"I'm feeling very chilled right now," says Luke Pritchard, looking suitably serene on a West London pub couch with pint in hand. "Like, in terms of looking back."
Eleven years after the debut album that introduced The Kooks as teenage contenders for the indie pop crown, the band's singer and chief songwriter is considering the distance travelled -- personally and creatively -- between then and now, and admits that only recently has he "turned a corner" and learned to fully appreciate their breakthrough release.
"You're always running forward, and you don't want to look back," he explains, "and I think every album that we did after 'Inside In/Inside Out' was us trying to get away from that album, trying to move and do different things. But I think I've turned around, and I guess there has been a good amount of reflection on it, and just feeling very positive about what happened."
For the uninitiated, what happened was a five-times Platinum record that landed amid a lucrative period for British guitar music, in which The Kooks' deft hooks and playful energy -- abundant in tracks like 'Eddie's Gun,' 'Ooh La,' 'She Moves In Her Own Way' and 'Naïve' -- found an instant audience. Luke -- along with guitarist Hugh Harris, bassist Max Rafferty and drummer Paul Garred -- effectively graduated overnight from college to cover stars.
"We had such an amazing chemistry on that album," he smiles. "I listened back to the album the other day, for the first time in ages, and it was cool. I was like, 'Shit, this is good. This is a really good album!' The freedom in that first album, and the innocence... We were so young -- like, so young. I mean, I wrote some of those songs when I was 16, man! It's funny; we were so young, and you can't keep that. Life doesn't let you keep that, and you have to be comfortable with that."
His re-evaluations follow the recent patronage of the group by a new generation of guitar-toting warriors, including Catfish And The Bottlemen and the late Viola Beach, who cite 'Inside In/Inside Out' as inspiration, and whose success not only validates The Kooks' indomitable convictions, but is the source of great pride for Luke. ("I feel a bit more like the elder statesman, if you know what I mean, even though I'm still 31!") The album's success catapulted the group onto festival stages and front pages around the world -- celebrity girlfriends and bad behavior became the order of the day, while Luke's penchant for inciting feuds with his contemporaries (heightened by the emergence of Twitter) began to intensify -- but the group's continued ascent merely defied the tabloids' tawdry taunts.
'Konk' would follow in 2008, and while its bulkier muscles had lost none of the group's melodic sparkle (as evident in 'Always Where I Need To Be,' 'Sway,' 'Shine On' et al), the album -- and its special-edition twin, 'RAK' -- was tainted by the events that led up to an increasingly unreliable Max being asked to leave the band, and the ensuing quest to replace him and his part in The Kooks' original chemical equation. The role would eventually be filled permanently by Peter Denton, whose own creative input has proven the perfect foil ever since.
Trouble would resurface around 'Junk Of The Heart,' when the recurring arm troubles that had plagued Paul for the last couple of years significantly reduced his touring contributions for the third album until he officially left the band in late-2011. As ex-Golden Silvers drummer Alexis Nunez joined the fold, he entered a group precariously on the edge -- even Luke and Hugh's friendship was fraying: "We had really fallen out in a big way," Luke sighs. "We are closer than ever now, but around that third album we couldn't be in the same room as each other. It got really bad." To regain stability, they required cohesion, and nothing brings people together better than a collective step into the unknown.
"I had fallen out of love with music -- it had become a job, and that is the worst thing in the world," Luke recalls. "I don't want to ever get like that. It just felt like when I was turning up to write, I was just writing for writing's sake. 'Listen' was where, all of a sudden, my creativity came back, and I loved it. All of a sudden I felt emotionally connected to what I was writing again. And a big part of it was Inflo."
More than just the resulting sound of the juxtaposition between a hip-hop producer and his first collaboration with a guitar group, The Kooks' fourth album harnessed all the spontaneity and impulsiveness that Inflo motivated in Luke during sessions that strove to capture the moment in instinctive first (and sometimes second) takes. Though the pair would discover a "deep musical connection," Luke was not without initial apprehensions. "This cross-pollination thing is something that I've learned about, because I think I was very closed for a minute," he admits. "I remember being very closed, and I was very much, 'I'm into this. I don't want to do that,' so when things were talked about like working with people, it was difficult for me. I was like a grumpy old man."
Embracing the programmed beats alongside his own ideas of a gospel-influenced album, Luke repositioned his musical compass and began exploring this new direction. "Like a block of marble that you're carving out, that's what a song is, and that's also what a vision for change is," he says. Buying into this vision with an unerring collective faith despite being pushed beyond their comfort zones, the band reinforced their gang mentality to support the realisation of this reinvention.
'Listen' grooved with effervescent funk, where percussion loops and slick guitars injected a previously unheard danceability to The Kooks' canon -- 'Down,' 'Bad Habit' and 'Around Town' bristling with soulful floor-filling vibes. It was a marriage made in...a computer. "Those were things we had never done," Luke says of Inflo's thoroughly contemporary and instinctive production methods, "so that whole thing was amazing to learn. It taught me so much about other ways of making music and the way that the world has changed. I think what was great was that rather than being the reed that's going to stay rigid and break, it was like bending with the wind and going, 'Yeah, I like the Stones and Bob Dylan, but you know what? There are other ways of making music and it can also be really exciting to me.'"
Moving forward together, the Kooks family -- now replete with wives and children -- are their own support network, with a clear focus on the greater good. They are a band who have withstood the knocks, weathered the storms, and beaten the odds to come through the other side a harder, hungrier unit. "Not a lot of bands survive more than 10 years," Luke points out. "It's worth saying: we're such good mates. And that's rare, man. I mean, I meet so many bands at festivals that don't even talk to each other, and we're not like that. I feel very lucky for that."
Working from a fresh, clean plate, album number five promises to be a more considered rebirth. "It will be a reminder of the signature of what we are," Luke reveals, after sessions in London steered down a guitar-heavy, bluesy route. "I wouldn't say it's like going back to 'Inside In...,' but I'd say that we've kinda just gone, 'What are we? What is this band? What are we trying to say? What are we trying to do?' And when we asked those questions, we said: 'We are a rock band. We are a live guitar band. Let's stick to that and be the fucking best that we can be at that.'"
By clarifying their intent, Luke admits his frame of mind in preparation of album five is "less confused" than it was before 'Listen,' for which he dug deep to tackle intensely personal themes. "The best thing that's happened through 'Listen' was some self-therapizing, and that was great," he says, "so I think the new one is going to very much more of a positive me, in terms of my writing." With two new songs ready to be heard, in the form of 'Be Who You Are' and 'Broken Vow,' they will be making an appearance on the upcoming 'The Best Of...So Far' album to showcase a taste of new music to come.
Having broken through his writing block and self-imposed creative restrictions, Luke feels more at peace with the world and, in looking back to face forward, says the angry young man he once was has finally found the need to stop fighting. "Now the catharsis has happened and I feel, honestly, fairly zen. Not completely," he winks, three pints in, "but fairly zen."