Motley’s Kelly Doherty talks to Peanut of the Kaiser Chiefs about the band’s new album and the death of guitar pop.
Kaiser Chiefs have always seemed like the little band that could. Maybe it’s their unassuming Northern accents or their laidback approach to the music industry, but the Leeds band have always seemed to eschew that over-the-top, rockstar attitude that is embodied by their peers in the British indie rock scene. It’s this likeability factor and general pleasantness which has led to Kaiser Chiefs outlasting so many of the NME 2005 crowd (remember Keane?) and allowed them to create one of the most stellar, consistent back catalogues of any modern popular artist. However, as Kaiser Chiefs were settling into their place as indie-pop elders, the band was struck by the departure of their drummer, Nick Hodgson, a man responsible for many of the band’s greatest choruses. Instead of allowing themselves to fall apart, the ‘Chiefs pulled themselves together, released their fourth album, Education Education Education & War, and had their frontman Ricky Wilson judge UK talent show The Voice. Comeback? What comeback?
Motley‘s encounter with the Kaiser Chiefs comes at the heart of their busiest time of the year. For a band who very much strike the balance between indie rock and stadium pop, it’s unsurprising that they’re no stranger to the festival circuit. When questioned about what the Leeds mob are doing at the moment, it takes Peanut (the band’s bearded keyboardist) quite some time to remember exactly where they’ve just been. “We’re touring summer festivals all around summer, we got back from.. where was it? I can’t even remember.. *pauses* Italy! Yeah, we got back from Italy on Monday morning.” It’s hard to blame him for his geographical uncertainty, this summer alone the band have hit up festivals from Belfast’s Feil An Phobail to Switzerland’s Openair Festival, Scotland’s T in the Park, USA’s Firefly festival and, of course, Daytripper Fest up in our very own Waterford. A brief search brings up that the band have over 25 festivals planned for this summer period, a number rivaled by very few others. Despite the sheer mass of festivals that the ‘Chiefs are blessing with their presence, Peanut has very little hesitation in recalling his favourite. “Portugal last week!” he enthuses.”Portuguese and Spanish fans just go absolutely crazy. When they’re passionate, they’re very loyal, we’ve had great gigs there for ten years. It’s always the same, you can play gigs and festivals and you’ll wonder if it’s gonna go well and then 20,000 people turn up. It’s like watching some DVD from big gigs in Brazil with AC/DC or something and you think maybe we’ll get crazy fans like this some day and then they’re all here in Portugal.”
It hasn’t always been like this for the Kaiser Chiefs. Starting out in 2000 under the moniker ‘Parva’, it took five years for the band (with their new name) to find success with the hugely popular Unemployment. Through a mix of good luck and, perhaps, great timing, Kaiser Chiefs found themselves at the heart of a music scene where NME and its peers were giving excessive coverage to this new wave of guitar pop artists – the first that the scene had witnessed since the implosion of Britpop. When asked about his favourite festival of all time, Peanut harks back to that world. “Probably, I think, in terms of success happening and breaking as a band, back in 2005 when everything got crazy for us.” he says in his distinctively, un-watered down Leeds accent. “The year started off pretty normal – the NME tour with Bloc Party, The Killers and The Futureheads and then by summer we were supporting U2 in stadiums around Europe and then we came back to do Glastonbury around 3 or 4 in the afternoon and it was absolute pandemonium and it’s kept going since then. But I’ll always remember that big UK festival. We’d been in the US and we were getting reports back saying we were all over UK magazines and stuff but then coming back to Glastonbury, it was like ‘yeah, we’ve made it’. It was a short set of like 40 minutes but it was great.”
