Their lairy songs brought them fame – and their lairier antics made them the Gallaghers’ natural heirs. Can their fifth album and a headline slot at Glastonbury transform Kasabian’s image?
The first time I meet Sergio Pizzorno, the thin-as-a-rake, bearded-and-black-leathered guitarist from Kasabian, I tell him how terrible his band is. My memory of the occasion is hazy, but the following morning I wake up remembering one part of what was mostly a monologue.
Pizzorno: “No, man, it’s good – I appreciate you being straight with us. I’ve never understood why the broadsheet press don’t seem to like us.”
Me: “In that case [feeling triumphant], I will tell you!”
Cue a long, finger-jabbing rant, in which I hold the band solely responsible for every failure of contemporary rock’n’roll. It’s entirely plausible that the rumours already swirling that the band will headline this year’s Glastonbury were also addressed but summarily scoffed at. So it is a credit to Pizzorno’s good-naturedness that, six months later, I am sitting in the kitchen of his well-appointed house on the fringes of Leicester, responding to the question of how many sugars I’d like in my tea.
It’s very much the sort of kitchen you’d expect the 33-year-old Pizzorno to have – flat-screen telly showing an old Doors documentary, Easter eggs (or rather Thorntons chocolate bunnies) for his two young children by the Aga – as is the large barn outside that he has had converted into a Boy’s Own studio, which is where he largely wrote and made the band’s new album.
Our first encounter took place after an Africa Express gig in Marseilles in October last year, at which Pizzorno had joined a cast including that enterprise’s guiding light, Damon Albarn, ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate, Nick Zinner from Yeah Yeah Yeahs, drummer Tony Allen and more. Typically of these chaotic shows, which encourage collaboration between African and western artists, it lasted several hours, and I’d drunk a lot of pastis. It’s in this scenario and in Albarn’s dressing room afterwards that I launched into a diatribe about how the sort of experimentation on show earlier – including a version of the Chemical Brothers’ Galvanize on which Pizzorno featured alongside oud player Mehdi Haddab – felt anathema to so much rock music these days.
Even when I’d told him how boorish his band are, Pizzorno was at gentle pains to defend Kasabian’s reputation, principally the way in which they were cast as Oasis knock-offs when they first emerged a decade ago. It wasn’t just the lairy sound of singles such as Club Foot (although a more alert critic might have noticed its video was dedicated to Czech student Jan Palach, who killed himself by self-immolation in protest at the end of the Prague Spring) or the corresponding behaviour of the band’s singer Tom Meighan (pithily, from Wikipedia: “He became well known for his insults, such as calling Julian Casablancas ‘a posh fucking skier’, Pete Doherty ‘a fucking tramp’ and Justin Timberlake ‘a midget with whiskers'”). It was that they went the whole hog and became friends with the Gallaghers, gallivanting across London together just at the point at which critics’ knives were drawn for Oasis.
Didn’t this, I ask Pizzorno once we’re seated in his studio, contribute to what I think of as Kasabian’s image problem? “Totally. But we were 23. What could be more exciting than meeting your heroes – and them being sound – and staying up for days on end? You’ve got to do it!”
Twenty years on, the view that Britpop was a cultural abomination isn’t one that Pizzorno shares, not least because “being 14 was the perfect age for it. And I love the honesty of that time, how bands would just say: ‘We don’t give a fuck, mate.’ Everyone’s worried about what people will say on Twitter now, everyone edits themselves.
“At school there was a divide,” he continues. “There were the grunge kids and there were the rave kids, then later on everyone turned into Liam and Noel. It was that big.”
Pizzorno counted himself in the rave camp, even if his experience thereof was largely restricted to venturing to Five HQ records in Leicester (“the most frightening place on earth”) to filch fliers to plaster on his bedroom wall. Other key influences? “In/Flux by DJ Shadow. My mate who grew weed in his bedroom played it to me and nothing bigger than that has ever happened to me musically.”
It also mattered that he was a keen footballer, more in thrall in his telling of it to George Best and Roberto Rivelino than the long-ball game, because something like that “helped when you were at school in Leicestershire with a funny name” (the product of his Genoan ancestry). In fact, if Kasabian had only ever made one record, Pizzorno would exist as a footnote on a Wiki page as the scorer of “one of the great Soccer Aid goals!“, after memorably lobbing David Seaman in a charity match at Wembley in 2012.
