Images: Amit Naroop; Illustration: Bruce Emmett
Ricky Wilson has a theory about Kaiser Chiefs. Well, it’s more of a conspiracy theory, really.
“I’ve noticed this thing. You know when websites run those ‘Top 20 Indie Anthems’ or ‘Top 10 Albums of the Noughties’ lists? For six or seven years, Kaiser Chiefs didn’t get mentioned. People just left us out. It’s weird,” he pauses, before asking no one in particular, “we knocked out a few big ones, didn’t we?”
It’s an eye-mistingly sweet insecurity. Lest we forget: I Predict A Riot, Ruby and Oh My God were irresistible anthems for anything that involved more than 2,500 people in the same space: football stadiums, Match Of The Day goal round-ups, filler music piped between acts at festivals intended to keep you planted firmly in the same place but didn’t because you needed a p*ss.
Their debut album, Employment, sold more than two million copies and – here’s the kicker – they’re one of the very few British bands to have avoided becoming part of landfill indie’s decaying corpse.
The likes of Franz Ferdinand, The Libertines, Babyshambles, Editors, The Cribs (the list goes on) might have garnered rave reviews in broadsheet newspapers but, well, where are they now? It’s 2017, and after a much publicised demise of indie acts, Kaiser Chiefs are on album number six. They’re still at it.
Yet you could see, even back then, that they’d be the ones to survive; you felt it in their uncoolness: ambition. An unashamed, unembarrassed ambition. These guys literally will not give up. Dropped by your label? Find another one. Falling record sales? Write an of-the-moment tropical banger (2016’s Parachute). Feel like no one really cares any more? Have Ricky hop aboard The Voice as a judge and use the BBC’s airtime to sell every last record you can.
Building a legacy
“It was a form of madness,” explains Wilson. “When we first started out, everyone was saying it wouldn’t work. But we carried on. We slept in the same room for years. There were lots of bands moping about who desperately wanted you to believe they didn’t want to be there. That being at an awards ceremony was somehow getting in the way of them having a cool life. But the fact was they were all desperate to be there. Us? We were having the time of our lives.
“I think it was quite brave to be like: ‘F*ck it, this is what I’ve wanted to do since I can remember wanting to do anything.’ At the end of the day, we were at the NME Awards, sitting on a table next to Razorlight, and winning everything,” he laughs.
“But it wasn’t easy. I look at pictures of us from back then and you can tell; we look dead. Sometimes I forget how enjoyable it was struggling to make [the band] happen, because I think about it now and go: ‘I wouldn’t do it again.’”
Except, he definitely would. They all would. As pianist Nick ‘Peanut’ Baines says, “We did whatever it took” and it’s got the long-toothed lords of the lads to where they are today. Yet if they had to sell ‘Kaiser Chiefs’ to a 17-year-old now, someone who hadn’t got their Topman winklepickers ruined moshing to ‘Oooooh, and my girlfriend loves me’, they’re quietly stumped. Without the lashings of Noughties nostalgia, what do they offer?
“I don’t know,” admits Wilson. “I suppose when you first start out you have to grab people by the belt and tell them to listen to you. And that’s why we wrote songs that sounded like instant hits. It’s the only way you get noticed. But somewhere along the way, and I’m not dissing us, we lost that drive. This isn’t answering your question, but we’ve fought really hard to remember what it was to try to get people to listen to music with the music. Without relying on legacy or heritage.”
Ah, that legacy thing. It’s not the first time Wilson’s brought it up – in the band’s last interview with ShortList, he said that 2016’s album, Stay Together, didn’t rely on any kind of heritage because, “In our minds, we haven’t achieved that yet”.
“‘Ooh, did I say that?” he asks, momentarily surprised, before admitting: “Well maybe, but maybe that’s a good thing. I mean, we’re still trying to write a global smash hit. I’m talking a f*cking world-beater. An Uptown Funk. Something that is properly, universally, undeniably, a hit.”
It’s only at this point, nearly an hour into the interview, do you sense you’re getting to the real crux of the issue. Kaiser Chiefs are ambitious, sure, but the reason they’re still here, still plugging away, still touring the world, becomes apparent: they haven’t made it yet. Not in their eyes, anyway.
They won’t have ‘made it’ until one of their songs soundtracks the latest cash-hauling blockbuster and is blasted out at every last, goddamn multiplex in the world. Ask them if there’s anything in their career that they wish they could change and Wilson’s semi-jokey response tells you all you need to know: “Yeah, I would have liked [the band] to have been a lot bigger,” he says candidly, before backtracking, “No, I don’t know really. There are no regrets.”
A new lease of life
If this all sounds too try-hard, it doesn’t come across that way. Not in person, anyway. They just bloody love being in a band. Baines talks about a second generation of fans who are discovering their old hits for the very first time. And, six albums in, they’re in a position to do whatever they want.
For the first time in two decades, they’ve splattered their latest album with love songs, co-written tracks with Beyoncé collaborator MNEK and abandoned their garage-rock routes for sugar-coated pop hooks. If critics questioned their slight diversifying of sound, the band aren’t concerned. Well, they don’t act like they are, at least. As Wilson puts it: “We’ve put our flag in the side of the mountain; we can do whatever we want.”
In an industry obsessed with The Next Big Thing, though, do they feel old? “Yeah, sometimes,” admits bassist Simon Rix, before Wilson interrupts: “I celebrated my birthday [he’s 39] recently and I actually feel younger now than ever before. Someone was showing me pictures of my 30th, and, er, I did not look good.”
“You’ve run quite a few miles since then,” grins Rix, referring to Wilson’s weight loss ahead of becoming a judge on The Voice.
“True, but I quite like being a little bit older. You stop caring about coming across as unsure and just enjoy yourself more. In the past, I’d do this interview, worry about it for a month and then I’d read it in some kind of panic prevention way, thinking: ‘OK, well, it wasn’t that bad.’ Now I just think you can say what you want. As long as you’re not ranting like an idiot, you’re fine.”
They haven’t, says Baines, finished “aiming” for things. As the goalposts move, they simply adjust. Does it matter they haven’t cropped up on one of Pitchfork’s ’50 Best Indie Rock Albums’ in years? Or that, in certain circles, even uttering the band’s name conjures up images of dad-rock chants reverberating around packed-out football pitches? No, because you will never kill the Kaiser Chiefs.
A word of warning for those websites forgetting this piece of old-school brilliance: “We’re not going anywhere,” smiles Wilson. “We fought so hard to start something, it’d be stupid to let it go. Anyway, the alternative to being in a band is unthinkable – we can’t do anything else.”
Kaiser Chiefs’ UK tour starts on 22 February; kaiserchiefs.com