"The Good Thing About Telling The Truth Is That You Can't Get It Wrong": A Chat With Kaiser Chiefs
Kaiser Chiefs have made a career of switching up styles, and now switch things up with their new album a fondness for Tom Hanks movies.
Quick, name a Kaiser Chiefs song.
Odds are, "Ruby", "Never Miss a Beat", "I Predict a Riot", or a similar vignette of '00s guitar-driven indie rock has come to mind. For many, Kaiser Chiefs epitomize a time in English indie music history, when unapologetically energetic rock stars wielded guitars and reclaimed alternative rock for Britain with their high octane stylings.
But then the "indie" tag has never been of much appeal to the band's lead singer, Ricky Wilson. Of course, he recognizes that the band's music has often been grouped into the same category as that of Franz Ferdinand, the Killers, Kasabian, the Arctic Monkeys, and so on -- that much is a necessity. But for Wilson and the band, real artistry comes from the transcendence of labels and having wishes beyond convenient genre tags. "Ambition", he says, "can be quite beautiful really. You should be proud of it."
Wilson credits this ethos for the band's longevity, along with, perhaps paradoxically, the hurdles that they have faced along the way. Critical reception has often been a harsh mistress for the Leeds-based rockers, as was coming to terms with the departure of founding drummer, Nick Hodgson, in late 2012. The obstacles that the band have faced have helped to guide them in new directions, to the point where you could be forgiven for thinking that their latest record, Stay Together, has been made by a different outfit altogether.
But then, Wilson insists that there are familiar roots behind the poppy, Brian Higgins-produced record. They are the roots not of '00s indie rock, nor of a band who has been untouched by change. They are the roots of Kaiser Chiefs, and despite their natural, organic progressions, this is the sound of a band who are in touch with who they are, and how they relate to one another. PopMatters sat down with lead singer, Ricky Wilson, to chat about songwriting, the difficulties of life in the studio, and Tom Hanks movies.
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The band have come a long way sonically. What specifically inspired you to change up your sound?
It's a weird thing for us, because our first two albums were made by the same guy, Stephen Street. And they had a similar vibe. I loved working with Stephen Street: he's one of my heroes. But ever since then, we've used a wildly different producer on every record. We've tried, in the past, to let the producer guide where it takes us and what we sound like, with varying degrees of success. On this record, it was the first time that we thought, "Right, if we're using a producer who's known for a specific type of thing, let's just let him do what he does best and not try and interfere."
In the past, we've hired some of the world's greatest producers, and then not really used them to their full extent. We've worked with Tony Visconti, we've worked with Mark Ronson, we've worked with Ethan Johns. All these people are great, but we end up sometimes trying to just make a Kaiser Chiefs record with them and not experiencing the full effect of working with them, which I regret in some cases. So with this one, working with Brian Higgins ... we were kind of in the same place.
We always think that we're making huge leaps sonically on every record, but it's always just baby steps. Because, it's kind of a scary thing to do! On this one though, I think we did let go more, and the weird thing is, we finished making it last May I think, but now it just sounds totally normal to us. We've been playing these gigs all Summer, and coming up to Christmas, and it just doesn't sound out of place in the set, which means I think we've had success with that. It still sounds like Kaiser Chiefs to us. I'm going to negate everything I've just said there because people want to say that it sounds totally different, but it's still just Kaiser Chiefs songs. It just sounds a little bit cleaner. That's all really. I'm not trying to dispute the fact that we've done something different, because we have, it's just that it's not as mental as I first thought it was.
You mentioned taking baby steps to change things, but did the fundamental songwriting process stay the same?
No, it was totally different. But then I don't think we've ever gotten into a groove of how we write songs, because, for the first four records, we had a different band member, Nick [Hodgson], who was quite instrumental in getting things started. He was the strongest personality in the band, but then he left. But on this record, there was a weird way of doing it which suited me perfectly. I don't think the rest of the band enjoyed it quite as much.
