Q&A with Ricky Wilson of Kaiser Chiefs

By Andy Kaufmann

While these UK rockers have, to date, sold over three million albums worldwide, they’ve tried something daring and unique during the pre-release period for their latest (fourth) studio album––they not only enabled listeners to arrange their own track listing but to sample and choose their favorite 10 tracks from 20 being offered, design their own artwork and then earn a pound of profit every time that version was purchased by someone else. Officially, they released the collection in England as The Future Is Medieval, but on March 6 another version of the same album will be available stateside under the title Start The Revolution Without Me. A double gatefold vinyl pairing of both iterations is also on tap. To find out more about this unorthodox band, Music Connection chatted with Ricky Wilson, the Chiefs’ dynamic lead singer.

Music Connection: You named your band after a South African football team, Kaizer Chiefs. Do they know about you guys? What do they think about having a band named after them?

Ricky Wilson: Yeah, they know us now. We have been to see them and met them. We trained with them in South Africa. They seemed really pleased. It just heightened awareness of their team in the UK and even at our gigs people come wearing Kaizer Chiefs football shirts. So at least they’re making some money on merch.

MC: How did you come up with the songs for the new album? Was the writing process different than on your past albums?

Wilson: Yeah, it was. We finished the third record and toured it and although it’s fun, because being a rock band is essentially just fun, we started to get used to everything and it was all kind of the same. It was getting predictable, so we took some time off. Nick [Hodgson, Kaiser Chiefs’ drummer] had done some demos in his studio that he’d built, but nothing was getting done. Then I came up with this idea about how we could release [the new album] and, when I told Nick, I thought he’d lock me out of the studio. But then after half an hour of turning the idea, he was chipping in on other aspects of it. It gave us inspiration, just having a different way of releasing it. It gave us a different take on how we recorded. We didn’t make it in the traditional way, so it didn’t ebb and flow. Basically, if we were writing a song, we’d think of it as a single, which is the way the music industry is at the moment. The albums are kind of just a big envelope you put all the singles in.

MC: How did you choose “Little Shocks” as the first single off the new album?

Wilson: I can’t remember. I think Jim [Chancellor of Fiction Records] just really liked it. Because of the way we’d been working, we hadn’t been thinking about it in the traditional way––here’s the main single and let’s build around that. We kind of just trusted him. It’s an odd song, because it’s about playwright Joe Orton and specifically the day his boyfriend killed him with a hammer. It’s not your average subject matter for a three-minute pop song. Although it’s great to keep control, sometimes you have to trust the people around you and the fact that they’ve worked with others and might be able to see the woods for the trees more than you can.

“If record companies had jumped on [the Internet] earlier and channeled music into being a commodity like water or gas or electricity you pay for and got people used to that, then we’d all be billionaires. But no, they took the other route and said, no.”

MC: You’ve got some high-powered producers on your album, like Tony Visconti and Ethan Johns. How did they get involved in the project and what was their influence on the record?

Wilson: Producers are always for hire. You can always ask them and if they don’t like your band they’ll probably say no, but if they do and have the time then they’ll say yes. We were working on some songs in Nick’s studio and he was saying he couldn’t get these sounds he was hearing on other records. So we think, let’s hire the producer who got those sounds in the first place and invented that sound. So we met Tony Visconti in London when he was in town. We spent three weeks with him in a little studio on Dean Street in Soho.

Ethan came to me when we were rehearsing and said he really liked the demos. But at the end of the meeting, he said he didn’t think he was right for us. So we ended up talking him ‘round. Ethan Johns has a different approach––we [had to] play live or he wasn’t doing it. We’d do takes with vocals and everything at once. I was with the band in the same room for the first time. We’d never done that before. You play the wrong notes, you get the words wrong, but you’re doing it for the first time and creating it, so it’s not technically wrong because no one’s ever heard it before.

MC: How did you come up with the “create-your-own-album” concept?

Wilson: It was an answer to a problem, really. Our third album leaked a month before it was supposed to come out. That was heartbreaking, but it happens on every record now. So we wanted not to leak. How do you do that? You don’t tell anyone and you don’t ever send it to anyone. You just keep it under wraps. Another problem was we kind of didn’t want to do it all again. We didn’t want to go through the same thing––you write 11 songs, you go in with a producer, you put them out, you do the same radio shows, the same TV shows and go to the same places. You know what to expect. You want it to be more of a journey. And doing it a new way made it new. The night before it came out, I couldn’t sleep. That hadn’t happened before. The other thing is we needed to be inspired. We needed a kick-off, something to bring out some things. Basically, it was an answer to that.

