|Photography by Eleonora C. Collini|
Just mention Kula Shaker and most people will be like “Oh Gosh, I used to love them so much. I haven’t heard them in ages!” Alas, the psychedelic London quartet belong to the club of those ‘90s bands who, after gaining popularity with their early material, seem to have then been forgotten by most people in spite of carrying on releasing pretty good records for now twenty years.
Founded by singer-frontman Crispian Mills (grandson of Sir John Mills CBE) and college-friend Alonza Bevan, the band, who called themselves after an Indian emperor from the 8th century, were pioneers in incorporating traditional Indian music, culture and mysticism in guitar-heavy, psych-rock sonorities, featuring lyrics in Sanskrit along with Indian instruments, in a time when only Brit-pop seemed to matter.
After enjoying mainstream success both in UK and the States in the second half of the ‘90s, thanks to a contract with Columbia records and two multi-awarded albums (the 2xPlatinum certified K, one of the fastest selling debuts in Britain, and the equally beautiful Peasants, Pigs & Austronauts), Kula Shaker disbanded in 1999.
Mills subsequently pursued a solo career along with playing in The Jeevas, a psych-rock trio that was particularly successful in Japan, while his bandmates went on joining other bands. Following a brief reunion to contribute to the charity album School of Braja in 2004, the four-piece (minus keyboardist Jay Darlington, replaced by Harry Boradbent) finally made a permanent comeback in 2006, putting out two records over a decade.
After a five-year break, during which Mills mainly worked on A Fantastic Fear of Everything (a horror comedy film starring Simon Pegg), Kula Shaker are finally back to celebrate their twentieth anniversary. The result is K 2.0, an album which, like the title suggests, was conceived as a sequel to their much beloved debut, but while it sees the band nostalgically reflecting on their past, it also represents a wise take on the present and a spiritual look into the future.
I caught up with them at their rehearsal space in Notting Hill, London just before they embarked on a short, but full-on European tour. We discussed the new record, the importance of creativity in kid education, vegetarianism and the meaning of spiritual today.
K 2.0 was recorded between State of the Ark Studios in London and Alonza’s barn studio in Belgium. Do you think that being in the countryside had an impact on the record?
Alonza: In a way it did, as you definitely have more time when you are in the countryside.
Crispian: Yes, because you don’t have a ticking clock there, but we did have the ticking clock of the deadline of the twenty-year anniversary, though sometimes it is good to have a deadline….
How long did it take to record it?
Crispian: We started recording in May last year, then we had a break, but we managed to meet the November delivery deadline. I think Pilgrims Progress, the last record from five years ago was very influenced by the countryside. It’s quite a medieval location where you can imagine castles, and life there is very simple. All that is actually part of our sound now, but I think the main influence on this album was more the live sound of the band.
Alonza: For Pilgrims Progress, the first time we performed together was when we did gigs after recording the album, whereas this time we worked on the songs together before recording them, so hopefully K 2.0 sounds more like a live band, as that was the idea.
Crispian: Yeah, it was very surprising how excited the band was, because after such a long break you don’t know whether it is going to work or not, but it just sounded fantastic.
I know Crispian, you definitely prefer recording analogue, right?
Crispian: For this type of music it really sounds better when you put it through a big desk full of glowing bulbs and flashing electrical equipment…
Alonza: It is the sound of rock and roll as you get certain saturations within the sound, which is what you expect.
Crispian: I think a lot of musicians, especially the ones that can afford it, like Mark Ronson, record analogue, edit on the computer and then go back to analogue for the mixing. That makes it more expensive, but it is definitely worth it.
Alonza: The digital recording has got a little better now, but it’s still just going to give you an accurate recording, which is not what you want when you make a rock and roll album.
Do you consider yourselves more a live or record band?
Crispian: I think the band has always been a live band first and foremost. Even though we don’t play many gigs, we are very lazy and we do lots of big breaks in our work cycles, the band has been defined by playing live and the records have always been a lovely addition to the songwriting. I am proud of our records, but I don’t think they make complete sense till you see them live. This album and the last one were the first times when we started the writing process from marrying some of the atmospheres that we can create live, which is really difficult thing to do.
Is it true that the song 'Infinite Sun' was adapted from a mantra you guys used to sing when you were nineteen?
Crispian: We used to hang out at free festivals because we were looking for places to play. It is the same thing today, the challenge is how you develop your sound and how you practice performing. Forty year ago there were no DJs and every club would need a band, so a lot of the classic bands did years and years of apprenticeship. It was very difficult then and probably even more difficult now, but at free festivals there would always be stages, and bands could always somehow talk their way to the stages or know someone that would have a stage. And there were these Krishna gatherings for instance at Glastonbury, where we would play mantras for our audience, and start doing Native American trances, and if you played pubs in London you would never be doing that kind of stuff. All that helped us form our identity and sent us in a certain direction we never recovered from.
