We grill the singer-songwriter on Ryan Gosling, The Sandman and his proudest musical moment. What else are you going to do if you're stuck in a lift?
In many ways our understanding of pop music is polarised: there are the buzzy and beautiful young acts in their prime, and then there are the heritage acts seasoned with experience and a lifetime of hits. But what about the in-between? For Tom Chaplin, now 43-years-old, this period of life as both an artist and a person deserves more exploration and celebration.
When a Keane tour supporting their reunion record, Cause And Effect, was halted in 2020, Chaplin began to put this idea into practice on his third studio album Midpoint. “I think people are scared to go there,” he says, “it’s almost a taboo subject, particularly within the parameters of pop music.”
Keen to step away from his comfort zone, Chaplin enlisted the help of lauded producer Ethan Johns, who helped capture a new kind of warmth and presence. As he prepares to take Midpoint on the road in October, we get stuck in a lift with Chaplin and get to know the singer a little more closely.
Who would you most like to be stuck in lift with?
Can I be stuck in a lift with two people? That’s fair enough right? One person I’d love to be stuck in a lift with is Matt Lucas. I know Matt a little bit, over the years we’ve bumped into each other. He was a Keane fan and came to a show or two years back, and I’ve always had a sense that I would get on with Matt really well, though we’ve only got to know each other very briefly. He’s a big fan of Queen as well, and he came to see me when I did a mini tour with an orchestra singing Queen songs a few years ago.
During the pandemic he did his baked potato song and I did a darker, melancholic version of it. We need to get together and hang out, so maybe getting stuck in a lift with him would enable that to happen.
The other person is from a science podcast I listen to called The Sceptic’s Guide To The Universe, his name is Steven Novella. He’s an American neurologist, and the guy just has the most encyclopedic knowledge of all things scientific, and also scepticism in the true sense, of critical thinking, is something he tries to champion. He’s always trying to debunk conspiracy theories and woo-woo and all sorts of pseudo science. I didn’t really get science when I was at school but it’s something I find really fascinating these days, and so if I was going to be stuck in a lift for a long time I’d love the sunniness of Matt but would also love to be able to learn something from Steven.
What was the first album you bought?
I’m going to choose the first vinyl album I bought, which was Sheer Heart Attack by Queen, as it happens. Growing up and getting into music in the late 80s and early 90s, just as Freddie died, as a kid it was obviously a big story. I loved the way he sang and performed and I just remember finding that album in a charity shop or something, seeing them all sweaty and half-naked on the cover, thinking wow this is quite exotic and intriguing! It’s got ‘Killer Queen’ on that record, which personally I think is one of their greatest songs, it’s a little work of art, as are a lot of their earlier songs in particular. They’re beautiful constructions, not just pop music, there’s so much going on and they’re so playful. I remember thinking that that’s something I could definitely get into.
What was the last thing that made you cry?
Funnily enough I was on my way up to London this morning on the train and I was watching The Sandman, the Neil Gaiman comic that’s been adapted for Netflix. I’m on to the episode where Dream, one of the gods in it, meets up with his sister. It turns out she’s Death, but she’s lovely, and she goes round very sweetly introducing herself to all these people who don’t realise that they’re dying. The bit that made me cry, and I knew it was coming, was after she’d taken an old man off you see her go into this house with a baby and a mother. You know she’s going to take the baby. Because I’ve got kids of my own, these things seem even more poignant and frightening when you see them depicted in film or TV. That had me weeping on the train.
What’s on your exercise playlist?
I was doing a lot of running last year, which has slightly tailed off this year for some reason! [laugsh] And I was running a lot to the Everything Everything record Re-Animator. It’s funny, with certain music you listen to when you’re doing cardio, I guess because of the adrenaline, it slows it all down, so you do need something high-octane. I know a lot of people exercise to house music or cheesy dance stuff, but to me I still need something that’s artistically going to pique my interests and Everything Everything is a good combination of those two things. They really nail it with their synth sounds, I’m quite envious of how they do it.
Who would you want to play you in a movie about your life?
