February 27, 2019 Interview – Hugh Harris of The Kooks
A clever and unique band once said, “Where does that highway go to? And you may ask yourself, ‘Am I right? Am I wrong?’ And you may say toyourself, ‘My God! What have I done?’” The quote, from Talking Head’s 1981 song “Once in a Lifetime,” has a meaning that is applicable to nearly all of us at one point or another in our time on earth. Sharing in these universal questions, UK Rock band The Kooks have withstood 15 years together, finding themselves with one highly-charted record after another as well as tour after tour. A whirlwind of events leading them forward, The Kooks are perhaps striking their most precise balance as a band right now. Recently releasing their highly mature album Let’s Go Sunshine in 2018, they are wrapping up their second headlining US tour in less than a year, and yet, they have plenty more ahead in 2019. Energized and inspired, Kooks’ Guitarist Hugh Harris took the time to chat about his experience in the band, their progression as songwriters, life on the road, plus more.
Cryptic Rock – The Kooks have been going strong for 15 years now, and in that time have attained a good deal of success with internationally charted albums, singles, and extensive touring. Through everything, what has the journey been like?
Hugh Harris – Hell, how long have you got for me to answer that? (Laughs) It’s been an honor more than anything. Recently, I am realizing more and more how difficult it is to actually achieve that as a band – other bands last 5 years or 1 album. We just keep our humility and wits about us. I think that is really what lasts the test of time – having an honest relationship with music and our fans. I don’t think we have ever tried to be anything but genuine lovers of what we think is good music. The whole experience, for me, has been very humbling.
Cryptic Rock – And you have accomplished a great deal along the way. It has probably been a great deal of fun, as well.
Hugh Harris – It’s been a lot of fun, a huge amount of fun. It’s been a lot of negative fun and a lot of positive fun. It’s been pretty much every kind of mutation of fun. I think in this band we’ve been through what most bands go through in a lifetime, in 15 years. It has been pretty thrilling.
Cryptic Rock – There is a lot that can happen in 15 years. The band’s sound has always been rooted in guitar-driven Rock, but while having Pop sensibility as well. How would you describe the band’s growth as songwriters over the years?
Hugh Harris – I would say we started in a very puritanical sense; we only really wanted through vintage amps and mics. I think since then we’ve grown into, not focused on the nitty-gritty details of how we record records, but more focused on the freedom of creativity in records; we’ve been more spontaneous. Our first record took a lot of pre-production and a lot of production. Which is fine, but there wasn’t room for much creativity along the way in the studio – apart from maybe throwing “Ooh La” into the mix.
I think since then we have expanded our minds a little. We have worked with Inflo, who is a Hip Hop guy. Then we worked with Brandon Friesen recently, who is a kind of Punk/Alt Rock guy. We expanded the formula and exposed ourselves to more abstract ways of recording Pop and Rock music using choirs and synthesizers. That is not something particularly new, but considering where we started off as purists, I think it is how we have developed.
Cryptic Rock – Growth is part of life. You want to do something different, otherwise it would get boring.
Hugh Harris – God yes. You do see a lot of bands stick to their formula. Fair enough, they are all selling out stadiums and we’re not, but they look fucking bored of their own music. Some bands look particularly miserable and don’t give a fuck anymore.
I think if you find your formula, it’s great to stick to your guns and find something that you have cast out of culture that you can call your own. For The Kooks, we aren’t very interested in the same: we can’t even stick to one genre on a record, let alone in a lifetime. We definitely pride ourselves on being eclectic, probably to the detriment of the career of the band. It does mean alienating sometimes, but it also means winning over some others.
Cryptic Rock – Right, it’s good to experiment, and of course there is also risk in that. Speaking of growth, the band released perhaps their most mature record to date back in August of last year, Let’s Go Sunshine. What was the writing and recording process like for that album?
