The Kooks are the British indie-pop band critics love to hate, millions of music fans love to love, and record company executives simply worship.
In this era of music industry chaos, there are hardly any young bands who could be considered safe from the record company axe. But, thanks to their sales record and cross-generational appeal, the Kooks are one of the few.
Catchier than a cold, bouncier than your little sister’s space-hopper, the Kooks craft hit singles for the postman to whistle, the baby-boomers to throw on at a party and the indie kids to dance to down at the local disco.
With their first album, Inside In/Inside Out, the Kooks sold two million copies, 700,000 of those album sales stemming from outside their home territory in Britain.
Expectations for Konk, their second album, are accordingly great. The album has already debuted at the No 1 position in Britain and the No 2 slot in Ireland – and American audiences appear to be eyeing up the Kooks with interest. Passing on a copy of Konk for inspection, their publicist remarked, ‘‘they’re going to save all our jobs’’ – and he was only half-joking.
Nursing a pint of Guinness in the swish bar of a Dublin hotel, Hugh Harris, lead guitarist with the Kooks, looks like a musician comfortably up to saving several people’s jobs.
Harris might be a 20-year-old mass of wild hair and indie stylings, but he’s also a surprisingly sharp and engaging interviewee, with a serious understanding of both his artistic and professional obligations.
Asked about the pressure created by those expectations surrounding Konk, Harris gives the impression that the band could hardly have been less bothered about what the world thought of them. ‘‘We do get asked that a lot,” he says. ‘‘But I think for us the only pressure is being in a band and wanting to impress your bandmates. When we’re playing, we don’t think about other people. We just think about music.”
The Kooks formed as a four-piece comprising Harris, drummer Paul Garred, bassist Max Rafferty and lead singer Luke Pritchard after enrolling at Brighton’s Institute of Modern Music as teenagers. In 2003, the nascent band played what would become one of the most important gigs of their careers – a four-song set, which included Sofa Song and Pull Me In, at a cramped venue called Free Butt in Brighton.
‘‘We were rubbish,’’ Harris smiles, shaking his head. ‘‘We were shit, man. We had a lot of attention on us around Brighton, but only because all our friends came to our shows and that created a buzz. We were playing little pubs – about a 50-person capacity and about 30 of the people there were our mates.”
The executive from Virgin Records wasn’t keen on the live show, but loved the songs and the label signed the Kooks on the back of them. ‘‘We were lucky because our label let us go on tour and didn’t expect an album straight away,’’ Harris reflects. ‘‘A lot of labels pressure a new signing into delivering an album straight away, but we were able to develop on tour. It was like a development deal we got.”
Virgin’s old-school method worked. By the time the Kooks returned, they had their sea legs as a touring band and had tightened their sound. ‘‘We didn’t sit down with a blueprint. We just naturally developed and we didn’t try to shape or mould ourselves to anything.’’ When Inside In/Inside Out was released in January 2006, it wasn’t long before the band were singing hits like Naive on Top of the Pops to a legion of adoring fans.
Cognisant of the dangers of promoting themselves endlessly without producing new material, however, the band continued to write while on the road. Eighty-odd songs later, the band were ready to head back into the recording booth. Wait . . .80? ‘‘We’ve had two years to write,’’ Harris says, smiling. ‘‘It isn’t that many songs between four people in two years.”
The success of the first album meant they had access to prime recording locations and equipment. ‘‘That was what was great about the first record – we were able to go out and buy gear,’’ Harris says. He shoots me a quick look, lest there be any misunderstanding: ‘‘Gear not gear.” In Ray Davies’ London studio Konk (hence the album title), the band recorded 20 songs for the new album.
With Air, the Thrills and Beck producer Tony Hoffer at the helm, the songs were whittled down to 40-odd minutes of sound. Were they trying to move on musically from the first album? ‘‘We’re better players I think and we played better together,’’ Harris says. ‘‘But we didn’t distance ourselves too much from what we are. The new album is more to the heart and to the point. The first record was definitely genre-hopping.
‘‘That was one of our main problems as a band – we didn’t know what our sound was; we liked all these different genres. The first album was finding its feet, it was gadabout. This one is a lot more settled, but I think it’s more powerful.”
