Crispian Mills (Kula Shaker)
Words: Tony J Fyler
Kula Shaker tore up the nineties musical orthodoxy and the charts when their debut album K landed in 1996. Combining hard rocking guitars and traditional Indian instruments, they harked back to the Sixties guru explosion, and sang some of their greatest hits in Sanskrit. They sounded like nothing else on the Western music scene, and some of the cuts from that first album - like "Govinda", "Tattva", "Grateful When You’re Dead", "Hey Dude" and "303" - have become singalong classics.
Spool on twenty years, and Kula Shaker have had a great anniversary year – they released their fifth album in February (the celebratory "K2.0") and have been touring the world to promote it ever since.
To round out the year, the band is coming home to the UK for a domestic tour when they’ll do something they’ve never done before – play the whole of their 1996 debut album "K", in sequence, for live crowds. Edition Online caught up with frontman Crispian Mills before they set off.
Hi Crispian. How does it feel to be touring again?
It’s been a great experience playing this year. You never know how a band is gonna sound, and it’s four years since we last played together. But just listening to the sound, the band’s never been better. It’s funny - some bands get better with age. I saw the Who not long before John Entwhistle died, and I didn’t expect much to be honest, but when you heard them play, all the magic, all the power was still there, and it was fantastic. We’re inspired by bands like that, and it’s great that when we get together, our band is sounding great too.
Bringing Kula Shaker to a whole new world?
Well this is it – the world’s evolving, moving forward, but in some ways coming full circle. Getting from city to city can be a bit of a drag, but in 20 years, there are lots more places to get a decent vegetarian meal on tour. But it’s coming round in other ways too – not long after our first album, music went digital, but now people are buying vinyl again, playing full albums again rather than playlisting.
In the upcoming British leg of the tour, you’re playing the original K in its entirety. What’s the thinking behind that idea?
It’s 20 years, so there’s a bit of a party atmosphere to it. We were encouraged to do it, and at first, we weren’t sure. But then we heard Carole King was touring "Tapestry", and if it’s good enough for Carole… It’s great to be able to do it in sequence for the first time live too – it speaks to that sense of coming full circle, with people buying vinyl and listening to albums again. I like playlists as much as the next person, but we make good albums, and it’s great to be able to play it through for people.
With "K2.0", what is Kula Shaker trying to say to the world in 2016? You’ve called it a companion piece to the original "K", and there are tonal similarities, but why is 2016 the time for a record like that? Other than the fact that the first one went double-platinum, obviously...
I think you need to have a reason to make an album, because they take a long time to write and conceive, so it’s a marker of 20 years, looking back, looking at now, and looking forward. Time is a journey forward and round to where you started from, y’know?
So it’s a kind of Kula Shaker Renaissance album? Looking backward to go forward?
Yeah, that’s right.
Do you have any favourite tracks on the album? Any tracks you especially love?
Hard question, 'cause tracks are like your children, so choosing between them feels almost disloyal. I think, like the original "K", it’s a very varied album, with different moods and colours. "Infinite Sun" was a lovely track to put together – it’s based on a native American chant, and we used to play the original chant back in the day, but we never developed it into anything. Then we played it at a hippie festival and it seemed to have something, so it’s been lovely to be able to finally develop something that’s been around for all those years into a full track. Then there are tracks that you never know are going to become favourites - "33 Crows", "Here Come My Demons" and "Mountain Lifter" have all become favourites, as we’ve played them for people live.
Why did you re-record Let Love Be (With U) for the single version? The album version with the piano riff is an office favourite, and sounds very different to the single version.
Ah, that was one of those perfectionist things. The piano on the original was out of tune. So we got a better piano and did it again.
Kula Shaker’s music has always sounded like there’s a considered creative process involved. How does the process work for you?
Alonza (Bevan, the band’s bassist) and I spearhead it – we work separately, share thoughts, and get a semblance together. Sometimes the band does it together and when it’s imbibed by the band’s sound, it leaps into something else. I’d say we’ve got a ‘song-first approach’ and we do good sequencing; we like to make good albums.
In a recent interview, you said you had to build up again pretty much from scratch again after the break-up [The band broke up in 1999 and reformed in 2006]. Do you feel like you’re more able to cope with the pressures of being a band now than you were when you were younger?
The break-up was about trying to grow up, and not having the ability to do it in that space and time. I think we appreciate each other more now, and we’re able to make better use of what we’ve got. We got bullied really quite badly by different parts of the industry, money people and so on. We’re more our own people now. Many bands have found this new age of digital delivery and social media very liberating – we’re able to connect more directly with the fans these days.
Talking of the fans, because some of K’s song became inextricably linked with a period in the late Nineties, Kula Shaker now has two sets of fans, doesn’t it? The hardcore fans who know the album tracks, and those who are more or less there to sing along to the hits, most of them from K. How do you feel about having that duality of fan-base?
I’m ok with it. It’s always going to be difficult to be objective about your own band. We don’t think about it too much, but one thing’s true - the band has survived because of the hardcore fans who’ve stuck with us over the last twenty years.
You recently said that the mystics were what interested you, with their quest for connection to spirituality and nature and God and so on. Is music a form of spiritual journey for you?
I think it is for everyone, whether they realise it or not. Making it, listening to it, it’s about feeling a sense of connection outside yourself. There are so many different journeys you can have with it. Music, like a lot of creativity, makes those connections, and helps us feel like we’re not alone in a meaningless machine.
What happens at the end of this tour? Rest? More touring? Back into the studio? What’s next for Kula Shaker?
There’s going to be a little bit of rest to see the family, cos we haven’t seen as much of them as we’d like this year, but then, the energy’s been so good, we’ll probably be recording sooner rather than later. We’re talking about ideas for songs now. And we’ve just finished the first live recording we’ve ever been truly happy with. There have been live recordings before, but they’ve never been of the right quality to showcase the band and its sound, really. But we’re happy with this one. It’s called "Live in the East" - as in the East End of London - and it’s available on vinyl now, with a widespread commercial release in the new year.
K2.0 is available to buy now from Amazon.co.uk and other leading retailers.
UK TOUR DATES:
Thurs 1 Dec - Oxford O2 Academy
Fri 2 Dec - Bournmouth O2 Academy
Sat 3 Dec - Nottingham Rock City
Mon 5 Dec - Norwich The Nick Rayns LCR, UEA
Tues 6 Dec - Guildford G Live
Thurs 8 Dec - London O2 Forum, Kentish Town
Sat 10 Dec - Manchester Albert Hall
Mon 12 Dec - Birmingham O2 Institute
Tues 13 Dec - Bristol O2 Academy
Wed 14 Dec - Liverpool O2 Academy
Fri 16 Dec - Newcastle O2 Academy
Sat 17 Dec - Leeds O2 Academy
Sun 18 Dec - Glasgow ABC O2