“I think Kula Shaker was an anomaly, really … It was a weird time, but it was nice to be surprised by pop music. To think anything can happen. I like to think that Kula Shaker were also part of that surprise. We were doing things that people weren’t expecting and it was very creative.”
Crispian Mills at length about Kula Shaker coming full circle 20 years after recording their debut album, K, navigating the music industry before and after the “atomic war” of downloading that befell record labels in the aughts, returning to the US at a time of worldwide nervous breakdown, and the similarities between producing movies and music. Oh, and that feeling you get when you’re handed the bill for recording an album on Dave Gilmour’s boat …
PS: Well I know you’re getting ready to make the journey back to the US again, and it’ll be good to have you back. I’ve actually followed you for quite awhile now, but unfortunately I got into the band about the fall of 1999 [Ed. note: Kula Shaker announced their initial split in September 1999].
Crispian: Oh, perfect. [Laughter]
That was the last time Kula Shaker was in the states, correct?
Yeah, yeah. That was the last tour. A bummer. So you’re in Chicago?
Yeah. I think you played the Metro about right before I discovered the band. Since then, it’s been a series of near misses for me. I was following the progress of the solo album you were working on, and then I got into the Jeevas, and I was in San Sebastian in Spain at one point, but we left two days before you guys were going to play. Then earlier this year I was on my honeymoon with my wife, and we were in Dublin the night you guys were in Belfast and couldn’t swing it timing wise. So when I saw the US dates, I was like, “Oh, finally.”
I know, but no Chicago! We’re gutted. We’re disappointed we’re not playing Chicago, but hopefully we’ll come back. I remember the last time we played in Chicago, I smashed my guitar—my Strat. I had the neck fixed, but it splintered off quite explosively. Which was an accident, but of course I made it out to be part of the show. [Laughter] It was much more exciting to do that. I’ll never forget that shower of wood. The old guitar is better, but I mean I’ve used the same Strat for well over 20 years now.
No, it’s a black Stratocaster from 1973. First proper Fender guitar I ever got. From the same year I was born.
You’re arriving stateside at a hot time politically. Are you looking forward to taking the temperature over here, or what’s your gauge on being back for the first time in 17 years?
Well, it’s happening all over the world. The world is having a nervous breakdown, and I really sympathize with people who are exasperated in America, because between Hillary and Donald, there is no choice. There’s no choice. I don’t think so, anyway. But I’ve never personally felt that politics was anything but a necessary evil. I’m much more interested in the spiritual side of things. The spiritual dimension is the only place where life starts to make sense. Without that perspective, it’s all just complete chaos and madness, and I don’t buy it.
It’s interesting because I can see both sides having an effect on your songwriting—even at the time of the Jeevas, there was “How Much Do You Suck?” and then with the return of Kula Shaker there was “Great Dictator (Of the Free World).” Now on K2.0, there’s “Death of Democracy,” but you’re still balancing that with stuff like “Infinite Sun” and more introspective songs. Do you find as a songwriter that it’s healthy for you to maintain that balance?
Well, you can’t pretend that you’re not in the world. You can’t pretend that you’re not affected by it. I don’t pretend to not be upset, emotional, disappointed, confused, all those things. So that’s always going to come out in the music. But politics is a dead-end street, and I’m more interested in the human condition or the human element of politics. “Death of Democracy,” I think, is more of a human story than a political one.
Sure. And how does it feel to be back with the gang again? I know this is the third LP since the “reunion,” after Strangefolk and Pilgrims Progress. Each of those albums has had it’s own feel to it, but there’s also been a gap between each one. Is the way you work now a little bit more organic—do you come together now basically when it feels right?
