The Kaiser Chiefs: Blaze of glory

Life is a flaming riot for the Kaiser Chiefs. This is their hot moment. They are, right now, the band of the year. And Simmy Richman is on hand to watch their world explode...
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The Independent Culture

In the eight years it has taken the Kaiser Chiefs to become an overnight success, frontman Ricky Wilson has picked up a thing or two about the fickle nature of fame. "This kid from down the street used to chuck stones at me," he says. "The other week, he came round asking me to sign a CD and he was shaking. To be honest, I preferred it when he was throwing things at me. I knew where I stood then."

A further demonstration of Wilson's newly acquired cachet comes at the end of another long day on a tour that will eventually take these five young men from Leeds all around the world. As Peanut (keyboards, pork-pie hats) and Andrew "Whitey" White (guitar, occasional beanie) DJ at what the posters call an "aftershow party", Wilson emerges from the dressing-room and, spying an empty dancefloor, proceeds to bust his best punky-soulman moves. The 100 or so souls left in the Birmingham Academy are impressed, and within seconds Wilson's magnetism has drawn them to the floor. Job done, Wilson returns to the dressing-room. "These days," he proclaims, "it's like you have to give people permission to enjoy themselves. Unless someone shows them that it's OK to act like a fool, they never will. Too many people still think it's cool to be cool."

Cool is what the Kaiser Chiefs used to be. Nick Hodgson and Ricky Wilson first met when both fancied themselves top dancer at the Britpop-era soul and indie clubs they frequented in Leeds. "It was a dance-off," Wilson remembers. "Our paths were fated to cross." By 1997, Hodgson (a drummer) and Wilson had formed a group that traded under the name Runston Parva, before becoming plain Parva in 2001. The band released a couple of singles before being dropped by their label when nobody showed the slightest interest in their Stooges-obsessed garage-rock sound. It was 2003 and, after watching the American indie invasion spearheaded by the White Stripes and The Strokes, Wilson and Hodgson sat down to dream up a new direction.

Apart from the musicians, the pair knew that they had to leave behind everything associated with Parva. They had put six years of effort into being indie cool and got little in return. So Hodgson and Wilson decided to take a new approach. "We had no songs, no name and no money," Wilson remembers. "It was the most exciting day of our lives." "Whatever anybody tells you or wants you to believe," Hodgson adds, "nobody wants to sell no records." (Speaking about this rebirth, Hodgson has been quoted as saying: "We used to write songs for ourselves and if anyone else liked them it was a bonus. Now, we write songs for other people and if we like them it's a bonus." It's a great quote, but Hodgson has no recollection of ever saying this. He prefers, if he must, "We write lyrics to please ourselves and if anybody else hates them it's a bonus.")

This sense of humour is a key component of the Kaiser Chiefs' songwriting. For Hodgson, the scariest part of the whole process is when he first brings a new tune to his bandmates, although the fact that Peanut didn't at first think much of the widely adored "I Predict a Riot" has made the process slightly easier of late. "We're on the tour bus most of the time these days so I'm thinking about humming the new songs in their ears while they're all sleeping," Hodgson says. Usually, it is the drummer who will write the first line of a song before Wilson takes over. "We're funny people and we spend most of our time trying to make each other laugh," says Wilson of their songwriting routine. "So it's only natural we should try to get that across in our music."

The songs that make up the band's debut album, Employment, took less than six months to write. Then, endowed with a name taken from the South African football team Lucas Radebe played for before he joined the band's beloved Leeds United, the Kaiser Chiefs considered themselves ready to re-enter the world of pop. Their first, independently released single, "Oh My God", reached number 66 and won them a new record contract. The second, "I Predict a Riot", reached number 22 before a re-released version of the debut record went top 10. Just last month, the Kaiser Chiefs released their debut album to the sort of reviews Parva could (and did) only dream of.

"Addictive songs, this sensational album conveys what it is to be young in Britain in the 21st century," parped The Daily Telegraph. "If it doesn't sell like hotter than hot cakes, we should all pack up and go home," raved the London Evening Standard. "Kaiser Chiefs specialise in manic New Wave hyperactivity with once-heard, never-forgotten hooks," declared our own Simon Price. On top of that, last month also saw the Kaiser Chiefs become the hottest ticket in town at the increasingly influential South By South West Music Festival in Austin, Texas. "If last year belonged to Franz Ferdinand," reported The Sunday Times, "2005 is the Kaisers for the taking."

But today, the Kaiser Chiefs are in Birmingham, England and there is much work to be done. It is 1.30pm at Kerrang! Radio HQ (the heavy metal mag-turned-broadcaster has a mission statement: "Music With Attitude") and about 50 people are waiting patiently outside a locked glass door for their chance to witness the Kaiser Chiefs playing an "unplugged" session to an invited audience. Among the waiting crowd are Rob, James and Luke who are all in their early twenties, all wearing official Kaiser Chief ties, and have come from Wolverhampton to see their new favourite band.

