“Kaiser Chiefs have done rather well out of having ideas above our station,” decides Ricky Wilson, reflecting on the multi-platinum pop crusade that continues this summer with the release of brilliantly idiosyncratic pop record Stay Together — the follow up to the #1 album Education, Education, Education & War. “Making our first album, we weren’t trying to be the best indie band in Leeds. We weren’t even just competing with guitar bands. Almost by accident, we were competing with Girls Aloud.”
Funny how things turn out. Fast-forward twelve years and the country’s biggest girlband have split, reformed and split again. Kaiser Chiefs, meanwhile, have managed lose only one member and now present their sixth album. It’s a spiky, surprisingly romantic affair bursting with the verve, ambition and great tunes that first propelled the band to household name status, and it’s been produced — plot twist! — by Brian Higgins, the Grammy award-winning producer whose Xenomania hit factory conjured Girls Aloud’s record-breaking run of Top 10 singles.
Alongside euphoric lead single Parachute, Stay Together boasts a double-chorused title track that sounds like it’s been plucked from somewhere between the grooves of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and takes the listener on a journey through pulsating electro (Press Rewind) and low-slung grooves (Good Clean Fun). And that’s before you even consider anthemic banger Hole In My Soul, a song so festival-ready it’s already packed its wellies.
“We noticed something on our last tour,” Ricky recalls, explaining the album’s genesis. “Before we’d go on stage we’d play an hour of music to get hyped up. We’d play the new release by a guitar band, and everyone would think it was quite good. Next thing you know someone’s thrown on Major Lazer and everyone’s dancing and going berserk. I remember thinking, one night, when all this was happening: ‘Do you know what, I don’t think we’re into making a standard guitar record this time round’.”
As fans of Brian Higgins’ work — which also includes music with Pet Shop Boys, Kylie, Gossip, New Order and Saint Etienne — and his unconventional approach to writing, Kaiser Chiefs approached the producer, who agreed to see them live. “The bottom line with Kaiser Chiefs,” Higgins says, “is that those first singles were fucking great and as quintessentially English as anything Blur did. The gig blew my mind, but I noticed that it’s hard to dance at a Kaiser Chiefs concert. I thought it’d be great to add more a groove, welding their new wave attitude with something you could dance to.”
Ricky, Andrew, Simon, Nick and VJ had already started working on songs but, as Simon recalls, “while it was fun, there was no focus. Songs were heavy or light, moody or bright and breezy.” That desired focus came quickly. “There was never actually a point where we made the decision that Brian Higgins was producing the album,” Ricky smiles — a minor point evidently lost on Higgins. “Brian turned up, said ‘give me two days to prove myself’, and we only realised at the end of the second day that he was already making the album. Without us noticing he’d just started making the record. It was weird.”
In choosing to collaborate with Higgins the band also availed themselves of the producer’s coterie of a-list writers including Xenomania mainstay Miranda Cooper plus MNEK (Madonna, Beyoncé) and Wayne Hector (Nicki Minaj, One Direction). “I suppose a rather grumpier, slightly older version of a frontman might think everything should come from one person,” Ricky shrugs. “Working with Higgins you suddenly realise that’s utter shite. I’m trying to make the best song possible — it’s been incredibly maturing to say ‘the best idea’s the best idea’ rather than stomping around going ‘my ideas are always best’.”
Higgins continues: “Ricky would write 80% of a song, we’d introduce an MNEK idea and he’d work it in — and because Ricky’s so good, he’d never feel insecure about bringing in other ideas. Nothing became a competition, so I could push him incredibly hard — he’s a human dynamo, really.” ‘Sunday Morning’ is a good example of how the process would work. “I’d simply had all my ideas for that song,” Ricky recalls. “A week later Brian played me the song with Wayne Hector singing an idea over the top, which made it into the song.”
“It was as if each song was a problem in need of a solution,” is Simon’s recollection. “Brian would continue and continue until he found the answer.” This was particularly true, he adds, on Parachute. “The song, as far as we were concerned, was finished. But it was a ballad. Nobody picked it as the first single but Brian was determined that it was a great song. Next thing you know he’s dug out some drum patterns I’d been working on for another song, and ‘Parachute’ has suddenly got four-to-the-floor drums.”
Despite all this the album’s built on foundations of traditional musicianship, including over 100 hours of jamming, resulting in over four solid days of music which Brian would somehow be able to draw on throughout the subsequent sessions. “It was like having a second brain: a hard drive of stuff you didn’t even realise was good,” Simon adds. “And that’s the most jamming we’ve ever done. In some ways this is our most produced album — but at its heart, it’s perhaps our most live one.” The sense of spontaneity continued throughout the sessions. “It did our head in at times, but Higgins wanted everything to be last-minute,” Simon laughs. “Before each session he’d only send us over ideas at the very last minute, because he wanted us to be instinctive. He didn’t want us to destroy things by overthinking them.”
This prompted a shift in Ricky’s approach to lyrics, too — where in the past he’d been protective “to the point where I’d bury meanings so deep nobody could ever decipher them”, this album’s renewed sense of clarity comes from one major realisation. As Ricky puts it: “It’s better to wear your heart on your sleeve.” The streamlined, baggage-free mentality even made itself felt in the album’s title. “We kept sending each other ‘clever’ titles,” Ricky admits. “But then we thought: what’s the repeated theme in these songs? And weirdly — because we don’t write that many love songs — we realised that what held the whole album together was a sense of some sort of monogamy.”
Stay Together also says a lot about the band’s own journey. “I saw strong friends in that group,” Brian Higgins observes. “Groups are often at war — with their label, their management, with each other — and you can’t write great material when you’re like that.” It’s now twelve years since Oh My God kickstarted an extraordinary run of hits that also includes I Predict A Riot, Everyday I Love You Less And Less, Never Miss A Beat and the Number One single Ruby. Mercury nominated debut album Employment propelled the band to three Brit Awards wins and its successor, Yours Truly, Angry Mob, went twice-platinum in the UK alone. Then, of course, came The Wobble, including the departure of founding member Nick Hodgson. The pop history books all warn us that this should have signposted the end of the band on a creative and commercial level; in 2012 the release of a greatest hits album, Souvenir, seemed to seal the deal.
“Most sane people would have given up,” Ricky laughs, but in a chapter of the Kaiser Chiefs story that might as well be titled Escape From Indie Landfill, Ricky ensconced himself on primetime telly as a coach on The Voice. Shortly afterwards the band’s fifth album Education, Education, Education & War became their first Number One in seven years. When it did so, Ricky tweeted: “I love it when a plan comes together.” It’s tempting to place all the credit on Ricky’s increased UK media profile, but that doesn’t explain the album also becoming Kaiser Chiefs’ first Number One in New Zealand, and the highest-charting of their career in the US.
“We suddenly thought, wow, we weren’t dead weight after all,” Ricky laughs. “It was about proving it to ourselves as much as to anyone else. Thinking about it now, that success was all about turning the boat around.”
Back in 2016 Stay Together, the band’s full-steam-ahead cruise into uncharted waters, is about continuing the journey. “People tell you that you’re only allowed one shot,” Ricky says. “But bands who get a second shot are the ones who fight as hard for their next chance as they did for their first.” And he references new song Sunday Morning when he adds: “I see ambition as being like fog: there’s something just out of reach and you can move forward forever trying to grab hold of it. But the important thing is that you keep moving forward.”
“We might never get to the point where we can sit in an armchair with our arms behind our heads and go: ‘lads, we’ve done it’. But at the same time, maybe that’s why, twelve years later, Kaiser Chiefs are still here.”