Also, there’s a wider problem, which is that the value of songs has dropped, because music is free. There’s no magic price where it’s so cheap that people will pay for it. People will always take it for free if it’s available for free. We wanted to put back some of the value into getting a record, give them an experience of buying a record in the way that you experienced buying a record when it was more of a physical thing. You’d get on a bus, go to a shop and hand over your money. And in handing over your money, it was like entering a gang. Look, I’m into this. This band is part of who I am. It’s not just about clicking and it going into iTunes and then you might listen to it that day, you might listen to it in a week or you might never listen to it at all. It was more, hey, slow down and I’ll take you through the process of this buying a record thing. And people really have responded well to it. I’m not sure of the figures, but we had a million hits in the first weekend. Believe me, it didn’t translate into a million people clicking on the “add to basket,” but that didn’t really matter, because where it succeeded was we got people to slow down and play with it. One guy said, I don’t like Kaiser Chiefs; I listened to all 20 clips and only liked seven, so I didn’t buy it. I think that’s bloody brilliant. If you like seven songs on a record, that’s when you buy it. So the guy who didn’t like the band admitted to liking seven songs. We succeeded there.

 MC: What did Universal think of the concept? 

Wilson: We thought we were being mavericks and they wouldn’t get it. But we walked into the office and got all the way up to [Universal Music UK’s] David Joseph’s office. We’re telling him and he’s going, yeah, do it. I think the main reason they liked it was the band was doing something other than moaning at them saying, hey, why’s our record leaking and why aren’t we selling as many records as we did at this time last year? We’re saying, hey, we’ve got an idea and want to do it. We don’t think it’s theanswer, but it’s an answer to the problems that we all know exist. So I think they were just glad that someone was being proactive rather than just moaning.

MC: What else have you and the band done to discourage leaks?

Wilson: The other thing we did is we had 20 songs and kept them separate. They were on multiple archives all over the place. The first time they were available to buy was when we put them together and pressed enter on the computer. As soon as that happened, it leaked and spread like wildfire across the Internet. There’s nothing you can do. It’s just the way of the world. The attitude’s been changed far too much. I’m not sitting here saying, oh, it’s terrible––it’s too late for that. The attitudes of consumers have changed. And if record companies had jumped on it earlier and channeled music into being a commodity like water or gas or electricity you pay for and got people used to that, then we’d all be billionaires. But no, they took the other route and said, no, you can’t have music on the Intebrnet. Music’s like water. It will always trickle out. You can’t hold it in your hand; it will just trickle through.

MC: Whose decision was it to create two different albums for the English and American audiences?

Wilson: We brought out our physical in the UK mostly because we wouldn’t feel it was right to have a release without something physical to give to our mothers. We can’t let go of that just yet. We’re not breaking away from the pack that much. We were on Motown in America and that kind of crumbled. It was only at the end of last year that we got a new deal in America. And we were saying, oh, we’ll put a new song on it and that changed the track listing instantly. Then we thought, well, in the spirit of the way we released it, why don’t we let them change the track listing out of all the songs that were available? It was different enough that we thought we’d give it a different name and cover so it wasn’t confusing, especially for the fans who buy everything. Now, I prefer the American one to the UK [version].

MC: What’s the most important thing you’ve done as a band to create success?

Wilson: I was just thinking of this yesterday, because we were on the first day of our tour. We often have supported bands and I was thinking, what were we like then when we were doing our first supports? I think it’s just not taking anything for granted and never thinking about what’s going to happen in the future. You’ve just got to enjoy the moment.

The most important thing was that we genuinely wanted to be there. It was the best high in the world. That kind of enthusiasm came across and people thought, yeah, they’re not bullshitting. They’re enjoying themselves.

MC: What are your plans for supporting the new album? Were there any tours that were important for you to get onto?

Wilson: No. We’ve supported everyone in the past. We’ve been across America supporting everyone. We’ve done four Green Day tours. They’re great fun and it’s certainly good hanging out with those guys. Although we had the time of our lives, it doesn’t translate into that many sales. I’d rather just do our own shows, no matter how small they are. But weirdly, we’re doing the biggest tour we’ve ever done in America. The last time we went, we were knackered and it was relentless. We hadn’t had a break since 2004, pretty much. So now I’m going to America and we’re doing bigger theaters than we’ve ever done. We’re going, this is fucking brilliant. I’m not going to take it for granted.

MC: What else is coming up?

Wilson: We’re going across America and then in the summer, it’s just loads of festivals. I don’t know, maybe another UK tour. I’m the wrong person to ask. When we start another year of touring, someone just pulls the string on my back and lets me go. I don’t really think about it. If I start worrying about what I’m going to be doing in six months, my head is going to explode.

MC: Do you have any other thoughts on the industry?

Wilson: You know what? We tried something and I hope that other bands try things. We’re not as big as Radiohead in America, but we’re established in the UK, so we can afford to try new things. We’re allowed to do that. I wouldn’t suggest a new band come out and say, hey, we’re going to do some things entirely different, because people are cautious. Look how long it took for people to believe iTunes would really work. That was the problem with our website. People didn’t know if it would work. They didn’t have that much confidence in it. Attitudes take a long time to change and it has to happen naturally. You can’t force people to act differently when it comes to consuming music.

MC: Do you have any advice for artists trying to make it big?

Wilson: Stop trying to make it big. Start trying to enjoy it more and realize that it’s not about tomorrow. It’s about today pretty much all of the time. The most important thing is I’ve got a gig tonight and there’s nothing more important than that. People say, hold back on your voice because you’ve got another gig tomorrow. I don’t worry about the one tomorrow. I worry about the one tonight. I want it to be the best it can be. So there’s no holding back.


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