It was the start of 2006 when The Kooks released their debut album, Inside In/Inside Out. It came out at a time when British "indie" was having something of a renaissance, and the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Razorlight, Kaiser Chiefs, The Fratellis, and The Wombats were all about to leave indelible impressions, for better or worse, on the nation's music scene. Not even The Kooks, however, expected the success that greeted that first record.
The album immediately thrust the band into the spotlight—albeit one obscured slightly by the Arctic Monkeys, who released their debut album on the exact same day—and has since gone on to sell over two million copies worldwide. Eleven years and three albums later—not to mention some difficult inter-band struggles and frontman Luke Pritchard's brief but much publicized romance with Mischa Barton—The Kooks have also just released a greatest hits compilation called The Best Of… So Far. They're also midway through writing their fifth full-length and will tour the US in October.
"We left the label that we'd been on a long time," explains Pritchard before ranking his band's four studio albums, because it just wasn't the right fit for us at this time. When you end with a label, it's kind of a tradition to put out a best of. But we're pretty much more than halfway through finishing our new album. It's been a lot of fun and it's been great to look back at all these songs. But I wanted to make sure we had a record ready to go because we didn't want it to feel like we were going to have a sabbatical."
4. Konk (2008)
Noisey: It's your second record you've listed first. Why?
Luke Pritchard: Doing this, I'm thinking about how I was feeling at the time as well as the actual music, and I think we'd just had such massive success that it all spun out a little bit by the amount of success we had on our first album back in the UK. But we were dealing with our bass player [Max Rafferty] leaving the band and the record was a tough one. The second album is famously difficult and I think, looking back, I'm really proud of the songs but I'm not sure it has as much creative flair to it as the other albums.
The pressure of following up the success of Inside In/Inside Out must have been ridiculous, given that you were thrust into the limelight and all eyes were on you.
Yeah. We're quite sensitive lads in a way, and I think we definitely took to heart a lot of what was going on within the band, especially with the bass player leaving—that break of the gang was really difficult, and it was on top of that massive pressure. I can't speak for other bands, but with The Kooks, people liked us but it wasn't being hyped that we were going to be that big. I don't know if anyone prepares you, but if you are in Arctic Monkeys or Franz Ferdinand, people were going, "These guys are going to be massive," but I feel we didn't really have that. It was just, "Whoa! We have this massive audience now." And all the day-to-day stuff—I really don't want to make this too fucking negative, but every day we were working. It was just an insane amount of touring that we went through and by the time we got to making Konk I think we were quite burned out. And in a good or a bad way, it feels like some of the songs reflect that. And not that I particularly go listen to my own music, but if I was going to put one on, I probably wouldn't go for that one first.
You mentioned Max leaving. Was that situation developing when you were writing and recording? I know he left after the record came out, but was that tension there when you were making it?
There was massive tension. I've never talked about this, but he was basically living in a pub which ended up being stormed by the police because there were a number of the IRA living there. It was a very dodgy pub. The landlord was called Louis, and Max was taking a lot of drugs and things like this. We were trying to make a record but he was living in this pub. It was like a three-minute walk from the studio, but it's this IRA pub and it was so bizarre. We'd be trying to work so I'd go in and try to get him, and he'd obviously be hammered talking to these characters and he wouldn't leave. It's very hard to make a record when you've got a member like that. We all like to have a drink and stuff, but we were all trying to work, and Max, at that time in his life, was just very lost. I do think he was very affected by the level of fame, or whatever you want to call it. But there were some funny moments, like these crazy situations with him booking us a gig in this mad pub and we didn't do it and the guy threatened to kill us. All this stuff was going on and it's very difficult to be creative.
3. Junk of the Heart (2011)
This was your third record, for which you had a new bassist. That was the first time the line-up changed, so how was the dynamic shifting? Was it difficult to adapt?
