Kaiser Chiefs: This is the Modern Way

What happens when indie-rockers get together with a Grammy-winning composer? Kaiser Chiefs and David Arnold chat before their Electric Prom tonight.

TONIGHT, THE Kaiser Chiefs will perform one of their most unusual gigs. The cheeky indie boys from Leeds have teamed up with the composer David Arnold, best known as the man who took over from John Barry to score the past four James Bond films.

So, just how will ‘Oh My God’ and ‘Ruby’ sound with a full string-orchestra backing? We got them together during rehearsals at the Maida Vale studios in north London to find out.

Ricky Wilson [Kaiser Chiefs’ singer]: How did it come about that we’re doing the Electric Proms together?

David Arnold: I remember that I was mental about ‘I Predict a Riot’. It was one of the best songs I’d heard that year. It reminded me so much of what was so great about pop music when I was younger – buying records by Elvis Costello and the Buzzcocks and the Damned. Before that, the band had had a spot at the Brits to do ‘I Predict a Riot’. I was asked if I’d be interested in doing an orchestra with it. Having listened to that song a lot, I thought it was possibly the worst idea I’d ever heard because of the nature and flavour of that record. So I had another suggestion for their Brits performance; I wanted to try to recreate the club in Leeds where they started off, with balsa-wood tables and chairs and 300 fans of theirs on the stage. Halfway through the song, they would destroy the whole venue.

Nick Hodgson [drummer]: What, slowly?

DA: No, quite viciously and deliberately.

NH: I think slowly would have been better, with tools.

DA: Everything would have been broken. It would actually have been a proper riot. But the organisers of the Brits weren’t happy with that happening on the second performance of the night.

RW: So we first met at the Ivor Novello Awards in 2006. We cleared up at the awards. And David did a very funny speech.

DA: That was the Harrison Birtwistle year. He’d been given the award for best classical composer and made a few comments about the volume at which contemporary music is listened to, and how people who listened to it were brain-dead. It was quite insulting to a lot of people who were there.

RW: I didn’t really feel insulted because I didn’t really respect him.

DA: It made things a little bit sour, though. It’s an award for songwriters and composers. He was being honoured for his considerable body of work and we were at the event with people like the Bee Gees and multimillion selling artists like the Kaiser Chiefs. The way pop music works – sometimes it is loud, sometimes it is simplistic and sometimes it doesn’t need to go beyond three chords to do what it sets out to do. He made his views clear, which were: “You’re idiots if you like music like this.”

I was presenting an award after this and the room had gone a bit cold. I ended up relaying the story of a big music celebration that took place at Buckingham Palace two years ago, where lots of music people were presented to the Queen. I was in a group with Rob Halford of Judas Priest, Alex James of Blur and Cilla Black. The next group was Peter Gabriel and Status Quo. The Queen asked Rob Halford: “Why is rock music so loud?” And he answered: “For some of us, it sounds better like that.” It doesn’t make it any better or worse to be loud or soft, it’s just the way it is.

RW: Then we got asked to do the Electric Proms. So we decided to get David in and we went to Air Studios to talk about what we could do.

DA: And then gradually those brilliant ideas had the corners rubbed off them by the BBC, who told us what we couldn’t do.

NH: The whole idea of the gig is that we start off very small and end up very big, with a full orchestra. We’re doing some songs that we’ve never played live, and one tribute to another Electric Prommer. And then a tribute to the whole idea of the Electric Proms at the end. We’ve given it a lot of thought.

DA: It’s a journey over the whole evening with some interesting peaks and troughs. And it’s not just orchestral musicians playing, two other groups of people are performing. The Dhol Foundation, who are hugely exciting Indian drummers, and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, which is going to be a kind of slightly gilt-edged busking version of a song.

NH: We’ve got a very special cover that we’re going to play. But I don’t want to give away the gold.

DA: And absolutely no James Bond music.

NH: I’ve never seen a Bond film. Actually, I have seen a couple. It was so boring.

DA: At least no one’s going to ask me now whether the Kaiser Chiefs want to do the new Bond theme.

RW: At the first rehearsal last week, I was so impressed. I liked the sheet music score with ‘Oh My God’ written at the top of it, with different arrangements for the orchestra. It’s good that people take us seriously. Five years ago, you couldn’t have got David Arnold to spend all his available free time – and non-free time – to score all this and get 40 musicians in.

DA: We didn’t just think: “We’ll get Paul Weller and Bryan Ferry and get them to do a duet.” The thing that concerns me is that there are vast swathes of contemporary audiences that have never really seen great musicians playing – not famous ones, but people who can really rip stuff up and really play.

NH: Are you talking about us? We can rip it up with the best of them.

