The Legend of the King
Weird and wonderful tales (some of which may even be true), recounting the magnificent origins and further adventures of ‘Kula Shaker’.
Statue of Kulasekhara, South India
Part I (The ‘Madness’ of the King)
King Kulasekhara reigned in the 8th century A.D. He was the heir to the royal Chera dynasty, presiding over a vast kingdom of what is now Kerala, in South India. At the time of his birth, astrologers calculated he was born under the asterism of Purnavasu and all planetary alignments indicated a remarkable personality. He became trained in all the arts, epics, Sanskrit, Tamil, as well as studying the martial arts, including elephant riding and horsemanship. On ascending the throne, he became famous as a noble and powerful king, but was also revered for having saintly qualities.
Kulasekhara is called the 10th Alvar, a line of mystic poets. The 1st Alvar is believed to have lived around 5,000 years ago. The Alvars are celebrated as poet saints, who gave away their worldly possessions, shunning all vanity and self-serving interest. The 3rd Alvar was a woman, named, Andale, whilst Kulasekhara was unique in that he was born into immense royal wealth & power.
Warrior Kings- Kulasekhara’s dynasty were warrior kings of the Shri sect, who worshipped Lord Narayana as the Supreme Being, also known as Rama, Krishna, and Govinda, and they would glorify His divine personality and eternal pastimes in dance, art, poetry & song.
Divine Madness- Legend has it that as the great King became more and more immersed in devotion he began to exhibit strange and ecstatic symptoms. Once, whilst hearing a recital of the Ramayan (the great epic of Lord Rama) the King fell into a trance. During a passage in which Rama’s divine Queen Sita is abducted by the demon Ravana, it is said that Kulasekhara leapt to his feet and ordered his generals to mobilise his vast army, and march to the coast to invade Sri Lanka (where, in the story, Sita was being held captive). Ultimately, he was pacified by his courtiers, but this was one of many incidents in which the king exhibited symptoms of ‘divine madness’. To the faithful, this behaviour indicated his profound spiritual attainment, since he no longer thought of God as the Almighty One, but rather as a friend, who depended on his love & help. In Sanskrit, this state of absorption is called Samadhi, a mystic union that bestows many transcendental emotions, called rasas. Although the symptoms often appear strange and bizarre, they are considered to be the fruit of all perfection.
The penniless poet- whilst he was still young, the king renounced his throne and became a wandering hermit, without home or possessions. Traveling hundreds of miles on foot, he eventually arrived at the famous south Indian temple of Sri Rangam, where he spent much of the rest of his life immersed in ecstatic meditations, and where he wrote his famous poem Mukunda-mala-stotra.
Hari & St George
A little while later- (roughly 1,000 years) in 1968 London, England, a lad from Liverpool finds himself in the biggest rock & roll band of all time. The Beatles are at the height of their power and a young George Harrison has turned on to Indian music.
He soon meets the great spiritual master, A.C Bhaktivedanta swami, and under his guidance George begins studying the ancient art of bhakti yoga- the path of devotion.
George Harrison and John Lennon invite the swami to stay at their homes, offering to help set up a temple in England. Many of the swami’s students accompany him, among them an 19 year-old boy named Kulasekhara das, which means ‘following in the footsteps of King Kulasekhara’. During this time George produces the ‘Goddess of Fortune’ album, a compilation of traditional bhakti songs and kirtan, released on The Beatle’s Apple label. All the songs are performed by the Swami’s disciples, with guest musicians including George himself, Paul McCartney, and artist Klaus Voorman.
A ‘Chance’ meeting? 27 years on, in November 1995; in a chance meeting, Kulasekhara das is introduced to a young guitarist in a struggling band called ‘The Kays’. An Indiaphile, and eager to hear stories about ‘hanging with Beatles’, he manages to steal five hours extracting anecdotes of the sublime and ridiculous. Amidst these stories, Kula also tells him about the sage King Kulasekhara. He confides that this name is lucky and auspicious, and that he has always felt the King ‘watching over him’. Later that evening the young guitarist decides Kulasekhara is a much better name for a band, and that they could most definitely do with some divine intervention. So with a small spelling change, Kula Shaker is born.
As if by magic… within 9 months every major record company wants to sign the band. Crispian, Alonza, Paul, and Jay release their first chart eligible single in 1996, and within a year are enjoying a number one album, touring the world, and rapidly establishing themselves as a band that reaches the parts other bands can’t reach.
Before too long, the airwaves are awash with strangeness, and across the world, radio stations are unwittingly broadcasting ancient Sanskrit mantras, and with songs like ‘Tattva’, rock & roll gets a much-needed dose of spiritual anarchy. With the dot.com businesses booming and busting, and Britpop busy ‘having it large’, Kula Shaker find themselves out on a limb, singing lyrics like ‘Will we arise at the dawn of another meaning?”…
The Millennium Eclipse- In 1999, the band agrees to play at the millennium eclipse festival; performing beneath a total solar eclipse at England’s Lizard Point, Cornwall. The vast shadow of the eclipse will travel ominously from England’s most western coast, across Eastern Europe, before disappearing over India’s Bay of Bengal.
However, in India nobody is celebrating. Actually, in India an eclipse of this nature is considered highly inauspicious, a bad omen that brings disease, natural disaster and general bad luck. Most people won’t even look at it, millions of people stay indoors, wash, chant mantras or hide…
The Meltdown Within a week of returning from the festival, Kula Shaker has split, and vanishes without a trace. No reason is given. The band, which has barely scratched the surface of its promise, now disappears over the horizon.
