As co-founder Hugh Harris puts it, new single ‘So Good Looking’, out now via Lonely Cat / AWAL Recordings, and predecessor ‘Got Your Number’ sound ‘very Kooksy’. And that’s surely a good thing.
The multimillion-sellers who took their name from David Bowie’s 1971 Hunky Dory track, met as students at the Brit School in Croydon, South London, before moving further south to Brighton’s British Institute of Modern Music Institute (BIMM). And soon they’d signed to Virgin Records, going on to receive their first Brit and MTV Europe awards.
But they were no flash in the pan, 2006 debut LP, Inside In / Inside Out last year finally achieving four-times platinum status, a decade after 2008 follow-up Konk went straight in at No.1. In fact, all five of their studio LPs and a best of compilation have made the UK top-20 album charts, with an estimated billion-plus streams gathered en route and success enjoyed around the world.
These days the band is down to core members Hugh (lead guitar, backing vocals, piano, keyboards, bass, rhythm guitar) and fellow co-founder Luke Pritchard (vocals, guitar), plus 2012 recruit Alexis Nunez (drums). And all this time on, they continue to attract huge audiences, last summer supporting the Rolling Stones on two stadium dates and playing the main stage at the Reading and Leeds festivals before embarking on a more intimate UK tour promoting fifth LP, Let’s Go Sunshine.
What’s more, this weekend they’re back on the festival circuit, a recent London Community Festival date – playing to 40,000 on Finsbury Park – followed by this weekend’s appearances at Manchester’s Sounds of The City tonight (Friday, July 12th) and Glasgow’s TRNSMT Festival (Sunday, July 14th).
When I called, Hugh was gearing up for the first of those dates, a North London headliner on a bill also including Blossoms, Kate Nash and Gerry Cinnamon. And I couldn’t help but wonder whether any of the Stones went shopping in Selfridges for an outfit for their children before playing Hyde Park 50 years ago. I say that because Hugh was looking to get his three-year-old daughter togged up there when we spoke.
“I guess festivals are as much as about fashion these days as they are everything else, so you’ve got to look the part!”
It’s hardly the spirit of ’69 though, is it. And I guess no one will be releasing doves during your set.
”I know, man, a different era altogether. But it‘s cool. I enjoy it. And it’s a very different world today to when we started the band, but it’s nice to have a bit of maturity.”
Is it fair to say you’re somewhat domesticated these days?
“Pretty much, yeah. I love it, and I’ve taken to it well. A bit of wriggling at first, then you kind of realise …”
You’re second fiddle?
I’ve heard the new single, ‘So Good Looking’, a few times, and it’s a winner, the sound of summer for these ears.
“I guess it is. And it’s very Kooksy. I think we’re kind of channeling ourselves, thinking, ‘Do you know what – if anyone can do this, surely we have license to!”
A few years ago, I’d have said the new single’s a sure-fire top-10 hit. Not sure if it works that way now though. You’re clearly still selling well, but are you expecting big things from this?
“No. Our streaming numbers are really good for a British indie band. They’re fantastic. We’re way out ahead, but I think charts went out a long time ago. Songs have such a journey in themselves, and through that journey can be synched up to all sorts of things and can be synonymised with all sorts of events. It’s not just about the first week of the release. And that’s kind of more exciting. Songs these days have more of a life and a lineage, and I don’t think we’ve ever aimed for the charts as a band.”
Maybe that’s why you’re still going strong.
“Yeah. We have our goalposts firmly set in some kind of very simple ethics and a very simple ethos.”
There’s a Beatles-like quality there, but also something of the era from which you emerged, with shades of bands like Dodgy and Supergrass.
“Yeah, big time, we’re ‘90s children! It was all Brit Pop for me, with Oasis one of the main reasons I got in a band, while Jimi Hendrix was one of the main reasons I picked up a guitar. And we absolutely love that kind of Immediate movement.”
As in the Small Faces?
“Yeah. We went on this journey for a few records to kind of distance ourselves from the thing I think we were perhaps quite good at. And now it’s nice to have found our stripes again.”
The two latest 45s are neatly crafted, and ‘Got Your Number’ for me has shades of everything from Sparks and Cockney Rebel through to The Cure and Franz Ferdinand at their more poppy. But I shouldn’t be surprised, seeing as I get the impression you’re historians of good music.
“That’s a nice way to speak about it. I guess we’re kind of … although it’s like town planning in a way! But because we still have such a big fan-base and we’re still going as a band, we just feel it’s our responsibility. You could criticise that, say it’s regurgitation, but I think we have our own sound by now and our own twist, and it’s fun to play music that we enjoy, and it definitely draws on a huge range of influences. And if we can encourage a kid in his bedroom to play guitar and follow our lineage, in our eyes that’s our job done really.”
I said historians, but I guess it’s as much about DNA, being the sum of your influences and building on that.
“Yeah, we’re really a bit of an afterglow of a huge amount of good music, and I don’t really feel there’s a lot of that going on in among our contemporaries. So it’s even more important really. And these gigs we’ve got coming up like the Community Festival and the Castlefield Bowl show, with great bands supporting, it’s important to fly the flag, now more than ever,
Recent sales for your debut LP suggest it’s still being discovered, presumably by a new generation.
