USA Or Bust: 15 Minutes With The Kooks

"San Francisco is actually what I envisioned L.A. to be like." Kooks drummer Paul Garred is sitting across from me with bright eyes and a relaxed stature, describing his first impressions of the city's skyline and atmosphere to me. His fingers tap a soft beat on the metallic-finished circular table that separates us, and I can't help but smile. Garred has the posture of a college kid on spring break, certainly not someone who's feeling the pressure of being on a tour that is supposed to break their imported sound into America. It's a slightly big goal, but he takes it all in stride.

The band from Brighton, UK, is in town as part of their introductory tour to the States. For this band to play the London Astoria, roughly the size of the Warfield, and then pop into Popscene for a 475-capacity gig is astounding. When I walked up to the venue a bit before 8 p.m., I briefly count 200 kids in line, adorned in hipster and dance club attire, shivering slightly in the late October breeze. When I leave for something to eat an hour later, the crowd will encompass more than 350 and stretch down the alley where Popscene is located and around the block with hopeful concert goers smoking and careful under-agers drinking. Apparently, the kids in SF know what's up.

Inside, Garred describes one of the few chill days the guys were able to enjoy since being on tour from the beginning of the year - a quiet day relaxing in the San Francisco Indian summer weather, which then turned into "a game of 'spot the English guy by the pool' just saw all this white and pasty," he laughs as his band members start milling in for soundcheck. "But it was quite nice to relax for a little."

Looking at the band's itinerary whilst in the States, it's no wonder Garred and company's day poolside was savored - three days before, the band geared up for their first North American tour date in New York at the Bowery Ballroom and have been on the move ever since. The day after Popscene, the Kooks make the cross country trek again and head back to NY to finish their five - yes, five - date tour at Brooklyn's Northsix. The Bowery show and the night before at Spaceland in Los Angeles gave the Kooks some well-received publicity about their performance, and Garred confesses that he was unsure of how it would all play out in the end.

Either [they] jump up and down and know all the words, or they listen and nod and you never know what the audience is thinking...

"Either [they] jump up and down and know all the words, or they listen and nod and you never know what the audience is thinking," he says. "I mean, we could get off stage and be like 'Yeah, we rocked!' and the audience could give us a look like, 'No way you didn't,' and vice versa."

"The Bowery was one foot in the door for us, L.A. was another foot. We're testing the water and leaving a foundation for us to come back hopefully (he crosses his fingers in gesture)."

Quite possibly, San Francisco was wiling to welcome the Kooks through the doors as well as even hug them and provide some beer. The sold-out show at Popscene involved much of the crowd dancing and taking pictures, as well as clapping along and singing lyrics. No one was hurt, and no one was pushed; it was so, so refreshing to see the band have such a pleasant effect on its fans. The 150 people stuck outside were hating, I'm sure.

Watching the Kooks feels a lot like a first crush. They seem new and different, intriguing and mysterious, and after a while you begin to realize that they carry their own sound and focus, and you appreciate them more as a result. Their set, mostly pulled from their debut, Inside/Out, which was released in North America at the beginning of the month, included "Eddie's Gun," "Ooh La," and "You Don't Love Me," each sounding stronger than the next. Cue the guitar. Cue the classic Britpop flair with a dash of youth and vibrancy, and then you get lead singer Luke Pritchard nailing his vocal arrangements one right after the other. The combination is winning and nearly foolproof.

The North American tour the Kooks first scheduled had to be cancelled due to Pritchard's battle with laryngitis, but his time off to revitalize his voice paid off. It showed tremendously at Popscene. The high point came as the band did a cover of Mason Jennings' "California" near the end of their set, seemingly in tribute to the soil they were currently on: "California, I hope that it wakes you/From all of the darkness/That I couldn't break through/'Cause I'm gonna miss you/I'm gonna miss you."

The melodic sadness and yet optimistic tune seemed a fitting way for the band to end their introductory phase to Northern California. They have to go, yes, but next time promises to be even better.

By Jenn Hernandez

USA Or Bust: 15 Minutes With The Kooks