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Keane On Yamaha

Julian Colbeck chats to Keane's Tim Rice-Oxley about MIDI, music, and
the price of fish before the band's Berkeley gig, May 6th 2005.

Lean On Me: Tim Rice-Oxley at his trusty CP70B

Without wishing to be overly cynical, professional endorsements (of musical instruments, toothpaste, you name it) tend to be colored by the endorsee’s receipt of a lifetime's supply of it for free or because they're being paid to say they like the product.

Enter Keane, a young band from the South of England who tore up the UK charts in 2004 and are poised to do the same in USA in 2005. A Keane stage looks like a revved up Yamaha showroom, but the difference with these guys is that they've been using Yamaha gear long before they even got a record contract and, to put it mildly, they love it.

Front and center stage of Keane's sound, on record and on stage, is a Yamaha CP70 Electric Grand piano. It's not that Tim Rice-Oxley – keyboard player and songwriter – occasionally slips into retro mode; this is his main axe. To make things even more extraordinary the CP70 doesn't just sit in behind a wall of guitars and production flim-flammery, the entire Keane line-up comprises Tim on keyboards (we'll come onto what else is in his rig in a minute), Richard Hughes on drums (yes, Yamaha, since you ask), and Tom Chaplin on vocals.

That's right, no guitarist, and no bass player. And no, this is most definitely NOT a lounge act. Tim plays what can only be described as power piano. If Angus Young played piano this is how he'd tackle it. Literally.

I first heard a few bars of Keane's epic debut single Somewhere Only We Know on a rainy Spring day in London on a stopover to the Frankfurt Musik Messe in 2004. The catchy internal chord movement and the unmistakable clunk of a CP70 caught my attention and I asked one of the ever-knowledgeable guys at the Virgin MegaStore who was playing. ‘Keane,' he said, and I was disappointed when, upon asking for the name of the CD the track came off, to be told that they were still making it. Wouldn't be out until the summer, most likely.

Richard Hughes plays, you guessed it, Yamaha Drums.

Back in USA I finally picked up a copy of Hopes And Fears (Interscope) a few months ago and was impressed by track after track of succinct, hooky songs, raw emotion, and enough dynamics enough to shut down a Drawmer for good. Add a starkly original ear for melody and arrangement, throw in the ‘emo' factor of Coldplay and U2 and these guys were clearly onto something, CP70 and all.

A chance conversation with Yamaha-Kemble in the UK after this year's Musik Messe elicited the information that not only did Tim play CP70, he also played an S90. In fact might an interview with the band be of interest to Sninety.com?

Back in the USA

Keane's 2005 Spring Tour has moved up a notch from the predominantly club-based venues of 2004's outings to medium sized theaters, and indeed even this move seems but a stepping stone since the 3500 capacity Berkeley Community Theater was impressively and comprehensively sold out.

Tall, dark, and thoughtful-looking, Tim Rice-Oxley greeted me with a “Hi, I'm Tim. Cuppa tea?” as he ushered me into an elemental (as opposed to remotely lavish) dressing room for the interview. An S90 blinked at us on one side of the room. A couple of tables-worth of basic food groups on the other. Tim poked around for a tea bag produced in this century and drizzled some lukewarm water into a Styrofoam cup. “Americans haven't quite got the tea thing down yet, have they?” he apologized.

Ancient & Modern

‘You obviously have a real affinity with classic synths.' I begin. ‘And yet you seem very at home with modern technology. What are your feelings about real vintage instruments versus vintage instrument plug-ins?

“I'm sort of a jack of all trades” says Tim. “Well, certainly I'd describe myself as a master of none. When I first got into music I was really into the Pet Shop Boys for some reason, and so I got interested in the Fairlight, and the DX7, and the whole late eighties thing. I really got into MIDI. I always had half an eye on digital things. But I was living at home and I got a QY10 when they first came out. I thought that was one of the most amazing things I'd ever heard. I programmed a whole bunch of basslines and backing tracks for some sort imaginary concert I was going to play - even though I wasn't even in a band. In fact I was about 12.

“Although I've always been into that side of it I'm certainly not an expert. The same applies to analog stuff. If you put me in front of a big modular synth I wouldn't know where to start. But I do like a good simple old synth where you can change the sound with a few knobs and where you can hear the sound reacting to what you're doing. I'm just a songwriter; someone who likes making music rather than being a real tech head . So as long I can get what I want out of a synth, be it an old analog one or a modern digital one, then I'm happy, and I've just about got enough knowledge to do that.”

‘What appeals to you most: the actual sound, or instant controllability?' Do plug-ins really cut it for you?

“There are some that I've used that are great fun. It's great being able to zip through 500 presets that all sound fantastic. But I don't know, it can take some of the fun out of it. The fact that I'm ignorant when it comes to those old synths means that I can come up with lots of weird noises, or get some sort of arpeggiator pattern going out of a Juno 6… all of that's quite exciting for me.

