Written by: Tyler Benson
Photos by: James Holk
It’s become a habitual past time for the UK press to announce the next “British Invasion” discovery to lukewarm American acceptance. Unfortunately, The Kooks’ unique brand of Brit-pop was given no such entrance. The Vines were to save rock n roll in 2002, but are now just simple riff material for Timbaland’s beats, with their last album peaking at #136 on US charts. The Test Icicles were a superior breed of Franz Ferdinand’s jagged riff-punk-rock, but alas; they broke up within a year and moved onto solo careers that Vice Magazine would fall all over itself to tell you about. The most recent and noisiest of British band hype was a blaring royal trumpeter announcing The Arctic Monkeys; a nitty gritty crew of working class boys touted as Brit-pop’s second coming. And so, with a US introduction mere months after the Monkeys, what was there left to say about The Kooks? While the UK press will rarely shy away from touting them as the next Blur, the message seemed simply unimpressive in the wake of Monkeys’ hysteria. Was the band never really worth the audible brouhaha to begin with, or will this marketing snafu become a blessing in disguise for The Kooks?
Lead singer Luke Pritchard and drummer Paul Garred were anything but clones of Jarvis Cocker’s snarl’n’ wry English nuevo-band stereotype during an interview. Critics certainly couldn’t throw enough praise at their group, touting them as The Kinks given a second go at fame or The Police before they became customary and bitchy, and here sat the pair above all things humble and excited. Giving a sincere thank you when receiving pints and waiting patiently for a question to finish before giving thoughtful commentary on answers he had no doubt spilt a million times before, it truly was a pleasure. The band interacts towards each other with the same, absolute zero ego, mentality. “It’s just many hours of having fun and jamming and having a few beers together…that’s what makes the band right.” While a weary rock journalist would argue upon grounds of their experience still being green or the group’s lack of a touring decade to become discovered, the contrary remains that they have all the positive characteristics of a band that has performed this way for years.
The Kooks carry with them a history slightly older than the white Chuck Taylor’s on my feet. Envisioned about 3 years ago, the band mates initially ranged in the spectrum of 17 to 21 years of age. Conceptualized at The Brighton Institute of Modern Music, the group consists of the institution’s students, meeting each through friends of friends and previous band notoriety. Pritchard and best friend bassist, Max Rafferty, solidified the current lineup with then 17 year old press proclaimed “youngest man in rock”, Hugh Harris (now 20) and Garred. “I met Max while cooking a bit of curry at a late night party once,” recalls Garred. “He came up to me and it was all, ‘I fancy the way you play bass and I fancy the way you drum’. He invited me to play with the other three, I believe it was the very next day, and we just started making a pretty good racket together and it just felt right.” A week later, the band started gigs and taking friends up on recording sessions, which was all it took for the band to get discovered. It was their first simple demo created in a London studio that became the rabbit’s foot, which begot an avalanche of good fortune that has since followed.
In an almost unheard of situation of right place / right time, comparable to no-name Seattle bands being signed during the peak of grunge, The Kooks from English-pop sanctum Brighton were snatched up by Virgin Records to a lucrative record deal in 2005 after playing together a mere 3 months. With a global label and an undeniably catching sound, the stage was now set for the Kooks to blow up. Their debut single “Ooh Laa” peaked on the UK charts at #20 and overnight the band was nominated for Brit and MTV Europe awards, along with selling the 5th most albums in the UK for 2006. Following the instant popularity of The Kooks in England, the bands debut disc Inside In/Inside Out was set for a 9 month delayed release into the US, based in accordance with the drop off of Artic Monkey interest. Named after a David Bowie track on his album “Hunky Dory” and marketed loosely as the 2nd wave of Brit-pop, US detractors will tell you that the quartet is simply a new tribute band lineup for the Libertines or the Futureheads, maybe even a softcore Artic Monkeys/ Jet hybrid. What these same detractors fail to mention is that the Kooks seem to have a better handle on the genre than even their forefathers who created it. Presently, it would seem an uphill battle for The Kooks to gain any sort of notoriety in the States with a poorly chosen release date behind the Monkeys and an even worse gimmick in which to play up. They weren’t handed the press, the myspace glamour or the blue-collar Sheffield boys story arch that seemed to inevitably appeal more to a Rocky-esque “little guy can win” inspirational rather than a musical revolution. The Kooks aren’t nearly brash or abrasive enough to make front-page tabloids, and they don’t have the teen heartthrob looks that the industry is waiting to slap on every tour poster and lunchbox. They were beaten to the punch. The only thing that the band truly has in regards to a “young men from across the pond looking to rock America’s socks off” is talent and a more than listenable album.
