If you’re a fan of British band The Kooks then you’re undoubtedly well aware of the change in direction the Brighton boys have taken on their newly released fourth studio album, Listen. Phrases like ‘percussion intensive’ and ‘electric church music’ have been attached to the LP, while genres like ‘funk’ and ‘soul’ suddenly apply to a band once thought of as consistently indie rock.
Yet aside from the obvious audible shift, Listen also represents a band that is no longer licking their wounds, but rather fully healed. The Kooks’ armour was cracked not once but twice, with former bassist Max Rafferty fired in 2008 due to drug abuse, and former drummer Paul Garred forced out by nerve damage to his arm in 2011.
On top of it all, frontman Luke Pritchard found himself battling writer’s block following the release of 2011’s Junk Of The Heart. Once touring duties for the album were completed, the band took time out and Pritchard used the opportunity to reconnect with the reasons why he first started writing music.
Dodging any possibility of a predictable trajectory and looking to new collaborators, Pritchard was rejuvenated when the band reconvened to record Listen. As Pritchard told Music Feeds, ahead of The Kooks’ 2015 Australian tour, what resulted was an album that affirms The Kooks as a well-functioning band eager to push creative boundaries.
Music Feeds: The making of Listen was, in part, a way of breaking free from dependencies. What kind of dependencies are we talking about?
Luke Pritchard: I think definitely moving away from working with Tony Hoffer, who produced all three [previous] albums, was quite a big step for us. He was such a big part of our sound. So branching out to work with new people, of course, is like a new thing. On this album is the first time I’ve ever really written with someone else.
I’d usually write the songs and then we would carve them out together as a band, afterwards. But [this album] I wrote quite a lot with [producer] Inflo. So the whole thing really was breaking our formula or our routine of how we make music.
MF: You’ve said you’re fascinated by things in life that chip away at morality. Other than the music is that one of the factors that first attracted you to rock and roll?
LP: (laughs) Interesting question. I guess, yeah. Not necessarily morality, I guess, but being attracted to music is about some of the darker things and certain freedoms you don’t have when you’re growing up. Definitely rock and roll music can take you to find these different ways of living.
But morality wise, I don’t know, I think that’s kind of a separate thing. I think morality’s more to deal with right and wrong. Certainly rock and roll doesn’t mean you have to be a bad person to be in rock and roll.
MF: Speaking of right and wrong, in the past you’ve spoken about making music for the wrong reasons. Were those reasons pleasing other people before yourself?
LP: Actually I wouldn’t say that. For me personally I think more because I was getting to this point where [I was thinking], ‘OK I’ve got to make another album, I’m in a band it’s what I do.’ It wasn’t to please other people it was just for the sake of it.
There was definitely a time for me where I lost my way for a little bit and had a bit of writer’s block. I mean I was writing songs but they were shit. I dunno, it’s funny, I’m sure every songwriter has gone through it at one point or another. It’s natural really.
You have to try and reconnect with why you started in the first place, I think. And that’s big time what I feel like I’ve done on this record, for me, personally. I’ve opened up a lot more again.
Watch: The Kooks – Around Town
MF: When it comes to opening up and bringing new aspects into your music, is it about introducing new things or becoming more receptive to what’s already around you?
LP: A mix of both. There’s both things going on. Musically, for me a big deal was putting the guitar down quite a bit and starting songs with drum tracks. That was something really fresh for me. I decided to teach myself how to use the computer and it went against all my musical background. My whole musical background was organic, recording to tape.
[We] sort of tested the waters a little bit on Junk Of The Heart with using a few synthesizers, and things like that, but on this one I was building my own drum tracks to begin with. Of course we ended up playing them together as a band but that was really exciting for me, to start writing from that point.
You can hear on the record there’s a lot of percussion because the cross rhythms became really important and that was introducing something new. Then also just being freer, man. I think with the writing, and especially the lyrics, there was definitely a feeling of going with it, letting go of it, for sure.
MF: What’s going through your mind when you’re taking this different approach and changing up your musical style? For example when you were demoing single Around Town in your bedroom, did you know it would end up on a Kooks record?
LP: To be perfectly honest, actually, that’s when I had no idea and thought it was probably a bit too far away from the band. Especially the demo, which is really raw, man (chuckles). It’s me sort of just fucking around.
We decided to take some time out from the band, anyway, but I was writing through that whole period. I just wanted to not even think about where it was going. This is what I was saying to you earlier; forget writing songs to make an album. I’m going to write songs and be as creative as I can and enjoy it and push the boundaries and challenge myself in that capacity.
Then it ended up everyone really like the song. In a way that’s my gauge as well, if the guys in the band like the song then we work on it.
MF: On previous albums was if difficult not to be limited by outsider’s expectations of how The Kooks should sound?
LP: I think there’s an element of that. I don’t know though, man. After the first album I felt on top of the world and I just thought everything I was doing was great. We did the second album, which was a very bluesy, straightforward rock and roll album. Then I guess, maybe, Junk Of The Heart was a bit like that; slight fear of expectations or something, I dunno.
I’ve not really felt like that because I don’t think I’ve ever really felt on top of it. You can’t ever think what I’ve done has been brilliant. I always look back and second guess everything I’ve done a lot and want to make something much better. So no, that isn’t really on my mind.
