Hugh Harris is obsessed with a British pop era that predates his own birth, not to mention his band's arrival at the top of the charts, by decades.
"Music never used to be a competition," insists the 20-year-old guitarist for the Kooks, whose sophomore album, Konk, debuted at No. 1 in the U.K. last month. "It used to be a community, not a fucking race to see who can sell more records. That's not what it's about. But you ask other bands to jam with you, and they look at you like you're fucking freaks."
Then again, few bands on the contemporary British scene are quite so obviously influenced by the aftershocks of the first British Invasion.
"We started going back to our parents' record collections in order to find decent music," explains Harris, "which is quite depressing."
But also, it turns out, rewarding. They've racked up seven Top 40 singles and 2 million albums sold since first getting together five years ago as students at the Institute of Modern Music in Brighton.
"Yeah, it was all Mods and Rockers battling each other, throwing pebbles across elderly retired ladies," says a wry Harris of the seaside resort town immortalized 35 years ago in the Who's Quadrophenia.
The Kooks have since recorded two albums at Ray Davies' Konk Studios (thus the new album's title) and twice opened for the Rolling Stones. The Kinks, says Harris, were "a massive influence," while meeting and sharing the stage with the Stones was "a dream come true and all that," but also "just so horrible. I mean, people are just starting to come in and fill up a 70,000-seat stadium. So you're still playing for quite a lot of people four or five thousand people is like a normal-size gig for us but in such a big room that's so empty."
Growing up in public has posed some additional challenges. Harris reserves his best barbs for today's music industry "Our friends in bands have more talent in their fucking baby finger than James Blunt I mean, how the fuck did that happen?!" and press inquiries regarding band members' dating histories: "Unfortunately, the British media need an angle, because none of the journalists know fuck-all about music."
Yet even the snarkiest critics have to acknowledge the Kooks' charisma, evident in vocalist Luke Pritchard's Britpop delivery, as heavily accented as that of David Bowie and Damon Albarn in their prime, and Harris' richly melodic guitar lines, which are earning him fresh accolades. Harris, who cites Jimi Hendrix and Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson as his prime influences, insists they felt no pressure to either live up to or move away from their first album.
"People expect bands to change so quickly," says Harris in reference to Konk's preponderance of three-minute pop gems like "Mr. Maker" and "One Last Time," neither of which would have sounded out of place on 1965's Kinda Kinks. "What we do best at the minute is pop songs. I think once we've mastered that, then we can move on.
"You know, if one of us does get into death metal samba, then I'm sure that will develop in its own natural way."