It was quite an enjoyable process, because we did it in Los Angeles in this really nice studio. We were back with Tony Hoffer, who we were very comfortable with and had made the other two records with, and it was completely different to Konk because we were all getting on very well for the most part. It was quite a smooth process and we had a lot of fun trying to get creative with synthesizers and we went for a bit more of a slick Californian sound. It was a happy time and there's a few songs on the record that stand out. The title track is quite a special song to me, especially how it's lived on and you can feel that when we play it live. It had real legs, that song.
You started off working with [producer] Jim Abbiss, but that disintegrated and you ended up working with Tony again. Did that in any way affect the direction of the songs, working with Jim to begin?
I think a lot of times you can never tell if the chemistry is going to be there. We learned a lot from Jim. I like the recording of the song "The Saboteur" that we did with him, and he was interesting in terms of his philosophy on music. We talked a lot about the process, and having only worked with one producer that was interesting. And certainly getting excited about synths was started in those sessions, because that's where he really seems to excel. But it just didn't work. But I think as well we weren't really ready. I hadn't really written the songs. Around Junk Of The Heart I was having a little bit of a dry patch. I probably wrote not even 20 songs for that session, which is crazy for me because I usually write a hell of a lot more. So I wasn't being personally very productive with my songwriting. I was just in a bit of a different headspace and was slightly going through the motions on it. I was having this moment of just not wanting to retrace our steps and I wasn't providing a huge amount of material for the guys to work on. That's probably why that broke down, but with Tony, because we knew him and we felt good, he just came in and we sat down and worked through it. But it's fair to say that Jim was definitely a part of the record, no doubt about it.
This was also a time when the critics weren't necessarily being that nice towards you. It was the typical British thing of building a band up and then knocking them down. Did you feel the need to respond to that?
Yeah. We felt quite like the underdogs. I think that was part of escaping to Los Angeles, because no one really gets that in America, really, do they? But yeah, we felt a bit under fire. And it's quite strange when you're selling tickets and you've got your audience but you're getting dissed. It's kind of funny, like, "What are we doing right and what are we doing wrong?" If I could have fast-forwarded—because at the time it was frustrating and I was feeling quite insular—maybe that was the thing with writing songs, that I didn't really want to open up. I don't know. But it was certainly interesting that a couple of years later that had all disappeared. Things feel more positive around the band. But I'm not going to lie, we all felt it.
And you personally had been thrust into the celebrity limelight, which can't have helped.
Well, I think… I mean, there are worse things in life—children with cancer and things—so it was fine. But it's where I gained a huge amount of respect, even if you don't like someone's music, for anyone that creates and puts stuff out there, especially music, because you are putting yourself on a chopping block and you have to respect that. Anyone who does that deserves respect.
2. Listen (2014)
This is your most recent studio album and it sounds like you guys had fully grown up on this record. You had a different sound, a different outlook, and you pretty much reinvented what and who The Kooks were.
I fucking love this album. I think we got so creative with it and really challenged the whole album-making process. What was nice about it too was that we were all very willing to learn. I wanted to learn about production and I wanted to record with a wide spectrum, not just as a live band, essentially. And the collaboration with [hip-hop producer] Inflo changed everything for me. He's a very inspiring individual. He's younger than me and he's never made a bad record. He has this kind of spirit that was maybe bereft in our band for a bit and it was really exciting. Working with a guy that was sampling and collaging music, we were referencing records that we both liked but I would have never necessarily thought to use as an influence in my own music. So the whole thing really is almost a full collaboration between Inflo and The Kooks. We did so much together and he kind of came into the band, and I think that's a great thing when you let that happen. We basically turned the way The Kooks make music on its head, essentially, and I think the outcome was cool.
Were you deliberately trying to shake off the pigeonhole you'd been put in?
It was definitely deliberate to go that far away. I've never felt in my life, "Oh, I never want to go onstage and play 'Naïve'" but I have felt this albatross of a first album that's like a big pendant hanging on your neck. So the whole enjoyment for me was to shake it all off. We weren't really trying to play to our audience, even. We were just exploring what we liked, the stuff I put on when I go home and the records that I like. I was trying to really assimilate those influences into my own music and that was really cool, making use of dance music and gospel music. So yeah, it was a deliberate move to—people call it "indie" and I hate the word "indie"—shrug off the band thing.
