Ricky Wilson takes us behind the new Kaiser Chiefs record, Stay Together!

With Stay Together, the Kaiser Chiefs are unleashing upon the world something unlike anything they’ve ever done before. But, as singer Ricky Wilson told me recently, that’s by design. It’s pure pop, as produced by Brian Higgins. But it’s really good pop. You know, an album of songs that sound different but fit together, as opposed to an album of songs that sound the same and have no connection to each other.

First off, thanks for the time.

It’s totally alright mate, but it is my girlfriend’s birthday so she’s a little upset.

On the topic of girlfriends, my girlfriend and I were watching the Enjoyment DVD last night for old time’s sake. Just wondering how far down the path you guys think you are towards your 2030 selves from that DVD? 

That was funny, wasn’t it? I think we’re actually going to do a remake of that part soon. I remember I had gone out on my own as just ‘Rick’ in the DVD. And I was playing guitar. I still can’t play guitar and have no interest any kind of solo career. I’d find it really boring.

I did The Voice over here in the UK without the rest of the band and even though I had my own dressing room and nice cars to drive me around, I actually missed having those other four idiots around. That’s the good thing about being in a band. People have this idea of bands, that they stay together because you’re best friends and everything’s cool, but you know what? There’s always a problem. There’s always at least two members of the band that have fallen out. I think if it’s not in a constant state of crisis, why do it? Maybe that’s why we’ve lasted so long…

I’ve had that conversation with a few bands lately. I guess anyone you spend that much time with, you’re bound to argue with at some stage…

Right, but the one thing that unifies is that we’re all fucking useless at everything except being in the band. And we all realise that a life without the band is far worse than a life with it, no matter how annoying it is at times. If I had to stop and get an actual job, I can’t even imagine that. It’s unthinkable.

Comparing Employment and Stay Together, you guys have come a long way in 16 years. Do you feel like your sound has evolved naturally, or did you need to be intentional about it at times? 

It hasn’t really happened naturally. What has happened naturally is a want and need to do something completely different from what we did the last time. If you look at our career, it’s really quite weird. When we arrived on the scene we [were] so pleased to be there, having a right laugh, bouncing around in stripy blazers and basically doing what was considered very uncool – which was looking like we wanted to be there. Bands weren’t supposed to do that. We were supposed to pretend that we were miserable at every awards show. But we were actually loving it.

But then, people started noticing that we were having a good time. So for our second album, we just looked miserable and wore black on the front cover. But then, people started liking that, so we did the opposite again. We hired Mark Ronson and made an album full of bongos! After that, Nick wanted to leave and I had to persuade him to stay for another record, so we recorded 25 songs, put them on the internet and told people to choose their favourites. It seems like a stupid idea now, but we had tonnes of fun doing it!

After Nick left, we made a proper heavy political album and we’ve made the closest thing to the first album again, where we’re looking like we want to be there again. We just keep making mistakes (in terms of what’s popular), right? But that’s why we’ve got a career. Because every record we make, it’s the right record for us. I like this album a lot because for the first time, people notice that we’ve made a change. We think every record we make is different to the last. We’ll be like, “Oh we really pushed the envelope on this,” but then six months later, it wasn’t as crazy a departure as you thought it was.

On this record we hired Brian Higgins, who is like the best pop producer in the world, and he wasn’t afraid to cut away anything that didn’t need to be there. In the past, if I wrote five verses for a song, there were five verses in the song. But with Brian, he might only want to use one and I was fine with that, because it was great to let go of the ego for a while. We’ve made records with producers that really liked our band but that never worked for me, because you need someone who has more respect for the output than us as a band.

The record certainly takes you on a journey. I feel it’s your most diverse to date. “Parachute” is almost EDM, “Indoor Firework” is Coldplay but a bit better and “Press Rewind” sounds like a clear nod to the Pet Shop Boys. I must say, it really grew on me over the hour or so I spent listening to it. 

Up until now, the public has only heard “Parachute” and “Hole in my Soul”, which are quite clever pop songs (but not diverse). And let me say, making good pop is really hard. We tried to make a really solid pop album here and ended up making something very diverse. The only band we all agree on liking is Pink Floyd and if we try to do anything Pink Floyd-y, it just doesn’t work. On this, we tried just to make pop songs and ended up having our most Pink Floyd like moments of our career.

On “Sunday Morning”, the whole first verse is me making it up as I go along. It’s just me bumbling about ambition for two minutes, but Brian loved it and told me to keep it as was because it showed my passion. Then a song like “High Society” which does kind of hark back to Kaiser Chiefs stuff from the early years; I said to Brian, “Obviously I’ll bring it down from singing in the higher octave,” and he said, “No. It’s another character and we need to hear it.” Then it goes off into this big swirly bit in the middle and I’m realising, “Right, this is pop music. But it’s the most daring stuff we’ve ever done.”

