Crispian Mills on Kula Shaker

Sitars, electric guitars and a philosophical vibe have distinguished Kula Shaker’s music through the years.  Frontman and co-founder Crispian Mills gives Pollstar readers a peak behind the curtain.

Although Mills met future Kula Shaker bassist Alonza Bevan during the late 1980s, the band didn’t emerge until 1993.  Originally christened The Kays, the group decided in 1995 to name itself after ancient Indian ruler / holy man Kulashekhara Alwar. 

Combining rock riffs with traditional Indian instruments such as sitars and tablas, Kula Shaker released its first album, K, in 1996. New in stores is the band’s fifth album, K 2.0.  While chatting with Pollstar, Mills talked about the new L.P., the band’s upcoming North America tour and the changes that have taken place in the music industry during the last two decades.

K 2.0 landed in the U.S. in August although it was released in the U.K. earlier this year.  Why did it take so long to arrive on these shores?

It’s a whole new world of independent record labels.  Putting out an album, you can just stick it all on YouTube, I guess, or bow down to the all-powerful god of Spotify and these other denizens of the universe.  But we wanted to make sure, if we were going to release an album, we could promote it and do some gigs, too.  It’s been great to be able to put together vinyl with exclusive tracks and know we were going to come out there and play.  I don’t quite know why we can’t just push a big red button and BOOM! [it gets released to] the whole world.  I’m just glad it happened eventually.

What’s your take on some of the major changes within the music industry since your debut album was released 20 years ago?

What’s changed … is the same thing that’s changed in the world.  It’s just an overload of access to information and content.  Everybody’s just a little bit more schizophrenic and swamped by everything than they were 20 years ago.  For an artist it’s a really mixed blessing and I guess everybody feels the same way.  It’s great … to have the ability to put out your own material whenever you want to do it.  But it’s also very difficult to fight the bandwidth and visibility.  It’s just a whole different set of problems. It’s a  brave new world and we’re all in it.  It seems to have slightly watered down or very much diversified the swings in fashion and culture because there’s so much out there.  I think the next big cultural movement will be something that really unites a whole lot of different styles and people into kind of a cohesive voice.  When it does happen, it’s going to be pretty powerful.

During the past 20 years, do you think you were able to resist being totally swept up into everything digital?

We had a big hiatus in our career, went a bit mad and didn’t make an album for years and years. When we started again in 2006-2007, the music industry was on fire.  People were wandering around in flames screaming (laughs) and Charlton Heston was nowhere to be seen.  It was a complete disaster zone.  Everybody was freaking out.

Now, it’s gotten to a point where it has settled down.  The apocalypse has come, it’s a little bit Mad Max and everyone is just getting on with this new terrain.  Vinyl is making its comeback and people are finding their place in it, making it work for them.  In a way it’s become a little more grassroots, a bit more personal for a lot of artists.

Do you think today’s music scene puts more weight on the artist’s shoulders to succeed?

It just puts a lot more financial pressure [on the artist]. … It’s more difficult to earn a living from record sales, so you have to tour.  Most bands build up their live following the hard way.  You gotta be fit and young to do that.  Every tour gets a little bit harder.  I don’t know why Mick Jagger is still smiling, prancing around.  He’s probably got, like, 100 masseurs and a bunch of chefs.

Do you enjoy touring?

I love the gig.  I love certain moments driving through beautiful places.  As long as I sleep and eat well, I’m happy.  But I rarely eat or sleep well on tour, so I’m quite grumpy for a lot of it.

Do you see touring as necessary for supporting the album, or is the album necessary to introduce new music for touring?

They’re inexplicably linked.  There’s not one without the other. For me, anyway.  The album is the lifeblood of every cycle of touring that you do. It’s a renewed sense of purpose and identity.  It’s a reincarnation.  This album, for us, K 2.0, has been one of the most important albums of our career because it’s taken us full circle, back to where we started and it’s been joyful. 

But at the same time, we always have been, first and foremost, a live band, and you don’t really get Kula Shaker until you see it live.

From the early days of Kula Shaker up to the present, including the hiatus, could the band itself be seen in terms of a spiritual quest?

I don’t think you have a spiritual life and in a separate room you have your worldly life and in a separate room you have your online life. It’s all one.  You have to live the spiritual quest in everything you do, in every meal you eat, in every step you take.  The band has always been the love of our lives.  Or one of them. I say that because my wife is listening (laughs)

Do you feel that Kula Shaker, a band whose psychedelic roots can be traced back to the ’60s and groups like The Byrds, Electric Prunes and even The Beatles, is a band moving forward?

