The Kaiser Chiefs: Fully Employed

Asked to explain the theory of relativity, Einstein did so thusly: An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour. I thought about this while speaking with bassist Simon Rix, the day after Kaiser Chiefs’ triumphant sold-out homecoming shows in Leeds. In the four months they had been on tour, the band had released a very well-received album (Employment), become a huge concert draw in Europe, appeared in most of the major European publications, wowed audiences in the United States at South by Southwest, released their album in the States to brisk sales and critical cheers, and made the rounds of U.S. talk shows. If anyone is sitting next to the pretty girl on the bench, it is the Kaisers. This month, they return to the States for more touring, a slot at Lollapalooza, and a Live 8 performance in Philadelphia; fall sees them sharing the stage with Foo Fighters and Weezer.

Three of the Chiefs (Rix, keyboardist Nick “Peanut” Baines, and drummer Nick Hodgson) had been in bands together since high school. In 2003, they added guitarist Andrew White and very dapper lead singer Ricky Wilson. One year later, abandoning their attempts at American-style garage rock, they decided to take a gamble: make a clean start being British, in both sound and theme. That is a more dicey career choice than it sounds; as Rix explained, “Being charming and English has kind of counted against [them] in America.” Celebrating their British-ness, the band rechristened itself after a South African football team and hit the road. Cloistered in their van, they “toured and toured, and it started to get a bit hectic,” said Rix. With the release of second single “Oh My God,” hectic turned into riot as Kaiser Chiefs garnered the attention of international audiences.

The band is almost cartoonlike. Wilson is equal parts singer, dancer, and toastmaster: never one to leave a comment from the audience alone; always willing to jump when he could just as easily walk.

What about the rumor that Wilson had been in a Rolling Stones cover band prior to the Chiefs? “Not true,” said Rix. “He was in a band and they did do covers, some of which were Rolling Stones, but he wasn’t going around saying, ‘Hi, I’m Mick Jagger.’” Then he reconsidered. “But he would make a good Mick Jagger, come to think of it.”

The rest of the band are characatures, as well. White resembles John Lennon crossed with Paul McCartney, even sporting a modified Beatles’ hairdo; Hodgson (chief songwriter) is like Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne: quiet and modest until the show begins, whereupon he attacks the drums; Peanut (never seen without his porkpie hat) exhorts the crowd to action when Wilson is off stage-diving. Finally, there is Rix, tall and skinny, his height accentuated by a frizz of hair that bounces madly as he pogos across the stage.

Rix described the band as very tight. “I kind of view it as I have been married to five men…or like having lots and lots of brothers.” Quickly realizing what he said, Rix demurred, “Oh, I can see the pull quote now: ‘I have been married to five men.’”

“I Predict a Riot” was only beginning to receive U.S. airplay when the Chiefs appeared at South by Southwest in March. Still, their electricity was undeniable. As part of a BBC showcase—and despite Wilson’s severely sprained leg—the band pushed the crowd into a frenzy. Wilson jumped into the audience and the night dissolved into chaos. “He wasn’t looking too good when he got back onstage,” Rix said, remembering the night with a bit of a chuckle. “I don’t think he did any further damage, but he was definitely less animated than usual after that.”

Employment sits firmly in the Billboard Top 100 and appears to want to hang there for a good, long time. The album is a collection of the band’s offerings at its most manic (“Na Na Na Na Naa” and “I Predict a Riot”) and soft (“You Can Have It All” and “Team Mate”), with some offbeat choices in between (“What Did I Ever Give to You” and “Time Honored Tradition”). With such a variety of songs, Employment sometimes sounds as if the band were searching for hits. “I disagree and agree,” said Rix. “We wrote as many good songs as we could. And because we were quite a long time trying to get a deal—about a year—we ended up picking the best 12 songs. We did try to put a few slower songs on the album because our live shows are so fast-paced. We thought it was not as cohesive as it could be, but that’s because each song does have its own feel.”

As with sounding British, maybe that is not such a bad thing. The band’s goals are to entertain and make something that is lasting. Rix reflected back to a piece he had written for the Pitchfork Media Web site earlier in the year, listing the band’s favorite albums of all time. “There were a few slightly obscure bands, but for the most part, there were really big bands. We modeled ourselves on them and that is probably why the album sounds a little planned. We wanted to make an album that can hang around for years to come…kind of a classic album.”

At the end of our interview, Rix was preparing to take a little time off. “I’m gonna go to a pub with some friends and watch some football,” he told me. “Have a drink. Then come home and lay in bed. Haven’t done that in a while.”

No, Simon, I don’t suppose you have.

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