TAS In Session: The Kooks
One of Britain's most successful young bands, The Kooks have experienced dramatic highs and lows since their precocious, quadruple platinum U.K. debut in 2006.
Consider the release of their third album, Junk of the Heart, a definite high: the album has sailed into the top ten album charts in fifteen counties and even jumped into the Top 15 on the iTunes charts Stateside, a big step for the quartet in this country.
The Kooks launch a UK tour this week, September 30, and come to North America in November, playing two sold-out shows at New York's Webster Hall on November 15 and 16 with The Postelles.
Not long ago, The Kooks' singer and songwriter Luke Pritchard and guitarist Hugh Harris dropped by WFUV and The Alternate Side for a very special acoustic set, playing new songs like "Junk of the Heart (Happy)" and "Rosie." Catch the full interview airing on TAS' sister station 90.7 WFUV tonight, September 26, at 9 p.m. on Words & Music in Studio A, also streaming here:
Kara Manning: This third album, Junk Of The Heart, is very much a transitionary album for you, because you’re working pretty steadily with two new members?
Luke Pritchard: Yeah, that’s right, we’ve had several people through the band but we found a really good lineup. Paul [Garred], the original drummer, actually played on this record and he’s not playing with us live.
Kara: There’s nerve damage with his arm, correct?
Luke: He had some problems with his arm, like carpal tunnel, I think. But then it developed into a kind of pyschological thing and he doesn’t feel comfortable touring at the moment. The way that we work is out is that we’ll write and record together, but he doesn’t feel comfortable on the road at the moment. But who knows in the future. But we’ve got a great drummer, Chris Prendergast, with us, he’s playing live. We’ve toured with him before and it was a natural choice to go with him.
Kara: Your bassist - you’ve been going back and forth with that - but now you’ve got a permanent person.
Luke: Pete Denton, yeah. He’s great.
Hugh Harris: He’s been in the band for a long time now so it’s nice.
Kara: Max Rafferty, your other bassist, had some personal issues. Is he okay? Are you still in touch?
Luke: Yeah, I see him every now and then. He’s just recorded a solo album actually. We’re still on good terms but it just fell apart a bit between us.
Kara: Were you ever fearful that The Kooks may not survive all of those transitions and changes? You were a young band and you immediately shot out of the gate with immense success.
Luke: Yeah, it’s kind of crazy but I think Hugh and I really wanted to keep it going so it felt like the right thing. We kept writing songs and still had the love for it and wanted to go into rehearsal rooms.
Hugh: The ethos never really changed at all. We just sort of met new people. It’s different chapters in a way. We started doing so well so young. A lot of bands don’t start doing well until they’ve had a lot of time to develop. We got together and quite soon afterwards we were signed.
Kara: When I began reading about this third album, around 2010, there was a lot of talk about Jim Abbiss working with you.
Luke: Yeah, that’s right, we did work with him.
Kara: But now this album is produced by Tony Hoffer who you worked with on Konk and Inside In/Inside Out. What happened and why did you begin working with Tony again?
Luke: Jim’s great, and we did enjoy working with him, but we were on a certain path with him that we felt wasn’t right. We did take our time on this album. It was important for us, where the band was at, we needed to find ourselves again. What we were doing with him didn’t quite reach that point. I ended up meeting Tony Hoffer in London. We kept in contact and he was lending a hand.
Kara: And he’s worked with Beck and Belle and Sebastian ….
Luke: Yeah, and Phoenix. He’s done some amazing stuff in the past. He’s got a great back catalogue. That’s the thing with Tony. A lot of people said, "You’re going to do the same sort of album again," but the thing with Tony, if you look at his catalogue, [is that] he’s done so many different things. What happened when he came on board was that I ended up playing him some songs and we did some demos. He had an almost [Brian] Eno-type approach. He took a directional point with us and said, “Look, you need to put The Kooks through a machine and do something very different.” We were all really keen to do that as well, so it became a natural thing. Everything became a lot easier, we became inspired again and it felt really good. So we went to L.A. and did the record.
Kara: Your first single is one of those gorgeous, sun-kissed singles called “Junk of the Heart.” But a song like “Saboteur” from the Abbiss sessions, which leaked online, is grittier, more psychedelic. “Junk of the Heart” is very different.
Luke: That’s what I was saying; we were going on very different directions to what we are now. We didn’t feel that was the right thing for the band. “Saboteur” is great, it’s a cool, live track, it’s an interesting piece of music, but it didn’t feel like what wanted to present to everyone as what we were about. The album is us finding ourselves again and finding what what we wanted out of music. Say the first album, that kind of attitude that we had on that record which was very free and experimental and fun; that’s what we ended getting back, I think, within our music. A bit less of the the kind of heavier side that we went down with Jim.
Kara: This band has the knack for writing the perfect hook and fine pop craftsmanship is so exciting to hear. How long does it take this band to come up with it? Is it quick or painstaking?