We’re not a retrogressive band but we have our roots in a sound, attitude and aesthetic that absolutely belongs to the golden age of psychedelic rock ’n’ roll when ideas were as important as the song.  It was a fantastic time where music, fashion and ideas all kind of came together in one great big perfect storm.  We’ve always been inspired by that time.  Unfortunately, every other decade pales in comparison.

We grew up in the ’80s.  We’ve always been a little bit mismatched for the times.  But that’s one of the things people loved about the band.  Our first manager, when he met us when we were kids, he had to look twice because he thought we were about 40 because we were dressed in candy-striped jeans and bowl haircuts.

With all the textures inherent in Kula Shaker’s music, is it difficult to bring that sound to the live stage?

Sometimes when you get really creative in the studio you have to scratch your head and wonder how you’ll do it [on stage]. … It’s a great problem to have and all the great album bands tackle it in different ways.  Led Zeppelin just thrashed the fuck out of it and The Beatles would just not go on tour.  But it means you have to interpret it a little bit.  The songs grow and have a different kind of identity live.  And that’s also exciting.

What can U.S. fans look forward to on the upcoming tour?

We’ll be playing 20 years worth of material.  Lots from K, lots from K 2.0. … It’s often very different to the album. … I love it when bands have a whole kind of other sound. It’s great hearing it take shape.  We were always big fans of the whole California jam scene.  People always asked us about the Dead, asking if we’re a bunch of Deadheads.  … We’d say, “Well.  To be honest, what we were in love with more than anything else was the idea of The Grateful Dead.”  Here was a band that toured and toured, and the albums weren’t as important as the live experience.  It’s kind of like that with our band.

What was your first instrument?

I got a Spanish acoustic [guitar] when I was 10.  Interestingly enough it was made by Kay.  It had a big K on top.  I looked back on it years later and thought, “Uncanny.”

Do you feel there are things in life that are destined?

Absolutely.  And the trick is to recognize it when it’s happening rather than decades later.

Does that include the upcoming tour?

Without a doubt.  We’re coming in just as Trump and Hillary are going head-to-head. It’s perfect timing.

It’s been 20 years since your debut album. Where do you see yourself 20 years from now?

20 years ago, if you had said to me, “You’ll have two kids, you’ll be making K 2.0 and everybody will be living through their phones,” I would have said, “Get the hell out of here.  You’re crazy.”  But what do I know?  I think [there are] big surprises in store for everyone.

Upcoming Kula Shaker shows:

Sept. 16 – London, England, Rough Trade (in-store)
Sept. 26 – Boston, Mass., Brighton Music Hall
Sept. 27 – Philadelphia, Pa., World Cafe Live – Downstairs
Sept. 29 – Brooklyn, N.Y., Rough Trade
Sept. 30 – Brooklyn, N.Y., Rough Trade
Oct. 2 – Washington, D.C., U Street Music Hall
Oct. 4 –  Seattle, Wash., The Crocodile
Oct. 5 – Portland, Ore., Star Theater
Oct. 7 – San Francisco, Calif., Great American Music Hall
Oct. 8 – West Hollywood, Calif., The Roxy Theatre
Oct. 9 – Solana Beach, Calif., Belly Up Tavern
Nov. 3 – Utrecht, Netherlands, Muziekcentrum Vredenburg
Nov. 6 – Cologne, Germany, Gloria
Nov. 7 – Frankfurt, Germany, Batschkapp
Nov. 21 – Tokyo, Japan, Zepp Tokyo
Nov. 24 – Osaka, Japan, Namba-Hatch
Dec. 1 – Oxford, England, O2 Academy Oxford
Dec. 2 – Bournemouth, England, O2 Academy
Dec. 3 – Nottingham, England, Rock City
Dec. 5 – Norwich, England, The Nick Raynes LCR
Dec. 6 – Guildford, England, G Live
Dec. 8 – London, England, O2 Forum Kentish Town
Dec. 9 – London, England, O2 Forum Kentish Town
Dec. 10 – Manchester, England, Albert Hall
Dec. 12 – Birmingham, England, O2 Institute Birmingham
Dec. 13 – Bristol, England, O2 Academy Bristol
Dec. 14 – Liverpool, England, O2 Academy Liverpool 
Dec. 16 – Newcastle, England  O2 Academy Newcastle 
Dec. 17 – Leeds, England, O2 Academy Leeds
Dec. 18 – Glasgow, Scotland, O2 ABC Glasgow 

Please visit Kula Shaker’s website, Facebook page, Twitter home, Instagram account and YouTube channel for more information.