Following this afternoon showcase, they will wait happily outside the Academy for four hours until the doors open for this evening's performance. The Chiefs themselves recognise the boys from many of their gigs over the past six months. Rob is dressed in a Ricky Wilson trademark stripy blazer. He is what we might, at one time, have called a mod but today he looks like Wilson's younger brother. I ask him what it is about the band he likes so much.

"They've got the whole Britpop thing but they've mixed it with a load of other influences," he burbles excitedly. "Britpop was great but it died out and a lot of the new British bands don't want to be part of any genre. The Kaiser Chiefs are poppy and quirky and they write about being young and British. No one else is doing that." "Yeah," agrees James, "they're writing about getting beaten up on a Saturday night and the whole chav thing."

While the band have started to tire of the subject, there is a distinct and unquestionable Britishness to what they do. It's there in the seaside-postcard/Carry On sauciness of much of their writing (such as "Everyday I love you less and less/ I can't believe once you and me did sex" and "I came down at your request/ On the National Express/ To touch your breast"). But there is also a wry Alan Bennett-ish cast to their observations of the way ordinary people live their lives - a cast which could only belong to young men from a northern town. The "chav" inference is taken from "I Predict A Riot", a song about binge-drinking that contains the verse: "I try to get in my taxi/ A man in a tracksuit attacks me/ Girls scrabble round with no clothes on/ To borrow a pound for a condom". You don't have to be from Leeds to recognise that scenario. It's a scene familiar to anyone who has tried to get out of Hoxton - or any other social centre - on any Saturday night over the past five years.

As the select few start to pile in to the Kerrang! building, Wilson - who has been happily standing at the back chatting about his visit to his mum and dad the previous night - decides it's time to disappear: "I wouldn't want to ruin the magic for everyone," he says as he slips "backstage" to the office. Moments later he is up on the small stage, rubbing his eyes at the ridiculousness of having to play power-pop at lunchtime in such a sterile environment.

It's a short, sit-down set that contains all of the songs that have been or will be hit singles and, when it is over, the band arrange themselves in a line at a table to sign CDs, shoes and anything else that gets thrust under their noses. A girl gives Wilson a school tie and pleads with him to wear it at the gig proper tonight. Peanut, Whitey and Simon Rix (the bass player with the natural perm) are passing the time by trying to guess what letter of the alphabet each fan's surname begins with ("You're a W, for sure," they say; and though they are never right, it does at least prove to be a highly effective way of preventing fans from being overcome with awe). Hodgson and Wilson, meanwhile, are patiently posing for the mobile-phone photos that are an essential part of any interaction with a famous person in the 21st century.

As Wilson comes face to face with super-fan Rob, you can't help wondering what he makes of being confronted by this mini-me. "I used to do it myself," he says later. "I'd wear my Adidas Gazelles when I went to see Blur. It makes you feel part of the gang and I like it that people can join in. It was a bit weird when we started seeing all these stripy blazers. Nick bought his quite a while ago and now we're seeing them in Topman and thinking, 'Surely, we can't have had anything to do with that?' It's one of the best things about being in a band that you get a licence to dress like an idiot and get away with it."

In the break between the radio appearance and the evening's sell-out show at the nearby Carling Academy, Hodgson and Wilson take time out to talk about this exciting stage of their career. "We've been working our whole lives for this moment," Wilson says. "We're used to playing venues that are smaller than the stage in this place and tonight's show will be the biggest we've done as a headline band. We've sold 2,700 tickets and any band that tells you they don't want people to like them is lying. On top of that, it's still a novelty for us to get proper soundchecks and sandwiches in the dressing-room. From October," he says, licking his lips, "we'll be getting our own catering and from then on it's going to be lamb shank every day."

Before that, on 30 April, the band will also get to fly in a private jet for the first time when they take part in the Carling Live 24-hour event in north London before being flown out to Amsterdam for a show in the evening. Of the brewery-sponsored Lear jet the band are expecting, Wilson jokes, "It's about time we got something back for all the money we've invested in that company."

There is something refreshingly different about this honest ability to enjoy the fruits (and lamb shanks) of their labour. "Oasis came out and said, 'We want it and we're not afraid to say it'," Hodgson says, "but then they went to America and didn't want to shake people's hands and play smaller venues than they were used to playing back home." Alex Needham, deputy editor of New Musical Express, concurs. "With Oasis and Blur there was a hangover of the indie attitude where it was cool not to make too much of an effort," he points out. "I think that now everyone has got wised up to the different attitude it takes to be successful in America."

