For all their catchy hooks and festival-friendly choruses, there has always been something a bit dark and misanthropic about the Kaiser Chiefs. Take songs like Never Miss A Beat or I Predict A Riot – superficially bouncy though the music might be, both have lyrics that tap into a deep dissatisfaction with the state of the world. Singer Ricky Wilson agrees that the band’s attitude to life has always been a somewhat cynical. “We write songs about society, not songs about love,” he says, “and that’s quite unfashionable these days, but that’s always the kind of subject matter that has interested us. If you take a look at our biggest songs, they all come from quite a dark place, lyrically.”
Where previous albums have played on the tension between the brightness of the melodies and the curmudgeonly quality of the lyrics, Kaiser Chiefs’ most recent release, The Future Is Medieval, is dark and angry-sounding, with arrangements that have finally having caught up with the words. “I suppose the most recent album is a blending of subject matter and music, more so than we’ve done before,” Wilson agrees. “I think that in the beginning we were really excited because suddenly we were doing the thing we always wanted to do, and we were jumping around the room and bouncing off the walls, and I think that was probably reflected in our early records. Musically, we’ve gotten darker, but I think that what we’ve done this time is pretty special.”
The Future Is Medieval was a risky album in more ways than just this. The band chose to release the album in a highly unconventional manner, releasing a total of 23 tracks through their website, from which fans could choose any ten they wanted and customise the artwork in any way they pleased. It was a bold move, but, as Wilson says, a necessary one at this point in their career. “We were doing something we’d wanted to do our entire lives: we were in a band, releasing records and touring the world – but something wasn’t working. Our enthusiasm just wasn’t there – we needed a push, and it took releasing this record in an unconventional way to do that. If we’d done it any other way, I don’t think we’d have done it at all, to be honest.”
If Kaiser Chiefs were feeling glum when they recorded their new album, touring it looks set to lift their spirits. On stage is where they feel most at home, and as Wilson is keen to tell me, live performance is the most important part of the process. “I remember every show I’ve ever done,” he says. “I wish I could bottle the feeling I get from going on stage and performing. I mean, it would all amount to nothing unless we got to bring the songs to your doorstep,” he says. “Writing songs in a room is one thing. I know I’ve been criticised in the past for being some kind of applause junkie, of making music for other people, but I don’t think it’s like that. I think that the ultimate reward of creating art is for people to witness it, and a really big part of that is live performance.”
He retreats into self-deprecating mode at this point. “I don’t want to sound bonkers when I call it ‘art’,” he says with a nervous laugh, as if anticipating all the ways his quote could be taken out of contest. “What we isn’t at the higher end of that spectrum, but we think that when it comes to the process of writing and recording music, playing it live should be the climax. I think it’s far more important than release dates and physical copies or any of that stuff – the most important thing is the live experience.” Performing live, Wilson goes on to tell me, is a form of necessary release for him – some people run for miles every morning as an outlet for their energy, he formed a band. “I’m not an applause junkie,” he says again, unprompted, “but playing live is my outlet.”
I ask Wilson if the band consider the dynamics of the live show when writing songs, but he demurs, “As soon as you start playing a song live in front of audiences, it becomes a different beast all together. Oh My God is an example of that – that song has gotten longer and longer in the show. I remember when we broke the four-minute barrier for the first time – it was at a gig in Paris, and we didn’t want to stop playing it, so we just kept going, carrying on and on, and it went down really well.” Anyone who’s caught one of the band’s energetic headlining sets at a festival knows just how greatly Kaiser Chiefs value the connection with their audience. “The crowd dictates whether a song is a good live song or not – always,” Wilson says.
Things get a little prickly when I bring up a quote from a recent interview with Wilson’s band-mate Nick Hodgson, in which he lamented the state of guitar music, claiming it to be at an ‘all-time low’. He was speaking in terms of the chart performance of guitar music, and the general dearth of festival slots for young guitar bands, but when I ask Wilson how he feels about this situation, he goes on the defensive.
“You know, the internet being the way it is, people trawl it and take one thing you said off-hand to a local paper somewhere and turn it into a quote,” he says. “I mean, Nick was right in some respects, but he wasn’t saying that there aren’t people out there making guitar music. There are a million garages on a million streets full of kids making great music, but it’s not in the charts. Fashions come and go, but you can’t think about that, you just have to keep doing what you love. I mean, guitar music might be at an all-time high, but it’s just not in the charts at the moment because it’s not fashionable. A lot of great art comes out of dips and troughs, and struggling against what’s popular, breaking away from it.”
I ask Wilson if he therefore sees a renaissance for young guitar bands happening any time soon, but he seems unsure. “I really don’t know. I mean, it’s not up to me,” he says. “I’m not the one making those decisions. Millions and millions of people dictate those kinds of things. We’re a guitar band, we make music and we’ll continue to do so – we’ll keep writing Kaiser Chiefs songs, and it’s as simple as that. When we brought out our first record, the kind of thing we were doing was very fashionable, and that probably helped us along, but I mean, I think you should just rely on the quality of what you’re doing and not worry about any of the bullshit that’s out there with fashion, just keep doing what you believe in and not worry about anything else.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN
KAISER CHIEFS play the Palace Theatre on Wednesday May 16, as well as Groovin' The Moo in Bendigo on Saturday May 5 (sold out). SOUVENIR: The Singles 2004 – 2012 will be out on Friday May 11 via Liberation.