Ricky Wilson of Kaiser Chiefs: ‘People like to see you drinking – so I’d get drunk’

After finding fame in the noughties, the indie frontman reinvented himself as a judge on The Voice. But escalating anxiety led to an alcohol problem. Now sober, and with a new album, he opens up – between wisecracks – about his struggles

Ricky Wilson gets his greeting a little mixed up when we meet in central London. First, he gives me a full body hug, before announcing he has shingles. “It’s not that contagious,” he tries to assure me. “You’d have to literally wear my clothes to catch it.”

Wilson suspects he has caught the virus because the band he fronts, Kaiser Chiefs, are about to release their seventh album, Duck. He has had it twice before: “Always during periods of massive stress.”

It turns out that anxiety is something Wilson has spent a long time trying to overcome. It tends to rear its head in different ways – when he first appeared as a guest judge on The Voice, it was in the form of dizziness that was so severe, he couldn’t stand up. “I said to them: ‘I don’t get anxious, I’m a rock star!’ So they gave me seasick tablets.”

Since then, the 41-year-old has tried other ways to tackle it: anti-anxiety medication (“They left me with no fear of consequences so I stopped”); a brief spell in therapy, before it became too much hassle organising it; and live performance, which he claims sorts him out. But at other times, he says, he turned to alcohol and this is something he wants to address today. However, by the time we have finished a hesitant and occasionally contradictory conversation, I am not entirely convinced he is ready to.

I have known Wilson since Kaiser Chiefs found fame in the early 00s as a zippy indie pop group alongside bands such as Arctic Monkeys and Kasabian. Born in Keighley, West Yorkshire, Wilson taught at Leeds College of Art before the band took off. Kaiser Chiefs’ music was more colourful, and less studiedly cool, than some of their peers, and their combination of Britpop nostalgia, Yorkshire humour and catchy tunes – I Predict A Riot, Ruby – made them massive. Their 2005 debut album Employment went platinum six times in the UK.

The last time we met was in 2014, at the Groucho Club in Soho, just as Wilson was preparing for his new role as a judge on The Voice. At the time it seemed like an incredibly risky move – gambling his hard-earned indie credibility for instant TV fame. But the band had just lost their drummer and songwriter, Nick Hodgson, who had decided he wanted to write for other pop artists instead, and their sales were diminishing. Wilson’s TV sidestep could have been the death knell for the band – instead, it was a savvy masterstroke. Their next album Education, Education, Education and War went to No 1. Half a decade later, they are still selling out arenas around the country.

“That was a terrifying time,” says Wilson. “I was letting go of control in terms of how people perceive you. Suddenly you’re not in control of the edit. I was just lucky that I didn’t turn out to be an absolute moron, because I didn’t know whether I was or not.”

But fame came at some cost. Reading opinions about himself on social media whenever he took his phone out wasn’t ideal for keeping his anxiety levels down. Neither was the fact that Hodgson was no longer around to provide the hits. “I realised that we were just bowling around the world having a right laugh while he took a lot of the weight on his shoulders,” Wilson reflects now. “It’s probably why he got out.”

He says there is no bad blood between them, although they are no longer friends. Did he enjoy proving to Hodgson that the band could be successful without him? “I’m not that vindictive,” he grins. In fact, Wilson loves proving everyone wrong – even his mortgage adviser Brian. “He’s a very good friend of mine now, but at the start he told me to expect the band to last no more than five years. And so I proved him wrong … three times now!”

Wilson with fellow The Voice judges Sir Tom Jones, Rita Ora and Will.i.am.
Wilson with fellow The Voice judges Sir Tom Jones, Rita Ora and Will.i.am. Photograph: Ray Burmiston/BBC/Wall To Wall

Then there are the band’s critics: “They’ve thrown everything at us and we won’t go away,” he says. “It annoys them we’re having success ... and I think: ‘Yeah, it might piss you off but the reason we’re having it is because it’s pissing you off. As soon as you stop noticing, we’ll stop trying.’”

For Duck, the band put all their energies into songs they say are more open and personal than before. Lead single People Know How to Love One Another has been described in the band’s own publicity material as an anthem for Brexit Britain, although Wilson is cautious about taking this line: “You should never tell anyone what to do,” he says. “In a country that’s got 52% people thinking one way and 48% thinking the other way, that’s a way to split your market share.”

Elsewhere on the album, Golden Oldies addresses a topic not often dealt with in pop – male broodiness. (“I can paint the old back bedroom, blue and pink on different sides,” Wilson sings.) “It’s more about doubting your own broodiness,” says Wilson, who has no children. “Because you can be broody but then you have to go through with it. And I’ve got enough friends going through it to see that you get both elated and traumatised.”

He recently said that there was more to life than putting an album out every two years, and that he would rather “put out a kid if I can” instead. “Well, at least if you put out a kid you don’t get 20,000 people on Twitter calling you a shithead,” he says.

