It’s tricky for a band to follow up a debut album which catapulted them into the indie-pop mainstream and sold more than two million copies when they were barely out of their teens. After their 2006 breakthrough, The Kooks rode a backlash following their second album, while their third merely scraped its way into the Top 10. Add to that several tumultuous line-up changes, and what next?
“Reinvention. I just think you have to do it,” states 29-year-old singer and songwriter Luke Pritchard, who, despite his band’s sonic change in direction, has retained the curly mop of hair he has sported since The Kooks’ beginnings. “Smash the mould. Feel alive. You know? I didn’t think we could’ve carried on just doing what we were doing. It was boring.”
We’ve heard the term “reinvention” bandied about before, when the results have revealed nothing of the kind; in 2011, in fact, when The Kooks introduced synthesisers to their last, not very experimental, album, Junk of the Heart. But this is really it. In place of the anthemic guitar-pop of “Naïve” and “She Moves in Her Own Way”, they’ve incorporated a bold blend of soul, gospel, R&B, and even elements of hip-hop, with the help of producer Inflo.
“We were trying to make an upbeat soul record. I had gone a bit deeper into stuff like The Meters, New Orleans stuff, funk – a lot of James Brown. It seems to be dividing our fans quite a lot,” says Pritchard, who keeps a watchful eye on blog sites and Twitter. His main goal, you feel, is for his music to resonate with his fans. He later adds: “I know it’s great. It’s just getting the populus to get into it...”
The funky “Down” was the first song to be heard from their new album, Listen, and was made Zane Lowe’s hottest record in the world earlier this month. The song may have received mixed responses elsewhere, but when I watched the band airing their wildly different new sound at SXSW, in Austin, Texas, it sounded fresh and thrilling. The crowd lapped it up – as they did the album’s centre-piece, the gospel choir-driven “Around Town”. It was that song which kick-started the album. “You read the biog,” Pritchard says cheekily – that cocky reputation that once saw him scrap with Alex Turner and, more recently, One Direction, to the fore once again.
“It was like a catalyst. I didn’t know if it was going to be a Kooks [song] or if it was going to be a side thing, because it seemed so different. It was like electric church music. I’d written that before I’d even met Inflo, and then he heard it and said, ‘Okay, we can cross-pollinate here musically’. Everything stemmed from it.”
After touring their last album extensively around the world, The Kooks took some much-needed time out. The band’s identity was in turmoil following a chequered history of line-up changes (bassist Max Rafferty was sacked in 2008 and replaced by Pete Denton; Alexis Nunez finally took over drumming duties in 2012 after a number of drummers covered when Paul Garred suffered tendonitis).
Pritchard took off for America, travelling around Nashville and New Orleans, where he undertook his first collaborations outside of the band, writing with the likes of Mark Foster of Foster the People and Brendan Benson. When he returned to London he met Inflo, and the band’s new sound was forged.
The travelling was as much a case of running away from a bad year back home as it was about pursuing new sounds. The year prior had been a particularly testing time for the singer, involving a difficult break-up and the death of his grandfather, to whom he was especially close, having lost his father aged three. “I’d had a really rough year. I was feeling like a fighter in every way, fighting for life. A lot of negativity had been building up. Life seemed to be going for the worst and everything felt stale; you’d breathe the air and it just felt polluted. And I’d had a messed-up time with a girlfriend, and heartbreak. I didn’t want to write an album about that – but there are elements.” Listen contains Pritchard’s most autobiographical songwriting yet, especially the moving yet uplifting “See Me Now”, the first song he’ll have ever released about his father.
During that year, Pritchard felt that his life was taking a turn for the “vacuous”. “I felt like I was in danger of becoming one of those guys who used to be kind of famous and just hangs out in bars and tries to sleep with women,” he says. “There’s a danger, especially with London and the scene, that you can be doing things for the wrong reasons. I looked around me at what was going on in music. Things that were great weren’t selling; things that were terrible, were. I felt angry at everything instead of trying to make things better by making great music. The lifestyle, the going out, had to stop.” He enjoys going to America, he says, because he can be away from that scene and focus on his music. “I’m not saying I’m an angel,” he adds.
Back when they first rose to fame, Pritchard enjoyed the trappings of rock-star fame, including the celebrity girlfriends (Mischa Barton). Is he single now? There’s a pause. “I’m going to say yes… Thanks for asking,” he laughs.
Now he is settled into his new his flat in Notting Hill, west London, where he has lived for the past three months, on his own – “happily” – and has been honing the engineering skills which led to his co-production credit alongside Inflo on the new album. Above all, he wants the new music to take a hold on his fans in the way it did at the beginning.
“To us this is like a start, again. I have massive confidence in our band. We’re really special and I think somewhat overlooked in some ways. I feel very lucky for what we’ve done, but – and it’s only because I’m arrogant...”, he laughs at himself, “...but because you spend all your time making new music and you feel like it’s amazing, you wonder why people wouldn’t just love it... I don’t even want you to say that, but you’ll probably write it up and I’ll be pissed off with you. But you know what I’m saying. Right?”
The Kooks’ new single, “Down”, is out on 20 April on EMI/Virgin; the album follows this summer. The band play a short UK tour from 6 to 9 May