August 4, 2011

It’s not wholly surprising that when the UK’s Kaiser Chiefs announced they were attempting to reinvent distribution the news was greeted with more than a little cynicism. The Leeds group’s tactic of allowing fans to compile their own albums from tracks uploaded to the band’s website seemed to some a gimmicky conceit, perhaps half-designed to stop a career from slipping into the doldrums. But hindsight – even just a month’s worth – is valuable when talking about the digital experiment behind The Future is Medieval.

No sooner had critics struggled to file reviews of the sprawling collection of songs than the band had returned to the media with a physical press of the album. 20 tracks were cut down to 12 and sequenced specifically for the release. It’s all part of a (largely successful) tactic to stay one step ahead of the internet – something that seems to have become an obsession after the debacle endured in 2008 when Off With Their Heads leaked into the blogosphere.

I interviewed the group’s bassist Simon Rix before the official release and the Chiefs’ planned visit to Australia for the country’s marquee festival, Splendour in the Grass. A typical chat with the band seems to revolve around drummer Nick Hodgson and singer Ricky Wilson riffing off interviewers’ inane questions. Rix wasn’t perhaps quite as snappy as those two, but he was nevertheless happy to talk me through the ideas behind The Future is Medieval. This was originally a cover story for Junior Magazine, but the full transcript is presented below. Matt Shea

Is the whole band based in London at the moment?

We’re sort of in and out, really, because obviously it’s a hub of sorts in England, so we have to spend quite a lot of time here. A few of us bought flats down here and stuff because we spend a lot of time down here.

This crazy concept for releasing The Future is Medieval: Coming out the other side, were you a bit surprised it came together in the end?

Definitely. We had the idea maybe a year ago – perhaps even more – of doing this idea. It wasn’t quite formed exactly how it was going to work and everything. We talked to our manager about it and he thought it was a good idea and that we should do it and he added a couple of ideas, and it started to form and change. Then we spoke to our label about it.

Yeah, I was interested to know how they reacted.

Well we sort of expected that they would be dead against it and want to change it a lot. But they were into the idea as well. So everyone together gradually got it all formed and got it all sorted. In the couple of weeks before it came out we couldn’t believe it was actually going to happen. All of the 20 songs that were written were just about finished and the website was coming together and it all worked. Keeping it a secret was one of the most important things because we wanted the massive impact of, “What have the Kaiser Chiefs been up to? They’re not doing anything – oh, they’ve been up to loads of stuff!” So it had to be secret, and we were all really surprised that it managed to remain a secret until the very end.

Were there any moments where you thought you’d accidentally let the cat out of the bag?

Someone announced something a little bit early, about “Little Shocks” being the single. They named it and that sort of thing, and that was a bit annoying. And also, because of that people kept assuming, “Oh, they’re goin’ to have an album out in June.” But the closer it got the more people thought it wasn’t going to be out in June, because obviously there had been no teaser track and no activity. Usually you know an album’s coming out because the band’s on the radio saying how brilliant it’s going to be and all that stuff, which is what we didn’t want to do.

I hate bands talking about how brilliant their next album is before it’s out, before anybody’s heard it, because anyone can say that basically. So we had so many things that we thought were great about how we were going to do it. The first thing was we thought we had a lot of great music, the second thing was that, in order to engage the fans and get everyone interested, people had to listen to the music and make decisions about which songs were their favourite ten of the 20 – people had to listen to the music again. And when you get the music, rather than sticking it in your iTunes and forgetting about it – which I think we are all guilty of (Laughs) – because it’s your album and your artwork I think you would have a listen to it and see how it worked as an album, and all that. Then obviously there’s this buying and selling sort of thing, which sort of worked and didn’t work (Laughs).

I guess people could interpret this in one of two ways: that you guys are so dedicated to the album concept – particularly after your dodgy experience with Off With Their Heads – that you tried to do something really different, or I guess some people might interpret it that you don’t have any respect at all for the album concept.

We all love albums but we all sort of realise that [it’s in the same] way that some people love vinyl and are still into all of that. Some people are listening to two tracks on their mobile phone in the worst quality of all time – it’s sort of the way things are going for the younger generation. So we thought that in a world where everyone wants choice, we’d give people choice, we’d allow them to make their own album – that would be an interesting thing for them to do, plus by destroying the album concept in terms of, “We don’t choose the album, we give it to somebody else,” we make them think about the track listing.

