How landfill indie swallowed guitar music in the mid-Noughties

As the Kaiser Chiefs return with a new album, Ed Power wonders what made the world turn on an entire generation of bands

Sunday 28 July 2019 07:12
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Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefs performs on the Other Stage at Glastonbury 2011
Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefs performs on the Other Stage at Glastonbury 2011

At an identikit rock festival in the summer of 2008, Kaiser Chiefs’ Ricky Wilson ran out screaming. He dashed, then huffed, and finally walked purposefully to the lip of the mosh pit, where he appeared to square off against a knot of unimpressed punters. The band blazed through “Everything Is Average Nowadays” and “Everyday I Love You Less and Less”. At no point did the usually amiable Wilson look less than entirely wound up.

It was the early afternoon. This was the Yorkshire quintet’s umpteenth outdoor concert of the season. By no measure could this be considered a career landmark. Yet the Kaisers, or their avuncular frontman at least, clearly felt he had something to prove. But what? And to whom?

“We were on before Rage Against the Machine and the whole place seemed to be full of their fans,” Wilson later explained. “A lesser band would have put their head down and just got through the set. We weren’t prepared to do that. So I dashed straight out and into the pit. I was like, ‘come on you f***er. I dare you not to like me.’”

That Wilson would feel in competition with the elder statesmen of Marxist rap metal, if not actively threatened by their fans, felt strange. Indie pop and conscientious headbanger rock occupied two mutually exclusive universes, no matter that they happened to be sharing a bill (at Oxegen in Ireland, if you care).

But then the summer of 2008 was a spectacularly prickly moment for indie groups such as Kaiser Chiefs. Increasingly, they could forgiven for thinking the world was turning on them. Several months previously a soon-to-be-dreaded phrase had entered the pop lexicon. “Landfill indie” spoke to the glut of blokey indie outfits and the sometimes lamentable quality of their music. Soon the words would conjure a chill wherever two or more slouching rockers with jangly guitars gathered.

Kaiser Chiefs, still very much around, were really only landfill indie by association. Their best songs were supremely catchy; they deserved better than to be lumped in with the quickly forgotten The Ordinary Boys, The Holloways, The Hoosiers etc.

That they have released a new album, Duck, is testament to the power of endurance. Not every artist would slough off the landfill indie slur, however. The term would eventually claim a generation of victims. A decade on, the majority have yet to recover from the backlash, as Johnny Borrell discovered when trying to relaunch Razorlight last year. Once a landfill indie band, always a landfill indie band.

Landfill indie wasn’t just one of those quippy putdowns at which the music press excelled back when there was a music press. It crystallised the unease that had started to form that the post-Strokes boom in indie pop was getting out of hand. As soon as we clapped ears on the phrase, it was as if the scales fell away. Landfill indie – of course, that was it. It was why every time you switched on the radio you were assailed by another Libertines knock-off.

“Landfill indie was always bands who unflinchingly magpied all the cliched bits of The Kinks, The Smiths and Oasis,” says Sean Adams, social media producer at BBC Radio 6 Music and founder of Drowned in Sound, the music blog that chronicled the rise and fall of many of these groups through the decade. “Or [else] they were bedsit Libertines tribute bands – hello The Paddingtons – desperately trying to get themselves into the NME.”

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Kaiser Chiefs in 2008: ‘What drew me to the band was their contrary nature,’ says Sean Adams (Getty)

This was unprecedented: a UK music scene with which absolutely nobody wanted to be associated. Yet the candidates picked themselves. The Libertines, Kaisers etc were perhaps too successful and individualistic to be lumped in (not everyone will agree). Still, there was no lack of other contenders. Razorlight we’ve mentioned.

To them we can add The Pigeon Detectives, The Ting Tings, The Kooks, Larrikin Love, Hadouken! (what’s with the exclamation mark!), The Rumble Strips, The View, The Fratellis, Scouting for Girls... cripes, there were a lot of them, weren’t there?

We could go on. The record industry certainly did, signing up indie bands as if they were going out of fashion. Which, it turns, out they were.

“This whole period was kind of important for bands, but it was a f***ing revolution for A&R,” Razorlight’s Johnny Borrell, of all people, told Vice in 2016. “Back in the day, A&R [artists and repertoire – a record label’s talent scouting division] meant going out to gigs and watching bands, but in this era, it became sitting at your computer trawling Myspace, then Facebook and YouTube, for the freshest, youngest thing going. Bands weren’t allowed to develop on their own before they were swept up in the machine.”

The provenance of terms such as Britpop, baggy, acid house etc are generally cloaked in mystery. We can carbon date “landfill indie” to a precise date and time. It was coined in 2008 in The Word magazine by journalist Andrew Harrison. That was quite poetic as, a decade earlier, Harrison had helped stoke the Britpop hellfires by bunging Brett Anderson on the cover of Select Magazine framed by a Union Jack (to the enduring disgruntlement of Anderson).