I had assumed that one of the more personal songs on the album was Wait, which explicitly references Wilson’s body insecurity. Even though it is wrapped up in typical Kaiser humour (“I’ve got 99 problems, and every one of them with a flake”), it seems to be touching on something more serious with its talk of mirror glances and skipping meals. But as he often does, Wilson plays it down: “I found it hilarious that all I had to do to get on TV was straighten my teeth and lose a stone,” he says. “Then suddenly I’m in Heat magazine with a before-and-after photograph saying I’m a heart-throb.”

The way Wilson tells it, he had struggled to find a route on to TV until his dentist told him about a new brace that could sort his teeth out for £1,500. “I was umming and ahhing about it and my girlfriend at the time said: ‘Of course you should, you’re supposed to be a pop star!’ And there I was thinking maybe we needed a new fridge. But it turned out to be a good investment.”

Wilson is often amusing but it can be hard to pierce through the wisecracks to work out how he really feels. This is particularly difficult when it comes to his anxiety: one minute he appears to be wrestling with his demons, the next he is laughing it all off.

“I can leave the house in the morning, I’m fine,” he says. “I’ve got money in the bank and a support system around me. So I have anxiety, but I don’t suffer from it.”

He says a doctor once told him that anxiety was just adults not being able to process excitement. “Kids get excited; adults get anxious. So now when I feel anxious, I try to imagine that I’m just excited instead, and … it doesn’t help that much.” He laughs, but it sounds like strange advice from a professional – sometimes, I suggest, anxiety exists because of a painful incident. “Uncertainty as well,” he says. “I get anxious when I don’t know what’s going to happen. So throwing yourself into any kind of abyss, whether it’s splitting up with someone or leaving a band, is just …”

He trails off, looks uncomfortable and changes the topic. “My body language is bad, isn’t it?” he says, noticing that he has slumped in his seat with his arms folded. Would he rather we didn’t cover this? “No, it’s fine,” he says. “It’s interesting. Sometimes the only way you get to find things out is by doing interviews … free therapy!”

We move on to how he would drink to cope with the anxiety, and how that could sometimes get on top of him when he was on the road. “Because it’s always available and legal. Plus people really like to see you – the guy who was on stage – afterwards. And they like to see you drinking … so I would get drunk. It becomes a weird hobby to take your mind off everything else. I’d be, like, I’m away for three weeks, I’ll get through this by not really noticing. And as long as I can do my job properly, everything will be all right.”

He mentions the strange dynamic of touring, where being a lead singer means that you’re “at the top of a pyramid of people, and so you can kind of get away with a lot as long as it doesn’t seep through into your work”. Yet at the same time, being at the top of the pyramid brings its own pressures: “I have loads of people who I have to take on tour. If I don’t go, no one goes.”

How bad was the drinking? “On a personal level, I think it was bad,” he says. “Enough to want to stop. But in the grand music industry scheme of things? I think I drank less than most people spilled.”

He says he was never dependent on alcohol. “I was more dependent on finding ways to do it than I was doing it. I liked the game of it. I liked the fact that it was something I’d plan. I was quite sneaky and I got sneakier. The fun was in hiding it.”

Why was he hiding it? “Because I was ashamed,” he says. And suddenly he sounds it, too, so much that I wonder if we should really be talking about this at all – yet he insists he is happy to carry on.

Wilson on stage with Kaiser Chiefs in Glasgow in June.
Wilson on stage with Kaiser Chiefs in Glasgow in June. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Redferns

“I sound like I’m skirting around the issue but I’m still a little bit embarrassed,” he says, biting his lip. “So it’s not that I don’t want to talk about it … it’s more that I don’t know how to talk about it.”

He describes quitting drinking as “a new hobby”, which sounds as if he’s being flippant again. Surely it must have been tough? “No,” he says, “because I’m quite self-righteous, so if I’m going to do something, I’ll do it properly.”

Wilson never sought professional help but quit simply by talking to others who had gone through rehab. “When you don’t drink and you’re living in a world full of drink, you suddenly meet a lot more people who are in the same boat as you,” he says. “You gravitate towards people and it’s interesting how many of them are out there.”

People he didn’t notice before? “Yeah … there is less ‘woe is me’ about not drinking than you’d think. In fact, it’s quite good. It’s a bit like a little club.”

Kaiser Chiefs no longer have booze on their rider. Wilson says he didn’t request this. Instead, it just happened one night. “I think that was for me,” he says. Did they talk to him about it? He shakes his head. “We didn’t get as far as we’ve come by talking to each other!”

We both laugh at this, which punctures the tension in the room. “I think that’s probably enough,” he says. “Because … I dunno. Everything’s good. It is good.”

And he is right, in many ways. Next year, he plans to marry his fiancee Grace Zito, a stylist whom he met in 2015 on the set of The Voice. They currently dote on a very Instagrammable dog called Reebus. As for the band, they seem to be cruising at an impressively high altitude, almost without people noticing. Wilson notes how they have played more than 20 festivals this summer, often occupying the slot just below the headliner. “It’s the best slot to play,” he says, even though you know someone with his ambition would sooner be topping the bill. “Seriously – you go on, play your hits, entertain everyone … then you go home and don’t have to pay for the fireworks.”

He gives me another shingly embrace, and looks relieved to be back in the world of wisecracks.

Duck is out on 26 July on Polydor.


Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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