We Sent Two Reformed Indies To Review The Kooks’ “Best Of” Show
"Indie hasn’t been relevant for at least seven years -- so how the hell are The Kooks still a thing?"
Here’s a piece of information that will, as the kids say, make you feel old: The Kooks are currently in Australia playing “Best Of” shows. The British four-piece are marking their tenth anniversary as a band — yep, they’re still going — a milestone moment that SHAAD D’SOUZA and GREER CLEMENS couldn’t miss.
Shaad D’Souza: It’s a secret I try to keep hidden, but from 2008 to about 2013, I was what some might call an “indie”. I still have posters of The Drums and Arctic Monkeys on my wall, and I own the Submarine soundtrack on vinyl.
My good friend Greer Clemens knows this about me, and was herself an indie, which is why we went on a little excursion to see The Kooks, one of the all-time great indie bands, play a ‘Greatest Hits’ set at Festival Hall last week. I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much from this show, but I had a surprisingly great time.
There aren’t many rock bands that I enjoy seeing live, but The Kooks have hits. Even the newer tracks, which I knew none of apart from ‘Junk of the Heart’, were really great. The Kooks were kinda critically reviled in their heyday, but their ability to write a big fuck-off banger is pretty undeniable.
2000s-core rock bands doing ‘Greatest Hits’ sets isn’t generally a great sign, but if there’s one thing this show proved to me, it’s The Kooks’ continued cultural relevance — we’re both under-25, but the crowd at this show was young, like, largely teenaged, and it was the post-Junk of the Heart tracks that tended to get the biggest crowd reaction. ‘Indie’ hasn’t been relevant for at least seven years — so Greer, how the hell are The Kooks still a thing?
Greer Clemens: In short, I have no idea, but my best guess is that these songs have real hooks, and, like you say, are real hits. The show — which I thought would be nostalgic at best, boring and embarrassing at worst — was genuinely invigorating.
They opened with ‘Eddie’s Gun’, which, in writing this piece, I’ve realised might be their best track. There’s something about a song that opens with a question! When frontman Luke Pritchard barrels into that opening and sings “Did you see the way she looked at me?”, he’s more polished than I remember him. Back in 2010 my friends and I all admitted sheepishly that he was a “babe”, despite (or maybe because of?) the fact that once we decoded his heavy, slurring, Liverpool-adjacent accent, we realised that what he was saying was often pretty dirty.
At this show he’s singing the same words — “Yes, I see the way she looked at me/She’s got an eye for an awkward guy like me” — but with his moppy hair cropped and his leather jacket traded in for a suit, there’s almost something more playful about it? He’s not taking himself so seriously.
SD: Yes! And they were so unashamedly pop band at this show, which I think is really beautiful. They used to be really self-serious. I remember back when The Kooks vs Arctic Monkeys was a thing in the British media, The Kooks tried really hard to be a “rock band”, but now they’re releasing songs like ‘Be Who You Are’, their latest single, which literally has a ‘da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da’ pop chorus. In other words, they’re literally being who they are: popstars.
Also, the rockstar steeze of their early tracks is far more palatable now. There’s still a guitar solo in every single song, but Luke’s vocal tics have smoothed out so much and the ad-libs feel way more natural when they’re not on the record.
GC: But they’ve avoided one of those “rebrands” that awkwardly aims to signal a big sonic or aesthetic shift, like Alex Turner’s sudden transformation from “Stoner you knew in high school” to “Greaser who walked off the set of The Outsiders”.
SD: Yeah — I guess they kinda tried that rebrand after Junk of the Heart, but instead of going full QOTSA like Arctic Monkeys did they went full Phoenix, and now they’re back to just being The Kooks.
As much as I really loved hearing my old favourite tracks — angsty tracks like ‘Seaside’ and ‘Sway’ especially — my favourite thing about this show was probably the way the teens in the General Admission section went off during newies like ‘Be Who You Are’ and ‘Westside’. There were some people in that crowd who were just absolutely getting their life during those songs, which is really beautiful.
The new songs are really surprisingly good, and it would have been a real shame if they were overlooked by the crowd. I thought everyone in the audience would be versions of 2018 Shaad & Greer, but in the end they were all versions of 2009 Shaad & Greer.
GC: It’s so true, the teens still turn up. And it’s different now, because you and I grew up — admittedly two years apart — during the 2000-2010 “golden age” of indie rock. Is This It came out when I was six and you were four. Vampire Weekend came out the year I finished primary school. For better or worse, ‘Little Lion Man’ topped the Hottest 100 the first year I cast a vote.
The Kooks are exemplary of the kind of band that turned up in the second half of that decade: they were building on, some might say profiting off, the movement that The Strokes ushered in. Rock songs could be slick and catchy, but still retain some sense of “authenticity” if the boys playing them were scruffy and the lyrics were about girls or booze. We both had subscriptions to NME, a magazine that basically turned us into tiny rockists by preaching bands like The Vaccines and The Drums as the “next big thing”.
