The crazy world of Kula Shaker has spun on it’s axis from east to west at a kaleidoscope rate of kilohertz and the new phase has begun. Early 1999 sees the release of the four average alchemists second album “Peasants, Pigs and Astronauts”, an expanded, radiant work which takes them deeper into the journey begun with their million selling debut ‘K’ and throws an arc over some of the strangest and most magical inaugural years generated by any band.
Since their emergence from the psychedelic hinterland of London’s suburbs in late 1995, it’s been clear that Kula Shaker – named after a ninth century Indian King, intrigued by Eastern mysticism and fascinated by the sonic power of guitar London 67 – were neither timelocked, nor two dimensional nor like any other premier league 90s British band. In christening their second album “Peasants, Pigs and Astronauts” they follow through on a philosophy of multi-layered stimulation that has set them apart. It means, of course, what you want it to.
The fact that the title was taken from note to a sketch by Kula illustrator Dan Abbott is beside the point. What’s important is that after a meteoric rise and full throttle crash course in the realities of pop stardom, Kula Shaker are back boldly hammering on the doors of perception and having fun. Light fun, heavy fun, milkmaid kissing, numerologically auspicious revolutions per minute fun.
In the winter of 1995, singer guitarist Crispian Mills, bassist Alonza Bevan, drummer Paul Winterhart and organist Jay Darlington were four struggling dole-surfing musicians living in the council flat of a freaked out acid guru friend. Crispian and Alonza had met as music ‘n’ sorcery fascinated teenagers at Richmond College. Somerset-raised sticksman Paul joined them in a nutty psychedelic troop and the three spent early 90’s testing the electric kool aid lifestyle and running their own head trip club ‘The Mantra Shack’ in Richmond.
After Oxted local Jay was enticed from his mod-edelic garage band scene they refocused their objectives, setting up as The Kays. The period from 1993 through to summer 1995 when they met Krishna devotee Kula Sekhara and took on their current manifestation was a slightly left of typical saga of lost deals, haphazard pub gigs, busking adventures and out of it trips to Glastonbury. Much would eventually be made of the fact that Crispian came from a family of famous actors but the reality of the pre-fame Kula Shaker was that they were an unlikely bunch of backstreet, edge culture dreamers. When they signed to Columbia in November 1995 after blazing shows at the Manchester ‘In The City’ competition nobody could have predicted their rocket powered trajectory. A first limited edition single was issued in January 96. By the end of the year their four full singles releases ‘Grateful When You’re Dead’, ‘Tattva’, ‘Hey Dude’ and ‘Govinda’ had been UK hits, they had been selected as Best Newcomers at the Brit Awards, their ‘K’ album recorded with Stone Roses producer John Leckie had astrally projected straight to number one, and they had been personally requested by Noel Gallagher to support Oasis at the latter’s historic 125,000 capacity Knebworth shows.
The spin on their achievement was that they had become one of the most talked about and popular British bands in a hedonistic, materialistic, ‘new lad’ cultural climate which ought to have rejected them. Going against the grain (or ahead of it) their lyrics and interviews were a mirror ball of love, higher cosmic consciousness, karmic awareness, spirituality, peace and conspiracy theories. They sang in sanskrit on ‘Tattva’, based ‘Govinda’ on an ancient Indian chant, thanked William Blake and King Arthur on their album and placed Krishna in the centre of the letter K obsessed sleeve.
The more sceptically inclined couldn’t believe that Crispian and his candy striped temple were for real, and many missed the inherent humour in the band’s flying of mad mystic kites. But what the world was trying to decipher was a matter of roots for the band. Like many a thinking teen head, they’d been absorbing alternative consciousness since childhood. 1997 saw Kula Shaker pick up a second number 2 hit with their reworking of the Joe South tune ‘Hush’, which Deep Purple had covered for their first ever single. On a Spring tour of the US, where the band were starting to acquire a healthy fan base Crispian kicked up more magic dust than he’d bargained for when he failed to make crystal clear his views on the foul Nazi misappropriation of the ancient Indian swastika symbol. His subsequent apologies , affirming deeply held pro peace, love and equality beliefs were printed in the British press and the band returned to the UK for two powerful performances at the midsummer Glastonbury festival, one of them replacing Neil Young on the main stage.
After the ‘Tripperary’ festival of Ireland the band reached the end of an eighteen month flaming rollercoaster of melodies and mouth and opted to get off before burn-out set in. Crispian headed out to India. Paul and Alonza joined him later, tumbling into bizarre adventures with leeches and rafts while travelling in the south. Perspective was re-established.
