THERE probably isn’t a student in Leeds who hasn’t at some point been to the Original Oak pub, in Headingley.
Along with the Skyrack across the road it has become synonymous with long, boozy afternoons and big, heart-on-your-sleeve sporting occasions (the last time I was here was to watch England win the rugby World Cup eight years ago). It’s a place, in other words, where you go to have a good time.
An apt choice, then, to meet two members of a band whose boisterous, chorus-filled brand of indie-rock has made them a household name. Since bursting on to the music scene in 2005 with their award-winning debut, Employment, the Kaiser Chiefs have won umpteen awards, sold more than six million albums and enjoyed worldwide tours.
Then in 2009, having fired out three successful albums in quick succession, they took a bit of a breather. But if a week is a long time in politics then two years in the music industry can feel like a lifetime. “By the time we’d finished our third record we’d been touring pretty much non-stop since 2004 and we needed a break, so we did have six months without playing or rehearsing together.”
During that time the band’s drummer and chief songwriter Nick Hodgson set up a record company with the band’s bass player, Simon Rix, while Hodgson also honed his production skills working with such disparate stars as Dame Shirley Bassey and Duran Duran. Wilson, on the other hand, headed to Cornwall with a friend where they came up with the “idea” for the band’s next album.
The “idea” he refers to was rather a clever one. “We weren’t that motivated to get back into the studio because the last record was leaked a month before it came out which was annoying and we didn’t want to go through the same rigmarole again.” Instead, they decided they would produce 20 songs, allowing fans to visit the band’s website and compile their own album made up of their favourite 10 tracks, create their own artwork and sell it on.
The idea, Wilson, says was to get fans more involved and do something different. “It felt a brave and risky thing to do, but in our heads it felt the only way to do it. Loads of bands come back after a break and say the things the press wants them to hear, ‘it feels like our first record’ and ‘we feel like a new band’ which is rubbish. But because it’s the first time anyone has done something like this it did feel new and because we were keeping it a secret it made us feel like a gang again.”
The Future Is Medieval was released without the fanfare that usually accompanies a big band’s new album. “Cynics might think it was just a marketing ploy and we didn’t think the record company would agree to let us do it, but they saw the marketing potential that we hadn’t seen. We thought we were sticking it to the ‘man’ and then we told the ‘man’ and the ‘man’ thought it was a good idea, which was a bit disappointing because we thought we were being all punk rock,” quips Wilson.
But he admits that not everyone was impressed by what they did. “We did annoy some people, it annoyed the shops who didn’t like the fact we were side-stepping them and a lot of the magazines because they didn’t get the advanced shots of us sat at a mixing desk and an interview talking about how brilliant our next record was. But I’m tired of reading those kind of articles because they don’t mean anything.”
The new record also gave them the chance to show there was more to the band than rousing anthems. “The last one we did really quickly with Mark Ronson and we had a lot of fun, it was upbeat and lighter. Whereas with this new one we wanted to flex our musical muscles a bit more and show people what we were capable of. But the quality was important, because if people were choosing their favourite 10 songs then they all had to be good.”
Wilson and Rix, who like the rest of his bandmates come from West Yorkshire, are back in their old Headingley stamping ground for a couple of days before they all head off to play at the V Festival. They then return to Leeds for two homecoming gigs in the unlikely surroundings of Kirkstall Abbey. But what made them choose to play amid the ruins of a 12th Century Cistercian monastery? “We wanted somewhere big,” says Rix, sipping on his beer, “and we’ve already played at Elland Road and the 02 Academy and we wanted somewhere that would be an event in Leeds. We thought about Roundhay Park but Kirkstall Abbey seemed a little different, which fits in with the spirit of the album.”
They’re both happy to be back in Leeds, although these days work commitments mean they spend more time in London. “I used to be up in Leeds 90 per cent of the time and now that’s switched round because of work,” says Wilson. “But then it’s nice because when you do come back it feels like a holiday. I’ll always have a place here because even though we’re migratory birds we always come home.”
Before heading back to Yorkshire, Wilson found himself in the capital as rioters rampaged through the city last month. “We flew back from Australia on the Monday evening when it was all kicking off and I was watching the news all night because I was jet-lagged and couldn’t sleep. When I turned the TV off I could hear the helicopters and sirens and the next morning I called Simon, because he was still in London, and I said ‘do you want to go and get a broom?’
“So we went to the riot-hit areas and it was like walking on a film set. But out of something bad came something good, because the atmosphere was amazing. We went to Camden and everyone seemed to heading to Clapham so we just followed the crowd. It wasn’t organised at all, it was like ‘they’ve got brooms follow them’ and when we arrived in Clapham there was probably about 20 of us and a couple of hours later there was about a thousand people with their brooms in the air. We swept up a bit and even if it was just a symbolic act, the fact that more people came out to clear up than were involved in the rioting was brilliant.”
The Kaiser Chiefs have always sung about city life although Wilson plays down glib references people have made to their song I Predict a Riot following the outbreak of violence on the nation’s streets. “We don’t write songs about holding hands and long walks, we’ve always been a bit more political, but in an observational kind of a way rather than a ‘let’s smash the system’ kind of way.”
It’s a decade now since the five musicians – guitarist Andrew White and keyboard player Nick “Peanut” Baines make up the quintet – started out under the name Parva. “Looking back it was a real slog, I wouldn’t do it again,” says Wilson. “There’s no guarantee that you’ll make it you just have to keep going. The number of times we were driving down the M1 on a mini-bus to a gig somewhere wondering if we we’re ever going to make it.”
Although they got a record deal as Parva, the big break never came. “We thought we were the kings of Leeds and we thought ‘right, that’s it the hard work’s over,’” says Rix. “So we learnt a valuable lesson because you realise there’s no moment where you can sit back and think you’ve made it, you’ve got to keep moving.”
It was only after they changed their name and became the Kaiser Chiefs that things started falling into place. Their debut album produced a string of hit singles including; Oh My God, Everyday I Love You Less and Less and I Predict a Riot, and earned them three Brit Awards in 2006.
But after two years away from the limelight they are no longer necessarily top of the bill at festivals. “A lot of bands that were our contemporaries either don’t exist or aren’t doing much, guitar music seems to have gone out of fashion, but our fans like what we’re doing and we think we’ve gained some new ones,” says Wilson. Doesn’t this bother them? “We want to be underground and cool but we also want to be headlining Wembley. We’re full of contradictions so we’ll never be happy because we want everything ... although we’ve had most of it,” he says, laughing.
As for the gigs at Kirkstall Abbey – their first in Yorkshire since the Leeds Festival two years ago – they’re looking forward to putting on a show. “It’s always a little bit different in Leeds because it’s our hometown but we’ve been away for a long time so it should be really exciting,” says Rix.
What’s refreshing is that unlike some rock stars I could mention they haven’t let their egos take over. They don’t travel in chauffeur-driven limos and are happy doing an interview in the beer garden of their old local without a gaggle of hangers-on. “We’re from Yorkshire, we’re not going to spend money on things like that,” jokes Wilson, from beneath his cloth cap. “That’s why we quite like not being headliners because when you’re headlining they expect you to bring fireworks, but when you’re one or two down the bill you just need to bring your instruments.”
* Kaiser Chiefs play Kirkstall Abbey, Leeds, on September 10 (Sold out) and September 11. For tickets call 0844 811 0051/ 0844 826 2826, or visit www.ticketmaster.com or www.gigsandtours.com