Has it really been 20 years since Kula Shaker released their debut album, K? At the time it was the fastest selling debut since Oasis’s Definitely Maybe, and went on to shift more than 1m copies. Follow up albums performed well and solidified a hardcore fan base, but ultimately failed to match the band’s initial commercial success.
Always excelling as a live band, they recently reformed and are currently touring throughout February and March, including a sold-out show at the Roundhouse in London. I recently met with lead singer Crispian Mills and drummer Paul Winterhart in west London where they were rehearsing their new album, K2.0.
It’s 20 years since K came out, I heard you describe that thought as ‘horrific’, was it that much of a surprise?
Crispian: It was a big shock, it didn’t feel like 20 years. Time does rattle past.
Paul: Hopefully you’re armed to accept what life throws at you the older you get. Things that used to freak you out – even recording K. I remember us being freaked out about being in big studios, and the pressure that that brings.
Crispian: We were pretty neurotic, Paul and I especially.
Paul: Because we wanted to be great, right.
Crispian: Neurotic and controlling and ultimately we weren’t satisfied with the record. I wanted it to be much more analogue sounding and it was quite radio friendly. I remember thinking Grateful When You’re Dead sounded terrible, nothing like I imagined, and I was like, ‘What happened to the Who at the Isle of White, what do we sound like?’
John Leckie [K’s producer] didn’t seem to be listening to my concerns. I went and did an interview at Radio 1 – back in the day when Radio 1 still played bands – and I went to the loo and I heard it coming out of this tiny little speaker in the ceiling and it sounded great, and I thought, ‘That’s what it’s all about, this record … that was its ultimate medium’.
But I’m proud of the record, with time I really do appreciate how rarely bands come along with real imagination who are driven by ideas and a love of playing and make it into the charts – and it happened for us. For that I have a lot of affection for the album.
Were you not tempted to do an anniversary tour and play K in it’s entirety?
Crispian: I haven’t entirely ruled it out, but I think we wanted the focus to be the fact that we wanted to make a new album. We would all get bored if we just played K.
An anniversary has a celebratory aspect to it and there is a natural nostalgia that is permissible because of the nature of the time, but you’re also thinking about where you are now, how you got to where you are and where you’re going. I think past, present and future all marry at an anniversary rather than it just being about redoing the past.
You had a number of albums after K that relatively weren’t as successful as K, was that a conscious decision?
Paul: It wasn’t our decision for K to be successful, so it certainly wasn’t our decision… without wishing to sound overly artistically purist, we just try to make the best records at any time.
Crispian: The only conscious decision was to not play the game. We wanted to be a pop band so we wanted to be popular; we wanted to see how big our audience could be, how much reach we could have. But we made a conscious decision to not do what was expected and I think there was an antagonistic element to that. Mystical Machine Gun was a pretty ridiculous comeback single and that was definitely a conscious decision that we’re not going to play the game.
Paul: So was putting out songs in Sanskrit. They always sounded good live, they’re big tracks that sounded good live and people responded to them.
Crispian: Ironically, the less successful of those first albums, Peasants, Pigs and Astronauts, was still a big album by today’s standards, even though it wasn’t multi-platinum like K, it really solidified the fan base. It solidified this hardcore fan base that stayed with us who were into this total world.
Paul: Lots of people got into the first record, but the people who got into the second record considered themselves as more hardcore fans, it’s just the general public weren’t that fussed. The second record is quite mad.
Crispian: It’s a very rich meal. I don’t think it works as a whole record, but individual tracks……
Are you as happy with the other albums as you now are with K?
Crispian: I can appreciate with a bit of hindsight and a bit of objectivity. I have a lot of affection for them for different reasons. Strangefolk was a very difficult album to make.
We made a little EP when we started playing music again in 2006/7 and that turned out really good and was a real high. Then we tried to make a whole album without the record company and the managers and that proved to be quite difficult because we didn’t have sounding boards or any support really. So that’s the album that suffered. But it has good moments.
The best thing on Strangefolk was the bonus track and it turned out to be one of the best thing we’ve done, it was this track called Persephone, which is a very romantic pre-Raphaelite number.
Paul: Day Of Love is one of my favourite songs. Amazing. I’m probably more proud of that than anything on K, but that’s from a drummer’s point of view. Drummers like Rush, you know, they’re not necessarily to be trusted on a taste scale.
Was the lack of publicity around those albums related to the controversy caused by your misunderstood comments in 1997 about the use of the swastika in India? Did you want to avoid a similar situation and concentrate on releasing music and avoid the publicity?
Crispian: No, it was quite simply that no one was interested in us any more and we didn’t feel like we were part of the scene. It was easier and simpler for us to just make music and see where it took us and we ended up making Pilgrim’s Progress, which was one of the best things we ever did, so it worked out in the end.
