Kasabian: The Last Great Rock’n’Roll Band

Tom Meighan bounces from room to room backstage at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels like a hyperactive cocker spaniel who can hear his favourite toy being rattled but can’t locate it. Eventually the Kasabian front man loses interest in the hunt and flops down in a plastic chair, his eyes wide and a huge playful grin running riot over his stubbled face. He is affability personified; a charming and engaging host full of warm greetings and positivity – while his focus remains intact. But these moments are few and far between. There’s too much fun to be had to just sit around, chewing the fat. Intermittently he’ll cock his ear as if receiving signals from the great beyond and then suddenly leap up, whooping and punching the air, to pace the room as a train of thought sprints away with his mind and mouth in pursuit. It’s tiring to watch but the singer has energy to burn as he waxes lyrical about his band in paradoxes which reflect his own.

“We still have it as large as we always have, regardless of whether it’s a stadium or a small club,” he says, rearranging the litter on the changing room counter. “It’s like two titans fighting up there when we get going, like He-Man versus Skeletor…It’s the musical Masters of the Universe. It’s a battle; it’s dark and nasty but also beautiful, warm and full of life. Just like us, really.”

Kasabian have been fighting with darkness and light since forming in 1999. It took four years of playing dingy working men’s clubs and tiny venues before the band were ready to give their riotous music to the world. “Of course we wanted to make it big,” Tom says, getting serious for moment. “But it had to be right. We wanted to shake people up and keep them shook up for a long time. We weren’t going to be able to do that if we’d rushed out a load of shite and then sank without trace. We wanted it so bad. We still do. We’re still the same as we were when we driving our own van, playing a gig every night, trying to get noticed. We’re still the same people.”

This everyman statement is quite a contrast to the one Kasabian made in the wake of last year’s Oasis split when Tom and his lieutenant, guitarist Serge Pizzorno, announced that now that the Gallagher’s’ partnership was no more, theirs was the biggest band in Britain. “What we meant was that we’re one of the last great rock’n’roll bands,” Tom clarifies, getting to his feet as if he’s about to deliver a sermon. “There are so few real bands around these days that we feel it’s our responsibility to pick up that baton which was carried by the likes of the Beatles, the Stones, Small Faces and Oasis and do our bit for the legacy. We owe it to Britain’s musical heritage.”

Just how seriously Kasabian take their self-appointed role as standard bearers for British rock can be seen on their third album, West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum. The band’s most critically acclaimed and successful record to date, West Ryder is a raging, rollicking mish-mash of styles and experiments. Its ambition, scope and musicianship have since elevated Kasabian to the big leagues. The album was not only celebrated by the public – it was their first UK number one – the critics also had their say, nominating it for the 2009 Mercury Music Prize.  “We just wanted to do something mental with the style, the clothes and the music,” Tom enthuses, beaming like a proud father when he talks about West Ryder. “We wanted to dress up as French revolutionaries and make one of those iconic records like the psychedelic concept albums of the 60s; full of love, heroes and shady characters. It’s been a real trip, man.” The album has taken the band on a year-long extensive world tour which finally returns to British shores in August. Kasabian will headline the 2010 V Festival and the response they get on their homecoming will give them some indication as to where  they stand in the hearts of the people and whether they’re on the way to joining the greats they aspire to emulate.

“We’ve been a way from home for quite a while,” Tom says. “We’ve done a few shows back in Britain as part of this tour but this will be the big finale. We were blown away by the response we had at Glastonbury last year and I think we really proved that we could take a huge crowd. When we roll up this summer it’ll be like, ‘remember us?’ And then it’ll kick off. It’ll be mental. I’m buzzing just thinking about it now.”

At that point, the wiry frame of Serge Pizzorno slides through the unfeasibly narrow gap in the door, prompting the singer to leap from his chair and start flicking his fingers in the guitarist’s face. Tom is the cherubic Jagger to Serge’s elegantly wasted Richards, a classic rock double act of creativity and friendship. What’s interesting is how the dynamic changes when Serge enters the room. The infectiously confident Meighan suddenly becomes the younger brother, instantly gravitating to the guitarist and principle songwriter and hanging expectantly on what he has to say.

“You owe me a rematch,” the guitarist drawls, prompting another blast of excited jigging from the singer. The game console beckons and Serge leads his front man away to a room where parity has to be restored through a titanic struggle of computerized football.

Football. For musicians, tapping into terrace culture can help their music reach a much wider audience and few current rock acts have so successfully blended fan bases than Kasabian. A handy celebrity five-a-side team, the dyed-in-the-wool Leicester City fans generate a euphoric atmosphere akin to match day at their shows with bouncing fans and stadium chanting. The links run deeper: Serge even had schoolboy trials with Nottingham Forest. Kasabian and the Beautiful Game go hand in hand.

“I’m Leicester City first, then England,” he says proudly. “We all are. Serge even wore Leicester socks under his Forest kit when he was a boy. We try and get to see the Foxes as often as we can when we’re home, which is a real pleasure and pain thing. But that’s what being a fan is about – being there for the club in the good and bad times, even though with Leicester there are more bad than good…”

Kasabian’s credentials as Britain’s premier soccer-rockers were further enhanced in February when the English Football Association chose the band to launch the England team’s World Cup shirt at a gig at the Paris Olympia. While Tom was honoured to do so, he admits to having reservations about the chosen location. “I said to them that it was all on their heads,” he confides. “If it backfires, if it all kicks off, then it’s all on you. If they riot, I want you to get us out of there. But it was okay. There were a few boos but then we played another song and it was all sweet.”