Absolutely. You know, any band who has massive success—and we did very, very well, enjoyed enormous popularity, and the pressures that go with that—has to find their own way of deal with it. For us, it was to have a very long break and kind of implode. I mean, I was kind of stemming the tide at the age of 26. So when we came back to it a few years later, the music industry had also completely changed. The equivalent of the atomic war had happened with downloading, and when Strangefolk came out, it was all in free fall. Nobody knew what was going on. Everybody was very frightened in the industry, so it was no place for us to come back and get a record deal. It was too crazy. So we started our own label and we basically almost started again. We had our grassroots following and these very loyal and devoted fans who we’re very lucky to have, and we just sort of rebuilt. Strangefolk was a very tough album to make, because we made it without any support. I think our first comeback gig was in a pub, and we just took it from there. K2.0 is bringing it back full circle—we started to have a lot more support from the media, support from the industry. It’s been a very good process. Very healthy—creativity first, fans first, music first.
Do you prefer that to what you were experiencing in the nineties, with a major label saying, “We need a single,” “We need this,” and everything else?
I mean we had some great times in the nineties, but it stops being music-led. It starts to become about schedule, cash flow, and competition. It’s not healthy—when you’re young, especially. It’s too much pressure. It’s great to be where we’re at now. Some people can handle it when they’re young, but they’re very few and far between. They’re usually the kind of people who have a family around them, a team of very grown-up people. I never met any grown-ups in the music industry. [Laughter]
But given your family history and the work you’ve done in the past few years in film with A Fantastic Fear of Everything—and I know even back in the nineties era, you had talked then about pursuing film—did it give you any sense of what getting into a big mechanical industry was like at that age? Or are music and movies such different beasts that they don’t prepare you for the other?
No, I think they’re very, very similar in many aspects. The difference between movies and music is that the artist can work in a much smaller group of people. With a film, you have a huge team. Communication skills really get tested. Obviously, there’s a lot more money you have to raise for every project—even the small project is going to be expensive. So there’s additional financial pressure. But the similarities in the way that films are written, developed, edited, and put together is very similar to songs and albums. But I think whatever you’re doing in life, the most important thing is how you are with people. How you work with people, how you can listen to people, understand them, empathize, communicate, you know, spot someone who’s going to cause trouble or are disruptive, destructive, insecure, pain in the ass—how to deal with them. [Laughter] And even with your own insecurities, making sure you don’t let them get in the way. So that’s really where it’s whatever you learn, you take that with you.
Sure. And I could be wrong, but looking at the songwriting credits on K2.0, it seems to be opening up a lot more. You see a few more names in the credits that aren’t just the guys in the band. Obviously, I saw that when you were in the Jeevas—you were writing some stuff with Simon [Roberts] from Bucky. Do you find yourself looking more for that kind of collaboration and camaraderie?
Well, I think Simon’s an exception, because he’s part of the extended family. Bucky is a duo and Paul [Winterhart]’s brother plays the drums in Bucky. We’ve known them for so long, and that’s part of the Kula Shaker extended family. But we’d be happy to work with anyone. It just depends how often you get out and hang with different writers. The most important thing is chemistry, and the harmony of style and taste. Alonza [Bevan] and me, especially, kind of just agree on what’s cool and what isn’t. We struggle to get it right, and get onto record what we’re hearing in our heads. Pilgrims Progress was a huge breakthrough for us on a production level. We started to see a whole other side of the band’s sound was coming out and we were really happy with it.
How would you describe that?
There was sort of a minstrel, very romantic, kind of medieval element to our whole band psyche. It started to come out in “Ophelia.” And “Peter Pan R.I.P.” just turned out so well.
“Ruby,” yeah, that was great. That was like a demo and we tried rerecording it, but we couldn’t beat the demo. So we used this acoustic demo and Alonza wrote this fantastic string arrangement, and that’s what you hear on the album. A demo with a very cheaply recorded voice and guitar and then these lovely strings.
That one was recorded in Belgium, off in the woods if I recall?
Yeah, “off in the woods” is a good way of putting it. The band, being a family, everyone sort of goes their separate ways and we couldn’t be expected to live in the same house like the Banana Splits. [Laughter] Alonza went off and found this old farmhouse in the middle of the woods in Belgium. It was a really good price and it really worked. Alonza’s a very slow worker, but he can put in central heating. He can build roofs and kitchens, and things like that. So he can put together a fantastic studio. It was great to have a place to work in an old barn. So we get to pretend we’re Neil Young. That picture on the back of Harvest—that was always our fantasy. [Laughter] Have a place like that.
