The Dark Place

24 April 2012 | 9:00 am | Katie Benson

Simon Rix of Kaiser Chiefs tells Katie Benson how three years off and a big idea got the band back on track.

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In 2008, Kaiser Chiefs were set to release their third album Off With Their Heads. They'd wanted to do something unique with this album, something unexpected, in order to add some vitality to their work. They were no longer the new kids on the block and they knew it. Convinced by those in charge to play it safe, the boys pressed ahead with a standard release, one that was leaked three weeks early and received lukewarmly by critics. Later that year they found themselves performing on an ITV special dedicated to manufactured British pop group Girls Aloud and they knew somehow they'd lost their way.

Taking three years' break between recording, the boys from Leeds returned with a pile of new material and a bright idea for a digital release that would be not only exciting for the fans, but also for the band. In June 2011 with little to no fanfare, they uploaded 20 new tracks to their website, giving fans the option of creating their own album by choosing ten out of those 20 and downloading it for £7.50.

The idea was labelled a gimmick by some critics, but bass player Simon Rix says for them it was an exciting way to announce their return. “The night before it went live, we couldn't sleep, it was like waiting for Christmas day when you were a kid. That was the whole point, to make it exciting for us and the fans and do something different in order to stand out from the crowd,” says Rix. “I think just to release a CD on your fourth album is a bit boring. We needed the idea and the excitement to write the songs, otherwise I think it would have taken us a lot longer to create an album. Because we had such a big break, I think it was easy for people to forget about us, so we needed a big talking point to make everyone remember who we were again.”

The idea has been touted as a success and a failure, depending on what you read. Because there wasn't an official album released until a month after the digital release, sales for The Future Is Medieval were soft compared to their earlier work, peeking at ten on the UK charts. The band consider it to be a successful venture, one that gained them a swag of headlines and press coverage that might have passed them over had it not been for such an innovative move. As for the low album sales, Rix considers this to be more of a reflection on where the industry stands in regards to “guitar music”.

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“No one sells that many albums anymore and that's why when it came to releasing this album, we wanted to do it differently. More people come to gigs than buy records now, and that's what we judge ourselves on,” says Rix. “We've said – and people have quoted us as saying – that guitar music doesn't chart anymore and I think that's true, because when we had our first album out, album sales were massive and single sales were tiny. In England now, singles sales are massive, lots of R&B and that chipmunk kind of music, because people are downloading them to their phones. There's still loads of guitar bands out there, but I think it's gone back to how it used to be. If you want to hear guitar music, you have to go out and see it live; you've got to seek it out because you're not necessarily going to hear it on the radio. But I think the searching makes you enjoy it a bit more.”

As for their brand of guitar music, Kaiser Chiefs have brought a new sense of maturity to their most recent album, one that strays into more vulnerable and darker areas than previously visited. As usual, the whole album sprung from the pen of drummer Nick Hodgson, who, according to Rix, barely left his East London studio during their long hiatus.

“Nick's always been the starting point for every song we've ever written. We will play together and come up with other ideas, but it always starts with Nick. Even more so nowadays because Nick has a little studio in London and even when we have time off, he'll be in there. Every song off the last album started off in there; he would just send us little demos of the songs and we'd all look at it.”

One of the more poignant numbers from the album is Hodgson's tender ode to his critically ill father, If You Will Have Me. It's one of the tracks on the album produced by Hodgson himself as he felt such a personal project would be best handled solo. Rix puts their move towards more intimate subjects down to a growing maturity and their decision to take their time with this release.

“I think this time around we had more personal things going on in our lives that made it more contemplative, we were all thinking about what's important. We also had a lot more time to think about what we wanted it to be. The album is more musical, there are more interesting sounds and parts than before. I think people are getting stuck on this album being a 'departure', but we're just arranging different songs; it's just more varied. There's darkness there, but then I think all of our stuff has a dark edge to it.”

Soon to release a best-of entitled Souvenir: The Singles 2004 – 2012, which aside from collating their singles to date also features two new tracks in Listen To Your Head and On The Run, Kaiser Chiefs are coming to Australia in May for the Groovin' The Moo festivals and Rix admits that he hadn't heard of most of the destinations listed on the tour of regional centres. But venturing to unknown places has been a feature of their career of late, as has playing for smaller country crowds who, according to Rix, aren't really sure of what's going on.

“Because we're doing this album differently, to make things exciting again for us, we've been going to all these new and different places and countries like Finland and Estonia, places we've never been before. In the UK, we're also going to places we don't get to very often and I think sometimes, when you're playing gigs in the bigger places, people are used to it, where as in the smaller places, they don't really know how to react. They're always lovely, but it can be a bit weird.

“But sometimes you go places, like we just played a little coastal place called Southend and it was the best gig we'd done in ages, because I think they were just so happy we'd turned up.”