Kaiser Chiefs' Ricky Wilson On Survival, The Voice, And Smashing Arenas
Kaiser Chiefs are like one of those Arctic ice breakers, with their stubborn path moving past the most stubborn of obstacles.
Frontman Ricky Wilson might be instantly recognisable to your parents as a judge on The Voice, but he's never quite given up on his first, last, and most enduring love.
Returning to Kaiser Chiefs fold for new album 'Duck', they once again paired themselves with American producer Ben H. Allen.
The result is a colourful, summer-friendly batch of guitar pop anthems as only Kaiser Chiefs can provide, and it finds the Leeds band tapping into the spirit of those early singles.
Promoted in inimitable style, Kaiser Chiefs played a 100th anniversary show for Leeds United's Elland Road stadium last month before completing four ultra-sweaty shows in one day at the historic Brudenell Social Club in their home city.
Clash catches up with Ricky Wilson to talk survival, The Voice, and smashing out arena show after arena show...
- - -
- - -
How does it feel to have a new album out? Do you ever lose their tingle-in-your-stomach feeling on release day?
No you don't! And I wrote a lot of my lyrics on a beach, so that’s pretty funny. Some of it is quite personal, and quite hard. But most of it is us having a whale of a time, and enjoying the fact that we don’t have to go get a day job.
A lot of the bands you came up alongside have fallen by the wayside, but Kaiser Chiefs just keep going. What is it that has enabled you to do that?
There’s nothing stopping you from making records. People can stop you from being successful, but they can’t stop you from doing it. We’re doing it anyway. It’s not like it’s been the easiest ride – it’s not like we rub a lamp and now it’s guaranteed to be a smash. We’ve working fucking hard to get out of our jobs, and we enjoy it. The only reason we’re still doing it is because the alternative is unthinkable. I don’t want to leave the Kaiser Chiefs, it’s too much fun!
The reason that people fall by the wayside is that they become disillusioned at being in the band that they worked so hard at getting going. They’re too willing to throw it away. It’s so weird how they can work so hard – lugging gear up the M1, or making flyers and handing them out – doing all this work, in order to have a little bit of public notoriety, only to throw it away. It’s almost like they become embarrassed by their own ambition. It’s a bit upsetting.
We’re survivors. But we’re not survivors because of the songs, it’s because of our instinct to want to keep doing it. I did a show called The Voice, and the contestants who pissed me off were the ones who thought it was this or nothing, the ones who thought that if they didn’t win the Voice they somehow weren’t allowed to be in the music industry any more. Anyone can make a career out of music – you might have to have two other jobs to sustain it.
It’s the same with being a writer, there’s a lot of journalists who wrote for a long time and didn’t get paid a pound for any of it. They did it because they loved it. It’s the same with making music. Then you start getting paid for it, and something happens where you take it for granted that this is your living. And you’ve got to really watch yourself on that.
You’ve had a lot of success with The Voice, but in the back of your mind have Kaiser Chiefs always been the primary thing in your life?
It’s really weird because I’ve done lots of things to facilitate Kaiser Chiefs. And the things that I’ve done to keep Kaiser Chiefs going have sometimes been bigger than Kaiser Chiefs. That doesn’t really matter.
I’m like a bloke that collects Star Wars figures – I’m not by the way! - but it’s the thing that they care most about, and work six days a week in order to get that caped Jawa… and that’s the number one goal. Kaiser Chiefs is my hobby, my passion, and the thing I think most about, even when I’m doing other things. It’s what I pour all my energy into.
- - -
- - -
‘Duck’ was produced by Ben Allen, who you’ve worked with before. What does he bring to the studio process?
I think really gets the band. He sees beyond the huge wave of what those two words meant in 2005 or 2006. He sees us as an alternative band, in the same vein as alternative bands in America. All he wants to do is to make a great record – he doesn’t have any baggage, like tabloid stuff. He sees us in a different way.
Also, he’s kind of… a bit mean! He tells us when he doesn’t think it’s good enough. And we’ve got to the point now where we’re a lot more receptive to people telling us when we’re not good enough!
You get a big cocky when you’ve sold a few million records, a bit self-assured, but a lot of that is luck and timing, and you need someone to bring you down a peg or two. Because you can always do better. He can see the broader perspective, I suppose.
Is there an example on the album of Ben knocking your ideas back?
Well, when we brought him in, we played the first single - ‘People Know How To Love One Another’ - and we’d already played that live, and it had a different verse. But he just said the chorus was too good to waste on a shit verse like that! We went through about three different verses before we came up with the final one, with him just pushing and pushing and pushing. He wasn’t going to rest until it represented the rest of the record. He was instrumental in pulling it all together.
We’d been making a long time – we thought we’d finished it a year ago. We would have put it out a year ago.
