When Kula Shaker initially arrived on the scene in 1996, they did so in a big way, with their debut album, K, hitting No. 1 on the UK Albums chart, and three of its singles hitting the UK top 10: “Hey Dude” (No. 2), “Tattva” (No. 4), and “Govinda” (No. 7). The latter two tracks earned the band success on the US alternative charts, with the band’s subsequent cover of Deep Purple’s “Hush” even getting the band mainstream rock airplay in the US, but within a few years, the whole thing had gotten a bit too exhausting for Kula Shaker, and they called it quits, at least for a while.
When the band got back together a few years later and eventually released a new studio album (2007’s Strangefolk), they did so without their original keyboardist Jay Darlington, who remained absent from the lineup over the course of the band’s next three LPs. In 2023, however, Darlington returned to the fold, initially just for a tour, but then for a new album as well. With that album, Natural Magick, on the cusp of release, Kula Shaker frontman Crispian Mills chatted with Q about how the original lineup of the band came back together again, their songwriting process, the similarities between making music and making films, and how he came to pop up on a Prodigy album.
I was so glad to hear about Natural Magick, and if I'm to be honest, I was surprised to hear that it was a new album featuring all four original members again.
Yeah, y'know, we were surprised, too, because we never thought Jay would ever come back. We thought the moment had passed. Not because we'd fallen out, but because he had this other life with Oasis and Liam and Noel [Gallagher], and we got another Hammond player. And it just so happened that we had some dates coming up in America and our organ player, Henry [Broadbent], couldn't do it, and there was nobody to replace him...and the only person who could, realistically, was Jay. And he just happened to be around. And when we spoke to him about it, he said, "I'd been getting signs from the universe that this was coming..." [Laughs.] So it was kind of like Gandalf - or perhaps a Bond villain - saying, "I've been expecting you..."
It may have started with live dates, but from that point, was it just a case of saying, "Well, if the magic is back, then we might as well go back into the studio as well"?
Well, we were really excited and energized, to be honest. We felt like something was happening, and we all intuited that we had some good songs in us, and the band really just burst out of the gates after the COVID experience throughout the world. The band was just really sounding great. And when Jay rejoined, it just went through the roof. It was like lightning in a bottle, and we wanted to keep recording as much as we could, even though we were touring. So we'd go in every three weeks and record new music that we'd been testing live. It's great when you do all your preproduction in front of an audience. [Laughs.] It's the best way to see if it works or not, and to get it as exciting as it can be. So many great albums have been worked through like that.
So what's the writing process like with Kula Shaker?
Oh, it's always different. Alonza [Bevan] and myself are the main writers, and...it might start with a lyric or a groove or something. And then it ultimately takes on a life once the band gets it. "Natural Magick" actually started off as an accidental Can loop. I was mucking around, and I had Can playing, and I think I was just listening to it, and I accidentally looped a bar or two bars of a track, and...it gave me an idea for a groove, which turned into "Natural Magick." It doesn't really sound anything like it anymore, but the first step, the idea, is always the muse for a piece of music. I think you can break down songwriting into two aspects: you have your raw inspiration, the muse of fire, and then you have the craft and the sculpting and the technical side of it, which is like architecture. [Laughs.] And often too much of one thing or the other doesn't work, so you've got to get the balance right. We've kept being passionate students of songwriting and studying the craft and the process, pushing ourselves still to write the best song we've ever come up with.
In 2024, how much of your songwriting involves loops and samples versus just organically jamming in the studio?
We don't really use loops and samples. "Natural Magick" was an exception. It was an accident. No, my approach to songwriting is, if you can play it on a guitar and make a crappy acoustic demo sound exciting, then the song works. And the more you need to do to it, the less of a song it is. It's more of a track or it's dance or whatever. So to me, that's the challenge: can you sell it on one instrument and a voice?
You were talking about doing preproduction in front of an audience. Have you ever found cases where you had songs that just never took off live which you then dropped altogether?
If that's ever been the case, I've blocked it out of my memory. You tend to notice where you're losing them, where you're struggling for their attention, or you discover it's too slow or it's too fast, or you find different ways to approach it, and the audience... It's very similar to film: you do a cut of it. I've done two films now, and the first time you show it to somebody who hasn't been involved in the edit, it's a big bucket of icy water, because you realize so much about the timing and the pacing and the storytelling, because you're watching through an objective set of eyes, and you just psychically tune in to the vibe in the room. It's really very weird...and very much like music! I was wondering if film was like music or if music was like film, and I think I've decided that everything is music. There's a musical element to storytelling, to cinema, to composition, art, cooking... Everything is about a rhythm and a pace. So that's my way of looking at things.
As far as film goes, it's kind of in your DNA, but what led you to venture away from music to explore film a bit? Was there a particular moment that finally led you down that path?
You know, I'd gotten pretty fried out by my experience in the music business. I'd retired by the time I was 25 or 26, which is kind of absurd, really. It's like being a footballer or something! You just can't take it physically or mentally or whatever. I think I just needed a break. But one of the things I realized was that my approach to making records is exactly the same as making a film: trying to create pictures and imagery with music. Certainly we were hugely influenced by those very conceptual, imaginative albums, all the famous ones, like Dark Side of the Moon or whatrever, and the lesser-known ones like S.F. Sorrow by the Pretty Things, which was a massive influence on us. And approaching albums as a movie, as a story, has always really turned us on. I realized there was a frustrated filmmaking going on in all these records, so I may as well go on and make a proper film.
