Interview Kaiser Chiefs
We speak to Ricky Wilson and Nick Hodgson to find out about The Future is Medieval, Leeds United and the Kirkstall Abbey gigs
Interview: Kaiser Chiefs
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We caught up with Ricky Wilson (vocals) and Nick Hodgson (drums) from the Kaiser Chiefs in the week before their performance at the Glastonbury Festival. “I never really have days off now, we’ve launched ourselves on that slide again…” is how Wilson described their current status. As ever, Wilson and Hodgson are the public face of the band, and have recently gone on record (repeatedly) to say that releasing a fourth album in the traditional manner wasn’t an attractive proposition.
Though they betray no obvious doubts over the quality of their new album, The Future Is Medieval, there are hints of an underlying uncertainty that appears to have taken root during the band’s two-year absence from music. We talk prior to the album’s release in physical form (following the initial download-only launch) at the end of June, and there’s one particular moment that typifies Hodgson’s newfound concern. “It suits the record companies a lot more to put out a CD and it’s nice to keep them onside,” he tells me. But I thought they had to keep you onside? I ask. “Maybe in the old days,” he responds.
One thing that is certain is that the Kaiser Chiefs have returned with a bang and people are talking about the band in a way that would have seemed unthinkable in the aftermath of the release of their last album in 2008.
Off With Their Heads was leaked online a full three weeks prior to the official launch date and although the first single ‘Never Miss A Beat’ had received substantial airplay, the album never recovered from the shock. “There’s gonna be a party and then three weeks before, it’s already out there,” Hodgson recalls. “You’re just really annoyed and you don’t feel like partying once it’s out.” Medieval’s innovative concept can be attributed as much to their ordeal in 2008 as it can to Wilson’s now infamous discussion with his friend from the ad agency, Oli Beale, in an upmarket Falmouth chippy.
The Future is Medieval
For those that have been sheltering under a rock for the last few months, the concept of the album is as follows. Instead of releasing a bundle of songs in the usual way, The Future Is Medieval consists of 20 tracks from which people can create and sequence their own album. The behind-the-scenes mechanics were complicated and expensive, but the result of two years of development work was impressively simple and accessible. “To the rest of the world, it probably looked like we had a couple of years off,” Wilson says, “But we didn’t even have six months before we started working on this.”
Each track is represented on their website by a symbol, such as a teddy bear or a London bus, and can be previewed for a minute or so. Having decided on the songs that you would like, you can then connect the symbols by drag-and-drop leads to form the running order. “Each symbol has a connection with the song,” Hodgson says, “Some are quite direct and some are a bit more abstract, but they all link back to lyrics and feelings. It’s up to the people to work them out.”
So far, so good then, but the final innovation was perhaps a step-too-far, at least for an online community that is always hypersensitive at being subjected to targeted marketing. After designing your artwork and finalising your version of the album, you could then re-sell this via HTML code and benefit to the tune of £1 for every associated sale.
“I think [the PR team] saw a side of it that I hadn’t seen, the idea that within a space of 24 hours people would be talking about it. This was the marketing side of it,” Wilson says, “We were thinking it was like a punk-rock idea, but within 24 hours people have gone from wondering if the Kaiser Chiefs were ever going to write a record again to being the most talked about band on the internet. That happened in the click of a finger.”
With a cash incentive some people became a little more creative than even the band had imagined. “I think the Chris Moyles thing was just someone being clever, what can you say?” says Hodgson, reacting to the person that had utilised Moyles’ association with Leeds to cash-in, “So the fake Chris Moyles makes the money out of it, there’s always a way isn’t there? There’s a [fake] Lady Gaga one as well!”
There are also a host of legitimate celebrity contributors (and even Moyles himself has released an ‘official’ take now). “Simon Pegg has done a version of the album. As has Rio Ferdinand,” Hodgson notes. “I saw Dave Grohl the other day, he’s gonna do one.”
The launch of the concept for Medieval was described by the Guardian’s Peter Paphides as “effectively heralding the arrival of the world’s first bespoke album”. His readers were not exactly in total agreement. Their online comments ranged from “Well I never. A crap band rely on gimmick to sell album” through to “Kaiser Chiefs, the band that keep resurfacing just to remind us how much we hate their music.” That was pretty much the entire spectrum of views.
The Kaiser Chiefs are used to ignoring over-the-top criticism at this point in their careers though, and reading through the list of complaints it seemed that listening to the music was not actually considered to be a necessary pre-requisite. If they had taken the trouble then they might have noticed that the band have made some substantial adjustments to their trademark sound of catchy, upbeat indie anthems this time around.
“It’s been brilliant. I’m proud of it, we’re all proud of it,” Wilson says, “And on June 3rd, after a sleepless night, at 6am it went live. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. We actually made it happen.” The challenge to write twenty songs good enough to make the concept worthwhile, turned out to be just the incentive that the band needed.