So going from Dave Gilmour’s boat—
To a barn in Belgium! Well, Dave Gilmour’s boat was a fantastic experience until we found out how much it cost us. [Ed. note: Kula Shaker recorded their 1999 album, Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts, on Gilmour’s Astoria houseboat in London] Nobody told us the price tag until the day we were leaving, and everybody sort of—the blood drained from our faces and our teeth started to chatter. We were sure we’d misheard it. But we had that moment of innocence [Laughter]—innocent joy of working with Bob Ezrin in the most expensive studio in the world.
So did you go back to the barn for K2.0?
We recorded half of it in the barn, and the other half, we worked in a fantastic little boutique studio in West London called State of the Ark, which has a great little live room, and a fantastic valve desk—the old EMI desk from Paris. They recorded Exile on Main St. on that desk. There’s some graffiti scratched in. “Keith” or something like that. I don’t know whether Keith Richards really did scratch his name into the desk in a moment of cocaine-fueled mania, but everybody claims that it was him.
Yeah, exactly. [Laughter]
Do you appreciate the sound that the band can get through that kind of desk?
I don’t really know how it works, but rock and roll sounds better going through a valve desk. Lots of channels, the sound gets crunched, there’s some separation, there’s warmth. It just sounds better for this kind of music. It’s worth it. It’s worth every penny. And it’s good for the performance, too. You play better when you see all the dials and lights flashing. It’s one of the mysteries of rock and roll. [Laughter] The real thing, that’s what it is.
I wanted to ask about the song that was just released as a bonus track on the American version of the album, “2 STYX.” I think it’s a revised version of an old tune “Craving Heart” that you did at those first “return” gigs in 2006 that you mentioned earlier?
Holy shit, you have done your research. Yeah. I didn’t even know anybody ever even knew about “Craving Heart.” Yeah, it’s reworked and that’s the similarity with films and music. Scripts are constantly getting rewritten and reimagined, and so are songs. “Craving Heart”—one element was working about it, but we just wanted another uptempo track, and we just tried playing it faster and heavier, and we just kind of sort of concertina’d the whole thing together. It works really well.
Do you find yourself often returning to bits of songs that you haven’t finished?
You can absolutely write something where it hasn’t fully manifested itself yet. Look at The Beatles Anthology with “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love.” John wrote a verse, he wrote a bridge, but it wasn’t complete. He needed Paul to write the middle-eight or whatever. You know, “Infinite Sun” is the opening track on K2.0, and it’s taken us 20 years to write that. We played that when were 19 at festivals, and we just never really arranged it into a proper song. It was great to go back to something that we’d started with. It was really returning full circle, and it really gave us a sense of past, present, and future all coming together and creating this moment.
That brings up something else I sussed out, which was on the deluxe edition of Pilgrims Progress, that track “Witches and Wine.” I think it had a bit from a song you’d written earlier too, maybe from those solo sessions, called “Crooked Lines,” right?
Holy sh—yeah, “Crooked Lines” never got released, did it?
Well, it’s been bootlegged.
Oh, right. Well I don’t know how anyone ever got hold of it. It was locked in the bottom of my bottom drawer.
I promise I’m not the one who broke in.
[Laughter] Yeah, “Crooked Lines” was a Jeevas demo, and it didn’t work for the Jeevas. And then it ended up being a demo for Kula Shaker, and kind of ended up differently on a B-side. It had a kind of a Grateful Dead descending acoustic guitar part. Yeah, that had been around for awhile.
Gotcha. Now the return of Kula Shaker happened through that School of Braja project, right?
I know the Jeevas were on that too. Was that a natural transition to go back to Kula Shaker, or was there kind of an idea that Kula Shaker would return one day all along?