With maturity towards musical appreciation beyond their years, it’s the band’s music that seems most impossible to segment into category. “Musical whores” is a phrase Pritchard likens to explain their melting pot style, but even that seems to fall short. On the bands debut disc, we are given the option to feast with our ears on 4 minute & under songs. Consisting of a misleading acoustic opener (Seaside), a spiky post-punk ditty (You Don’t Love Me), some dirty jam band funk (Matchbox) and eleven others; each one seemingly original compared to the rest, each one with a hook that is nearly impossible to find fault with. Outside of writing nearly 100 songs for a 14 track affair, the band loves to experiment based on pure bull-headed preference. “It’s the fact that you’ve got four really, really stubborn guys who’ve all got big record collections and love music more than anything. It’s almost like most bands will play as a unit, but if Max wants to a play a reggae song and I want to drum at a funk pace I’ll just do it and he’ll just keep right on with his reggae harmonies and somehow it works. I can’t put my finger on it, but somehow it works.”
However, it isn’t the hooks that The Kooks have problems with. Where the boys fall short and show their age is when it comes to lyrical inspiration. Of course, while some of the stories fall short of a gentlemanly English standard, the band isn’t ashamed to divulge how they develop their lyrical content … eclectic. In a self-deprecating manner, Pritchard lets us in on his hot formula for some of the bands most notable hits, “I usually just blurt stuff out rather than thinking about it.” He will initially begin with an idea, phrase or sequence of words almost resembling a chorus, but far from it. The band continues to jam and riff and something just happens in Pritchard’s subconscious that lets him know that the words have arrived. “I think it’s a Smiths kind of thing”, he laughs. While Pritchard admires the savant nature with which his idols Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen create lyrics for their songs, he would prefer to continue writing with his best mates using his methodology, and simply laughing it off with the press later.
The Kooks will continue touring with dates yet to be decided as they support their second record Konk. “[In America], the audiences stand a lot more still than they do in London, but we had a great time when we came. We’ve tried out one of our new songs and it went over really well. I think that is going to be the shape of things to come. Hopefully we’ll be back in February and try out some new material.” The pressing question on the bands agenda now…what can we expect from this next album? “It’s not going to be any big leap into electronica. It’s going to be what we do best but hopefully a step up.” Neither feels that Inside In/Inside Out represents everything that The Kooks could accomplish, “Not at all”. It was the first professional recording of any sort that the four members had done, and Pritchard considered the group quite “naive” during their initial go with producer Tony Hoffer. “He helped us make the record we wanted to make.” With so many chefs in one kitchen, Hoffer was more than happy to let the band explore and find any number of sounds that they were striving for, but was also forced to crack the whip in order to keep the group focused and create a ballpark encompassing sound that could eventually be considered marketable. Even if they will never again repeat on the multi-platinum sales their debut disc garnered, ultimately The Kooks want to continue pulling different genres and piecing together a different kind of record for their fans. “We wanna surprise people.”
Americans are a rather easy yet cynical lot; we’ll gladly be served something from across the pond and force-fed it as delicious, but want to be aware of what we are about to fill our plates with. We must be marketed to correctly a band of tea sipping dandies, with silver spoons and ungracious tones dangling from their mouths, the correct way and above all else be given facts. If marketing to our nostalgia and claiming a band will be the next Beatles, then they better sound like the Beatle’s or else we won’t bite. Perhaps being caught in the wake of an over publicized British invasion is the best thing that could have happened to The Kooks. “We allowed people to get into it.” After all…at the heart of our music captiousness and gullibility, it’s never truly about the sound one delivers but rather the sound that we are told they will deliver. Taking their craft with a grain of salt, playing songs that they’ve always wanted to play, incorporating a mixed bag of genres in their sound and crafting lyrics full of boyish humor…this is the staple Brit-pop we’ve been waiting for without having to be told we wanted it. “We’re going to come over here to America, and we’re going to do everything that we did in Europe, which is start at the bottom.” You may have just gotten America’s attention, gentlemen.