Kula Shaker was a rock group whose short, though notable career had a significant influence on the British music scene during the mid-to-late-1990s. Putting a modern edge on a sound that melded Indian folk music, sitars, and spirituality with 1960s psychedelic pop, the group managed to sound like no one else—and everyone else, simultaneously. Like Oasis, Kula Shaker was a promising standout among a crowded field of British exports with worldwide aspirations. For a time, they were poised to become next big thing on either side of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, the group was never able to fulfill its enormous potential.
Crispian Mills, Kula Shaker's flamboyant vocalist, was born on January 18, 1973, into a famous acting family. His mother is actress Hayley Mills, star of such Disney films as Pollyanna and The Parent Trap, and his grandfather is the veteran British cinema star Sir John Mills. Despite the theatrical culture in which he grew up, Mills started playing guitar in his early teens and decided to make his career in music. His mother's reaction was, not surprisingly, positive. As Mills explained to The Gate, "(Haley was) actually, a very supportive mother because she encouraged me as opposed to saying 'Oh, guitar's all right, but get a proper job.' But we were never like that, because half the family doesn't have proper jobs—they have circus jobs. So she couldn't say 'Get a proper job,' since it's the family business, getting out and jumping through the hoop."
When he was just 15, Mills joined the psychedelic band the Objects of Desire. That same year he met bassist Alonza Bevan when both were students at Richmond College. Bevan was soon a member of the band and in 1991, future Kula drummer Paul Winterhart joined the Objects lineup as well. By 1993 the band has disbanded, and Mills went to India for several months, a decision that greatly influenced Kula Shaker's future.
Returning to England in June of that year, Mills regrouped with Bevan, Winterhart, and new vocalist Saul Dismont to form the Kays. Eventually, Dismont soon left, and Mills took over vocals and played guitar. After adding keyboardist Jay Darlington the Kays performed for about two years without much fanfare. They even turned down a development deal with independent label Gut Records. One day, however, they had a fateful encounter with, as Mills described it for the NY Rock website "this real wild guy who just came back from India. He was a bit under the influence of ahhh, things, substances, and he told us about this Kula Shaker guy and that since he changed his name to Kula Shaker, he had all the luck in the world. It didn't seem like a bad idea. We had nothing to lose and decided to give it a try and hey, it looks like it really did work. We read up a bit and this guy Kula Shaker was cool. He was an Indian king from the 9th century. A great poet and a holy man."
Oddly, the band's decision to change their name led to an almost immediate change in their fortune. After playing several notable shows and participating in the British Music Conference In the City, the group found themselves pursued by several major record labels. In September of 1995 they signed with Columbia.
Shortly afterward Kula Shaker released their singles "Tattva" ("truth" in Sanskrit) and "Hey Dude" in Britain. They were enormously successful and propelled the group's 1996 album K to number one when it debuted. The band's odd blend of psychedelic melodies, sitar, and Sanskrit chanting (all done by a bunch of guys from England!) made them extremely popular. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, "Tattva" enjoyed only limited success among the American indie crowd, and reception for K was equally lukewarm, although it didclimbintothe Billboard Top 200 albums chart. In 1997, however, Kula Shaker won a Brit award (the British equivalent of a Grammy) for Best Newcomer.
Kula Shaker might have risen to great heights had they not made a nearly fatal mistake. The group was known for its eccentric mysticism, spirituality, and superstitions, which seemed harmless, if somewhat affected. As critic Nicole Pensiero summed it up in Philadelphia's City Paper, "They're the Brit-pop equivalent of Austin Powers: stuck in Swingin' London, circa 1967. On one level, Kula Shaker's psychedelic, cosmically aware music is a guilty pleasure; on another, it's terribly pretentious. C'mon—singing in Sanskrit?"