Luke: Depends on the song. “Junk of the Heart,” that was really quick to write. Usually the best songs are. We were quite painstaking with the arrangment, even though it’s incredibly simple. The most simple things are often the hardest to get right and that’s what The Kooks are all about, really. Beautiful simplicity. There were a lot of hours on this track, getting it right in the studio. But in terms of the actual songwriting, it was pretty straightforward. It just came out. Sometimes the best songs happen like that.
Kara: Beginning again, were these songs you had or really write this very quickly, knowing you were making a restart?
Luke: There was definitely a restart. One of the things that Tony said when we started working, it was quite hard to hear from someone but it’s why it’s great to work with someone on a third album who knows you well and intimately knows how you tick, but he said, “You don’t have enough songs and I don’t feel comfortable going into the studio with you yet.” I ended up writing a lot of material that we didn’t do with Jim or Tony. So maybe half the record was written in the lead-up.
Kara: Do you respond well under stress?
Luke: Well, it wasn’t stress, that’s the thing that Tony brought to the situation was a level of calm. Yeah, we have a lot of work to do, but when you listen to the album you can really hear the freedom and experimentation that he allowed us by giving us this calmness and belief. It wasn’t stressful. It was actually more about really loving to write songs again. Rather than go, "Oh, we have to write songs because we’ve got an album," it was actually more like questioning yourself on why you’re writing. What are we trying to do? It was hard work but it was really fun; a totally different way of recording. We opened up avenues and things we never tried before.
Hugh: We’re all sort of developing in different ways and I think Tony managed to bring all of that together. That’s the great thing about him: he brought us all together and picked out the best in all of us. You can feel that on the album.
Kara: One of the older songs that was done in the sessions with Jim Abbiss that made the cut, was “Rosie.” You turned it around into such a great song.
Luke: It was totally different with Jim, the version we did, and what we got with Tony. That song was quite a departure for us. The chorus is like a Motown song. The verses has an electronic feel because you have this drum loop that we put in that gives it a modern twist. We were referencing like Lykke Li or Björk, you had to go into a real pop chorus.
Kara: You both went to the Brit School in Croyden, which claims many musicians - like Adele, Kate Nash and Amy Winehouse - as graduates. What is it about the school [that's so special]?
Hugh: It’s just where you go if you want to play music. It’s a fab place to galvanize your thoughts and meet other musicians. It starts in year ten, so they take 15-year-olds in, so you’re still doing your GCSCs. And it goes through A-levels - [you're] very young when you go there. You don’t have to wear a uniform, it’s very liberal and quite free and fun.
Kara: Are you still based in Brighton and are you still aware of the scene?
Luke: One of our managers is still based there, but we’ve all moved out. It was a great time, but it’s good to move on as well.
Kara: In touring this new record, what have you discovered about this new album now that it’s living with you every day?
Luke: It is different live and we’re going to be using different instrumentation and changing the sound and in some ways, we’ll keep our roots but that’s exciting to us; to move on and use different instrumentation and bulk up the sound. This album is very different sounding in that there’s synthesizers in there, breakbeats and things like that, so we’re figuring out how to incorporate all that. We don’t want to go too far into it. We want to be a tight four-piece band and try to incorporate the other stuff with it as well. We’re figuring it out, really.
Kara: When you were making this record, were you actively listening to other things, given the electronic shift that you were making? Were there other people besides Lykke Li who you were paying attention too?
Luke: I was definitely listening to LCD Soundsystem. We were actually trying to see if James Murphy would get involved but maybe it wouldn’t be the right match. There were some infuences of older hip hop. In the studio, we sometimes put on the Beastie Boys and go, oh, we want that snare sound! There was definitely that kind of thing gonig on. If you talk about “Junk of the Heart,” as a band, that’s the funny thing playing it live because we never played it as a band. It started on a laptop with a breakbeat and me playing acoustic and we built it up from there. Paul went in and did the drums on his own.
Kara: So the inevitable question: for your fourth album would you try to make a dance album?
Hugh: Yes! I love dancing. I’d love us to do that, personally. It hasn’t happened in a long time since Daft Punk where you’ve got the really good, well-written song with a fantastic beat to it. Whether we’d be good at it or not is another question.
Kara: Are you going to give these songs to some others for remixing purposes?
Luke: We’d like to, yeah. There’s definitely people in mind. Like “Runaway,” a track on the album, is very dance-y but it would need a club mix to be played in club. We’d love to hear that; it would be good for us. I also really enjoyed the string arrangements that Rob is writing; it’s pretty incredible.
Kara: It sounds as if there’s a real confidence on this album.
Luke: We feel this is our best record. We’ve also really established what direction what we want to be on and where we’re going and it is about creating something that has artistic value that is pushing boundaries. That’s what we’re trying to achieve so hopefully we’ll carry on doing it and go even deeper. The next record could be a dance record or we could have more string arrangements with harmones; all avenues are open. Hopefully we’ll be recording the next one sooner than this one (laughs). It’s been three years.