The release of the Kaiser Chiefs seventh album Duck marks the beginning of a new chapter for the Leeds band who first came to prominence in 2005 with their multi-million selling debut Employment.
Since then the musical landscape around them has undergone radical change, but whilst most of their contemporaries have fallen by the wayside, the quintet are now more determined than ever to continue on their own terms, singer Ricky Wilson defiantly stating “We’re not going anywhere, we’re here. Bands come and go but we keep releasing records and we intend to keep doing so”.
For bass player Simon Rix the three years between the release in 2016 of the Chiefs previous album Stay Together and now have seen him relocate from London back to his home town and play a key role in shaping a record which looks set to prime the band for a new decade. In this feature length interview he talks about the thought process and three year journey for Duck, the state of guitar music in 2019 and why playing at Leeds United’s Elland Road ground has set the club’s fans up for another tilt at promotion to the EPL.
Duck, at first listen is probably the most confident the Kaiser Chiefs have sounded in their own skin for more than a decade. Making hits we knew were never a problem – but was there a collective decision (Similar to the Manic Street Preachers with Resistance Is Futile) to deliver almost an album in the guise of an alternative Greatest Hits?
SR: The last couple of albums we’ve had a conversation or series of conversations about what we wanted to do, what we’d like to achieve and how it should sound, so almost from the start we’d had an idea in mind. When Stay Together wasn’t as well received as we’d have liked I think it got us back in the studio writing really quickly, much faster than usual. Ricky told me he had more than 40 sets of lyrics and there were many more attempts that didn’t even get that far. A lot of them would never have made it in my opinion, some of them were just an exercise in getting back to writing collectively after the very different experience of working with Brian Higgins. We were trying different things again. Being a band.
There were rumours that behind the scenes Duck was the band’s “Difficult” Seventh Album. Is it true that there’s another set of songs which you decided weren’t going to make it?
SR: We had ideas about getting an album out very quickly (After Stay Together) – and then definitely in 2018 – but for a variety of reasons we never got close and in my opinion we started writing the album for real in January of that year. None of the songs from before that point made it into the 11, so I think there’s a pretty solid argument for that date. But I don’t think we’d have got to the end point we did without the previous year of noodling around.
The last album wasn’t that much of departure, but with hindsight it did feel like it took longer term fans a little out too far out of their comfort zone and gave critics a new angle. Were you surprised by the negativity thrown at Stay Together from some quarters, or did you feel that it was inevitable after working with such overtly “showbiz” writing and production teams?
SR: Personally I didn’t see that much criticism (of Stay Together), perhaps I had blinkers on. I just felt that it didn’t connect with our fans, at least not on first listen. When we played live, Hole in My Soul and Parachute particularly were going down a storm so it was confusing that the sales/streams weren’t so good. We were all scratching our heads about where people were listening to the new songs as they still seemed to know them. For me it was an interesting experience to make that record, but ultimately, I think we messed up a bit with the production. Time got short and people were worried about release dates and manufacturing and a load of stuff that really shouldn’t matter but always seems to. I feel like if we’d have given ourselves time to take a breath, we could have got some more mixes done, or maybe even a bit more recording with someone more from our world it would have made a massive difference. In the end though for better or worse we added some more great songs and stories to the Kaiser Chiefs history – and then moved on.
You looked at a number of producers for Duck. What was the thought process around going back to Ben Allen?
SR: Ben Allen knows us and he knows how to get the best out of us. Also by the point we approached him we’d been basically working on it about for 18 months and we needed someone to grab the reins and start pointing everything in the direction of the finish line. Ben is a guy with very clear ideas. If he’s passionate about something then you know it will get finished and at the end of it, it will be good. From when we started with him, it still took another 9 months of drama to get it finished. Last time (2014’s Education, Education, Education & War) it was pretty easy for him as he had us almost literally captive in Atlanta – the songs were written, they just needed the right treatment. This time it was pretty hard work and I was impressed by his commitment to finish the project no matter how long it took.
In places there’s a distinctly twentieth century Transatlantic influence (Target Market, The Only Ones and especially the brilliant Lucky Shirt) – or is this just the band secretly exercising their inner Rick Springfield?
SR: I guess there’s quite a few Americans involved on the production side. It’s the first time we’ve really done “additional production”, there were a few songs we thought hadn’t reached their full potential and whether it was getting someone different to mix it (Spike Stent, Dan Grech) or sending it to Andrew Wells for tweaking, quite a few songs benefitted from extra pairs of hands and new ideas.
Earlier you mentioned us sounding comfortable in our own skin and for me the most important thing about the album was that we sounded like Kaiser Chiefs, that it had KC DNA at its heart. Music has changed so much since we started that it’s important to get some advice and inspiration from the people you work with, whilst keeping control of the artistic direction which we maybe misjudged on Stay Together.
