The Kooks: Schooled for success
The Kooks were groomed at the Brit School for Performing Arts and the Brighton Institute of Modern Music. James McNair meets the front man
Friday 03 February 2006
Four days into their current UK tour, the Brighton based upstarts The Kooks are a man down. Frazzled by his on-the-road excesses, the bassist, Max Rafferty, is recuperating at home. His group's debut album, Inside In / Inside Out, has just charted at No 9, and if The Kooks are to avoid losing momentum, the show must go on. So, when they appear at The Louisiana in Bristol tonight, a stand-in will handle Rafferty's bass parts.
The group's 20-year-old frontman and songwriter, Luke Pritchard, explains: "You come off stage and get smashed to avoid that sense of anticlimax. But we're sorting ourselves out now - for the sake of the music, we've got to."
The singer and I have met in a nondescript Bristol pub. Handsome, with a mass of cherubic curls, Pritchard has the look of a young Tim Buckley. Two T-shirts, a jumper and a beaten-up leather jacket pad out his slight upper torso, but drainpipe jeans emphasise his sparrow-thin legs. "I miss Max and it worries me that I'm not there for him," he tells me, picking at his burger and fries. "He's my best mate. Doing Top of the Pops without him was weird."
The Kooks' moniker derives from a song on David Bowie's Hunky Dory, an album whose "pure imagination" Pritchard has long admired. Other writers he rates include Lou Reed and Bob Dylan, but his classic songsmith tastes are offset by a contemporary indie twist. In previous interviews, the youngster has expressed a seemingly genuine hope that his group's rise to prominence will be gradual. With their album at No 9, however, the genie is out of the bottle.
It's not that The Kooks don't want to sell records; more that they want to preserve some of that street cred that indie bands on major labels sometimes lose. Today, when the ubiquitous James Blunt materialises on the pub jukebox, it seems to act as a lightning-rod for Pritchard's fears. "That's the kind of over-exposure I'm terrified of," he says, grimacing as "You're Beautiful" kicks in. "You get shoved down people's throat on the back of £2m-worth of advertising, and they start picking up your CD at Asda. James Blunt has inspired this awful rebirth of the singer-songwriter," Pritchard goes on, his rant broadening in scope. "All that 'Oh, it's so hard for me in my life' stuff - that's not art," he continues; "it's self-indulgent crap."
Whether The Kooks' own record is art per se is up for debate, but crap Inside In/ Inside Out certainly is not. A zesty work packing melodious chutzpah à la Supergrass and the kind of visceral ska-punk popularised by The Clash, it also takes pleasing detours into Britpop territory. You might argue that there's something of The Libertines in there, too, albeit in less shambolic form.
The album's warm sound, Pritchard explains, is largely down to the fact that it was recorded on good old-fashioned tape, now such a rare commodity in the UK that reels had to be specially sourced from abroad. Together with the American producer Tony Hoffer (who has worked with Beck and Air), the band nailed their record at Konk studios in Crouch End, north London, a facility owned by Ray Davies of The Kinks.
The great man would drop by for a game of pool - he invariably lost - and wrote The Kooks a supportive letter on hearing their work. Pritchard: "We even tried to get Ray to sing on 'Jackie Big Tits'. He was up for it, but our album was running late and he was working on his own record. In the end he had to rush off to Germany."
Gratuitously salacious as "Jackie Big Tits" might sound, the song isn't about anyone of Pritchard's acquaintance, but rather a character in Jonathan Glazer's 2000 film Sexy Beast. Elsewhere on their debut album - in "Sofa Song" and "Ooh La" - The Kooks do document testosterone-fuelled shenanigans typical of youths in pop groups, but as the chaste-as-Cliff-Richard-circa-Summer Holiday-sounding "She Moves in Her Own Way" underlines, Pritchard likes to throw the odd googly.
He was born in Forest Hill, south London. His mother says she named him after Luke Rhinehart, author of the controversial cult novel The Dice Man, but his father always maintained he was named for Luke Skywalker of Star Wars. The youngster was to lose his father to a heart attack when he was just three years old. Dad played guitar and harmonica with Bob Pritchard and The Echoes, the band even getting to support The Rolling Stones and John Lee Hooker. The group never quite made it, though, and Bob later opted to start a clothing fashion label, Mono.
"What was really sad", says his son, "is that my mum didn't have much money when dad died, and she had to sell some of his amazing record collection. He had about 10,000, so there was some great stuff left over, some of it on really cool labels like Chess. I learnt a lot from listening to those records."