So I’ve got people talking to me about which song they’ve chosen as their opening and why, and which songs they’ve chosen as their closing track, and which song is the end of side one, and all that sort of stuff. So actually, by giving them that choice, we’ve really made them think, and some people are like, “Argh, I really don’t want to choose. I want you to choose for me.” Because it’s quite a difficult sort of thing to work out – the running order. It’s that old mixtape thing – ebb and flow. I think we actually sort of encouraged people to think of albums as albums; that it matters what order you play the songs in, and that having songs on shuffle isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.

Well I think when fans talk to fans – amongst each other – that’s one of the first things they often really engage with: that sequencing and thinking about the sequencing.

We’ve got people talking about music – our music – again. People have been really snobby, like, “Oh, I cant believe you chose that for the first track on the album,” and this that and the other. With our track order, we discussed what we were going to do with the CD, and we decided that the best thing would be if we did our choices, and people have been devastated that “Cousin in the Bronx” isn’t on the main album: “I can’t believe it – that’s the best song they’ve ever written.” (Laughs) It’s really good. It’s got people talking about our music, and just music in general in a good way.

Just so I’m clear, the track list for the physical album: putting aside the sequencing, the tracks that made the album weren’t based on popularity, were they?

We toyed with the idea of just doing the top ten of whatever people had chosen. But as you talked about before, we thought that would be not caring about album and just choosing the most popular songs. Sometimes the ten most popular aren’t the ten best. Like, I was talking to someone before and they said “Things Change” is their favourite song on the album. “Things Change” certainly hasn’t been the most popular in terms of downloading but it’s a really interesting song to have on your album – at least on our album, because we think it’s really cool and interesting. We all chose ten ourselves, and put up what would be our own albums, because we thought that was part of it, as well. Obviously, when you do do an album, there are always songs that you argue about and get cut when some members don’t want them to miss the boat. So to each do our own albums and take ownership of those was a good idea, I think.

Talking about the album in a more general sense: two and half years is a long time in the digital age – was it always the plan to take such a long time between drinks?

Yes. Our plan was to have a year off, because we had constantly been doing the band thing for like five years and we all just wanted to have a break, do something different. In the end Nick wrote some songs with some other people and me and him put some records out by a band – did a little singles label. We just wanted to do some little things. Also, to live life and have some stuff to write about again, rather than just being on tour. So we loved that idea. In the end, after about three or four months we were all looking around going, “Well, shall we get back to it?” But equally, none of us were totally enthused by the idea of just doing a ten song CD and sticking it out the same way we’d always done before. We all fancied doing something a little bit different and we didn’t know what.

We toyed with a load of different ideas, and then Nick, our drummer – he’s the main songwriter – and he had some things with his dad being sick and things like that. He was quite unmotivated and was having to focus on family and things like that, and writing songs for a band is maybe not as important; it’s not life and death, you know. He was a bit de-motivated because of the family and personal stuff, and 20 songs is a massive challenge to write – a double album basically – all of which could be considered to be standalone tracks on their own, not b-sides or anything like that. So that was a challenge, and doing something different was a challenge and it was exciting.

The whole website thing that we were doing – no one had ever done anything like it. We had to design it from scratch with some people and work out how people were going to pay for it, and the getting the pound back thing, which in the end I think is something that we all loved: maybe people could get their albums for free, or maybe even go further and make a profit, because they had sold their albums – we thought it was a great idea. In the digital age, once you’ve bought your music, it’s no longer worth anything. So, if we could give the downloads some sort of monetary value we thought that would be cool as well, so we thought that was really important. In the end, everybody wants to just have a go on the website, because the website is cool, and it all works really well, and the way you make your artwork is a really cool thing. So the pound thing – which was actually probably the trickiest thing to sort out – was the thing that got used the least, in the end.

You had three producers on the album: Tony Visconti, Ethan Johns and then Nick as well. Was that a purposeful thing or more of a cards falling situation?

