Seventeen years and five albums into their career, there is perhaps no British group that splits opinion to quite the same extent as Leicester indie dance behemoths Kasabian.
On one side, there’s the critics, many of whom — despite several evolutions in the band’s sound — still persist in seeing them as nothing more than the worst kind of lad-rock throwbacks. On the other, there’s the fans, who — at least in the UK — continue to buy the records in vast quantities (and who, of course, danced their asses off for a monumentally jolly couple of hours when the band headlined Glastonbury earlier this year).
Kasabian’s new album, the plainly-titled 48:13, marks yet another shift in the narrative, this time introducing great chunks of electronica and even a hip-hop influence into the mix.
OK, so while it might not be Metal Box exactly, it does more than enough to give lie to the idea that the band have amounted to little other than the Oasis knock-offs you could have accused them of being at the beginning of their career. It is also — and this is important — absolutely joyous, with particular regards to the album’s centerpiece “treat”, which has to go down as one of the most life-affirmingly arrogant tracks ever recorded.
We catch up with Serge over the phone at his place in Leicester, the unassuming — no-name, even — town in the British midlands, which in a lot of ways is absolutely the last place you would expect an errant rock star to make their home. He is, despite the band’s image, an absolute gentleman — softly spoken, thoughtful, and genuinely baffled that he and his chums get as much hate as they do.
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Why doesn’t the record have a title?
The vision at the start was to eliminate the extraneous layers — anything that didn’t need to be there. That was the kind of mantra, you know. In no way is it trying to be clever, or trying to be cool.
As someone that writes about music, it’s very easy to think that’s exactly how you were trying to be. It’s difficult not to think of the Aphex Twin or Public Image Limited …
Absolutely. I definitely get that, and I knew straight away that people were going to jump on the name — particularly given how we’re perceived as a band. But, given the spirit of how this album was made, that’s really the only thing it could have been called. I nearly didn’t give the songs titles either, just durations, but ended up thinking, god that’s probably a step too far. The whole thing’s very direct. That’s the reason why we wrote those tunes. On the next record, my head will be probably somewhere completely different, but on this occasion, we were trying to get across this is just what it is.
Why did you feel the need to go in that direction?
Five albums in, it’s important to keep people interested, because certain things are expected of you. It’s the kind of title — and music — that people have an opinion about. The reason we released “eez-eh” [all the tracks are written lower-case] as the first single is that we knew it was going to be hard for people to swallow. The risk is kind of the point of it. That’s the fun part, isn’t it?
What was the reaction to the single?
It actually split people massively, which we liked. It was something, if you know what I mean — a real energy, which is what we wanted. A lot of rock bands when they reach the point that we’ve got to, they kind of get in their armchair.
There’s a sense that “feel” is as important to you as anything else …
It is: rhythm is especially important, which is probably obvious if you listen to something like the start of “bumblebeee”. I’ve always loved hip hop — which is possibly the most direct music there is — and a lot of these new tunes start with loops or huge beats, which we then tried to write a song around.
I really like Madlib, who’ll come up with these weird little loops, and then make an album of like 40 songs that are only a minute long. That’s how I start. We’re on our way to having our own language, I think. You listen to one of our tunes, and it could really only be us. As an artist, that’s what you aim for.
You’ve said that “treat” [chorus: “Everybody knows, I work it / Work it like a treat”] is a favorite song. Why is that?
Yeah. It’s the centerpiece of the album, I think. It’s become really special. The reaction we got when we first played it … it was a really joyous moment. That song is so obnoxious. It’s so wrong to say those words, it just made me laugh. When we were recording, we knew that it couldn’t just end, so in the spirit of Syd Barrett or Tangerine Dream, we sent it off into this insane Chicago house type thing. I like it.
Is there a sense that you’re trying to wind certain people up? Certain groups of listeners or journalists?
I think that’s probably fair enough. I think growing up in Leicester has probably got something to do with that. There’s a lot of humour in what we do that goes over a lot of people’s heads. A lot of in-jokes. We are laughing …
To call a song “eez-eh”, make it the first single, and spell it like you’d say it if you were from Leicester … it’s ridiculous, you know? We go around the world and hear people trying to pull off the Leicester accent. The first single we ever released was called “Club Foot”; no one ever asked the question “What is that?”
Do you think the way the band is perceived — let’s say, by certain members of the English music press — is fair?
I think it’s getting better — we’re turning it around. There is the odd person hanging on for grim death, knocking out the same old lines, but those sorts of people are never going to be turned on by anything we do anyway.
I reckon most people now are starting to see us more as artists, rather than just these insane drug addicts from a little town in England. I think with this record in particular, you’d just look ridiculous if you fobbed it off as lad rock. In some way all that kind of worked in our favor. You get some kinds of middle-class journalists that don’t even listen properly, saying it sounds like Britpop or Oasis or whatever. You kind of go, “Oh wow, mate, you’ve got that so wrong.” Then when people do get it, it makes it more important somehow.
I really like the way the album mixes more avant-garde references with a real pop sensibility …
Well, of course the other good thing about people not listening properly sometimes is that I can get away with murder. I can rip off the Silver Apples, and no one puts two and two together.
The plan has always been to infiltrate the pop, indie thing. We love bringing massive amounts of people together and to do that, you need a chorus — you need those huge moments. I can see how that might alienate some people. Great pop’s always had more avant-garde moments, hasn’t it? “Whole Lotta Love” is a perfect example. One of the greatest songs ever written, but what’s that bit in the middle. You adore them for that.
Why have you included the interludes?
To give people’s minds a rest. The album’s supposed to be listened to as a single piece.
The sequencing of the record took so long. We wanted it to be like an amazing set list or DJ set, where they all flow. When the next song comes on we want you to think “This is exactly what I want to happen right now.”
Why do you reckon you’ve not been as successful in the US as you’ve been in England? Why the more concerted effort to break the US now? [when we speak, the band are about to embark on a multi-date American tour]
I don’t know why we’re not bigger in the US, you know. Maybe it’s something about the sound. The last record company — and they were quite honest about it — didn’t think it was going to work in America, so they didn’t really didn’t do anything with it. It won’t feel as weird going over there now we’ve changed labels [to Harvest].
We’re hoping it’ll be good. We’ve been doing this quite a while now, and the set list we have, even if you’ve never heard any of the songs … it’s powerful. If you come and see us, it’ll have an impact, good or bad. You’ll go away thinking, “I understand what the fuss is about.”