Rudy Bolly catches up with Kasabian’s bandleader and chief songwriter, Serge Pizzorno, in a London bar to discuss new album For Crying Out Loud, his vinyl fetish and becoming the Elton John of Leicester City FC…
File Kasabian under ‘indie rock’ at your peril. The Leicester quartet first hit the charts with a laddish sneer in 2004, and were quickly dubbed ‘saviours of rock’. Such lazy labels do their diverse output a disservice. Sure, they can pound your ears into submission with glammy riffs, but dig a little deeper and it’s clear Kasabian have always been a more sophisticated proposition, dabbling with electronica, hip-hop and an Olympic-swimming-pool-sized dose of psychedelia. Now back with instantly lovable new album For Crying Out Loud, it’s packed full of sharp, smart jukebox anthems.
As album titles go, For Crying Out Loud is unusual, jarring even; which was precisely the idea. “It’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot during my life,” sniggers the charmingly dishevelled Serge. “My old man hitting his hand with a hammer, or my grandma giving me a clip around the ear. It’s just ingrained in me.”
More than an exclamation, For Crying Out Loud is also a statement of intent.
“It has a double meaning,” Serge agrees. “When it’s written down, it takes on a different life. I thought to myself, ‘I’ve made an album of anthems with big melodies here.’ I liked the idea of it being music for crying out, loud, to. You know, music for screaming your lungs out to.”
Established rock bands, six albums into their career, normally have a habit of gallivanting off to a studio in the Bahamas for six months or more. Interestingly, Serge did the opposite and proposed to write and record the entire record in just six weeks at his home studio, rather brilliantly christened The Sergery.
“The plan was to produce a very short, concise explanation of my music. It harks back to the hit factories of the 60s; I was listening to Berry Gordy and a lot of Motown. Our records used to be ready ‘when they’re ready’, but what excited me was the idea of giving myself a deadline. No more messing – these are the songs written in this time, they’re great, so let’s just put them out.”
It almost went to plan. Serge delivered 10 complete tracks in that six-week period: “Then I wrote a couple more, which made it more cohesive,” he says. Such conviction in the face of (self-imposed) adversity is refreshing, but it mirrored what many R&B musicians endured right up until the 90s. While privileged rock bands were blocking out months at state-of-the-art studios, acts such as Chic and Earth, Wind & Fire often had only hours to record entire albums, and usually at ungodly times. Nevertheless, it’s a method that’s regularly delivered a classic.
Serge agrees. “I don’t think your brain works any better the longer you have. You’ve got the chops, get it out. If I had until next May or, say, five o’clock tonight to write a song, chances are the results are going to be better tonight. Deadlines are important to kick yourself into a different gear.”
For Crying Out Loud adopts a pure rock-pop approach, a direct response to the electronic twiddling on 2014’s 48:13.
Let’s listen like we used to
“The craft of the song was key,” says Serge. “The last one was experimentation and before maybe I wanted to freak people out. But I thought, ‘I’m not going to do psychedelia this time, I just want to do really good tunes that last three-and-a-half minutes with an intro you understand, beautifully crafted melodic tunes’. I was sort of really excited by the idea of kids listening in their bedrooms and thinking, ‘I can play this on my guitar’.”
Ultimately, Kasabian wanted to make a truly great album. “This one is about that beautiful tune that only comes around every 20 years or so,” he enthuses, then starts cradling an imaginary baby in his arms. “This album is about drawing you in and saying, ‘It’s okay, we got ya.’”
“I thought, I’m not going to do psychedelia this time, I just want really good tunes”
Fans are definitely in safe hands. Like all great bands, Kasabian are brilliant at referencing the past, while unearthing something fresh. It’s a trait that stems from Serge’s interest in vinyl. Unfortunately, Kasabian emerged at a low point for the format, an era when many labels didn’t even bother pressing new releases onto vinyl. But Serge made sure his band were an exception to the rule.
“Every record we’ve made, even on the first one when nobody was really making vinyl, we pushed for it,” he says, listing off a number of Kasabian limited editions. “Back in the day, when we lived on the farm, that’s what we did, we would go dig for records. The lifeblood of our youth was finding old classic and obscure records in weird record stores. So it was always a must that our music came out on vinyl and of course, now, it’s doing really well. People are into it again, kids are really finding albums again.”
