Back with new album K 2.0 and touring the U.S. for the first time in seventeen years, British rock band Kula Shaker are concluding a euphoric set of hits at New York City’s Rough Trade venue the same way they always do: with “Govinda.”
“Govinda Jaya Jaya, Gopala Jaya Jaya, Radharamana Hari…” The crowd roars along as lead singer Crispian Mills beckons them to chant with esoteric hand guestures, then punches the air as his electric guitar surges back into the mix. “…. GOVINDA JAYA JAYA!”
The crowd goes certifiably bonkers.
“At its best, I think a rock concert should be like a big communal, mystical pow-wow,” says Crispian, when ISKCON News catches up with him backstage. “And you can’t get much more mystical than chanting Krishna’s names.”
While Kula Shaker became U.K. chart toppers in the late 1990s with songs that were saturated with Indian culture and Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy, it may surprise some to know that Crispian was what he calls a “Krishna Kid,” visiting Hare Krishna temples with his mother, actress Hayley Mills, as young as nine.
“Being so young, I found the whole culture, the vegetarianism, and all the fantastic ideas quite overwhelming,” he says. “I remember being rather terrified of Lord Nrsimhadeva [Lord Krishna’s half-man, half-lion avatar, whose Name appears in “Govinda” too]. But once I made friends with the other Krishna kids, I started to appreciate it and became more open-minded.”
Kula Shaker perform 'Govinda' live
In 1993, at the age of 19, Crispian went on a profoundly affecting spiritual pilgrimage to India - and later that same year, he and bassist Alonza Bevan and drummer Paul Winterhart formed “The Kays,” who played “Govinda” as their first song as a band.
“We were just kids,” Crispian says. “Sneaking into Glastonbury music festival, hiding in the back of somebody’s van with a few instruments. We got some help from the Hare Krishna devotees’ generator power supply, and performed ‘Govinda’ at dawn. A lot of devotees were there, and a lot of people on acid, too. After that, I thought, this is our ‘mission impossible.’ We’re going to make this band successful, and we’re going to get Govinda on the radio.”
First, though, another piece of the puzzle had to fall into place. In 1994, at the 25th anniversary celebrations of the London Radha Krishna temple, Crispian met Kulashekhara Das, the first English disciple of ISKCON Founder Srila Prabhupada. Kulashekhara happened to be from Twickenham, the same area in London as Crispian, and the two hit it off.
“He had great stories about hanging out with the Beatles, driving around and starting up the first temples in England, and some very inspiring stories about travelling with Prabhupada in the early days,” Crispian says. “I’ve always loved speaking to Prabhupada disciples about the early years, because they were the real frontiers people. They were so radical, what they were doing was so beyond anything that their families or society could have imagined.”
Crispian gives it his all at the Roxy Theater in West Hollywood this October
Kulashekhara Das also told Crispian about the original King Kulashekhara, whom Srila Prabhupada had named him after. Crispian was a fan of Arthurian legend, and the ninth century South Indian king, a saint who composed mystical, ecstatic devotional poems, spoke to him.
“The Kays had been struggling as a band for about two years, which seemed like a cosmic age to us, and I remembered this likely apocryphal story about how Black Sabbath had struggled for years too until they changed their name to Black Sabbath,” says Crispian. “So when I met Kulashekhara, something clicked.”
In late 1995, The Kays became Kula Shaker, and everything changed. Their first single, “Tattva,” reached number four in the UK Singles Chart. Its lyrics describe the ancient and “far-out” philosophical concept Kulashekhara Das had first introduced Crispian to – of Achintya-bheda-abheda tattva, which posits that we infinitesimal spirit souls are simultaneously (and ‘acintya’ inconceivably), one in quality, yet different in quantity, from the infinite ‘Supreme Soul’.
Another single, Hey Dude, reached number 2 in the chart; after which their “mission impossible” came true as “Govinda” received the widespread international radio airplay they had dreamed of, and to this day, remains the only British top ten hit to be sung entirely in Sanskrit.
The cover of 1996's 'K', adorned with Radha-Krishna
In 1996, their debut album “K,” adorned with Radha-Krishna on the cover, claimed the number one spot, became the fastest-selling UK debut of the year, and sold over a million copies around the world. In the same year, Crispian married his wife Joe, and took initiation from Gaudiya Vaishnava guru Srila Bhaktivedanta Narayana Maharaja, receiving the name Krishna Kanta Das.