DA: They’ve seen you, so they know what you can do. The way records are made now, it’s all with computers, it’s all chopped up and neat. Tidy everything up and put it all in tempo. What was really exciting today about being in the studio with the band on one side and the orchestra on the other, playing at each other, was that the amount of energy that is actually given off by that amount of people doing the same thing and going for the same focal point is an extraordinary experience. It made me realise what made me want to get into music in the first place. You’re a part of something that makes this amazing noise, and you’ve got a performance not only from the band but 32 other people simultaneously and everyone’s doing the same thing.

DA: Is this the start of a new, experimental Kaiser Chiefs?

RW: Not really. We have no interest in making this classical idea our future. We simply saw this as an opportunity to do something different.

DA: It’s not a straight classical orchestra, either. In fact, you’ll find that most of the people who play in the orchestra aren’t what you’d consider to be classical musicians. The danger is that it’s pretentious and pompous and ridiculous – and hopefully it’ll be all of those things.

RW: You hear some bands who try to disguise the fact that they’ve not written any songs for their second or third album by bringing in extra musicians. We’ve never done that.

NH: We do like to change our songs. When you go to America you have to do at least one acoustic session a day so you end up playing in lots of radio stations.

RW: It’s really boring playing your old songs when there’s no audience there. At sound checks we’re always doing reggae versions of our songs or doing it much slower. Other times we do it three times as fast. For this, it’s a lot slower. “Heat Dies Down” is normally just under four minutes, this is just under eight.

NH: Once we started doing the set and we’d been on the road for a year and a half, we did every song so fast that we finished the whole set in 15 minutes.

RW: And sometimes someone will shout “one, two, three, four…” and everyone starts a song, but it might not be the same song.

NH: I might be playing ‘I Predict a Riot’, and Simon [Rix, bassist] might be playing ‘Ruby’ and Whitey [Andrew White, guitar] might be playing ‘Angry Mob’.

DA: Ornette Coleman has made whole albums like that, where people are in different parts of the studio not being able to hear what the others are playing, playing whatever they want and then mixing it together at the end.

NH: I’d like to do a whole set like that.

DA: Have you ever been asked to do music for a film?

NH: Yes, we were asked to write one. It wasn’t our thing. It was a romcom. We thought it would be interesting. And it wasn’t. But one day it would be cool.

RW: I’d love to do it. Why not?

DA: Which film would the Kaiser Chiefs be the perfect soundtrack for?

NH: Definitely not a big fanfare sort of thing.

DA: Maybe big budget Ken Loach. Ken Loach in space. Or Shane Meadows. Or Mike Leigh.

RW: Spike Lee. Something you’d watch twice. Withnail and I. Something with a bit of a sense of humour.

NH: A much more cheerful Kes, where the kestrel lives.

DA: Writing music for films, there’s not the purity as if you were writing music for music’s sake. I’m aware of its shortcomings, but I love the medium of film and the collaborative nature of that. Any writer starts off with a blank sheet, but you start off with something. You watch it and the meat and potatoes part is making the music fit. With the Kaiser Chiefs, you have to think of a sound in your head and wonder: “What can I do to elevate this and make it unusual without disrespecting the band or making me feel like an idiot or a square peg in a round hole?”

NH: When you’re writing music for a film, have you ever knowingly used music you’ve written for another film?

DA: Yes. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. I could point you to a few. There’s something about the way that you write that you could call style, about patterns. I did it on purpose once, because I did a film that no one saw and I thought the music in it was brilliant.

RW: And did you go on and win a Grammy for it?

DA: Actually, I did.

NH: I feel like that about B-sides. Some of ours are brilliant but no one actually hears them because no one really buys singles and if they do they only listen to track one.

RW: We’ve got a B-side with Parva, our previous band – its one of the best songs ever and only about 10 people heard it.

DA: Will you re-record it?

RW: No, it’s all in the production. We did it in a day, all weird vocals and chopped up.

NH: It’s one of the favourite songs of Brendan Benson, the great singer-songwriter in the Raconteurs.

NH: When we play a gig we only enjoy it when the crowd enjoys it. I went to see a certain artist who did a 20-minute solo acoustic bit. People were talking and he started complaining that they should listen. My feeling was that they came to see you and they’re not enjoying themselves.

DA: Who was that person?

NH: It was Beck. That’s my friendship with Beck gone – not that it ever existed.

RW: That’s what a lot of people do when they go further in their careers. They get too into themselves and become boring, because it’s too grown up and too serious.

