There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Were I more cosmically sensitive, I could be convinced that a higher power is trying to rattle my slumbering spirituality through a rock ‘n’ roll band.
Being, however, merely a simple girl with an ear for a good pop tune and a luvly British lilt, I will confess only that a certain four-piece has pervaded my world in the last two months, and, yes, it could be construed as a bit eerie. “Oh, but of course it has!” logic cries. “You just returned from a monthlong holiday in Britain where this groovy little band had just begun to ignite in the collective consciousness, darting about in the festival-filled summer, opening for Oasis at the historically huge Knebworth and releasing two terribly overplayed singles. It’s a marketing maelstrom, baby, and you got sucked into the thick of it.”
But still, this band, this Kula Shaker, bedevils me. It’s absolutely out of character for me to like a band so entrenched in late-’60s rock riffery, so enamored of tablas and tambourasa band whose first single, “Grateful When You’re Dead/Jerry Was There,” wasn’t, as I had hoped, a celebration of the demise of the Grateful Dead, but merely a witty bit of wordplay and perhaps a soft jab at drippy, Jerry-obsessed Deadheads. The more interviews I read with lead singer Crispian Mills, entangled with references to the Holy Grail, magical numbers, mantras, and mystics, the more I become paranoid that my brush with the band was more than a coincidence.
It started innocently enough, in Paris. True, I first heard about the group in England, at a Pulp festival in Chelmsford: A pretty, 19-year-old Essex lad told me the bill was fatally flawed, as it lacked this band I’d never heard of (and don’t I read the British press religiously?). If you’ve ever met an Essex lad, you can understand why I was more interested in the impending Supergrass set than in his passionate, but perhaps undiscerning, opinion. A week later, though, a posh Sony music conference led me to Paris and proved that, like much of Britain’s youth, the boy may not know much, but he does know his pop music. There, to a roomful of French record-label employees, Kula Shaker played a set that rendered Suede, which followed, meaningless.
At first, Kula Shaker seemed like any old guitar band too fascinated with wah-wah pedals and Hendrix riffs. Then I started to notice things only the true pop aficionado would, like how fashionably that blond Crispian’s haircut fell or how fabulously striped his trousers were. By the second song I realized the lads weren’t wanky at all, that, in fact, they had the pop gift. Their songs might have been spawned from big-balls riffs, but they certainly weren’t tuneless meanderings, for this band understood pop’s golden rule: The riff is a cool thing, but by no means the only thing.
I couldn’t actually make out the lyrics on that virgin outing, so I didn’t know if all the hippie-dippie stuff I smelled was ironic, but musically the band was too clever for me to care. (Even the version of Deep Purple’s “Hush” was irresistible, feeling less like dinosaur turds than a swirly, baggy Manchester groove.) Besides, the drummer seemed like such a normal bloke. Earlier in the evening we both stood in the buffet line, struggling to understand the chef’s explanation of the food. As the crowd behind us roared at the French-speaking MC, I leaned over and said conspiratorially, “I have no idea what they’ve been saying all night.”
“I’ve got even less idea wot they’re eating,” he grumbled, barely looking up. As he stomped off with his poissonwha’eva that isI figured that would be the last I’d hear of him, save for his set later in the evening.
An hour later, a British Sony publicist approached me, saying she had heard I had a dilemma and that she had a solution. I had been dead set on making a festival the next day in Scotland headlined by my beloved Supergrass, but, stranded in an foreign land with a battery of unfamiliar publicists, I hadn’t been able to scare up a ticket. The cost of an overnight journey that distance could get even more exorbitant if I had to pay a scalper, not to mention the money wasted if I couldn’t get in at all. No worries, she said, her Kula Shaker boys could help me out, as they were playing the very festival and could put me on their guest list.
My internal revisionist wants to say that I didn’t look upon this merely as a stroke of good luck. The revisionist has since read that the members of Kula Shaker named the group after Kula Shakhar (after hanging out with a friend of John Lennon’s who had taken the same name), a ninth-century Indian mystic and emperor, in the hopes that he would look after them. This internal voice wants to point out that the path was cleared and the hand extended, and that my unspiritually aligned ass chose the wrong one, instead staying up all night drinking with a different Sony band. By looking the old spiritual gift horse in the mouth, I missed the morning train, the festival, and my cherished Supergrass.
