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Kula Shaker Biography

Kula Shaker are an English psychedelic rock band. Led by outspoken frontman Crispian Mills, the band came to prominence during the Post-Britpop era of the late 1990s. The band enjoyed great commercial success in the UK between 1996 and 1999, notching up a number of Top 10 hits on the UK Singles Chart, including "Tattva", "Hey Dude", "Govinda", "Hush", and "Sound of Drums". In addition, the band's debut album, K, reached #1 on the UK Albums Chart, becoming the fastest selling debut album in Britain since Oasis' Definitely Maybe and eventually being certified 2×Platinum by the BPI in January 1997.

The band are known for their interest in traditional Indian music, culture, and mysticism, with a number of their most famous songs, including "Tattva" and "Govinda", featuring lyrics written in the Hindu sacred language, Sanskrit. The name Kula Shaker was itself inspired by King Kulasekhara, an Indian emperor from the 8th century. In addition, many of the band's songs feature traditional Indian instruments, such as the sitar, tamboura, and tabla, juxtaposed with guitar-heavy, Western rock instrumentation. While the band's interest in all things Indian was partly inspired by a pilgrimage to India that Mills undertook in the early 1990s, it was also born out of a love for the Indian influences present in the music of The Beatles and other late 1960s acts.

Prior to the release of their second album, the band became the subject of controversy surrounding remarks that Mills had made in the NME and Melody Maker, regarding Nazism and its attendant symbol, the swastika. The Independent on Sunday ran a front page article in April 1997 reprinting Mills' comments and alleging that the guitarist "had dabbled with Nazism". The negative publicity surrounding the incident, along with overexposure in the British media, hurt the band's sales. Nonetheless, their second album, Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts, still managed to reach the Top 10 in the UK.

Kula Shaker disbanded in September 1999 but reformed in 2004 for sessions for the School of Braja compilation album. This led to plans for a full comeback, although the reformation was not widely publicised until the beginning of 2006. The band's third album, Strangefolk, was issued in 2007 and their fourth, Pilgrims Progress, was released in 2010.

The origin of Kula Shaker can be traced back to 1988 when Crispian Mills (grandson of Sir John Mills and son of actress Hayley Mills and film director Roy Boulting) met Alonza Bevan at Richmond upon Thames College in South-West London. The two went on to play together in a band named Objects of Desire, formed later that year. The band's initial line-up consisted of Mills on lead guitar, Bevan on bass, Marcus French (aka Frog) on drums, Leigh Morris on rhythm guitar, and Marcus Maclaine (then Hayley Mills' boyfriend) on lead vocals. In 1991, Paul Winterhart  joined the band, replacing French on drums. During this period, Crispian and Alonza were also responsible for running the Mantra Shack, a psychedelic nightclub at the back of Richmond ice rink, and consequently, the Objects of Desire would often perform at the venue.

The Objects of Desire disbanded acrimoniously in early 1993, after which, Mills went on a spiritual pilgrimage, backpacking around India. The trip had a profound effect on the guitarist, fostering a deep interest in Indian culture and Hinduism. Upon returning to the UK he formed a new band named The Kays, with Bevan, Winterhart, and Mills' cousin Saul Dismont (son of the Bermudan politician Russell Dismont) on vocals. The band's debut live performance was at the 1993 Glastonbury Festival. Within a year, Dismont had left the group, only to be replaced by organist Jay Darlington, who had previously been a member of several mod revival bands. After two years of touring and recording, during which they released two EPs on Gut Reaction Records, The Kays elected to change their name and musical direction.

In May 1995, Mills suggested that the band take the name Kula Shaker, in honour of one of the twelve Alvars (saints of south India), the ninth-century Indian emperor and holy man, King Kulashekhara. In Indian culture, the name Kulashekhara is thought to be lucky or auspicious, and this appealed to the struggling band. Mills also posited that Kula Shaker's music should follow a more spiritual and mystical direction in future, in line with his own growing interest in the philosophy of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. This new emphasis on Indian mysticism and instrumentation, dovetailed with the Beatlesque, 1960's derived influences already present in the band's music, to create a sound heavily indebted to 1960's psychedelia.

