Exclusive interview: Kaiser Chiefs’ Ricky Wilson
The Kaiser Chiefs frontman on “selling out” to prime time TV and getting his musical mojo back: “We’re a little older, we just don’t give a f**k what anybody thinks”
Losing your drummer’s no big deal, right? Many bands have misplaced their sticksman, but still managed to carry on without missing a beat. Spinal Tap lost several drummers (most of them spontaneously combusted onstage, while one choked on vomit of unspecified origin) but that didn’t stop them from taking it all the way up to 11.
When Kaiser Chiefs lost their drummer in 2012, however, it was the Leeds indie-rockers who nearly self-combusted. Nick Hodgson was not just the band’s skin-basher – he was also their main songwriter, the man who came up with the tunes to some of their biggest hits, including Ruby, Oh My God and I Predict a Riot . You didn’t need to punch the songs into him – he bleedin’ wrote most of them.
When Hodgson punched out of the Kaisers after fourth album The Future is Medieval, the remaining members were left facing their own Dark Ages. They’d enjoyed huge success with such albums as Employment and Yours Truly, Angry Mob , combining the clever-clever sarkiness of Blur with the crowd-bludgeoning common touch of Oasis, although in recent years they’d lost their hitmaking mojo. The departure of their chief songsmith felt like the final death-blow.
“It was tough at the time, but like a lot of things in life, at the time what seems like a tragedy can sometimes work out to be the best thing that happened to you,” says singer Ricky Wilson. “I think we needed to have that little bit of jeopardy. We had to be reminded that there was always a chance this could all be taken away from you, in order to get that drive back and get that hunger back. So you know, he did us a massive favour, because I was getting a bit lazy and it gave me a little jolt – ‘shit, I’ve got to do something about this’. Nick left a huge vacuum, and we all had to fill it up.”
Wilson is on the phone to The Ticket during a regional radio tour, where he has been chatting to various Alan Partridges about his band’s latest album, Education, Education, Education & War .
“If they want to talk to me, that’s a good thing, because it means people are excited about the record,” he reckons. “I just came up with a slogan for one station: ‘Real radio, real people’. They were happy with that. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it, but it’s funny, if you’re talking about something you’re proud of, it’s a lot easier to talk about it.”
The last time Wilson took the promo circuit, it was to tout the band’s 2012 greatest-hits album, Souvenir , a job he didn’t particularly relish.
“It felt the wrong time for me, but it was probably a good end of that chapter because Nick was leaving. And he really wanted to bring it out, so yeah, I think it was a good time to draw a line – like school, draw a line under the last thing you did, and put today’s date in the top corner and start again.”
Not that it was easy to start off with blank copybooks. When you’ve been relying on someone to come up with the hits, and they leave you in the lurch, you’re going to be a bit pissed off. Especially when said band member seems to think the rest of you will be nothing without him.
“We all always wrote, and I wrote most of the words, but the more control he wanted, the more control he took, and we just let him. Because, d’you know, I like an easy life, and so if someone’s saying they’re going to do all the work, I’m like, fine. But there’s something weird about getting comfortable – it’s not as much fun. When you’ve got a job that you’ve wanted all your life, the fun is the work, and not the gaps in between it.”
So, while you could compare Hodgson leaving Kaiser Chiefs to Roger Waters leaving Pink Floyd, for Wilson it was “more like Syd leaving. I think that’s probably because I see a brighter future ahead. We’ve stepped up our game, and I think on the new record you’re gonna hear that. We always work best when we’re in a corner fighting our way out. Being the underdog really suits us.”
So the remaining band members – Wilson, guitarist Andrew “Whitey” White, bassist Simon Rix and keyboard player Nick “Peanut” Baines found a new drummer, Vijay Mistry, and reconvened to try and see if they could pull together a new bunch of songs. They managed to come up with 10 that almost equal their debut for sheer anthemic tuneology. If their former drummer thought his ex-bandmates were going to go gently into that good night, he thought wrong.
Wilson, a huge Roger Waters fan, has looked to such albums as The Wall and The Final Cut to inspire his vision of a modern England still in thrall to the Boy’s-Own thrills of war. Ruffians on Parade evokes classic wartime matinees, while Coming Home is a reminder that though war and tactics may change, the human cost is always too high. At times it threatens to be almost thought-provoking, surely a departure for a band who always liked frolicking in the lyrical shallows.