NH: I’ve worked out why people become so boring in music. It’s because they stop listening to new music and stop going out because they’ve got nice houses. They start listening to old music, specifically Led Zeppelin and other music from that period, and then, when they go on tour with their new music, they’ve lost any thrill, they’re just obsessed with something in the past. The thing about the past is that it was cool at the time, but what’s cool now is what’s now. You have to not be satisfied and not stay in every night.

DA: I find that working with music and writing music an awful lot means I want to listen to music an awful lot less. The last thing I want to do if I’ve been writing for 15 or 16 hours is go and listen to a record. But I’ve realised as well that I don’t listen to enough music. I think it’s easy to get trapped in standard forms of music and how things should and shouldn’t be. Especially if you’ve had a successful album.

RW: If anyone suggests anything like that, because of the kind of people we are, we go off in the opposite direction.

NH: They can’t make us do it. Ultimately, we don’t have to play them the new songs.

DA: There is a slight trap when you do something really successful and you know what people like, there’s a shape to it and there’s a temptation to go down that route. You really have to work hard to not do that and do something different.

RW: But I quite like the songs we make. I’m not in a band that don’t like their own music. Kaiser Chiefs are my favourite band.

NH: The Cribs are my favourite band.

DA: What convinced me to do this concert – because I didn’t really know whether I should or I shouldn’t – was when I went to see the Kaiser Chiefs in Hyde Park. The thing that really struck me was that there’s this real need to communicate, have your audience hear it and then give something back. As a film composer, if I wrote the greatest film score ever, I would play no part in an audience’s experience of that. I write it, record it and it goes out. It might open worldwide and 20 million people might see it on a Friday night simultaneously and I’m at home having a cup of tea. Nothing comes back to me. I felt that a really big part of it was having this music heard and absorbing it and being a part of it. That’s what made me think we could probably get on all right and do it.

RW: That’s brilliant. Twenty million people could be watching it and you’ll be at home. The thing about being on stage and doing what we do is that it’s not about showing off. It’s not like you crave the attention. We’re doing something for the audience, not vice versa. It’s not that we’ve got big egos and want them to clap along. We want people to clap along because we want them to enjoy clapping along.

DA: The main thing I got from it is a great sense of inclusiveness, an audience that’s being performed with and not at.

NH: It’s good that there are bands like Radiohead because some people love going to those gigs and walking away saying: “Oh dear me.” But I want people to come out of our gigs and say: “Where do we go now? I wanna go dancing!”

RW: I don’t want to give the impression that what we do is flim-flam compared to Radiohead.

DA: I think that’s a line of criticism where people criticise something for what it’s not rather than what it is, and that always disturbs me – it’s a bit like criticising Coca-Cola for not being wine. Sometimes I want one and sometimes the other.

NH: Or mixed.

DA: A nice shandy.

NH: It’s very easy to be very different and wacky and unusual – and to be crap and not enjoyable. We want to send the audience home tonight saying: “That was absolutely brilliant.”

DA: And you’ll never see it again.

RW: Unless you get home in time to see it on the telly.


The Kaiser Chiefs vs David Arnold

Nick Hodgson

Drummer and principal songwriter. Aged 30, from Leeds

Ricky Wilson

Lead singer. Aged 29, from Leeds

Career highlights

The art-rock quintet first came to public attention when their single ‘I Predict a Riot’ was released in November 2004. Their debut album Employment followed in March 2005 and went on to become the fourth-best-selling album in the UK that year. It was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. Their second album, Yours Truly, Angry Mob, was released in February and they had their first No 1 single with ‘Ruby’ in the same month. Last year, they won three Brit Awards (British Rock Act, British Group, British Live Act).

What the critics say about Employment

“It has the swagger and momentum of a genuine pop classic, stuffed full of smart, catchy songs played with a confidence and brio not encountered since the Blur/Oasis wars.”

Nick Hodgson on songwriting

“The songs start with an initial idea by me on the guitar or piano, but what comes out in the end is a team effort. We don’t have a dominating figure who dictates what people play. I think this might explain why we still get along.”

David Arnold

Composer. Aged 45, from Luton

Career highlights

Early credit for writing the Björk-performed song ‘Play Dead’ for the 1993 movie The Young Americans. Scored all four James Bond films since 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies. Arnold spent two years producing Shaken and Stirred, a collection of Bond tunes. The album generated the dance hit ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ by the Propellerheads. Arnold won a Grammy for his music for Independence Day.

What the critics say about the Casino Royale score

“Lush score charges forward with percussion one moment and unwinds with soft violins and flutes the next.”

David Arnold on composing

“Sometimes when you’re about to fall asleep something will pop into your head and that’s the seed of everything. At other times that doesn’t happen and you have to sort of sweat it out. The greatest moments are when you wake up with an idea that’s the solution to all your problems.”

© Tim CooperThe Independent, 26 October 2007

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