Of course, in the past few years, British indie rock seems to have taken quite a hit. With the UK seemingly enraptured with the dulcet, sexy sounds of Katy B and the dance/dubstep sound, with fellow Britrock survivor Alex Turner (of Arctic Monkeys) professing the ‘death of guitar music’ and with the internet providing us with our indie hit from the vast soundscape of the US, there are very few British bands who’ve managed to survive the transition. “It’s about scenes – 2005/2006 was crazy.” says Peanut. “There was so many guitar bands and we had so many friends in bands doing stuff. But scenes change and only the strong survived – Franz survived, The Killers survived, we survived – but there were loads of bands that weren’t really up to it. They weren’t strong enough when the scene changed. It’s a shame but what we did in the early years was set up a massive fanbase around the world, so when we did travel the world, the fans were ridiculous. Around the world, when you’re a good band, you’re a good band. There’s no pressure to not like different things, people don’t change their hair and their clothes and whatever around the world. That’s a thing that’s pretty exclusive to England. So, it’s quite interesting when you start travelling as a band and realizing that there’s life outside of the UK. But I think, because we’re a great live band, we can go anywhere in the world and play a festival and the promoters and the fans know they’ll get a good show – we pride ourselves on that. Guitar music isn’t dead at all, but waves happen. If you look at the mid and late 80s and then the early 90s when guitar music exploded again and the the Oasis/Blur bubble burst. There was still guitar music, but it wasn’t English – it was The Strokes and The Hives, it was different guitar music. So, scenes change but there are certain bands who can always keep their heads above water and that’s us, and the bands I was talking about before.”
That’s not to say that the Kaiser Chiefs care about being a “guitar band.” They’ve been together long enough to be comfortable with their own sound and not cater to scenes or fads. “It’s trying to appeal to your audience, I guess. After 5 albums and still everything’s going well, you realise that you have to stick to what you’re good at. It’s like the essence of the band. We are a poppy band with guitar and loud drums. You can make lots of different music in that style, you drift around like we have on our records. On this album, because of the change that was forced upon us, we rethought about what we liked about this band and I think that’s how we re-captured the energy from the early records on this one – the early attitude. The songs have moved on, sonically it’s changed a bit, but the underlying energy is back. That’s what we like. We like messing around, jamming to Pink Floyd – but what we really like is that snappy, punky riff that we write songs around. So, while we like pushing our boundaries, we know what people expect from us. It’s a difficult line to toe, you can’t work it out until it’s out in the shops and then it’s five months too late. I think we just have to believe in what we’re doing and if you come across like you believe in what you’re doing, you’ll always have fans.”
It’s that attitude that has lead to Kaiser Chiefs being as a successful as they are. Fresh off the back of a UK number one with their fourth album, Education, Education, Education and War, it’s like the band are as comfortable as ever. The departure of their drummer in 2012 doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact. Discussing whether his leaving changed how the band create music, Peanut sounds pretty casual and laidback. “It was different. A lot of this album… was about getting back to the basics that we started out with on Unemployment and the sophomore Yours Truly, Angry Mob. On those early albums there’s a lot more clarity in the writing going on, bits and ideas jumping out. Nick definitely came in with lots of choruses and bit and pieces but often the song came together from the whole room. That’s what Education, Education, Education and War is about. Obviously, it’s a play on Tony Blair’s speech from 1997, but it’s also about us learning how to write songs as a band again and the war was that it was a bit of fight, a bit of a battle for us to that.”
“We were in the rehearsal room straight after Nick left,” he continues, “and I think there was a bit of apprehension about what we’d do, but then we started playing around and it was like ‘oh this is cool’. Then we made some songs, but that was a bit of apprenticeship – they were good but not amazing. So then we got back to the old process where we’d go through the songs, keep certain bits, rewrite others, we did that and that’s how we got to late spring/early summer when we had an album that we were ready to go into a studio with.” If Hodgson’s departure had any major impact on the band, it seems to be as motivation for the band’s politicized lyrics. “I think the play on the words [of Tony Blair] features a bit. I think politics is more present now in younger society and culture than it’s ever been but I think people are more disillusioned now. It’s a thing that people think older people are into but wonder what’s the point. With our generation, or the generation before us it took a long time to get disillusioned but for young people it’s a lot faster. I think they feel like it doesn’t matter what you do or vote for, the powers that be will do what they want to anyway. It’s also a bit of a fight. I think Ricky was also interested about it being the 100th anniversary of World War I. So, there’s analogies between the war and our battle for the survival of the band was something Ricky drew on a lot.”
Kaiser Chiefs are the embodiment of a modern musical institution. Timeless in their sound and un-swayed by the majority, they’re a band that’ll last far longer than many of the throwaway, overly confident, major label fodder bands who can’t hold a light to the personality and sincerity of a band like Kaiser Chiefs. As Peanut puts it “It’s much easier down the middle of the road,there’s people who just want an easy life. There’s bands that I’m just not interested in what they’re saying, which is just taking the easy route.” And then there are bands like the Kaiser Chiefs who are unafraid. There’s no point in saying that I predict a riot, the riot has already begun.
Kaiser Chief’s new album Education, Education, Education and War is out now!