“It’s a word that looks and sounds beautiful,” says Luke Pritchard. “I love the roundness of it, the simplicity of it.” The word the Kooks singer is extolling is “Listen” – which also happens to be the title of the band’s new album. Luke’s reasons for choosing that title become clear the moment you dive into the new record – as they do when he starts to describe its genesis, and the personal and emotional transformation he experienced while making it. “To me,” Luke continues, “this album is about pure expression. Even the way we made the album felt fresh. Rather than us just being a band in a room, playing our guitars with the vocal over the top, which is what we’d always done before, we were really listening to what was going on around us, picking up ideas. The whole thing was much more natural.”
Listen was kick-started by the track "Around Town", the bare bones of which Luke laid down in his flat in London. The song’s subject matter is catty, its melody infectious and immediate – and, compared with the Kooks’ previous material, it represents a major shift. “I’d got really heavily into soul music and Afrobeat,” Luke explains. “I remember doing 'Around Town' and thinking, ‘Hmm, ok: this is interesting’. Everything, the whole album, crystallised around that one song. And it was only meant to be an experiment; I didn’t think of it as a song for the Kooks at all. All of sudden, it became the direction. I think I was on a bit of a mission, looking back: I’d gone all around the States for about 10 months, working with different people. I’d only ever written by myself or with the other guys before, so it was something I was a bit dubious about to begin with. But I wanted to open up a bit. There was too much negativity in me; I knew I needed to get away, get back to who I am, which is a writer.”
Luke’s chief ally in that task was the producer, Inflo, who he credits with helping him dig far deeper than he has before as a songwriter. The most powerful and haunting example of this on Listen is the poignant "See Me Now", on which Luke addresses his father, who died when Luke was a young child. “That was a real case of Inflo pulling a song, an emotion, out of me,” says Luke. “We were talking about it and he just said, ‘Write a letter to your dad’. A lot of the lyrics, I just wouldn’t have been brave enough to share them before, but he went, ‘Do it; they’re beautiful’. I found that completely disarming; his whole attitude was, ‘That’s what music is all about. Let all your defences down’. And that song epitomises that.”
Choosing to work with a producer rooted in hip hop and dance music struck some of the people on team Kooks as a risk, Luke admits. “I had heard his music and then his name came up when we were discussing how to approach the new album. I’m not sure many people thought it could work, but I really wanted to meet him. I loved the sound on the records he’d done – they had this amazing clarity, they were modern but with this rootsy feeling behind them.” Luke stuck to his guns, however, and his hunch proved correct. “The moment I met him, it felt right; although we were, on the surface, from quite different backgrounds, I knew his cousin, Leona Lewis – we were at school together, we’d done songs together and made that sort of music. So in that sense, it felt almost like going back to something. I had "Around Town" already, and he then pulled all this other stuff out of me. He got where my head was at. We had such a strong connection.”
Evidence of that connection can be found throughout Listen. Lead single "Down" hares out of the traps, its staccato guitar, call-and-response vocals, punctuating cowbell, falsetto harmonies and self-knowing, defiant lyric (“You can’t break a man who’s already down”) adding up to one giant kiss-off of a song, to an earworm melody that puts down roots in your head and settles in for the long term. "Around Town", so central and crucial to the album, rides in on a tide of joyful gospel harmonies, as Luke confesses “I need someone to love me when the chips are down”. Stripped-back, loose-limbed, lyrically candid and unblinking, "Around Town" comes across like a musical manifesto, a mission statement from a band who have rediscovered what they loved about making music in the first place, 10 long years ago in Brighton.
Yet, as Luke says, the picture wasn’t always so rosy. “The experiences I’d had the year before we made the record were so intense; I’d never felt that low before. I was in a very poisonous relationship, and becoming quite vacuous in my life. Songs such as "Down" and "Around Town" are coming from that place, most of the record is. And things weren’t going well with the band either; we were doing well, but on the inside, things were a mess. We needed to come out of that, and it really was a case of music saving us.”
Everyone in the band knew things had to change, Luke says. So out went the old thinking (“The over-thinking,” Luke laughs), and out, too, the old approach to the recording process. “I went completely off chords. We got really obsessed with lines of notes. When you listen to Stones records, the genius of them is the interplay between them. They’ll have a few chords, but it’s much more about those interlayered guitar lines. Flo gave us the confidence to change our approach. It’s difficult in the studio, because the temptation always is to go, ‘Right, I’m going to do my bit here, and you do that there’. With this record, we didn’t do any rehearsing beforehand. I’d write a song with Flo, or on my own, put it up, and we’d all play over it. So there was a real freedom to the process.”
Freedom is certainly the right word for "Are We Electric?", whose sparse verse, resting on the sweetest of soul-funk grooves, gives way to a chorus of glorious, incandescent joy. One of many surprises on Listen, the track’s warmth and laid-back vibe are replicated on "Forgive & Forget", a song that is driven by one of those riffs guitarists dream of coming up with, with added call-to-the-dancefloor handclaps, and conjures up a band of friends and n’er-do-wells cruising along a Californian highway, roof down, high on life. On "London", the band come up with a "Street Fighting Man" for the 21st century, as Luke surveys the riot-damaged city, over another monster riff. "Dreams" is similarly minimal, a woozy, just-woke-up ode to the places our heads go when they hit the pillow.
Immersion in Listen is as liberating for us as the making of it was for the band – in which case, job done, says Luke. “We were back doing it for the love of it. I’d had the hardest year of my life, so it felt like the shackles were being released. It’s good when you can rise above all the shit that gathers around you. What’s happened with our band has been pretty crazy, internally, for years. But it’s great now. I’ve never felt this comfortable before. It’s like we’ve found peace.”
He’s so proud of the album, he says, that his hardest task now is stopping himself banging on about it. “I know that I’m in danger of being too confident about it, because in my head, I just think it’s the best thing in the world; you always do when you come out of making a new record. But I’ve got to keep that in check – I don’t want to go all Kanye West about it.” Should Luke Pritchard fail in that vow of silence, well, he will deserve our forgiveness. Because do you know what? The Kooks have just made the album of their lives.