“Landfill indie was one of the decade’s great memes. Coined by Andrew Harrison of The Word magazine, it captured that sense of alarming overproduction, the gross excess of supply over demand,” music critic and historical Simon Reynolds would write in 2010 when the tide had truly gone out (ironically The Word would itself cease publication 2012, and so barely outlive landfill indie). “All these bands! Where did they come from? Why did they bother?”

“Indie has become a meaningless term. It just covers guitar bands,” Harrison would tell The Independent in the summer of 2008 – the very summer Kaiser Chiefs were squaring off against Rage Against the Machine fans at random festivals. “It was never meant to be about a type of music, it was a spirit and an attitude. When I glance around the bands that are supposedly ‘indie’ today, I don’t see any attitude. I don’t see any content in their records, any political interest in the band members.

“They’re a terrible generation, unfortunately, but they’re becoming famous overnight and selling a lot of records. I’ve heard them called ‘mortgage indie’. It’s a career path – a way of making a lot of money very quickly. The Kooks did so well so quickly. Scouting For Girls, from a standing start, have become a really big band. The Fratellis have become massive in a remarkably short time.”

The floor would give way just as fast. Kaiser Chiefs’ third album came out later that year. It was produced by Mark Ronson and was about as appealing as you would imagine a 2008 Kaiser Chiefs album produced by Mark Ronson to be. In indie rock, this truly was a summer, autumn and winter of discontent.

The Kooks second LP, Konk, had already crashed and burnt. The Pigeon Detectives released their own follow-up record and vanished for three years. The Hoosiers’ The Illusion of Safety, when it eventually saw daylight in 2010, would sell 25,000 copies compared to the 650,000 shifted by their debut, The Trick to Life. It doesn’t feel all that hyperbolic to claim that an extinction event was underway. A great big hole had opened up; the entire landfill indie generation was being tipped in.

The Kooks: after finding fame almost overnight, their second LP was a flop

What caused the world to turn on landfill indie? The obvious answer is that many of the bands were nothing more than threadbare rip-offs of The Libertines, who were in turn hugely derivative of The Strokes. Nor did it help that the alpha and omega of jangly 21st-century pop were themselves in the wars. The Libertines had by 2008 been replaced by the Pete Doherty Circus (he was a musician who took drugs and this was apparently hugely exciting). The Strokes, for their part, had by that point lost interest in making interesting records. They seem to have never rediscovered the passion.

The commodification of the genre also contributed towards its death knell. In his remarkable 2016 Vice appraisal of landfill indie, Johnny Borrell asked the interviewer to slap on the 2008 Kings of Leon hit “Sex on Fire”. He singled out this song as the ultimate landfill indie moment.

The vocals, he pointed out, came in at 29 seconds, the chorus at 53 seconds. He next asked the journalist to play “Dakota” by Stereophonics. The chorus came in at 29 seconds, the chorus 53 seconds. Modern indie bands were turning into Stereophonics tribute acts. The end truly was nigh.

“It’s in the same key, at the same tempo; it’s the same macho, bloke mumbling in the verse, and a big chorus with loads of extended vowel sounds,” Borrell elaborated. “It’s like we’ve been on this whole journey, and suddenly we’re back in the late Nineties with the Stereophonics song formula.”

Like all the most potent viruses, landfill indie didn’t just simply give up, however. It mutated. If Ricky Wilson putting it up to Rage Against the Machine fans in 2008 suggested indie rock was having a crisis, we should consider that just over a year later Mumford & Sons would release their debut album.

Landfill indie lay six feet under; raggle-taggle folk performed by grinning chaps with alarming facial hair was about to sweep in to take its place. As Mumfords, Noah and the Whale and later Hozier, the man-bun messiah, conquered all, music fans could be forgiven a moment of introspection. Perhaps we should have treasured the The Pigeon Detectives while we had them (don’t cry – they’re still around).

The first glimmerings of landfill indie nostalgia manifested in 2016, when Rowan Martin of the band Rhythm Method started the #indieamnesty hashtag on Twitter. He did so in such a way as to suggest early 21st-century indie pop should be considered a guilty pleasure. Yet many of those who took up the hashtag and ran with it didn’t come across as guilty in the least.

“Sung along to The Others’ ‘This Is for the Poor’. Wasn’t poor,” wrote Fred Macpherson of late-stage landfill band Spector. “Was allowed to jump the queue outside a club in 2007 because they thought I was Luke from The Kooks,” tweeted Radio 1 DJ Greg James. “Was in The Coral,” wrote Bill Ryder Jones.

There were survivors too, of course. Sean Adams goes so far as to state that not every landfill indie band even merited the designation. A case in point: those chirpy Kaiser Chiefs.

“Their iridescent melodies was what drew me in but I always felt like in their artful, knowing, archness, they were more like a British Weezer,” he says.

“At a time when British bands trying to be The Strokes or The Datsuns, with crap leather jackets and a sudden love of MC5 and The Stooges, were getting attention, the Kaisers went in a totally different direction. They were swimming against a tide of Americanised rock and nu-metal’s dregs. They made something quintessentially British, that felt like it had the cheek of the north in its DNA. What drew me to the band was their contrary nature.”

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