Weirdly, for a record that ended up being quite slick, and poppy, it was written in the most jam-orientated way. It was all based on the band just playing for hours and hours and hours. But also switching it up as much as possible. They'd play something for ten minutes, and then they'd go write something totally different. And all this was recorded, and while it was being recorded, I was in a separate room, listening to it all and just singing along, not really thinking that much about it. It was only later on that Brian would take me back and say "This was good" or "That was good, we're going to work on this, this is where you'll hit the ground running, this is where the magic will happen."
It's so brilliant to have someone doing your songwriting admin for you, to pick out when you're doing well and when you're doing brilliantly. It was really intense and hard work doing that, but there wasn't as much sitting at home on my own, working out what these songs were about. It was really weird [laughs], because I was subconsciously doing songwriting where I was sitting up late at night with a notebook and pen, desperately trying to scramble for some ideas. I loved it for that, because although the days when we did that were kind of intense and long and sometimes emotional, when I went home, I could just switch off.
Is there a feeling now that you've tried that new approach to songwriting, that you really should've been doing it that way all along?
To be totally honest, I haven't mentioned this to the rest of the band yet, but over the recent years, I've realized that you can do things other than be in a band. You can have other projects, and what it's taught me is that I'd love to do it on the next record in the same way. We've always felt that we have to be in the same room to make music. But now I sort of think, well, I can go off and do other things, and they can make this amazing music and I can come later on and do the same thing. But I don't have to be in he next room. I can be getting on with something else.
I know they won't want to hear that, because it's a lot more fun when we all turn up on the same day at the same place, but I kind of feel that it's liberating for me. I don't always have to be there to find that ten seconds of magic in an eight hour day. I'd definitely do it again, but it doesn't necessarily mean that I have to be in the studio, because I'm not a big fan of studios. I don't like them. I'm not into all the gadgets or hanging around. I don't get a kick out of it like some musicians do, because at the end of the day, I really like my role in the band. I like the fact that I'm a frontman, or a singer. I like the fact that I do my job, and I do it pretty well, and the other side of it doesn't interest me as much.
I like finishing songs. I like going on tour. But every band seems to revel in it: they arrive at the studio and day one is all about setting up drum kits and getting all the mics around it, but I have absolutely no interest in that at all. I think a healthy band, though, is the one that figures these things out, where members slide into their roles well and they don't tread on each other's toes. I'm good at some things that the other band members aren't good at, and they're good at things that I'm not good at. So why do I have to try and make that work, when it's just sticking a square peg in a round hole?
Do you feel that you thrive, as a performer, in a live setting then?
In theory yeah. But I also really like routine. That's why, the bigger we got, the easier it got, because you'd seem to be more in a routine. You can play in bigger places and you've got a bit more money so you can easily make things a routine. It's harder when you're taking it day by day and not really knowing what you're doing or where you're going or what type of venue you're going to be in. So the bigger we got, the easier it got in regards to routine. But yeah, I think I do prefer playing live. But then, I love the completion of a record. I think that's my favorite thing about being in a band; having the finished thing in the bag. I'm not even talking about holding the physical copy now, because even the luster of that isn't as great as it was.
But the idea of having completed something -- it's weird because, at the end of the day, it's about 45 minutes of noise which, in the grand scheme of things, doesn't seem like that much of an achievement. But when you've done it, you feel like you've conquered something. Kaiser Chiefs has been going for 12 years or so, and we've made six records. It doesn't seem like that much of an achievement, but every time we have finished a record, it's felt like a massive achievement. But in the grand scheme of things, we haven't done that much.
We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers.
We can't survive without your support.
Is that a feeling of achievement a reflection of the fact that you find being in the studio a bit laborious?
