Sometimes you have to change everything, retool everything, and rethink everything in order to move in the right direction. The Kooks’ Luke Pritchard knows this, in fact he positively delights in it. His band’s new album – their third, always a crucial moment – has always had one great goal. To reinvent the band from the ground up. Rather wonderfully, they’ve done it.
“The whole way we work has changed,” Luke smiles. “We’re not just a band making noise in a room anymore. We’ve moved on a lot and I’m really proud of what we’ve done. There are elements of all the music we have ever loved in this new record, but it still has our roots. ‘Junk Of The Heart’ is very different and hopefully something that no one’s ever heard before. It’s upbeat – its’ an album to play in the sun…”
So ‘Junk Of The Heart’ marks a rebirth for the Kooks. Written and recorded in London and LA over the last nine months, the songs came in a great rush, with Luke playing guitar as the band’s long-time producer, Tony Hoffer (a man so integral to the band Luke calls him, “our George Martin”) built beats and basslines and atmospheres on his laptop. The songs they created were then taken to the band (including new bassist Pete Denton who joined towards the end of the recording of Konk) who fleshed out all the ideas and added a whole new layer of invention. What they’ve ended up with is a string of bright and emotional, deeply melodic pop gems that draw on a whole world of new influences from electronic music and the Rolling Stones to luscious string quartets and hip-hop.
“I’ve been listening to Lykke Li and LCD Soundsystem and I found them really inspiring,” Luke says. “They made me want to do something that’s truly part of this time. I will always love 60s and 70s music, that’s my roots, but I think we went too far into it.”
So the album opens with a dramatic breakbeat, builds across acoustic guitar and warm washes of synth before collapsing into the sort of chorus you’ll be singing for days on end. Actually there’s a few of those. New songs like ‘Runaway’ or ‘Taking Pictures Of You’ match Luke’s innate melodic suss with dub and electro, sub-aqua guitar and soaring great strings. ‘Is It Me’ (“I began to breakdown searching over time, bring me a pig’s heart and a glass of wine…”) rides a crisp, skittering drum patter that leads the way past some scratchy Velvet Underground guitars to this massive great guitar-led chorus, while ‘How’d You Like That’ pitches a lush disco-funk piano-figure to a singalong, hand-clapping climax. As if that weren’t enough, ‘Killing Me’ has a wonderfully slippery guitar riff held together by a big, bold 80s keyboard figure. ‘Junk Of The Heart’ is, in all honesty, quite a remarkable turn-around for a band once famous for their unstinting veneration of – and devotion to – older sounds and styles.
“What we really wanted for this record was for it to be a proper, full album,” says Luke, “something you can listen to from front to back. I see this as a journey that everyone can come on with us. I love records with ups and downs, and this one even has an interval.”
That will be the extraordinary ‘Time Above The Earth’, which would, in an earlier age, have been Track One, Side Two of the vinyl LP. Featuring an exquisite score by guitarist Hugh Harris, this is a bold example of where The Kooks are heading, as is the simple, gorgeous acoustic lullaby, ‘Petulia’ – the album is all about great ideas done with honesty and a sense of place and direction.
“That is certainly part of the conceptual element to this,” Luke says. “I’m inspired by Yeats and love poetry and this album looks at that search – my search – for purity and honesty. It is a warm record, that was crucial to us. It had to be comforting and tender, but with bite and vibe too.”
Go back five years and their genre-defying debut ‘Inside In/Inside Out’ proved The Kooks were something special. This was a band who could do brash and breadth, from balladry to wiry, scratchy pop. In 2008, after a prolonged spell of intense touring, came the heavyweight Konk, where The Kinks and the Bunnymen met Bowie, Bolan and The Beat. “We went to a really dark place on that record,” Luke says. “Too many gigs, too much travel, too much of everything. We have clarity and stability now and that’s so important. Without a healthy mind you can’t write good songs.”
Drummer Paul Garred had to leave in late 2009 due to a nerve problem in his arm. They ended the longest tour they’d ever done with a stand-in drummer and no new material. In late 2010, after scrapping a whole load of songs they’d worked on with Jim Abyss, Luke started to produce things himself on a small scale, just making beats on a computer.
“I had shit loads of words and melodies,” he says, “but I needed to think about the sonics, and how we would progress.”
So Tony came to London and the pair spent five days working on the songs that would become ‘Junk Of The Heart’. Soon after, as the songs came too life, Paul returned to write and play, something that still cheers Pritchard immensely.
“Having Paul back meant we tried – and still try – things we’ve never done before,” he says. “We ended up working quickly, keeping it fun.”
Three years after ‘Konk’, ‘Junk Of The Heart’ is like a whole new band. Over the last nine months the Kooks have reimagined what it is they do, what they are for and now they seem stronger and happier than ever. Their mission was to move on, to never repeat themselves, and the new record shows they’ve certainly done that.
“There was pressure building up,” Luke admits. “We felt lost. But now we feel free. It seems easy again. Music should be experimental, not constricted. We’re not turning our back on what we have done, but we’re different people now. So everything is evolving, the live show will be evolving – it will have too, even the old songs will be changed a bit. I don’t know what will happen next, but I know I’m looking ahead. This record has opened the floodgates for us.”
‘Junk of the Heart’ is out now on Virgin