“It had got too much about other things and not the music,” explains Crispian. “That’s to be expected, but it was like losing touch with the fact that we’re a band and we had to make another record. We really had to be thinking about the music so we just stopped everything and cut ourselves off.”
The vivid life force of the four Kulas has thrown up enough biog detail to obscure their essence, but the arrival of their second album firmly puts the emphasis back on the musicianship. It rocks, it chants, it quarter tone harmonises, and under the studio captaincy of Bob Ezrin – producer of Peter Gabriel, Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and Kiss’ ‘Destroyer’ – it finally fully captures their universally acknowledged brilliance as a live band.
Preparatory activity for ‘Peasants, Pigs and Astronauts’ began in Autumn 1997 when the band went into the studio in LA with producers Rick Rubin and George Drakoulias. The eventual March 1998 top 3 single ‘Sound Of Drums’ came from these sessions but neither party wanted to work away from their home city on a full album. A freshly tattooed Kula Shaker set off on the low key ‘Revolution For Fun’ UK tour (“The best tour we did,” says Crispian) and worked their way up to sessions with Ezrin, skirting Spinal Tap-isms on tour with Aerosmith and collaborating with the Prodigy on the mantra driven ‘Narayan’ track on the tech-punks “Fat Of The Land”.
By March 1998, Alonza, Paul, a punk cropped Crispian, and the newly married and temporarily bearded Jay, were on board a Victorian house boat studio in the Thames with Ezrin at the helm. They had already recorded the freeform Indian chant “Radhe Radhe” as part of a soundtrack for Joe Massot’s 60s cult film ‘Reflections Of Love’ (intended to run before screenings of George Harrison’s restored and re-edited ‘Wonderwall’) re-discovering fundamental creative freedoms in the process.
“I think this album really started when we did that,” says Crispian. “Kula Shaker had become something you associate with not only doing well, and doing big gigs, but with business and the trips that get laid on you and the pressures. But we did the film and it was totally separate and we really had fun. I think that’s the main thing, we started having more fun. On stuff like ‘S.O.S.’ and ‘Radhe Radhe’ and even ‘108’ you can hear that the band’s just really enjoying itself and it’s free, and that’s the best antidote to all the shit in the business.”
Afloat on newly burnished enthusiasm the band worked with Ezrin through to October 98. ‘K’ had been a first run at capturing their sound and with Asian music having come to the fore in British and global culture since their sitar-studded debut, they were determined to do justice to their instincts. “This was an opportunity for us to say well we’re into Indian music but this is much more how we’d liked to have presented it’ ” says Crispian.
Gouri Choudhury, who appeared on ‘Govinda’ returned and revered flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia joined in with the floating temple sessions. Indian instruments like the shenai and the sarungi were interwoven with Manzarek’d hammond and Zepped up stratocasters.
“Once you’ve heard those sounds you can’t get them out of your system,” explains Crispian. “They become part of the way you want to express yourself. I think a lot of Europe’s folk music has influences from North Africa and India. It’s part of our principles and ideals, and part of our backgrounds just as four people as well. It’s what made us what we are.”
From the Aquarian guitar picking launch pad groove ‘Great Hosannah’ to the penultimate Zep in Tibet rock epiphany and the transcendentally traditional ‘Namami Nanda-nandana’ Kula Shaker:2 is refreshingly diverse and magically complete. It’s their full, mature statement, alchemically interlocking classicist Anglo pop with Himalayan reverberations. In the form of singles ‘Mystical Machine Gun’ and ‘Shower Your Love’ it contains the most addictive, uplifting songs they’ve yet written.
It’s worth noting that in ‘S.O.S.’ when Crispian sings “Sometimes I feel the world isn’t ready for me,” there’s a smile hanging between the Chelsea boots and the halo of garlands. Laughing at yourself is acceptable on the path, and for those who want it, there is a kind of golden flagstone causeway laid out in the fourteen ‘Peasants, Pigs And Astronauts’ tracks. “Some people thought the title means past, present and future,” says Crispian. “That does fit in and there is a lyrical journey going through the album. We wanted to start saying something and end saying something, but it’s up to you what kind of concept you think it is.”
The journey might well be that of four average high troubadours, away with deities, looking for hope and love in a hail storm. Maybe it’s the credit card bill for earth seeking heaven. Or the west on a storm-tossed raft heading east. Whatever the voyage, they describe it beautifully with some of the most heart-stopping kaleido-culture songs of the century’s coda. All of ‘Peasants, Pigs and Astronauts’