The boys are back
HORNSEY, north London, is a pleasing hotchpotch of des-res streets, quintessentially English corner stores and inviting cafes. It's also home to Konk Studios -- the recording facility owned by Ray Davies, frontman of The Kinks, and the place where some of that band's most celebrated music was made.
Anybody expecting a grand building in the same vein as Abbey Road would be disappointed. Konk is not easy to find. It's located on an unremarkable terraced street and the only reference to it is a small blue neon sign above the door.
Go through that door, though, and a different world emerges. It's a cavernous space with labyrinthine corridors. In the bowels of the building you'll find a windowless room with a mixing desk and all manner of studio equipment and it is here that Luke Pritchard and Hugh Harris of The Kooks have come to talk about their new album.
So familiar are they with these four walls -- having recorded their first [Inside In/Inside Out] and now second album there -- that they have called the new record Konk. The album cover features the band standing under the front door neon sign.
"We're massive Kinks fans," frontman Pritchard says. "When we got here first we were very excited because this building has yielded some amazing music -- stuff that I still listen to all the time. You can't help but be inspired by making an album here." His best friend, guitarist Harris, pipes up: "We've only met old Ray once -- apparently he drops in every now and again." Harris is the more irreverent of the two.
Almost by stealth, The Kooks became the biggest new band in Britain two years ago -- shifting even more than Arctic Monkeys. Now, their beleaguered record company EMI will be hoping that Konk does the business.
"Obviously, we hope it does well," Pritchard says. "But you just don't know. Maybe it will bomb. We think it's much better and bigger than our first album, but there's no point in making predictions."
For the duration of the interview, the unfailingly polite Pritchard sits strumming a battered acoustic guitar. Sticking a CD of the just completed Konk into a nearby stereo, he plays me a selection of songs -- Sway and the arresting Mr Maker among them -- and sings along to the chorus. "I really love this bit, man," he beams. "It's so big, so Led Zeppelin-like, isn't it?"
Pritchard is given to breaking out in song at any given moment and when his bandmate jumps in to finish his sentences, which Harris does a lot, he sings: "Oh why does Hugh keep on interrupting me?" while his six-string provides accompaniment.
Pritchard is rake thin and sports faded skinny jeans and an oversize wool jumper. His longish hair falls over his face and it looks like it hasn't seen shampoo in two weeks. Harris keeps his reddish locks hidden under a black felt hat and wears the sort of cowboy boots that were last fashionable in the early 1970s.
"We wanted this album to sound more epic than the last one," Pritchard says. "We had a lot of songs to pick from -- we recorded about 70 new songs here. We've been on the road two years and we've been writing all that time. We bash songs out," he says.
"We seriously considered doing a double album," Harris continues, before Pritchard butts in: "But for me personally there are only a handful of great double albums. Even with great albums -- like the [Beatles'] White Album -- it might have been better as two separate albums."
That gives Harris an opportunity to tease him. "Whoa, hold your horses there. I can just see the headlines -- Kooks frontman rubbishes the Beatles."
"I wasn't rubbishing them," Pritchard retorts, horrified, before seeing the knowing grin on Harris's face. "Oh, forget about it. Plonker."
Pritchard says he goes through moments of thinking Konk is a great album to periods when he reckons it's not much use at all. "I can't help feeling that way," he says. "When it comes to writing I want every song on the album to be a potential single -- I need them to be that strong. I want this album to be incredible but I'm too close to it now to work out how good it is.
"I mean, on the first record, there was loads of stuff that we didn't like. We would change I Want You because it's essentially just jamming. Maybe I'll feel the same way about this one in a year's time."
"Don't be so bloody hard on yourself," Harris snorts. "The songs are more mature. We're better players now and a slicker unit." He looks me straight in the eye. "It is a better album."
Apropos of nothing, Pritchard mentions how much he loves the internet. "I spend ages looking on YouTube at people who've covered our songs," he says. "A while back, I contacted this really, really hot girl" -- cue huge laughter from Harris, who says "you probably asked her if she wanted to f***" -- "ignore him -- anyway, this Chilean girl did a really great cover of Seaside [a song from Inside In/Inside Out]. I posted a message on the site to say I was in The Kooks and loved what she'd done and asked her to send me any other covers she'd done -- I put my email up -- but she just posted a note saying I wasn't him and asked me to f*** off."