What I realized was that musicians have to fight to get their albums heard, but filmmakers have to fight just to make the film. There's a huge battle involved in just getting to the point where you can start filming, and if that doesn't kill you and you manage to get through the process, and then the filming itself doesn't kill you, then you have to start the fight to get it out there and have people see it. So it was a good experience to have. I'm sure I'll do another one.
How did you first cross paths with Simon Pegg? Was it on the film, or was it before that?
I had known him through his wife, Maureen, who I'd known from years before. She worked at Columbia Records. So we had a connection. I think that first film I did with Simon, I was involved in the music, and we did use a Pretty Things track. It was very psychedelic.
So what was the impetus for returning to Kula Shaker?
Well, I was making a Kula Shaker album every four years, roughly, and everybody else was doing other things as well. Alonza was producing, and Paul [Winterhart] was playing with a couple of other bands, and I was doing film and families. So it was a lot of jockeying for position and just trying to find a place where everybody was free at the same time. So it tended to be every four years. And we had our own label, and it was very independent, and we were making records for all the right reasons, y'know? Because we loved each other, and we enjoyed the process, and...we had a loyal fanbase. So it was very, very healthy and harmonious. And I think after COVID, we just... Well, I guess everybody's priorities shifted, and perceptions shifted around that time, and we felt like it was time to go out on the road and just play some rock 'n' roll. The world needs rock 'n' roll right now.
Now more than ever, as they say.
[Laughs.] Well, when I think of rock 'n' roll, I think of the Marx Brothers as much as I think of the Kinks or Jerry Lee Lewis. I think rock 'n' roll is a state of mind. It's a type of spiritual anarchy, and it's healthy, and it's timeless.
In the States, "Hush" is probably one of the most popular things that Kula Shaker has done, but was that a cover that the band had the idea to do? Because it was released on a soundtrack [I Know What You Did Last Summer], so I'd wondered if it was something that you were asked to do.
Yeah, we had no idea that was a big movie. No idea. I think I was in India, walking around some holy medieval town barefoot... [Laughs.] And I came across a western newspaper, and it said, "Top 10 US Films," and No. 1 was I Know What You Did Last Summer. And I realized, "Oh, my God, 'Hush' was in that film, and it's turned out to be a big hit!" But we'd been playing "Hush" live. It was one of those songs in the set that we'd break into if we ever needed to pump the energy up in a show. So, yeah, it was natural luck.
I was working at a record store when the band's debut came out, and I still remember how "Tattva" grabbed me from the get-go. That song alone was enough to put Kula Shaker on my radar for the long haul.
It's interesting, that really is the only definition of a hit record that I've ever heard. I think it was a guy from Procol Harum who said, "Nobody knows what a hit is. Nobody. It doesn't matter whether you're Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan or Cole Porter." To write a hit, you can prescribe it, you can't predict it, It just grabs you. It's a magical thing. And "Tattva" had something magical about it. It's a sonic identity and it's a mantra and it's all those things. You can't really analyze a hit record, other than it has some kind of magnetic effect!
When you look back at Kula Shaker's singles, is there any one that you wish had done better or had expected more from? Because the band obviously had several hits in a row.
I love that Frank Zappa compilation that's called something like In An Ideal World... It's all these songs that should've been a hit. I don't really have any feelings of "I wish" about songs, because ultimately they have this life where they establish themselves live. And when you start to play it live and you see the way the audience reacts, that's when you know what kind of song you have, because it's whether that song means something to people and if they've taken it with them and adopted it. Then you know, "Oh, this song has lasted." I don't understand the music business anymore. I don't think anybody really does, in terms of the old-fashioned way of advertising a track or advertising a band or an album. People really learn and discover it through playlists and then, if they're real fans, they go deeper and explore the records. I think maybe now is a good time for music, because the access is much easier. It's just not great for the commerce. [Laughs.] It's not great for the musicians who want to pay the bills! Most of the musicians I know, they're all part-time. Even established musicians. They have to do other things. They just can't afford to, unless you go out on the road, and unless you've got your own private jet, that takes its toll.
Out of curiosity, how did you end up on a Prodigy album (The Fat of the Land)?
I think Liam [Howlett] was looking for other singers to work with, and he just liked my voice. I was surprised to get the call, but I went over there, and we talked through some ideas, and what I worked on with him turned into two tracks, actually. It turned into a track called "Climbatize," and also "Narayan." So they were originally one track, and then Liam was rushing to end his record, and he kind of split some of the music to make another track. [Laughs.] So when we play live, what we often do is merge the tracks to how it was originally and play that version, which sounds really good with the band.
Lastly, for anyone who might've been a fan with the early LPs but didn't necessarily keep up, in regards to the more recent Kula Shaker albums, is there one that you might recommend as a gateway drug back into the catalog?
[Laughs.] Well, you know, we're a live band, first and foremost, and our music doesn't really... [Hesitates.] It has an identity, but the experience isn't properly consummated and understood until you get to see it live. I had that experience when... Well, I was lucky enough to see some great bands. I saw Pink Floyd when I was a kid. There's a certain size and ambition and imagination there that you just can't communicate unless you see it with a lot of people. But the spirit of our music is really there in songs like "Govinda," obviously, because it's the spiritual identity of the band. It's the core. But then there's the sort of anarchy that we love, and the comedy element to the band, is there in songs like "I'm Against It." [Quoting.] "Whatever it is, I'm against it!" Which was really a Marx Brothers lyric. So we take our influences from all over, and then I think it only really comes together fully in our live show.