“When it comes to an actual vintage synth versus a plug-in, for me, personally, there is definitely a difference in the sound. It's the imperfections that makes analog sounds so good; you know, the tuning wobbles a bit… Maybe it's all in the mind but there's a warmth that comes from those synths.”

‘Any particular favorites?'

“Rhodes, Wurlitzer Electric piano, Solina String Synth, but the best one for me personally is the ARP Pro DGX, which is generally not considered to be a very good synth but one that I find absolutely beautiful.”

Testament to this unusual statement is Tim's haunting, portamento-imbued solo on the track She Has No Time , which is an ARP Pro DGX.

For breakfast Tim likes Nord Lead, over easy.

On The Write Track

‘Piano seems to be your main instrument. But you also use sequencers (Logic). How do you balance playing an instrument and using a sequencer and loops when it comes to songwriting?

“I'm more inclined towards the classic way of songwriting where I write something on a piano and then play stuff to the band. I do all my demos in Logic and that's quite loopy of course. It's not loop based in the sense of having a lot of breakbeats. It's not like sort of Nightmares On Wax (somewhat MIDI-focused British R&B outfit – Ed.) or whatever. It's more about getting a good drum track to sing along to.

“Having said that Untitled 1 is a track that grew out of a little riff on the piano that I started fiddling around with on top of a drum loop that I liked. The song came out of that groove. I do like that. I'd actually like to do more of in the future.”

‘Do you use sequencers to flesh out your arrangements, or are the arrangements more premeditated?'

“It's a blend. We're quite new to this. When I'm doing a demo, if I've got a song I'm excited about I want to present it to the band in the best possible light. I remember Sting saying it's really important to have a demo sounding great to get your comrades excited about it.

“On a demo I'll often have one or two great parts which I can see in the finished recording. There will always be bits of orchestration; some parts that suggest themselves to your ear. Of course when you play it to the band then they'll say it needs something else here… You end up with a load of different ideas that all sound great. Then you have to start subtracting, and just choose the best ones.”

I'd meant to ask what formal training Tim had received but we ran out of time during the interview. A subsequent email elicited the following reply, however:

Lights, Action, Music!

“I had lessons when I was about 10 years old. I didn't like practicing, I didn't like the theory, and I didn't like playing Bach and all that classical stuff. I was much happier when I gave up lessons and started teaching myself from guitar tab books of the Beatles and U2. Once I made the connection between the tedious arpeggios they make you play in lessons and the chords in a tab book it became easy to play lots of pop songs. They never tell you that!”

Dynamic Trio

‘One of the most impressive features of Hopes And Fears are the dynamics. Songs like She Has No Time , and We Might As Well Be Strangers seem to go from a whisper to a scream over the course of a bar of music… and back again.

“I think that's where playing as a band comes in, which is what we did with pretty well all the songs on the first album. Sequenced demos can be a bit too linear. Playing it live before you record it is very important. You can't beat the sound a real drum kit. and Tom's voice is so dynamic. It's an amazing skill. Hopefully those are things we can continue to do as a band, and that also makes us good as a live band. When you're playing live the dynamics are much more important. It's great to get a crowd going on something like We Might As Well be Strangers where it gets louder and louder and then completely cuts to nothing. Those moments in a set are great. And it's great if you've got time to play songs live before you record them.

“That's the way we did the first record. Now we're starting the second one we've actually gone in with a lot of demos and it's more of a ‘studio' recording; adding ideas to the tracks in the studio. That's fun, but it can be dangerous as well.”

Tom Chaplin - a star is born!

Keeping It Lively

True to his word, and almost unheard-of in these days of potential studio-quality piracy, Keane went on to debut a new song at the show.

“One of the best things about being in this band,” said singer Tom Chaplin “is that you get to hear songs written by this guy before anyone else.” Tom went on to explain – almost to apologize – that Tim had only written the song a couple of weeks ago and that although it was still kind of rough the band felt it was one of the best Tim had written and so they just had to play it. Refreshing honesty, or naiveté, the classic Keane 8-beat piano chords of Try Again floored the audience. Sadly it's hard not to see Keane's record company reining in such moments of generosity, as they get bigger.

Rig For The Gig

On stage Tim uses his trusty Yamaha CP70B facing into the stage, and an S90 with Nord lead atop facing out to the audience. In the middle is a rack-full of modules driven mainly by a Mac G4 running Logic.

“I use a Yamaha CP70B for most songs at the moment. One channel of that goes to the desk clean, and another channel goes through a Line 6 Pod with a distortion setting. On the record we amped up the CP70 quite a lot to make it crunchier, so we use the pod to give it that same edge live where required. The S90 I use for the Rhodes sounds and a Nord Lead 3 for more synthy sounds. On She Has No Time I play the S90 throughout and then use the Nord for the solo sound which I originally played on my ARP ProDGX. The bass parts are played back from an Apple G4 PowerBook using Logic. The Fender Twin Reverb is one of the amps we use in the studio, so I'm into the idea of using it live too. We're working on that as it means a bit of an overhaul of the way we use the piano. At the moment its main use is so the piano tuner can hear what he's doing – the CP70 is tuned every day – and to look nice! But I want to set up a new system where I can run the CP70 through a bunch of pedals and into the twin, just as you would a guitar.”

