‘IF THE band were a car it would be a Mini Cooper,” says Ricky Wilson, lead singer of Kaiser Chiefs. “Plucky — and it always makes a comeback.”
Kaiser Chiefs are hardly the first rock band to tap into the Mini’s enduring image. With the first model rolling off the production line in August 1959, the car ushered in the Swinging Sixties and over the next decade examples were owned by all four Beatles (George Harrison opting for a psychedelic paint job). Other owners included Twiggy, Princess Margaret, and Peter Sellers and Britt Ekland, one of the era’s power couples. The Mini was classless and cool.
As with many bands, the fortunes of Kaiser Chiefs — best known for I Predict a Riot and now about to start a UK tour in support of their latest album, Education, Education, Education & War — can be measured out in the cars that they drove. When they formed 14 years ago in Leeds as a group called Parva they could barely scrape together enough fuel to transport them between gigs.
Minis — the old version — were cheap. “I had one when I was 17,” says Simon Rix, the band’s bassist. “Nick [Baines, the keyboard player] had a Volkswagen Golf and we used to squeeze everyone and all the gear into those two cars and did lots and lots of gigs.”
By the time they renamed themselves Kaiser Chiefs in 2003 — after the South African football club Kaizer Chiefs — things were beginning to look up, but only in the sense that they could afford to hire a van to help transport their guitars, drum kit and keyboards.
It was known as a “splitter” van and combined caravan-style seating with a separate area for storing the gear. “I think every band when they first see a splitter van says, ‘What is this amazing voodoo?’” says Rix.
“One of my friends, Neil, used to drive us so we could have a drink after a gig. He didn’t get paid. I think he was hoping for a job in later times, but he gave up, thinking we would ever make it, so he got a proper job.”
“The mystique of a tour bus for anyone who’s never been on one is that they’re amazing places, but for us they’re just somewhere to sleep on the road. “
Success arrived in 2005 with the release of their album Employment, followed by singalong hit singles such as Ruby and I Predict a Riot. Rix was quick to upgrade his wheels.
“I bought a year-old Maserati 4200 when the money started arriving,” he recalls. “Getting an expensive car when you make it is definitely a rock’n’roll thing. I really wanted a crazy sports car. I drove the Maserati for years and loved it, but I had to get a more sensible car when I moved to London — a Land Rover Freelander. It’s really boring but it’s better for parking and for speed bumps and for driving up and down the M1.”
Next came a proper tour bus. “We bought our own around the time I got my Maserati,” says Rix. “Some of us are quite tall so we made the biggest possible bed space, because that’s what’s most important. We don’t really play PlayStation or any of that stuff. What we do is have a chat and then go to sleep.
“The mystique of a tour bus for anyone who’s never been on one is that they’re amazing places, but for us they’re just somewhere to sleep on the road. They’re comfortable, you sit on a sofa and have a beer and when you wake up you’re where you need to be. Perfect.”
The band sold their bus — presumably to another long-limbed group — around 2009 when they announced a hiatus after the release of their third album, Off With Their Heads. It was assumed that this was a euphemism for a break-up, but the Kaisers confounded the critics in 2011 when Wilson, Rix, Baines, guitarist Andrew White and drummer Nick Hodgson — since replaced by Vijay Mistry — re-emerged and got back on the road. Wilson also became a coach on BBC1 talent show The Voice.
The band’s “national treasure” status was not really confirmed until they played at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012, a performance seen around the world and one that helped earn them — finally — international recognition.
Nowadays, as a continent-hopping band, who would they say are the planet’s best and worst drivers? “The Germans are the best,” says Rix. “They go crazy fast on the autobahn but it just works. I feel safe at 180kph [112mph]. Our worst experience, though, was in a taxi in Buenos Aires.”
“It was terrifying,” Wilson adds. “If that was a theme park ride, I wouldn’t go on it again. Like a dream where you’re driving and you’re totally out of control.”
“You know in action movies such as Ronin, where they’re weaving in and out of lanes and crossing that bit of park they have abroad on the central reservation?” continues Rix. “That taxi driver must watch and think, ‘Why is this interesting? They’re just driving normally.’ We nearly crashed 50 times on one journey. Insane.”
That’s what I like about my old Mini: whenever I have to call an AA man out, it’s like an old friend to them.“Every one would say,‘I trained on one of them,
Wilson at least remains loyal to the classic Mini, keeping one at his house in Falmouth, Cornwall. For the drive down from London, though, he too has opted for a more practical car — a Range Rover. And no chauffeur-driven relaxation for him. “I do the drive myself. Not the A303 — I do M4 and M5. Oh God, you know you’re getting old when you’ve got dad-knowledge of motorways. Stop at Membury [in Berkshire] because it’s got a drive-thru Starbucks. Ha!”
He laments the loss of the days when life was a little less scripted, and cars were a little less complicated. “I used to be able to check the oil and change the tyres,” adds Wilson, “but you don’t have to know how cars work any more. That’s what I like about my old Mini: whenever I have to call an AA man out, it’s like an old friend to them.
“Every one would say,‘I trained on one of them, I trained on a Mini.’ It’s all there in front of you: you know what everything does, it makes sense. It’s too difficult now.
“We had one of those new Minis in a video once. I think they’re fine. You couldn’t get away with the old Mini if you were manufacturing it today. People’s expectations of what they need in a vehicle are just different.”
Kaiser Chiefs were speaking at the launch of the Jaguar XE, where they played some of their biggest hits. Their UK tour starts in January. Thanks to Smallcarbigcity for providing the Mini pictured here