Mass exposure can be a dangerous thing, especially at the intense level KANKOURAN have been subjected to lately. Unless you’ve had your head buried in the sand for the past few months you’ve probably heard Rivers, Kankouran’s tribal, thumping, coming of age anthem that racked up over 300,000 views online, which dovetailed neatly with the Skins trailer it soundtracked.
As well as being a fantastic publicity tool, this level of exposure can also stop a project dead in its tracks, certainly if it’s too much too soon. Observing the freshly formed five-piece Kankouran that sit in front of me today – quietly brimming from a third round of intense rehearsing, writing and playing badminton – there’s reason to suggest that the former is definitely the case.
Written, recorded and produced by Tarek Musa almost a year ago, and featuring the yearning vocals of Evelyn Burke, Rivers is the reason why the dark shadow of a West African witch doctor is the name on everybody’s lips. With Burke no longer a member of team Kankouran, the band’s founder Musa (Bass, Vocals) is now joined by former Dire Wolfe sparring partner Joe Wills (Guitars) and frequent sparring partner in surf rock project The Bodyboarders, Pete Darlington (Guitars, Vocals). Drummer Fabian Prynn and “vibe master” Rob Lewis (Organ) complete the fluid lineup, which has the feel of a collective that are happy to be pulling together in the same direction. The five are at pains to point out that “this is our baby”, a vehicle for their combined creative outpourings, which is perhaps confusing when compared with the way Kankouran has been presented to us thus far. Of the two songs currently available online – Rivers appears alongside It’s Alright, Follow on their Bandcamp page – Musa is credited with all the songwriting and production, to the extent that it almost looks like his solo project. Is this the way it was started then? “I don’t know if it was just me calling out to want to be in a band again,” explains Musa, who has since put those two tracks in to the pot to get the ball rolling with this new setup. “I’d been in bands before and had a bit of a dry stint, I just wanted to be in a band again! What’s to come brings in all of our inputs, so it’s exciting to hear what songs they bring about.”
Though this does present an enticing prospect, those two songs that have been devoured by eager fans and industry types alike must surely be a world away from how the band sounds now. “I wouldn’t say so really,” says Darlington, cutting off some half-hearted murmurs of agreement from the rest of the band, before Musa elaborates: “I think the songs are the same, the style is the same, but the production and aesthetics that we’re gonna go for are…rawer… I said to the guys yesterday, when we get in the rehearsal room let’s just go with what feels natural, and if it sounds like fun then let’s just play it like that.”
And what of that sound then? One online blogger has termed Kankouran’s style as “cocktailed-up car crash rock”, which is as good a way as any of putting it. On the surface the fast-paced, pounding nature of Rivers and It’s Alright, Follow speak of a constantly shifting, yearning desire for change. Delve a little deeper and you’ll find a slightly darker heart to this band that gives them a sinister edge. “When I wrote Rivers,” Musa explains, “it was all based around growing up and how life turns round and hits you in the face sometimes.” Somewhat incongruously, Kankouran manage to combine this grand sound of impending doom with party rock anthems, without ever sounding as cheesy as that might suggest. The clipped, surfy guitars and towering organs lend a primal, almost Biblical soul to the songs, as if Arcade Fire, Glasser and Guards’ Richie Follin were jousting away in a darkened church, the reverb turned up to max, and the merest hint of an electronic rumble boiling underneath.
Allied to this prevailing sonic imagery is the rather intriguing tagline ‘Heaven is when you know yourself’ which adorns Kankouran’s online presence. This line, a lyric from an as yet unheard song, has become something of a mantra for the band. I wonder if this is the spiritual heart at the centre of Kankouran, that taps in to the gnostic teachings of Christian mystics? Alas, no: the blank looks on the band’s faces suggest that they’re blissfully unaware of the phrase’s connotations to the path to true spiritual enlightenment. Thought up by Darlington after a particularly wild three weeks in New York, he describes the line as a conclusion he came to when he finally reached a level of contentment. “It’s quite difficult to know yourself a lot of the time,” he states, “and when you do it feels great; you just accept who you are. There’s a lot of pressure on people to have to do certain things. I’m happy just doing what I do, playing guitar and writing songs with my friends. And I think that’s knowing yourself, when you can just accept that and get on with it.”
Kankouran’s “home” is most definitely Liverpool, and they’re determined that their first live outing will be here in the not too distant future. Fully aware of the need to give their new songs and style time to develop away from the glare of the public eye, they have already turned down offers for tours and gigs, as well as label and press interest. This hints at a refreshingly patient desire to be self-sufficient, to craft it in right way. They’ve been fortunate enough to have been given this platform, and they see it as a real springboard. “It’s a long road, a long tough road,” points out Musa. Though it might not be the same road trodden by the middle-age Christian mystics, Kankouran’s path to enlightenment will no doubt be an illuminating journey. I for one am along for the ride.