Ricky Wilson interview: Kaisers get creative again

The Kaiser Chiefs. Picture: Danny North
The Kaiser Chiefs. Picture: Danny North
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After a difficult couple of years, the Kaiser Chiefs are back with a new album. Duncan Seaman spoke to the band’s lead singer Ricky Wilson.

“I’M getting too political now; I’m dragging myself into the political world,” says Ricky Wilson, sitting sideways across a chair in the offices of Real Radio in Tingley.

The 36-year-old singer is reflecting on the title of the new album by his band the Kaiser Chiefs – Education, Education, Education and War – adapted from a 1996 soundbite by the then Labour leader and aspiring prime minister Tony Blair.

He denies that the band were looking to make a political statement of their own. “We’re not politicians, we wouldn’t want to be – it seems like the worst job in the world,” he says. “I think it takes a special kind of moron to become a politician – especially at the moment because it just seems to be like a popularity contest.”

Yet, he considers: “It’s weird because it’s a famous speech, the ‘education, education, education’ one, but that one was 20 years ago and the weirdest thing about that is the last time any British politician made a speech I can remember was nearly 20 years ago so it’s like no one wants to say anything any more.

“And I think at some point during our career we didn’t want to say anything any more. We were worried we’d get asked questions like that and we’d have to explain ourselves but then again you just have to have a little bit of abandon about it and go, ‘Do you know what? If the questions are going to come, they’re going to come’.

“If people think we’re trying to be political they’re going to twist it. Everyone’s going to twist everything so just don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about what people think.”

Wisely, Wilson declines to say who he votes for, “because at the end of the day I’m a pop star and I’m not going to change the world – I just want to make them dance”.

Wilson may now be a television star thanks to a highly successful stint as a judge on the primetime BBC show The Voice yet this album, the Kaiser Chiefs’ fifth, emerged from a difficult period for Leeds’s most successful band of modern times. Modest sales of their previous two records – Off With Their Heads and The Future is Medieval, an internet experiment in which they allowed fans to download their own track list from an array of 20 songs – had been followed by the departure of drummer Nick Hodgson, the band’s principal songwriter. Yet adversity seems to have brought out the best in them. “We’ve always been at our best when our backs are against the wall, when we’ve been fighting out of a corner, when we’re the underdog,” Wilson says. “I don’t think it really suits us when we’re on top. I don’t like being comfortable because I’m not creative when I’m comfortable. Everyone needs a shake-up every now and again, not just for creativity but more to remind you of how hard you worked at the beginning and how much you wanted it at one point.”

Hodgson apparently told his band mates that he thought the Kaiser Chiefs were finished without him. “Was I upset?” Wilson says, when asked how he reacted. “Upset is a weird way of putting it. I was probably angry but I never doubted the fact that I could still be in a band.”

The anger seems to have dissipated and the pair are back on friendlier terms. “I saw him just the other week when we opened the new wing of Old Chapel, the rehearsal rooms in Holbeck that we had,” Wilson says. “We all went up there because while Nick was still in the band we donated a bit of cash to the new wing.” Hodgson’s replacement, Vijay Mistry, previously drummed for Leeds group Club Smith. It turns out Simon Rix, the Kaiser Chiefs’ bass player, was once in a band with Mistry, “so we knew him really well”.

“Before getting a great drummer we knew we had to travel around the world with him, we wanted to have a great friend and he’s such a nice guy,” says Wilson.

Seeing the world through their new recruit’s eyes “is making me appreciate it a lot more because he’s appreciating it...Getting on an aeroplane isn’t a chore for him and it shouldn’t be for me, so I’m enjoying it a lot more.” Wilson recently said he thought the new album surpasses even Employment, their debut album which sold two million copies and was nominated for the 2005 Mercury Prize. “I wouldn’t have made it if I didn’t,” he affirms today. “No one should make anything if they don’t think they’re improving.”

Education, Education, Education and War’s shares Employment’s feisty spirit. It feels almost like a debut. “The thing is,” Wilson says, “it’s the closest in DNA to our first because it’s the closest we’ve been to that group of people again, with that amount of jeopardy, because we knew we had to be twice as good to come up with the results.”

Many of the songs have a bleak backdrop but even in the darkest recesses the band have a knack of finding hope. “I’m glad you see that,” says Wilson, although he admits he’s not, by nature, an optimist. “I think the album touches on a lot of stuff about futility and it is quite dark, but because it is quite dark the moments of hope shine brighter. But,” he smiles, “it’s still pop music.” The song Bows and Arrows has been billed as the first that Wilson and Rix have written together. Yet it transpires that there was one previous, less notable ditty, called Cagoule, which Wilson says, “no one’s going to hear”. Bows and Arrows “shows that we’ve come a long way”, he adds. “It was an education last year for us, it was discovering that we have learned how to write songs and we always could do it. It took a big shake-up to have the confidence to admit that.”

Exclusive: PostMusic podcast with Kaisers’ frontman Ricky Wilson

• Education, Education, Education and War was released this week. The Kaiser Chiefs play Doncaster Racecourse on June 28 and Sheffield Arena on July 18.