I did make it to Scotland a few days later, where I rented a tiny car to tour the Highlands. Though the landscape soared from moody to panoramic to picturesque and back again, all the twinkling waterfalls and ruined castles in the kingdom couldn’t make up for the fact that I hadn’t brought a single cassette for the journey. The farther you creep from civilization, the more you crave a taste of it. In my case, I desperately needed some music that felt familiar. Though BBC Radio far exceeds anything we have over here, it is one of only two or three options, which lessen as you head into the rugged northern part of Scotland. The monotony was broken by a glorious new single that Radio One was especially keen on, as was I, from a band the DJ kept insisting was the next Oasis. The song’s title came from the first two words of the chorus I ridiculously wailed, as I skipped between the mystical isles of Mull and Skye and around haunted Loch Lomond and Loch Ness: “Hey dude, don’t lean on me man/Cause I’m losing my direction and I can’t understand, no, no/Hey dude, well I do what I can /But you treat me like a woman when I feel like a man.”
Who was the band holding my hand through the foggy glens and the rainy mountain passes? Why, Kula Shaker and none other.
I’d be spewing none of this cabalistic poppycock had Kula Shaker’s debut album been as limited as I expected. Admittedly, when I first saw the cover art for K, I snickered: Krishna and his consort Radha are surrounded by the faces of great people whose names begin with “K.” Well, it’s a magical letter, didn’t ya know. Reading some of the song titles”Temple of Everlasting Light,” “Sleeping Jiva,” “Govinda”I thought I’d been duped by bunch of bumbling British tykes who somehow missed This Is Spin¬ al Tap. From the looks of it, they, too, had pieced together whatever bits of Eastern philosophies have floated over their transoms. I hoped they at least got the dimensions right for their Stonehenge.
After giving K some good listens, though, one would have to be a cynical old killjoy to taste pretension in their spiritual stew. Certainly it would take a real asshole to dismiss the harmless spiritual path of another, no matter how clichéd or naive it may look to those who already jumped on and off similar bandwagons back in the ’60sor those familiar with the work of people who did. These lads were born after the Beatles split up. Come to think of it, so are most of the fans who will be as unfamiliar with the psychedelic bands to whom Kula Shaker will be compared as they are with the concept of the classic-rock station itself. The Stones? Surely you mean the Stone Roses? You know John Leckie produced their debut, too.
The Kula Shaker on this record is the same band I saw in Paris, only its set is longer. The band’s blues base is as solid as the Allman Brothers’ or the Black Crowes’, but being British, Kula Shaker has this charming habit of turning everything into a sing-alongever been to a proper soccer game, or a proper pub, or a proper festival?so even the most potentially gruesome blooze-rock opening transmogrifies into a fantastic pop ditty, such as on “Smart Dogs” or “303.” As for the forays into Indian culture, musically KS doesn’t veer far from what has already been defined as rock ‘n’ roll, even if in the ’60s the instrumentation was considered far out. When it does co-opt things directly, such as the chorus or mantra in “Tattva,” which is sung in Sanskrit, or the text of “Govinda,” a bhjan or devotional hymn (Govinda is another name for Krishna), the result is less likely to inspire meditation than encourage a sweaty, sexy mosh pit.
As for the lyrical message, it’s conveyed via phantasmagoric poetry filled with highly interpretive, haphazardly associative, dreamlike imagery. Some of it’s heavy, some ironic. The lyrics, in fact, can be as irrelevant as former scepter-bearer Noel Gallagher’s. An in-depth conversation with Mills, however, would probably reveal a greater method to his poetic madness (though both men’s prose isn’t too far from my pals’ best acid gibberish). Kula Shaker’s music is infused with enough character that the sentiment is subjugated by the sensation. For that reason, you can trip to Kula Shaker in the living room as easily as you can pace yourself on the StairMaster with Kula Shaker on the Walkman.
But is it all a ruse? For me, I mean. Was I simply romanced by the champagne of Paris or the campagne of Scotland? Is this Kula Shaker fixation based on sentimentality and the album merely a keepsake from my trip? Just when I’m ready to dump the whole cosmic notionShazam!the band shows up at the 9:30 Club. Coincidence? I don’t think so. There they were, looking even more vibrant than when our paths first crossed in Paristhe tight, striped trousers, the flawless haircuts. This time I kept my third eye open, inhaled the incense, and absorbed the energy. You know what I learned? Kula Shaker is, at its core, a solid rock band that can actually make you feel uplifted, as long as you check your snitty preconceptions at the door and open yourself up to the experiencebe it spiritual or just a good groove.
And that “Hush” is a really cool song.CP