I remember NME begrudgingly admitting their intrigue when Lana Del Rey released ‘Video Games’ in June 2011, and it was clear that the internet had become chief tastemaker, rather than magazines and the soundtracks of teen TV shows like Gossip Girl and The O.C. (Side note: Luke Pritchard and Mischa Barton dated in their shared heyday — are they our generation’s Michael Hutchence and Kylie Minogue?)
Anyway, considering that I doubt The Kooks are big on Tumblr, how are the kids who made it to Festival Hall hearing this band?
SD: triple j, I guess? I assumed the world stopped caring about The Kooks the minute we did, but I guess not. We both kinda live in this inner-city bubble, but jjj is still Gospel for a lot of kids, which I think is really cool.
Or, y’know, maybe Inside In/Inside Out is Is This It for a lot of kids who grew up half a decade after us? It’s unlikely, but wouldn’t that be surreal — if kids are fangin’ for daggy British indie rock in the same way I was obsessed with NYC indie when I was 14.
It’s pretty interesting to note that The Kooks have been more popular in Australia than the UK for a long time — since Konk they’ve kinda had trouble on the British charts, but still do okay here. Same situation for bands like The Wombats, touring here basically keeps them afloat. I think the indie bubble didn’t burst as intensely here as it did overseas, especially because our pop and hip-hop scenes aren’t that strong. In the US those genres are way way more commercially viable than rock is, and in the UK grime and pop are really big, but on our singles charts rappers don’t do super well, and a band like The Rubens can still have a number one, which would be unthinkable overseas.
GC: That’s so true, and it might be true to some extent that those bands we grew up with are becoming a weird brand of legacy artist, inspiring the indie bands coming up now? People are clearly still listening to records from that era — there’s that bizarre fact that The Killers’ ‘Mr. Brightside’ has never left the UK charts, and it went absolutely off this year when The Killers were here for the AFL Grand Final.
We both commented on the night that Luke’s stage presence reminded us of Harry Styles’ newly-embraced indie-rocker swagger, and there were a couple of moments when I saw shades of The 1975’s Matty Healy in his movements. And what a beautiful moment when he sat solo at the piano to sing ‘See Me Now’, the ballad about his dad who passed away when he was really small.
SD: Yeah, Luke’s showmanship really reminded me of Harry Styles’ show late last year with all the exaggerated movements and silly posturing. It’s bizarre, because I’m pretty sure this is the same old Kooks — I just see them so differently from how I did as a kid. Like, I used to think ‘See The World’ was fucking art, and I remember being completely dumbfounded by songs like ‘Shine On’ or ‘Sway’, which seems so weird now because they’re so H&M.
‘See Me Now’ was a definite highlight! The Kooks are so good at putting on affectations of emotion and Luke is great at playing characters, but they’ve never been particularly good at displaying vulnerability, but that was off the charts here.
It should also be mentioned that the set was impeccably paced — ‘See Me Now’ was right after ‘Do You Wanna’ from Konk, which seems so so weird on paper but was actually really great. I was never actively bored, which is big for me. I think that’s a testament to how well The Kooks know what their fans want.
Opening with the double header of ‘Eddie’s Gun’ and ‘Sofa Song’ is massive, and I thought that was probably an early peak, but it was a pretty constant high throughout. ‘Always Where I Need To Be’, ‘Junk of the Heart’, ‘Seaside’ and ‘Naive’ were the last tracks and they got the biggest reaction by far, so I guess I should just trust The Kooks to know what their fans want.
GC: Yeah exactly! I had a realisation a couple of years ago that one of the reasons I felt like my allegiance to indie rock had faded wasn’t really because I stopped enjoying the music, but because I started gravitating much more towards music that wasn’t made mostly by white men. As so many people have pointed out, in 2018 indie rock isn’t dead, it’s just evolving into a genre that’s ruled, in my opinion, by the voices of marginalised people.
It’s really comforting to know that this genre is growing and changing, and that a Kooks greatest hits show can feel nostalgic, that the songs still stand up and that you and I had a great time, but that we’re not exactly where we were in 2010.
SD: I think one of the great things about this show was how it didn’t feel vital at all, which I feel is a quality people are looking for in a lot of music right now — music with a sense of political purpose. I love purposeful music, but it felt pretty good to check out for once and just watch a band that is in no way at all relevant to Our Times right now, to step out of the bubble and just relax. It feels good to be a little naive sometimes.
Shaad D’Souza is a freelance writer from Melbourne. Follow him on Twitter here.
Greer Clemens is a freelance journalist and music critic (and musician) from Melbourne.