No, because any time I get to go in the studio, it does feel like a privilege. I don't really appreciate it as much as I should do, and it doesn't always float my boat really, but I don't think that's why it feels like such a task. I think it just feels like such a task for me because it takes it out of me a little bit. It has affected relationships. I'm just a real bugger to live with when we're making record. I try hard not to be, but I just get super miserable, even though I'm probably having the time of my life. It's a weird sort of wallowing, some kind of self-inflected misery that I kind of enjoy. I think that as human beings we all kind of like allowing ourselves to wallow a little bit. It can be quite good fun getting all this shit out. It is almost like free therapy. And the good records should be, shouldn't they? They should be true. And the good thing about telling the truth is that you can't get it wrong. It can be shit, but it can never be wrong.
Do you think that "wallowing" has influenced your desire to write more emotive lyrics on this new record.
Yeah, I think it has. I think for the first time, I decided not to be embarrassed about things like that. You'd think that, as five guys sharing a bus together for 12 years, that we'd know everything there is to know about each other. But the fact of the matter is, it's like with most guys in the world; we don't really talk about anything. It's like when you go to the pub, and later someone says, "wWat did you talk about?" and you kind of go, "... I've got no idea."
It's the same with the band. You don't get to the studio and go, "I just had the worst argument with my girlfriend," you just sort of get on with it. I'm not trying to make this into a conversation about men's health, but that is a really big talking point at the moment. I think it's because people just don't realize that everybody in the world is struggling a little bit. Even your best mate, who you think is the most fun guy in the world, is having a tough time doing something, because that's what life is.
I speak a lot about relationships on the record. Everybody sees everybody else's relationship in a different light, but they're exactly like you and your relationship. You turn up at a dinner party and everyone's having a great time, but you've just had a huge argument with your girlfriend so you're putting a fake smile on. But nine times out of ten, everybody else is doing the same thing too. That's just what relationships are, they're really hard. No one's getting it right, we're just trying to make it work and that's what the record became about. Making it work. Because it's not easy. It's not like it's supposed to be easy.
It's like at the end of You've Got Mail, when they're walking to the park and Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan have finally met, and he's got a dog or something. You're not going to think that the following morning, that the dog has shat everywhere, and he's got to go to work, and she's like "Well, you clean it up," and then he's like, "Well, you clean it up!" -- I mean that's what a relationship is. It's not going to be that moment where Meg and Tom meet in the park every day for the rest of their lives. There are complications that come up every day, and you have to get over them. Usually, it's better to get over them than to throw it all away. I mean, yeah, it's easy to throw things away rather than fix them. We live in a world where everything is kind of disposable, but the one thing that will remain not disposable, is relationships. Ooh that was good!
I'll put that in for sure!
Do you think that relates to the relationships between the members of Kaiser Chiefs as well?
Yeah. I mean, I don't really argue. I just leave it and try to sort it out my own way. But then, over the last decade, we have sort of figured things out. For everyone in the band, it's much more important than not figuring it out. For all of us, the reason we're still going is because the alternative is unthinkable. The idea of not doing it anymore, or having to figure out something else to do with the rest of your life just seems unthinkable. We've worked so hard to get the ball rolling, why would anyone want to push it off course? Even when you're spitting mad about something, it's not worth throwing it all away over.
That all came to light and all came true when Nick did decide to leave the band. I couldn't understand why you'd work so hard at something, and then you get a couple of bad reviews, and outside factors start to throw doubt, and you'd believe them. Or maybe it wasn't the outside factors, maybe he just didn't want to do it anymore. And that's fair enough, that's the best reason not to do something. But the rest of us wanted to, and we thought that we could do it without him, and it's been some of the most fun times I've had. Stressful, but fun times, just figuring out whether it was possible to be in a band without him. And it turned out it was.
Was it difficult initially though when he left?
It was really hard. The hardest thing was when we made our fifth record, Education, Education, Education & War. It wasn't so much trying to prove to our audience that we could still do it, because they just assumed we could because no one really knew the dynamic that was in the band, or how it'd been for the last decade. But we had to prove it to ourselves. We hadn't got a clue, and we had to figure it out. It was pretty scary, because you just don't know if you can pull it off.
