Interview with Keane’s Tom Chaplin: Washed in the wave

Tom Chaplin featured on indieberlin

When indieberlin was offered a fifteen-minute call with Tom Chaplin, lead singer of Britrock multi-platinum sensation Keane, we thought he was after solo tour promotion.

What Jem Bosatta didn’t expect was a stunningly honest interview with a recovered addict and reborn man.

There’s a well-trodden path of known musicians, in search of a new direction, who wend their way up in Berlin. Tom Chaplin has been down it before, recording the third Keane record there, Perfect Symmetry. “We wanted to absorb the atmosphere and see if it brought anything to the record. The city’s got a colour and a modernity to it that we wanted to infuse in our music.”

Going it alone

This time round – he’ll be in town on March 7 – he’s not here to record. The tour represents another new direction, also in good company: after Keane’s multimillion sales and international success, Tom’s going solo. It’s been in the works for a longer, but his debut album The Wave has been on the shelves for just four months.

The story behind this move is a precipitous journey of its own, down the precipitous descent into drug abuse and back up the long, winding road of recovery. And again, that’s hardly unprecedented. But I didn’t meet him at Abusers Anonymous and I wasn’t going to go all Oprah Winfrey on the dark demons of his past. Above all, for Tom the musician, this album is an ambitious and exciting venture.

“There was a frustration in me that grew and grew while I was in Keane. I didn’t have an outlet for my thoughts. But I always thought of myself as more than just a singer in a band.”

Tom speaks of the Keane years with fondness, but with a strong overtone of closure. “I feel like I’ve moved away from doing posturing rock shows. The Mission Objective, if you like, of the Tom Chaplin shows is to pretend there’s no barrier with the audience, as if we were all sitting round a campfire.”

U.A.L – Unlimited Artistic Licence

Don’t be fooled, though: he hasn’t taken up the slide guitar and harmonica just yet. The Wave is a classy and clinical production backed by Universal, and more importantly by a dozen years of musical know-how at the very top of the game. However, such is Chaplin’s resolution to move on from the glory days that he claims that his experience has partly held him back with his first individual effort.

“I’ve got to learn to indulge myself. It’s freeing, going solo: I don’t have to do what the band wants any more. But you gotta get past those boundaries of what you know, what people know you for, what I learnt in Keane. I want to do some weird and wonderful things.”

Seeing the light

So The Wave, while sure to please fans old and new, isn’t necessarily the album that the fully emancipated Tom Chaplin would (or perhaps will) make. And while it’s far more than just a safe pop pitch from Tom the musician, you can’t blame Tom the person for taking it a little bit easy either. He struggled for years with addiction until it came to a head in 2015.

“I was so closed off, so consumed by addiction that it was destroying me as a human being. Once at an AA meeting I heard someone say they ‘drank themselves sober’. That’s exactly it: I just reached a point where I knew I’d had enough, around the time my daughter was born. And if I hadn’t, I’m absolutely sure I’d be dead by now.

He threw himself into therapy and is now clean. He’s nervous to return to the same circles that sent him spiralling in the first place, but “there’s a balance to strike. I’m not touring till I’m bonkers. I’ve got a family now, and a decent grip on things.”

Full exposure

I told myself from the beginning that I wasn’t there to dig, and I didn’t. But remarkably Tom would bring up his drug abuse comfortably, without a stutter. And the same frankness with which he spoke to me – a stranger, over the phone, for fifteen minutes – is evident in his new music.

“Everything I’ve got/I’m going to lose the lot”, he sings on Hardened Heart. “Your dreams will come true, fall through/Screw you, batter you black and blue”, on the single Quicksand, which actually struck me as one of the more positive songs on the album.

This honesty is the most impressive thing about Tom, both in conversation and on record. It’s not energetic, youthful rock music and he’s not a sparky young rock star: both of those things hit a dead end for him. But this fresh start has given him momentum and that shines through. Tom the musician is as open as Tom the person, with a firm hand on the past and a keen eye on the future.

“I’ve got so many ideas and different things I want to try; I’d be denying myself something if I didn’t see them through.”

The road Tom Chaplin is on now – the road that takes him by Berlin – isn’t any less dangerous, but this time he’s come prepared. Exciting and wholesome possibilities are opening up to him as he begins. The horizon looks promising.

Student small fry, country boy in the big city, with inky fingers and a travel guitar.

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