Interview: Richard Hughes on Keane's New 'Night Train' EP

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Keane is Tim Rice-Oxley, Tom Chaplin and Richard Hughes

Keane's latest EP, Night Train, is essentially a microcosm of their touring schedule these last few years. The UK band recorded and mixed the album's eight tracks on planes, on trains and in seven different recording studios around the world—from Berlin to Brisbane.

The fact that this wasn't a full-length record gave Keane (Tom Chaplin on lead vocals, Tim Rice-Oxley on keyboards and Richard Hughes on drums) a chance to experiment. Although they've already sold more than 10 million albums worldwide, Keane has a knack for bucking complacency in the pursuit of pushing their own creative boundaries. The EP even includes two guest vocalists—Somali/Canadian rapper K'Naan and Japanese baile funk MC Tigarah.

Last week, LAist caught up with Richard Hughes to learn more about Night Train, his tour photography, his work with Amnesty International, and the band's gig tonight at the Greek Theatre.

LAist: "House Lights" really creates the mood for the album. Did you have fun experimenting percussion-wise for that song?

Richard Hughes: Well, the reason we call it "House Lights" is because it's the music that's played as we come on stage. We used it during the Perfect Symmetry tour and it's basically comprised of random samples and the kind of debris that's left at the end of making an album.

For instance, we found this enormous drum—a proper sort of marching drum—in a studio in Paris. We sampled it, and that's the massive kick drum sound on the track. So Tim essentially built that song out of bits and pieces he found lying around his computer.

Following that thread, in the past you've said there's nothing the band won't use in the pursuit of making something that's sonically intriguing. How did that come into play on this album?

Whenever I go into a drum shop anywhere in the world—which I do a lot—I never leave empty-handed. I always find a shaker or a tambourine or some bits of wood to bash together. And sometimes I've been given stuff by fans, such as little finger cymbals. So it's always fun to try something new.

But perhaps the most interesting thing we did for this EP was include collaborations with K'Naan and Tigarah. That was probably the biggest experiment for Keane.


Keane (feat. K'Naan) - "Stop for a Minute"

You recorded in quite a few different studios as you were making this album. Was that freeing? Was there something you were able to do as you were on the road that probably wouldn't have happened if you'd been hunkered down in one studio and concentrating on a full LP?

Weirdly enough, the time pressure was really positive for us. There are people out there like Jack White, who can make an amazing record in a couple of days—and then there are people like us who can spend months and months creating a record and obsessing over everything. (laughs)

In a way, the fact that we had just one day in a Copenhagen studio or whatever really made us focus. That situation makes you do it quickly, and as a result, you can't worry as much about the exact quality of everything. It's quite liberating.

You also recorded additional tracks that didn't end up on the EP. Are there plans to release any of those?

Those things always come out somehow. Take a song like "Back in Time" for example. I believe Tim wrote it in 2006 or something, and it was forgotten and left by the wayside. Then years later, I think it was our manager who said, "I was listening to some old demos and that song's really great; you guys should take a crack at it." I don't know what was different in 2009 compared with 2006, but it just worked.

The reason we ended up cutting down the number of tracks was because it was looking more and more like an album. We made a lot of Night Train during our 18-month world tour for Perfect Symmetry, and we didn't really have the desire to get back on the road to promote another full-length album for another 18 months.

Now that you've had a little time off, is a new full-length album in the near future?

Yeah, we hope to start working on something later this year.

On this album, Tim sings on "Your Love" and there's a YouTube video of you singing during soundcheck. Any chance you'll sing lead vocals on an upcoming song?

I've gotta tell you, that was absolutely terrifying. I felt naked without my drum kit! Until that moment, I had no idea how difficult it is to stand up—and I did it in front of practically nobody, by the way—and sing through a PA.

It left me with so much respect for Tom, Tim and Jesse [Jesse Quin, whom many consider to be Keane's unofficial fourth member]. They all do this on a regular basis. Tom of course does it all the time, Tim sings "Your Love" when we play it live, and Jesse plays in his own band, plus Tim and Jesse have a side project called Mt. Desolation in which they both sing.

You'll be playing the Greek Theatre very soon. I seem to remember that in 2007 you were originally scheduled to play there but had to move to the Gibson Amphitheatre on account of a massive fire.

Yeah, the last time we had to move, so we're really looking forward to returning because it's been a number of years. It's such a nice place, especially with the backdrop of the trees and the sunset.

Would you give us a preview of what to expect at the show—will it feature old and new songs?

Absolutely. The more records we put out, the more fun it is to play live and we try to include a good mix. Hopefully even the husbands, wives, boyfriends and girlfriends who are dragged along will recognize a few of the songs and enjoy the concert. We'll definitely be playing from across our four records.


Keane live at Largo (feat. Jon Brion) - "You Haven't Told Me Anything"

Speaking of LA shows, in 2008 you performed at Largo at the Coronet in a more intimate setting. What was your favorite aspect of that show?

The fact that there were no cell phones or cameras allowed. (laughs) People were really focused on the show, and the atmosphere in there was amazing. Honestly, when you ask most of us what our favorite show of that tour was, it was the Largo one.

How did that gig come together?

Tim and I had gone to see Jon Brion [LAist interview] play one of his ridiculously amazing shows when we were mixing the record in LA, and it was such a magical place. We were desperate to play there.

When things fell into place for us to do a show, Jon actually joined us on stage, and he brought a load of instruments with him. We didn't know what half of them were! We just started messing around with them in soundcheck and—on the fly—figured out what we were going to do during the show.

