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Astronauty But Nice

(Interview With Crispian, Jay, Alonza & Paul Taken From Black Velvet 20 - May 99)

By Shari Black Velvet

On March 8th KULA SHAKER's second album was finally unleashed to the world. After what seemed like an extortionately long wait since 'K' - made all the more teasingly frustrating by an apparent false start in the shape of 'Sound Of Drums' being released as a one and only single in 1997-2009, the band returned with the rather bizarrely titled 'Peasants, Pigs And Astronauts' (actually named after a piece of art). A month earlier, the quartet of Crispian Mills, Alonza Bevan, Jay Darlington and Paul Winterhart sat and chat in a small club in the heart of London City.





Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts' is basically "12 songs with different sounds and textures and things like that." Crispian says, tongue-in-cheek: "We wanted just to have an excuse for Paul to do pig impressions!"

Paul, sat beside him, does a pig impression, very well might I add. He's obviously had lots of practise.

Crispian, continues more seriously (although you never can tell with these guys): "A lot of the best things with the band have happened by accident and the title happened by accident as well. Somebody suggested it. It was just a sketching - Dan Abbott's artwork. He did all the artwork for 'Sound Of Drums'. And 'Govinda' happened by accident... and the name Kula Shaker happened by accident. We just went with our tradition..."

"For accidents" Paul adds.

"We're all accidents" according to Crispian.

Although certain songs can be linked to certain subjects - for example, 'Golden Avatar' is based on a 16th century Indian saint and 'Timeworm' is about... you've guessed it... time ("going round and round in cirlces"), there is no major theme to the album, and no thrusting statements to take heed of.

"It doesn't matter what sort of music you're doing, unless you're just playing it to be totally banal, everyone puts their ideas and what they feel into the music and it just doesn't work when you take the music away and you start analysing it and trying to work out what you meant in the first place when you sang it or when you wrote it. It just sounds so much better with the music."

Alonza picks up from Crispian. "I think the best thing about music is that people take their own meaning from it."

With some tracks it seems that the music even took more of a leading role than the lyrics. 'S.O.S' was an excuse for the boys to "end up screaming at the end of it". Reveals Crispian, "We were almost laughing the whole way through it because it was an opportunity to just moan and get really horrible keyboard sounds and make everything distorted, even the drums."

'Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts' is a difficult album to play live, Crispian says. "It takes a lot of preparation and a lot of rehearsing.

The band took as long as it needed to record the follow-up to 'K'. And as well as the album they also recorded a soundtrack for the film 'Reflections Of Love', so they've been busy almost constantly.

Do you feel any pressure to repeat the success you've already had?

"I put pressure on Paul to repeat the success." It's now Jay’s chance to try out the wit. Paul is, it seems, the guy most likely to have the mickey taken out of in the band. Perhaps it's just because he's a drummer. You know what they say about drummers.

Crispian: "The main pressure was just on us to make a better album than 'K'. We didn't really have much opportunity with 'K' to spend much time planning the album and planning recording. It was really rushed. We did three songs and they released a single and it went into the Top 20 or something. From that point on we had to finish an album and we were up against time. It was like the end of Flash Gordon. So with this there was time to make a better album, to not answer the phone and so on...

"Paul puts a lot of pressure on himself".

The album was recorded on a houseboat on the River Thames with Bob Ezrin at the helm. It was quite difficult to record, as was their debut.

Paul: "You get on a boat and you're recording a track and producer Bob was or there's the beautiful Shenai playing at the end of 'Time Worm'; it's not even us, it's...

"There's something refreshing about the album... You know how sometimes you finish an album and a week later you really can't listen to it anymore because there and the lights start swinging and you realise you feel a bit queasy. You're like 'oh what's going on?' and then you remember you're boating. It was a good opportunity to get some exercise. Normally in a recording studio the only pastime you have is pool and other boring pastimes. This time we had a motor launch. We went out riding around and rowing on the Thames. It was good."

Working with Bob Ezrin was "quite an experience. He's very musical and he took on the captaincy of the whole project. He looked after us. We had a very honest relationship with him and lots of slaggings off."

"Lots of swearing went on" interjects Crispian.