Is there any other song on the record you are particularly proud of?
Alonza: It changes, but I particularly like “Mountain Lifter” for the mountain-lifting break. I am always trying to cut down the arrangements and go straight to the chorus, and when we were talking about editing that song, Crispian was like “ no, no you can’t cut that down because that is when the mountain gets lifted”, so we actually invented a new section for the mountain-lifting. There are a few songs on the new record that have ambitious arrangements. “Mountain Lifter” is one, “Here come my Demons” is another, as it doesn’t have a straightforward arrangement, but it is made of a few different sections.
Crispian: You can hear a real connection to our first record K. When you come to an anniversary, naturally you’re going to have a sense of the past, but that actually helps because if we’ve made it till here, that means we can still play. You get a full circle of past, present and future. For instance we had never done a song like “Here comes my Demons” before, but at the same time you can hear the sound of this band very clearly in it. That lyric actually comes from my kid, who was four at the time and when listening to the music was singing to himself “here come my demons”.
Being this the twentieth anniversary record, did you feel any pressure while writing it?
Alonza: Only time pressure, as it was already late in the year when we decided to do it.
Kula Shaker initially reformed to play a few sessions for School of Braja, a charity album made with a Californian school. How important do you think music is in kid education?
Crispian: The most important thing with my kids is that they learn to be creative. Creative doesn’t necessarily mean music or acting, it can be cooking, craft, tapestry. Creative is a state of mind in which you are able to be spontaneous, and if you are being spontaneous, you’re being yourself. The worst thing that can happen is the complications of your mind, when you are sensing yourself and that doesn’t flow in your life. I think anything that encourages spontaneity helps you make decisions in your life too.
But don’t you think that music is the most complete form of creativity, maybe just along with cinema?
Alonza: Yeah music touches you in a way that is almost unexplainable.
Crispian: Music goes very deep, they say in a spiritual way “all speech is song, and all movement is dance”. It all goes down to the essence of what we really are in the highest sense. If it helps people to feel free, then it is a good thing.
Back in the ‘90s, all the references to the Indian culture and mysticism in your music and lyrics were ahead of their time, whereas now they seem to have become a sort of mainstream thing. How do you feel about it?
Crispian: Now it is definitely more accepted, yeah. The most obvious thing is how many people are now vegetarian.
Are you still all vegetarian?
Crispian: Yes we have always been vegetarian and it used to be a bit of an issue to make sure we always got something to eat on tour.
Alonza: They used to give you a funny look if you said you were vegetarian… now it’s a lot more common.
Crispian: That’s is all part of the awareness of other cultures, which is healthy. Today the world has a choice of either come together as one culture and take the best things that everybody can offer or become extinct. Probably the worst will happen, but we will deal with it in a different way. Though even financial analysts are saying this is the end, it’s the beginning of something too. It is going to be very difficult for everybody, but we have our values, the decisions that we make, and how we live our life and why we’re living it, and you can make something good out of it. Crisis is usual the best catalyst for developments and transformations.
Do you think that today some artists are not genuine and just use the spiritual card to become more popular?
Crispian: The whole world is based on vanity and selfishness. Even if we try to be genuine, everything we do always has something selfish and somehow superficial and vain. As far as being genuine, the uncomfortable true is that you need some kind of authority. If you have some sort of teacher who is coming from a recognized and respected tradition, that will give you power and then you will learn so much, but if you make up the rules as you go along it will only take you so far and you will get to a point when you are full of shit. The whole goal is also being humble and not egomaniac, and part of recognizing a teacher or a tradition is taking that step into humility. Humility is the first step towards the spiritual, when you are not just thinking about yourself all the time. You have to go beyond your needs and start opening up.
If you had to reincarnate into another artist of any century who would it be?
Crispian: I wanna be rich. I just don’t want to be some struggling artist. If you go back in time there were only a few musicians getting paid. If you were the musician for a king then you would get a few commissions and do OK, but 90% of musicians were just beggars getting shit thrown out at them.
Alonza : And painters were doing even worse……
Crispian: I don’t want to be anyone else, but I would definitely like to meet a few. Like William Blake, Alice Coltrane, Johnny Cash. But even someone very down on their luck and having a shit time, they wouldn’t want to be anybody else, which is a strange thing.
If Kula Shaker were a dish what would they be?
Alonza: It would definitely have to have some tofu in it, and be spicy.
Crispian: it would either be something high in protein or complex carbohydrates, but definitely vegetarian and Hare Krishna, a sort of sanctified vegetarian super food.
Originally published on London in Stereo