KULA SHAKER had a hit single in England before the band could even finish its first album. The infectious power-pop number, "Grateful When You're Dead/Jerry Was There," was released in January 1996, and when it stormed into the U.K. Top 30, Columbia pressured them to hurry up and finish their debut album, "K."
They did, and the disc not only topped the album charts but also yielded three more British hit singles ("Tattva," "Hey Dude" and "Govinda"). Kula Shaker, which appears Monday at the 9:30 club, was named "Best Newcomers" at the Brit Awards, and Noel Gallagher personally invited them to open for Oasis at its massive Knebworth shows. Despite all this overnight success, Kula Shaker still hadn't made the album they dreamed of.
As big fans of psychedelic rock in both its late-'60s emergence and its mid-'80s revival, the young musicians wanted to fashion a concept album, where the lyrical themes and musical motifs carried over from song to song. So to produce this year's album, "Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts" (Columbia), Kula Shaker chose Bob Ezrin, the man who had overseen such concept albums as Pink Floyd's "The Wall," Lou Reed's "Berlin," Kiss's "Destroyer" and Alice Cooper's "School's Out."
"Bob is one of the masters of the album as a piece unto itself," explains Kula Shaker's chief singer-songwriter, Crispian Mills. "We're big admirers of his ability to referee all the relationships in those bands and to come out with the albums he did. We were inspired by the initial conversation we had with him, because he had a lot of ideas about using effects to carry out the concepts we never got a chance to use on the first album.
"The first one was done in eight weeks, and with the second one, we wanted to take our time and really concentrate on the music. We wanted to experiment with creating an album as a whole -- as opposed to a collection of tracks or singles that may or may not fit together. We wanted you to be able to listen to one track or to 12 tracks altogether and have them stand up under either approach."
They had the perfect setting for such a project. Ezrin suggested that they record the album on a Victorian houseboat anchored in the Thames River. Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour owned the boat, and the studio on board had been used to record Pink Floyd's "The Division Bell." The musicians had to use a rowboat to get to the studio, but they felt it was worth it.
"The swans on the river were one of the big influences on the album," Mills insists. "Every time you looked out the window you saw a swan. Going to bed at night thinking of swans definitely affects the music you make. We're all looking for imagery, and swans are good luck in most cultures; it's nice to know you have lucky birds circling around the place you're making music.
"The Pink Floyd association definitely added to the mystique of the boat. And before we worked on the boat with Bob, we recorded `Sound of Drums' with Rick Rubin at Ocean Way, which is the Abbey Road of Los Angeles; `Pet Sounds' was recorded there, and Frank Sinatra worked there. We wandered around both those places like tourists. It was kind of like going to Disneyland, someplace you had heard a lot about and read a lot about. Deep underneath every trained musician is a trainspotter."
Kula Shaker spent six months on the boat recording "Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts." The somewhat cryptic lyrics suggest a planet thrown into an "age of decay and hypocrisy" by aliens hiding behind pretty faces, satellites on Mars, blazing forest fires and skies full of thunder and gunfire. Out of this chaos, though, a new world is a-borning, announced with "a great hosannah" and the "sound of drums."
Reinforcing the ominous sense of crisis is a thick tangle of guitar treatments, loops, synths and samples built atop Kula Shaker's simple guitar-keys-bass-drums set-up. Giving the promise of salvation some credibility are Mills' inviting pop melodies, which blossom into grand harmonies with the addition of his jangly guitar and his bandmates' vocals.
The album's final listed track is "Namami Nanda-Nandana," a traditional Indian prayer. It begins simply -- with twittering birds, Hariprasad Chaubasia's flute and Gouri Choudhury's voice -- before Mills' tenor and his bandmates' instruments take over. It's just the most obvious example of the strong influence of Indian music on both Kula Shaker albums, which abound with tabla, flute, sitar and Hindi lyrics.
" `Namami Nanda-Nandana' is a lullaby all about heaven," Mills says. "It was supposed to have been written by a saint. We thought it was a good idea to just let the Indian musicians sing and play at the beginning of the song without us getting in the way, so people could hear the pure thing. There's a blessing attached to the song -- that anyone who hears it will get into heaven. A renunciant in North India told me it's a good idea to listen to that song as often as possible."
Crispian Mills, now 27, is the son of actress Hayley Mills, so he met a lot of artists (including David Gilmour) when he was growing up in the '70s and '80s. Some of those artists introduced him to Indian music and philosophy when he was only 10, and by the time he was 16 an interest had grown into an obsession.
"I finally got on a plane to India when I was 20," he says. "When I got there, I was very lucky to meet people who understood the best aspects of India, especially the older devotional traditions. I was lucky because India is sinking more and more under the weight of the industrial world we live in. A lot of the time they don't notice the treasures they've got because they want to stock up on Coca-Cola and get a satellite TV. I don't know how long it will last, but it's still there."
Mills didn't become a classical Indian musician, however. Instead he tried to integrate elements of Indian culture into the rock'n'roll he had grown up with. He found that the droning guitar tones and repeating rhythms of psychedelic-rock were especially easy to blend with Indian music.
"Because psychedelia in its purest sense, putting aside all the drug associations, is about mind expansion, it fits in nicely with the Indian concept of transcendence. Both want to take us beyond what we already know into fresh territory, fresh experience, a fresh outlook. They complement each other.
"The world has shrunk to the size of an orange," he adds, "so we're rediscovering our planet and all these interesting people in different places. In the West, we have a monopoly on technology, but we have a lot to learn in other areas. And we should learn it before it disappears forever."
KULA SHAKER -- Appearing Monday at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from "Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts," call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8111. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
CAPTION: Kula Shaker hope that their new album is more than a sum of its parts.