Hugh Harris – I think were considering spring-boarding from Listen (2014) into a matter of different directions. What seemed for us to be the most unique direction was just stick to our guns. We had a bit of an epiphany that we’ve kind of done everything in our power to distance ourselves from the one thing we feel our fans really like us for – that’s a bit of a syndrome for many artists. I think with Let’s Go Sunshine we decided to stick to our strengths.
You are absolutely right: it’s an incredibly mature point of realization to know your strengths as a 4-piece band. To know what each member is good for in a band and not overstep that, that is probably the most mature a band can be. It is also what makes a band most functional, productive, and interesting. It felt really good to produce something that grown up for us. I am really happy with it.
Cryptic Rock – As you should be, the album came out quite well. The band toured the USA last summer and are now back for a winter run of shows. With only a few dates left on the USA tour, how have the shows been?
Hugh Harris – It’s been crazy. We are kind of at the point right now where we catch each other staring off into the abyss having a slight existential crisis. I woke up the other day, went to Starbucks across from a venue in Albany, and I was just thinking, “Where am I? Seriously, where am I?” I’m from Lewes in Sussex, England, and I’ve ended up here. You know when you have these crazy moments where you say, “What am I doing? What am I? What is this?” It is always around the time when the tours are ending.
Everyone’s in really good spirits. The shows are killer! We’ve never been this tight, we’ve never been this creative, and we’ve never been this experimental. There is a large portion of improv in our live shows now; it’s never the same. Although the set list may be similar, it’s never the same each night, and that keeps us interested in the whole thing. The tour has been a huge success. It wasn’t that long ago we were touring here and it’s rare that a band can come back to do 2 tours in America in 1 year, especially a band like us. It feels great to tour this magnificent country.
Cryptic Rock – It is great you are back so soon. You certainly bring a feel good vibe to your live performances where the audience can just let go and have a good time. What is it like for you on stage performing?
Hugh Harris – I feel incredibly playful, more so than I ever have on stage. I’ve gotten over my initial insecurities and nervousness of playing live. I am now just loving being in my early thirties and just connecting with a room full of strangers. We’ve all got our heads up, our hearts open, and our minds being expanded. (Laughs) That sounds really wanky, but it’s true; that’s how I feel on stage and it’s great.
Cryptic Rock – That is really cool. You also have those moments where you question where you are as you mentioned earlier, like the Talking Head’s song “Once in a Lifetime.”
Hugh Harris – Yes, exactly! That song is a bit of an existential crisis now, isn’t it?
Cryptic Rock – (Laugh) Yes, it is. Following the USA run you will be heading over to tour Singapore, Belgium, Germany, France, and tour the summer the UK. After years of touring, what is the key for you to keep yourself healthy mentally and physically?
Hugh Harris – I’m going to have to be straight with you: it’s yoga for me. An hour a day of that resets my whole mind, body, and spirit. I know it’s super a la mode for me to say, but I get a huge amount out of meditation. I actually get quite creative with mixing and messing around with arrangements. I will have a glass of wine, look at a few demos, and mess with them; I find that very therapeutic.
On tour, your whole suitcase can be out of order, you can feel like your whole grounding is out of order, but you can have your mind in order through meditation. That’s how you anchor a tour, that is how to stop the madness from gaining any kind of traction over you.
Cryptic Rock – Interesting, we could all use a bit of meditation in our lives. Last question for you. We cover movies as well as music. If you are a fan of either Horror or Sci-Fi films, do you have any favorites?
Hugh Harris – I don’t watch Horror films because I find it very effecting, more so than most people. Luke once made me watch the US edition of Funny Games (2007) and it ripped me a part, I can’t handle stuff like that. My favorite film is Mary Poppins (1964), just to give you a scale of where I’m at.
I adore Sci-Fi. I love vintage Sci-Fi like Barbarella (1968) and The War of the Worlds (1953). I love big production Sci-Fi like Interstellar (2014). That is far as I go. I am not really a film buff, but I have seen Marry Poppins about 54 times.