At the Rough Trade venue in Brooklyn, a wiry British blond-haired man is energetically cavorting onstage and singing psychedelic rock songs with his three bandmates. Between songs, he is explaining to the crowd how the sitar player got stuck in Paris and complimenting the crowd on the smell of incense.
It can only be Crispian Mills, the lead singer of Kula Shaker which for a brief period was at the vanguard of the mid-1990s Britpop music movement. Kula Shaker looking to the east and embracing Asian mysticism allied with a British Rock’n’Roll sound, was epitomized by their first album K only for the group to disband in 1999 (hastened some reckoned at the time by the furore caused by Mills’ unhelpful comments on the aesthetic qualities of Hitler.)
But the band has made three albums since reforming in 2004, most recently K 2.0. Heat Street caught up with Mills, who is also now an acclaimed movie screenwriter and director, during the band’s 10-leg US tour, their first Stateside concerts for 15 years. “We’re like a proper global mashup and people appreciated that,” says Mills of Kula Shaker, adding of the new world order: “We’re not American or British or French anymore. Our future lies in thinking as a global community.”
This sentiment couldn’t be more antithetical to Prime Minister Theresa May’s Tory Conference remark earlier this week that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” Yet Mills never paid attention to convention at the height of their fame and he’s certainly not going to start now…
Kula Shaker hit the big time almost exactly 20 years ago. Has that been on your mind recently?
20 years is a natural moment to take stock and see how the past, present and future all connect and it certainly was the impetus behind the last album we made, K 2.0. We had made a couple of albums we were happy with and then I made a film and we had a break. But the 20th anniversary brought us together for this album and these tours. It’s been a real energizing experience.
So even though you recorded quite a few albums in the past two decades, is K 2.0 is a spiritual successor to K?
It’s more like a circle in time. Just like you have the seasons moving in rotation and the moon, I think that K 2.0 marks a circular period of time in which you return to where you started, a new changed person.
20 years ago we released our debut album K to critical acclaim, hitting number 1 in the UK charts, spawning 4 hit singles and breaking sales records. K still features in many 'greatest albums' lists today. Now 20 years later, re-live the magic with our 20th Anniversary Edition of K on CD and LP featuring an extensive sleeve note booklet recalling the story of the band’s conception and the album’s creation including in depth interviews with the band, producer, designer and illustrator of the iconic sleeve. ✷Pre-order now at http://shop.kulashaker.co.uk/ ✶
Kula Shaker were seen as a prominent part of the Britpop movement but you ploughed your own furrow.
Our drummer Paul described it as an accident of chronology in that we came at that time in which guitar music was dominating the charts and that started with Nirvana actually. But we were abit of an anomaly, a surprising moment. No-one saw that coming and that was fantastic. That’s what it’s all about… it hadn’t been done for 20 years. There were kids listening to Sanskrit prayers and getting into Indian music. It was hysterical because it was broadening their interests.
At the time your interest in mysticism and Kula Shaker’s Sanskrit lyrics were regarded as strange and weird. But now the reaction would be ‘So what’?
I think that’s absolutely right. There’s an irony that a retro sounding Rock’N’Roll band very influenced by the sixties should be ahead of their time in their world view. The definition of mysticism made it sound exotic and at times a little flakey but the reality is that mysticism means there is a personal connection with the spiritual experience and that is what everyone is looking for in this impersonal, scientific, machine age. Kula Shaker was all about that journey for a higher identity. People understand it and can respect it more now because those ideas are out there more in the mainstream.
Were Kula Shaker more intellectual than Oasis at that time?
I don’t think we were intellectual but we were excited by ideas and imagination. Oasis were absolutely in love with the romance of Rock’n’Roll. But we shared that. Nowadays you’re looking at the landscape of pop music after Simon Cowell and these talent shows where everybody wants to get on X Factor and that’s the main line which is tragic. But back then we had a lot more in common with Oasis than we did with anything happening now….success in the music business brings a lot of pressure when you’re young and I didn’t have time to enjoy it. I was doing so much and having to travel so much and didn’t have time to stop and take stock. But it was pretty wild and I do miss the anarchy.
Are you aware of the restrictions on free speech going on at college campuses?
I’m aware of it but I haven’t been particularly following it. That’s very sad. I’m up for free speech which I think is very important.
Now I suspect Hey Dude would provoke uproar for not being gender neutral [it’s chorus reads: ‘Hey dude well I do what I can. But you treat me like a woman when I feel like a man.’]
Hey Dude would be considered risqué? What I was writing about was the confusion of the genders as this age has become so modern and everyone’s swapping over and having different roles. You can’t pretend you’re not a man and you can’t pretend you’re not a woman so what is the inherent nature of the sex? It was pretty confusing when I was 19 and I’m sure it’s just as confusing now.
Did you hang out with the Spice Girls much?
We’d bump into each other on the promotional hamster wheel. We didn’t like to hang out with them much. Their promotion was geared around the media. They wouldn’t do a gig every night like we would so I thought it must be frustrating because you can’t consummate all of that promo with a gig and the music. It was more the media circus, which must have, and did, send them all crazy.
The perception has long been that you negatively impacted your career with a few ill-judged comments to the media but that second experimental album [Peasants, Pigs and Astronauts] might have also played its part.
I don’t think we played the career game and if you don’t play the game you will pay the price. The price is you have to take the very long road to staying in touch with your fans. Our follow-up single to K was this epic Mystical Machine Gun which was six minutes long and very slow. When you have big pop success everybody’s dying to see you fail. It affirms people to see you take a dive and the second album sold very well but nothing like the heady pop success of K. But it’s because of that album we have still have this loyal fanbase because we lead with the music.
You caused a furore with your comments in 1997 about democracy [Mills said “We know that democracy doesn’t work”]. But looking at the US Presidential election, one wonders if those comments would be at all controversial if you made them now?
I remember I got a lot of stick for saying democracy doesn’t work. It was a provocative comment made by a 21-year-old but the truth is so much we are ashamed of happened because of democratically elected government. If I was older, I would contextualize a comment like that. It’s almost like it’s a lesser of evils, it’s the best we can manage right now but [people are] complacent with democracy as this ideal system of perfect representation. It’s an illusion. Democracy only works if there’s an educated population, an honest debate and accountability and freedom of speech.
How do you balance your movie scriptwriting with the music?
It’s quite harmonious. I’m half filmmaker, half musician and those two sides of the creative brain complement each other. It’s really hard work and you have to be very disciplined and organized. It’s like. ‘Four O’Clock you have to take the dog for a walk’.
Ryan Gosling is reputed to be a fan of your film work.
I got a message from Ryan Gosling’s agent saying he really enjoyed A Fantastic Fear of Everything [the 2012 horror comedy he wrote and directed starring Simon Pegg] and what else have I got? It was one of those crazy Hollywood moments where one of the biggest stars in the world reaches out…and I never heard from him again! You’ve got to take Hollywood with a pinch of salt but it was nice of him to reach out… The movie business is an insane business to get into. Movies take so long to make and can fall apart in seconds.