“How long have we been doing this? Ten years?” says Ricky Wilson, keen to put into context the poppy swerve of his band Kaiser Chiefs’ new album, Stay Together.
Rather than being heard in isolation, he suggests it’s part of a pattern of reinvention that has served Leeds’ most successful group of recent times well since the early 2000s.
“Not many bands have the legs because they start to rely on their heritage and people’s perception of who they are in order to keep selling albums and tickets.
“If you look at what we’ve done over the last ten years, the first album [Employment] we were so happy to be there, we made a very northern, jolly record that sold a lot of copies. Then people started noticing that so the next record [Your Truly, Angry Mob] we all wore black on the cover and it went a bit more angry.
“Then the third record [Off With Their Heads] we thought ‘we don’t like that, that’s not who we are, we’ll get in Mark Ronson, who’s the biggest producer in the world’, so we made a very odd third record, then the fourth record [The Future is Medieval] we put out 20 tracks that you could buy on the internet.
“We always tried to do something totally different. On the last record [Education, Education, Education & War] we had a lot to prove and Nick [Hodgson, the band’s primary songwriter] wasn’t there. Personally I was a lot more concerned about what we were saying and how we were saying it, so I was obsessed with writing these lyrics about education and war, then when you take something so seriously on this record I wanted to do something a bit more fun.”
Hence Wilson and his band mates Simon Rix, Andrew White, Nick Baines and Vijay Mistry spent a lot of time jamming musical ideas while for the first time Wilson turned his lyrical gaze to family and relationships. He quickly realised it was a subject that other people found easy to relate to. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s human nature,” he says. “Very oddly, the more I focused in it felt like I was focusing out, so I found myself writing songs were relevant and had universal appeal.”
The 38-year-old singer admits it was a subject that he’d shied away from until now. “When you’re in a band with four other guys you don’t really talk about anything. It’s not because we’re manly men, it’s just how we’ve grown up but we’ve been going for a long time now and the band kind of trust me now and I think I can get away with having songs about relationships without having to explain myself.”
Boldly the band chose to work with Brian Higgins of Xenomania, the songwriting and production powerhouse behind Girls Aloud, Little Mix and Sugarbabes. “We met him and instantly he was passionate to make the record and gave us a reason to do it,” Wilson explains. “We’ve been doing this quite a long time but we still haven’t crossed over into that world where everyone can instantly remember our name, we’re still struggling for that and I think we always will be, but that’s a good place to be in because it gives us the fight we need. We’re northern, we’re always going to feel like the underdogs, even when we were the Brits-winning group, because that’s who we are.”
Significantly Higgins reminded the Kaisers of the days when they used to compete in the charts with the likes of Girls Aloud. “It’s really great for guitar bands to have a bit of ambition in the same way that bands did in the mid-2000s, thinking ‘we could headline Glastonbury with big songs’,” says Wilson. “That’s the kind of ambition you need and long may it live. It’s what carried us on from the start.”
Wilson admits he expected to find working with Xenomania at The Chairworks Studio in Castleford to be like entering “a kind of pop Hogwarts”, but he says what he actually discovered was Higgins’ methods were “not clinical in any way, it’s just making noises for themselves, and that’s what he brought to our band”.
In between writing, recording and touring with the Kaisers, Wilson also appeared as a mentor in three series of the TV talent show The Voice. After coaching a second successive winner, he announced he was leaving as the show transferred from the BBC to ITV.
He says he’ll miss it. “I loved doing it, it was a lot of fun. I don’t know if I was right to move on or not but you can’t regret anything. I’m not going to say I wouldn’t go back because I definitely would because I enjoyed it and without wanting to sound big-headed, I got pretty good at it. Considering the first time I tried it nobody knew who I was – people knew I Predict a Riot and Ruby but that was it – by the end of my three years on it I had the top two [contestants] in the final. Everyone else was out of it. I thought whoever wins I’m going to be covered in confetti.
“It’s such a weird experience, no one really saw it coming. You’re surrounded by such heavyweight pop stars like will.i.am and Boy George and I think even they were a bit confused why the kid on the end gets the last two winners. It’s because I got pretty good at it.”
When the Kaisers played at a number of festivals over the summer, Wilson says they used the opportunity to test out some of their new material – with pleasing results. “Some of them are going down better than the old ones. We wanted to add more new ones but we hadn’t got enough [set] time because we weren’t headlining. We’ll always play the hits but it’s just turned out that the new ones sound like hits and people are jumping higher and singing louder to songs they’ve never heard before. I think it shows that we’ve somehow managed to get back to where we were when we first started, where we were aiming our songwriting at festivals.
“We’re playing new songs like no one’s heard of us which is a good thing. We’re not doing what a lot of bands do after a decade which is just rely on heritage, writing new songs which sound like pastiches of the band you’re in. That’s what we want to avoid. We’re always going to be us, but you don’t want to sound like a pastiche of yourself.”
Stay Together is out tomorrow. Kaiser Chiefs will be signing copies of it at Jumbo Records in the St Johns Centre tomorrow at noon and at Crash Records on the Headrow at 1.30pm. They will also be at HMV in The Core at 5.30pm. The band play at First Direct Arena on March 4, 2017. For details visit www.kaiserchiefs.com