“I think we’re possibly not arty enough to be interesting to all the critics,” says Kooks drummer Paul Garred. “They like real weird shit.”
Brighton pop-rock outfit The Kooks are not “real weird shit” – their bread and butter is Brit-pop-sanctioned jangly guitars, cheerful homage to elderly Brit-bands of the 60s and smartly turned out lyrics about “love, love, love”. Call them a boy band for the scruffy-haired indie massive and it doesn’t even get a rise out of Garred.
“It’s probably a little different. Only girls like boy bands but what we do – a pop act – is for everybody, you know,” he muses. “I don’t like the word indie – it seems a lazy term for a guitar band. We’re a rock’n’roll pop band.”
While seven tracks off their triple-platinum 2006 debut album “Inside In / Inside Out” hit the Top 40, critical reception has been decidedly mixed – they’re all right by Noel Gallagher and accused of making girls’ music by Kasabian; the Guardian thinks they’re all “vibrant melodies and finely tuned choruses” while Pitchfork Media hails the band as purveyors of banal pop with little personality.
“Of course I’ll say yeah, I think that’s unfair. A lot of the stuff we talk about is very personal,” says Garred. “I think to understand us a bit more, it’s a case of waiting to see what we do next to realize what we did before.”
In April, the band released “Konk”, the follow-up to “Inside In / Inside Out”, and have been world touring in support since. Well, two of them have. Bassist Max Rafferty left the band in January (“various issues including his anxieties and taking drugs probably more than he should have”, according to frontman Luke Pritchard in an interview with Orange World) and Garred is home in Brighton, nursing a pulled arm muscle, leaving Pritchard and guitarist Hugh Harris flying the Kooks flag with Rafferty’s temp replacement Dan Logan.
They’re one of Britain’s more pedigreed guitar bands, with Pritchard a graduate of the Brit School of Performing Arts and the band itself forming at Brighton’s Institute of Modern Music.
“We were so different from each other that getting in the same room and playing, we were all a little bit like, ‘does this really work?!’ and exactly at the same time going ‘God, this feels good!’” says Garred. “At that early point, everything sounded different to what we’d ever heard before and we felt we had something up our sleeves a bit.”
Signed with Virgin from the release of a pre-Inside In debut EP, The Kooks do tend to front with all the major-label-approved swagger of four English lads who sold two million albums before getting anywhere near a quarter-life crisis. When it comes to insecurities, crises of confidence regarding potential success: “None really, no,” says Garred. “We’ve always been fairly confident about what we were doing; we’d all been in stuff before that hadn’t succeeded though we’d always tried really hard. This felt right.”
“This is it – you’ve got to have a sense of normalcy otherwise your head will fall off,” Garred says. “The thing is to document it in song. And write a song maybe every day if you can, because sometimes they’ll be really good and sometimes they won’t be so good. But then you just sew them together and you’ve got new material for next record, and you do that as much as you can.”
Perhaps it’s this mentality that led to a jaw-dropping 80-plus songs being written for “Konk” and its accompanying last-minute bonus nine-track album “Rak”, born and recorded, according to Garred, in a single day. “We had loads of songs, so we figured let’s just take three ideas from each of us and see what happens,” he says.
As for pressure to deliver on that difficult second album: “We never really thought about it. We just continued with our main ethic, which was to write as many songs as possible. Rightly or wrongly, we went for it and came up with everything we had at the time,” says Garred.
“Konk” is even more of a pop album than “Inside In / Inside Out” and if the latter brimmed with youthful bravado (“The Kooks are out / we’re going to steal your skies,” they declared on “Matchbox”), the former is the lyrical ejaculate of a nouveaux rock god.
Swanks Pritchard on the Franz Ferdinand-esque “Do You Wanna” – “Do you want to make love to me? I know you want to make love to me”. “Du du du du du,” he trills on lead single “Always Where I Need to Be”. Their official biography refers to it as possibly the catchiest thing they’ve ever written, and The Kooks are nothing if not an expertly stitched collection of catchy, if simple, choruses.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on big choruses, and just things that make us tick. We’re unashamedly pop and I think sometimes, to be as bold as that, is threatening to critics,” Garred says.
Pritchard in particular is known for his deftness in crafting a pop hook, though, given a clutch of obvious influences like The Police and the Kinks (“Konk” was even named after Ray Davies’ studio, where the band recorded the album), one wonders if The Kooks know who exactly The Kooks are.
“I do think you come out and you make a statement, but I think that statement will vary through the years. And when you add those various different sounds together, then you’re going to realize that they’re all very, very individual,“ says Garred.
That said, “Konk” hasn’t evolved too far off the mildly excitable pop-rock of “Inside In”. “It’s a little more experienced, a little darker, I think. It’s hard to say because the albums are very close together, sonic-wise,” Garred says.
“Konk’s probably a step to growing up. We’ll probably never really find out till the day we finish. Music and being in a band is a big journey, and it will take more than one or two records to determine who we are.”
Originally published in the South China Morning Post