By contrast, Meighan was “part of the graffiti crowd”, a Cypress Hill fan who rode a BMX, when the pair first met as young teenagers at Countesthorpe community college. In his bandmate’s recollection, he was “always the life and soul. He’d walk into the room and: bang! He was a nightmare, he’d drive the teachers insane, but he’s always been very charming so he’d always get away with it.”
Little has changed. Back in the kitchen, Meighan appears, armed with a bottle of prosecco which he insists we crack open. He bounces up and down to demonstrate the pain in his legs after a video shoot for new single Eez-eh the day before; chats about Leicester City’s barnstorming run in the Championship; and insists repeatedly that he won’t bite. It’s not clear to me whether Pizzorno has mentioned our initial conversation in Marseilles – and I’m not sure Meighan would remember if he had, so much is he the hyperactive yin to his partner’s ruminative and softly spoken yang; but nonetheless the singer prods me with the same question twice: “Are you for us or against us?”
The plan is that the pair will play me some of the new album, which they’ve titled 48:13, its running time, because, as Pizzorno says, sounding perfectly Spinal Tap: “It’s a journey, not a collection of singles.” But first it’s important to understand the context of that claim, as well as the reasoning behind one of my sticking points with the band. Part of the appeal of Britpop for fans at the time was that it felt like the counterculture was taking over – but that illusion only lasted a very short time. That is hardly the fault of Kasabian, but could any band now gain that same traction on the public consciousness?
“Absolutely not,” Pizzorno replies, “but I think it was a lot easier back then.” In a world of limited media, he points out, when there were still only four readily accessible TV channels in the UK and a handful of music magazines, “bands could have a massive impact – but it’s so splintered now. People don’t give a fuck, they’ve got YouTube, and what do you care about anything when you’ve got access to anything you want at any time?
“You might hate a record you’d bought, but you’d go: ‘This has cost me a fucking tenner – I’ve got to listen to it again,'” he continues. “And then it’s: ‘Actually, this is not as bad as I thought,’ and then all of a sudden you go: ‘This is the best album ever made!'”
Isn’t it also, though, that all the battles that rock’n’roll fought have been won? The sex, drugs and rock’n’roll stuff used to stand for something, but now it’s just a bit … boring, surely? “It’s true we’ve not had anything to fight against, it’s true,” the guitarist says. “I agree, but I don’t think it has to be as complicated as that. It can just be: ‘I love this tune.'”
So there it is: an admission of an element of rock’s lost potency, but, standing in Pizzorno’s kitchen, it feels a hollow outcome to whatever argument it was we had those six months earlier. In this moment – cowardice? politeness? finally paying to attention to their music? – I seem to be agreeing with Meighan’s judgment that 48:13 is “contemporary rock’n’roll of absolutely the highest calibre!” It’s punchily anthemic but also indebted to the dynamics of hip-hop and dance music, and there are points at which it goes off on weird, experimental tangents. It probably helps that as the record comes blasting from the speakers, the singer is standing two feet in front of me and singing along to every word of Bumblebee, which seems guaranteed to be the band’s opener at Glastonbury: “When we’re together, I’m in ecstasy!”
I ask Meighan about the point at which he is brought into the creative process and he replies: “It’s pretty simple, Sergio is the Pete Townshend of the band – we’re very much like the Who – and when we break up off tour, we go off to do our thing, and after a while I’ll get a call to say: ‘Thomas, I’ve got some demos,’ and it’s like, ‘Yes! Jesus! Fuck! Someone’s answered my prayers.’ He gives me them to learn and I do my part and we go from there.”
It’s evident that the two could hardly be closer – frequently Meighan will pull the handbrake on his verbal flow to seek approbation from his bandmate (“the great thing about Kasabian was we never tried to be cool. That was the whole point of it. Wasn’t that the whole point, Serge?”) – but the famous strain of touring the US was felt the last time the band were on the road, prompting Pizzorno to write SPS, the final song on the new record, a thinly veiled message of support for his childhood friend.
“I’d gone though a bit of a bad stage, and I’d been a selfish bastard,” Meighan says in a break between songs, “and after being together so many years, there’s all that shit that was never supposed to happen. You want the truth? I’ll tell you the truth. But when I saw that song, my missus said: ‘Oh, you idiot, it’s obvious, he loves you.'”