On this one for sure I felt as a band, and personally as a writer, I felt like we had to do this. I felt it was really an exciting thing and kind of a gamble. It could have turned out fucking terrible. It could have been brilliant. I didn’t know.
It was like, ‘Yeah, let’s really challenge ourselves to do something completely fresh and reinvent completely.’ Like I said I did fear it at the time, I was like, ‘I don’t know how it’s going to go,’ but that’s what made it exciting. That’s when you know you’re doing something of artistic worth.
MF: Earlier in the year you mentioned you haven’t heard a great record in a while. Is Listen the great record you’ve been looking for?
LP: (laughs) Well I say stuff like that because I got very obsessed with our own music and, yeah, fundamentally you’re making the music you want to hear, like all bands do.
But there have been quite a few records actually that I’ve been getting into. It’s not all bad. I do feel my personal tastes at the moment, there’s not a lot of stuff that caters for what I would listen to. There is in the more left field style of music but not really in where we’re at as a band.
MF: When you first start out to make something different, like with Listen, is it all planned out or more instinctual?
LP: I was pretty clear we were going to go into some of this more … rhythm and blues, soul kind of music. That was definitely on my mind. That was where my head was at.
It’s so funny, universal consciousness, because we were doing stuff way before the new Daft Punk stuff dropped, and the new Pharrell [Williams] stuff, but that was what we were talking about doing. It’s funny, in the studio we were talking about Pharrell’s production and the Neptunes a lot and then he just came back. It was crazy timing.
Just when he had his big comeback we were like, ‘Fuck we’re doing something [similar] in our own way.’ [Songs] like Westside or Sunrise that was where we were going with it, that kind of style but with guitars. So that was exciting, actually.
Watch: The Kooks – Forgive & Forget
MF: Parts of Listen have been described as electric church music. Has that spiritual energy had a healing affect and strengthened relationships within the band?
LP: Definitely, when you go through an album it is like a really big process and all the human beings involved in it, it’s like this big thing. I guess it’s like graduating through school or some shit (chuckles), it’s weird. You spend all these really fucking intense times together over six months or a year. So definitely, man.
We’re all on better terms then we ever have been, more settled. You’ve got to think the thing with The Kooks – some people realise maybe some people don’t, especially people that don’t really know anything about us – we’ve had lots of troubles within the band with members changing. That took a massive toll on the band. That took a lot of healing, for sure. Our bass player having serve drug problems and then our drummer having health problems… It’s tough stuff, man.
Having a band now where it’s settled and everyone’s in a good place. That is like a new thing for us (laughs). We don’t even know what that’s like and it’s quite exciting.
MF: As you mentioned the band’s former drummer [Paul Garred] had to leave the band due to health issues. What did Alexis [Nuñez], with Listen being his first Kook’s record, bring to this percussion intensive album?
LP: He brought a lot. To begin with the big stuff he brought was a real joy, man, because he just comes in and Al’s a very pure musician. There’s no bullshit with Al. He just comes in and he’s just positive and he just wants to play drums, man. [He] offered great ideas and brought a lot of the danceability as well.
His whole world is Prince, basically. He’s obsessed with Prince. So you’d never have a song like Forgive & Forget on the album without Alexis. I never would have come up with that kind of vibe. When you’re with people who are inspired by different kinds of music they bring it to you. So he brought a lot of funk.
MF: What about for yourself? You change up your singing style at times on this record, like during the intro of Down. Did you have any doubts or were you always confident you could pull it off?
LP: I didn’t really think about it at the time. I do that a lot with my vocal from record to record… But a lot of the songs on Listen, a handful of them, I felt like I was playing a character more than just being myself, and it was fun to flirt with. That’s what you get when I was working so closely with Inflo, the producer.
Down is a song that I never in a million years thought I’d write a song like that. But because you’ve got a guy there that you have this musical fusion with … he’s pushing you in that direction. Then you hear the song back and go, ‘Fuck, it works.’
So at the time, I wasn’t sure, but he kind of pushed me to go down that road and believed I could do it and I think it worked (chuckles).
MF: The Kooks are coming back to Australia in January. On Listen, some of the guitar parts are improvised. How’s that translating to the stage, is every night different?
LP: It’s cool, there are quite a lot of parts that had to be remembered or worked out and live it won’t be like the record. The album is very textured and layered. But we do have an extra musician with us so he’s covering quite a lot of bits and pieces. We’re on a good roll, man, out in the States our shows have been going good, I think it’s going to be cool. We’re really excited to come back to Australia. It’s crazy.
The Kooks’ latest album, ‘Listen’, is out now. The band will embark on an Australian tour this January – full details below.
Watch: The Kooks – Down
The Kooks Australian Tour 2015
Presented by Music Feeds
With special guests Catfish & The Bottlemen and The Griswolds
Saturday, 17th January 2015 – 18+
Belvoir Amphitheatre, Perth
Tickets: via Ticket Master | 136 100
Tuesday, 20th January 2015 – ALL AGES
Hordern Pavilion, Sydney
Tickets: via Ticketek | 132 849
Friday, 23rd January 2015 – ALL AGES
Tickets: via Ticket Master | 136 100
Saturday, 24rd January 2015 – ALL AGES
Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne
Tickets: via Ticket Master | 136 100