There’s no denying the melodic qualities of Konk nor the level of musicianship involved. A strutting and joyous affair, boasting reference points from the Beatles through to the Rolling Stones, and confident, imaginative guitar work from Harris, Konk won’t have existentialists reaching for the record along with their Sartre, but it’s a very serviceable vehicle nonetheless – oozing style and poppy substance throughout.
The media reaction to the album has been interesting. For every four-star review (the Guardian, the London Times), there has been another one or two-star review to counter it (Drowned in Sound, Hot Press). Critics seem befuddled by the Kooks – their brains say no, even as their tap-tapping feet say yes.
The problem may partly be that of categorisation – the Kooks look indie, but they play pop. ‘‘We just adore catchy songs,’’ says Harris. ‘‘We’re not ashamed about it. There’s a lot of shadowy grounds with terminology. Like indie, I don’t know what that means any more. We all love pop music. To us, Brit pop is the Beatles, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones. But, obviously, the abbreviation has become hijacked by bubblegum pop.”
I put it to Harris that their time at a stage school wouldn’t have helped them in the eyes of the press. It makes them look like a manufactured band, something which all too many hacks are keen to disparage.
‘‘It’s an angle,’’ Harris nods, adding out that it’s not a charge levelled at plenty of other artists. ‘‘I know a lot of bands that went to stage school. Adele was in the year below me. Amy Winehouse went to the same school.
‘‘Performing arts schools are what they are. Yes, there are people doing drama and dance there. But for us, if you’re a kid and you like music, if you have a choice to go to a music school or a normal school, which one are you going to fucking choose? I guess the press just didn’t want to talk about our music and about us being an out-and-out catchy pop band. So people would put that slant on it.”
With so many catty comments about them in the press, it’s hardly surprising that Harris and Pritchard – the two members regularly dispatched to the press – have become largely known for grimacing their way through live television interviews.
Whether it’s Jools Holland (who questioned them gently recently) or Popworld’s Simon Amstell (who antagonised Pritchard after their first album’s release about his three years spent dating Katie Melua), the Kooks have a habit of squirming on air like they’re undergoing a form of invisible torture.
When not under the glare of television lights, however, both Kooks members are extremely personable – after the interview, although an exhausted Harris slopes off to bed, Pritchard – for whom the word ‘elfin’ appears to have been coined – arrives up to introduce himself. The musicians appear to be very close – and very supportive of each other.
While Harris praises Pritchard’s songwriting skills (‘‘he writes wicked pop songs’’), Pritchard, for his part, spends much of his time extolling Harris’s undoubted guitar-playing talents. ‘‘I think he’s probably the best young guitarist in the country,’’ Pritchard told Hot Press. ‘‘The amazing thing working with Hugh is he doesn’t overdo it. It’s so rare that you find a person who can play but doesn’t overplay. And he’s melodic.”
Their level of band dedication and musicality seems to have been lacking in their former bandmate, Max Rafferty, who was fired from the band last January, to be replaced by Dan Logan. It’s a difficult subject for Harris to discuss.
‘‘We asked him to leave,’’ Harris says hesitatingly. ‘‘It’s a bit soon to be talking about it, but he’d never really be there. He was never really there for the best part of last year. We noticed similar things happening again and again.
‘‘I think he would have left later on in the year in a much more destructive way had we not asked him to leave early on. I think we’re a lot happier without him. I think he is [happier without us] as well.”
When band members are asked to leave, queries from interviewers about drink and drugs inevitably follow. ‘‘He was rather self-destructive as a person,” is all Harris will say on the subject. ‘‘That conflicted with us as well.’’ That’s not to say that the Kooks aren’t very much capable of living it up – according to some of their people, there were Bloody Marys on the menu for lunch – but it’s fair to say that as fun as the debauchery is, the Kooks don’t want to lose themselves in it.
‘‘It totally consumes you sometimes,” Harris says. ‘‘You feel like you’re dead sometimes. But you’re doing the best job in the world. And it’s up to you to look after yourself and not let get yourself fucked up.” Right now, the Kooks are in an interesting position. So young, they have already achieved enormous amounts. But they have grander ambitions still.
They want to take on America. They want to take on the world. What they don’t want to be is just another jaded band, spinning out the celebrity their last album has won them at nightclubs and parties.
‘‘We don’t want to be known for hanging out at this club with this person while taking that drug and drinking that drink,’’ Harris says. ‘‘What people should be interested in is not that. We want to sell our band on the music.”
Konk is out now, this article was first published in The Sunday Business Post, Ireland.