Death & Reincarnation
Very soon, carrion-like journalists (most of whom are in the employment of the government) are dispatched to play down all evidence that such a band ever existed.
Thereafter ensues a period of Radio silence- followed by odd bits of news…
Paulie gets married and has two baby daughters with clothes designer Nixie; he also sits in for a band called ‘Thirteen 13′, but the band’s numerology makes him uncomfortable, so he leaves.
Crispian writes films, fronts the Jeevas, and in his spare time finds employment as Jane Horrocks’ body double.
After swapping vegetarian chops with the great Johnny Marr, Alonza plays bass for Aqualung, and marries Mediaeval Baebe Audrey Evans.
-Whilst Legend has it that Jay Darlington goes down to the crossroads… and meets Noel Gallagher.
School of Braja- However, in the summer of 2004 Alonza, Paul & dodge (Crispian) get together to record a track for a charity album called ‘School of Braja’, helping raise money for a small school community. It is the first time they have played together since the eclipse, and they record a famous Hindi song Radhe jai jai, Madhava dayite. The track sounds very heavy, and voices can be heard opining that some kind of darkness has been ‘lifted’…
A Karmic purge? After the session, Alonza & Crispian begin writing together again. Their first song, inspired by Tony. B and George. W, is called “Dictator of the free world”; Crispian says “it was like finally being sick after a five year migraine”.
After such a long period away, the band decide there’s no time like the present. The 4-track Garage EP ‘Revenge of the King’ is recorded and released in a matter of days, whilst simultaneous touring and writing for an album commences.
Strangefolk… 1,117 years since King Kulasekhara’s illustrious reign, 350,280 hours since George Harrison met the venerable swami, 13 years since Kula met Crispian, 10 years since ‘Grateful when you’re dead’… and 2,185 days since the fateful total eclipse; the album ‘StrangeFolk’ is finally released, quietly and humbly, on the band’s own label in 2007. Dedicated to their fans, and named after an infamous lost track from ‘Peasants Pigs and Astronauts’, the album reveals a band enjoying their new independence. Organ maestro Harry Broadbent brings his own special kind of chemistry as ‘Strangefolk’ takes to the road, where songs like ‘Second Sight’ and ‘Narayana’ start to come into their own as live classics.
A blessing and a curse: However, in true gypsy style, it’s not long before the band are being moved on, and dealing with yet another crisis; this time it’s the 2008 British economic free fall. The band’s record label faces complete and utter liquidation when the main share holder freaks out and decides he wants to invest elsewhere, in peanut butter. This leads to a long and agonizing period of financial paralysis, as hand-wringing accountants and vampiric lawyers feast upon their prey. After 9 months, the litigation draws to close and miraculously, the label has survived… but only just. A smashed up, bombed out, rather decrepit looking old building remains, no roof, broken windows, and the corridors echoing with the sound a lonely old old gramophone player, crackling away in the ballroom.
PART IV: A Commune in Belgium:
A crisis meeting is arranged on top of London’s Primrose Hill, rather ominously near to the band’s first communal lodgings in 1994, on Fellows Road.
All band members are in attendance. Topic to be discussed: ‘Penury’.
“The outlook was bleak” says Crispian “It was pretty disheartening to have worked so hard through 2005-2008, to end like this. We had to decide whether we could afford to carry on. Eventually, Alonza and I decided that, if the songs were there, if we had a great album in us, then it would be worth continuing. Thing is, we ended up writing some of our best work to date, which created another problem: how to record an album for free, since we didn’t have the money for studios, or producers, or anything.”
After some brainstorming, an ingenious plan is devised to build a recording studio, deep in the forests of the Ardennes (hidden away in deep dark, French speaking Belgium).
Alonza sells his property in London’s exclusive Walthamstow district, to purchase a woodcutter’s house in the middle of a forest. In the blink of an eye the Welshman gets to work; walls are built, tiles are laid, cables are wound, electricity is sent crackling through the circuits, and very soon, the most dangerous studio in the world is almost fully operational.
As the band move in to begin recording, the house becomes a commune of sorts, attracting artists and pilgrims from all over the forest. After witnessing the aftermath of one of the commune’s infamous late night sweat lodges, the local postman begins to worry that this is some kind of strange religious cult, which of course it is not. By the end of summer recording is near complete and Alonza prepares to start mixing. Fulton Dingley is called in to help, having worked with the band on PP&A. Fully is very relaxed with the whole commune vibe. He has a big beard himself and is totally comfortable with people having no clothes on, and so a few days after Fully arrives, he gives all his clothes to charity and mixing commences. This process lasts for many many months.
In late August, the band’s new manager Maurice Bacon travels out to the house to find out why nobody is answering the phone. Half suspecting to find the studio full of dead bodies, he is relieved to see everybody has moved out and is merely living in tree houses. A strong pot of coffee is brewed and the whip is cracked. Poets, shamens, and confused holiday makers are all sent packing, and Alonza and Fulton are thrown into an icy waterfall. Mixing then resumes.
Two weeks later, the master tapes are brought back to London for listening. The sounds are good and spirits are high. “This is the one” says Alonza, “I’m high as a kite.” And so it is, that the band prepare to emerge from the shadows. To once more don the humble sack cloth of pilgrims, to carry the good name of King KulaSekhara upon their heads.
And the great King himself watches on, preparing to spin the wheel of fortune one more time.
God Bless the KING!
Interviews by Fiona Macleod