“The war thing was partly because the whole Nick thing felt like a battle, it felt like us versus the world again, so all the analogies that were coming out in my lyrics turned out to be quite military. And we always have been quite military, but this time it was in for a penny, in for a pound.
The penultimate track, Cannons , features a poem, The Occupation, read by the actor Bill Nighy. “I haven’t gone full Roger Waters yet, because he definitely would have read it himself. I just thought, I couldn’t get away with doing it myself, because it would come across as pretty pretentious, me reading poetry in the middle of the album, but Bill’s got such a great voice; it’s got such a lysergic quality to it, it’s quite snarling. We’ve got history with Bill, because he narrated a DVD we did, and he likes the band, and he likes the album title.” (The title is a twist on Tony Blair’s “education, education and education” speech from the 1990s.)
“I feel what we’ve managed to do with this one, which we haven’t done in years, is to connect with people. And I think that’s because we’re allowing ourselves to be more emotional, and more truthful, like we were on the first record,” says Wilson. “And it’s probably because we’re a little older, we just don’t give a fuck what anybody thinks. And it’s only when you stop giving a fuck about what people think that you start being real. We worried that people might think we were too political, but I think you can be political and not want to be a politician, which is the worst thing you can be, in my opinion. We don’t write love songs, so we write about what’s left, and what’s left seems to be life in general, and what’s around you. So that’s what we did on this record, we just looked inside ourselves, and used everything we had. I used my anger at Nick for leaving us and refocused that energy into the songs.”
But while the album may possess the DNA of the band’s debut, it’s entering a very different musical arena. The rules of rock ‘n’ roll engagement have altered over the past decade, and it’s no longer enough to just phone in another album and wait for the platinum discs to start rolling in. You’ve got work it and twerk it, and be open to other platforms, which is why Wilson has embraced his new high- visibility role as a judge on The Voice, alongside Kylie Minogue, will.i.am and Tom Jones.
“The music industry has changed, and I think the people who don’t change with it, and have their heels dug into the ground thinking the world will revolve around them, they’ll just disappear. Being on a TV talent show wasn’t in the script. It wasn’t something I thought I was gonna have to do. But I’ve realised that TV, that box that’s in the corner of everybody’s living room, that’s a very quick way to get everyone caring about your band again.”
He and his bandmates agonised over whether their singer should sell his soul and go on the telly, but when Wilson finally joined up as replacement for Danny O’Donoghue from The Script, he was surprised how much he enjoyed being on the programme.
“I didn’t realise how much I was going to care about the show, and the people on it. I didn’t realise how much I was going to learn. I’ve got quite a lot from it. I’ve learnt how much I want this, and how much I want to be in a band, for as long as possible. And I’ve realised that successful people, they work every day. They don’t stop. Because there’s no point in stopping. It’s too much fun.”
Of course, sharing screen time with a certain diminutive Aussie pop dynamo is also part of the appeal. “I’ve known Kylie for quite a long time, and she’s part of the reason I wanted to do it, because I’d have a friendly face there. And she is a friendly face.”
Eagle-eyed Kaiser-watchers might have discerned that Wilson has shed a few pounds, along with his once-trademark blazer. He looks like a chiselled rock star now, a far cry from the chubby-cheeked bloke who looked like he’d wandered onto the stage on his way to the bar. His weight-loss secret? Don’t worry, be happy.
“I just didn’t think about it. It’s as much due to me being happy as it is me running around and getting exercise. I think when you’re not happy with a situation, you don’t know that you’re not happy. You’re just getting on in life.
“We’re happy now, although I still don’t feel I’ve done the thing I was supposed to achieve yet, so hopefully it’ll come in the next couple of years. I feel I’m moving towards it, but I haven’t had the best of it yet. And when I do, I’d like to be remembered for that. But it hasn’t happened yet. Know what I mean?”
Education, Education, Education & War is out on Caroline Records on March 28th. Kaiser Chiefs headline the Daytripper festival in Waterford on Friday July 4th