Do you think specifically about how these songs would work in a live environment, which is arguably where the band works best, or is all that left until later?
SR: There are always thoughts about live. Are there songs on the album that can be in the set – and hopefully stay in the set – for a long time? But equally, a good song should be included no matter what. We haven’t for instance played Lucky Shirt yet live because it might be hard to do it justice, but then again I felt the same way about Record Collection and that seemed to work.
You’ve been talking as a band about recapturing the broad appeal of the Employment/Angry Mob era and this collection of songs would seem to be a very ambitious attempt at doing that. Do you still dream of that lightbulbs and pap existence, or do you fall out of bed at night thinking that the past is just the past?
SR: It’s definitely not about the lightbulbs and the paps for us! But we love being in a band and we love playing the biggest stages and festivals and performing in front of big and happy crowds. That’s where we are at our best. So whatever we write that’s the ambition.
How does it all fit? Do you all bring parts into the studio, jam together, or does Ricky work up some lyrics and then you go from there?
SR: It all depends. Lyrics are almost always last. On this album there was a lot of jamming, but being honest the songs came mainly from things that people brought to the table part-formed and which we then tweaked and finished together, with Ben’s help.
You moved back to Leeds from London during the writing stage. Did that change any of the dynamic between the group, or alter the process?
SR: I moved back to Leeds for lots of reasons. To be closer to Leeds United. Closer to my family. To have a bigger house. But also because I felt like being closer together geographically as a band was the key to getting the album completed.
Ricky has talked about the two schools of thought in the band, the one which wants to entertain and connect people, and the other which wants to use the platform you have for the kind of ‘Sociable Socialism’ last heard on Education, Education..Can pop still have a conscience in 2019?
SR: There’s definitely more than two schools of thought. We live in a pretty divided society so I see the argument that you don’t want to alienate half your audience, especially as I think we have a pretty broad fan base but equally now more than ever I think it’s important for people to use their voice, so it’s difficult. I think we find the right balance. We’ve always been about describing society and life rather than prescriptively telling everyone what they should/shouldn’t be doing. For me that’s what people want from us and the public are smart enough to make their owns minds up about what it actually means to them. If you can do that whilst making them move, I think you’re onto a winner.
The Chiefs’ longevity is remarkable in the face of an industry which has changed completely since those messy early gigs at The Cockpit. Ezra Koenig recently said that rock music was dead and that guitar bands aren’t particularly relevant anymore. Where does the band fit now?
SR: Feels like music has changed so much since we started. But I’m always confused by comments like “Rock music is dead”. I think this summer’s shows for The Courteeners, Blossoms and Catfish And The Bottlemen – along with ours at Elland Road – show there’s still a massive demand from people to see guitar bands playing live. There’s literally no competing with urban/hip hop stuff on streaming platforms, their numbers are completely mad. But then you get someone with 100 million streams on Spotify and they’re playing the (600 capacity) Garage in Highbury and it’s not sold out, it’s really strange. For us, we keep making records and people keep coming to the gigs. On the last tour there was a noticeable amount of younger guys in the crowd as well. So I think we’re all safe from rock music dying!
What should we expect from the upcoming album launch shows at The Brudenell, other than lots of hard work and aching fingers for you?
SR: We’re doing short sets. 7 songs. Expect new ones, ones we’ve haven’t played for ages and ones you’ll know.
Were you pleased with how the Elland Road show went? It was kind of hard not to feel a sense of anti-climax around the place, coming so soon after the season had ended in such a typically “Leeds United” way.
SR: At the end of the season I was pretty down, watching it unravel. So suddenly we had this gig, a big gig, one that we’d all been looking forward to for a long time – but the album release had already moved from that week. Because of those things little doubts started to pop up. Why were we doing it? What for? But actually it was so good, better than the last time in my opinion. I feel like everyone needed a pick me up – even the non- Leeds fans seemed to get that we needed cheering up. And for me to get a big number of people in the stadium with no football, no possibility of Wigan nicking their only win of the year or whatever, it was just what we all needed. Everyone could move on and look forward to next season.
Final question – If you were given a choice of Duck reaching number one or a fistful of nice reviews, what would you value most?
SR: To be honest Ed Sheeran releasing his album a couple of weeks before is a bit of a pain! I think because of that a number one is a stretch, so having a record that everyone likes would be great. The thing I liked most about Eductation, Education Education and War was the vibe that was it was a great KC record. AND then it went to number one as well.
Duck is out on the 26th of July on Polydor. The Kaiser Chiefs play four shows at The Brudenell Social Club on July 28th.
Picture Credit : FanPix.net, photographer unknown.