In September 1995 Kula Shaker were joint winners of the In The City contest (along with Placebo), which quickly resulted in a record contract with Columbia Records, who were eager to sign another band that had the multi-platinum, crossover appeal of Oasis. A debut single, "Tattva (Lucky 13 Mix)" (later re-recorded for their debut album) was released on CD and limited 7" vinyl in January 1996, but it entered just outside the UK Top 75, at number 86. "Tattva" was followed quickly in April by the band's second single, "Grateful When You're Dead", a slice of Jimi Hendrix-esque rock which was to became their debut UK Top 40  single (entering at #35). Music press and public alike finally began to take notice of the band, and this sudden exposure propelled the re-released (and re-recorded) "Tattva" to #4 in the UK Singles Chart. The band's upward climb continued with their third single "Hey Dude", a more traditional rock song which was only kept off the top spot by the Spice Girls when it was released in August.

October saw the release of the band's eagerly awaited debut album K, which became the fastest selling debut since Oasis' Definitely Maybe. The album went on to sell over 850,000 copies in the UK (double platinum), and a further 250,000 copies in the United States. The fourth and final single from K was "Govinda", which reached #7 in the UK charts in December of that year. "Govinda" was sung totally in Sanskrit, and mixed swirling guitars with traditional Indian music. Total sales for all the singles from K came to half a million.

1997 got off to a fine start for the band with four nominations for BRIT Awards, and they subsequently took home the award for "British Breakthrough Act" at the ceremony in February. In the same month they released what would turn out to be their biggest hit, a cover of "Hush" (originally written by Joe South for Billy Joe Royal, and most famously performed by the British hard-rock band Deep Purple) , which peaked at number 2. The song also proved successful in the U.S., where it was used on the soundtrack to the blockbuster movie I Know What You Did Last Summer. The song was also placed at #224 by Virgin Radio, in a poll for the 20th century's greatest songs. In the wake of the single's release, some ill-advised remarks on the traditional mystical properties of Swastikas by Crispian Mills put the band in the firing line of some of the UK press. See the "Controversy" section below.

Despite the negative publicity, the band pressed on regardless with a set of live shows in the summer of that year, including T in the Park where they were acclaimed by many as the best live act T in the Park had ever seen, the Glastonbury Festival and the V Festival. The focus during the latter part of 1997 moved to the US where both "Tattva" and "Hey Dude" received airplay exposure. "Tattva" became a minor #10 hit in the Modern Rock Tracks chart and "Hey Dude" peaked at #25. K itself peaked at #11 in the Heatseekers chart and crept to #200 in the Billboard charts. An EP, Summer Sun, was released in the U.S. for the band's fans there. The six tracks on the EP were all B-sides to earlier UK singles.

After initial disagreements with management, Kula Shaker resurfaced with the UK-only single "Sound of Drums" in April 1998, peaking at number 3. A promised album in the summer of that year failed to materialise, and the momentum generated by the single was lost as a result. Fans would have to wait until February 1999 to hear any more new material from the forthcoming second album.

The second album Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts was partly recorded aboard the houseboat-studio Astoria, which belongs to guitarist David Gilmour (of Pink Floyd). Brett Findlay joined the band as resident percussionist and remained with the group until their breakup at the end of 1999. The release of Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts  was preceded by the single "Mystical Machine Gun" which failed to make as strong an impact on the charts as their previous singles, peaking at Number 14 and only remaining two weeks in the top 40. The album itself followed in March 1999 to mixed reviews, and only sold a mere 25,000 copies in its first week as it crawled in at Number 9 on the album chart, spending only 10 weeks in the UK Top 75. The album went Gold in the UK (over 100,000 copies sold). The third and final single from the album, "Shower Your Love" failed to reignite momentum, stalling at #14, even with it having more TV exposure on Top of the Pops, TFI Friday, Later with Jools Holland and CD:UK. In June they played Glastonbury Festival and headlined the Lizard Festival in Cornwall in August 1999 to coincide with the total eclipse. The band made a few more festival appearances, including an appearance at V99, as a last-minute replacement for Placebo, before playing their last ever gig in Holland at the end of August.

In September of that year, the band announced their split. "I have loved my time with Kula Shaker and have experienced more than I could ever have imagined", Mills commented. "We've had an excellent time and been a very tight band, but there comes a time when you want to do your own thing."


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