Pizzorno looks up with a quizzical grin: “This is news to me.”
So far, so rock’n’roll, but complicating matters was the fact that Pizzorno had had his first child and Meighan had “freaked out. I was: ‘How dare you? Don’t grow up! Not at this stage, you bastard … Here we go … Now I should have kids.'” But now Meighan has a young daughter of his own, he says he feels more settled, even if she is “even more of a handful than me”, which sounds terrifying.
Contrary to the Cyril Connolly dictum that the enemy of art is the pram in the hall, Pizzorno insists he enjoys the discipline of working from home. “It’s so easy to float into that drink and drugs world where you think you don’t have any responsibilities and you don’t give a shit. That stuff, it’s incredible, but there’s always a fine line. There are the dark places, when you find yourself thinking: ‘What are you doing? This is horrible.’ They became too much, too often. So now I’m a steady roller. It’s learning to pick your battles. I’ve got the intake and the bedtimes down to a fine art. Mate, I’m so pro!”
Staying rooted close to Leicester has surely also helped ensure the band’s longevity, the early lost weekend in London aside: “So many people I met back then, it seemed like they were hanging around with each other just so they could keep famous.” Pizzorno waxes lyrical about the local countryside and the “magnificent” people. And perhaps my favourite moment on 48:13 comes when the band insert a reference to Leicester into the track Treat, just at the point of a monumental drop, which, as Pizzorno says, “sounds so wrong that it has to be right”.
Pizzorno hopes the album summons “the spirit of a Midlands rave played by a rock’n’roll group from 1968” – bands such as Silver Apples, whom he learned about from Oasis. That influence, you feel, is just as important as the swagger they took from the Gallaghers, as well as an appreciation that a band could offer 20,000 people standing in a field as much of a euphoric communal experience as any dance outfit.
“I suppose with this record, I’m trying to create a new language,” he says wistfully. “Combining electronic music and hip-hop and late-60s rock and roll, this feels like the first step into something … it doesn’t really sound like anyone else, you know?”
I just say I can’t wait to see Kasabian at Glastonbury and leave it at that.
Except I don’t – because two weeks later I find myself on the fringes of the moshpit of the Bataclan in Paris as Kasabian launch into Eez-eh, less drunk than the last time I was in France, but in one sense equally intoxicated. It’s fun, all right.
Back in Leicester, we’d finished up in Serge’s local. There they’d said they’d be making their live comeback with this small club show, and why didn’t I come and join the circus? “It shouldn’t be about being cool, it should be about embracing people,” they said. “Don’t be frightened of being direct and saying: ‘We’re all here together, it’s going to be the best night of your life.’ That’s seen as being cheesy or embarrassing, but it’s actually not, it’s the most amazing thing having someone on stage say that to you because you go: ‘Yeah, that’s exactly why I’m here.'”
Eez-eh is brilliantly stupid (key line: “Everyone’s on bugle, now we’re being watched by Google!”) and as I manoeuvre to the fringes of the moshpit, I think back to the question that Meighan put to me in the kitchen in Leicester: am I for Kasabian? Let’s put it this way: right now, I’d be a churl to be against them.
Kasabian on their first Glastonbury
“We first played Glastonbury in 2004 when we were first on the Other Stage on the Friday. We did a gig at Hammersmith Apollo the night before, playing before Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and we had a minibus waiting to take us down. We all jumped in and everyone was going: ‘We can’t do any gear, can we?’, and everyone was saying, ‘No, we’ll save it, we’ll save it,’ and then suddenly, an hour in, it’s like, ‘Oh, go on then’, bang, suitcase open, and everyone is filling their boots and before you know it you’re watching Trisha at 10.30am, going: ‘Fucking hell, I’m going to Glastonbury in a minute.’
“Because you’re first on, you think no one’s going to be there, so it’s like: ‘Well, what would Keef [Richards] do?’ ‘Yeah, carry on!’ And then you get there, and you open the curtain and it’s … full. That was the first indication we’d really had that we were connecting with people, so that will always remain one of my favourite gigs of all time.
“Were we nervous? I was just watching the clock, going: ‘Come on, just fucking finish.’ I was absolutely dying!”
• 48:13 is released on 9 June; Kasabian play Victoria Park in Leicester on 21 June and headline Glastonbury on 29 June.