Oh I’m going to say something daft here, and it’s because every time my Ryan Gosling comes on the TV… well, I think my wife would swap me out for him in a heartbeat ha! So for her benefit, I’ll have Ryan Gosling play me.
And who would do the soundtrack?
That’s an interesting question. The perfect person would be Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy. I’d get Neil to do it, because he’s a fabulous songwriter in every department, but particularly lyrically. There’s such a humanity to the way he describes things, and it’s witty a lot of the time, so I think he’d have a great way of describing all of the ridiculous highs and lows that I feel have been the hallmark of my life, and hopefully sum them up in a human and witty way. I’m a great fan of his, and whenever I get a chance to champion his songwriting I always want to, because I don’t think enough people know him, or possibly think of what he does as having a throwaway, comedic quality. I think a lot of the singles have, but actually when you know the music there’s such breadth and depth to what he does as a songwriter that he’s not heralded enough, in my opinion.
What was the first musical you saw?
My parents ran a school, and my dad was into amateur dramatics anyway, but he directed a lot of plays and musicals at the school. It was one of the things the school was known for. So I think the very first thing I would have seen would have been Oliver!. I’d have been five or six years old. Then possibly Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat followed shortly afterwards. I was exposed to a lot of that musical theatre as a kid and I find it very hard when I’m writing songs these days, I’ll often have to test myself and check I’m not getting too jazz hands with what I’m writing. Somehow it’s ingrained into my psyche, so I have to check with myself that it doesn’t get too musical theatre.
I got involved with them later on, I remember being in My Fair Lady and a couple of other productions. But really I just loved pop music, and that was there from a very early age.
What animal scares you the most?
It’s the one in North America that can get you whilst you’re out hiking, do you know what I mean? In the UK there’s nothing really that can cause that much damage, maybe a dangerous dog, but in America as soon as you’re out in the wilderness you are slightly at the mercy of a grizzly bear or a mountain lion or something. An American friend of mine was telling me about a friend of his who was out hiking in California and got attacked by a mountain lion, and he actually fought it off! There’s a whole list of things you have to do if you get attacked by a wild animal like that and one of the things is to never expose your front because they’ll try and tear your guts out basically. So you’ve got to keep them away from your intestines! But this guy fought a lion for about 15 minutes and fought it off in the end. We live in such a sanitised world don’t we, and I think it’s genuinely amazing if you come into contact with nature in that way and actually survive it. That’s real cave man stuff.
What’s the most ludicrous thing you’ve asked for on a rider?
I’m not aware that I’ve ever asked for anything ludicrous on a rider, but with Keane we had to ask to stop having chocolate on our rider. It was just impossible to avoid it if it’s there in front of you, but then actually what would happen is we would end up in the crew room, where they did have chocolate on their rider, so we’d raid theirs.
What was your proudest moment?
Being there at the birth of your children is definitely a proud moment, the first one particularly because she was born at home and everything went well. The second one was less of a smooth ride and more intense, but the thing is that’s not really my proudest moment because my wife put the had yards in, right? She’s the one who carried the baby, grew the baby and gave birth to it, so really I can’t claim much from that. But obviously I’m proud of my children.
The only other thing, and I know this is a bit mercenary to tie it back to my recent album, but honestly, we were mixing the song ‘Midpoint’ at Nigel Godrich’s desk in Shoreditch, and it’s a desk that was in an American studio for years and very famous. People don’t really mix records using a desk like that anymore, but it has its own sound and own feel. I always feel proud of the music I’ve been a part of, but I think when Ethan mixed the song ‘Midpoint’ and it all came together, I really thought I’d done something better than I imagined, or better than I thought I was capable of. I’m not trying to sound modest, but it surprised me and it was quite moving in that moment; both Ethan and I looked at each other and I said I think this is the greatest moment I can remember as a creative person, this moment now. In my own small way, that was a lovely feeling, like you’ve elevated your own craft just for a moment. It was quite blissful to experience that.
Tom Chaplin is heading on a UK tour from 6-22 October, visiting the likes of Leicester, Cambridge, Manchester and London. Tickets are available here.