‘I think the best pop is always subversive in its nature,” says James Righton over the phone from London a few days after his band Klaxons beat the bookies’ odds to win the Mercury Music Prize, a major award that gives $40,000 to the “best” British or Irish album of the year. “Even things like Abba — I think it’s always got a dark, subversive element to it,” says the keyboardist/ vocalist. “You’ve got these four blonde Swedish people singing about their relationships breaking up while they’re all going out with each other.”
Klaxons practice their own mild form of subversion themselves. Over the past 18 months, they’ve got the public hooked on a musical genre that they invented, made a pop hit about a black-magic practitioner (“Magick”) and rehabilitated that most ridiculous of accessories, the glowstick.
Not for nothing are these pranksters frequently compared to The KLF, the sonic terrorists who enjoyed an anarchic reign at the top of international charts in 1990 and 1991 before abruptly splitting up. And much like that band — whose influence they’ve openly acknowledged — it’s almost impossible to separate the music from the hype, the genuine substance from the double bluff.
Formed as a trio of Righton, Jamie Reynolds (bass, vocals) and Simon Taylor-Davis (guitar, backing vocals) in late 2005 (drummer Steffan Halperin was a later addition), Klaxons have taken an unorthodox path to success. While their peers were copping moves from indie-rockers The Libertines, they reached back to a genre hitherto untouched by the revivalist crowd: rave. They dressed like they’d just stepped out of an acid-house time warp, while the videos to early singles “Gravity’s Rainbow” and “Atlantis to Interzone” were a riot of fluorescent colors and bad dancing.
Their live shows, always sweaty and chaotic affairs, made liberal use of rave sirens and incorporated cover versions of Kicks Like a Mule’s hardcore classic “The Bouncer” and mid-’90s dance-floor staple “Not Over Yet” by Grace. And the band’s penchant for pill-popping didn’t go unnoticed, either.
“New rave,” they jokingly called it in an early interview — a tag that they’ve been trying to shake off ever since.
“(When we started) we didn’t really look or sound like a lot of other British bands,” says Righton. “I think it’s easy to do well if you stick to the formula of being the same as everyone else (and) there’ll always be bands that do that. Like (fellow Mercury nominees) The View: they’re very British, and they don’t do the unexpected.”
Klaxons, however, most certainly do. It isn’t just their image that’s unorthodox: lyrically, they’re a far cry from the humdrum reality of your average guitar band. Their songs are a stew of fantasy and sci-fi gibberish, with nods to authors including Thomas Pynchon, William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard.
Most implausibly, Top 30 hit “Magick” pinches freely from the writings of Aleister Crowley, a notorious occultist hitherto untouched by anyone except “difficult” industrial-noise acts. Hearing the credos (“magick without tears,” “do what you will”) of a figure once known as “the wickedest man in the world” transformed into pop refrains made for one of last year’s more exhilarating listens.
“People have used Crowley before,” says Righton; “but we wanted to try and get a Crowley-reference song on the radio. We just wanted to have a go, and just try things. There was a kind of ‘why not?’ attitude.”
It’s this approach that endeared them to the British music weekly NME. In a typically OTT review of their debut album, “Myths of the Near Future” (for which they bagged the aforementioned Mercury prize), it applauded “the most thrilling and visionary band Britain’s had in more than a decade.” Come the end of September, it was no less enthusiastic: “Band of the Year. No contest.” Others were rather less effusive. Rolling Stone dismissed them out of hand, while a scathing review in The Guardian newspaper sniffed that “indie chancers trying to pass this ropy stuff off as a dance revival is insulting and pointless.” With their Mercury win, it seems that Klaxons have had the last laugh — for the time being, at least. Righton hopes that the naysayers will give them a fairer hearing now.
“I think people are starting to pay attention to the record a lot more, and kind of give it a go,” he says. “I think a lot of people originally were put off because of the ‘new-rave’ tag, and thought that maybe it was something that was purely for young people. . . . But we thought our record sounded quite mature, if anything. Our reference points were like the (David) Bowies and (Brian) Enos.”
For all the fuss about “new rave,” “Myths of the Near Future” is actually more closely aligned with rock than dance music. The frantic rhythms of “Atlantis to Interzone” and “Gravity’s Rainbow” recall post-punk acts such as Bloc Party, while the shadow of progressive rock looms over the moody “Two Receivers” and “Isle of Her.”
There’s a strong pop sensibility, too: These songs come armed with strong hooks and choruses, and only one tops the 4-minute mark. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the album’s best track is also its most instantly hummable: the irresistible falsetto refrain of “Golden Skans” gave Klaxons their biggest hit to date, and has been one of the most played records of the year on British radio.
The recently released double album, “A Bugged Out Mix By Klaxons,” sheds some light on the band’s diverse influences. While the first CD is aimed squarely at the dance floor, the second is a haphazard assortment of prog rock (Todd Rundgren), psychedelia (Zager & Evans, The United States of America), krautrock (Cluster), easy-listening pop (Roy Orbison, Frankie Valli) and hip-hop (Wu-Tang Clan). It might not sound radical to older listeners, but many of Klaxons’ fans will be hearing this music for the first time.
“I hope people are getting into things that they probably wouldn’t have before,” says Righton, who also waxes lyrical about ELO during our conversation. “Maybe in 10 years’ time, some guy will come up to me and say ‘you really got us into this band or that author.’ Hopefully that’ll happen. It’d be great if it did.”
In the meantime, the band have other things on their mind, not least their next album, tentatively titled “Myths of the Near Past.”
“It might be a heavier record, more melodic, more pop,” says Righton confusingly. “We want to take the band to the next level, and step up our game. It’s a really hip-hop way of saying it, but you’ve got to look at it like that. There are so many bands that after their second record are headlining music festivals, and they’re still . . . suited to playing in a tent. Very few bands when they headline a festival can pull it off.”
“We’re still suited to playing tents. And until we’ve got a bigger and more powerful set, there’s no rush to get on the main stages. . . . I think you have your time, really, and I don’t think it’s yet ours.”
Despite their reputation as pop’s subversive pranksters, it seems that Klaxons are a pragmatic bunch after all.
Klaxons play Shibuya O-East on Dec. 10 (sold-out) and 11 (tel.  3462-6969); Shinsaibashi Club Quattro, Osaka, on Dec. 12 (tel.  6281-8181; sold-out); and Nagoya Club Quattro on Dec. 13 (tel.  264-8211). All shows start at 7 p.m. Tickets are ¥5,800.