane, a choice that caused them all sorts of credibility problems. "She was a kind old lady who helped make tea for the kids at school," says Chaplin. "People are saying she was my nanny, but that's not really accurate." After Tonbridge, Rice-Oxley went to University College, London, and got a first in Classics. Hughes read geography there, while Chaplin - who is three years younger than the others - managed a year of history of art at Edinburgh, abandoning the course once the band, now renamed Keane, had decided to give it a year's serious effort in London.
But fate almost intervened to end their plans. In his second year at university, Rice-Oxley got friendly with a wild-eyed fresher called Chris Martin. They became and remain close. Martin clearly recognised a kindred spirit and asked Rice-Oxley to be the keyboard player in the fledgling Coldplay. "I was seriously interested," he says, "but Keane were already operational and Coldplay's keyboard player idea was dropped."
Still, they kept a close eye on each other's progress. When Coldplay's debut album, Parachutes, arrived to rave reviews in 2000, Rice-Oxley remembers reading with tears in his eyes. "I won't say we weren't envious. But mostly I was overwhelmed because I thought, 'It really does happen. These friends of ours have made an album to blow everyone away.'" It wasn't simply the inspirational value of watching a friend's band triumph, it was about overcoming the powerful inverted class snobbery of British rock. In the early 2000s, the UK was recovering from its Britpop hangover and discovering that - actually - Oasis and Blur might not be the best bands after all. It was Radiohead and Coldplay, rock's posh boys, who led the way. Keane felt enfranchised by these successes but they still had a long way to go.
Initially, they had a guitarist, Dominic Scott. However, with the band struggling to create an identifiable and original sound and seemingly getting nowhere, he left. Finally, one night in their north London flat, as they sat listening to one of their favourite bands and formative influences - The Smiths - something clicked. Rice-Oxley had found a keyboard, a Yamaha CP-70, that would make a sound bold enough to be the signature sound the band was looking for. Chaplin became a frontman. Rice-Oxley was given control of the writing process, constructing a set of tunes that were airier, sparser and tinged with more electronic flourishes than before. And so Keane were born.
Sometimes a band can be so counterintuitive, so against the prevailing dictates of cool, that it works. It seems almost incredible now that Keane found themselves signed to US label Interscope, then home to hardcore rappers Dr Dre, Eminem and 50 Cent, not to mention badly behaved rockers Limp Bizkit and Marilyn Manson. "I think the Americans like that our music reflects exactly who we are," Rice-Oxley said at the time. "Some people won't like that we're not rock 'n' roll. We're not like Oasis who possibly know which buttons to push, and provide it."
Their debut album, Hopes And Fears, was full of songs about loss and yearning and proved an instant hit, selling almost six million copies to date. They garnered a collection of highly unlikely fans, too, including Brett Easton Ellis, author ofAmerican Psycho, and the Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh, famous for his earthy urban tales of drink, drugs and violence (Welsh later directed the video for the single Atlantic).
But if it was all soaring balladry on Hopes And Fears, Keane soon began exploring darker ideas for their second album, Under The Iron Sea. Chaplin and Rice-Oxley have known each other since they were babies. Their mothers met at childcare get-togethers and though they may seem the living embodiment of the word "sensible", Rice-Oxley leads the group with a certain schoolmasterly rigour. In stark contrast is the puppyish mischief-making of Tom Chaplin, who seems to have been reacting against Rice-Oxley's "big brother" figure for most of his life. Chaplin recalls once recording obscenities on Rice-Oxley's cassette tape of Shakin' Stevens. When the Rice-Oxleys drove off on a family holiday to the Lake District the in-car entertainment produced an unwelcome surprise.
It cannot have been easy expressing his more wayward side. Chaplin's devout Christian parents were, respectively, the headmaster and a teacher at the Vine Hall prep school he attended with Rice-Oxley before Tonbridge. The unhealthy dynamic between Chaplin and Rice-Oxley came to a head during the lengthy and gruelling world tour that followed the success of Hopes And Fears. While Rice-Oxley took care of band business, Chaplin began drinking too much and disappearing on drug binges. He committed the ultimate act of band sabotage during a tour in Japan in September 2006, when without a word to anyone, Chaplin took a cab to Tokyo airport and flew home.
"I had been trying to control my intake of cocaine and alcohol and telling myself it was OK and I could handle it for months and months. I knew I needed help," he says. "Getting into that cab was an act of desperation. I knew I was letting everyone down massively." His mother met him at Heathrow Airport and drove him straight to The Priory hospital in south west London, where he underwent treatment for alcohol and drug addiction.
What was behind his breakdown? Well, inter-band tensions for sure. The de-stabilising jolt of sudden fame and press intrusion perhaps. Media sniping too. Chaplin has also mentioned a tendency to violent mood swings. "Be careful what you wish for. It's a useful saying. I really cannot stand privileged rock stars complaining but? yes, there was a sense of, 'Nice house. Fast car. First-class tickets to go on tour with U2. Why me?'"
But at least the meltdown made for great art. Many of the songs on their second album, Under The Iron Sea, stem from that time. Some are open letters from Rice-Oxley to Chaplin. On one track, Hamburg Song, he comes right out and says it: "Fool, I wonder if you know yourself at all". "I don't have a problem singing them," says Chaplin. "It's all stuff that we have dealt with now. Being in a band can be a very tense and suffocating experience. You have to sit down and talk about things, or else things fall apart. I think it is fair to say we were none of us very good communicators until Tom went off the rails," says Rice-Oxley. "You never think that someone could be so unhappy and so damaged right under your nose until it happens to you.
"If there's one thing we've learnt it's that you have to make time to talk. I hate to sound like a marriage counsellor but that's what it's like for bands. There will always be a million and one reasons to get on with the next show or album but sometimes you have to sit down and air grievances." There could never be a greater indicator of the mood change in Keane than Perfect Symmetry. The mordant self-examination and "the end is nigh" doom-mongering of Under The Iron Sea were replaced by ultra-catchy pop music.
"Actually, it was all part of a secret plan. Get everyone's attentions with the big ballads and then make the album we really wanted to: a Pet Shop Boys album!" laughs Rice-Oxley. The next stage in the Keane story promises to buck all the expectations of the doubters. Perhaps even the ears of 50 Cent and Dr Dre will prick up. In April, the band entered a studio in London Bridge with Somalian rap artist K'naan. Well respected for his politically astute protest rhymes in his adoptive home of Canada, he is nevertheless an unlikely collaborator for Keane. The adventure takes another new turn when they arrive for their first ever show in Dubai at the 4,500-capacity Madinat Jumeirah this week. When Coldplay wowed a rain-soaked crowd at the Emirates Palace earlier this year, Chris Martin's old mate was naturally paying special interest.
"It's going to be our first time out in the Middle East," he says. "I know Coldplay have just been out there. I know a bit about it from studying the ancient world at university. It's an amazing part of the world. We've been lucky enough to enjoy a lot of special moments in the last five years but going somewhere new to meet people who like our music, it never gets better than that." "I think people think that a band follows a predictable arc: success, band strife and then meltdown," adds Chaplin. "I honestly don't believe we will. We've had a dramatic patch and a re-think. 'Why are we really doing this?' is an obvious question maybe but now we know the answer better than ever: the music and the experiences. We relish every new place we get to see. We all know that we are lucky any of this ever happened."
Keane play the Indoor Arena, Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai on Wednesday, July 8. Perfect Symmetry is out now.