Is Pritchard honouring his father's memory by following him into music? "Yeah, I think so. Obviously, I was really young when I lost him, but I'm sure he's had a big influence on me, even just genetically. I've definitely got his love of rhythm and blues, plus when I was about two, he filmed me singing 'Yellow Submarine' by The Beatles. Stuff like that matters to me. I've still got the film."
After Pritchard moved to Clapham with his family, he suffered further emotional upheaval when his mother's long-term boyfriend also died. Understandably, this loss of a second male role-model compounded his upset, but a spell at the boarding school Bedales - its famous former pupils include Minnie Driver and Daniel Day-Lewis - helped him deal with pent-up anger.
"At first I felt like I didn't fit in there", he says. "I'd had a reasonably privileged background, but one of my friends, Alice - well, her dad owned Selfridges, and another friend's mum was the journalist Polly Toynbee. I'd throw shouting fits in class and I nearly got expelled for arguing with a teacher who confiscated my mate's phone. In the end they taught me to respect other people, though. I'm grateful for that."
Pritchard left Bedales at 16, going on to study at the Brit School of Performing Arts and Technology in Croydon. While there, he says, he met a number of characters "who would have sold their own mothers for a bit of success". The Kids from Fame thing, he quickly realised, though, wasn't for him, but one very welcome distraction was his then girlfriend, the pop singer Katie Melua.
Intriguingly, some have claimed that, when Pritchard sings: "She's got an eye for an awkward guy like me," in The Kooks' song "Eddie's Gun", Melua is the "she" in question. The plot thickens, moreover, when you consider that the song is actually a tongue-in-cheek exploration of erectile dysfunction. Leaving Melua aside for a moment, I put it to Pritchard that his admission of such difficulties is unusually honest.
"It's nothing to be ashamed of," he says with a laugh. "Whether it's down to booze or whatever, it's happened to me and pretty much everyone guy I know at some time. What was annoying was the NME stitching me up and saying it was about my ex-girlfriend. I've split up with her now, but I still love her and them printing that was really awkward. The song's not specifically about Katie, though; it's more of a spoof. We robbed the riff from "Summertime Blues" by Eddie Cochran - that's why it's 'Eddie's Gun'."
The Kooks got together in 2003 while studying at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music. Max Rafferty was the last man in, joining Pritchard, guitarist Hugh Harris and drummer Paul Garred.
A joyously eclectic sound soon emerged, the foursome lacing their indie rock with nods to ska, reggae - even jazz. "It's the kind of thing that can put record companies off", says Pritchard, "but I think our A&R guy at Virgin, Nick Burgess, was blown away by the strength of the songs."
Wary of the "hot-housed at stage school" tag that some have attached to his spells studying in Croydon and Brighton, Pritchard is determined to dismiss reports that The Kooks formed as some kind of competitive class-project. "It wasn't like that at all", he says. "It was very chilled out. You'd roll in there with a hangover at 11am and you'd sit around discussing Led Zeppelin records."
Times have changed, then, and with The Kooks' schedule growing busier by the day, Pritchard and the ailing Rafferty have fantasies of setting up an artistic retreat in Paris. The singer has a little rant about England being a "miserable and aggressive place", citing the "happy-slapping" culture that sees "malicious kids attacking people for pleasure" as evidence. Reading Henry Miller's sexually charged novel Quiet Days in Clichy has also whetted his appetite for Paris, but then he won't find anything about the city's recent youth riots in that book.
Opinionated and a little naive he may be, but Pritchard is also honest and likeable. Asked to describe his current state of mind, he fires back "paranoid, paranoid, open and excited"; learning to play the press a little more wisely might help stem some of his paranoia.
The irony is that, while most young musicians don't have that much to say, what they do say often gets them into hot water. Discussing Kaiser Chiefs with a journalist over a few beers, Pritchard learned the hard way.
"That was another stitch-up", he says in his defence. "The guy quoted me as saying that the Kaiser Chiefs were a soulless marketing machine. I can imagine myself saying that, but I still thought it was a bit harsh. You meet the band later, and you feel a twat. We were meant to do a support tour with them, but after that they didn't want us."
Pritchard says that The Kooks' next record is pretty much written, its material a mix of heartfelt songs and more quirky outings.
"Stuff like 'Eddie's Gun' and 'Sofa Song'- I wrote those tracks years ago now. The new stuff is more rootsy; we've been listening to a lot of tunes by Free and The Rolling Stones. We've also been sharing the writing a bit more, and, subject-wise, the song might be about someone you're really keen on or someone you just want to sleep with. Max has written this great song that goes [sings softly], 'Living on death's door/ Living on death's door.' It's quite poignant, considering what he's been through lately."
'Inside In / Inside Out' is out now on Virgin. The Kooks will undertake another full UK tour in May
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