It's an attitude that appears to be paying off. Time magazine has already declared that the Kaiser Chiefs' "explosive success is a sure sign that, after years of being overshadowed by rave, hip-hop and prefabricated pop bands, British rock'n'roll is back." It's worth pointing out that where UK acts had a 32-per-cent market share in the US charts in 1986, by the end of the 1990s this had dropped to just 0.2 per cent. (Joss Stone alone will ensure that figure is higher this year; and the Kaiser Chiefs entering the Billboard chart at 86 will do no harm either.)

"If we could act as excited as we really are by all of this," Wilson says surveying an empty Academy, "we'd be bouncing off the walls. But somehow, when you're on the inside, you only get an occasional glimpse of what's happening on the outside. We're going to the States again next month and then Japan and Australia and maybe we'll get a clearer view of things then. Right now, I'm so tired that my dream is to be able to just lie on my couch and drift off watching Murder She Wrote on the telly."

In the hours to kill before they go on stage, the Kaiser Chiefs amuse themselves in a variety of ways in the small backstage dressing-room. Peanut busies himself on his laptop burning the music to which the band will take the stage later tonight. Whitey is immersed in a hand-held video driving game ("You made me crash into a bollard," he splutters when someone hands him yet another item to sign). Hodgson is fumbling around in his rucksack for a "speciality teabag" (echinacea and ginger) and his own mug. Rix is walking around in his blue parka looking for all the world like a lost schoolboy.

Wilson, meanwhile, is resting up and chatting about what he might do when the Chiefs' moment is up. "I reckon when all this is over," he says, "I can always go off and do one of those 2005 nostalgia tours, appearing as Ricky Wilson's Kaiser Chiefs, with none of the original band. I studied graphic design and lectured a bit too," he says, "so perhaps all I really want from life is a nice house in Cumbria, a 4x4, a gravel path and a lecturing job that enables me to keep flirting with teenage girls."

As it turns out, all of the Kaiser Chiefs bar Peanut are in long-term relationships. How does Wilson's girlfriend feel knowing that he's out there every night with women literally throwing themselves at him? "You haven't seen me at the end of a show," he says. "I come off stage all red and puffy and sweaty. No one in their right mind could fancy me looking like that."

A couple of hours later, entirely true to his word, Wilson comes off stage red, puffy and dripping, as euphoric as the audience he has just left behind. Having played an hour of upbeat punky pop songs to a crowd that jumps and sways and darts in all directions from first beat to last, Wilson ends the show doused in champagne and rolling around the stage with a member of the support band, the Cribs. He is still wearing the tie that was given to him earlier in the day at the Kerrang! Radio signing.

On his return to the dressing room, he sits down, knocks back some bubbly and practices his newfound skill of "speaking in pull quotes". "Do you know my name is an anagram of 'I KNOW LYRICS'," he announces to all and sundry. Then, "I'm still trying to work out which is Lennon and which is McCartney with me and Nick." (Wilson is definitely MacCartney.)

It is this energy, charm and old-fashioned charisma which ensure that the Kaiser Chiefs will not blow their moment. If the first wave of Britpop was Thatcher's children's way of breaking out of the upwardly-mobile conformist culture of the 1980s, the Kaiser Chiefs are a different proposition altogether. All in their mid-twenties and from "normal, middle-class, stable homes, which probably makes us unique in rock'n'roll", the Kaiser Chiefs have spent the entirety of their adult lives under a New Labour government. What makes them (and Franz Ferdinand before them) different is their ability to win over indie hearts and mainstream minds without forcing either to feel compromised. Perhaps the Kaiser Chiefs represent pop's "third way".

Certainly you can say that Wilson's skill as a frontman is in being able to appear cool to anyone who wants to think of him that way, while also manifesting as the sort of easy-going, boy-next-door pop star your gran might look up from her knitting to watch. Edgy and homely in equal measure, the Chiefs are at the front of a pack of new British bands (such as Bloc Party, Kasabian, Futureheads, Doves) who grew up listening to punk, New Wave, the Beatles, the Kinks, Madness, Blur - all the sorts of music at which the English excel. But perhaps more than any other member of that pack, they've merged those influences into something unique and somehow very now.

"The only thing all us bands have in common," Hodgson tells me, "is that we were all teenagers when the Britpop thing happened and then - while The Strokes and the White Stripes were good - there was suddenly a wave of dross from America that we're all, in our own way, reacting against."

Wilson, meanwhile, has more pressing matters to attend to. "Look, forget about which one of us is Lennon and which is McCartney," he says. "Me and Nick are more Peter Cook and Dudley Moore anyway and I definitely want to be Pete." He is, of course, Dudley all over. But even that is not going to stop 2005 from being the Kaiser Chiefs' year.

The Kaiser Chiefs play Carling Live 24 at 11am this Saturday at the Islington Academy, London N1 (020 7288 4400; The album 'Employment' is out now on B-Unique records