Kasabian have a particular fondness for the 10″ format, and the new album arrived as a super-limited triple 10″ white-vinyl set. Their persistence and passion encouraged other bands to follow suit. “It’s interesting because you can get reissues of albums that were never released on vinyl now. I know bands who don’t even own a record player but insist on vinyl.”
The guitarist’s own personal collection of LPs has got out of control. Even successful rock stars with huge country piles struggle to find adequate space. He explains: “I was mad on it, but I stopped because I had nowhere else to put it. I still have some incredible records that are probably worth a few quid. I’m not a businessman or have the first clue, but I’ve gathered a lot of records that have inadvertently become very expensive now just because I’m into music. Endtroducing….. by DJ Shadow is probably one of my favourite-ever LPs. The fact that he’s big into records is pretty amazing and just the cover art made me want to start collecting.”
The album turned forgotten vinyl into new classics, and its record-store artwork romanticised the collectors who found them. The LP is one of the reasons why Kasabian are so creative with their own artwork. Aitor Throup, who has worked with the band since Velociraptor, created the sleeve to For Crying Out Loud with help from visual artist Daft Apeth and photographer Neil Bedford.
The cover features black-and-white portraits of a bawling Rick Graham, the band’s longest-serving roadie. “Rick has been with us for 12 years, he’s 70 and we wanted to immortalise him,” smiles Serge. “He’s sort of been around forever – he roadied for The Kinks back in the day.”
It’s a rare and wonderful homage to a friend, and it’s turned Rick into a bit of a celebrity. “Oh yeah, he’s lapping it up,” says Serge.
Throup’s work was inspired by punk fanzines, drawing on references from his own record collection by using a range of fonts. Serge explains: “I think it’s really intriguing, like nothing else I’ve seen on a record in recent times. It’s got the classic structure of a 60s album, but with a psychedelic visual twist – it’s an interesting move to make.”
Judging by his enthusiasm for the past, maybe Serge was born in the wrong decade. Listening to For Crying Out Loud is a bit like rifling through your dad’s old collection of LPs – Roxy Music, T. Rex and even the big singalong choruses of Bay City Rollers are paid their dues.
“The 70s is bang on,” says Serge.
“It was a time when pop music was a craft, with backing vocals but this harder guitar. Fleetwood Mac, Bowie, Supertramp – all bands that would kill you with a melody.
“I haven’t heard those types of anthemic choruses with a guitar for ages. So now is the time, and if not us, then maybe the next band will bring it back, but it feels like an ancient art, the guitar.”
One track in particular, Good Fight, possesses the glamour and punchiness of a 1970s rock classic, and its lyrics are a call to arms. “It’s us saying, ‘come with me, fight the good fight’. It’s about sharing something that you are all into – whether it’s bands, music, football or art; it’s that thing you share with your best mate or missus. We feel the same about our work, fighting the good fight.”
The communal vibe continues with Bless This Acid House. “That’s about hope and picking yourself up off the floor – bless this time we have together. The togetherness
that acid house created with all your pals in the same room or in a field, and everybody is revelling in that moment. I flipped it on its head and did it through a punk medium rather than electronically, but it’s my take on that feeling.”
Kasabian have never been shy of having a good time. However, now the band members are approaching the end of their thirties, a song such as Party Never Ends seems to hold more poignancy. Still elegantly wasted, Serge agrees: “I think you just learn over the years to choose your battles wisely. I did enjoy going out, always have done and always will do. There’s no need to stop doing that.”
There is a serious side to the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, though, and lead singer Tom Meighan recently revealed how he had suffered a breakdown last year. Serge believes Tom’s troubles have made Kasabian stronger than ever. “I never thought it would be the end of the band,” he says causally. “People go through shit and that’s when you have their back. We are a family and we had a man down, so we picked him up, just like he would have done for us.”
