Kaiser Chiefs: True Brits

They're tipped to be this year's Glastonbury heroes. But don't expect rock'n'roll lifestyles from the Kaiser Chiefs. Steve Hobbs joins five ordinary lads on the road to stardom.
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It's 3am, traditionally the rock star's playtime, and on the Kaiser Chiefs' tour bus, somewhere in Quebec, all five band members are singing their little hearts out. "Curly, Pie Face, Gnasher on Drums / When Dennis the Menace Comes / Takes his mike and sings to you / And all the crowd goes Boo-ooo," they chant in unison as the lights of Montreal fade slowly behind us. "We're Dennis and the Dinmakers. Dennis and the Dinmakers ..."

"That's the first song I ever wrote," says Nick Hodgson by way of explanation. "It says a lot about you whether you read the Beano or the Dandy as a kid." The Kaiser Chiefs' drummer and secret pop Svengali scowls fiercely, daring me to be a Dandy man. Red faced and still sweaty from tonight's endeavours, he's sipping from a bottle of water and, with his school-uniform stage costume all askew, looks for all the world like a polite public-school boy possessed by the spirit of a Las Vegas cabaret compère. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Kaiser Chiefs. Rock'n'roll, but not as we know it.

"I wrote it when I joined the Beano's Dennis the Menace and Gnasher fan club and sent it in for their band, Dennis and The Dinmakers, to perform," he says. "As far as I know they never did. When we have our own sitcom it can be the theme tune."

If anyone had dared to see the funny side of Cool Britannia in 1994 and made a sitcom about Britpop, they could have done a lot worse than cast the Kaiser Chiefs as the house band. A proper gang of school friends, together they exude the kind of flawlessly timed banter that comes only from years of living in each other's pockets. Spending time with them is a bit like living through an episode of The Monkees reinvented in Leeds, scripted by the Likely Lads.

"We basically are Dennis and The Dinmakers," says the band's singer, Ricky Wilson. "There's Curly and Pie Face." He gestures at Simon Rix, the Kaisers' unfeasibly white, afro'd bass player, and at Peanut (Nick Baines), their keyboard stooge and inexplicable hit with teenage girls - he looks a bit like a Pete Doherty - who has developed an interest in, well, pies. "And it's a great song," adds Wilson, nodding graciously at his bandmate. "A simple single-line chorus, repeated four times." He grins broadly. "Have you heard the Kaiser Chiefs album?"

He has a point. Leave aside for a moment the jaunty one-liners and fab-foolery that have made them darlings of pop-music TV. Take as read their natural gift for Alan Bennetisms on sing-alongs such as "I Predict a Riot", where "Girls scrabble round with no clothes on / To borrow a pound for a condom / If it wasn't for chip fat they'd be frozen." Nevermind their boy-next-door good looks and art-school blazers. What the Kaiser Chiefs have in spades are damned good tunes. Simple, catchy, instant classics, destined to be the beery toast of every festival visitor over the coming months, starting next weekend with Glastonbury. Every summer, British festivalgoers make heroes of the band with the biggest, bounciest, sing-along choruses. And that's exactly what the Kaiser Chiefs do best.

In case you've spent the past three months in a soundproofed cave, the Chiefs' breakthrough single was the big, shouty, impossibly catchy "Oh My God I Can't Believe It" - part terrace chant, part anthem for the lonely Brit abroad. Their début album, Employment, has sold 325,000 copies in the UK since its release in March, making them, in industry terms at least, this year's Franz Ferdinand. Musical magpies with a very British ear for glittery pop, the Kaiser Chiefs shamelessly plunder their musical heritage for the tastiest morsels of quirkily melodic XTC and the lyrical whimsy of The Jam, The Kinks and Blur, mixed up with the cheerful, tuneful stupidity of Madness. They must be doing something right if Liam Gallagher can be bothered to insult them (he called them a "bad Blur") and Sir Paul McCartney calls himself a fan. f

After a self-financed version of "Oh My God" worked its fiendishly infectious magic on the band's growing and enthusiastic live fan base and nudged the single into the charts, the record companies who had written them off as "just too old" (they're mainly in their mid-twenties) were forced to open their cheque books. Employment appeared under the Universal umbrella to ecstatic reviews, and the Kaiser Chiefs swaggered out as the opening act for this year's NME New Bands Tour, the slot previously held by Franz Ferdinand, Coldplay and Travis, and on a bill that included hip contemporaries The Futureheads and Bloc Party.

