Kaiser Chiefs make belated Pittsburgh debut

The Three Rivers Arts Festival music lineup was constructed with familiar old faces (Jeff Tweedy, Lucinda Williams, Smithereens), some new blood (Jake Bugg, Curtis Harding) and an entry that comes seemingly out of nowhere in the Kaiser Chiefs.

The post-punk revival band from Leeds would have been high on the list of bands people wanted to see here in 2005, when it released its debut "Employment" and sounded fresh, as part of a wave with the Libertines, Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand.

Nine years and four albums later, this will be the Pittsburgh debut for the band that gave us "I Predict a Riot."

"We've been in Philly a few times," says keyboardist Nick "Peanut" Baines. "We also did the big Live 8 thing there back in 2005. I don't think we've ever been west to see you guys, no. It's kind of cool. First time, fifth album, still going to new places. I like that feeling."

What people here may not know about the Chiefs, but what is driving the band's resurgence in England is that frontman Ricky Wilson is like their Adam Levine or Blake Shelton, judging on the British version of "The Voice." After much discussion, it was a risk the Chiefs took in the wake of main songwriter and drummer Nick Hodgson departing and the band working to push its first album in three years, "Education, Education, Education & War."

"You know what the issues are, between band credibility and media perception. The way we saw it," the keyboardist says, "was Nick left at the end of 2012 and I think people had pretty much written us off. They thought, 'Yeah, Kaiser Chiefs, the main songwriter guy is gone, original member of the band is gone.' And we took a long time to rebuild and work through 2013 to write this record and go into the studio only when we were ready -- not go in with three songs. We went in there with probably 30 songs.

" 'The Voice' thing was all about the need to get our album and Kaiser Chiefs name heard by as many millions of people as possible. And we'd always been on the Saturday evening chat shows, music shows, but then there isn't actually any music shows left in the UK. You might have heard of 'Later ... with Jools Holland.' Even that's struggling, and there aren't many places to get alternative music heard."

He refers to the Kaiser Chiefs as an alternative band that crossed over into the mainstream, adding, "There's no shame in admitting that or even wanting that."

Although it's made little impact in the States, the album topped the charts in England at a time when people aren't generally in the market for anthemic bands modeled after the Jam. The Kaiser Chiefs arrived at that sound after a false start in 2000 as Parva.

Mr. Baines says they were attracted to that era of post-punk/New Wave when songcraft became valued.

"So, the energy of the music was still there, but then you had stuff like Dexy's Midnight Runners and Elvis Costello and things where real songwriting craft got into those artists. And one thing we had in common is we used to go to Northern soul and mod clubs in Leeds when we were 17, 18, 19. We had this band [Parva] that was kind of Nirvana-y. I think we were still finding our way, kind of an apprenticeship. We were learning our craft and definitely finding our stagecraft. But that band fell apart, and the label fell apart."

In spite of some of the criticisms of the band -- the British press can be brutal -- Mr. Baines doesn't feel as if the band was boxed in by that style.

"Not really, no. The energy is what carries through, but the sonic character changes a little bit, particularly on this record. On the last record, 'The Future is Medieval,' that was a lot of different sounds on it, but if you look back on it, it was still a confused album. We didn't quite know exactly what we were doing or where the band was going. This album, with Nick leaving and getting a new drummer, is all about refocusing and refinding that energy. Sonically, [producer] Ben Allen, I think he helped us move on a bit, within our Kaiser Chiefs world."

The album's title is a commentary on former Prime Minister Tony Blair's "Education, Education, Education" speech, and songs like "Factory Gates" and "Cannons" address British politics like the Clash and others did back in the day, with such lyrics as "Retreating safely to institutes/Where dinner party military forces/Toast themselves with the blood of us all/Smashing regimes between courses/Chanting education, education and war."

"I think, lyrically, for Ricky, he's always told the story of what's going on around us. The current party in power is not really doing or saying anything at the moment. It's almost like they're just holding on till the next general election and praying that they stay in power, which I don't think they will. The economy is not great, housing market is not that great. You see homeless people, you see people's houses repossessed. People working hard in decent normal jobs but not really being rewarded for what they do. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and we're slightly on the edge of a dangerous situation with that."

Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576; Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.

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