Unfortunately, Mills's off-handed remarks to British music news giant NME —that he wanted to have "great big burning swastikas onstage" and that "Hitler knew a lot more than he made out. You can see why Hitler got support. It was probably the uniforms that swung it"—were reported by the BBC. The band was brutally attacked in the press for apparently supporting Nazism, losing many fans as a result.
For the Record . . .
Members include Alonza Bevan (born on October 24, 1970, in West London, England ), bass; Jay Darlington (born on May 3, 1968, in Sidcup, Kent, England), keyboards; Crispian Mills (born on January 18, 1973, in Hammersmith, West London, England; son of actress Hayley Mills), lead vocals, guitar; Paul Winterhart (born on September 19, 1971, in London, England), drums.
Group formed in England, 1995; signed to Columbia Records, 1995; released debut K, 1996; Peasants, Pigs and Astronauts, 1999; disbanded after vocalist Crispian Mills left the group, 1999; released Kollection: The Best of Kula Shaker, 2003.
Awards: BRIT Award, Best Newcomer, 1997.
Addresses: Management— Cowboy Music, c/o 6 Lans downe Mews, London W11 3BH, England.
Even though Mills defended his remarks and explained that he was referring to the swastika's original use as an Indian spiritual symbol, the press was unrelenting. As he elaborated to NY Rock, "The ancient Indian swastika symbol is a very positive symbol. That was what I was talking about. It's pro peace, love, and equality beliefs. They failed to mention that I didn't talk about the Nazi symbol at all, but you know how the press is. They decided to make a big deal out of it. I was simply young and too innocent. I really wasn't talking about the Nazi sign. I was so caught up in the Indian mythology, that I didn't even think about how the Nazis perverted that sign."
Despite his protestations the incident continued to overshadow the group's music. In 1998, however, they came back with "Sound of Drums," which became a British top-five single, and a performance at the famous Glastonbury festival that June. Their 1999 follow-up Peasants, Pigs and Astronauts took them to Los Angeles to work with rock guru Rick Rubin and onto a barge off the River Thames to record with legendary Pink Floyd and Alice Cooper producer Bob Ezrin. Despite the group's hard work and high-profile help, the record was not nearly as successful as its predecessor.
In September of 1999 Mills decided, without animosity towards his bandmates, that he wanted to leave Kula Shaker to start his own group. As he explained to the BBC News: "I have loved my time with Kula Shaker and have experienced more than I could ever have imagined. The time is now right for me to move on and try new experiences, new musical ideas. I will always consider them to be friends and much, much more."
K, Columbia, 1996.
Peasants, Pigs and Astronauts, Columbia, 1999.
Kollection: The Best of Kula Shaker, Sony, 2003.
Drop-D Magazine, June 7, 1997.
NME, February 10, 1998; January 5, 1999; March 6, 1999.
Philadelphia City Paper, July 8-15, 1999.
Rolling Stone, November 12, 1996.
Smash Hits, November 20-December 3, 1996.
USA Today, November 26, 1996.
"Interview with Crispian Mills of Kula Shaker," NY Rock, http://www.nyrock.com/interviews/kula_int.htm (February 19, 2004).
"Kula Shaker," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusicguide.com (February 2, 2004).
"Kula Shaker," Hip Online, http://www.hiponline.com/artist/music/k/kula_shaker/ (February 4, 2004).
"Kula Shaker," Iceberg Radio, http://www.icebergradio.com/artist/8386/kula_shaker.html (February 4, 2004)
"Kula Shaker," VH1, http://www.vh1.com/artists/az/kula_shaker/bio.jhtml (February 3, 2004).
"Kula Shaker Hushed," BBC News Online, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/452327.stm (February 20, 2004).
"Kula Shaker: Just Where Are They Going?" San Francisco Gate, http://www.sfgate.com/ea/rock/lanham/lanham1028.html (February 22, 2004).
"Kula Shaker [sic]: Still Waiting for Tomorrow," Circle Magazine, http://www.circlemagazine.com (March 18, 2004).
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