Employment is the album that makes it fun to be an indie kid for the first time since The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays played alongside one another at The Hacienda during its late-Eighties baggy heyday. Guitar music you can actually dance to, or at least jump up and down to. Add Wilson's demented, high-kicking, mike-stand hurling and crowd-surfing performance and you have the near-perfect English-summer guitar-pop act.

On the bus, band conversation has returned to favourite comedy shows and the Kaiser Chiefs are exhibiting their anoraks' knowledge of the history of the British domestic-situation comedy. Over in a corner, Wilson beckons quietly to his chief technician. "Do you think we could hacksaw down the legs of my mic stand?" he asks with a pained expression. "Only it's a bit big and heavy."

The truth is, and whisper it softly lest the Gallaghers hear, there's nothing very rock'n'roll about the Kaiser Chiefs. Their "wild" front man, Wilson, a self-confessed sickly child, has recently suffered an ectopic heartbeat on the road and has had to cut both dairy and caffeine from his diet. Peanut suffers an irrational fear of sharks. "It's amazing to see a grown man so scared of something he has only ever seen on the television," the Kaisers' reassuringly pessimistic guitarist, Whitey (Andrew White), tells me later. And travelling in pride of place on the band bus is an embarrassingly large collection of soft toys. "They belong to the driver," the band all insist sheepishly.

Looking back, the clues were there from the outset that these weren't the toughest of Northern boys. We arrived earlier that day at Club Soda, on the edge of one of Montreal's seamier neighbourhoods, to find the band huddled, trapped in their changing room, afraid to make the five-metre trip from the venue to the bus because two battered-looking women of indeterminate age have been hassling them for pennies outside the venue's back door.

"Maybe if we offer them an umbrella they won't rob us!" Hodgson suggests dejectedly, looking at the heavy, Montreal rain clouds. "Mind you, it will mean getting wet."

The gauntlet run, Wilson lets out a deep sigh and settles contentedly into the bus sofa, safe at last. "So," he says blowing out his cheeks, "will you join me in a white-wine spritzer?"

In the flesh, the Kaisers are perhaps the nicest and best-mannered young men you are ever likely to meet on a tour bus. Despite hailing from Leeds, the city that produced 1970s punk rockers, The Mekons, and those angry Goths, The Sisters of Mercy, I'd happily take any of them home to meet my mum, if I weren't worried that she might immediately adopt them all to make sure they were eating properly and had clean shirts to wear. And they're so sensible it makes your heart melt. Even the entry code for the bus has been programmed to match the Leeds phone area code so no one will forget it.

"Being rock'n'roll is a bit boring, isn't it really?" Ricky says sagely as the clock strikes four. "And it must be really hard work, especially if you are expected to play a show every night. I'm going to be suffering tomorrow after that pitcher of beer." And with that, the Kaisers go to bed. All of them, except Peanut, brush their teeth before climbing into their bunks.

After driving through the night, we wake up the next morning in downtown Toronto. This is when it hits you that there is nowhere to go. There's just a straight choice between the bus, with its primordial rock miasma, and one of the coffee shops and diners that surround the deserted Club Mod, where it's still 10 hours to show time. Rix and Whitey are already out on the pavement, shuffling awkwardly in the early afternoon sunshine. Peanut, of course, is still fast asleep and snoring gently in his bunk. We adjourn to a diner to wait some more.

"Being in a semi-successful rock band is all about waiting," Rix says. "Not time off, just waiting for things to happen or to be called f for. And you get a whole lot less sleep. It's all different from what you expect when you're 15."