"But he also knows how to make a record" continues Paul. "It was an education I think, for us. He enjoyed working with a new, young band... well, youngish."

One of the reasons that the band didn't work with John Leckie ('K' producer) again was because their schedules didn't match. Bob Ezrin's CV included Pink Floyd, Kiss and Alice Cooper. Therefore... he was the man for the job.

"Bob Ezrin's a rock producer, he's done rock bands. He's also done people like Lou Reed and Peter Gabriel. He's a very musical person and he's into ideas and themes and into making albums as opposed to just singles.

"Bob was much more of a hands-on referee kind of producer. John Leckie sat back and let us get on with it."

With 'K', the band concede that they weren't fully aware of what was happening around them, almost being in their own little bubble. This time, although they're still not too conscious of outside energies, they feel that what they have come up with is more 'real' and honest to themselves. They also had a lot more fun with it.

"We're much more true to ourselves with this album than 'K'. We had more opportunity to express the band on an album as opposed to the first one which was more like a club band with a few festivals here and there and suddenly recording their live show. We've put a lot more of the ideas and sounds that we love on the record. you're so familiar with it because it's your voice and you're playing and you're just so close to it that you can't stand the sound of it... Parts of this album we're not even there. There's Gauri Chaudhury singing on 'Radhe Radhe' and Hariprasa Chaurasia playing flute on 'Namami Nanda-Nandana' somebody else that we really admire, so we can listen to them. It's things like that that I can really enjoy knowing that it was nothing to do with me."

The single 'Mystical Machine Gun' has a lot of curious samples regarding Armageddon and the end of the world.

Crispian says they were having a laugh. "Jay had these walkie-talkies that they were using at the studio and Jay was leaving them in the loo and people would go in the loo and when they were in there he'd go "We are watching you" and we started playing around we 'Armageddon alert, Sarg.' We'd already practically recorded the song when suddenly all that kind of stuff got put on it - 'Don't panic, it's just the end of the world, it'll be alright'. We had a lot of fun".

In March the band headed out on the road again for a full tour of the UK followed by shows in Europe and further afield. When asked about their stage presence, Crispian tells an amusing tale about a mishap that occured one particular evening.

"I got carried away at a little gig we did in Nottingham. It got really hot in there and there was a thin film of sweat over everything on stage. I got over-excited and I ran over to Jay's organ and jumped on it like 'Jay, I'm here! I'm really enjoying this concert' and I fell straight off and went straight into Jay and my guitar came off and I broke half of the equipment. Had to do the rest of the gig without a guitar. It was really embarrassing."

They say they prefer doing small clubs to big stadiums but maybe that's because they haven't yet had the immense success that leads to headlining stadiums. Sure, they've played festivals like Glastonbury, but that's hardly the same thing as a night or two at Wembley.

"I'd rather do six nights at a small place, personally." says Jay.

Alonza: "It sounds better. We have more fun and I think the audience has more fun as well."

"London Forum - that kind of size." pipes up Crispian.

Alonza: "When you're just watching a TV screen and hearing this distant noise at the back it's not really a gig is it? You could just stay at home."

"Somebody told us when you do a world tour everybody gets really, really bored of the sight of each other and bored of the same old songs every night and people just end up sleeping with each other, so we've made a rule to not sleep with each other!" Crispian laughs.

"Unless we're really drunk." adds Jay.

How has fame changed you? Or indeed, has it changed you?

Jay: "Have we changed?"

Alonza: "Your hair grew."

Jay: "Yeah, my hair grew."

Paul: "It's not something you ever sit around and think about or talk about. It's not an issue. It's still four guys making music. Some of the things around you change but what you had at the start between the four of you doesn't change."

"We've always been very cynical. It's just helped feed our cynicism." says Jay.

"Yeah, true. We're always very suspicious of the 'believe your own bulls**t trap, so we're constantly every step of the way watching out for each other, slagging each other off, not letting anyone get out of hand" is Crispian's answer.

The frontman was quoted in one monthly magazine as saying that 'Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts' is 'like different groups of people all in search of something'. So... final question... what are they in search of?

Crispian: "Love... magic... The things that make life that extra dimension, less easily obtainable but inspire people to go on living.

Let’s hope they find them.


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