Crispian says that being married and having the inspiration and support of his guru kept him sane in the whirlwind of fame, or as “Hey Dude” puts it, “Honey, gold, jewels, money, women, wine, cars that shine.”
“You can go completely mad in the music business when you have success,” he says. “But I was very lucky. I always felt protected.”
Still, after several tours and another highly charting album, the pressures of the music business began to erode the band’s enjoyment of what they loved, and Kula Shaker broke up in 1999. But by 2006 they had returned, this time gradually forging their way back to an international audience as an indie band with their own record label and on their own terms.
Today after two comeback albums, Strangefolk and Pilgrims Progress, Kula Shaker are coming full circle, celebrating their 20th anniversary in 2016 with a new album, K 2.0, and a massive world tour.
The intriguing cover to this year's 'K 2.0,' featuring many references to the album's lyrics
In a climate of hate and fear, with politicians plumbing the lowest common denominator, it’s good to have Kula Shaker back. Whether overtly singing in Sanskrit or not, their message is always deeply spiritual.
To many Gaudiya Vaishnavas, lyrics will resonate in a particular way. In 108 Battles of the Mind, Crispian describes a struggle they’ll recognize only too well. In top 3 hit Sound of Drums, the lines “I hear the sound of drums and a melody/I see the Golden One” seem to describe 15th century avatar Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s public chanting. And in more recent song “Ruby,” Crispian pleads, “Beware of maya, don’t let her bring you down.”
But he feels that art should be open to everyone, and that a good lyric can be interpreted in multiple ways. Therefore, such words can mean something else just as meaningful to listeners of other faiths or backgrounds.
After all, he says, “Gaudiya philosophy connects you more deeply with all the other spiritual traditions. It fosters a better understanding of Saint Francis, or the First Nations, or the Buddha. It only deepens your connection and respect for everyone. It doesn’t, and shouldn’t, create divisions.”
Mundane religiosity, Crispian points out, creates barriers and divisions, while true spirituality brings people together. He hopes that Kula Shaker’s music generates such a sense of harmony.
“A basic agreeing of these universal principles of compassion, non-violence, a Higher love, and caring for one’s fellow humans and fellow creatures,” he says.
New album K 2.0, described as a companion album to K, explores these ideas and others as diverse as overcoming one’s demons and going back to living from the land.
There are more obviously Vaishnava-influenced songs, too. “Haribol (The Sweetest Sweet)” is a beautiful folk meditation, while the epic fan-favorite “Mountain Lifter” is a psychedelic rock opera telling the story of Krishna lifting Govardhana Hill that will give any devotee goosebumps.
“Alonza, Paul and I have visited Govardhan in Vrindavana, India many times together, and have had beautiful experiences doing parikrama (pilgrimage on foot) with my guru maharaja,” says Crispian. “Fans love to hear the stories behind a song, and that pastime came up spontaneously."
As well as being a pop culture conduit for spiritual ideas, Crispian sees Kula Shaker as a service.
The band reformed in 2004 while contributing to a charity album ‘School of Braj’ that raised funds for the New Braja school community in Badger, California, as well as for a young monk who had been injured.
“In the 19th century work ‘The Way of the Pilgrim,’ the Russian pilgrim narrator realizes that every heartbeat, every breath has become a kind of a service, and an expression of Divine love,” Crispian says. “For me, that says it all. That’s universal. That’s the goal.”
Next, Kula Shaker are re-releasing their classic bestseller K on November 11th. And in December, they’ll play K in full at a series of UK shows. Next summer, they hope to play some music festivals. After that, the future is wide open.
“K 2.0 was coming full circle, back to where we started,” says Crispian. “So the next album will be a kind of re-set. Who knows what direction it will take? Maybe psychedelic lounge kirtan?”
He laughs. “As Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy says, we’re not the controllers.”
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To purchase Kula Shaker’s albums including K and K 2.0, visit http://shop.kulashaker.co.uk/
To find out where they’re playing next, visit http://kulashaker.co.uk/[ kula-shaker ] [ new-york ] [ uk ]