"It Was London" was a very socially conscious song about the 2011 riots there. Six years on, they seem like nothing compared to what's happening in the world now, but you obviously felt it was important to use your platform to address those issues, which is something The Kooks hadn't really done before.
Yeah, but I didn't necessarily think big picture on it. It just kind of came quite naturally from a conversation that we had. Inflo and I both come from London—he grew up in Forest Hill and I grew up in Highbury—and we wanted to talk about it. But also, what do you say? I mean, look at what happened at Grenfell [the tower block in London that recently caught fire]—I live around there now and there are things that need to be said. Music is a good vessel for that. I don't know what it does, but it's a good feeling to put those frustrations into music.
1. Inside In/Inside Out (2006)
And it's your debut at number one. Eleven years on, how do you feel about it?
It still pays my mortgage, do you know what I mean?! [Laughs_] It gave rise to everything, really. I'm very happy that we had that moment. It's on that record—and I don't know if it's something I'll be part of again—that there was a super chemistry in the room. Those recordings have so much energy, even when I listen back. I listened back to the first album for the first time in ages before we released _The Best Of and it's such a raw, live album, but the production kind of popped it out a bit. But when I listened to it, that is us in the room and I'm very proud of it.
Is it true you wrote over a hundred songs for it?
Oh God, yeah. Probably for the second one, as well. For the first one, as they say, you get all the time in the world to write it. I'm not the world's greatest musician or anything, but I'd written songs since I was 12 or 13. I genuinely wrote "Naïve" when I was 15. So a lot of them I already had, but there was about six years of writing before we went into the studio, so there were probably a hundred tunes. And the other guys wrote as well.
How did you whittle them all them down?
I think Tony Hoffer was, and is, amazing. We spent a lot of time with him on the pre-production and the whole overview of the record was to have songs that worked together. So there was a master plan, in a way. But we didn't record a hundred songs, we recorded maybe 20, and then went down to however many are on there. I don't know if it's because of our age or whatever, but everything seemed quite fluid. We went into the studio and worked and this stuff just came out. It was very natural and raw. And I genuinely feel we're getting back to that now on our new album. It's been really fun. Who knows if it'll have the same reaction, but that's not the point. The chemistry element to it is something that we see as very important, and I remember it well.
I hate to bring Arctic Monkeys into it, but this was released the same day as their first album...
And where are they now, mate?! [_Laughs_]
Quite. Although I was never a fan. I always thought they were overblown and overrated. But did it annoy you that you were pitted against them?
We have a funny thing in the UK that if you're in a band, you're meant to be Northern. I think that was a bit of it, but I didn't really get that South/North thing. I don't know if I'm making that up, but that's how I've always seen it. And I thought it was weird because people didn't get what we were trying to do. I'm a big lover of pop music and I was trying to make really cool pop music, whereas Arctic Monkeys at the beginning was almost like rap. It was quite hard. So it didn't make full sense that they were being pitted against us, but you're the same age, you're both in bands and wear skinny jeans! It was probably that.
But you have said it helped shield you from what could have happened to you guys.
Yeah. I'm quite comfortable to have ridden out that storm and not had the huge, huge success. It depends what kind of person you are, but I look at it sometimes and I think I actually would have been a complete dick, like, really, if it had carried on. And I hopefully consider myself not a dick. Some people will disagree. But I do think it's hard not to be up your own arse and I don't think that's right. A good life doesn't necessarily mean being mega famous.
Is there one song from this record that's still really special to you 11 years on?
The one that springs to mind is "I Want You." I remember breaking up with my first ever girlfriend when I wrote that and we listened to Bob Dylan's "I Want You" on repeat, which was obviously very emotional. But I really, really love the recording of this. I think it's got a real beauty to it. It captures something really special, I think.