“I figure if you make good art then people will be interested in it, no matter how it gets released”
What has changed definitively is the way people consume music. Incredibly, vinyl has outpaced downloads and CDs, but there is also a whole generation of kids who only know how to subscribe to streaming sites. It means Kasabian had to rethink how they release music, yet again.
“Changes,” Serge sighs. “It’s the conversation we have had every year since we released our first album. It used to be set in stone, the structure of how you release and tour, and with every year, it’s changed. I figured out long ago that it’s not for me.
“I have no idea how you have a hit. I figure if you make good art then people will be interested in it, no matter how it gets released. If you don’t, they won’t.”
It’s a healthy attitude to have, but the reality is that even a band like Kasabian struggle to make an impact on the singles chart in 2017.
Serge is more philosophical about the situation, however. “Whether you do EPs, singles, or different ways of engaging, ultimately, it’s music. I’ve got a guitar, I’ve got a synth and drum machine and I try and make things that I like and I hope people like.
“That’s as much as I’ve got. I have no strategy. All I do is think, ‘why are people still listening to Stand By Me by Ben E. King?’ Because it’s amazing – it doesn’t matter if I listen to it as a download or streaming, as long as I can come up with something like that it will work itself out.”
Beyond music, Kasabian have also become football mascots. Watford have Elton John, Newcastle United have Ant & Dec and now Leicester City can count Serge and the boys as their celebrity flag wavers. Last year was an emotional season; their beloved Foxes won the Premier League against all odds, so they celebrated with two massive shows at the city’s King Power stadium. “It’s become part of the Kasabian story,” admits Serge, whose song Fire is played every matchday as the team walk out. “It’s an honour to think that was even possible, as an 11-year-old watching that team. But it’s more to me than that, it’s my mates. It’s beyond football, because football is fucking fucked… it’s a congregation for my mates to meet.”
Kasabian – Through the years
Kasabian’s debut was an attention-grabbing thrill ride that may have worn its early-to-mid-90s influences on it sleeve, but also turbocharged them in the process, splicing malevolent, grimy riffs to stadium-filling choruses.
West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum 2009
This more experimental offering took a left turn into a shadowier, more electronica-orientated world, without entirely jettisoning the anthemic elements the fanbase had grown accustomed to.
A decade on from their debut, Pizzorno occupied the producer’s chair on his own, and proceeded to recapture Kasabian’s fire and dancefloor-filling directness, with a few moments of subtlety thrown in for good measure.
Field of dreams
“I think like any fan, I’m connected in a way that the club comes first,” Serge adds. “The most important people at a club aren’t the players or manager, it’s the fans.”
That theory was tested to the limit when their good friend Claudio Ranieri was sacked earlier this year. Having grown close to the Italian manager, Serge chooses his words carefully: “I feel like I’m allowed to have an opinion, as somebody who has been with them a lot. It was really sad when Ranieri left, but it’s amazing how quickly football changes. Three nights later and it was one of the best games I’ve ever experienced at Leicester – even bigger than winning the league, the atmosphere.”
Basically, Kasabian are fanatics, so much so they have made contingency plans for when games clash with gigs. “We have looked at the schedule,” he deadpans.
“We’ll beam it into our dressing rooms and we’ll have to come onstage late.”
Football aside, touring remains where the band feel most at home. “It’s only when you see another show that you realise how much you miss it,” he says, getting a little misty eyed. “The 30-second walk from the dressing room to the stage is one of the most amazing experiences you can have.”
It would’ve been understandable if headlining Glastonbury Festival in 2014 had been the pinnacle of their career, but Kasabian are determined it’s just the start. “I feel like everything now is just a pure bonus. I didn’t feel like it was the end after Glasto. Usually, when you get to where you’ve been striving to get to it’s like, ‘I’m bored now,’ but with me, I’m excited: ‘Where do we go next?’. Anything is possible. I don’t want this to end. There’s not enough time, but I’m here, you get one spin, things have gone okay, so let’s do more shit and make things happen.”
Headline sets at Reading and Leeds Festivals, along with Scotland’s TRNSMT this summer should keep them sweet. And, mercifully, they won’t be demanding a box of kittens on their rider, either. “I’m a simple man,” insists Serge, as our interview concludes. “Just give me my passport and point me in the right direction.”