Britpop's most genial band, the Kooks, release their second album, Konk, this week, and they're part of a cohort of their countrymen who are trying to break through what we've dubbed the "Star-Spangled Ceiling" — the Stateside success that has eluded so many artists that are top-sellers in the U.K.
Can the bouncing boys from Brighton match — or, better yet, build upon — the inroads they made in America with their 2006 debut, Inside In/ Inside Out? (To date, that album has sold more than 108,000 copies Stateside, according to SoundScan, which is quite respectable these days.) Can their coastal, blue-state following (they sell out New York and Los Angeles shows in the blink of an eye, packing the room with the sort of fans who sing along to every word) spread to the heartland? How will they fare in a depleted U.S. market, where, most weeks, 200,000 sales get you to #1 and a mere 60,000 will land you a top 10 debut? And finally, can the Kooks — who were a "You Hear It First" artist back in 2006 — overcome what seems to be the recent dogged American resistance to any British pop artist not named Winehouse?
"I don't know, man, I'm really excited about America," said Luke Pritchard, the Kooks' perpetually upbeat frontman. "I think we've made a good album, and I think we can do well over here."
Pritchard may not be stressing about building a career in the U.S., but there is no doubt that for many recent British artists, America has been a tough nut to crack. Take a look at the British names represented in a recent U.S. top 100 albums chart, courtesy of SoundScan: Amy Winehouse, Robert Plant, Radiohead, Led Zeppelin and two versions of the Beatles-centric "Across the Universe" soundtrack.
That's it. The chart isn't particularly "English" or the least bit encouraging for any new U.K. artist dreaming of one day making a name Stateside.
For the sake of comparison, let's look at the American names charting in the U.K. top 100 that same week, according to the Official U.K. Charts Company: OneRepublic, We Are Scientists, Michael Jackson, the Temptations, Mark Ronson, Alicia Keys, Timbaland, MGMT, Jack Johnson, the Eagles, Chris Brown, Britney Spears, the Killers, Foo Fighters, Vampire Weekend, Paramore, Linkin Park.
As a Brit might say: "Bloody hell!"
All the same, Pritchard is excited about the Kooks' prospects here, particularly a May North American tour, during which the band will play Washington State's giant Sasquatch Festival and some of their biggest U.S. venues to date, including two nights at New York's 3,000-capacity Terminal 5. So much for Pritchard's modest assessment that "the Arctic Monkeys are a lot bigger than us in America. We've played to 300 people when they're playing to 2,000."
He added that another key difference between the two bands, which may bode well for the Kooks in the long run, is that they are less identifiably "English" than the simians from Sheffield. "Our music is really steeped in American music," Pritchard said. "Even more modern stuff, like [folk troubadour] Mason Jennings. To me, he's like the sweet side of Bob Dylan, that kind of Americana. I feel shaped by that as well. We have a real folk side, and that all came from America, whereas the Arctic Monkeys' music, that really is British indie."
There's a long-standing theory that if you're too British — in sound, accent or lyrical points of reference — you have a tough time in America. Plenty of U.K. artists over the years make that case, from the Jam to Billy Bragg to the Manic Street Preachers to even Blur, who didn't score a major pop hit in America until the decidedly unBlur-like "whoo hoo" of "Song 2." Which British artists tend to flourish in this country? Those who mine American sounds, like Amy Winehouse with her throwback soul; those who are unabashed Beatles disciples à la Oasis; and those who create something more difficult to categorize, like the most successful U.K. band in America in the 21st century, Coldplay.
The theory goes all the way back to the '60s, to Ray Davies of the Kinks — a quintessential Britpop band to be sure, but one that, after initial success, may have suffered in this country due to the resolute Englishness of Davies' songwriting. It just so happens that the Kooks recorded their new album in Davies' studio, Konk, and even named the record after it. Pritchard believes there is something to the "too English" theory. "Especially when it comes to subject matter," he said. "Pulp is quite a good example. Jarvis Cocker's lyrics are very tongue-in-cheek, English humor, which over here just might go over people's heads."
Maybe SoundScan tabulations of record sales are no longer a very accurate barometer of what people are really listening to, but no one is going to convince me that Americans are, in significant numbers, giving U.K. rock much of a chance. One can argue, as many of the Yank hipster blogs do, that much of it doesn't deserve a chance, but plenty of American bands who don't merit attention get it.
So does a star-spangled ceiling exist, or is this all just so much inside-football navel-gazing? For their part, the Kooks are happy to have a second record out, one on which, Pritchard says, they didn't just repeat themselves. With Konk, they've moved in a somewhat rockier direction, with the single "Always Where I Need to Be," the sing-along "Do You Wanna?" and "Sway," which Pritchard calls their first "proper power ballad."
"We didn't really set out to make a heavy album, but it was more like we just got into playing more rock and roll," Pritchard explained. "[Guitarist] Hugh [Harris] would just really get into his pedals and his guitar. It was quite natural, really."
And even if in other places, like the smack-talking track "All Over Town" and the charming, '60s-sounding "Mr. Maker," the Kooks are inescapably, undeniably British, Pritchard says they're not daunted by the prospect of reaching more Americans — far from it. "I think our music is working here," he said. "Plus, we like hanging out in America. It's an interesting place to be right now because everything is changing. And we definitely want to be a part of all that."