‘Playing guitar in front of 10,000 people is something I stopped being nervous about a long time ago,” says Simon Rix, the bassist in long-running Leeds indie band Kaiser Chiefs. “But this is different.”
He’s talking about the band’s first ever art show, which opens this week at York Art Gallery. He curated the exhibition alongside the band’s drummer Vijay Mistry, and the pair are feeling the pressure.
“Is it as stressful as the Olympics?” asks Mistry, who joined shortly after the Kaiser Chiefs played in the London 2012 closing ceremony, when singer Ricky Wilson arrived in the stadium in a cavalcade of Hell’s Angels, singing Pinball Wizard on the back of a motorbike. Nah, says Rix. “Spoiler alert: I was miming. Ricky had to do it live but beforehand the rest of us were just having a drink with the Spice Girls. Trying to find David Beckham was my main task. I did find him, we had a chat. I asked him to come to Leeds [United] – obviously.”
When the band were first approached to curate a show in York, back in June 2017, the premise was pretty simple: “Pick the work and choose music to accompany it,” says Mistry, who jacked in a career as a scientist for the rock’n’roll life. “But then we realised we could take it anywhere we wanted to, within reason.”
Of the five Kaiser Chiefs, only Wilson has a formal background in art, having studied and then taught graphic design in Leeds. But he is not here today, having long moved down to London to sit next to Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice. When we catch up on the phone a few days later, he cheerfully admits to having left Rix and Mistry to it once the call came from York last year.
“I don’t want to sound patronising but I think it’s amazing what Vijay and Simon have done,” he says. “Let’s face it, we are all in our extremely late 30s – we are in our 40s – and isn’t it great that Simon, who has always just been Simon, has discovered this new part of his life and is discovering the artistic world? I’m moving further away from it as he moves towards it. It was my everything when I was a student.”
He and Rix have been friends since they were 16. It is “bananas”, says Wilson, that Rix now spends his holidays going to chin-strokey art expositions such as Documenta, which takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany. “He likes football and IPA, stuff like that. He’s a proper lad’s lad. I would never have guessed this change of direction but I am enjoying watching him blossom.”
For a mainstream band, the Chiefs have ended up curating a decidedly esoteric exhibition. Rix pushed for a loan of a big-name piece of sound art to accompany paintings from the gallery’s own collection. “I’ve been viewing it a bit like a festival,” he says, and you need a headliner. “You need the Foo Fighters. Well. Janet Cardiff is the Foo Fighters.”
Rix had seen – or rather, heard - Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet on one of his art mini breaks and wanted to bring it to Yorkshire. It is the sound of a 40-part choir singing Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium in harmony, with each voice part playing through an individual speaker. The speakers are arranged so visitors can weave in and out, creating an immersive experience. The work does not travel easily: it comes with a “tone meister” who came to York to check the acoustics before Cardiff gave the band the nod.
On the other end of Rix’s fantasy art festival is what is being billed as “the silent gig”. Continuing the festival analogy, he says this is probably “the guy who might not turn up. It’s Pete Doherty. Might be good. Might be on heroin.” When we meet, it is this element of the show that Rix seems most nervous about. The idea is to give visitors the feeling of being on stage in a band without the music, using light and colour and projected lyrics.
Not Kaiser Chiefs lyrics though, says Mistry, who has taken the lead choosing music to match the works taken from York Art Gallery’s archives. Julia Holter’s Sea Calls Me Home accompanies Bridget Riley’s abstract Study 4 for Painting With Two Verticals; the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society is the soundtrack for Lowry’s The Bandstand, Peel Park, Salford; Talking Heads’ Love – Building on Fire plays from headphones hung next to Turner’s The Dormitory and Transept of Fountain’s Abbey. Super Furry Animals, Mercury Rev and the Cure also feature.
The band have invited their friend, artist Roger Miles, to reprise his interactive installation, The Bureau of Found Audio Objects. Operating like a lost property office, visitors can peruse his collection and make a claim on anything in his vinyl collection. The best bids, made in writing, will win a Kaiser Chiefs album.
It’s one of the only obvious Kaiser Chiefs bits of the show. “We are happy we didn’t go down the Kaiser Chiefs route, because although that does have an appeal it is a limited one,” acknowledges Mistry. “This is something that everyone can experience and learn and really enjoy it rather than having to be a fan to enjoy.”
• When All Is Quiet: Kaiser Chiefs in Conversation With York Art Gallery runs from 14 December to 10 March.