“It’s a conveyor belt!” And we do still see in the front three or four rows that kind of doe-eyed innocence from teenagers just getting into music. It’s really quite tender and kind of sweet, with a huge amount of admiration there towards us. There’s a similar thing with the others, but perhaps they’re just a little more drunk and older!”
You’re playing a few festival dates this season. Do you prefer the more intimate shows though?
“Well, everything! I’ll take whatever I can get my hands on! Any performance is treasure to me. I think performing in any sense of the word is just the most beautiful expression and the most important thing for our culture. And festivals that bring people together – specially in such divisive times – if gigs can do that in this climate, they’re pretty powerful things. Yeah, I have a huge amount of respect for all performing arts that bring people together.”
Do these latest singles suggest a sixth album is coming?
“I wouldn’t read too much into that. Those songs belong with the recording session for Let’s Go Sunshine the album that came out last year. They were going to be on that album, but then we thought we should keep some candy back.”
Have you been writing a fair bit since?
“Absolutely. We never really stop writing. There are various solo projects coming up to, which is exciting. So next year there might be a bit of a break, and I’ve got something lined up – as have Al and Luke – that’s taken me around seven years to complete. We’ve been so busy, but I’ll take some time out to do that next year.”
Will that also be a little ‘Kooksy’?
“It sounds nothing like us! I went to Cuba to record horns, and there’s strings and a gospel choir and drums, and I went to an ashram in India to record a choir. It’s all a bit mental, really.”
We mentioned your musical DNA, and although I know your band roots are really in Brighton, it could be Huyton, Merseyside at times – there’s a trace of everyone from The La’s and Cast to The Coral, The Zutons, even the Head brothers in your work. I’m not so sure that’s just Luke’s vocals either.
“Yeah, he’s got a bit of a Merseyside lilt, definitely. That’s what I really like about his voice. It’s kind of playful, and borrows from a lot of phonetics. He’s a bit of a salad of articulation, isn’t he!
“But I was just out in Dublin, going out to catch some kind of folk music out there, and you can hear a bit of Beatles in that, but you can also hear where jazz came from – if you swing it, it’s jazz.”
We mentioned before your understanding of the history of pop and rock, and you were music students. Is that label something you’ve tried to shy away from since?
“No, I love that we’re students of music. I don’t know how you could criticise someone who loves playing music going to music school. For me, we probably were taught all that stuff. But when you write it all on paper you’re probably more interested in going out, meeting people and having a good time. Physically investigating the history of music is much more exciting than being taught in a class. And exposing yourself to as many live performances as possible, that’s an absolute thrill.”
I guess your student days in that respect were your Hamburg apprenticeship.
“Yeah, I guess, in a very modern way. At the British Institute of Modern Music, we incubated and just kind of grew … and partied. And we got our stripes in order.”
Hugh grew up not so far from the band’s Brighton base, in the nearby Sussex town of Lewes, ‘which was kind of a bit shit when I was there, but now is full of hybrid coffee shops and what-not’.
And did he get to properly meet the Rolling Stones when the band supported them last year?
“Yeah, we did. We met them a few times. The last time it was a bit lack lustre, I think they may have been working quite hard. But we’ve supported them four times now, and it’s very reassuring, to put it that way.”
“Definitely, and their fizziness was something we related to.”
And now you’re honed down to a three-piece. I’ve always been a fan of that set-up, from The Jam right through to Wilko Johnson’s band right now. There’s a real energy there, and it must keep you on your toes. I guess no one can hide in a three-piece band. Does that set-up work well for you?
“Yeah, it’s great! I feel as though quite a lot of the songwriting duties have been on Luke’s shoulders and to an extent mine also, with regards to things like sonic soundscapes.
“But we enjoy playing with lots of musicians. Kooks is not really one line-up. It’s more of a concept … although that sounds really wanky! But we don’t suffer from the band syndrome. We see a lot of bands on stage who hate each other, but we don’t stand for that. Music should be about joy, and if something’s not working or if someone is perhaps not flying that flag, we’d prefer to continue without that negativity.”
Finally, seeing as I mentioned the summer sound of the most recent singles, I should mention how the opening track of your debut album, ‘Seaside’, has appeared on several of the CD compilations I’ve put together over the years, part of the soundtrack for family holidays with my girls to Cornwall, the Welsh coast, the Isle of Wight, and all over.
“Ah, that’s amazing. That’s so good to hear. Thank you for telling me that.”
It’s only 90 seconds or so, but it’s a perfect starting point not just for that album but also summertime adventures, and hopefully my daughters will get that same nostalgic feeling about your music in years to come.
“Yeah, it’s a nice kind of … dip your big toe in!”
The Kooks play Manchester’s Sounds of The City, Castlefield Bowl – a multi-day event also featuring Kylie Minogue, Elbow, Bloc Party, Janelle Monae, The National, Hacienda Classical, and The Wombats – tonight (Friday, July 12th), with support from The Sherlocks and Sea Girls. For tickets and more information, head here. The band then play Glasgow Green’s TRNSMIT Festival on Sunday (July 14th), on a bill topped by George Ezra and Jess Glynne, with tickets and more details here.