Shake your mantra maker
The axiom that history tends to repeat itself holds particularly true when it comes to music. In the summer of 1969, George Harrison recorded a catchy little tune called "The Hare Krishna Mantra," which soon rose to the top of the British charts. At about the same time, John Lennon and Yoko Ono gathered a few of their saffron-robed, shaven-headed friends in a room at Montreal's Queen Elizabeth Hotel and recorded "Give Peace a Chance."
Now, one generation later, another British pop revolution is in full swing, and once again a Hindu mantra is sitting meditatively on top of the pops--this time by an unapologetically retro-psychedelic band called Kula Shaker.
If Oasis--propelled by "Champagne Super Nova"--is the new Fab Four (okay, the new Fab Five), they haven't been granted time enough to go through the phase that sent the Beatles and the Stones on soul-searching journeys to India. Instead, they've been side-stepped by a group that may eventually prove to be the more rightful heirs to the Beatles' legacy.
"I think a lot of our success has had do to with just being in the right place at the right time," muses keyboardist Jay Darlington from a comfy chair in a Glastonbury hotel room. With songs like "Govinda," a rocked-up ancient Sanskrit mantra, "Tattva," a song about eternal Vedic truth, and "Hey Dude," which takes a solid punch at materialism, Kula Shaker managed to dethrone "the boys who put cocaine on their corn flakes," as one U.K. magazine described Oasis. It's downright Oedipal, given that Noel Gallagher--Oasis' guitarist and songwriter--was one of the people who discovered Kula Shaker playing a live gig last summer, then recruited them as Oasis' opening band. What's more, Kula Shaker appears well on the way to winning a prize that has thus far eluded Oasis--the adoration of American audiences.
"There was definitely a drought in Britain that Oasis came along and filled," continues Darlington in a chipper voice. "But in terms of American success, I guess we're appreciated there more because of the positivity thing. Oasis' music is pretty negative. Or perhaps Oasis is just too British for Americans." (Translation: Oasis are a bunch of snotty brats, which works in the U.K. but backfires in America.)
Darlington is quick to add that he isn't slagging Oasis. Yet the distinction between the bands is apparent: When asked what he's been up to since their debut album, K, hit number one, Darlington replies "Well, I just got back from a trip to south India...I stayed in a little house with no electricity in the mountains with some friends." So much for destroying hotel rooms. One of the attractions of Kula Shaker, however, is their ability to draw you into higher consciousness without beating you over the head with it. They look upon "straight edge" and "deadhead" with equal disdain, and simply acknowledge the reality of spiritual need.
The philosophy comes gift-wrapped in a hook-heavy psychedelic guitar package that allows glimpses of a straightforward pop sensibility. Placed on the Beatles' scale, K is somewhere in between "Glass Onion" and "Strawberry Fields." In more modern terms, it could be described as Blur--having traded in their cardigan sweaters and finally gotten a set of balls--set loose in a curry house on half a hit of speedy acid.
"Govinda," the most successful track on Kula Shaker's album, is so attractive because it takes a potentially trippy-dippy theme and rocks the hell out of it without caving in to cynicism. "I think people are looking for something. We sort of chucked 'Govinda' up to see what people would think. It was like, well, here's one option of something to believe in," says Darlington on the ironic success of a song based on a chant well over a thousand years old.
Indian influences run deep in Kula Shaker. Even before the pilgrimage lead singer Crispian Mills made to the East in 1993, his childhood was steeped in mysticism. "Crispian's house was always full of people either preparing to leave for India or just returning from there. It was sort of a halfway house for people to recondition themselves to the insanity of the West," recalls Darlington.
Mills is the son of '60s teen actress Hayley Mills (of The Parent Trap fame). Like Lenny Kravitz--son of Roxie Roker, next-door neighbor on The Jeffersons--Mills holds a special claim to recycled pop culture. His mother was also fairly involved with Krishna Consciousness, however, having written the preface to the Hare Krishna Book of Vegetarian Cooking. It's easy to see how the two worlds fused, giving birth to Kula Shaker.
"Music was obviously the binding element that brought us together," says Darlington. "But it also had to do with our character and philosophy. We're each very much inspired by '60s music--folk, jazz, '60s pop. Then one night we went to this all-night Indian music festival in London, and that, along with eventually going to India, had a great impact."
Another big influence--thankfully--is the fact that Kula Shaker obtained the services of John Leckie (whose work ushered the Stone Roses into cult status) as producer of K. The album bears some of the same trademark hollow wails that make it sound as if Mills is falling effortlessly through a cosmos of blissed-out, ringing guitars, spiced with tabla and sitars--all powered by the kind of jet fuel that made the Roses' "She Bangs the Drum" such a treat.
Try to imagine the Black Crowes if they'd grown up in London instead of America, inspired more by psychedelia and the Vedas than pot and the blues. Or--perhaps--picture the Charlatans on one of their better days.
But it's Kula Shaker's live shows that have captured the attention of so many critics, including a monumental gush from this month's Rolling Stone. "We had to pay them a lot of money to get that," says Darlington, laughing. "But really, when we play live we put everything into it. It's something we concentrate on a great deal, and I think we've always sort of been a live band."
There remains a lot of mystery surrounding these innocuous young lads, however. What does K stand for? And who are all those people on their Sgt. Pepper-esque album cover?
K, according to Darlington, refers to numerology, as in the 11th letter of the alphabet, and all of the faces on the album cover, from John F. Kennedy to King Kong and the Kaiser, have names starting with K.
"This is a band that's always been very closely tied to fate," Darlington says. "We honestly take that sort of thing seriously. Three years ago, the band itself was called 'K,' but we decided Kula Shaker would be a better name."
The album is also dedicated to A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, whose name also graces the Bhaktivedanta Estate in London, which the Beatles donated to the Hare Krishna movement. The Swami was the first person to sing "Govinda jaya jaya" in the West. Yet Mills has been equally outspoken in his opposition to any kind of organized religion as he has been in his criticism of Western materialism.
"I like Krishna and Buddha and Jesus, but I don't like Christianity or Buddhism or Hare Krishna," Mills said in one interview.
Krishna, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, Buddha--fairly well-known names; but who or what is the Kula Shaker that the band took their name from? The band's press release explains that Kula Shaker was an ancient Indian emperor, but there's more to the story than that. "Kula Shaker renounced his kingdom to live as a saddhu [wandering monk] to lead a spiritual life," Darlington explains. "He also prayed for a young death so that he would never lose his faith and concentration on God." Considering that rock 'n' roll is a medium that thrives on early death, should fans of Kula Shaker worry about the band following their namesake?
"No," Darlington says. "We just liked the name."
Kula Shaker plays Deep Ellum Live on Saturday, February 8.
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