There are no boos a few hours later when the Leicester lunatics take over another in a long list of asylums. From the opening bars of the stomping ‘Fast Fuse’, it’s clear that this is not going to be a sedate evening of toe-tapping and muted singalongs. The pit directly centre-stage is soon a writhing mass of bodies. In addition to crowd pleasers such as ‘Underdog’, ‘Fire’ and ‘Fast Fuse’ from their third album, Kasabian unleash a seemingly never-ending stream of rousing favourites from West Ryder’s two predecessors, their eponymously titled debut and follow-up Empire. The audience threatens spontaneous combustion when the band hit them with the triple whammy of ‘Processed Beats’, ‘Reason is Treason’ and ‘Julie and the Mothman’; the increasingly sweaty crowd ebbing and flowing against the crash barriers as Tom – resplendent in a stripy sweater and gargantuan fly shades – commands the waves like a deranged King Canute. Beside him, Serge – a study of skinny vintage rock clobber and headband – strangles riffs from his guitar and backing vocals from his shredded throat while the rhythm section of bassist Chris Edwards and drummer Ian Matthews anchor down the glorious chaos with infectious beats. It’s a 90 minute dance-rock onslaught which leaves the crowd exhausted but satisfied.

Back stage, Tom Meighan is more wired than ever. Everyone in his vicinity gets a hug and an offer of a beer, which he soon forgets in favour of a manic flick through the band’s CD collection followed by an extensive poll of ideas for the evening’s post-gig entertainment. “Are we heading out?” he asks. “Come on Serge, are you mad for it?” No one is ready to call it a night and the party looks far from over. Kasabian live it like they love it. For them, it’s definitely better to burn out than to fade away.

First published in: The Red Bulletin

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First Person: My Home Town by Tom Barman (dEUS)

Tom Barman, lead singer with Belgian rock legends dEUS, talks to Nick Amies about his home town, Antwerp.

Antwerp is a much smaller city than Brussels but that’s never stopped it from having a vibrant scene and producing a real vibe. I think that has a lot to do with the people and their attitude. Antwerp people are something else. They are the hardest people to please and impress. Whenever we play there, we always have to work harder and play better because they can be tough. They’re our harshest critics. But they’re beautiful people; beautiful, aloof, arrogant, straight-forward people…with a brutal sense of humour.

The city is just home for me. I’ve lived in other areas but I’ve been in the Jewish quarter by the main station for the last fourteen years and it’s perfect for me. I went to school around there and so it’s all really familiar, like an old jacket. The neighbourhood has a quiet, surreal quality to it in a way, with the orthodox Jews and the diamond dealers coming and going. They all just shuffle along, getting on with business. It’s quite calming.

Antwerp was a perfect choice for us when we were looking to build our studio. Our violin player Klaas managed to buy this massive old building in the Borgerhout district for very little. So we set up there. We have rehearsal space, our studio and a huge area on the ground floor where Klaas runs a club night called De Pekbabriek every now and again. Due to legal issues, it’s not that regular, about once every eight months but its wild when it happens. It’s always a crazy night because it has that semi-legal underground vibe.

When it comes to going out, Antwerp is really quite small so there’s no need to keep to one neighbourhood. A good night out can take in a variety of areas and different atmospheres. We normally drift towards the city centre and hang out at my favourite bar, the Kassa 4, which is on the Ossemarkt right in the heart of the student area. There’s also the Zeezicht bar on the Dageraadsplaats not far from our studio. It has some great beers and has a real local feel. That whole square is a cool place for bars.

 If you’re looking for something a bit more up market, you can head to the south of the city where there are some good cocktail bars or the north by the harbour where there are some great restaurants like Bart A Vin and Den Artist which do great traditional Belgian food.

There’s a real upswing in hands-on nightlife at the moment with small places springing up with minimal entrance fees, just kids spinning discs in basements. The Kelly Splinter parties are great, like old skool raves which crop up in random places, and there’s a big squat called the Scheld’apen which the police have chosen to leave alone which puts on some great events. It has hardcore electro nights, rock bands, art installations…it’s a pretty cool place. There’s also a really nice hangout we like, the Café Capital, in the middle of the Stadspark which regularly has a good mix of local and international DJs. It’s kinda small, around 300 to 400 max, but that’s a good thing. It really generates a great energy. 

The day after a gig or a large night, I like to go and hang out downtown. On sunny days, the city’s Leopold De Waelplaats square is a great place to start the day. There are some excellent cafes like Chat Le Roi around there with terraces where you can sit out on the street and watch the world wake up. You can pretty much just wander around the city and grab a seat where you like and have a beer. Once the sun comes out, the city is suddenly full of pavement cafes. We even have a verb for it – een terrasje doen – which basically means ‘to do a terrace.’ Winter leaves and everyone ‘does a terrace.’ 

If you want a real taste of Antwerp in all its glorious weirdness then go to the beach! It’s an actual beach called the St. Annastrand on the south bank of the river Schelde with some nice little restaurants and a promenade. I wouldn’t say it’s beautiful but it has this otherworldly charm and atmosphere. It freaks people out because you have this beach beside a river you can’t swim in because it’s too nasty, and a view of the industrial harbour. It’s quirky and down-to-earth, it’s a bit grubby but it has a lot of charm. It really sums up the essence of Antwerp.

First published in The Red Bulletin