I just really hope people don’t think the record is going to all be like the first two singles. Every song has a reason for being there. It’s the closest we’ve come to a concept album.

 

You can have an album of songs that all sound the same but don’t fit together. But this is clearly an album of songs that sound quite different but really do fit together.

You know, reminds about the title. We have a bit of a history of being quite clever with album titles but this time the record, as we started to record it, it clearly became about staying together in a relationship. Which isn’t always easy. And calling it something simple like Stay Together is very un-Kaiser Chiefs. There’s love songs, but they’re not love songs about fireworks and stuff; it’s about how hard it is stay together. It’s actually harder to stay together than to quit.

People ask have we named it that because we’ve been doing this for over 10 years and we didn’t even think about that, but it’s right. We’re still doing this because we’ve made shitloads of mistakes. In the end, careers aren’t built on constant successes because those go to your head and your ego takes over. Careers are built on getting things wrong and coming back.

Well that’s the same with life, right?

Exactly. You know at the moment I’m in a weird state of limbo about this record, because I’ve finished it but it’s not out yet and I have no idea what the world’s going to make of it. I know that most of the UK journalists aren’t chomping at the bit to call this a great record, but that doesn’t really matter anymore.

I used to be wracked with nerves about a record coming out and reading the reviews. But now ‘Week 1’ doesn’t matter so much to us. We’ve made the record and it’s there forever now. We never want to be a band that relies on any heritage or legacy to sell records. Once you go there, the graph is in constant decline.

You need to rely on how good we are doing what we do now, not what we’ve done before and so if people are pissed off that we don’t sound like we did 10 years ago, I can’t really get on board with that. Because if we did sound like we did 10 years ago, we’d have disappeared nine and half years ago. Life is about change and evolution.

If people are listening to this and saying, “It’s not the same as it was 10 years ago,” I’d ask them if they’re the same person they were 10 years ago. Because if they are, something’s wrong.

Exactly and although I do enjoy nostalgia to a certain extent, I just don’t want to rely on it forever to keep the kettle boiling. I’ve gotta move on and if people don’t like it, then I guess that’s too bad. I loved watching Stranger Things because of the nostalgia, because it made me feel like I did when I was a teenager, but it was done very cleverly.  I think that if we do dabble in nostalgia on future records, we’ll do it in the way Stranger Things did it. It nods to it, but it’s not just a rehash. I mean, I don’t wanna write songs about going out in northern town anymore. I don’t do that anymore.

I’ll just jump into a left fielder on that topic here. It’s clear that in the period that encompasses Parva and the release of Employment your lives as lads growing up in Leeds had a major influence on your music. Does it still? 

I guess I’ve always thought that in order to connect with people you had write something that was universally open knowledge. The last record had a theme that was around war. So you release it and you’re fairly confident everyone is going to get it, and they did. But it didn’t connect.

It did really well, sales wise, but in order to really connect with people – and this has been a bit of an epiphany on this record – you need to write about something deeply personal. Something that you think could never actually connect with someone, because it’s so personal. You soon realise that it’s that stuff that people hook onto. It resonates with them and there’s a relevance for their life. Donald Trump might be about to take office, but there’s no shame in believing that the most important thing is what’s happening in your life and your heart, because you have to sort that out before you can sort any of the rest of the world out. We realised that that’s the stuff people actually care about.

There are so many parts of this record where what you’re hearing is me singing and making it up at the same time, so the performance is raw and real. I figured working with Brian, it’d be produced to within an inch of its life, but it was the freest record we’ve made. Even in the first 20 seconds of the record, I hit a bum note. I said, “We’ll change that,” and he said, “Nope, because it’s emotional and people can tell you mean it. If you edit that out, you’re editing out the character, and records are all about character.”

When I did The Voice, we’d finish filming and I’d sit there in the chair all emotional. I thought I was showing too much, but it was that that people liked. If I’d have been in charge of editing, I’d have cut all that out and I’d have just been sat there, a lifeless mannequin. Those editors knew that people would connect to me because it was real. When you’re a popstar, you’re most happy after an hour of hair and makeup and wardrobe, because you look great. But you know it’s not you. It’s not why your friends have been your friends for over 20 years. That’s because of your soul, which you can’t show in a photoshoot, but you can show in a song.

So the record is out [this month] and then you’re out on a European tour until early next year. We’re all quietly hoping we’ll see you down here in support of the album. Is that a fair assumption?

We’d love to. I’m sucking up here, but Australia is an amazing place. We always have such a good time down there. It’s just a case of being allowed to come. The suits want us to have success before we can come, which depends on radio play. At the moment, I think we’ve fallen through the cracks somewhere between Triple M and Triple J. Neither of them are really connecting to it, but even if we’re not reaching the heights we used to, if we can afford to, we’ll come over and play club shows because we always have such a blast.

Stay Together is out now.