It may not seem like it, but normally we're quite well-rehearsed. It was really fun to just relax and throw that thing together. In fact, we just did a similar show in the UK at the iTunes Festival here at the Roundhouse in Camden. It was a really small acoustic set that, in a way, tried to recapture the vibe of that Largo show.

You collaborated with Jon Brion on a Perfect Symmetry track. Any chance you'll work together again?

You know, that would be amazing. I hope so. He's brilliant. It's hard not to sound trite when you describe him. Honestly, I don't know how his brain works, but I think he's got twice the wiring!

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K'Naan and Keane

Since you've spent so much time in Los Angeles, I was wondering what some of your favorite restaurants are. Since you're a vegetarian, have you discovered any great veggie burgers in town?

I remember when we flew into Los Angeles to play Coachella. The tour bus took us straight to Astroburger and I was rather impressed with their veggie burger.

And as for other restaurants, we all sort of have this guilty pleasure of watching a lot of American TV. I'm on season three of Breaking Bad right now and it's so incredible. But we're all big fans of Entourage, so we sometimes hang out at the Urth Caffe and pretend to be attractive and successful and just laugh at ourselves.

Is it true that Tim had a fun afternoon hanging out with Bret Easton Ellis in LA a while ago?

I wouldn't be surprised. Bret came down to the studio when we were mixing. He's a longtime Keane fan who always gets the records first. If you get the thumbs-up from Bret, you know you're on to a good thing!

Switching gears a bit, you're an amazing photographer and it's fun to see all the photos you post on the Keane blog. Will you be releasing a photo book in the near future?

I was going to release a book around the time of the last tour, and even did a rough edit with my friend Rob Sinclair, who does Keane's lighting. By the time we got around to looking at the photos, they all looked quite out of date. When we have time, I'd like to try again and put together more of a retrospective photo book.

In the meantime, I'm entertaining myself with blogging them. The Internet is amazing for keeping in touch with your fans wherever they are in the world. I have the privilege of seeing so many different places that it's nice to share the bits I like.

What have been some of your favorite photo locations? Do you find you get some of your best shots in unexpected places?

Yeah, you can get beautiful stuff at airports or when you're just hanging around old venues that are unexpectedly beautiful or strange. For instance, there's this place—I think it's a venue in Seattle—that has an old disused swimming pool downstairs. You can see the separate entrances from when it was segregated, which is shocking to see. But that place is just a music venue now, so you would never know that an old junk-filled swimming pool is just down the stairs from the stage.

I try to explore when I have time. At one point, it was totally dark and I was exploring this building with just a torch [flashlight] and a camera. I turned the corner and came face to face with a mannequin, though I didn't know that at the time. I swear to you I don't think I've ever screamed more loudly like a girl. I don't know what I said. It was probably something "Fuck!" or "Shit!" or "I'm dead!" Honestly, it was the most terrifying, ridiculous, hilarious thing.

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Keane

How do you take photos during concerts? Do you mount a camera to your drum kit?

I try not to distract everyone too much by standing up all the time, but I sometimes hold my camera over the kick drum and try and take a wide-angle shot that gets everyone in, though sometimes it's hard to get Tim because the drum kit gets in the way and he ends up behind a cymbal or something.

And your main cameras are a Nikon FG, an F6 and a pinhole?

Well, because I'm doing the blog, I've been shooting a lot more digital, so I have a D700 for that. It's great because sometimes I'm able to get photos on the blog before people get home from the concert.

It's a lot quicker if you don't have to get film developed, but I still shoot a lot of film and I have a darkroom at home. In fact, for his birthday, I gave Tim a print I'd done in my darkroom.

In addition to your passion for photography, you're also very involved with Amnesty International. Would you please share a little bit about that?

A man named Troy Davis is on death row in Jackson, Georgia. I first learned about him while listening to a news program called Democracy Now! During one episode, I heard Troy's sister Martina speak about his situation.

Whether your passion is gender equality, animal rights, union rights, civil rights or all of the above—sometimes you hear something that really makes you decide to sit up and take action. And that's the way I felt with Troy Davis' story.

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Richard Hughes showing his support for Troy Davis Photo by Jesse Quin
Where does his case stand now?

Troy just had a hearing down in Savannah and right now a judge is deciding what to do. He heard testimony from a lot of witnesses—including stuff that had never before been heard in court, such as a testimony from someone who said he'd seen a different person carrying out the murder that Troy was convicted of.

Over the last few years, former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others have spoken out in support of Troy getting a new trial or evidentiary hearing. How have you gotten involved in spreading the word?

For me, that started with phoning the Georgia Parole Board and calling Governor Sonny Perdue on one of Troy's scheduled execution dates. And a friend of Jesse's works for Amnesty International, so I got in touch with him and ended up visiting Troy at the end of 2009 with Amnesty International and a member of Parliament.

There's just something incredibly compelling about his case. Not just because I believe he's 100 percent innocent, but also because I think it shows some of the flaws in a system that doesn't really need to execute people. You have good prisons, and if somebody is deserving of staying in prison for the rest of their life, then it's perfectly possible for that to happen. But if it turns out 50 years later that they were set up by someone else, you can release them—whereas if you've executed them, that's not an option anymore.

Thanks for speaking with LAist, Richard!

To learn more about Troy Davis, visit www.troyanthonydavis.org. To listen to more of Keane's music and to view Hughes' photos from the road, visit www.keanemusic.com. Don't miss the band's gig tonight at the Greek Theatre, with Fran Healy of Travis and Ingrid Michaelson opening. For ticket info, click here.