Given the success of Education, Education, Education & War, what were the elements that you wanted to bring to the table this time round?
That's a funny question, because it was kind of the opposite personally. I kind of didn't want to bring any of the thought process from that onto this record. The subject matter was about learning, education, and fights. It was kind of political. Weirdly, at the time, when people weren't being political, we made a political record, but now it's the opposite. We wanted to do something that's a bit more fun. There was no talk about relationships on Education, it was more about trying to make big, global statements. But the fact of the matter is that, although these things, on the surface of them, are very important to everyone on a daily basis, what people really care about is what's going on in your house, in your living room. The big things, yeah, they worry the shit out of you. You worry about who's President of the United States, you worry about war and everything that's going on. I mean this sounds pretty bad, but people want to sort out their own shit first.
I read somewhere that this chapter of the band's history could be described as "Escape From Indie Landfill", was there a frustration behind the indie rock scene behind this album, given especially that it is quite poppy?
Not really. [laughs] It's funny, I do a radio show every week and I have a segment called "Indie Landfill", where I rescue a song from the mid '00s guitar-pop scene that I don't think belongs in "Indie Landfill". I've had loads of fun doing that and loads of criticism doing that, but [the critics] didn't understand that I was trying to praise some of these bands. We were really lucky because we came out with a pack of bands like The Killers and The Arctic Monkeys who were doing something really good, and we didn't realize that all over the country and all over the world, people were having a similar idea at the same time.
That's what a movement is based on. A movement isn't usually based on one band hearing another band and saying, "I'd like to do what they're doing," it's about a global or a country-wide coincidence in feeling. But of course, the record industry and the labels, they start getting £ signs in their eyes, and thinking, "Wow, people like this shit, let's package it up, stick a leather jacket on it and sell it!" We were lumped in with that, but now we're twelve years into it, so I think we're free of that [indie] tag now. We've weathered the storm, and so many of them didn't. So many of them didn't even weather the storm past getting a first album recorded. They had one good single and disappeared. Everyone gets to leave their mark in some respect, it's just that we wanted ours to not fade away
You mentioned working with Brian Higgins on this record earlier, who's produced records for New Order, Kylie Minogue, and Pet Shop Boys among many others. Do you have a nostalgia for the kind of music that he's worked on that we can hear on this record?
I know him mainly from working with Girls Aloud and The Sugababes, who were both massive at the same time as we were coming out and winning The Brit Awards. What made me think that working with Brian was so good was that we didn't realize that, at the time, we got quite big because we started actively competing with girl bands and pop music. It was that mentality that got us where we got, not trying to stay in this bracket of guitar bands or indie or whatever you want to call it.
Suddenly, working with Brian it was like ... he sees it but he doesn't care what genre we are. He just wants to work with us. There are a load of young bands that you could say are "indie" or "alternative," but they don't give a shit about competing with other indie music. They want to be at the Grammys. They're not blinkered by what their role must be or how small they must keep it. They just want to make their music transcend that. All the ones that survived, I mentioned The Killers and The Arctic Monkeys before, it's because they thought bigger. They had ambition, and ambition used to be thought of as quite ugly, but when it's used well, it can be quite beautiful really. You should be proud of it. Not in a crass way, but in this way, you don't have to say you're the best band in the world, because you're proving it with what you're doing.
How do you think you'll continue to keep proving that?
I don't know, because what I've also learned is that it's not just a graph that goes up and up. You make mistakes. What I would say to any young band is don't be scared of making mistakes. Mistakes, in the long term, give you longevity, because you keep coming back from them. If everyone just thinks you're brilliant for the length of your career, your career's going to be pretty short. You have to have something to fight for, like you did at the beginning. Every band, at the beginning, are fighting for something. It's when they lose the fight, when people keep telling them they're brilliant, that they just disappear off the face of the earth. But we've been lucky to have people tell us that one album hasn't been as successful as another, or whatever, and that's actually been the making of us.