- - -
- - -
You’ve spoken before about this record matching the spirit of the band’s early singles, how do you define that spirit?
It sounds really shit when people say that, because bands always say that! But I think it’s that when we started making it, it felt totally unaffected by our audience or our critics. It was like making music on our own again, without any purpose other than the fact it was enjoyable. And in that respect, I was writing words to make four people laugh, rather than writing words to get on Top Of The Pops. It was an interesting way to start.
I think we were playing for each other, rather than anything else. We are, like it or not, friends. It is a really nice position to be in. We’ve stuck together. We can’t get away from each other, we’re intrinsically like. We need each other and that’s an odd position to be in.
Do you write cheek by jowl in one room, then?
No, most of the time it’s just a band jamming for hour and hours. And when I feel like singing I just shout something over the top. Then we record the song, and it’ll have a title – usually something they’ve spotted in something I’ve said while I’ve been singing – and it’ll be 40 minutes long. We’ll say, well, 20 minutes in there’s a good bit. Then the next day we look at the good bit, and we’ll work on it. That’s it. We just play and play until something happens.
What was it about the record a year ago that Ben saw and the band didn’t?
Well, we didn’t go back to the drawing board, exactly. Since January 2018… we had a load of songs, then, but then it became a one-in, one-out basis. There’s no point recording 20 songs and picking the best 10, we just kept writing until we’d replaced everything.
A little bit like an internet timeline – if something was news-worthy it would go to the top of the timeline, and knock something off the bottom. That’s the way it was – we kept writing until most of it was replaced. It’s good being the lyricist, because it becomes obvious when things won’t be sticking around, so I can take my best ideas and carry it forward to another song.
I thoroughly enjoy the process – it’s always been that way. There’s no hard and fast rule to anything. The last song on the album - 'Kurt vs. Frasier (The Battle For Seattle)' - I had actually gone on holiday, and the rest of them were rehearsing, and I felt a bit bad about that, so I was sending them voice recordings, and they’d send out tunes to go with it. Then I’d send then something I’d written, and we’d continue until the song was written.
- - -
- - -
Do you find that songwriting is a craft, and that through your experiences you’ve gained more depth to your craft?
I don’t know. I think it’s a constantly changing thing – I don’t think I’ll ever know how I do it. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not a songwriter!
You’re... not a songwriter?
I have no idea! A songwriter is someone who can walk into a room and say: hey guys, let’s write a song! I’m not like that. I like helping to create songs, but I would never say I’m a songwriter. It implies some kind of knowing in your own ability that you can pull it out the bag whenever you want. But I can’t do that!
I’m sure a lot of people would disagree with me, but songwriter’s for hire, who do a really good job… it must be a lot of luck-based. You can’t just know you can do it… right?
Like, I can draw a pretty good elephant. But if you ask me to draw a giraffe I’d be like, well, I’ll have to look at a picture of one. It’s like being a songwriter. You’re writing the same thing over and over again.
Well, when you fill out a green card form for an American tour, what do you stick as your occupation? Entertainer? Frontman?
I think it says musician… which is ironic because I don’t play any musical instruments. I play the ukulele badly. I think it says entertainer or musician – whatever won’t rub security up the wrong way!
To finish, we need to look ahead at those shows – it’s difficult to be self-deprecating about playing the O2 Arena in London, surely?
Well, we find it pretty easy. I think it’s where we’re most comfortable as a band. We do it well. We know what we’re doing. When we first started we built ourselves in the mould to play to as many people as possible at the same time, so we’re pretty comfortable playing arenas.
Y’know… yesterday we played four shows at the Brudenell Social Club and that was pretty hard. We did four 40 minute sets in a 400 capacity venue. We found that pretty hard! But arenas… Nah.
When I say it’s easy, it doesn’t mean I’m not going to put the effort in, it’s just that I know what I’m doing.
Every band has a natural space don’t they? You’ve always had those big, main-stage-at-a-festival choruses.
Yep. Some of the reviews actually criticise us for that. But we know we’re doing it! If we wanted to write quiet choruses for the corner of a cafe then, yes, we’ve fucked up, but we knew what we were doing. And we still know what we’re doing.
- - -
- - -
'Duck' is out now.
Catch Kaiser Chiefs at the following shows:
17 Nottingham Motorpoint Arena
18 Bridlington Spa
20 Hull Bonus Hall (SOLD OUT)
21 Hull Bonus Hall (SOLD OUT)
22 Edinburgh Usher Hall
24 Blackpool Empress Ballroom (SOLD OUT)
25 Birmingham Arena
27 Plymouth Pavillions (SOLD OUT)
28 Bournemouth Intl Centre
30 Brighton Centre
31 Cardiff Motorpoint Arena (SOLD OUT)
1 London The O2
Join us on Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.