Kaiser Chiefs: Hail to the Chiefs

The band crafts an intense, hooky disc with a little help from Mark Ronson and Lily Allen

Ricky Wilson of Kaiser Chiefs Credit: Jules Annan/Photoshot/Getty Images

AWEEK AFTER THE Kaiser Chiefs released their third record, the Mark Ronson-produced Off With Their Heads, frontman Ricky Wilson is stomping on a new leather jacket in the artists' lounge at BBC Radio I. The band is here to play four songs from the disc, which debuted on the U.K. charts at Number Two, be­hind AC/DC's Black Ice. But Wilson — a dandyish 30-year-old in a pinstriped suit — isn't wholly satisfied with his purchase. "It looks too new," he says, applying scuffed boot to pristine hide. "Ugh."

Wilson rolls the jacket into a ball and stuffs it into a white paper shopping bag. When he's called back to Studio 3 — part of a sprawling underground complex in a posh West Lon­don neighborhood — he finds his bandmates hanging out with Lily Allen. Allen, whom Ronson recruited to lend singsong-y backup vocals to the Off With Their Heads cut "Always Happens Like That," is attempting to re-create her part for the radio performance. "Do I have to harmonize?" she asks. "I can't remember how I sang it on the fucking record. Can't I just sing along?"

Nick Hodgson, the group's drummer and main song­writer, steps out from behind his kit to help her out. They try another take, but instead of harmonizing, she mirrors Wil­son's lead. "I don't blame her," says Wilson. "If I went into a room full of women who had been playing music together for 10 years, I'd be fuckin' ruined." Hodgson orders the rest of the group — Wilson, bassist Simon Rix, keyboardist Nick "Peanut" Baines and guitarist Andrew "Whitcy" White — to run through the tune again and again until he's happy with the results, and asks Allen to stick around and overdub her part.

That dedication to perfec­tion is all over Off With Their Heads, a hooky blast that is one of the most entertaining rock records of the year. Ronson, a fan of the Chiefs since 2005's Employment, had never pro­duced a rock album before, but his touch can be heard through' out the groovy, percussive Heads. The Chiefs met Ronson when he produced a Lily Allen cover of the Employment single "Oh My God" and brought them in to film a cameo in the video. He offered to work with the band after being blown away by its live shows — raucous affairs with Wilson high-kicking and crowd-surfing his way through sets. "I didn't tell them this because they probably would have been mortally offended, but they reminded me of [G n' R's] Slash and Duff," Ronson says. "That play between the guitar and bass is quite punky-thrashy, but very heavy at the same time. I was trying to bring that out in the album."

But the disc isn't all tightly wound rockers: On "Like It Too Much," strings swoop and glide above a staccato rock stomp, imbuing the tune with near-campy grandiosity. The arrangement is courtesy of David Arnold, a film composer who's worked on the past five James Bond movies. Like Ronson, he was blown away when he saw the band live. "Every song's got, like, three or four hooks in it," says Arnold. "It all seems familiar somehow, which is the art of a great pop song." For his part, Ronson was grateful just to be doing something outside his comfort zone. "There are only so many female solo artists you can produce," says Ronson, who's best known for producing Amy Winehouse's Back to Black. "I feel like it's time to not only branch out, but just change the scope of sound a bit."

THE FIVE BAND MEMBERS, all from the Northern England town of Leeds, have been together for eight years, but not always as the Kaiser Chiefs. Wilson and Hodgson — the group's creative core — began playing music after a mutual friend in­troduced them in high school. Until 2003, they called themselves Parva and borrowed heavily from Blur and Oasis, as well as American garage revivalists like the Strokes. But the resulting sound didn't exactly hang together. "We'd sound just mad," says Hodgson. "And I'm not talking about one song— across 10 songs." After releasing three singles that went nowhere, Parva recorded an album that was scotched when their label, Mantra, folded just before it was scheduled to come out. "We kind of reached a bit of a dead end — quite a lot of dead ends, really," says Hodgson. "And one day we just went, 'Fuck that. Fuck all of that rubbish.'"

The band scrapped its old material and chose a new name (taking it from the South Af­rican soccer team the Kaizer Chiefs, mostly because the band members thought it sounded cool). Hodgson and Wilson began running an influential local dance party called Pigs. "In Leeds, all they were playing in clubs were the Smiths, Stone Roses and Oasis," says Hodgson. "We love those bands, but we didn't want to dance to them. We invented our own nightclub where everything goes — Michael Jackson, the Strokes, Peaches. Suddenly, everyone switched on to it. We had this high concept of get­ting dressed up. Boys would wear makeup."

Hodgson had a creative breakthrough after watch­ing the kids partying at Pigs one night. When a bunch of fans took the stage during a local band's set, Hodgson said to a friend, "I predict a riot." Pleased with the phrase, he went home and started writ­ing. "It did influence Nick a lot," says Wilson. "He noticed what made people dance." The resulting song, "I Predict a Riot," became the second single from their debut record. Employment, and the one to make them famous.

AFTER WRAPPING UP at the BBC, Wilson (wearing his too-new jacket), Hodgson and Rix walk bareheaded into the rainy night, declining a ride from their assistant. Stopping at a local gastropub, Wilson and Rix order San Miguel beer, Hodgson a Guinness. They toast Lily Allen, which starts a conversation about British tabloids. Wilson mentions that a paper once reported him snorting cocaine off a woman's hand in a festival tent. "We had a dressing room," says Wilson. "If I was going to be doing it, it would have been in there." The Chiefs, who came from Paris the day before and are preparing to jet to Buenos Aires to begin a two-month tour through the Americas and Asia the next day, trade travel tips. "Getting through cus­toms in Ireland is pretty easy," says Wilson. "Just give 'em a potato." (For the record, he's making a joke at the expense of the band's Irish assistant.)

After downing a couple of pints, the Kaiser Chiefs call it a night before 10 p.m. With the exception of Wilson, who's just out of a two-year re­lationship, each has a serious girlfriend to see before they ship out. "I used to think I was busy before the band took off," says Hodgson. "I wasn't."