"Sometimes I miss my freedom," agrees Whitey. The most publicity-shy of the Kaisers and the oldest by a couple of years, he is the band member most likely to retire early to a country pile to restore old Lambrettas and collect guitars. "Fair enough, I was broke, but I could think about what I wanted to do. Now someone tells me what to do all of the time. I find that quite hard as a 30-year-old man. Don't get me wrong, I love this, but ultimately my life is on hold while the band goes on. I'm doing it to improve my quality of life when it is over."

Waiting is something the Kaiser Chiefs - named after the South African football team Lucas Radebe played for before signing to Leeds - have become good at in their eight-year, "meteoric rise". Theirs is a heart-warming tale of determination and self-belief in the face of an increasingly uninterested music business. In an unlamented and rarely remembered past life they had a brief deal as a Detroit-lite, Stooges-sounding garage band called Parva. A couple of singles including the woeful "Good Bad Right Wrong" followed. In short, they were terrible.

"We would sing about high school in a really American way and you can tell it's bullshit," Wilson remembers. "I don't know anything about it, but I would try so hard to [make it] sound believable and it just didn't." It was 2003 and the British music-buying public had enough real American music to buy with the invasion of The Strokes and The White Stripes to pay any attention to a bunch of oiks from Leeds with mid-Atlantic accents. So he and Hodgson went back to songwriting basics. The Kaiser Chiefs were born, immersed in what they really knew: middle-class, urban life in Leeds.

"Nick and I now just write lyrics to amuse one another," Wilson says. "It's not that clever or anything, but it's the only thing that works."

Whatever it is they have uncovered in their Northern country roots, by way of Detroit and the BBC's sitcom library, its effect seems to be universal. Here in Toronto the boys have sold out their Club Mod show and the local radio station is in a Britpop frenzy because Damon Albarn is also in town promoting his new Gorillaz single.

"I predict a guest appearance," Wilson says, grinning archly. Then the band is whisked away by a pretty North American record company executive to banter cheerfully on the radio.

"Don't forget you are in Canada, so don't mention America," she reminds them as they bundle like reluctant school children into the back of her car. Pulling away into traffic, Whitey smiles at me ruefully through the window.

Peanut finally emerges from the bus some time later and looks around anxiously. "You don't know where our hotel is do you?" he asks.

That night in Club Mod, Kaiser Chiefs scalp another North American crowd even before Damon Albarn joins them on stage for a bellowing rendition of "I Predict a Riot" that verges on self-fulfilling prophesy. Wilson, at his flailing, high-kicking, snarling best has the energy to make the walls of any venue drip with sweat all on his own, but tonight everyone gets it. What sounds amusing and diverting on CD becomes important and profound live. And half way through the set Wilson has the intimate club crowd divided up into a clap-along contest that is pure festival warm-up.

Backstage after the show, it could be 1994 again as Damon Albarn sashays around the VIP bar conferring pop blessings on his young disciples. Keane too have turned up at the club for a drink after their nearby show and the local, scooter-riding Britpop fans can't believe their luck at this impromptu visitation from the new aristocracy. Suddenly, in tribute, the lights go out and strobes hit the stage as the club's DJ takes his place behind the decks to a pounding crescendo of block-rocking, rumbling beats that spills over into "Rule Britannia", remixed to a shouty "Cool Britannia" refrain. The Kaiser Chiefs exchange glances of amazement and stare down at their shoes, appalled. There's no point in telling them Oasis would have loved it.

By 3am, Ricky Wilson has consumed his fair share of white-wine spritzers and is all shiny-eyed enthusiasm. "This is just brilliant," he enthuses. "And you know the best bit?" he shouts into my face, not waiting for a reply. "It won't be long and I'll be able to buy my parents a nice little place in Spain!" He smiles happily to himself, then pauses, drunk-serious and momentarily worried. "You will make us look cool though, won't you?"

Kaiser Chiefs play Glastonbury on Saturday