Tim Rice-Oxley: 20 years of Keane’s Hopes and Fears and working with Jimmy Iovine

One of the most successful British debuts of the century, Keane’s Hopes and Fears celebrates its 20thanniversary this month. To mark the occasion, the band’s chief songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley joins Headliner to reflect on how it has changed their lives, their formative years, and the role of notorious record producer and exec Jimmy Iovine in taking their music across the Atlantic.

On May 10, Keane will mark the 20th anniversary of their debut album Hopes and Fears with a special remastered version of the record, loaded with a raft of demos, outtakes, and alternate versions spread across three discs. On the same night, they headline the O2 in London, in what promises to be an emotional evening for the UK outfit, as they celebrate not only the towering success of their maiden outing, but also the fact that two decades on they are able to commemorate it together on the biggest of stages.

Almost one month to the day in advance, Headliner is granted an audience with Keane’s chief songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley during a rare moment of quiet time for a chat about all things Hopes and Fears. Joining us via Zoom, he is currently sitting in a hotel room in Guadalajara, where the band have been performing a handful of shows in preparation for their UK run.

“We’ve just finished a little run of shows out here, which has been amazing,” he informs us. We had a brief excursion to India and South Africa for festivals to warm us up a bit. The first proper bit of the Hopes and Fearsanniversary tour has been here in Mexico, which has been insane. It’s a bit like being in The Beatles [laughs]. It’s all taking shape and we’re getting the setlist nailed down.”

The type of reaction Keane continue to receive not just in their homeland but around the world can be attributed in no small part to the legacy of their 2004 debut. Which is not to diminish the critical and commercial heights they have scaled with their four subsequent albums. To date they have sold over 13 million records worldwide and sold out tours across the globe. With Hopes and Fears, however, they produced one of the most successful debut albums of their generation.

Topping the UK album charts upon its release, it was the second best-selling album in the country in 2004 and has since been certified nine times platinum. Worldwide it has sold some 5.8 million copies as of 2019 and ranks as the 11th best-selling album of the 2000s. it also spawned a number of huge international singles, such as Somewhere Only We Know, Everybody’s Changing, and Bedshaped.

We were playing Somewhere Only We Know at The Water Rats to 20 people. Tim Rice-Oxley

“We have a very different perspective on it now,” says Rice-Oxley, considering how he and his bandmates processed the transition from barely scraping double-figure audiences to becoming one of the most hyped bands of the era. “We had been doing what all bands do, playing little venues to 10 people at anywhere that would take us. It was unimaginable to be talking in those kinds of numbers. We were very much assuming that we’d put out our first album, hopefully it would have some success, and we’d build from there. It sounds weird but by the time it came out we were already thinking about what we could do next. The result of that is that you don’t take the time to fully enjoy the moment as you’re thinking about moving on to the next thing.”

While they may have felt somewhat removed from all that was taking place around them, they soon became acutely aware of the mounting sense of expectation that comes with a runaway success like Hopes and Fears.

“Inevitably it creates huge pressure,” he states. “That’s what I remember, after the initial thrill of the album doing so well. We put the album out a bit naively, hoping we’d get a song on the radio. Then suddenly its gone platinum. It was obvious from the day it came out it was going to be huge. That’s mind-blowing. You have this moment of immense joy and bewilderment but as soon as that’s happened it felt like we were into the pressure zone. Like, when are we going to write and record the next album?

“The schedule was insane. We were constantly writing in the back of the tour bus and every time we had a day off from touring, we were writing in different cities all over the world. It was great, but the carefree-ness of it goes. We had a lot of fun making all of our albums, even with the pressure of the second album, and I think there is an audible reaction to Hopes and Fears with that album. From that point onwards you’re responding to your previous efforts.”

As for the writing of Hopes and Fears, many of the songs can be traced way back to the teenage years of Rice-Oxley and his school friends Tom Chaplin and Richard Hughes. Over several year spent refining and fine-tuning some of the songs that would later become calling cards for the band, Rice-Oxley recalls the various iterations many of them took.

“We wrote hundreds of songs,” he says. “I’ve not been in any other bands, and we’ve been friends our whole lives, so we were writing all through our teenage years. There were so many songs, and so many versions of them. We were playing in clubs trying to get them to a place where people would like them. We were playing Somewhere Only We Know at The Water Rats to 20 people, and you never thought, ‘this is going to be a global hit’. We were just trying to stop people drifting back to the bar [laughs].”

We tried a mashup of Nothing In My Way with Eminem's Lose Yourself. It was one of Jimmy's ideas. Tim Rice-Oxley

So did he or any of the band have an inkling as to which songs might provide a significant breakthrough?

“I remember thinking Somewhere Only We Know was good,” he remembers. “I wrote it when I was living with my mum and dad and Richard came over and he loved it. Everybody’s Changing was a bit of a rogue one. I remember playing it to Caroline Elleray who signed us to Universal Publishing long before we had a record deal. It was a real basic demo with a garbled vocal that sounded like an out of tune Thom Yorke and she said ‘that one’s going to be amazing’! We were lucky we had a couple of people around us who were great sounding boards.”

One particularly notable sounding board was notorious record producer and music mogul Jimmy Iovine. As co-founder of Interscope Records he played a major role in developing the careers of Dr. Dre, U2, Nine Inch Nails, Eminem, Lady Gaga, 50 Cent and many others. As Rice-Oxley explains, it was Iovine’s love of Hopes and Fears that led to the album being “driven through Interscope”. He also took an active role in shaping the band’s second album Under The Iron Sea.

“I remember getting almost to the end of the second album and Jimmy rang me and was like, ‘it’s sounding great, you just need to write another five hits’. I was already on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It felt like too much time had passed since Hopes and Fears and I was completely tapped out writing-wise. You have to just push and push and you don’t always have that luxury of time and energy as the albums go by.”

On his relationship with Iovine he continues: “We saw a lot of him. He loved the band, and he loved Hopes and Fears and he got personally behind it. I remember him flying out in his private jet to see us play this pub in San Francisco and he came sweeping in with a very glamourous entourage. His blessing probably made our career in America.

“He was very hard to pin down because he was so busy, but when you got to talking about music and production he was incredible. I remember one fun thing we did with him was that we tried to do a mash up of Nothing In My Way, which was one of the singles off our second album, with Lose Yourself by Eminem, which was one of Interscope’s records. We spent ages working on it and it never quite worked, but it’s one of those things I always felt sad about and that was one of Jimmy’s ideas [laughs]. That’s still languishing in a vault somewhere.”

Which begs the parting question, will it ever see the light of day?

“I’d forgotten about it until you asked about Jimmy,” he chuckles. “Maybe I need to dig it out.”

You can listen to this interview in full below.