In fine Voice

6:00am Saturday 12th April 2014

Ricky Wilson is the man of the moment thanks to a certain TV talent show. But it was very nearly game over for the Kaiser Chiefs, as Andy Welch finds out.

"Who, at the start of 2014, was sitting around saying, 'I can't wait for a new album by Kaiser Chiefs, I wonder what those guys are up to' - who? Not many people, I can tell you."

Good old Ricky Wilson.

The Kaiser Chiefs frontman has always been one of pop music's better interviews. Even before the Leeds band released their debut album, Employment, in 2005, he was a veritable quote machine, spewing pithy one-liners and headline-friendly sound bites.

Now, with 10 years' experience under his belt, and all the insight and various ups and downs that brings, he's a journalist's dream.

"We're realists," he adds. "We knew no one cared."

So what changed? The Voice, basically.

It was announced late last year Wilson would be a judge on the BBC One singing competition, joining Kylie Minogue as a new face on the show, alongside Black Eyed Pea and perma-tanned pensioner Tom Jones.

"I was asked to do it three weeks before filming was meant to start, and two weeks before we were going to Atlanta to record the new album," he continues. "I started getting really panicky about it and hadn't told the others I was even thinking it over."

He says he was initially unsure, not wanting his own profile to detract from the band, or undermine the new songs they'd written and were really proud of.

"I didn't want to go on TV and make it look like I was trying to sell the band, but when I told them I'd been offered the job, they were all for it. We all agreed that if you're in an alternative band and you're asked on Saturday night TV, you do it.

"If we'd been asked to perform, we'd have bitten their hands off, so why would I say no to going on 12 weeks in a row, where I can get my personality across and remind everyone that there's a band called Kaiser Chiefs? How can that not be a good thing?"

He says he feels vindicated when journalists turn up to interview them and he's invited onto chat shows.

"We're the busiest we've been since the first album came out. The other day I went on Richard Bacon's Radio 5 live show to talk about The Voice and the album too. I wasn't asked on to talk about our other albums, but now I am. I feel like I'm being proved right."

The final of the talent show can be seen on BBC One this Saturday night (April 5). Time will tell how it has turned around the band's fortunes, although with the new album heading toward the top of the charts at the time of writing, it already looks to have worked.

It's a far cry from the way things seemed after their third album, Off With Their Heads, in 2008. The sort of guitar music they made was, by then, unfashionable - not even their way with a hook and chorus could save them. In 2012, when promoting Souvenir, their Best Of compilation, they already knew their main songwriter and drummer Nick Hodgson was going to leave.

Their previous album, 2011's The Future Is Medieval, had something of the gimmick about it too, as if they'd run out of ideas; fans were invited to choose a final tracklisting from a pool of 20 songs.

"That album was a good experience, and I'd do it again," says bassist Simon Rix. "But I think the reason we did that was because Nick wasn't motivated to make a normal album and stick it out the normal way."

When Hodgson did eventually announce he was leaving in 2012, the instant reaction outside the band was that they were finished without his writing talent.

There was a fair amount of doubt within the group too, by the sounds of it, but after initial panics that they wouldn't be able to write any songs on their own, the remaining members, Wilson, Rix, Andrew White and Nick Baines - or 'Peanut' as he's been known ever since drawing a self-portrait in school, aged 10, with a head that looked like a nut - got together and decided they still really wanted to be in the band.

"There was a time when I thought it was over," says Wilson. "The four of us were in a dressing room and I said, 'Well, I want to carry on, do you?' And then it was like, 'Oh you do? Well I do. And what about you?', and it turned out we all did but just hadn't said it out loud. If one of us had not wanted to, then we'd have called it a day and done something else, but it was a group decision."

They quickly had to step up to writing songs, and wrote lots and lots before finding any they were happy with. They've also learned the full extent of Hodgson's responsibility as chief Chief, and have expanded to fill those gaps too.

"It seems Nick spent a lot of time telling everyone that everything was going to be OK when we were all panicking," says Wilson. "So I do that now."

They're keen to stress there are no hard feelings between them and Hodgson. In fact, after our interview, Rix was on his way to see Hodgson's new band perform.

"I would go but I'd get mobbed," says Wilson, jokingly. "I'm famous now."

When they'd written enough songs - and recruited new drummer, Vijay Mistry, who they say has injected a new enthusiasm into the band - they went to Atlanta, Georgia, to record with producer Ben H Allen.

"We've worked with tons of producers, but this was the first time we've worked 'with' a producer. We always thought we knew best, but if you're paying someone for their skill and opinion, why kick against them?" reasons Wilson.

The resulting album, its title a nod to former Prime Minister Tony Blair's manifesto pledge and actual legacy, is their most confident-sounding since Employment nine years ago. Wilson and Rix agree that one of their producer's main roles was encouraging them to show off more while recording.

"We were being quite British about it," says Wilson. "But if you've written these great songs, with all these cool guitar parts and things, why bottle it when you get in the studio and underplay it?

"I don't want it to sound like we're doing him down, or what he did for the band, but him [Hodgson] leaving is the best thing that could've happened to us," says Wilson. "We were put in the position where we had to fight for the band again. It wasn't until things were shaken up that we realised how important it was to us.

"It's like a toy that a child isn't playing with - take it away and it immediately becomes their favourite. And just like with toys, if they break, you either throw them away or you fix them," he says, conclusively. "We fixed it, and we've never been happier."

Extra time - Kaiser Chiefs

:: Kaiser Chiefs are Ricky Wilson, Simon Rix, Andrew 'Whitey' White, Nick 'Peanut' Baines and new drummer Vijay Mistry.

:: The band originally formed in 2000 as Parva. They released one album before changing their name in 2003.

:: They changed their name to Kaiser Chiefs in 2003, inspired by their Leeds United hero Lucas Radebe's first team, Kaizer Chiefs.

:: They've released five albums to date and have amassed a string of awards, top 10 singles and platinum sales.

:: They performed at the London 2012 closing ceremony, playing a cover of The Who's Pinball Wizard.

:: Kaiser Chiefs' new album Education, Education, Education & War is out now


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