Definitely. The great thing about this album is that there was one other guy who did only one song on the album – “Can’t Mind My Own Business” – called Charlie Hugall. So there was four producers. I think a few different people mixed it and I think it was just about trying stuff out and changing things. We would go and work with Tony and if it didn’t work out we would not use it, but most of it worked out, and the bits that didn’t work out we either rerecorded with Ethan or we sent them to someone else to mix, or we took it into our own studio and tweaked it ourselves. It was just that total freedom – no time limit. It was great.

The reason I mention Charlie is that that was one of the first songs we recorded, in maybe April 2010, and we did three songs with him. We didn’t really like them that much, or in our heads we didn’t think they were very good. So we went off and wrote more and eventually we went and recorded with Tony, and that was maybe six months later in November – and then next lot of recording was only in February or march this year – a year after we first worked with Charlie – and that was when someone played “Can’t Mind My Own Business” and asked if we’d listened to it and told us it’s brilliant. So we all went away and listened to it and went, “Oh yeah, that is pretty good actually.” (Laughs) We’d dismissed it. Then we got into our studio and chopped off the beginning and did a few little things to it and then it made the record. That ability to live with the songs and go back to the songs and change the songs and also to try stuff out – if it didn’t work it didn’t matter, you know. “Little Shocks”: that was mixed by Owen Morris – the guy who produced the Oasis albums – because we thought that maybe he could do something interesting with it and make it ridiculously loud, which is what he did. It came back and it sounded brilliant, and then we sent him another song, but he sent that one back and we thought, “That’s not good at all.” So, it was just trying things out and experimenting, and just stuff that we’d never had time for before.

How has the album been translating to the live arena?

Good so far, yeah. We sort of plunged ourselves in the deep end for the first time. It’s good, because with the album it was about being brave and doing something different. At our third live show there were probably 60,000 people or so at the Isle of Wight, and we obviously really want to play the new songs, because they’re our new songs and we obviously think they’re the best. But, equally obviously, not everybody’s heard them (Laughs).

What are the plans for the rest of the year?

Just touring, really. I think the great thing about how we’ve done it is that we haven’t really thought about things like what the second single is going to be, and how we’re going to do this and how we’re going to do that. So I think there’s a lot of things that we’ve got to decide, and we’re sort of making it up as we go along, you know. So with the CD: it was decided that we should do a CD, and then we thought about how many songs it should be, so we aimed for about ten. It ended up that we couldn’t just choose ten, and so we thought, “There’s no reason we can’t make it 12. It’s our prerogative.” So we did that. So we’ll be choosing the second single and try to work it out on the reaction of people and also on what we like and what we can play live. It’s just touring – we’re doing all of the European festivals so by the time we get to Australia we should be really, really hot. Then we’ve got Japan and then we’re going to America – it’s just a world tour, really.

One more thing about The Future is Medieval. Would you do it again?

Definitely, yeah. With the third album [Off With Their Heads] we were thinking that we should try something different, and we had a few ideas, but in the end we got talked into the fact that what we’d come up with wasn’t really working and we should do a normal album. That album, it did fine – the reaction wasn’t amazing, though, and we always thought that maybe we should have stuck to our guns and done that. So this time we were really determined that we should do something different, and I think next time – I don’t know if we’d do this, because we’ve done this, or maybe we could tweak this, or maybe we could do something totally different. But I think nowadays it’s important to do something different. It is rock and roll to have creative ideas about how you release your music. I think in the 60s and stuff you could get away with doing things like double albums, gatefold editions, different artwork and what you’re getting out of the album, and I think all the best bands have always been innovative about how they presented their next album. I think that went away a bit, with CDs especially, where it’s just like, “Here’s the CD. There’s a bonus track on it.” I think we’re determined that we should always try to do something different.

I talked to Liam Finn recently and he chatted about always wanting to make ‘first’ records – moving himself out of his comfort zone and exploring different things. It sounds a lot like what you guys are trying to achieve.

Definitely, yeah. And I think quite a few bands try to do that. But with this album, because we had such a long break it did feel like if you heard something like [early Kaiser Chiefs single] “Ruby” on the radio it felt like it was a cover band and not by our band, because we’d distanced ourselves from it. Just because we hadn’t played it for a long time, you know. It felt like we were in a new band, and that’s a test of how good the songs are. When we were rehearsing we could get people to come in and listen to the songs and see what they thought, like we used to do when we were just starting out. It was a good process.