The Kooks are popular on YouTube: type in their name and Seaside and you get 419 videos. When all their material is taken into account, there are literally thousands of cover versions of their songs online. Most of the people covering their songs are female.
Young girls seem to love The Kooks. "That's because we are so unbelievably f***ing good looking," Pritchard jokes.
I suggest that the band are more into their feminine side than most of their contemporaries. "It's the lyrics, man," Pritchard says. "When I was growing up it was just me and my mum so I've always been very sensitive to female feelings. I mean She Moves In Her Own Way is a very feminine song and, of course girls are going to like that. It's a simple song and it's about a guy liking a girl for what she is rather than how she looks."
"And we get criticised for singing about stuff like that," Harris says. "But we're not afraid to play guitar, riff-based music that people want to sing along to. We're not trying to be hip -- and we never will be -- we just want to write great songs that anybody can enjoy no matter who you are or what age you are."
Pritchard and Harris are well used to being hit by the critical brickbats. "Who joins a band just so a critic can say they like you?" Harris says, contemptuously.
"But it's very hard not to let the nasty things the critics say about you get to you," Pritchard adds. "I don't care about being uncool, but it does bother me when I read an interview and people are going to town about who the lyrics are
about." He's clearly referring to the fact that the first album was inspired by his failed relationship with singer Katie Melua.
Shortly after the success of Inside In/Inside Out, Pritchard was the victim of some cruel -- but hilarious -- ribbing from Popworld's Simon Amstell, lately the host of Never Mind The Buzzcocks.
"That's someone trying to be funny who's not funny," Pritchard says, shaking in fury at the memory of it. "It was horrible and so upsetting when he went on about my ex girlfriend (he doesn't refer to Melua by name). He said that Eddie's Gun, which is about not being able to get it up, was obviously inspired by her. I was so furious, but when you wear your heart on your sleeve like that, it's going to happen.
"I got a phone call from [Melua] after that Popworld thing was aired. She was crying and really upset. I felt like knocking Amstell out -- not that I would, I'm not like that -- but I just thought he'd been such a prat."
"It's not like we're trying to be in the tabloids all the time," Harris points out. "We don't court that kind of publicity. That's why I felt it was so unfair of people like that to treat us like some publicity-hungry desperados."
I ask Pritchard if, when it came to writing album number two, he thought about making the songs less personal. There's no hesitation. "Absolutely not. Someone like Simon Amstell won't tell me what to write."
Pritchard says his introduction to music was a far cry from that of his friends. Rather than immersing himself in the sounds of his generation, he used to ransack his parents' record collection, playing classic albums from the 1960s and 1970s until he familiarised himself with every note and nuance.
And, when he needed to choose a name for his fledgling band, he looked again to those dusty old vinyl records for inspiration.
One of the albums he used to play to death was David Bowie's 1971 classic, Hunky Dory, and its most charming song, The Kooks -- which the future Ziggy Stardust wrote about his young son -- jumped out at him.
"I absolutely love that song. And I thought it was a quirky name for a band. It's an easy name to remember and for anyone older -- or Bowie fans -- it will have a resonance straight away."
Pritchard -- along with old mates from Brighton, Harris, Max Rafferty, Paul Garred -- founded the Kooks in 2004 and enjoyed almost instantaneous success. A reputation for a slick live show, coupled with early radio interest, quickly paid dividends.
But it hasn't all been plain sailing. Just two weeks after my meeting with Pritchard and Harris, bassist Rafferty quit the band. He has been replaced by Dan Logan, who used to play with London outfit Cat The Dog.
But during the interview, I had sensed that not all was well.
Have the Kooks ever come close to breaking up? "Well Q thinks we have," says Pritchard. "We did go through some tough periods. Our bass player Max went through some hard times -- he went away for nine months... He just didn't want to go on tour. But without him, I don't know if this album would have been made."
Harris: "I know it sounds like a big band moaning about how tough it is on the road, but sometimes it really is exhausting and it can take its toll. And even the best of friends can get sick to the back teeth of each other."
And with impeccable comic timing Pritchard chimes in: "Tell me about it. Would you want to be on to road with him" -- and here he gives Harris a playful nudge -- "for months on end?"
Lead single, Always Where I Need To Be, is released today. Konk is out on April 11. The Kooks play Dublin Castle on May 5 and Oxegen, July 11 - 13