“CP” R

Tim used the CP70 extensively on the album. Tim and producer Andy Green may have spent time tweaking with and beefing up sundry aspects of the CP in order to enhance the top end but the CP70 ‘sound' is still unmistakably the predominant sonic force.

The CP70 is an electro-acoustic baby grand piano. In other words it has actual strings (short ones, too, hence the clunkiness of the bass) and pickups. Strings can break, especially if the instrument is pounded. Tim ‘in real life' is a very different animal to the one I saw later on stage. From the opening bars of Can't Stop Now Tim doesn't so much play the piano as attack it like a rodeo bull rider: left hand whipping away from the keyboard like he's being electrocuted, head swiveling like he's doing neck isolations in a high impact workout class.

Not surprisingly, there are casualties. And while you fear that the chiropractic art will feature large in the mid-life of Tim Rice-Oxley for the moment the casualties are principally piano strings. ‘Tell him not to hit it so hard,' pleaded the PR liaison at Yamaha-Kemble. No chance of that, it would seem…

“…I get annoyed if people are standing there with their arms crossed so I try to egg the crowd on. Also the three of us on stage need to encourage each other with our body language – you can't stop for a pep-talk in the middle of a show! So if Tom's trying to get people dancing or clapping or whatever by running around the stage, I'll try to support him by doing the same kind of thing...”

The only glimmer of a solution comes from Tim's other rig, which is based upon the Yamaha S90.

S90 To The Rescue

‘What specifically attracted you to the S90,' I ask the pre-gig, ‘quiet' version of Tim.

“The two things I like best are the keyboard action, and the electric piano sounds; in particular the Rhodes patches.

“You often come across high end pianos that have actions that are nowhere near like a real piano. The S90 feels fantastic. As for the sounds the things I love most about it are the Rhodes's and the Wurlis. On record I used my real Fender Rhodes (Suitcase 73) on She Has No Time but sometimes on a real Rhodes the notes just don't ring out. I remember tearing my hair out over that at times. But when it comes to playing live, the S90 Rhodes sounds are phenomenal and we've already started using them a bit on the new recordings. It's the same with the Wurlitzer sounds. Some of the things that I do are not very orthodox ways of playing and frankly the S90 seems to work even better than the real thing. That's why I use it live: for the consistency of it.”

And Still There Are 3

Close Encounters of the Keane Kind

The Keane line-up is nothing if not brave: no guitarist at all, and bass plus whatever else is needed to complete textures used on record, supplied by a laptop. Even with today's relative computer stability this has got to have thrown up the odd scary moment.

“Yes, it has. We actually have dual system that my genius tech Geoff set up for me two months ago, but when we started off there was just three of us driving around in a van. I had a drive on the floor and then I got a picnic table and few bits of sponge for the computer to sit on. We had a few hilarious moments when the song would suddenly go back to the beginning and we'd have to start it all over again.. Even now we certainly try not to rely on it.”

‘Do you think you'll ever use a live bass player?'

“I don't know. Some days I am tempted. I think that it would be really nice and not have to worry about that. But at the same time I think the most important thing about a band is the chemistry we have between the three of us. We have fairly unique chemistry since we've known each other all our lives and we want to preserve that.”

A final question I'd wanted to ask Tim was about the impressive lack of ‘left hand' muddying up the recorded songs. This is a perennial problem for piano-based rock tracks. Again, Tim kindly responded subsequently by email with following piece of sound advice:

“I'm always aware of the relationship between the piano and the bass because I play both on record. I worked out pretty quickly that lots of bassy piano plus lots of fiddly bass guitar equals a big, muddy mess. It's even more important live. What's important is the groove and the overall effect, not a lot of fancy playing. I love the bit in that film Amadeus where the emperor tells Mozart that there were “too many notes” in his opera.... and Mozart's furious because he knows it's true.”

The Berkeley show later that evening was a triumph not only of chemistry between three accomplished musicians and performers but also of original, risk-taking song writing and arranging. Tonight was the first date with the band's full light show and production and they were as visibly excited by that as the across-the-map audience (teenage girls to trendy University types to forty-somethings) were by the band.

The Beatles had that same rare, broad appeal back in the sixties. At the end of the day what huge numbers of people want to hear are good songs, arranged and sung well. Tom Chaplin has much of the same boy-next-door charm, as well as the pipes, of a Young McCartney, Richard Hughes has got to be the most accomplished slow-song drummer in the game right now, and Tim Rice-Oxley is simply a very special talent who's ultimate destination is – who knows – film composer, certainly the Grammies as a songwriter.

For now, though, we'll just hope that this chemistry will produce several more albums the quality of Hopes And Fears. And with Yamaha gear clearly supporting both their recording and touring work hopefully we'll look forward to exploring this rare talent again in the coming months and years.

  Tim's shopping list for the next album  

Text ©2005 Keyfax NewMedia Inc.
Pics ©2005 Annie Colbeck Photography