Kula Shaker are Britpop in a head-on collision with Peter Sellers' Hrundi Bakshi character from the classic movie The Party, opening the doors of perception and laughing all the way. Starting out as the K's, they figured they needed a name change so Kula Shaker was born.
Lead singer/guitarist Crispian Mills is, as you've likely heard, the son of British actress Hayley Mills of Pollyanna and Parent Trap fame, and grandson of Sir John Mills. His guitar playing is equal parts flash and substance, overture and overkill, with the energy and sheer over-the-top-ness of Jeff Beck in his salad days. Together with the gyrating Leslie sound of Jay Livingston's keys, Alonzo Bevan's melodic bass runs, and Paul Winterhart's rhythm work, they are a convincing facsimile of the psychedelic icons of the seventies, which, in this day and age, means they're one helluva rock band.
And which may also make you wonder, "Where do the Grateful Dead fit into this story?" "It was weird. The thing about [the song] "Jerry was There" is that we never used to play that," explains Mills, surrounded by the rest of the band and a gaggle of media types. "We played 'Grateful When You're Dead' about three weeks before Jerry Garcia died and when he died we all thought it was quite spooky because we'd just started playing it. 'Grateful When You're Dead' was just a joke title, you know. I've got a cousin in California who's a total Deadhead and he was really upset, you know. He said 'Ohhh he died at four in the morning,' and four o'clock in the morning is a good time to die in India."
India, a perfect way to segue into the spiritual aspect of Kula Shaker, which is a large part of their lyrical bent and thus a large part of their appeal. "Hang witches, burn witches, and wear silly hats," Mills confesses (love that British wit). "No, you want me to be serious. I believe, but I don't believe in religion. I believe in faith, love, spiritual ideas, and that kind of thing, and leaders even, but I don't believe in institutions, dogma, guilt trips, all of that."
So is he still practicing his new found spirituality or is he just taking what he's learned and running with it? "Even if you find the thing that you're most attracted to, you're still exploring the whole time. You don't sort of get it in an afternoon, you don't read a book and understand everything, you know."
Talk then turns to music, particularly which bands from the sixties they are into. You would think that the Beatles or the Stones, or even Ravi Shankar, would be obvious choices. Nope. "Steppenwolf! What a band! What a mustache!" Mill says with mock awe as the rest of the band members nod in mock agreement. "There's a program on late like two in the morning or something, and it's called something like 'Cue the Music.' It starts off with the titles where they say like [he's really getting animated now] 'Cue Jimi Hendrix! Cue Steppenwolf! Cue Gloria Estefan!' You're like, 'Please don't play Gloria Estefan,' and they'll say, 'And on tonight's show, Gloria Estefan!' Then, one night they said, 'And tonight, Steppenwolf! And we're like, 'Yeah!' So we're turning it up getting ready for it and it's like Steppenwolf in 1985 in a coffee bar in Dortmund. [Apparently not a musical hotbed.] You know, it was terrible, terrible."
The British music press are masters of, if I can quote an old Sonny Boy Williamson tune, "fattening frogs for snakes." The anacondas and pythons seem to dwell at N.M.E. (aptly acronymed), clutching their jaded existences, a Yo La Tengo album in one hand and a slingshot in the other, ready to sink their fangs into their "friends." Of course some critics are still mad about the 70's, when they said too many stupid things and often got back as good as they gave. Critics today should at least be happy that no one wears capes anymore.
"Horrible bastards, miserable bunch." Mills apparently doesn't like them either. "People don't like taking themselves seriously. It's like you have to be an absolutely infallible genius to start taking yourself seriously. It's a strange country [Britain, that is]. I don't know if I quite understand it yet. It's certainly not the weather, 'cause they've got bloody horrible weather in North Germany and they're a boring bunch, not sarcastic at all. We don't know what it is. Something about the cocktail -- the Normans, and the Romans, and the Celts, and you put them together. A sarcastic bunch."
I ask if his famous mummy or granddad gave them any advice in dealing with stardom, the press and the pressure. "Get a good pair of sunglasses -- and a good lawyer," reveals Mills. "Don't look at the camera. No, not really. It's different, it's a different world. The music business and the film business are just so opposed."
Now that we've touched upon film, what about literature? They all seem well-read, though it's difficult to tell because Mills has been doing all the talking. It's no surprise then that he continues to do so. "Well, you've heard of Ken Kesey, haven't you? He's got the K's, he's got two K's, and we all know about the Electric Koolaid Acid Test. It wasn't that we were trying to take it beyond that with the old acid heydays; he just had some interesting ideas. The idea of the movie where the cameras are rolling and we're all on a big film set."
"We're great believers in faith. We like mysticism and legend, and it's just as relevant now as it ever was. There's a movie called Excalibur, which has a scene where the knights are all sitting around the round table going, 'You must search for the Grail,' and they're like, 'What must we do?' and he's like 'Look for a sign, visions, omens!' They go off, and I think it's like that in everyday life. You have to find the things that are your signs or omens and not turn into too much of a kook."
Great songwriters have many ways to wrench the tunes from out of their heads: copious amounts of alcohol and narcotics, lucid dreaming, sensory deprivation, even ouija boards. So it's not surprising to find that the songs "Hollow Man" or "Tattua" could have been conceived on pub night. "Well, what Jay does is he writes all the chords down on a piece of paper and then he gets a dart and throws it. It's worked so far," says Mills. "It gets quite abstract sometimes," pipes up Livingston. Mills continues: "Bowie used to do that with words like 'suck' and 'bucket' then chop them all up and arrange them all around." "And then he'd get a song called 'Suck Bucket,'" adds Livingston, laughing.
So where do they go from here? What's next for these gurus of groove, these sultans of swing (sorry, couldn't resist -- I'll stop now). "We'll change our flavour every week, pistachio today, vanilla tomorrow," says Mills. "We have this master plan about growing beards for the third album. Third album, a bit of country music thrown in there."
And lest you think this interview was the Crispian Mills Show, in reality, Jay and Alonzo did throw in a few asides that the recorder just didn't catch. I am, however, going to give drummer Paul the last words, the only words he spoke, in fact: "I like a bit of folk."
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