Souls Shaken, Minds Stirred

"I believe in the possibility of a new era," Kula Shaker's frontman, Crispian Mills, once told a leery New York journalist. "You can sing about things like premature teenage sex, or you can sing about everlasting, universal truth."

Hmm, sounds like we've got another Bono on our hands. Mills, son of British actress/ teen dream Hayley Mills (remember The Parent Trap?), has never been shy about expressing his beliefs. So it must be reassuring for Mills to know that the rest of Kula Shaker are behind him no matter what he may be saying at the moment -- well, sort of, anyway.

"He's quite mad, really," giggles Kula Shaker drummer Paul Winter-Hart in regard to his singer/guitarist bandmate. "But we all kind of watch out for each other. I'll back Crispian 80 to 90 percent of the way, unless I think he's being a complete asshole about things."

So far, that hasn't happened often enough to matter, and when it has, Kula Shaker's loopy camaraderie has saved Mills from gobbledygooking his way into a metaphysical corner. The Kulas are the latest chart sensation out of Britain, an all-seeking foursome whose unabashed sincerity and naive charms have inspired the U.K. music press to hail them as Brit-pop's kinder, gentler next coming (the last coming being Oasis), even as they pan the band's "hippie-dippy" sentiments. All jacked up on Hindu philosophy and British Invasion nostalgia, the group has already chanted its way into the hearts of its countrymen with its debut release, K -- to the tune of several weeks atop the U.K. charts.

But will American audiences be so easily convinced? It seems that way. Kula Shaker's mini-tour of the States last year was marked by healthy crowds and stellar reviews (intensely entertaining live, the band knows full well that the nightclub stage is no place for transcendental meditation), and K's swirly single "Tattva" ("eternal truth" in Sanskrit) is currently locked into regular rotation on modern-rock radio nationwide. It also appears that Kula Shaker has charmed nearly every U.S. critic in sight, most of whom like the band's odds of supplanting Oasis's Gallagher brothers as our English import of choice.

And yet I've been a little reluctant to buy into Kula Shaker. Call me a cynic, but I see them as well-meaning blokes on a quasi-mystical lark. Calling from England very early on a weekday morning (early afternoon there), Winter-Hart sympathizes with my plight, though he assures me the band is no joke. It's tough to buy into anything as profoundly hazy as Kula Shaker at the crack of dawn, he quips, and there are times when even he gets lost in all the good karma.

Winter-Hart's concerns, though, have more to do with drumming than with philosophy. "On the Indian stuff -- 'Govinda' [also from K] and 'Tattva' -- it's really difficult because it's mantra," he says. "It's kind of like a variable vocal meter, and I'm so used to playing along with the vocal that when Crispian's lilting and changing it, carrying on a steady beat is kind of difficult.

"I've been known to have timing problems with that stuff, and when it happens I'll stick my V's [the English equivalent of the bird] up behind [Mills's] back. Don't tell him that, though."

English rockers toying with Eastern influences is an idea at least as old as the sitar part in the Beatles's "Norwegian Wood." Still, Kula Shaker effectively harness the musical and spiritual curiosity that was once at the heart of such dabbling -- though they rarely let it get in the way of a good pop song. K is so catchy and agreeable, in fact, that it's liable to zip through one's head without creating so much as a moment of peak awareness. Blame it on the run-of-the-mill Manchester house grooves circa Happy Mondays and the Charlatans, which often sound so familiar as to be routine. But the late-'80s flashbacks are sweetened by a vintage icing of mellotron and Hammond, shimmering layers of heavy guitar and Mills's striking vocals -- think Ray Davies with more range and younger lungs.

Lyrically, Mills's occasional Sanskrit chanting and vaguly metaphorical rhyme schemes sound dopey apart from the music (a typical example: "Will I ever see the pleasure that will never end / Hidden in the misty forest that desire send"). But Kula Shaker -- who took their name from an Indian emperor and dedicate K to A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami -- have never claimed to have dibs on anything fresh. They simply present a well-mixed medley of British Invasion highlights, with a sarod here and a tabla there for that cool East-meets-West melting-pot effect.

"It's not like what we're doing is really amazing or complex," Winter-Hart says. "But it's very heartfelt; it's what we're about. It just happened; it evolved."

Winter-Hart remembers well the live debut of Kula Shaker's first worthwhile experiment with Eastern strains, "Govinda," a juiced-up version of an ancient Indian mantra written partly in Sanskrit. "We found our way onto the Hare Krishna stage at this music festival, and we just started jamming on 'Govinda.' There was probably 20 people at the start, and by the end there were about 100 people all staring up at Crispian," he says. "There were some devotees, some normal people and lots of spaced-out people on acid. They were flocking to the tent in droves."

Jazzed by that episode, Mills toured India for the first time shortly thereafter with his mystical friend and tour guide, Mathuoa, while the rest of Kula Shaker stayed behind in England. "[Mathuoa] took Crispian around to all these different areas," Winter-Hart says. "They did a lot of smoking, playing guitars and learning all these mantras."

While he plans to visit India himself some day, right now Winter-Hart is happy enough getting his karma secondhand from Mills, Mathuoa and bassist Alonza Bevan, who made the trip last December. As far as everyday Kula lifestyles go, all the members are strict vegetarians, and Winter-Hart likens Kula keyboardist Jay Darlington to a modern-day guru in his own right, especially when touring. "More like a monk, actually," he says. "No drinks, no caffeine, no girls on the road."

And what about the rest of the band? No limousines and no swimming pools (and certainly no limousines in swimming pools), says Winter-Hart. All that's really required is "a bit of country air" during downtime, along with a few other amenities.

"At home, we like going out to the mountains -- preferably with some girls -- in a van with some cushions in it," he says. "There's a song called '303' on K that's about going to Somerset [England] on this road called the 303. We smoke a bit of pot, have a little cider and lounge around."

Winter-Hart grew up breathing plenty of fresh air in the rural English town of Glastonbury. The son of a jazz drummer who worked a menial day job to support his family, Winter-Hart was brought up in a less glamorous environment than Mills, whose movieland upbringing meant he was never short on esoteric stimulation. For the record, Bevan's mother also acts, and Darlington is the son of a teacher.

"I consider myself half musician, half bricklayer," says Winter-Hart. "It's not that I'm stupid, it's just that I've never had any particular ambition other than earning a living doing this."

Winter-Hart hooked up with Mills and Bevan, who had been school chums before they began playing in together various bands, through a "drummer needed" ad in Melody Maker. That was in the early '90s; a little later they found Darlington, an old party-circuit acquaintance, and began calling themselves the Kays. By the time they signed a deal with Columbia U.K. in 1995, they'd become Kula Shaker. K came along soon after, and the band's homeland was quick to take notice.

If the day ever comes (and it should) when Kula Shaker is as mighty as Oasis on both sides of the pond, Winter-Hart gives his assurance that they won't be spitting on their audience a la the Gallaghers to get their message across.

"We're a hundred miles apart," he says. "Oasis has a nihilistic sort of outlook on things, and we're much more about positivity and things actually representing something. Crispian and [Oasis lead singer] Liam [Gallagher] both have nice eyes, but that's as far as it goes, really."

Kula Shaker performs Thursday, February 6, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8. Rasputina opens. For info, call 629-3700.

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Hobart Rowland