The Kooks: “I think the best thing you can do as a songwriter is be authentic and honest”

The Kooks
(Image credit: Paul Johnson)

In a hot second from now (early October, to be exact), The Kooks will touch down for their first shows on Aussie ground in almost four years. The trip comes as part of their belated celebrations for the 15th anniversary of Inside In / Inside Out, the Brighton pop-rockers’ seminal 2006 debut. But the shows – pencilled in for Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney – won’t just be a trip down memory lane: the trio too have a whole stack of new songs to premiere Down Under, having just unleashed unto the world their sixth studio album, 10 Tracks To Echo In The Dark.

Deceptively titled, the album sports some of The Kooks’ brightest material yet: something frontman Luke Pritchard credits to the recent milestones he’d reached in his personal life (ie. getting married, becoming a father, relocating to Berlin and discovering a love for minimalist electronica). That translated to more pop-centric, unapologetically fun songs, a fierce willingness to think outside the box and, as a result, a more interesting album overall. 

It saw the band explore concepts they hadn’t yet before – like key song passages without guitars, and the first collaborations in their entire discography (‘Beautiful World’ with Milky Chance and the NEIKED-assisted ‘Without A Doubt’) – and, perhaps most unexpectedly, it saw them take a very unconventional route in getting the songs out to fans. Instead of the usual timeline – three or four months of scattered singles, then one big album “drop” – The Kooks opted to stagger the release in three chunks: tracks 1-3 were released in January as the Connection EP, and tracks 4-6 in April as Beautiful World, before the full project – under the formal banner of 10 Tracks To Echo In The Dark – arrived in July.

As Pritchard explains to Australian Guitar, not a lot has made sense over the past few years, and to an old-school fan of The Kooks, not a lot of this new album will, either. So it only made sense, paradoxically, if the strategy they took to release it was one people would never expect.

I think it was fitting to have a unique strategy for this album’s release, because it is a very unique album for The Kooks. Was it exciting to explore a more colourful, diversified soundscape?
Yeah, I felt very inspired. Going into it, my goal was to kind of make something more minimal. Obviously, my biggest goal is always to make songs that sound really f***ing good, and hopefully have a good message. But on that musical level, yeah, it was really fun to do something different with the instrumentation. You know, on the last two albums we made – Let’s Go Sunshine [2018] and Listen [2014] – there’s so much going on, so much instrumentation. And it was really fun to do that, but when I was in Berlin, I discovered a love for noise gates and got really into doing things like noise-gating drums.

Musically, too… I didn’t grow up on much ‘80s music, so it was quite fun for me to kind of delve into that ‘80s indie-rock world as an adult. A lot of the modern music that I was liking had that kind of feel, so it definitely had an influence on me, to make a record with some kind of that Stranger Things inspiration. It’s very new for us – there’s a lot of synths, and there are things like choruses that have no guitar. We’d never done anything like that before, so it was really fun and inspiring.

Did that have much of an impact on the way you approached the guitar for this record?
Yeah, I think to a degree... I didn’t think about it too much. I definitely feel that our guitar sound choices were very DIY. That was cool, because normally I would be getting a bunch of amps – and especially Hugh, you know, he’s a total boffin; he’s very knowledgeable about the guitars and guitar amps, and we would always go analogue and do it like Keith did it, you know? But I did quite a lot of work in Berlin, and a lot of it would be done at home, so all of a sudden I was like, “Oh, I should try getting this guitar sound with an amp simulator and try programming!” 

I got really into production over the last few years. It started because I made an album with my wife and I did a lot of that stuff with her, so I’ve got quite into production then, but this was kind of like “the next level”. And so yeah, it did inspire this [record’s guitar] sound because when you’ve got these incredible massive synths, you have to have a guitar sound that complements them and sits right in the mix with them.

Do you see The Kooks following this path more in the future, or potentially even taking it further?
Yeah, I mean, I think we’re on a journey here. I think this album was very creatively exciting to make, and it’s been so fun to live in it, so I think we’ll carry on down this path. But I never quite know what an album’s going to be until I get into it, you know? I always kind of fall into making an album. I can’t imagine a time when we wouldn’t have any guitars – I think we are an indie guitar band, essentially, and I’m gonna grip onto that with my bare fingers… But I think we could go deeper. I think there’s a whole world in that production style that we’re very new to, and I’m excited to see more of it!

How did that joint with Milky Chance come to life?
It was very natural. There’s a lot of mutual love between us – we all like each other’s music, and we’d been working with Tobias Kuhn, who worked on the last couple of Milky Chance records, so there was already a rapport going on. But how it came about: I’d written this song with Toby, and I was thinking about how with the chorus, when the bass comes it, it just felt so “Milky Chance”. So I was like, “Either I’ve got to call them and ask for their permission to do this, or see if they want to get on the track.” And they wanted to get on the track!

Unfortunately, we couldn’t be in the same room [when their parts were recorded] because of the thing we do not mention – but it was amazing. It was great. And then we met up in Berlin and performed the song acoustically for the first time, and that was a really cool moment. I mean, collaborating is quite new for us – we’d never done a collaboration on an album before. But I think [‘Beautiful World’] was the start of things to come. Because again, it’s all about embracing the modern, and one of the best things about modern music is that a lot of people collaborate with each other. I’m into it.

I love your optimism. It really shines through on this record, too – what made you want to make this album so upbeat?
I’d slightly tweak that, in that I don’t think it was something I wanted – I didn’t go into [the writing process] being like, “I need to make a really positive record!” I just found myself in a very stable place in my life, and I think the best thing you can do as a songwriter is be authentic and honest, you know? I’d had a very tumultuous, up-and-down life up until the last few years. And it’s been great – it’s been quite wild, actually – it was like I turned a corner and all of a sudden I was married and had a kid. And I think when that happens, you know, your nihilism and your cynicism kind of disappear.

I look back on the album now and I’m realising that it’s not even the lyrics that are necessarily so positive, but just the way I’m singing and everything, because it all comes from a very positive place, I think that rubs off [on the record]. I hope it does – I think that’s a great thing, and I’m not shy of that. I don’t think we have to be all doom and gloom all the time, you know?

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Ellie Robinson
Editor-at-Large, Australian Guitar Magazine

Ellie Robinson is an Australian writer, editor and dog enthusiast with a keen ear for pop-rock and a keen tongue for actual Pop Rocks. Her bylines include music rag staples like NME, BLUNT, Mixdown and, of course, Australian Guitar (where she also serves as Editor-at-Large), but also less expected fare like TV Soap and Snowboarding Australia. Her go-to guitar is a Fender Player Tele, which, controversially, she only picked up after she'd joined the team at Australian Guitar. Before then, Ellie was a keyboardist – thankfully, the AG crew helped her see the light…