It was very natural. The Jeevas, you know, was great fun. It was a nice trip to go on with Andy [Nixon] and Dan [McKinna], but it wasn’t quite a long-term band project. It was never really envisaged as that. It was like, “Let’s make an album!” because we were having a blast playing as a three-piece. Doing the School of Braja was a charity and it was great to produce and work with Indian musicians and kids, and it was like, “OK, we’re ready to do an album now, let’s do another Kula Shaker album and see what happens.” We didn’t really have to think about it that much. It was just an inevitability.
And now it’s 20 years on since 1996, K, and your experience at Knebworth. What are your reflections on that time?
Well, it was interesting and fun for music to have a very playful, slightly stupid sort of group identity. I think Nirvana had really made guitar bands relevant again. Nirvana had really just blown everyone away. Britpop doesn’t sound like it was related musically to Nirvana, but it was definitely in the wake of Nirvana that guitar bands became cool, and were getting signed by record companies. I think Kula Shaker was an anomaly, really. It was a weird kind of freak that we became really big. I think any band that does really, really well—whether it’s Oasis or Kula Shaker or whoever—there’s something other than talent that gets you there. It’s just a strange combination of coincidences and influences. I think Simon Cowell and “X Factor” and these kind of reality talent shows have done a lot of damage to the younger generation, because it’s kind of like they have to seek the approval of their elders and be judged publicly. I don’t think that’s healthy. The whole point of being young and in a band is you don’t give a fuck what the old people think. You have some attitude. That seems to have gone from a lot of bands, but it’s still there, I guess. It’s just not in the mainstream anymore. It was pretty wild in the mainstream. Pretty wild at that time. Knebworth was just bizarre and strange. Oasis were really a club band. They weren’t Pink Floyd or Queen or the Who. Those are the bands that used to do Knebworth. Suddenly, you know, this band that could almost not really play very well at all—it was a bit like punk—they somehow managed to become huge and were up there on the stage. I think they were all just as surprised as everyone else was. It was a weird time, but it was nice to be surprised by pop music. To think, “Holy shit, anything can happen.” I like to think that Kula Shaker were also part of that surprise. We were doing things that people weren’t expecting and it was very creative.
Now when you play those K songs as part of this tour and the 20th anniversary, do they still feel as fresh and vital to you? Do they still have that same spirit, or is it like, “OK, we’ll do the old one for the fans…”?
We’re just putting a live album together now. We’ve always struggled with live recordings and how to do it and how to rein in a slightly wild performance. And we’re really happy with what we’ve got now. Listening back to “303” the other day—it sounds so exciting. It’s still got it. I could kind of for the first time have some perspective on how the band sounded live. We’re all really excited to hear it. I think it stands up after 20 years. And I think the band is on fire.
Does it make it hard to put together a setlist and find the right balance with what is now a pretty significant body of work?
It is tough, but it’s a nice problem to have. Sometimes we just give up. We did a gig at Rough Trade in London the other night to commemorate the 20-year mark—to the day—of K. And we almost just did a bunch of requests. It was fun. Some of them we couldn’t quite play, but it didn’t matter.
You got some requests for some obscure B-sides, then?
Yeah, we did them.
So if I put in a request for “Troubled Mind” next Friday?
Oh yeah, that’s the one where I wouldn’t know where to start. I think it’s in F? I did think, “If someone asks for ‘Troubled Mind,’ what am I gonna do?” I’ll feel my way through the chords in front of a bunch of people. [Laughter]
Well you have a week to prepare.
I’ve been warned.
* * * * *
Kula Shaker’s upcoming US tour dates:
26 Sep // Brighton Music Hall, Boston
27 Sep // World Cafe, Philadelphia
29 Sep // Rough Trade, Brooklyn
30 Sep // Rough Trade, Brooklyn
02 Oct // U Street Music Hall, Washington, DC
04 Oct // Crocodile, Seattle
05 Oct // Star Theater, Portland
07 Oct // Great American Music Hall, San Francisco
08 Oct // Roxy, Los Angeles
09 Oct // Belly Up, San Diego
Read Crispian’s answers to our Five Questions here.