K2.0 seems to be generating a lot more excitement – you have sold out shows at the Roundhouse – where does that come from? Is that the fans generating the interest or from the band wanting to do something bigger?
Crispian: I think it’s just good timing you know. There’s something to be said for ideas that are of their time – the past and the present have all caught up and it just seems natural. There is a relevance to it I guess, part of it is the anniversary, but I think there is something to be said for the general mood of the music scene and where we fit in.
The album cover features K2 in the Himalayas, once again you’re looking to and referencing the East – and that is something that has always been part of the band’s persona. How would you describe your relationship with eastern philosophy and religion?
Paul: Most people don’t ask this in band interviews.
Crispian: There was a lot of antagonism and silly business around the band right back at the beginning because people couldn’t work out whether it was all just an act, or just flaky hippy bollocks.
Obviously we’re not religious people because that’s a complete drag and I’m not into organisations and cults or anything like that, but it’s part of life for me. It’s been a massive influence on us as a band because it was part of our formative playing years with friends coming from India and with Krishna devotees that were around us. We’d even play in the Krishna temple.
Paul: First gig pretty much was at Glastonbury.
Crispian: We talked our way on to the Krishna stage and we played Govinda. They had this big stage and were doing all the free food, so we played Govinda also to say thank you to them.
If you are going to get into spiritual life you have to acknowledge some kind of authority or some kind of tradition, otherwise you’re are just making it up as you go along, so we had this connection to the Krishna movement, but really the philosophy of the Krishna movement is very, very ancient and has nothing to do with cults or anything.
I think when you really understand the East and you understand India, then it just connects you to the whole world. India is the mother culture you could argue, there is a lot of evidence that the roots go back there, so when you get into that you suddenly think, ‘Oh, that’s what Jesus was on about, that’s what the Celts were on about’. Everybody is talking the same language.
You’ve described your association with Brit Pop as an ‘accident of chronology’, is that something that you have regrets about, would you like to have been associated with a different scene?
Paul: In our time touring it seemed like American acts were more sociable and pally with each other. American bands had a real brotherhood – ‘We’re all in the same line of work, we’re mates’ – but we never had that with any British bands, really.
Crispian: Damon Albarn seemed like he always had a gang, but I never met him and everyone else seemed to be insecure and clique and a bit sniffy about each other. We had some strange and unexpected hookups like when I hooked up with the Prodigy, I didn’t expect that at all.
And Noel Gallagher was really into us and invited us to Knebworth when we were just really starting out. But we never hung out, we were disappointed there were no late night jams happening in the Troubadour cafe.
When you first moved to London, you all lived together, was that a crazy rock’n’roll house?
Paul: We hoped it was going to be but then Crispian got married. As we moved in together, he got together with his wife, so they were very sensible. Our original keyboard player Jay got married.
Crispian: Sensible, is not quite the word … faithful.
Paul: It just wasn’t very us. We tried.
Crispian: He can’t remember because he’s the drummer. We never had orgies, we never did that and it never became like ancient Rome.
Paul: It was pretty calm.
Crispian: The thing is, the archetypal rock’n’roll party from the late 60s early 70s, they were really frightening things. You had to be out of your head. If anyone walked into the room straight they would be deeply shocked and have nightmares.
What can we expect from the new album, is it going to be vastly different?
Paul: There’s some stuff that’s quite proggy. Some of the tracks are super 60s, some have ventured into the 70s. I don’t think anyone is going to be disappointed, we haven’t gone electronic. If there are synths, they are very well hidden by analogue distortion.
Crispian: The whole album is driven by the live sound of the band, that’s what we always were before a recording band or before songwriters, we were basically a band that played live and could pull it off. People really didn’t understand or get the band until they saw us live, then it all came together. That’s what we are more than anything else, we can do it at the top level, we can play and have a proper vibe. That’s what we’re all confident about when we get on stage.
You’ve done some wonderful covers in the past, but which band would you have cover one of your songs if you could pluck someone out?
Crispian: Bob Dylan and The Band – sort of ’66-’65, round that time, it’s just such a great sound. Bob Dylan, that’s sacrilege, but if I had to insist! I’d like to hear him do Shower Your Love, because it’s all about having a pretty song and then throwing it away. Some of his songs are quite pretty and because he throws it away he gets aways with it. Like I Believe in You, have you ever heard him sing that? Incredible lyrics, but he just chucks it all away and it doesn’t mean anything and that’s part of the power of it. It’s just a song.
Would you go along with that Paul?
Crispian: Go on, say Rush.
Paul: Could have Yes doing Second Sight – they would make it really complicated.
Interview by Craig Scott and Portrait Photography by Simon Jay Price
Kula Shaker live review https://rockshot.co.uk/19096/live-kula-shaker-the-roundhouse/