“It’s a fucking gamble,” Wilson says. “People can say that we’ve got the ability to be brave with the release because we’re quite big and we’ve got something to fall back on, but still…” He admits that there was a certain amount of convincing to be done before everyone in the band bought in to the idea. “I’m not in anyway saying that Peanut or Whitey stood in the way, because they didn’t, they knew that something had to change,” Wilson continues. “They saw the creativity in Nick that the idea spawned.”
Although they are understandably proud of the resulting realisation, it’s obvious that Hodgson and Wilson believe that the idea has not, and will not, dwarf the actual songs. “There are quite a lot of singles on there I think,” Hodgson says offhandedly at one point.
The changes that the music industry is undergoing, particularly as a result of the increasing prominence of the download as the means of distribution, is accepted as a matter of course. “If you just hang around with people your own age who are like 30, then you’d think that nothing has changed,” Hodgson says. “[But] listening to the people who are your audience, and they’re say 18… it’s a different world.”
As kids have become used to downloading content for free, the standard “sales repay advances” industry equation also appears to be in need of some adjustment. “There’s not enough money coming in from sales of CDs,” Hodgson says. When I ask if merchandise might help to bridge the gap, he is quick to dismiss that as a possibility. “It’ll never pay for itself like that. No,” he says. “You need to get inventive, you can’t ignore it, or you’ll get left behind.”
He now has first-hand experience of the struggle that bands and record labels can face in the digital age. Together with his girlfriend and bassist Simon Rix, he launched the label Chewing Gum Records during their fallow years. He says of The Neat, a band that Chewing Gum have released a couple of singles with, “Basically they need what we needed about six years ago. Someone to come along and sign them.” Hodgson says they remind him of the Kaisers’ early days, adding “There’s usually at least one character in a band, but they all had it… Like when a gang of kids has their own language.”
The Neat form just one part of the support bill for their Saturday show at Kirkstall Abbey, alongside Gruff Rhys and Pete & The Pirates. On the Sunday evening, they will be joined by Spector, Frankie & The Heartstrings and Wakefield’s finest, The Cribs. “The tickets for the Saturday went in six minutes, we were told,” Hodgson says, proudly and with a hint of surprise. “Ten thousand sold in six minutes.”
Their first show back after two years was a world away from Leeds, as they played the Cornish coastal town of Falmouth. “I can remember not being nervous in rehearsal, but then totally, unexpectedly, nervous before Falmouth,” Hodgson says. “[But] when we got on our bus, which we hadn’t been on it for two years, it was just like we’d just stepped off it the day before.” Wilson says he had forgotten about the thrill of playing in front of a big crowd. “One of the most important things we do as a band is going out and playing live,” he says.
In a fortunate twist of fate, on their first night at Kirkstall Abbey, Leeds United are scheduled to play at home to Crystal Palace. Hodgson and the other Chiefs are probably vying with Chris Moyles as the club’s most famous supporters. “I was looking forward to the fixtures coming out on that day,” Hodgson says. “You know if it had been away at Portsmouth, a lot of our fans probably wouldn’t have made it [to our show].”
He’s quick to deny the rumours that special buses will be run directly from Elland Road to Kirkstall Abbey on that day. “Not by us,” Hodgson says, “Ken Bates, probably!” The break from day-to-day music did at least allow him to get to a few more games than usual last season.
“For Derby away we were guests of Robbie Savage,” he says, “He’s hilarious to watch. Some players they say, he knows where the goal is. Well he knows where the ref is. He’s like the main character in an opera.”
With its dramatic rise and fall and rise again, the Kaiser Chiefs story is almost an opera in itself. If the Medieval concept was two years in the making then where can the narrative possibly go next? “I haven’t really thought about the next album,” Hodgson says, “I can’t believe that the trend of enjoying single tracks and downloading is going to disappear so it’s only going to go in one direction. I think it’ll be another different situation. I think we’ll have to think of something else.”
And with that, I’m reminded of a Hodgson quote taken from the Guardian piece that heralded the arrival of their latest album: "We always said that if you can see the bandwagon, then you’ve already missed it.” As the old adage says, failure is taking the path that everyone else does. Success is making your own path.
The Future is Medieval is out now. Buy the physical version through B-Unique, or make your own version at www.kaiserchiefs.com
The Kaiser Chiefs play two gigs at Kirkstall Abbey on 10th and 11th September. Support on the 10th comes from Gruff Rhys, Pete & The Pirates and The Neat, and on the 11th comes from The Cribs, Frankie & The Heartstrings and Spector.
Tickets are still available for the Sunday, and cost £35.75
Posted on Wednesday 13th July 2011
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Comments on Interview: Kaiser Chiefs
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