Back from a psychedelic trip that started with the Mercury Prize, the Klaxons tell Aidan Smith why their prog album is irrevocably lost to the void
On a steaming afternoon in London I am on a mission to sneak a listen to one of rock's great lost albums. It's not the Klaxons' official follow-up to their Mercury-winning debut but the aborted collection of songs which have already assumed mythic status for how they caused the band to lose their minds.
A visit to a New York yoga studio where a feather-clad shaman charged 100 a head to introduce singer Jamie Reynolds and guitarist Simon Taylor-Davis to the legal drug ayahuasca is supposed to have been crucial to unblocking their creativity, with one of the Peruvian plant's benefits being vomiting lasting a week.
Fascinating though this is, however, I am more intrigued by a remark made by Taylor-Davis about 2,000 years ago - Klaxons deal in vast quantities of time - when they first re-entered the studio. "We're thinking of making a prog album this time, a huge tribal prog album," he said, before confirming: "We're definitely going to make a big prog album."
I'm definitely in an art-rocker's flat; bold paintings line the walls and the book on the coffee-table is by Herman Hesse. Klaxons have always been a literate band. Debut Myths Of The Near Future referenced JG Ballard and Thomas Pynchon, but in the three years it's taken them to come up with Surfing The Void, the reclusive Pynchon managed to complete a novel and Ballard got tired of waiting for another namecheck. Taylor-Davis, whose pad this is, and synth-player James Righton smile wryly. "Just before Ballard died, our music got played at a retrospective of his work in Madrid," says Righton. Taylor-Davis adds: "He claimed never to have kept a diary but all these notes have just been found - I'm really excited."
These two could never be confused for members of Kasabian. They look like posh pirates when they're in Klaxons mode but are casually dressed today and don't seem any the worse for their journey into the prog wilderness. Not surprisingly, they're more keen to talk about the record they have made rather than the one they haven't.
"We're a helluva lot better as a band now," says Taylor-Davis. "Correction: we're finally a proper band. So the three years were necessary to our development and I don't think it's such a long time." Righton: "We share A&R with Scissor Sisters, who've taken four years between albums; also La Roux, who I'm sure will be afforded all the time she wants for her next record. It makes no sense to rush them; you just end up putting out crap and killing the band."
Listening to Surfing The Void, however, only intrigues me some more about the lost years. It's good, and at times almost as thrilling as the mission statement that got everyone so excited about nu-rave, but not really that much of a progression. In trendy Dalston today, this pair attempt to fill in some very big blanks.
"First, we had to celebrate the Mercury," says Righton. The party lasted a whole month. "And then," adds Taylor-Davis, "we made the big mistake of going into the studio without any new songs. If you want to waste a lot of time and a lot of money, follow our example!" So, free form, what kind of music resulted? "Oh you know," says Taylor-Davis haltingly, "kind of folky, hippy, psychedelic, noisy, weirded-out prog."
Though too young to have stood in the shallows of topographic oceans and watched dragons battle drummers intent on 40-minute solos - Righton, the youngest, is 25 - Klaxons already sported capes and had bonded with their producer James Ford over a love of the Canterbury Scene, so were keen to find out where the prog fixation would take them musically. Taylor-Davis again: "We came up with a lot of exciting, experimental and totally self-indulgent stuff - crazy time signatures, really long songs."
Still questing, the band moved from studios in Italy to a corner of France they still can't pinpoint on a map, which may be explained by their sampling of a local substance they nicknamed the Grid. "Each night we had Grid parties," says Taylor-Davis. "We called them Club Grid. I actually got to thinking there were people queuing outside." But the party couldn't last, and there followed what he calls a "stand-off" with Ford. Aware that Jamie Reynolds was by this point deferring to an apple he called Mr Tabernacle, I'm surprised to learn that standing could have been on anyone's agenda. But Klaxons' difficult second album has been the subject of much wild rumour, understandably with so little hard musical evidence emanating from France, deep space or anywhere.
David Bowie's producer Tony Visconti was supposed to be producing the band - not true. Label bosses were supposed to have rejected their prog album - another myth of the near past, according to Righton. "We never actually submitted it, we knew it wasn't a Klaxons record." What is certain is that the band then hooked up with nu-metal knob-twiddler Ross Robinson in Los Angeles and, in just two weeks - which was as long as it took to write the first album - they'd come up with nine of the ten songs on Surfing The Void, with only one survivor from the prog sessions. Unlikely as it seems, the producer of Slipknot and Limp Bizkit got an album out of them - but his role was so much more. "Ross's mother is one of the biggest self-help therapists in America and he's pretty amazing at motivation himself," says Righton. "He got us so hyped that we wanted to give him everything, whatever it be." Chemicals were banned and late nights at Club Grid were replaced with early-morning jogs. One day Robinson told drummer Steffan Halperin: "This is your goodbye note to your family - tomorrow you die." That take was pretty good, as was Reynolds' singing after Robinson hastened closure on some girlfriend trouble: "Call her up and get rid of her - right now."
What a strange trip.
MGMT went on a similar one for what became their second album and doubtless Klaxons will be accused of not being as brave, but Righton insists: "The thing about the record we haven't released is that you can hear all the influences and that's not Klaxons. Some bands I could name, you know what've stolen."
I ask what prog means to them. "For me it's one band - Hawkwind," says Taylor-Davis. Righton adds: "I just love the awkwardness of prog. Its critics say it's not emotional music but how can you listen to Echoes by Pink Floyd and not be moved?" This seems like the moment to ask to hear the lost album and for a tantalising moment I think it's going to happen. "One song," says Taylor-Davis. OK, make it Klaxons at their most wigged-out. "That would be Marble Fields - all eight minutes of it."
But then - "No, we'd better not" - and I'm stuck in a French field, looking for a non-existent club at the end of the universe. v
Surfing the Void (Polydor) is out now
This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, 22 August, 2010bc